The editors of this anthology wish to present in convenient form representative work of the poets who are to-day creating what is commonly called the new poetry,a phrase no doubt rash and most imperfectly descriptive, since the new in art is always the elder old, but one difficult to replace with any form of words more exact. Much newspaper controversy, and a number of special magazines, testify to the demand for such a book; also many letters to the editors of Poetry asking for informationletters not only from individual lovers of the art, but also from college professors and literary clubs or groups, who have begun to feel that the poetry of to-day is a vital force no longer to be ignored. Indeed, many critics feel that poetry is coming nearer than either the novel or the drama to the actual life of to-day. The magazine Poetry, ever since its foundation in October, 1912, has encouraged this new spirit in the art, and the anthology is a further effort on the part of its editors to present the new spirit to the public.
What is the new poetry? and wherein does it differ from the old? The difference is not in mere details of form, for much poetry infused with the new spirit conforms to the old measures and rhyme-schemes. It is not merely in diction, though the truly modern poet rejects the so-called poetic shifts of languagethe deems, neaths, forsooths, etc., the inversions and high-sounding rotundities, familiar to his predecessors: all the rhetorical excesses through which most Victorian poetry now seems over-apparelled, as a speaker at a Poetry dinnera lawyer, not a poetput it in pointing out what the new movement is aiming at. These things are important, but the difference goes deeper than details of form, strikes through them to fundamental integrities.
The new poetry strives for a concrete and immediate realization of life; it would discard the theory, the abstraction, the remoteness, found in all classics not of the first order. It is less vague, less verbose, less eloquent, than most poetry of the Victorian period and much work of earlier periods. It has set before itself an ideal of absolute simplicity and sincerityan ideal which implies an individual, unstereotyped diction; and an individual, unstereotyped rhythm. Thus inspired, it becomes intensive rather than diffuse. It looks out more eagerly than in; it becomes objective. The term exteriority has been applied to it, but this is incomplete. In presenting the concrete object or the concrete environment, whether these be beautiful or ugly, it seeks to give more precisely the emotion arising from them, and thus widens immeasurably the scope of the art.
All this implies no disrespect for tradition. The poets of to-day do not discard tradition because they follow the speech of to-day rather than that of Shakespeares time, or strive for organic rhythm rather than use a mold which has been perfected by others. On the contrary, they follow the great tradition when they seek a vehicle suited to their own epoch and their own creative mood, and resolutely reject all others.
Great poetry has always been written in the language of contemporary speech, and its theme, even when legendary, has always borne a direct relation with contemporary thought, contemporary imaginative and spiritual life. It is this direct relation which the more progressive modern poets are trying to restore. In this effort they discard not only archaic diction but also the shop-worn subjects of past history or legend, which have been through the centuries a treasure-trove for the second-rate.
This effort at modern speech, simplicity of form, and authentic vitality of theme, is leading our poets to question the authority of the accepted laws of English verse, and to study other languages, ancient and modern, in the effort to find out what poetry really is. It is a strange fact that, in the common prejudice of cultivated people during the four centuries from just before 1400 to just before 1800, nothing was accepted as poetry in English that did not walk in the iambic measure. Bits of Elizabethan song and of Drydens two musical odes, both beating four-time instead of the iambic three, were outlandish intrusions too slight to count. To write English poetry, a man must measure his paces according to the iambic foot-rule; and he must mark off his lines with rhymes, or at least marshal them in the pentameter movement of blank verse.
The first protest against this prejudice, which long usage had hardened into law, came in the persons of four or five great poetsBurns, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byronwho puzzled the ears of their generation with anapæsts and other four-time measures, and who carried into their work a certain immediacy of feeling and imagerya certain modern passion of lifewhich even Cowper, Thompson and a few others of their time, though they had written of things around them, had scarcely attained. Quarterly critics and London moralists blinked and gasped, but at last the bars had to go down for these great radicals. And before long the extreme virtuosity of Swinburne had widened still further the musical range of the English language.
By the time Whitman appeared, the ear of the average readerthat formidable personwas attuned to anapæsts, dactyls, choriambics, sapphics, rhymed or unrhymed. He could not call them by name, but he was docile to all possible intricacies of pattern in any closely woven metrical scheme. But Whitman gave him a new shock. Here was a so-called poet who discarded all traditional patterns, and wove a carpet of his own. Once more the conservatives protested: was this poetry? and, if so, why? If poetry was not founded on the long-accepted metrical laws, then how could they distinguish it from prose, and thus keep the labels and catalogues in order? What was Whitmans alleged poetry but a kind of freakish prose, invented to set forth a dangerous anarchistic philosophy?
It would take too long to analyze the large rhythms of Whitmans free verse; but the mere fact that he wrote free verse and called it poetry, and that other poetsmen like Rossetti, Swinburne, Symonds, even the reluctant Emersonseemed to agree that it was poetry, this fact alone was, in the opinion of the conservatives, a challenge to four centuries of English poets. And this challenge, repeated by later poets, compels us to inquire briefly into the origins of English poetry, in the effort to get behind and underneath the instinctive prejudice that English poetry, to be poetry, must conform to prescribed metres.
Chaucer, great genius that he was, an aristocrat by birth and breeding, and a democrat by feeling and sympathyChaucer may have had it in his power to turn the whole stream of English poetry into either the French or the Anglo-Saxon channel. Knowing and loving the old French epics better than the Norse sagas, he naturally chose the French channel, and he was so great and so beloved that his world followed him. Thus there was no longer any questionthe iambic measure and rhyme, both dear to the French-trained ears of Englands Norman masters, became fixed as the standard type of poetic form.
But it was possibly a toss-upthe scale hung almost even in that formative fourteenth century. If Chaucers contemporary Langlandthe great democrat, revolutionist, mystichad had Chaucers authority and universal sympathy, English poetry might have followed his example instead of Chaucers; and Shakespeare, Milton and the rest might have been impelled by common practice to useor modifythe curious, heavy, alliterative measure of Piers Ploughman, which now sounds so strange to our ears:
Though we must rejoice that Chaucer prevailed with his French forms, Langland reminds us that poetryeven English poetryis older than rhyme, older than the iambic measure, older than all the metrical patterns which now seem so much a part of it. If our criticism is to have any value, it must insist upon the obvious truth that poetry existed before the English language began to form itself out of the débris of other tongues, and that it now exists in forms of great beauty among many far-away peoples who never heard of our special rules.
Perhaps the first of these disturbing influences from afar to be felt in modern English poetry was the Celtic renascence, the wonderful revival of interest in old Irish song, which became manifest in translations and adaptations of the ancient Gaelic lyrics and epics, made by W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde and others.
This influence was most powerful because it came to us directly, not at second-hand, through the English work of two poets of genius, Synge and Yeats. These great men, fortified and inspired by the simplicity and clarity of primitive Celtic song, had little patience with the over-appareled art of Tennyson and his imitators. They found it stiffened by rhetoric, by a too conscious morality leading to pulpit eloquence, and by second-hand bookish inspirations; and its movement they found hampered, thwarted of freedom, by a too slavish acceptance of ready-made schemes of metre and rhyme. The surprises and irregularities, found in all great art because they are inherent in human feeling, were being ruled out of English poetry, which consequently was stiffening into forms too fixed and becoming more and more remote from life. As Mr. Yeats said in Chicago:
We were weary of all this. We wanted to get rid not only of rhetoric but of poetic diction. We tried to strip away everything that was artificial, to get a style like speech, as simple as the simplest prose, like a cry of the heart.
It is scarcely too much to say that the new poetryif we may be allowed the phrasebegan with these two great Irish masters. Think what a contrast to even the simplest lyrics of Tennyson the pattern of their songs presents, and what a contrast their direct outright human feeling presents to the somewhat culture-developed optimism of Browning, and the science-inspired pessimism of Arnold. Compared with these Irishmen the best of their predecessors seem literary. This statement does not imply any measure of ultimate values, for it is still too early to estimate them. One may, for example, believe Synge to be the greatest poet-playwright in English since Shakespeare, and one of the great poets of the world; but a few more decades must pass before such ranking can have authority.
At the same time other currents were influencing progressive minds toward even greater freedom of form. Strangely enough, Whitmans influence was felt first in France. It reached England, and finally America, indirectly from Paris, where the poets, stimulated by translations of the great American, especially Bajazettes, and by the ever-adventurous quality of French scholarship, have been experimenting with free verse ever since Mallarmé. The great Irish poets felt the French influenceit was part of the education which made them realize that English poetry had become narrow, rigid, and insular. Yeats has held usually, though never slavishly, to rhyme and a certain regularity of metrical formin which, however, he makes his own tunes; but Synge wrote his plays in that wide borderland between prose and verse, in a form which, whatever one calls it, is essentially poetry, for it has passion, glamour, magic, rhythm, and glorious imaginative life.
This borderland between prose and verse is being explored now as never before in English; except, perhaps in the King James translation of the Bible. The modern vers-libertines, as they have been wittily called, are doing pioneer work in an heroic effort to get rid of obstacles that have hampered the poet and separated him from his audience. They are trying to make the modern manifestations of poetry less a matter of rules and formulæ, and more a thing of the spirit, and of organic as against imposed, rhythm. In this enthusiastic labor they are following not only a strong inward impulse, not only the love of freedom which Chaucer followedand Spenser and Shakespeare, Shelley and Coleridge and all the mastersbut they are moved also by influences from afar. They have studied the French symbolistes of the nineties, and the more recent Parisian vers-libristes. Moreover, some of them have listened to the pure lyricism of the Provençal troubadours, have studied the more elaborate mechanism of early Italian sonneteers and canzonists, have read Greek poetry from a new angle of vision; and last, but perhaps most important of all, have bowed to winds from the East.
In the nineteenth century the western worldthe western æsthetic worlddiscovered the orient. Someone has said that when Perry knocked at the gates of Japan, these opened, not to let us in, but to let the Japanese out. Japanese graphic art, especially, began almost at once to kindle progressive minds. Whistler, of course, was the first great creative artist to feel the influence of their instinct for balance and proportion, for subtle harmonies of color and line, for the integrity of beauty in art as opposed to the moralizing and sentimental tendencies which had been intruding more and more.
Poetry was slower than the graphic arts to feel the oriental influence, because of the barrier of language. But European scholarship had long dabbled with Indian, Persian and Sanskrit literatures, and Fitzgerald even won over the crowd to some remote suspicion of their beauty by meeting Omar half-way, and making a great poem out of the marriage, not only of two minds, but of two literary traditions. Then a few airs from Japan blew ina few translations of hokku and other formswhich showed the stark simplicity and crystal clarity of the art among Japanese poets. And of late the search has gone further: we begin to discover a whole royal line of Chinese poets of a thousand or more years ago; and we are trying to search out the secrets of their delicate and beautiful art. The task is difficult, because our poets, ignorant of Chinese, have to get at these masters through the literal translations of scholars. But even by this round-about way, poets like Allen Upward, Ezra Pound, Helen Waddell and a few others, give us something of the rare flavor, the special exquisite perfume, of the original. And of late the Indian influence has been emphasized by the great Bengali poet and sage, Rabindranath Tagore, whose mastery of English makes him a poet in two languages.
This oriental influence is to be welcomed because it flows from deep original streams of poetic art. We should not be afraid to learn from it; and in much of the work of the imagists, and other radical groups, we find a more or less conscious, and more or less effective, yielding to that influence. We find something of the oriental directness of vision and simplicity of diction, also now and then a hint of the unobtrusive oriental perfection of form and delicacy of feeling.
All these influences, which tend to make the art of poetry, especially poetry in English, less provincial, more cosmopolitan, are by no means a defiance of the classic tradition. On the contrary, they are an endeavor to return to it at its great original sources, and to sweep away artificial lawsthe obiter dicta of secondary mindswhich have encumbered it. There is more of the great authentic classic tradition, for example, in the Spoon River Anthology than in the Idylls of the King, Balaustians Adventure, and Sohrab and Rustum combined. And the free rhythms of Whitman, Mallarmé, Pound, Sandburg and others, in their inspired passages, are more truly in line with the biblical, the Greek, the Anglo-Saxon, and even the Shakespearean tradition, than all the exact iambics of Dryden and Pope, the patterned alexandrines of Racine, or the closely woven metrics of Tennyson and Swinburne.
Whither the new movement is leading no one can tell with exactness, nor which of its present manifestations in England and America will prove permanently valuable. But we may be sure that the movement is toward greater freedom of spirit and form, and a more enlightened recognition of the international scope, the cosmopolitanism, of the great art of poetry, of which the English language, proud as its record is, offers but a single phase. As part of such a movement, even the most extravagant experiments, the most radical innovations, are valuable, for the moment at least, as an assault against prejudice. And some of the radicals of to-day will be, no doubt, the masters of to-morrowa phenomenon common in the history of the arts.
It has seemed best to include no poems published before 1900, even though, as in a few cases, the poets were moved by the new impulses. For example, those two intensely modern, nobly impassioned, lyric poets, Emily Dickinson and the Shropshire Lad (Alfred Edward Housman)the one dead, the other fortunately still livingboth belong, by date of publication, to the nineties. The work of poets already, as it were, enshrinedwhether by fame, or death, or bothhas also not been quoted: poets whose works are already, in a certain sense, classics, and whose books are treasured by all lovers of the artlike Synge and Moody and Riley, too early gone from us, and William Butler Yeats, whose later verse is governed, even more than his earlier, by the new austerities.
Certain other omissions are more difficult to explain, because they may be thought to imply a lack of consideration which we do not feel. The present Laureate, Robert Bridges, even in the late eighties and early nineties, was led by his own personal taste, especially in his Shorter Poems, toward austere simplicity of subject, diction and style. But his most representative poems were written before 1900. Rudyard Kipling has been inspired at times by the modern muse, but his best poems also antedate 1900. This is true also of Louise Imogen Guiney and Bliss Carman, though most of their work, like that of Arthur Symons and the late Stephen Phillips and Anna Hempstead Branch, belongs, by its affinities, to the earlier period. And Alfred Noyes, whatever the date of his poems, bears no immediate relation to the more progressive modern movement in the art.
On the other hand, we have tried to be hospitable to the adventurous, the experimental, because these are the qualities of pioneers, who look forward, not backward, and who may lead on, further than we can see as yet, to new domains of the ever-conquering spirit of beauty.
NOTE. A word about the typography of this volume. No rigid system of lineation, indention, etc., has been imposed upon the poets who very kindly lend us their work. For example, sonnets are printed with or without indention according to the individual preference of the poet; also other rhymed forms, such as quatrains rhyming alternately; as well as various forms of free verse. Punctuation and spelling are more uniform, although a certain liberty has been conceded in words like gray or grey, the color of which seems to vary wish flu spelling, and in the use of dots, dashes, commas, colons, etc.