American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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.

To bring things back home, here’s a pertinent poem from a very different circle, written by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, an associate of Edgar Allan Poe. She is best known for her long poem “The Sinless Child,” which served as a model for Stowe and Longfellow in their portrayals of Little Eva and Evangeline. Remembered also is her “Drowned Mariner,” in part because Melville includes it in the “Extracts” that preface Moby-Dick. Below is one of her many sonnets (it comes from The Sinless Child and Other Poems [1843]):

The Unattained

AND is this life? and are we born for this?
To follow phantoms that elude the grasp,
Or whatso’er’s secured, within our clasp,
To withering lie, as if each mortal kiss
Were doomed death’s shuddering touch alone to meet.
O Life! has thou reserved no cup of bliss?
Must still THE UNATTAINED beguile our feet?
The UNATTAINED with yearnings fill the breast,
That rob, for aye, the spirit of its rest?
Yes, this is Life; and everywhere we meet,
Not victor crowns, but wailings of defeat;
Yet faint thou not, thou dost apply a test,
That shall incite thee onward, upward still,
The present cannot sate, nor e’er thy spirit fill.

The sentiment expressed here would prove prophetic. In Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle (2004), Eliza Richards writes:

Oakes Smith lived long enough to witness the eclipse of her once significant reputation. An avid preserver of her own archives, she clipped for a scrapbook an article written in 1885 by Susan E. Dickinson entitled “Women Writers: A Chapter on Their Ephemeral Reputations, Hopes, and Ambitions That Have Faded in Sad Disappointment.” Evoking Oakes Smith as one of the last living antebellum literary stars, Dickinson pays homage to her dying memory: “Let us hope that her setting sun … may linger in its going down and be beautiful and radiant to the last.” In her final years, Oakes positioned herself as the last witness of a dying age and of the death of her own aspirations.

If Oakes Smith lived to see the twilight of the Poetess tradition, then Sitwell was, perhaps, its moonlit continuation. This continuation is clearest, I think, in “A Mother to Her Dead Child,” Sitwell’s version of the Victorian child elegy. But here instead, to pair with Oakes Smith, is another Sitwell poem, more hopeful than “The Unattained,” though written during World War Two. One line short of a sonnet, and unrhymed, it shows how Sitwell brought the tradition forward, drawing from Blake and Whitman. No wonder Duncan adored her, and she herself saw something of interest in the Beats:

A Young Girl

Is it the light of the snow that soon will be overcoming
The spring of the world? Ah no, the light is the whiteness of all the wings of the angels
As pure as the lily born with the white sun.
And I would that each hair on my head was an angel, O my red Adam,
And my neck could stretch to you like a sunbeam or the young shoot of a lily
In the first spring of the world, till you, my grandeur of clay,
My Adam, red loam of the orchard, forgetting
The thunders of wrongs and of rights and of ruins,
Would find the green shadow of spring beneath the hairs of my head, those bright angels,
And my face, the white sun that is born of the stalk of a lily
Come back from the underworld, bringing light to the lonely:
Till the people in islands of loneliness cry to the other islands,
Forgetting the wars of men and of angels, the new Fall of Man.

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