William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. (18781962). Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1920. 1920.
Tap-Root or Melting-Pot?
RECENT1 American poetry is to recent British poetry somewhat as New York is to London. Its colors are higher and gayer and more diverse; its outlines are more jagged and more surprising; its surfaces glitter and flash as British poetical surfaces do not always do, though its substances are often not so solid or so downright as the British. Nowhere in America have we a poet of the deep integrity of Thomas Hardy, a poet so rooted in ancient soil, ancient manners, ancient dialect. Nor has England a poet shining from so many facets as Amy Lowell, or a poet resounding with such a clang of cymbalsnow gold, now ironas Vachel Lindsay. Experiment thrives better here than there; at least, our adventurers in verse, when they go out on novel quests for novel beauties, are less likely than the British to be held in by steadying tradition, and they bring back all sorts of gorgeous plunder considerably nearer in hue and texture to the flaming shop-windows of Fifth Avenue than to those soberer ones of Bond and Regent Streets. Even John Masefield, most brilliant living poet of his nation, runs true to British form, grounded in Chaucer and Crabbe, fragrant with English meadows, salt with Englands sea. Edgar Lee Masters, as accurately read in Illinois as Masefield in Gloucester writes of Spoon River not in any manner or measure inherited with his speech, but more nearly in that of the Greek Anthology, by Masters sharpened with a bitter irony.
In all directions such borrowings extend. Even popular verse men of the newspapers play daily pranks with Horace, fetching him from the cool shades of wit to the riotous companionship of Franklin P. Adams and George M. Cohan. China and Japan have suddenly been discovered again by Miss Lowell and Mr. Lindsay and Witter Bynner and Eunice Tietjens and a dozen others; have been discovered to be rich treasuries of exquisite images, costumes, gestures, moods, emotions. The corners of Europe have been ransacked by American poets as by American collectors, and translators at last are finding South America. Imagism has been imported and has taken kindly to our climate H. D. is its finest spirit, Miss Lowell its firmest spokesman. Ezra Pound is a translator-general of poetic bibelots, who seems to know all tongues and who ransacks them without stint or limit. With exploration goes excavation. Poets are cross-examining the immigrants, as T. A. Daly the Italian-Americans. The myths and passions of Africa, hidden on this continent under three centuries of neglect and oppression, have emerged with a new accent in Mr. Lindsay, who does indeed see his negroes too close to their original jungles, but who finds in them poetry where earlier writers found only farce or sentiment. Still more remarkably, the Indian, his voice long drowned by the march of civilization, is heard again in tender and significant notes. Speaking so solely to his own tribe, and taking for granted that each hearer knows the lore of the tribe, the Indian must now be expanded, interpreted; and already Mary Austin and Alice Corbin and Constance Lindsay Skinner have worked charming patterns on an Indian ground. At the moment, so far as American poetry is concerned, Arizona and New Mexico are an authentic wonderland of the nation. Now poets and lovers of poetry and romance, as well as ethnologists, follow the news of the actual excavations in that quarter,
Indian and negro materials, however, are in our poetry still hardly better than aspects of the exotic. No one who matters actually thinks that a national literature can be founded on such alien bases. Where, then, are our poets to find some such stout tap-root of memory and knowledge as Thomas Hardy follows deep down to the primal rock of England? The answer is that for the present we are not to find it. We possess no such commodity. Our literature for generations, perhaps centuries, will have to be symbolized by the melting pot, not by the tap-root. Our geographical is also our spiritual destiny. The old idea of America-making in its absurd ignorance demanded that each wave of newcomers be straightway melted down into the national pot and that the resultant mass be as simply Anglo-Saxon as ever. This was bad chemistry. What has happened, and what is now happening more than ever, is that of a dozena hundrednationalities thrown in, each lends a peculiar color and quality. Arturo Giovannitti gives something that Robert Frost could not give; Carl Sandburg something not to be looked for from Edwin Arlington Robinson; James Oppenheim and Alter Brody what would not come from Indiana or Kansas. Such a fusion, of course, takes a long time. The great myths and legends and histories of the Britons lay unworked for centuries in Anglo-Saxon England before the Normans saw them and built them into beauty. Eventually, unless the world changes in some way quite new to history, the fusion will be accomplished. But in the meantime experimentation and exploration and excavation must be kept up. We must convert our necessities into virtues; must, lacking the deep soil of memory, which is also prejudice and tradition, cultivate the thinner soil which may also be reason and cheerfulness. Our hope lies in diversity, in variety, in colors yet untried, in forms yet unsuspected. And back of all this search lie the many cultures, converging like immigrant ships toward the narrows, with aspirations all to become American and yet with those things in their different constitutions which will enrich the ultimate substance.