American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for October 2009

Edward Rowland Sill on Bedtime

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sill-c2Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887) first caught my eye because he taught high school in Oakland and later taught at U.C. Berkeley. I did some of my schooling at Berkeley, and lived in Oakland for over a decade. Not that I’m rah rah for California. But I noticed it, the link I mean. And I later noticed the tortured praise in the following paragraph, written for an anthology of forgotten poets from the nineteenth century:

In the 1930s, Newton Arvin, who admired Sill’s probing intellect and sense of irony, condemned Sill with extravagant praise, declaring him one of the three important post-Civil War poets (the other two were Emily Dickinson and Sidney Lanier), yet a failure for not making fuller use of those attributes. Time has not borne out the former assertion, though Sill deserves credit for a score of truly fine poems, and for rejecting sentimentalism and easy piety.

Though you can see how carefully the words were weighed in this paragraph, the judgment seems, overall, unbalanced. I mean, if the writer really believes that Sill wrote a score of fine poems, he ought to be explaining why later readers have failed to care about them, not calling out the few who did for overstatement. And if Sill’s rejection of sentimentalism is indeed a strength, why are there so many sentimental poets alongside him? Of course, the explicit purpose of the anthology is not to rescue forgotten poets from neglect, but to understand — I kid you not — “how history has played its jokes” on their reputations. Overall, then, the effect of this tortured praise was to rouse my interest, then soothe it back to sleep. So I developed a kind of fondness for Sill, without ever taking the trouble to look into his work. Until recently.

As his dates indicate, Sill died young, and much of his work appeared posthumously. The reception was modest, but respectful. Collected editions appeared in 1900 and 1906 (of his prose first, then the poetry). A biography followed in 1915. Who knows what history would have made of him if World War One and modernism hadn’t intervened, rewriting the rules of success.

The poem I like best so far is “Field Notes,” and nature, as the title suggests, is something that interested Sill in general. There are seven essays on that theme at the start of his collected prose. The last of them, however, is less about nature than human nature. It’s ostensible subject is dawn, but the following wonderful paragraphs are the heart of the essay — a polemic on bedtime: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 31, 2009 at 9:13 am

Paying Major Heed to Minor Poets

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Or not minor, no, definitely not, just underappreciated. Or better: insufficiently understood …

A few days ago Ron Silliman linked to a recent post of mine, Paying Little Mind to Major Poets. Today he has a response (link here). It’s a thoughtful note, and I’m thankful to Ron for working through my remarks so carefully, even if he does focus on the effect (my insistence on the importance of Marianne Moore — and dislike of others — and the rewriting of history that proposes), ignoring what I said about the cause (reading’s affective resistances and attractions, themselves historicizable, and the potentially distorting effects they have on understanding). The short answer, though, is that Ron is right: I am, at bottom, hallucinating a world — a future world from which the past looks very different than it does today.

The issue for me is when such hallucinations, which is to say errors, become legitimate revisions of understanding. Is the dividing line purely subjective? Or is it a matter of polemical interpretation? Or something susceptible of verification? If the last, what else could this verification be, if not the work done as a result? For instance, if Language Poetry is a reading of the New York School in which Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer are, counter-intuitively, more central than Berrigan, Berkson, and Padgett, what might the test of that reading be, if not Language Poetry itself? (And if you think, as I do, that the first three names are as significant as the last three, then Language Poetry has gone far toward passing the test, even if you don’t think you like it.) [1]

But beyond the issue of error vs. understanding, there is a subsidiary issue of how. How is it that the line gets crossed? How does it happen that an eccentric personal preference becomes the eccentric preference for a whole subculture, and then, under certain circumstances, the central preference for culture at large? The most famous example of this unlikely trajectory is Eliot’s reevaluation of the metaphysical poets, which became a modernist preference, and then, by way of New Criticism, part of a new hegemonic theory of poetry. Was that hegemony a distortion, or a legitimate revision of understanding? Or can we have it both ways?

Those last questions are deeply interesting to me. They go to the very heart of my present interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. How could they not when I speak of that century as “The Age of Whitman and Dickinson,” even as I try to map a lost landscape in which Whitman was marginal and Dickinson invisible?

Can one accept the present’s view of the past and still inquire into the past’s own view of itself? Or to put this another way: Can one eat the fruits of distortion, and then — fortified — go out and chop down the tree? And still have fruit the next season? Probably not …

Or maybe so! If we throw away the core, letting the seeds take root …

Anyway, go read Ron’s response, if you haven’t already. (I love his analogy to birdwatching.)


Regarding Moore herself: I’ve written before about her importance; the essay in which I did so (which incorporates, btw, a brief statement by Ron!) was published in Critics and Poets on Marianne Moore: “A Right Good Salvo of Barks,” edited by Linda Leavell, Cristanne Miller, and Robin G. Schulze. Much of the essay is available through Google Books (but not, alas, the pages with Ron’s statement; link here).

As an addendum to Ron’s note, though, let me add that the modernism I see with Moore at the center has nothing to do with her social relationships. I see her as the first American poet to make “the linguistic turn” (as it came to be known), and one who did so without ever reducing language to words and grammar. Rhetoric, she understood, is as intrinsic to language as any of the more material elements (such as letters and sounds); and though she did on occasion succumb to rhetoric — conceiving of readers in the old-fashioned way, as an audience to be swayed — her best work, composed with found language, demands a new kind of reader. In this sense, the difficulty of her work supports an entirely different pedagogical mission than that of Eliot or Pound.


1 [Back to text] I am thinking here of Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree (1986), which includes Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer but not Berrigan, Berkson, or Padgett. That reading of the New York School was specific to a certain historical moment, though perhaps it would still hold true for Silliman and others who might have shared it. In any case, it is this notion of centrality (and others like it from my early education as a poet: Duncan’s insistence on H.D., Creeley’s insistence on Zukofsky, the Language Poets’ insistence on Stein) that I had in mind when I made my claim for Moore.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 28, 2009 at 7:30 am

Reading in Bed

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Oliver Wendell Holmes, from an 1883 essay on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy:

I did not read it to equip myself for “literary conversation,” but to predispose myself to somnolence; and if, as I hope, this article shall prove as effective in bringing about that result for the reader as the book was for myself, it will have fully answered my tamest expectations.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 26, 2009 at 8:15 am

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The Center of Modernism (Not)

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gotham-book-martI’m getting far afield of the nineteenth century here, but I couldn’t resist posting the picture to the left as a followup to my last post, which referred to Marianne Moore as the center of modernism (my modernism, I would add, if that qualification means anything).

The picture, taken at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948, is a famous one, though it’s not exactly a gathering of the gods. How could it be, with Stevens and Williams both missing in action? (Both lived within driving distance.) The occasion was a party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell, who were visiting the United States on a lecture tour, and a picture of the occasion appeared soon after in Life. The full text of that issue is available through Google Books (link here). The article, which is on the Sitwells, begins on page 164; there’s a photo on page 169 taken just before or after the one I’ve reproduced.

Anyway, I thought of this picture because I faintly remembered that Moore sits in the center. Which turns out to be false: the woman in the center is Edith Sitwell. Moore is a little to her right, just under Auden, who is staring over everyone else from a ladder.

Now Sitwell is in many respects a more interesting figure than Moore for the purposes of this blog, as she’s a poet who commanded a great deal of respect in her own lifetime (witness the coverage in Life), but who has since fallen out of general currency. She still has admirers; Lisa Robertson is one. And I am too, after a fashion. I love her Poet’s Notebook, which I first read at Robert Duncan’s behest — he mentions it, I think, in one of his essays — and I hold Façade in high regard. Also, I once edited a magazine with Andrew Schelling called Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root; though the title comes from Joyce, I found it in a commonplace book by Sitwell. So yes, I think of her as a figure well worth rescuing from oblivion, if that’s in fact where she’s headed. The kind of poet I would write about here, if only she had flourished a century before (and been American). Not the center of my attention, but part of a circle well worth turning in my head. Read the rest of this entry »

Paying Little Mind to Major Poets

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Let me start with Emerson’s best-known aphorism, from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What Emerson means here is partly explained by the rest of his sentence: “…adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A roundabout way of saying that priests are as foolish as politicians, as tedious as logicians. Or else, instead, that little minds are tormented by what great ones adore. Or maybe that little minds like to be tormented. Emerson can be so confusing.

Be all that as it may, I do value consistency, and have often wondered about my own lack of it vis-à-vis nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets. For instance, the fact that I’m happy ignoring whole areas of activity in the later period, whereas, in the earlier, I’d like someday to have an understanding of the whole. In the later period, I’m even willing to ignore major figures (so-called), whereas, in the earlier, importance, however defined, serves perfectly well as a basis for paying attention. The reason, I’ve often told myself, is that I have the luxury of dispassion when it comes to the nineteenth century. I can be a scholar in my reading, setting aside the necessity for making choices, the need a practitioner feels to insist on his or her own commitments. For when it comes to the twentieth century (and the twenty-first too, of course), I’m a poet first. I find myself — or rather my work — implicated in the projects I consider. To grant certain poets, even historically unavoidable ones, their credence would be to bestow on them the benefit of my interest and so qualify the interest — and credence — of the work I do myself, or at least of the work that makes possible what I do.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve told myself, now and again, trying to understand my lack of patience with the present-day equivalents to antebellum versifiers whose writings I do manage to approach with sympathy. It’s a good solution, I think, this distinction I make between reading as a scholar and reading as a poet. … Too bad it’s probably bunk. In both centuries, I let my curiosity guide me, and often become quite taken with poets out of proportion to their actual importance as anyone else might see it. In my nineteenth century, for example, Bayard Taylor is much more important than Jones Very, and Fitz-Greene Halleck is much more lasting than E. A. Robinson. Which may sound reasonable to you, but that’s only because Whitman and Dickinson have so skewed our perceptions. Basically, this is like saying that Randall Jarrell is more important than T. S. Eliot, Joanne Kyger more lasting than Robert Frost. Which I do believe, by the way.

But please don’t mistake this as a “post-avant” vs. “school of quietude” argument (the Jarrell reference ought to clarify that). I’m talking about taking one’s own interests seriously, which is precisely a redrawing of such existing lines. For me, Marianne Moore is the center of modernism, not Eliot, or Pound, or Williams, and that means I can read Merrill and Ashbery with equal pleasure, while finding Lowell and Duncan — who drank too deeply of the Four Quartets — almost unbearable.

And therein lies for me the big difference between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: I find so much more of the latter century’s poetry unbearable. And not because it’s worse, mind you, but because it touches me more deeply, more directly. I may be put to sleep by James Russell Lowell, but he doesn’t irritate me like Robert. That irritation, I would add, says much less about Lowell — or me — than it does about the nature of proximity.

Putting this all together, I’d say that as a scholar, I read like a poet who has gone numb. Or rather: as a poet, I read like a scholar with bad allergies. Except that the difference is not between scholarship and poetry, but centuries. As I move further into the past, I find it easier to withhold judgment. In the present and near past, judgment withholds me.

So yes, I’m inconsistent, but no longer tortured about it. And not because I’m now “self-reliant.” It’s immersion in the social I accept, my vantage on the past, and future, I’ve acknowledged. Which leads, I hope, to the ultimate inconsistency: revision. After all, what good is history if it can’t be rewritten, reconsidered, redeployed?

Update: Ron Silliman has written a response to this post (link here), leading to further remarks of my own (here).

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 15, 2009 at 8:21 am

Drum Beat

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drum beat2

Blazing ... quenching ... Leaping ... Laying ... to die

Over the summer, Modern Books and Manuscripts (the blog for the Houghton Library) posted a note on Emily Dickinson’s Drum Beat appearances. The post is called “From the stacks … Three early Dickinson publications” (link here), and it includes two clippings: the paper’s decorative banner, and Dickinson’s “Flowers” (from the March 2, 1864, issue).

Drum Beat was a Brooklyn-based newspaper that raised money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission near the end of the Civil War. Dickinson’s three unsigned poems, which appeared in three different issues, were discovered in the 1980s by Karen Dandurand, a period when the old view of Dickinson as cut off from history underwent substantial change. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, nothing of substance has been said about the poems since, at least nothing I’ve seen. The context in which they appear is evocative in the extreme … but evocative of what? As MB&M notes, the paper was edited by an Amherst graduate, Richard Salter Storrs, an acquaintance of Dickinson’s brother. Did her brother, then, send the poems in? Or was it a friend? Or Dickinson herself? And if it was Dickinson herself, did she do so in answer to a request? Or as an unsolicited contribution? In sympathy with the cause? Or from friendship alone? Or was it for the sake of publication? And why those poems?

As with so much else about Dickinson, we know just enough to ask precise questions. Not enough to give precise answers.

The image above shows Dickinson’s “Sunset” (from the February 29, 1864, issue). Note that the other poem, “Enigma,” is signed with the letter G. There was no house style in Drum Beat for attribution; there’s nothing peculiar about the way Dickinson’s poem is given.

You can click on the image to see more of the page, and for enlargements.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 12, 2009 at 11:19 am

The Birth of Poetry

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waldenA story too precious to keep to myself. I found it by way of Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author in America (1931), but it comes from the introduction to Walden’s Miscellanous Poems (1872).

But first some background.

Islay Walden was born into slavery in Randolph County, North Carolina; emancipated at age 22 at the end of the Civil War.

Critics have linked Walden to George Moses Horton (about whom I wrote briefly here), not only because both were born into slavery — in the same state — but also because both became poets before gaining literacy. Horton’s story is the more striking. He published his work in the South while still a slave — hoping, in fact, to earn enough money to buy his freedom — but Walden’s career is a worthy sequel. Unlettered at the time of Emancipation, he worked his way North, performing manual labor, lecturing, and selling poems. He had been a prodigy with numbers as a child, performing feats of calculation in public, and this must have made him an effective speaker. In Washington, he helped to organize Sabbath Schools, and later attended Howard University, his tuition paid by a church in New Jersey. Walden’s Miscellaneous Poems appeared while he was still a student.

The book is very evocative of Reconstruction, especially in its framing details. Dedicated “to the cause of education and humanity,” it begins with a letter from the War Department (commending Walden for his work on the Sabbath Schools), and follows this with a brief endorsement from Howard. Books in the slavery era used documents in the same way, but there the aim was abolition, hence the emphasis fell on the bare fact of a slave’s humanity. Here, humanity is taken for granted; the aim is improving conditions of life.

Apart from the poems, the book includes letters by Walden himself, especially in the second, enlarged edition of 1873 (text here). There is also a brief introduction (signed “C. C. H.”), which tells the story of how Walden became a poet. The story must come from the poet himself, and it makes me long for a full autobiography:

When about eighteen years old he was engaged at a gold mine in driving oxen. The owner was a very passionate man, and was so angry one day that he was about to strike an ox to the ground with a mattock. Walden remonstrated, saying, “The ox will die.” It fell dead in a few moments. They threw its body into a pit where a shaft had been sunk, and while they were standing over it Walden made and recited impromptu his first verses–

“Poor Old Dick,
He died quick!
He died all in a minute.
Here is a shaft thirty feet,
And we have thrown him in it.

He was red,
And he is dead!
The buzzards may forsake him;
For he is buried thirty feet,
Where they can never get him.”

After he had repeated this the man says, “Walden, you are a poet.” Walden asked, “What is a poet?” He replied, “One who writes poetry.” “What is poetry?” asked Walden. The man explained by asking him if he did not know what hymns are? &c.

From this time he was running over rhymes in his head, and longing to learn.

Isn’t poetry wonderful that way? Humble in origin, even doggerel can be its true spark.

After finishing his studies, Walden succeeded in bringing out a second collection, but critics have dismissed it out of hand. Joan R. Sherman calls it “uninspired and repetitious,” and Loggins goes further, saying “[it] proves that education had spoiled whatever poet there had been in Walden.” I haven’t seen this book, but I don’t doubt the judgments are correct. The thing is, Walden didn’t want to remain unlettered, and didn’t live at a time when he might have been both sophisticated and folk. Not in the manner of Langston Hughes, who managed to synthesize the two (and Hughes came from the middle class, a very different vantage on the problem). Absent that possibility, Walden’s only option was to be a different kind of poet after Howard than before. In effect, he had to start over.[1]

Of course, it’s hard in any era to be two kinds of poet, one on each side of a threshold. But Walden at least had the chance. Horton didn’t.


1 [Back to text] I discount here the later example of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote genteel verses and dialect at the same time, as this way of being “both” would have still required Walden to be genteel. In effect, his output was very much like Dunbar’s, with the two aspects coming sequentially, however, instead of at the same time. And only one of the, apparently, successful.