Modern Poetry

THERE has been a real need for a definitive collection of modern poetry of the period since the World War, exemplifying recent work of established poets, the increase of associative imagery, the shift to social themes, and the appearance of many important younger writers, A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Selden Rodman (Random House, $3.00), only partially satisfies this need. From sixty-eight poets, too few of whom are women, this editor has chosen and arranged four groups. The first contains forerunners of present-day poetry; the second, poets who draw inspiration from the people and the soil; the third, those who forward the Symbolist movement; and the fourth, the new poets who combine the matter of the second and the manner of the third groups to write of revolt against society. There is little revolt against form; larger rebellions occupy them.
Mr. Rodman’s long introduction is unpleasantly defensive, and, but for the later pages, sophomoric in its explanations of the obvious. His biographical notes are amusing. His editorial intention was to show modern poetry whole — that is, made up of folk song, light verse, and the long epic as well as the lyric and the reflective poem, and the intention was a good one. But a group of Negro spirituals upsets his chronology; the period this book represents begins with 1918, the year Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Poems appeared and the war ended. The selections from Dorothy Parker, Arthur Guiterman, and Ogden Nash fail as ingredients, though not that from E. B. White. The last speech of Vanzetti, moving in form and cadence, is hardly admissible as poetry. Mr. Rodman betters the other anthologies by a determined attempt to include long poems, and finds space for the whole of Robinson Jeffers’s ’Roan Stallion,’as well as excerpts from Archibald MacLeish’s Conquistador, John Masefield’s Reynard the Fox, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and his own Lawrence: The Last Crusade.
A good anthology of the poetry of any period is an important critical document, but dangerous in unskilled hands. Prejudice in favor of certain coteries mars this book. Yeats gets five pages to MacLeish’s twenty-five. Robert Frost is allowed two poems, though Muriel Rukeyser has five. Points in its favor are the poems from Carl Sandburg’s The People, yes, the generous representation of Wilfred Owen, Hart Crane, and Stephen Spender, and the fresh feel of the fourth section of new poets. Verse drama is reported by passages from Eliot’s The Rock and two plays by W. H. Auden, in addition to their poems. To poets and readers who are well-informed this handsomely bound volume will seem a bewildering performance critically, and a regrettable disappointment.
The appearance of Collected Poems, by E. E. Cummings (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), is cause for more satisfaction than one would have believed possible a few years ago, when Cummings was a too-obvious target for jeers and arrows. In this big book he shows an integrity of poetic personality, varied in its aspect from Keatsian romanticism to willful eccentricity, but always honest, often tender, funny, fierce, beautiful, indignant, and memorable. Cummings is really easy to read; his typographical humor is not at all an obstruction, and the matter is far more important, one sees, than the manner. Cummings is fresh, in both senses, and the recognition too long obscured by impatience, now that it must come, will be because of that freshness.
From seven books of poems written during twenty-five years of honorably single-minded effort, John Gould Fletcher has gathered in Selected Poems (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.50) the best of his work. His sensitive impressions of the world he has found about him may be seen in gradual change from declared imagism (he was writing it before Amy Lowell named it ) to a style perfected from it, richer with color, warmer with emotion. It is not at the moment fashionable poetry, but that is the penalty of fashion— that it forgets such poetry as Fletcher’s for harsher and more objective writing, excluding the excellent for the dubious. Like Cummings’s collection, though in an earlier and a different vein, John Gould Fletcher’s book represents a very important part of modern poetry, without which it is impossible to account for or understand it fully, In conjunction with his Selected Poems one should read his autobiography, Life Is My Song, for a clear picture of the development of an American artist in the twentieth century; one book complements the other.
Ogden Nash has grinned and brought forth a new book called I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Little, Brown, $2.00), which will result in more grins, not to mention chuckles or delighted reading aloud. Mr. Nash has the metropolitan attitude, which is a combination of physical laziness, pleasant inhibitions, and occasional indignation at sham, or stupidity, or cruelty. A delicate and sensitive lot, these light versifiers. Mr. Nash’s titles range from short ones like ‘Splash!’ to long ones like ‘Oh, Did You Get the Tickets? Because I Don’t Think I’ll Go, After All.’ To the hopeless addicts of each Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery it becomes clearer that his heartbreaking rhymes are n’t the important thing any more. It’s what the man says in between the rhymes. He hates war, he hates bores, he hates bad meals, he hates exertion, and is never funnier than when he is being rather serious. His new book runs to a generous 283 pages, with almost as many poems as that, in which the astute will note more regularly rhymed pieces and several that do not rhyme at all. Helpless with machinery, and glad of it, tender-hearted and glad of that, too, easily exasperated by women and waiters, Ogden Nash differs from his admiring fellow men only in being expertly vocal about it all. But what a difference that is!
The most distinguished volume of poems of recent months is Natural History, by Raymond Holden (Holt, $2.00), whose name will be familiar to many, though it is fifteen years since he last published a book. Mr. Holden is a poet of technical skill, his firm touch perfecting the traditional line he employs. To this poet, natural history is the history of man and his mind and heart as much as of geese and orchards, the seasons and the lights of day, and he writes of all with maturepassion and yet mature sanity. He is too wise to be merely affirmative, though wise enough not to despair; his poems are sound and healthy, hard as a good apple, and the juice tart in the mouth. Three sections, ‘In the Open,’‘Underground,’and ‘Earth’s Weather,’move gradually toward the human theme from the externally descriptive, and deepen in interest on the way.
Mr. Holden is especially aware of natural movement, and of changing light, so that his most purely descriptive poems are never static. But he is really at his best in poems on the inner weather of the heart and mind; it is not an easy climate, but the air is invigorating. Raymond Holden’s book is one to reread and cherish for its exact natural observation as well as for its very Saxon attitude toward life, and the fine discipline of its expression on every page.
JOHN HOLMES