American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Further Thoughts

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Back in June, in a post called “The Best of the Rest,” I asked about the nineteenth century’s third-best poet (Whitman and Dickinson coming first, of course) and offered a list of candidates. I also copied out the names of the poets covered by The Norton Anthology of American Literature (the teaching anthology I sometimes use), taking up the Heath more briefly in a footnote. I stand by my list — for now, anyway — but it’s frustrating how much got left out.

Which is no surprise: I knew at the time my approach would marginalize a fair amount of work I do admire. Worse still: I knew at the time my list was premature. If my goal was to ignite interest in unread poets — and it was — a more flammable material would have made for a better start: a pile of logs with a single match is not the best way to get a fire started; logs are a good way to keep it going, but brush and twigs make for better tinder; even branches make for better tinder, if they’re not too green.

It seems, then, that a method is needed for building a fire that can eat through logs.

One obvious alternative to a list of names is a list of poems, and poems are indeed more like twigs than logs. (Books, I suppose, are branches, and many are indeed green, even after a century.) So does it make sense to begin with poems, then move to books, then authors? Perhaps. But the analogy is imperfect: twigs, branches, and logs are all wood, and all burn, more or less, in the same way. Poems, books, and authors aren’t nearly so similar; nor is our attention so similar when it works on those different things. The analogy holds in one respect only: the size and density of the object (of knowledge, in the case of poetry) makes for a natural progression. A list of poems would be easier to burn through than a list of books or a list of authors, but the books from which the poems were taken and the authors of those poems wouldn’t necessarily appear on the later lists.  When it comes to poetry, the twigs from the trees from which the best logs are cut aren’t necessarily the most flammable.

OK, enough with this metaphor… my point is only, an appropriate beginning doesn’t necessarily lead to a desired conclusion. Which is to say, the conclusion may be no such thing — may only be a newer, different starting point. Moving from poem to book to author may be natural, but that doesn’t make the progression hierarchic or logical. Have I thus talked myself out of starting from poems? Not exactly. I like the idea of recommencing study from a new vantage point. Also, my problem with names isn’t simply that they’re premature; it’s also that they leave so much out.

When I speak of  “names,” I mean, of course, several different things. “Author” in the broadest sense incorporates three distinct emphases: person, career, body of work. Not that these are separable, though there are certainly poets whose lives are more interesting than their works (and vice versa), and poets whose receptions add to or diminish that interest. But however broadly we define it, “author” remains a limiting criterion, simply because it is a criterion. To include more, other criteria are needed.

I suspect that most readers would agree that Melville holds more interest in the end than Julia Ward Howe or Emma Lazarus. But it’s indisputable that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The New Colossus” exceed any of Melville’s individual poems in their public reach, and perhaps also in their hold on the imagination. Since Howe and Lazarus manipulated the “author function” as well as Melville did, and since their careers make instructive study, I wouldn’t want to say that authorship is a poor frame for regarding their work. But it’s hardly the only frame available, and in their cases not necessarily the best one. The individual poem is surely better, especially if the aim is bringing their work into the center of discourse.

To be sure, a list of poems would be just as likely to marginalize work I admire as a list of poets. The fact is, no one frame is sufficient for coming to terms with anybody’s work, and it’s certainly not sufficient for coming to terms with an entire century. What’s needed is a literary history in the form of an anatomy book, with overlapping transparent sheets showing bones, nerves, veins, organs, muscles. … I give the Heath credit for recognizing this need and acting on it. The anthology’s reliance on subdivisions within its overall chronological sequence (“Cultures of New England,” “Emergent Poetic Voices”) modifies the sense one invariably gets from such texts that poetry is a parade of great names. The problem with the Heath approach — though I don’t see any way around it — is that the subdivisions are small in number and limited in scope; they’re the only transparencies in the anatomy book, and incomplete, which means we only see the bones and nerves, and only in one leg.

The Norton has always been more emphatically author-centered, with longer headnotes for each figure, but prompted by the Heath ‘s more imaginative, more progressive editorial decisions, it has come to incorporate subdivisions at irregular intervals, though unless I’m mistaken these do not include any nineteenth-century poetry. [1] In any case, such a modification of its author-directed survey would go a long way toward strengthening the Norton‘s representation of poetry before modernism. Why not add a hundred pages each to Volumes B and C under the headings “The Culture of Poetry 1820-1865” and “1865-1914 “? The headnotes could present a narrative about the periods’ poetries, identifying with brief biographical notes the figures chosen to represent them. The poems could be a mixture of old chestnuts and rediscoveries representative of the periods as the best current scholarship understands them.

Here, off the top of my head, are ten poems by ten poets left out of the Norton that could serve as the basis for the two subsections. [2] I’ve deliberately included at least one poem for each nineteenth-century decade covered (the second volume would of course include two twentieth-century decades as well). Take these as widely separated dots that the other poems in the sections would connect; my guess is that the ten poems, with notes, would make up about 15% of the proposed space.

Volume B (1820-1865) [3]

  • Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867), “Marco Bozzaris” (1825) (text here)
  • George Pope Morris (1802-1864), “The Oak” (1830) (lyrics here; audio file here; cartoon parody here)
  • George Moses Horton (c. 1798-c. 1880), “Troubled with the Itch, and Rubbing with Sulphur” (1845) (text here — scroll down to page 65)
  • Phoebe Cary (1824-1871), “The Day Is Done” (1854) (text here; see also the Longfellow poem she  is parodying)
  • Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic” (1862) (see the original publication here)

Volume C (1865-1914) [4]

  • Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868), “Judith” (1868) (original publication here)
  • Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1821-1873), “The Cricket” (c. 1870) (text here)
  • Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), “The Marshes of Glynn” (1878) (see the original, uncredited publication here)
  • Rose Terry Cooke (1827-1892), “Arachne” (1881) (original publication here)
  • Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923), “On Ocean’s Bosom” (tr. Alice Stone Blackwell) (1890s [tr. 1905]) (text here)

Now these are, in my view, conservative choices: historically important work (“Marco Bozzaris”), work that speaks to dominant styles (“The Day Is Done”) or cultural forces (“On Ocean’s Bosom”); work that illuminates the life of the time (“Troubled with the Itch”), and work by important or memorable figures who didn’t make the anthology’s initial cut (Tuckerman, Menken). There are, no question, poems I value more than these, even by the poets I’ve listed, but those would not necessarily serve the needs of a student first acquiring knowledge of the period. Julia Ward Howe’s “The Lyric I” (from her Words for the Hour [1857]) is a neglected masterpiece, and far more interesting to me than her “Battle-Hymn.” But should a student know the former instead of the latter? No. Pedagogically speaking, “The Battle-Hymn” is the better choice, if a choice must be made at all.

Pedagogy, then, is no more encompassing a category than authorship. So what third or fourth criteria can we add? I’ll give some thought to that and post new lists when new possibilities take shape in my head.

In the meantime, if I can draw on my two metaphors (campfire, anatomy book) without mixing them horribly, the question becomes: what order of introduction to the material makes most sense for building interest and what approaches are needed to make the overall presentation as encompassing as possible? When I can answer, I guess I’ll be ready to write my book.


1 [Back to text] I’m not counting here the two sections devoted to Native American poetry: “Native American Chants and Songs” and “Ghost Dance Songs.” These are comprised entirely of works without known individual authors, and so wouldn’t fit into the overall author-based chronology; they’ve also been part of the anthology for much longer than the other subdivisions, which gather together signed works by a variety of figures who might otherwise be fitted into the regular sequence. For instance, “Section, Region, Nation” includes work by Daniel Webster, William Gilmore Simms, Richard Henry Dana, John Louis O’Sullivan, Francis Parkman, Louise Amelia Smith Clappe, and Mary Chesnut. The Native American poetry sections are necessities that expose the limits of the basic format; there’s no other way that work could have been included. This exposure did not lead, however, to an abandonment of the basic format, and the newer subdivisions did not follow from the older ones, but rather from other developments within the discipline.

2 [Back to text] Lydia Maria Child appears in Volume B, but as a prose writer. If she were excluded I would probably list “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” (1844).

3 [Back to text] The poets already included in Volume B (not including Whitman and Dickinson): Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

4 [Back to text] The poets from the nineteenth century already included in Volume C (not including Whitman and Dickinson): Emma Lazarus, Stephen Crane, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Edwin Arlington Robinson.


Written by Ben Friedlander

February 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

One Response

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  1. You might not have seen my attempt to quantify this question.

    I’ve written a couple of posts each on Very and Whittier. I’ve neve read Tuckerman or Lanier, and should.

    Thanks for the useful list.

    Amateur Reader

    February 5, 2010 at 11:17 pm

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