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date: 11 December 2019

A Century of Innovation: American Poetry from 1900 to the Present

Abstract and Keywords

American poetry of roughly the first half of the twentieth century is remarkable in its richness, inventiveness, and diversity. The variety of poetry written and published in the United States in the last century represents a great period that was marked by an explosion of literary creativity. Its range of forms, styles, and preoccupations are in a fundamental sense uncontainable. They exceed any single story we might try to tell about them. An overview of the book is presented. The article also provides biographical information about some of the poets who are discussed in this book; biography does matter, despite a sometimes programmatic New Critical determination to exclude it from consideration.

Keywords: poets, modern poetry, America poetry, biography

Historians are well aware that the past never stays the same. New documents are ­discovered. Events lost to contemporary memory are recovered and adjustments ripple through accounts of past actors, key episodes, and entire periods alike. Despite a misleading popular image of the arts and humanities—one in which literature faculty are notably thought to conserve and transmit a stable tradition—the dynamic within fields like literature and history is not actually so different. For a time, to be sure, modern American poetry scholars thought that all that really mattered were the careers of half a dozen major poets whose canonical status was largely established by the 1960s or, in some cases, earlier: T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Pound’s status had to survive his wartime radio broadcasts for Mussolini’s Italy. Williams did not receive full academic recognition until the 1970s. Frost was long partly outside the fold because he never embraced modernist experimentalism. Yet, though their individual fortunes varied, these five white, male poets constituted the core of the academy’s story of the development and major achievements of twentieth-century American poetry. Neither Marianne Moore nor Langston Hughes, both now fully canonical and present throughout this book, was frequently to be found. Scores and scores of poets once widely read had dropped out of academic scholarly and classroom conversation. (p. 4)

That is not to say that the poets canonized early on were not major voices. They certainly were. Pound’s collage techniques, for example, have inspired many other poets who have no patience with his politics. Rather, the narrow academic canon offered an inadequate account of a much richer and more diverse literary ­history. This Handbook seeks simultaneously to recognize major voices and to bring many other poets into our conversations about modern poetry. Eliot, Pound, and ­Williams, among others, appear in many of the chapters that follow. Indeed, this collection was assembled on the principle that no contributor bore sole responsibility for discussing any given poet. Although I avoided commissioning chapters that covered the same general topic, writers were free to discuss any poets they chose. There are thus multiple perspectives on a number of poets. We will encounter quite different T. S. Eliots and Ezra Pounds.

Though there was a time when William Carlos Williams was not a central figure for poetry scholars, this book makes that hard to understand. Williams’s “To Elsie” receives an elaborate psychoanalytic reading from Walter Kalaidjian in this collection, while Michael Davidson views the same poem through the lens of disability studies. Charles Altieri places Williams’s “Spring and All” in a provocative relationship with Cézanne as part of an effort to move beyond the conventional collage terminology I use myself and to urge a deeper understanding of the relationship between poetry and painting in American modernism. Jahan Ramazani focuses on Williams’s incorporation of news events and local information into his early and late poetry. Edward Brunner looks at Williams’s musical references and tracks the musical component in his improvisations. Tim Newcomb analyzes Williams’s ­attitude toward sports spectators in “At the Ball Game.” And Susan Rosenbaum discusses Williams’s interest in surrealism.

Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a town near the city of Paterson, Williams (1883–1963) made the city his home for most of his life. He would mix cosmopolitan experience with a commitment to local American life. His father, of British birth and West Indies upbringing, was a perfume company salesman; his mother, of mixed Spanish, French, Dutch, and Jewish ancestry, was born in Puerto Rico and had studied art in Paris. After two years of study in Switzerland and Paris, Williams returned to earn an M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. From then on, he would maintain a remarkable dual career. One of the most prolific and versatile writers of the period, he was also a full-time doctor serving poor and middle-class patients in northern New Jersey, delivering over a thousand babies in the course of his career.

From his medical practice, Williams would draw characters who appeared in his fiction and poetry; he would also remain deeply committed to his patients’ lives, to the struggles they underwent and to their sustaining humor. His class sympathy helped him understand the relationship between radical artistic innovation and radical politics in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, for decades he was a fellow ­traveler on the Left, publishing in communist journals, supporting the Spanish Republic, and earning enough of a progressive reputation to be turned down for a position as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress a year after the anticommunist witch hunts started in 1947. Many literary scholars during the McCarthy period of the (p. 5) next decade avoided Williams out of fear of his politics and revulsion at his conversational idiom and working-class commitments. But Williams had been immensely influential for other poets all along.

Williams had met Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961) at Penn; he would later become friends with Moore and Stevens and a number of avant-garde painters based in New York. His first poems were somewhat derivatively romantic, but by 1916 he was writing short lyrics in a decidedly American idiom that drew on several modernist impulses. They remain among his masterpieces. Spring and All (1923) and The Descent of Winter (1928) were breakthrough volumes, radical collages of poetry and prose that mix flawless, crafted, and rather minimalist texts with passages of almost automatic writing.

In the 1940s he would begin publishing portions of his book-length poetic epic, Paterson. It was the fulfillment of his impassioned sense of place, of a commitment to American culture that was never merely celebratory but rather the ­witness of a devoted and attentive critic, a critic seeking a redemptive idiom amidst crass materialism and violence. Paterson was also the culmination of his lifelong rejection of the Eliot/Pound expatriate impulse, and its mix of letters, documents, and lyrics was a further realization of the collage experiments of the 1920s. In his last years he devised a triadic, or step-down, form that he called a “variable foot.” It is employed in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” a three-part love poem to his wife Florence.

The slow process of recovering Williams and other poets has occupied several decades. As this collection will demonstrate, it is by no means complete. Indeed, there is no longer any reason to think it ever will be. A specialist in modern poetry is never fundamentally more than a student of the field. No matter how long you read and study and think, you will never fully master modern American poetry. True expertise means accepting and accounting for the necessarily limited and partial nature of your knowledge. It means realizing you cannot even entirely name what you do not know. The opening chapter by Robert Parker is a telling and extreme example of that phenomenon. Of the thirty Native American poets he names, I was aware of only three of them before reading his chapter, and most modern poetry scholars would only have known of one. As Parker points out, virtually all modern poetry specialists were unaware of the whole existence of a rich half century of Native American poetry. That ignorance, moreover, speaks volumes about what we do and do not treasure and continue to disseminate. Parker, however, was helped by the ambitious and ongoing bibliography produced by Daniel F. Littlefield (Cherokee), whose Sequoyah Research Center and Native American Press Archives also house many of the poems as part of their massive effort to archive as much Indian writing as possible. The bibliography by Littlefield and James M. Parins is a great, vastly underused, and under-known resource.

Recovery itself, moreover, is not simply a neutral work of investigation and accumulation. The work has had to be theorized in order for it to be coherent and effective. The acquisition of important poetic traditions engaged with social life in ways apparently very different from that of the traditional canon has meant broadening and complicating our understanding of poetry’s social functions. New understand (p. 6) ings of the relation between text and context, of poets’ engagements with history and of the historical witness possible through metaphor have had to be developed in tandem with an expanded canon. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s opening chapter clarifies many of those developments.

Part of the work of theorizing modern poetry is the work of exploring the conceptual, aesthetic, and historical categories that will help us see patterns, connections, and trends in the literary record. We have always had such categories in the form of schools, movements, periods, and nationalities. The last of these categories, as Timothy Yu shows in his contribution on transnationalism and James Smethurst demonstrates in his analysis of the multinational phenomenon of hip hop poetry, has been the most disabling. One of the aims of this handbook is to show that these categories do not have to be mutually exclusive: they can overlap to produce coexisting alternative maps of the modern poetry terrain.

Thinking about the relationship between poetry and psychoanalysis, as Walter Kalaidjian does here, provides one telling map of the last century’s poetry. Looking at the influence of surrealism, even in the absence of an official roster of surrealist poets, as Susan Rosenbaum does, produces yet another grouping. But the surrealists were, in effect, devoted to the unconscious, so the maps overlap. To the extent that narratives about schools and movements suggest active organization and collaboration, they may be deceptive. Yet identifying aesthetic, rhetorical, and political trends in poetry does help us recognize influence, motivation, and cultural impact. Unless we put such categories into play, key features of the landscape will remain invisible. Thus, Mike Chasar uses a few examples to open up what is a vast and ­continuing terrain of popular poetry, work that remains invisible until we look at literary history from that vantage point and until we venture into the extensive archive of newspaper poetry, something few literary scholars have been willing to do. Ignorance about poems published only in newspapers has also hampered the recovery of Native American poetry. Mark Van Wienen reconfigures a portion of our history with the category of prison poetry and thereby makes a potentially invisible social dynamic visible. Linda Kinnahan puts early modern poetry by women in dialogue with economic theory and thus opens unacknowledged intersections for discussion. Tim Newcomb highlights interactions with mass culture and John Marsh identifies poets’ engagements with material problems of manual labor that a more elitist critical aesthetic had preferred to ignore. Edward Brunner’s comprehensive survey of the role that jazz and the blues have played in the development of modern poetry reveals a complex multiracial history. Karen Ford’s powerful rereading of the whole history of African American poetry convincingly shows that the tensions between traditional and alternative forms do not represent mutually exclusive political and aesthetic commitments but rather the key defining dialectic of black poetry in the United States. Michael Davidson’s overview of disability poetics addresses not only poets associated with the movement but also a wide range of poets not typically associated with their disabilities. As new categories and cultural possibilities emerge, the past itself is reconfigured. Evidence of that is strikingly ­evident in Adalaide Morris’s concluding chapter, as Whitman’s (p. 7) claim to “sing the body electric” is put in dialogue with the mechanically amplified and computerized bodies and poems of the new millennium. Like the work of recovery and interpretation, the work of theorizing the cultural status of modern poetry is ongoing.

This handbook to modern and contemporary American poetry thus disavows any pretense at comprehensiveness. It consolidates two interwoven features of the last generation of scholarship—textual recovery and critical rereading—but it also looks to the future in an effort to identify emerging areas of research. It is intended not only as a partial record of what we have learned but also as a companion to and inspiration for the work students of the field will be doing in years to come.

The gaps, erasures, and misconceptions in our historical knowledge are of several kinds. One may begin with faulty conceptions of individual poets’ careers. Consider “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley,” first published in the progressive periodical The Survey in 1915 and introduced with a factual epigraph:

News item: “Brass, copper and wire mills in the Naugatuck Valley are shipping nearly a thousand tons of war material daily. One mill is turning out 200 tons a day of shrapnel ‘fillers’ of lead and other metals.”

Spring comes back to the winding valley,

The dogwood over the hill is white,

The meadow-lark from the ground is piping

His notes like tinkling bells of light;

Peace, clear peace in the pearly evening,

Peace on field and sheltered town—

But why is the sky so wild and lurid

Long, long after the sun goes down?

They are making ammunition,

Blow on blow and spark on spark,

With their blasting and their casting

In the holy April dark.

They have fed their hungry furnaces

Again and yet again,

They are shaping brass and bullets

That will kill their fellow-men;

Forging in the April midnight

Shrapnel fillers, shot and shell,

And the murderers go scatheless

Though they do the work of hell.

Unless you happen to have read the 2009 essay by Melissa Girard (one of this handbook’s contributors) in which the poem was reprinted for the first time in nearly a hundred years, you are unlikely to guess that “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” is by Sara Teasdale (1884–1933), now almost universally ridiculed as a sentimental love poet. Teasdale herself contributed to her subsequent denigration, (p. 8) leaving most of her antiwar poems either unpublished or uncollected. As Girard writes, “The genteel tropes scattered throughout the poem’s first stanza—‘tinkling bells of light’ and ‘pearly evening’—are undercut sharply by the clandestine operations that occur ‘long, long after the sun goes down.’ These genteel epithets are ultimately exposed as a kind of idyllic front masking the mills’ murderous business. Rather than a ­genteel poem, ‘Spring in the Naugatuck Valley’ belongs to a vital tradition of popular anti-war poetry, which collectively radicalized the conventions of the so-called ‘genteel’ lyric in response to WWI” (48). Girard concludes: “Teasdale succeeded in suppressing many of her most controversial political poems&.The record of this anxious struggle with modern politics and aesthetics has been largely effaced within Teasdale’s critical legacy. Over the last half-century, we have reduced Teasdale to a caricature of her previous self. Rather than a complex, divided figure, she has been remembered as a stereotypical ‘poetess’: timid, genteel, and decidedly ‘un-modern’” (42–43). Girard’s chapter within this handbook is a rethinking of the whole sentimental tradition that combines recovered texts with a new critical and theoretical orientation to a segment of modernity that has been persistently belittled even as others have sought to recover it. Girard breaks with that critical tradition and urges new directions for future research.

What is increasingly clear as scholars recover the work of forgotten poets and read more widely in original sources, among them not just books but also newspapers and magazines that regularly published poetry, is that American poetry of roughly the first half of the twentieth century is remarkable in its richness, inventiveness, and diversity. The variety of poetry written and published in the United States in the last century represents a great period that was marked by an explosion of literary creativity. Its range of forms, styles, and preoccupations are in a fundamental sense uncontainable. They exceed any single story we might try to tell about them. The overview I offer here is thus inevitably partial, but it will help contextualize the chapters that follow.

It also enables me to provide more biographical information about some of the poets who are discussed in this handbook. As we have learned from expanding the canon, biography does matter, despite a sometimes programmatic New Critical determination to exclude it from consideration. To the extent that New Critics bracketed biography so as to focus attention on the poems themselves, the effect was salutary. But we have always kept some biographical differences in mind. Philip Metres reminds us that it makes sense to distinguish between soldier and civilian poets in wartime. It is certainly important to keep in mind that most contemporary American Holocaust poetry has been written by post-Holocaust generations. Poems written by writers who participated in or witnessed key social movements or traumas—from McCarthyism to Black power to antiwar protests to feminism—carry somewhat different inflections and implications than poetry written at a ­significant historical distance.

Most disciplinary histories, to be sure, have omitted such considerations. In the most familiar account of when modern American poetry arrived on the scene, the Imagist revolution of the century’s second decade played a key role. The Imagist movement’s emphases were on extreme concision and on a certain neutrality of description. Ezra Pound’s (1885–1972) “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) and William (p. 9) Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923) remain two of its defining texts. Pound’s poem is only two lines long, three with the title:

In A Station at the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough. (204)1

Williams’s poem gets much of its effect from its line breaks and its careful placement of words on the page:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white

chickens (170)

Yet Imagism from the outset never quite held to the model of concision and descriptive neutrality. John Gould Fletcher (1886–1950) is a clear example of Imagism’s less widely recognized, loosely descriptive, and impressionistic mode. His subjects in Irradiations (1915) include “the swirling of the seamews above the sullen river” (5), “the iridescent vibrations of midsummer light” (6), the “trees, like great jade elephants” that “chained, stamp and shake ‘neath the gadflies of the breeze” (12) and

Flickering of incessant rain

On flashing pavements:

Sudden scurry of umbrellas:

Bending, recurved blossoms of the storm. (9)

He was also capable of indulging himself in “lacquered mandarin moments” (7) and “crimson placques of cinnabar” (13). Fletcher was echoing Imagism’s precursors, among them Sadakichi Hartmann, whose work is commemorated here in Josephine Park’s chapter on Asian American poetry. Fletcher himself is discussed by Tim Newcomb. With his tendency to echo the writerly excesses of the 1890s, Fletcher is already outside the tradition of Imagist precision and restraint. But the group title of Imagist is even more problematic for Amy Lowell, and H.D.’s work, which soon became too diverse to be classified in any single movement.

With H.D., even in her early poems there is too much throttled self-expression displaced onto nature, too much rhythmic invention, for her work to fit easily within Imagism’s more regularly anthologized mode of pictorial detachment. As Walter (p. 10) Kalaidjian reminds us, H.D. went through analysis with Freud himself. “Hurl your green over us,” she calls to the sea in “Oread” (1914), “cover us with your pools of fir” (233). The presence of the speaker here, calling up a force out of nature and intensifying it, enlisting descriptive imagery in a vatic psychological demand, removes “Oread” from any of the conventional paradigms of Imagism. Passages like these in H.D.’s work provoke a whole series of displacements and reversible ­oppositions. If nature is sexualized, psychologized, and placed in a dynamic, transformative relation with the speaking subject here, the same images invoke demands made of a lover and of the subject’s own unconscious. Yet the dynamic psychological torque in this work does not justify assimilating H.D. to the expressive subjectivity we have long associated with lyric poetry. We are not simply in the presence here of a discourse of resplendent or imperiled identity. It hearkens toward an anonymous, sacralized voice, a ritual incantation, in which a transgressive otherness breaks through the discourse of identity. That is partly how we can understand the sense in “Oread” that the body is an animate landscape of vital forces. We cannot choose between such readings in H.D.; these semantic possibilities are simultaneously concentrated in and disseminated by her language. What is clear, however, is that we cannot cast her poetry in the mold of disinterested description. That becomes even clearer in some of her mythological poems. Her 1924 poem “Helen” is a succinct and telling indictment of the relationship between frustrated idealization and misogyny. Though it appears to be exclusively about an earlier age, “Helen” in fact also addresses its own historical moment, not just the period of the Trojan War. It describes the anger some in the culture feel now that women are not simply beautiful objects. “Remembering past enchantments,” Greece now “hates / the still eyes in the white face.” Only death, it seems, can relieve this tension and recompense the culture for the changes women have wrought:

Greece sees unmoved,

God’s daughter, born of love,

the beauty of cool feet

and slenderest knees,

could love indeed the maid,

only if she were laid,

white ash amid funereal cypresses. (240)

The most famous promoter of Imagism was Amy Lowell (1874–1925), but disinterested description was not her chosen mode either. Lowell’s series of poems from 1919— including “Decade,” “Opal,” “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” and “Venus Transiens”—are among the most elegantly passionate love poems in modern American poetry. As we can tell from its first stanza, “The Weather-Cock Points South” is remarkable for the way it fuses an eroticized spirituality with explicit physical references:

I put your leaves aside,

One by one:

The stiff, broad outer leaves; (p. 11)

The smaller ones,

Pleasant to touch, veined with purple;

The glazed inner leaves.

One by one

I parted you from your leaves,

Until you stood up like a white flower

Swaying slightly in the evening wind. (47)

The leaves are put aside at once by a disrobing and by a probing embrace. The poem involves a pursuit of psychic intimacy—a drive to know and celebrate another’s inwardness—and an explicit vaginal caress. The flower with its petals and bud is thus both body and spirit, but there is no severing the two. And the woman she describes seems both the object of her gaze and the flower of her own unfolding affection. The flower is both the center of the lover’s body and the center of the self, for it becomes the site from which the subject seems to speak. It is also the center of the gardens coalescing in the poem and, implicitly, of nature as a whole. Her unwavering concentration on it gives it the transience of wax and the permanence of stone—“of jade, of unstreaked agate; / Flower with surfaces of ice.” Despite her groundbreaking erotic work, Lowell herself, as Melissa Girard recounts, was not sympathetic to the most popular women poets of her day.

Also appropriately linked with Imagism, if once again idiosyncratically, is the early work of Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). Had Stevens not existed—as a lifelong insurance executive who wrote some of his country’s most insistently metaphysical poetry—it would hardly be plausible to invent him. Yet Stevens had actually committed himself to writing poetry before taking a position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; the job was a way to earn a living. He was born and grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was educated at Harvard and at the New York University Law School. He began publishing poems in magazines in 1914, but his first book, Harmonium, did not appear until 1923.

The book was organized to open with a number of his short, exquisite lyrics, rather than with the longer and more abstract poems that have become the focus of extended critical analysis. Although Stevens lived and worked in Connecticut, a number of his poems drew on the Florida landscape he saw on regular business trips:

And deck the bananas in leaves

Plucked from the Carib trees,

Fibrous and dangling down

Oozing cantankerous gum

Out of their purple maws,

Darting out of their purple craws

Their musky and tingling tongues. (130)

Indeed, the sheer riotous excess and profusion of Florida’s flora and fauna often gave him a perfect analogue for the mental life he used nature to evoke. The poems are (p. 12) thus at once referential and devoted to elaborate rhetorical invention that creates a world of its own. In comments in letters that are less than fully trustworthy or definitive, Stevens sometimes denied the poems this double life, but readers should judge for themselves.

The poems are so captivating in their rhetorical inventiveness—the play of words deployed for their sound, the almost palimpsestic thickness of imagery, the wit—that one can easily miss Stevens’s regular (if abstract) engagement with the issues of his day, but it is nonetheless a continual feature of his work. Debates both with the world of public events and between contrasting philosophical or cultural positions occur throughout the poems. In “Sunday Morning” (1915), a woman ­wonders whether her sensual pleasures amount to a belief system that is comparable to Christianity’s obsession with mortality:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,

And the green freedom of a cockatoo

Upon a rug mingle to dissipate

The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. (135)

To some degree, such philosophical issues crowd out the sensuous surfaces and the rich music in Stevens’s later poems. Some critics also find many of the late lyrics too similar to one another. Yet their obsessive circling around related themes of ­emptiness is a large part of their interest:

Yet the absence of the imagination had

Itself to be imagined. The great pond,

The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,

Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

(from “The Plain Sense of Things,” 143)

Today the air is clear of everything.

It has no knowledge except of nothingness

And it flows over us without meanings,

As if none of us had ever been here before

And are not now: in this hallow spectacle,

This invisible activity, this sense.

(from “A Clear Day and No Memories,” 144)

Stevens’s late poems form a single, driven project that anticipates postmodern work like W. S. Merwin’s poetry of Vietnam war despair.

In the case of Imagism, therefore, we have a founding movement in modern American poetry that is richer and more diverse than we have been inclined to think. But what if there are alternative beginnings that literary historians have largely ignored? One major preoccupation for American poets has been race, the (p. 13) ­country’s longest-running social trauma. In the standard account of modern American poetry, the issue animates the poetry produced during the mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist debates but then largely disappears until the Harlem (or New Negro) Renaissance of the 1920s. Yet the twentieth century began for many Americans with a debate precisely over race, and poets were a vocal part of the conflict.

In 1900, Morrison I. Swift (1856–1946), a well-known pamphleteer on Left issues, published Advent of Empire, a book of poems devoted substantially to ­America’s genocidal war in the Philippines. An Anti-Imperialist League met in Boston in November 1898, but such sentiments were swept aside in widespread national enthusiasm for this first overseas adventure. Literally hundreds of prowar poems were published in newspapers across the country that year. Echoing the notorious cry “Remember the Maine!” they certified the principle of manifest destiny and sanctified the use of military force. Meanwhile, the British poet Rudyard Kipling urged us on in his notorious poem “The White Man’s Burden,” and in February 1899 the United States embarked on a major war of conquest against the Filipino independence movement. Some 4,000 Americans and over 200,000 Filipinos would eventually die in a war that became increasingly brutal as it shifted from large-scale battles to guerrilla tactics. As Robert Parker informs us in his chapter, the Native American poet J. C. Duncan wrote a bitter rejoinder to Kipling titled “The Red Man’s Burden.”

Late in 1901 public sentiment shifted against the war. By then, antiwar poetry would open out into a mass movement. But there were also poets, like Swift, who were in the vanguard of anti-imperialist politics, issuing effective poems highlighting the war’s racist politics and economics. As Philip Metres reminds us, Mark Twain wrote a parody of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in order to critique the war. In satiric and polemical poems like “Imperial Sam,” “Go Die for the President King,” “American Love,” “Butcher McKinley,” “Might and Right,” and “The Primitive Races Shall Be Cultured,” Swift attacks capitalism and exposes imperialism’s hidden logic. Here is Swift, in the midst of the Philippine war, borrowing some of his diction and rhythms from Shakespeare and speaking in the persona of President McKinley. The poem, “Butcher McKinley,” 130 lines long, is composed at the turning point of the centuries and driven deep into the rhetoric of its own time. But Swift also reaches back and forward to indict the whole history of imperialism as a form of sanctified racism:

Sweet friends, sweet fellowmen, sweet voters,

Call not murder murder if God wills.

’Tis blasphemy, abortion, miscontent, abomination,

Hell’s own self, to charge dear God with crime.

I must as many Filipinos kill as shall appease

God’s wrath at them for spurning my decree . . .

I am a pious man, a holy man, and member of a church.

Did I not tell the damned blacks

To ground their arms? . . . (p. 14)

Fiends, monsters, toads, green lizards, scorpions,

snakes . . .

They must submit. For mean and weak and black

There is no virtue but submission.

After submission,—well, we’ll see . . .

It is a law of mine

That niggers must submit to my sublimity . . .

And how I love them! God! Everyone that dies

In disobedience penetrates my soul! . . .

Send him across the brine to cleave the skulls

Of those foul imps of mud the Filipinos. (Nelson, Revolutionary Memory, 23)

In its condemnation of pious racism, “Butcher McKinley” draws on the ­history of the abolitionist movement and also looks forward to poems like Langston Hughes’s (1902–1967) “Christ in Alabama” (1931). But the poem readily challenges more recent imperialist ventures as well. Part of what is so startling about the poem is the contemporaneity of its insights. The knowledge that racism underlies and underwrites international relations is knowledge we often suppress. Apparently it must be relearned by each generation. American poets had earlier protested slavery. Now some began to realize racism was also a component of our international adventures. There were several interesting volumes by other poets as well, but the most notable anti-imperialist anthology is, no doubt, Liberty Poems, issued by the New England Anti-Imperialist League in June 1900.

There are a number of reasons to remember the moment of 1900 and to give it a place in a history of modern American poetry. It holds a key position in a 150-year history of American poets writing about race. It helps us recognize that the history of American antiracist poetry is itself multiracial. Finally, as I shall argue later, it is with poems protesting racism and political repression that American modernity comes to an end in the 1950s. So the moment of 1900 helps frame the first half of the twentieth century in a particularly instructive way.

That makes for a different and quite unconventional starting point for a history of modern poetry. Yet the longstanding consensus about what poetry most mattered—the best that American poets had thought and said—still stands as a reference point for every effort to rethink and deepen our heritage. For decades, the single most defining moment of American modernism was taken to be the publication in 1922, by an American then living in London, of T. S. Eliot’s (1888–1965) The Waste Land. Part of what The Waste Land did was to establish collage as a central technique of modern poetry; it also placed radical formal experimentation at the forefront of modernist technique. It was not the first work to adapt visual collage to a literary text. Indeed, Agnes Ernst Meyer’s and Marius De Zayas’s “Mental Reactions,” published in the journal 291 in 1915, made much more radical and disruptive use of the space of the page than Eliot’s poem did, and it even used graphic forms to make the connection with artistic movements like cubism explicit. But “Mental (p. 15) Reactions” was a one-shot experiment in a very small-circulation journal. ­Moreover, though aimed at once for a pop-cultural celebration and parody of female stereotypes, it could hardly claim the cultural ambitions The Waste Land appeared to embody. Eliot’s poem was published in the aftermath of World War I, and it evoked for many readers the ruined landscape left to them after the historically unique devastation of trench warfare and mass slaughter: “A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (288). The poem’s fragments mirrored a shattered world, and its allusions, however erudite, recalled a civilized culture many felt they had lost:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images &(286)

Even its tendency to taunt readers with failed possibilities of spiritual rebirth, reinforced by Eliot’s own notes to the poem, along with its glimpses of a religious route to joining the pieces of a dismembered god and a broken culture, struck a chord. Eliot was one of many major modernist writers to yearn for a mythic synthesis remaining out of reach.

Years later, with hindsight, the benediction at the poem’s end—“Shantih ­shantih shantih” (301) (The peace which passeth understanding)—could seem to foreshadow the more explicit religiosity of the Four Quartets (1936–1942). But that was not apparent in 1922, and Eliot’s monarchist political conservatism and his reactionary social and racial prejudices were not yet in evidence. So readers and writers from all points of the political spectrum found inspiration in Eliot’s technical innovations. In a surprisingly short period of time, The Waste Land became the preeminent poem of modernism, the unquestioned symbol of what was actually a much more diverse movement. Eventually, as its shadow came to hide other kinds of modernism—from more decisively vernacular language to poems strongly identified with race or revolution—The Waste Land gathered a set of compensatory ambitions and resentments. Of course, it was hardly Eliot’s aim to make adulation of The Waste Land into a justification for ignoring the Harlem Renaissance, a movement barely under way when the poem was written, but conservative literary scholars turned the poem into a weapon with that sort of cultural power.

Meanwhile, the poem itself remains available to be reread. Its mix of multiple voices, its fusion of personal anguish with historical experience, its fragments of narrativity, its riveting imagery and layered allusiveness: all of these remain hallmarks of the literary response to modernity. The Waste Land is among a tiny handful of poems that define Eliot’s career, something that cannot be said of Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, or William Carlos Williams, all of whom wrote large numbers of short poems from which people will choose different favorites. Eliot, on the other hand, has a career that runs more definitively from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) through The Waste Land to Four Quartets. (p. 16) As John Marsh shows in his chapter, Eliot’s own diversity has been partly obscured by the shadow of The Waste Land and the dominant perspectives of modern poetry scholarship.

At the same time that experimental modernism was under way, however, other American poets were dramatically transforming traditional forms. Robert Frost (1874–1963) regularly worked with traditional forms, using rhyme, meter, and regular stanzas, but he undermined every consolation we might have been led to expect from regularity. Frost cultivated his public image of a New England sage, and the poems, read carelessly in search of platitudes, often seem to support that view. In English classes in American high schools, Frost’s poems continue to be misread to teach little moral lessons that the poems themselves actually decisively undercut. “Take the road less traveled by,” students are urged, in a sentimentalized promotion of individual initiative; or, even more crudely, “don’t turn like most toward sin or self-gratification; take the road less traveled by.” About the only certainty “The Road Not Taken” (1915) may be said to offer is that of self-deception, for the poem makes it clear there is really no difference to be discerned:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. (90)

Frost’s poems can be corrosively sardonic, offering a menacing nature or human cruelty as the only alternatives to emptiness. That the voice is so crisp, folksy, and pithy only adds to the underlying sense of terror. Over and over again the poems drain human choices of any meaning, yet they do so in straightforward images, (p. 17) colloquial diction, and rhythms that evoke natural speech. His dark view of human nature would also, remarkably, help him in poems like “The Hill Wife” (1916) to write some of American modernism’s most sensitive portraits of women. It is only in the last generation, however, that Frost’s uncanny, effectively feminist, poems have been recognized for what they are. Meanwhile, rereadings of Frost continue. In his chapter here, John Marsh grounds some of Frost’s early work in the specifics of early twentieth-century rural labor relations.

The centrality of revolutionary changes in traditional forms, however, is especially clear in the transformation that two poets—Claude McKay (1889–1948) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950)—worked in the sonnet. Raised in Jamaica and familiar with the history of English poetry, McKay chose the sonnet as the vehicle for his shock and rage at the racism he encountered when he came to the United States. His work gets attention here from Karen Ford in her major rereading of twentieth-century African American poetry, but it also gets repositioned by Timothy Yu as a notable example of transnational poetry. McKay’s “Outcast” (1922) is one culmination of several years of his effort to produce capsule indictments of all aspects of race in America:

For the dim regions whence my fathers came

My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.

Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;

My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.

I would go back to darkness and to peace,

But the great western world holds me in fee,

And I may never hope for full release

While to its alien gods I bend my knee.

Something in me is lost, forever lost,

Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,

And I must walk the way of life a ghost

Among the sons of earth, a thing apart.

For I was born, far from my native clime,

Under the white man’s menace, out of time. (318)

Haunted by a past they never knew, exiled to an impossible present, blacks in America may be doubly imperiled. They exist apart from the ordinary social space of lived time and yet are urgently endangered. McKay took the romance and the consolations of the historical sonnet and replaced them with a hand grenade of protest. Compressed and rhetorically proficient anger would now be among the sonnet’s resources and its cultural aims; the form would never be quite the same again. Together with Millay, whose antiromantic sonnets positioned the form in an about-face, McKay reconceived the meaning of a centuries-long tradition. Millay’s achievements in the sonnet—despite being disparaged, as Melissa Girard reminds us, by several male contemporaries—are perhaps most fully realized in (p. 18) Millay’s 1923 sequence of 17 “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree.” The final number in the sequence opens as the speaker sits at her dead husband’s bedside:

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,

It seemed a curious thing that she had lain

Beside him many a night in that cold bed (327)

and closes in an antiromantic flourish as she

&sees a man she never saw before—

The man who eats his victuals at her side,

Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers, unclassified. (327)

This sort of dramatic rethinking of gender relations in fact takes place across both rethought traditional forms and innovative experimental ones. If there is one signal example of a recently recovered work of experimental modernism predating The Waste Land it is probably Mina Loy’s (1882–1966) elliptical and minimalist poem sequence “Love Songs” (1915–1917). In her “Feminist Manifesto,” discussed by Linda Kinnahan in this volume, Loy argues that “woman must destroy in herself the desire to be loved” and urges that “honor, grief, sentimentality, pride and consequently jealousy must be detached from sex.” Employing a form of collage that is primarily conceptual, rather than both conceptual and visual, the “Love Songs” accomplish that and more. Loy concludes that all the values embedded in masculinity and femininity are perilous and destructive. Idealization of female purity and virtue, for example, is “the principle instrument of her subjugation.”

As the sequence begins, the speaker has already failed at conventional romance—steeped in all the drama of stereotyped emotions—and opts instead not for unreflective animal sexuality but for something like a verbally inventive biological union. The sequence repeatedly offers up the illusory dramas of gender (“I am the jealous storehouse of the candle-ends / That lit your adolescent learning” [152]) only to reject them; repeatedly, in their place, Loy offers us versions of intercourse that invent figures for bodily fluids and anatomy:

&laughing honey

And spermatozoa

At the core of Nothing

In the milk of the Moon (152)

Shuttle-cock and battle-door

A little pink-love

And feathers are strewn (153)

Some critics have concluded that these are images of degraded lust; they seem instead to be antiromantic but celebratory. Moreover, their variety and surprising capacity to recode the rhetoric of romance (“honey,” “the milk of the Moon,” “pink- (p. 19) love,” and “feathers” all reposition romance tropes) demonstrate that a degendered human sexuality—one that is freed of cultural clichés about men and ­women—need not be impoverished. Loy’s experimental form is wedded to a cultural project of rethinking the nature of human sexuality.

Yet the other clear masterpiece of experimental modernism grounded in a collage aesthetic is no doubt Ezra Pound’s major lifetime project. Perhaps no other major modern American poet’s work is so deeply and irreducibly conflicted. Pound was at once the impresario of high modernism—promoting the work of those contemporaries he admired, among them H.D., Marianne Moore, and James Joyce; editing T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land so drastically he is almost its coauthor; defining the Imagist movement and making metrical innovation and metaphoric concision central to modernist poetics—and its most tragic figure, undermined by his own arrogance and eventually allied with the worst political impulses of the century. One may compare two early poems, “Portrait d’une Femme” (1912) and “The ­River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (1915), to get a glimpse of how divided his impulses can be; the first is arguably misogynist, the second almost a sympathetic interior portrait. Decades later he would leave The Cantos officially unfinished, but for all practical purposes complete, a major poem sequence torn between utopianism and bestiality.

Born in Idaho and raised in Pennsylvania, he earned an M.A. in Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania, taught briefly, and then departed for Europe. But he remained interested in America for years and put himself in direct conflict with his country during World War II. Pound’s major poetic achievement, and the focus of decades of his life, is The Cantos (1915–1969), a booklength sequence of more than 116 poems that is unquestionably one of the most influential and most controversial documents of twentieth-century literature. The poems’ learning and system of unexplained references are immense; like all passionate learning, is the poems are also periodically idiosyncratic. No one save Pound himself is likely to have at hand both the range of classical references and the unconventional economic and cultural theories he cites. Pound himself is effectively the only reader fully prepared to read his poem. Unlike Eliot or Melvin Tolson, moreover, he published no notes with The Cantos, though when he read Canto 46 over shortwave radio from Mussolini’s Italy in World War II, he did preface it with some glosses, so he was clearly aware that the ordinary reader would either need a course of study or a handbook. Pound pioneered the distribution of what one critic liked to call “radiant gist” (a phrase coined by William Carlos Williams) throughout The Cantos, brief allusions that are designed to invoke a whole historical and emotional context for the reader.

Pound called The Cantos “a poem containing history,” and in that deceptively neutral, if potentially grandiose, formulation inheres the poem’s great challenge. For The Cantos is history as Pound saw it; to some degree the poem sequence is also history as he participated in it, albeit in a modest but unforgettable way. Some critics have tried to separate Pound’s political views from his art—among them were those who supported his receipt of the first Bollingen prize for his “Pisan Cantos” in 1949, an award that sparked a firestorm of debate at the time—but only a casual or self-deceptive reader of The Cantos can manage that trick. The poems are replete (p. 20) with Pound’s enthusiasm for and defense of the nightmare of European fascism; over 50 million people died in World War II, and Pound believed the wrong side won. Moreover, as Pound looked over history he decided that all the arts were at their best when allied with absolute political power. He made such an alliance himself in Italy, and The Cantos repeatedly urges it on us as one route to a new Golden Age. None of this makes the poems easier to deal with, but none of it makes them less critical to understanding modern culture or human temptation either. The relationship between poetry and power receives its most compromising realization in The Cantos, as one of our most accomplished poets decides the century’s most evil means served glorious ends.

Pound was initially contemptuous of Adolf Hitler; instead, Mussolini was his contemporary hero. Yet Pound gradually became an admirer of the Nazis, and in a wartime radio broadcast from Rome he announced that in Mein Kampf (1925), ­Hitler’s anti-Semitic and megalomaniac manifesto, history is “keenly analyzed.” Certainly Pound’s racial theories found more reinforcement in Hitler than in Mussolini. Yet Pound’s anti-Semitism was firmly in place early on; as early as his 1914 Blast poem “Salutation the Third,” Pound had written, “Let us be done with Jews and Jobbery, / Let us SPIT upon those who fawn on the JEWS for their money.” Pound’s decades-long jeremiad against usury, or money lending (see Canto 45) was for him also a denunciation of world Jewry. In his 1941–1943 wartime radio broadcasts, published as “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of World War II (1978) he rails against the Jews unceasingly, against them and their fantasized allies, “Jews, Jews-playfellows, and the bedfellows of Jews and of Jewesses” (113). He also stated that “the danger to the United States as a system of government is NOT from Japan, but from Jewry” (86). Pound sometimes called President Franklin D. Roosevelt “Rosenfeld” to suggest his fantasized dominance by Jewish interests. In Canto 73, published in an Italian military journal in 1945, Pound calls Roosevelt and Churchill “bastards and small Jews.” He warned us in the radio broadcasts that “any man who submits to Roosevelt’s treason to the Republic commits breech of citizen’s duty” (104). Meanwhile, from time to time he tried to persuade American troops that they would lose the war. For an American citizen to give aid and comfort to the enemy in the midst of a declared war is a capital offense. When Pound was captured by American troops in 1945 he was headed toward a U.S. trial for treason; government agencies had recorded his broadcasts. As Mark Van Wienen points out here, Pound’s work on the Pisan Cantos behind bars earns him a place among America’s prison poets. The likely verdict was not in doubt, but a group of friends intervened and had him declared insane. It was a ruse, because he was no more insane than some millions of Germans who shared his beliefs, but it kept him alive. The price he paid was to be confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, from 1946 to 1958.

Despite this anguished history, The Cantos remains the primary model for an ambitious American poem based on collage and historical and literary citation. It has also, as Peter Nicholls points out here, proven influential because of its elaborate mix of rhetoric and musicality. Poets at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Pound, including Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, were deeply influenced (p. 21) by Pound’s technique. The Cantos are richly conflicted texts—at once lyrical and polemical, visionary and demonic—that well reward the investment required to read them carefully. It is possible also to identify what amounts to the spine of the sequence, a selection that highlights the entanglement of aesthetics and politics, that emphasizes the compromised ambitions that make the poem compelling reading. Canto I gives us Pound’s epic ambitions at their most pure.

Canto 9 presents the fatal allure of aestheticized power that would haunt Pound for the rest of his life. It is the second of the four 1923 Malatesta Cantos (8–11), which are at the core of Pound’s whole project. They concern Sigismundo Pandolfo Malatesta (1417–1468), a famous condottiere (Italian leader of mercenary soldiers), military engineer, and patron of the arts. Malatesta grew up in the age when Italian city-states, formally subservient to the Pope, warred with one another and competed for power and papal recognition. Malatesta became Lord of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena at age 15, but he would have to defend his domain for the rest of his days, and his means were sometimes ruthless. Yet he also patronized poets and painters (who often took Malatesta himself as their subject) and employed the greatest artists of his day to design and build a temple at Rimini. The Tempio, honoring Malatesta and his mistress Isotta, was never quite finished and thus remained in part a “monumental failure.” For Pound, these aesthetic ends justify Malatesta’s sometimes murderous means. He is the prototype for Pound of a leader who kills with warrant in the service of a purported ideal of achievement; Mussolini for Pound would be a contemporary Malatesta. As Pound noted in Canto 80, Malatesta’s Tempio was damaged by Allied bombers during World War II in the effort to “cwuth Mutholini” (crush Mussolini). Toward the end of the war, Pound thought the Tempio had been entirely destroyed. In effect, The Cantos became Pound’s own unfinished, ruined Tempio.

Canto 45 (1936) is Pound’s towering brief against usury:

With usura hath no man a house of good stone

each block cut smooth and well fitting . . .


wool comes not to market . . .

Usura slayeth the child in the womb &(218–219)

Canto 81 (1948) juxtaposes apologies for fascism with lyrical invocations of nature; for a moment he verges on humility—”Pull down thy vanity”—then rejects it and denies that vanity defined either his ambitions or Mussolini’s: “But to have done instead of not doing / this is not vanity.” Finally, in a mixture of multilinguistic collage and counterpointed arguments, Canto 116 and the unfinished fragments give us the competing tensions in Pound’s life and work in their most condensed form:

Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me,

And I am not a demigod,

I cannot make it cohere. (227)

(p. 22)

Consistently both conceptual and visual, Pound’s lifelong project in The Cantos traverses much of the modern period and provides one continuing model for a modernist aesthetic. Yet it is not the only major strain in experimental American poetry. Loy’s work, notably, is both conceptually and linguistically experimental and its relentlessly innovative verbal character places it simultaneously in that linked experimental tradition, but she does not adopt the distinctly visual form of collage that Pound would use in The Cantos. The major figure in linguistically experimental modernism, the inspiration to a whole generation of poets in the second half of the century, is, without question, Gertrude Stein (1874–1946).

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Stein studied art and medicine before moving to France in 1902 and establishing what would become a famous Paris salon. By the end of the decade Stein had met her lifelong companion and collaborator, a fellow American expatriate named Alice B. Toklas. Increasingly influenced by the visual arts and by experimental modernism, Stein wrote both recognizable narratives like Three Lives (1909) and playful experimental texts like Tender Buttons (1914). In her experimental mode she was arguably the most radical and forward looking of all modernists. “Patriarchal Poetry” (55–83) is a 1927 prose poem that did not make its way into print until decades later. Yet it may be the only fully realized and rigorous deconstructive poem in American modernism. Can the poem, the title implicitly asks, be about patriarchal poetry, or is it to be an instance of patriarchal poetry? The parameters of that question are immediately ruptured. For the “poetry” referred to here is not just a literary genre but rather the poetics of everyday thought. “Patriarchal poetry” is the metaphoric logic ruling the meanings that make our culture what it is. The ambiguity of the title thus reflects Stein’s judgment that everything one writes will be in some ways patriarchal. A critique of patriarchal poetry cannot be mounted from a position outside it. The only strategy for demolition is a defamiliarizing burlesque from within: “Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.”

Using witty and strategically staged repetition, variation, and rhyme, Stein exposes hierarchical and gendered biases built into the most unassuming usages. Repetition short-circuits the expectation that words and phrases can function as neutral syntactic units and frees us to recognize patterns of semantic association that all language carries with it in use: “They said they said they said when they said men. / Men many men many how many many many men men men said many here” (280). “Men,” we hear here, is always a statement, always an assertion, always a cultural imprimatur. In patriarchal poetics “they said” always means “men said.” Patriarchy’s differences are really the repetition of the same: the honorific imposition of the law of male priority, “patriarchal poetry as signed.”

Repetition and variation let Stein place a variety of words, phrases, and concepts under philosophical and cultural pressure, so that all the components of a statement are shown to be permeated with the assumptions of patriarchal poetry. This technique also isolates and decontextualizes words and phrases, seeming at first to turn them into unstable echolalic nonsense, but thereby severing them from their syntactical functionalism and making it possible to see them as counters in a (p. 23) very different semantic game. The “Language” poetry that flourished in the work of Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, and others in the 1980s and 1990s drew on some of the same techniques and made explicit the political implications of exposing the indirect ideological work that rhetoric can do. On the other side of nonsense is the worldview that patriarchal poetics continually reinforces: “Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake”; “Patriarchal poetry is the same as Patriotic Poetry.”

Patriarchal poetry is the poetics of unreflective reason and order, of officious segmentation and classification—often to comic effect: “Patriarchal poetry and not meat on Monday patriarchal poetry and meat on Tuesday. Patriarchal poetry and venison on Wednesday Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday.” Patriarchal poetry is therefore a poetics of marching: “One Patriarchal Poetry. / Two Patriarchal Poetry. / Three Patriarchal Poetry.” It is the signature of the authority of the nation-state and of the corollary authority of the individual male person: “signed by them. / Signed by him.”

Stein’s poem does not proceed in a linear way; that would be to adopt the armature she wants to disavow. So she works by indirection. But the poem does have signal moments of disruption and revelation. The first of these occurs as a serial eruption of the phrases “Let her be,” “Let her try,” and “Let her be shy.” These are pleas for space for women’s freedom and commands, disseminating women’s differences through the language. “Let her be” is also the letter “b,” whose additive and secondary character Stein offers in place of patriarchal claims for priority, origin, and power.

Equally—and relentlessly—experimental, though, like other modernists, in her own distinctive way, is Marianne Moore (1887–1972). Born in Kirkwood, Missouri, and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Moore shared a house with her mother all her life, much of it working at a series of jobs in the New York area, but always focusing on writing. Notably, her use of quotation in her poems is as elaborate as that of T. S. Eliot, but to quite different purposes. If Eliot aimed for magisterial allusiveness, Moore aimed for something more complex and subversive, to model the cultural constitution of knowledge and understanding. Her poems braided of multiple sources are, at their most ambitious, social and philosophical investigations of great subtlety. “Marriage” (1924) and “An Octopus” (1924) are the most important poems of this impulse. She also had continuing political and historical interests, as two poems about Ireland—“Sojourn in the Whale” (1921) and “Spenser’s Ireland” (1941)—make clear.

On one level, Moore’s “Marriage” (256–263) is a strikingly even-handed demolition of the illusion that either party to a marriage can so divest himself or herself of self-absorption and self-interest to make a union possible. “He loves himself so much,” she writes, “he can permit himself / no rival in that love.” But the poem is much more than an analysis of the pitfalls in gender relations. It actually moves centripetally and centrifugally at the same time, treating marriage not only as a site on which individuals and the culture as a whole act out their contradictory investments in independence and community but also as a figural resource that informs (p. 24) all compromised institutions in the culture. Thus, the poem is at once about the marriage two people make and about the marriage the states made to form one country—“Liberty and union / now and forever.” Both require “public promises / of one’s intention / to fulfill a private obligation” and both “can never be more / than an interesting impossibility.” Marriage is an institution constructed by contractualized idealization and a model for comparably problematic institutions of other sorts. Marriage in the poem is effectively thus both victim and purveyor of illusions within the culture. Until the last generation, “Marriage” and “An Octopus” took second stage in critical conversation to Moore’s better-known shorter poems. But the Moore canon is expanded still further here, as Linda Kinnahan takes a fresh look at other early Moore work and Al Filreis makes an extended case for her late and often belittled poetry.

At just under 300 lines, “Marriage” is a relatively long poem. The Waste Land was just over 400. They are both dwarfed by The Cantos, but all of these works exemplify the modern American interest in the long poem that is formally and verbally experimental. Though equally linked to the lyric tradition, Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930) is also an experimental long poem. Born in a small Ohio town, Crane (1899–1932) grew up in Cleveland. He went to New York after leaving high school, but he ended up returning to Cleveland until 1923, along the way accumulating work experience in advertising agencies, at a newspaper, and in his father’s businesses. He faced continual difficulty and much stress supporting himself and he had to rely on relatives and a benefactor. The first phase of his career includes such Imagist poems as “October-November” (1916) and the remarkable “Episode of Hands” (1920), one of the most beautiful of explicitly homosexual poems from the modernist period, but his major legacy is The Bridge.

The sheer ambition of this booklength project frustrated Crane’s attempts to begin it from 1923 to 1926. A change of location from New York City to a summer cottage on the Isles of Pines off the Cuban coast resulted in an outburst of new writing, and all but 4 of the poem’s 15 sections were substantially complete when an October 1926 hurricane devastated the island. The poem sequence takes its title and the focus of its opening and closing poems, “Proem” and “Atlantis,” from a much-celebrated piece of New York architecture and engineering, the Brooklyn Bridge. Widely considered both an aesthetic triumph and a highly successful technical project, Crane reasonably takes it as a symbol of American ambition and spirit combined. By reaching back into American history to Columbus’s return voyage from the New World (“Ave Maria”), traveling through the Mississippi River region by train in the present day (“The River”), and then imaginatively flying by plane over the East Coast of the United States (“Cape Hatteras”), Crane attempts to articulate a unifying vision of America.

Yet if the bridge is a transcendent and ecstatic symbol, the airplane in “Cape Hatteras” is sometimes a demonic one, given over to war rather than cultural poetry. The conflict is resolved, if at all, in the controversial bravado performance of “Atlantis,” the final poem, which is one of the most rhetorically flamboyant texts among American long poems:

(p. 25)

So to thine Everpresence, beyond time,

Like spears ensanguined of one tolling star

That bleeds infinity—the orphic strings,

Sideral phalanxes, leap and converge:

—One Song, one Bridge of Fire! Is it Cathay,

Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring

The serpent with the eagle in the leaves &?

Whispers antiphonal in azure swing. (407)

Like Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead published eight years later, The Bridge chooses commercial enterprises and construction projects as images of both greed and transcendence. Like her poem, too, it creates a unifying myth out of the most resistant materials. Reacting to Eliot’s The Waste Land, both Crane and Rukeyser wrote long poem sequences that were American rather than international. Crane also wished to substitute cultural optimism for Eliot’s bleak pessimism and to imagine that collaborative human work could offer some hope for the future. At the end, Crane saw little hope for his own; at only 33 years old, he jumped overboard from a boat returning from Mexico and drowned.

Unlike Crane, from the outset, Rukeyser (1913–1980), whose work is a touchstone in several of the chapters that follow, was at once a political activist and a visionary. At times, as at points in The Book of the Dead (1938, 656–687), those qualities were intensified and in those moments she was simultaneously a revolutionary and a mystic. But to grasp the forces that drive her work—through a career that spanned five decades of American history—we have to come to terms with a visionary impulse rooted in time, embedded in a struggle with lived history. Consider as a case in point the rhapsodic images she crafts to voice the mother’s anguish at the death of her sons in “Absalom” from The Book of the Dead.” To understand her work we must also embrace the larger, wiser notion of politics that underlies all her poetry. For she understood early on what so many Americans could not: politics encompasses all of the ways that social life is hierarchically structured and made meaningful. Politics is not only the large-scale public life of nations. It is also the advantages and inequities and illusions that make daily life very different for different groups among us. Thus, Rukeyser understood that race and gender are integral parts of our social and political lives. Never officially a feminist, she nonetheless devoted herself, as she does in “Rite,” to voicing women’s distinctive experience throughout her career.

Although Rukeyser wrote numerous short, tightly controlled poems like “The Minotaur” and “Poem,” the latter analyzed here by Philip Metres, it may well be that her most rich and suggestive accomplishments are her poem sequences. The Book of the Dead is one of the major poem sequences of American modernism. Based on Rukeyser’s own research in West Virginia, it combines historical background, congressional testimony, and the voices of a number of victims in telling the story of a 1930s industrial scandal: a company building a tunnel for a dam decided to double its profit by rapidly mining silica at the same time (without any of the necessary (p. 26) precautions). A great many workers died of lung disease as a result. The Book of the Dead is thus also one of Rukeyser’s many poems that reflect and contribute to her political activism.

Rukeyser was born and raised in New York City. During the 1930s she regularly wrote for Communist Party publications like New Masses. She was in Spain in 1936 to cover the antifascist Olympics in Barcelona when the Spanish Civil War broke out. She described that experience in the long poem “Mediterranean” and returned to the subject throughout her life. Years later, in 1975, she went to South Korea to protest the poet Kim Chi-Ha’s imprisonment and anticipated execution; the poem sequence “The Gates” grew out of that trip.

Although The Book of the Dead is self-evidently an ambitious experimental long poem, it is usually omitted from accounts of American modernism. There is little question why. Because The Book of the Dead is one of the highlights of our most pervasively radical political decade, the 1930s, and many scholars, steeped in the anxieties of the cold war, have preferred to ignore this most overtly political poetry. As the Depression deepened in the early 1930s, large numbers of Americans, including both young and established writers, Rukeyser among them, were increasingly drawn to the Left or to the Communist Party. There was a widespread conviction that capitalism had failed, that the old order could not be restored, and that only the most thoroughgoing social and political change could bring about social and economic justice. A number of active poets had already been writing from that perspective in the 1920s. For one thing, the much heralded “roaring twenties” had not brought economic health to everyone. Not only agriculture but also the entire rural economy had remained depressed throughout the decade; moreover, several major industries were already in recession before the stock market crash of 1929. Especially in the South and in depressed areas in the north, working-class and labor poets, along with poets affiliated with socialism, had been writing about economic inequities for years. Subcultural traditions of protest poetry stretched back into the nineteenth century, and some of the poets in those traditions felt themselves to be not only individual voices but also participants in movements for social change.

The Depression’s impact on poverty, combined with the continuing influence of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the resurgence of violent racism in the same decade, would lead to intensified protests against racism from numerous poets. Langston Hughes would open the decade with one of his most compressed and searing indictments of America’s founding betrayal of its ideals in his poem “Christ in Alabama”:

Christ is a Nigger

Beaten and black—

O, bare your back.

Mary is His Mother—

Mammy of the South.

Silence your mouth. (p. 27)

God’s His father—

White Master above.

Grant us your love.

Most holy bastard

Of the bleeding mouth:

Nigger Christ

On the cross of the South. (1232)

Two hundred years of racial trauma are driven full force into this 13-line, 47-word poem. Cast out, vilified, and crucified, the historical Christ returns to earth in serial fashion—in the person of every black man “beaten and black,” every slave, every lynching victim, every post–Civil War black man denied the full rights of citizenship. It asks a contemporary American reader to understand the black man as the Christ of our time. Of course the archetypal black victim is the product of rape, especially the white rape of a black woman, for then the white father can repress his paternity by murdering his own son. The South’s omnipresent and universally denied trinity—white father, black mother, and ostracized black son—form the background for the South’s repeated crucifixion scene: “Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South.”

It is a poem that calls out to waken the world and change it. For a brief moment in American literary history, writing poetry became a credible form of revolutionary action. Reading poetry, in turn, became a way of positioning one’s self in relation to the possibility of basic social change. Earlier, the poems of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) set to music had been among the IWW’s most successful recruitment devices. Now, to read a poem like Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again” (1936) was to find more than an echo of one’s own sense of cultural crisis and necessity. It was to find a place to stand ideologically, a concise discursive perspective on America’s history and engagement with its contemporary culture. It was also to find a voice one could temporarily take up as one’s own. Poetry at once gave people a radical critique and a visionary aspiration, and it did so in language fit for the speaking voice. It strengthened the beliefs of those already radicalized and helped to persuade some who were not yet decided. It was thus a notable force in articulating and cementing what was a significant cultural and political shift toward the Left. To write poetry under these conditions of readership was therefore to ask not only what one wanted to say but also what other people wanted to read; the sense of audience was pressing, immediate. A revolutionary poem in a magazine or newspaper could be taken up and used by an audience only days or weeks after it was written. Thus when Angelo Herndon, a black communist unconstitutionally charged with “attempting to incite insurrection” for helping to organize a Georgia hunger march, was released on bail in 1934, poems celebrating his August 7 arrival in New York were written and published within days. Alfred Hayes’s “Welcome to Angelo Herndon” appeared in The Daily Worker on August 9; Michael Blankfort’s “Angelo Herndon’s Bail” was published in the same newspaper on August 15; and (p. 28) Edwin Rolfe’s “Homecoming” was in the August 21 issue of New Masses. When such poems offered readers politically committed speaking voices with which they could identify, moreover, the poems were in a sense a gift to prospective readers, a text whose authorship was inherently transferable. To publish a poem that might prove politically persuasive was, in effect, to ask readers to live by way of these words as if they were their own.

The mass audience for poetry in the Depression was, paradoxically, one of the triumphs of a time of widespread suffering. To begin to understand what it meant to be a poet on the Left in the Depression, it is necessary to extend that recognition to the whole cultural field and accept it as a general paradox that typifies life in that period. Hand in hand with hunger and unemployment and the many difficulties of everyday life went a sense of impending revolutionary change. For those poets who participated in the mass movement of the 1930s, the period combined sometimes desperate hardship with something like utopian exhilaration. Writing poetry often meant helping to articulate and dramatize both the period’s suffering and its characteristic yearnings for change. To write poetry was not only to comment on these cultural processes but also to help shape them. And you were not alone. Down the street, across town, and in towns and cities across the country other poets were contributing to the cultural climate in much the same way.

One of the more symptomatic changes brought about by the culture’s redefinition of poetry’s mission was in the concept of authorship, a corollary to a shift away from an emphasis on self-expressive subjectivity. We would see the same impulse derive from different cultural forces again in the “Language” poetry that emerged in the late 1980s and in the recent computer-generated poetry that Adalaide Morris discusses. It is perhaps the worker’s correspondence poem of the 1930s, the found poem of that era, that most clearly displaced notions of authorship and originality in that period. Tillie Olsen (1912–2007), who was then writing under her maiden name Lerner, wrote the poem “I Want You Women Up North to Know” (1934), based on a letter that had been published in the January 9, 1934, issue of New Masses, under the heading “Where the Sun Spends the Winter,” a version of the slogan adopted by a Texas Chamber of Commerce as the motto for a tourist campaign. The letter describes the impossible lives of four women who survive by hand-embroidering children’s dresses for a few pennies each. The author of the letter, Felipe Ibarro, may well have been a journalist or a social worker or perhaps simply an activist, so the letter is not the direct testimony of the workers described but reported testimony that is already self-consciously rhetorical. Nonetheless, it offers one interesting version of this distinctive 1930s genre. It is worth comparing the opening two paragraphs of the letter with the first three stanzas of the poem. Here is the opening of the letter:

I want the women of New York, Chicago and Boston who buy at Macy’s, ­Wannamaker’s, Gimbel’s and Marshall Field to know that when they buy embroidered children’s dresses labeled “hand made” they are getting dresses made in San Antonio, Texas, by women and girls with trembling fingers and broken backs. (p. 29)

These are bloody facts and I know, because I’ve spoken to the women who make them. Catalina Rodriguez is a 24-year-old Mexican girl but she looks like 12. She’s in the last stages of consumption and works from six in the morning till midnight. She says she never makes more than three dollars a week. I don’t wonder any more why in our city with a population of 250,000 the Board of Health has registered 800 professional “daughters of joy” and in addition, about 2,000 Mujeres Alegres (happy women), who are not registered and sell themselves for as little as five cents.

Here are the opening stanzas of the poem:

i want you women up north to know

how those dainty children’s dresses you buy

at macy’s, wannamaker’s, gimbels, marshall fields,

are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,

down in San Antonio, “where sunshine spends the winter.”

I want you women up north to see

the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill

“exquisite work, madame, exquisite pleats”

vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,

gouging the wages down,

dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,

stitching these dresses from dawn to night,

in blood, in wasting flesh.

Catalina Rodriguez, 24,

body shrivelled to a child’s at twelve,

catalina rodriguez, last stages of consumption,

works for three dollars a week from dawn to midnight.

A fog of pain thickens over her skull, the parching heat

breaks over her body.

and the bright red blood embroiders the floor of her room.

White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say,

white gulls of hands, darting, veering,

white lightning, threading the clouds,

this is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth,

and her cough, gay, quick, staccato,

like skeleton’s bones clattering,

is appropriate accompaniment for the esthetic dance

of her fingers

and the tremulo, tremulo when the hands tremble with pain.

Three dollars a week,

two fifty-five,

seventy cents a week,

no wonder two thousands eight hundred ladies of joy

are spending the winter with the sun after he goes down &(652–654)

(p. 30)

Olsen works with Ibarro’s letter to draw out its drama and intensify the metaphoric power of the suffering it recounts. The poem’s title, drawn from the letter, serves as a refrain line that becomes a paradigm for North-South relations and for those who benefit, often indifferently and sometimes in ignorance, from economic exploitation. Olsen uses her own metaphors as well as Ibarro’s, but her poem remains nonetheless an inventive extension of the original letter. Keeping true to Ibarro’s wish to have women up north understand the economic and social relations that are hidden within the clothing they buy, Olsen adds a passage describing a department store where the children’s dresses are sold. Notably, however, the poem’s most explicit challenge—a challenge built into the original letter—is not to the businessmen who hire the dressmakers or to the department store owners who sell them but to the consumers who buy them and thus fuel the entire set of transactions. Olsen is not alone in focusing on how ordinary people’s actions help sustain economic exploitation. Kenneth Fearing, who Tim Newcomb examines in detail, often satirizes the ways that people’s illusions reinforce the ideology of the marketplace. However, attacks on industrialists were certainly more common during the period in which Olsen was writing.

The primary change from Ibarro’s text to Olsen’s, as with most poems based on worker correspondence, is the generic shift itself, the move from prose to poetry. This is a shift Olsen embraces, but with uneasiness, as her effort to emulate (and thereby critique) a bourgeois poet’s lyrical evocation of Catalina Rodriguez’s dying efforts at embroidery suggests: “White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say, / white gulls of hands, darting.” Yet Olsen cannot actually cast out the imagined bourgeois poet’s literariness without casting out her own as well. She would reject an obfuscating metaphoricity that substitutes fantasies of birds on the wing for hand movements that are actually painful. Yet one could also take the line as celebrating a deft beauty in the midst of suffering. The poem in short puts forward an argumentative dichotomy that the poem itself simultaneously destabilizes and undermines, making the reader examine his or her own relationship to the moral and political implications of figurative language.

Such motives animate much of the political poetry of the 1930s, which often focuses on economic hardship and revolutionary change, on general social conditions rather than private experience. Even when individual experience is recounted, it is often recounted because of its representative character, its simultaneous enabling and determination by current history. With individual poets each offering alternative versions of life in the Depression and with poets hearing one another’s work at group poetry readings and reading each other’s work in books and magazines, it is not difficult to see how one is led not merely to read comparatively but to read chorally, to see these poems not as entries in a competition but as mutually responsive contributions to an emerging revolutionary consensus. That increases the impact of the poems, at least for those reading them as part of a movement. To read or write a 1930s political poem properly, then, is to be continually hailed by other voices. Here, for example, is a collage of quotations from poetry of the period that suggests (p. 31) both a collaborative critique of Depression-era capitalism and a collective call for revolutionary change:

The mills are down

The hundred stacks

are shorn of their drifting fume.

The idle tracks

rust . . .

Smeared red with the dust

of millions of tons of smelted ore

the furnaces loom—

towering, desolate tubes—

smokeless and stark in the sun &(John Beecher)

Flanking the freightyards: alleys, wooden shacks,

And hovels: a grim battalion

Of crouching rats covered down by the waters

Of fog that trickles down their slimy backs.

Near these: the blackened sheds

Of foundries, smelting furnaces,

And forges flanking the grey backs of the river (Stanley Burnshaw)

the earth smoked and baked;

stones in the field

marked the dead land:

coins taxing the earth. (Sol Funaroff)

In these days of marking time,

While the whole tense land marks time (Burnshaw)

Where there is no life, no breath, no sound, no touch, no warmth,

no light but the lamp that shines on a trooper’s drawn and

ready bayonet (Kenneth Fearing)

Our age has Caesars though they wear silk hats (Joseph Freeman)

men, pig-snouted, puff

and puke at the stars (Herman Spector) (p. 32)

They burn the grain in the furnace while men go hungry.

They pile the cloth of the looms while men go ragged.

(Stephen Vincent Benét)

Under the sign of the coin and the contract,

under the mask of the two-faced double-dealing dollar,

under the fetish of the document, stocks and bonds,

the parchment faces trade in securities. (Funaroff)

Men of paper, robbing by paper, with paper faces. (Benét)

The friend of caesar’s friend murders the friend

who murders caesar. The juggler of knives

slits his own throat. Tight-rope walkers

find democracy in public urinals.

Black robed ministers stand with hatchet crosses;

the headsman hacks a worker’s life to bone. (Funaroff)

Then an end, an end to this. Say enough &(Genevieve Taggard)

The west is dying like a brood of aged birds

In the nests of their decay. (Norman Macleod)

America today; its fields plowed under . . .

its wide avenues blistered by sun and poison gas (Rolfe)

And no lilacs bloom, Walt Whitman. (Mike Gold)

There is a rust on the land (Benét)

an unseen hand

Weaving a filmy rust of spiderwebs

Over & turbines and grinding gears. (Joseph Kalar)

Oh Capital! even in your palaces of learning,

as in your streets and factories,

there is one constant study.

Escape! (Isidor Schneider) (p. 33)

We’ve eaten tin-can stew, tin-can java, tin-can soup

Inside the jungles of America!

We’ve slept in rain soaked gondolas, across ice-caked bars,

On top of wind-beaten boxes. (Robert Gessner)

I’m not too starved to want food

not too homeless to want a home not too dumb

to answer questions come to think of it it’ll take a hell

of a lot more than you’ve got to stop what’s

going on deep inside us when it starts out

when it starts wheels going worlds growing

and any man can live on earth when we’re through with it.

(Kenneth Patchen)

The million men and a million boys,

Come out of hell (Horace Gregory)

From harvest fields rise up

Bone-aching and flesh-sore

Bondsmen (Ruth Lechlitner)

and crawling back,

maybe they don’t know what they’re saying,

maybe they don’t dare,

but they know what they mean:

Knock down the big boss . . .

hit him again, he cut my pay, Dempsey. (Horace Gregory)

Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust. (Funaroff)

Brothers, Comrades, pool the last strength of men

in party, in mass, boil into form, and strike. (Taggard)

let the workers storm from the factories,

the peasants from the farms;

sweep the earth clean of this nightmare. (Freeman)

you shall rise in the dust of their cities

as a people of grass,

as roots out of dry ground. (Funaroff) (p. 34)

If the dispossessed should rise,

Burning anger in their eyes &

Oh my brothers in the mire,

Clothe with lightning, shoe with fire &(Henry George Weiss)

I am black and I have seen black hands

Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists of  white workers

(Richard Wright)

Fists tight-clenched around a crimson banner (Rolfe)

Banners of rebellion, surging to the storm,

Rousing men to vision, turning cold blood warm (Lucia Trent)

And we think

Of barricades in some red dawn

On the East Side of New York City (Norman Macleod)

Split by a tendril of revolt

stone cedes to blossom everywhere (Muriel Rukeyser)

The blood’s unvoiced rebellion brooding under

This sorrow, this despair. (Burnshaw)

We shall rise up, create our own new lands,

For the last frontiers are taken (Lechlitner)

Poets, pickets

Prepare for dawn (Rukeyser)

Red in the sky our torches write

Resurgence over death (Lechlitner)

The red train starts and nothing shall stop it (Louis Aragon/ E. E. ­Cummings)

Scarlet seas surge

exultant upon new shores (Funaroff) (p. 35)

into the red fields of sunrise (Funaroff)

to grind the streets into the single lens

of revolution, and converge their massing thunder

to the one pure bolt of proletarian red. (Ben Maddow)

Listen, Mary, Mother of God, wrap your new born babe in

the red flag of Revolution.

Now, the red revolution comes. (Isidor Schneider)

(all from Nelson, Revolutionary Memory, 166–173)

In the early 1930s it was partly the sense that capitalism had run its course and failed that led many of these poets to embrace the possibility of revolutionary change and to join a collective mode of writing. But with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, a new force entered the picture, a threat more terrible than unprincipled exploitation and severe inequity—the threat of fascism. The Communist International, or Comintern, called for a worldwide alliance between revolutionaries and progressives, a Popular Front to defeat fascism, in 1935, but many writers were not entirely ready to heed the call. Even the Communist Party’s Daily Worker published revolutionary poems up through the early months of 1936. That winter the American Left celebrated a Popular Front victory in Spain, one that seemed destined to grant real relief to Spain’s impoverished workforce. Then in July 1936 a group of right-wing army officers allied with conservative clergy and reactionary politicians to stage a revolt against the democratically elected government. The people themselves rose up in Madrid and Barcelona to crush the revolt, and the whole insurgency might well have ended within weeks. But Hitler and Mussolini intervened on the side of the rebel generals. What might have been a brief internal conflict turned into a two-and-a-half-year war with wide international implications. Thousands of volunteers joined the Comintern-organized International Brigades to help defend the Spanish Republic against its own army and German and Italian forces. And the choral poetry of revolution was transformed almost immediately into the still more coherent and more powerfully collective poetry of antifascism.

For a number of modern American poets, the period of the Spanish Civil War was a period when they were no longer primarily American writers; they were part of an international political struggle and an international community of writers. Part of what is important about American poets’ contributions to the dialogue about Spain, therefore, is that a number of them figuratively gave up nationhood as the ground of their being. It is thus the very reverse of projects like Hart Crane’s poem sequence The Bridge and William Carlos Williams’s critical book In the American Grain (1925). If a number of American poets had earlier wondered how to give modernist experimentalism an American inflection, how to interleave collage with (p. 36) American sights and sounds, how to construct a myth that would enable uniquely American identities, now, in the shadow of fascism, the challenge was to enter the international arena seamlessly. My answer to one of my opening questions—what distinguishes American poetry and justifies giving it partial autonomy?—is precisely its continuing obsession with American identity and its ongoing engagement with American history. But Spain is the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps the quintessential American poem about the Spanish Civil War—­because it captures both the idealism of the cause and the sense of loss and exile that followed the Spanish Republic’s loss—is Edwin Rolfe’s (1909–1954) “First Love” (1943):

Again I am summoned to the eternal field

green with the blood still fresh at the roots of flowers,

green through the dust-rimmed memory of faces

that moved among the trees there for the last time

before the final shock, the glazed eye, the hasty mound.

But why are my thoughts in another country?

Why do I always return to the sunken road through corroded hills,

with the Moorish castle’s shadow casting ruins over my shoulder,

and the black-smocked girl approaching, her hands laden with grapes?

I am eager to enter it, eager to end it.

Perhaps this will be the last one.

And men afterward will study our arms in museums

and nod their heads, and frown, and name the inadequate dates

and stumble with infant tongues over the strange place-names.

But my heart is forever captive of that other war

that taught me first the meaning of peace and of comradeship

and always I think of my friend who amid the apparition of bombs

saw on the lyric lake the single perfect swan. (610)

The couplet that ends “First Love” is based upon the experience of one of Rolfe’s friends in Spain, but it is also an echo—with an insistence on historical ­specificity—of Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro.” This “apparition” is in counterpoint with political history.

A decade later, as Michael Thurston reminds us here, the Popular Front consensus would be under sustained assault in the midst of the McCarthy period. For many of the revolutionary poets of the 1930s, 1954 would be a key year. Aaron Kramer (1921–1997) and Edwin Rolfe would each write a series of bleak but sometimes sardonic poems attacking the culture of the witch hunts. In Rolfe’s “Little Ballad for Americans—1954” the wit is inseparable from rage and anguish:

Brother, brother, best avoid your workmate—

Words planted in affection can spout a field of hate. (p. 37)

Housewife, housewife, never trust your neighbor—

A chance remark may boomerang to five years at hard labor.

Student, student, keep mouth shut and brain spry—

Your best friend Dick Merriwell’s employed by the F.B.I.

Lady, lady, make your phone calls frugal—

The chief of all Inquisitors has ruled the wire-tap legal.

Daughter, daughter, learn soon your heart to harden—

They’ve planted stoolies everywhere; why not in kindergarten?

Lovers, lovers, be careful when you’re wed—

The wire-tap grows in living-room, in auto, and in bed.

Give full allegiance only to circuses and bread;

No person’s really trustworthy until he’s dead. (619)

For progressive poets writing in the early 1950s, the repressive culture of ­McCarthyism also renewed their anger at American racism. In 1952 Aaron Kramer published “Denmark Vesey,” a long poem sequence—described more thoroughly here by Michael Thurston—about an 1821 South Carolina slave revolt that is a masterpiece of American modernism and the single most ambitious poem about race and African American history ever written by a white American. His portrait of slaveowner culture culminates in a nightmare vision:

The lovely brocade their ladies wore

had once been Negro grandmothers’ hair.

The gems that blinked on their arms like stars

were bright Negro eyes that had lately shed tears. (Kramer, 50)

Nature meanwhile is indifferent:

Perhaps the free winds and the unbound waves

rendered the lamentation of the slaves

in language that the sky might understand . . .

But from the sky’s red mouth no answer came. (Kramer, 44–45)

The only solution is resistance. A year later, Melvin Tolson (1900–1966) published his dense, allusive masterpiece The Libretto for the Republic of Liberia:


No side-show barker’s bio-accident,

   No corpse of a soul’s errand

To the Dark Continent:

 You are

   The lightning rod of Europe, Canaan’s key, (p. 38)

   The rope across the abyss,

Mehr licht for the Africa-To-Be! (418–419)


No haply black man’s X

Fixed to a Magna Charta without a magic-square

   By Helon’s leprous hand, to haunt and vex:

You are

The Orient of Colors everywhere

  The oasis of Tahoua, the salt bar of Harrar,

To trekkers in saharas, in sierras, with Despair! (419)

As rich with literary and historical allusions as The Waste Land, Tolson’s Libretto, which is 770 lines long with its own set of footnotes, instead reflected on the history of slavery and the potential for liberation while the memory of European fascism was still fresh and the ravages of McCarthyism ongoing.

In 1956 Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) published “Howl” and looked back on recent history, fusing autobiography with political and cultural analysis: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Three years later, Robert Lowell (1917–1977) issued Life Studies. Uncannily, it, too, came out of a telling conjunction between personal anguish and historical experience, not unlike The Waste Land. But Eliot’s mask of impersonality was altogether abandoned. Autobiography was now in the forefront of the poem. American modernism had come to an end.

Lowell grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, as part of a family with a distinguished literary heritage. The poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell were among his ancestors. This heritage no doubt made his own father’s limitations—he was a business failure after his retirement from the U.S. Navy—seem more severe. Lowell enrolled at Harvard, much as the family expected, but after the first of his lifelong series of emotional breakdowns and periods of manic behavior—a history that brings him into Walter Kalaidjian’s chapter—he transferred to Kenyon College in 1937. There he met the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, one of the leaders of American New Criticism, who introduced Lowell to preferences for rhetorically intricate and ironic poems. Lowell also broke with his Protestant family history by converting to Catholicism in 1940. Opposed to some of America’s World War II policies, he served a year in prison as a conscientious objector and thus is included as one of the prisoner poets Mark Van Wienen discusses.

Lowell’s first books, biblical and apocalyptic in tone, gave way in Life Studies (1959) to a new style that would guarantee his reputation. Accompanied by an autobiographical essay and written in a far more open and personal style, the poems came to herald what would be called the “confessional” school of poetry. Yet from the outset of his career Lowell had actually been drawn to a more complex subject, one that Walter Kalaidjian documents: the intersection of public history and autobiographical experience. Though later work like The Dolphin (1973) would sometimes mine his personal experience remorselessly, his poems overall are a remarkable testament to (p. 39) how a reflective person lives and internalizes both the historical record and the public life of his time. As Philip Metres makes clear, the “confessional” label, which was more comfortable for critics who preferred poetry to be apolitical, has thus obscured the degree to which Lowell is a powerful critic of American culture and history.

Ginsberg was at once one of the major poets of the second half of the twentieth century and a public figure who entreated his country by way of his poetry to realize its full democratic potential. No one who saw and heard Ginsberg stand on a flatbed truck before thousands of U.S. army troops at the Pentagon during the famous 1968 demonstration against the Vietnam War either could or would wish altogether to separate his work from its reception. With rifles bristling at him, Ginsberg read his Pentagon exorcism poem in defiance of imperialist military power and in a plea that the demons of war would quit the building. A rather modest poem, it nonetheless made for an unforgettable occasion. Yet Ginsberg was never actually militant or aggressive. Learned in Zen Buddhism and western mysticism, his presence exuded rather an expansive and insistent gentleness.

He was born and grew up in New Jersey, but it was the emerging Beat generation in New York City that shaped his vision and that he helped to define. He was educated at Columbia University, though his degree was delayed when he was expelled for what would now constitute no more than a prank: placing obscene messages on his grimy dormitory window to draw attention to the need to clean the room. As he became friends with William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and other figures in the Beat literary and drug scene, a more serious infraction arose when he let Herbert Huncke use his dorm room to store the stolen goods he employed to support his heroin habit. In exchange for avoiding prosecution, Ginsberg pleaded insanity and spent eight months in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute.

By then he had worked a series of odd jobs, including service on merchant tankers, but he had also had an auditory vision of William Blake reading his poems aloud one day in Harlem. He also soon met and was befriended by William Carlos Williams. Then he was on his way to San Francisco and Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956. Buoyed by the publicity that accompanied its obscenity trial, “Howl” would become perhaps the most widely known poem of the era. Ginsberg had become a twentieth-century incarnation of Walt Whitman.

The mix of moods in his work would remain consistent throughout his career—prophetic, elegiac, ecstatic. He would write triumphant poems of political protest, lamentations about death, celebratory poems about homosexuality, and affirmations of visionary transformation. He chanted his poems to the accompaniment of finger cymbals, sang them with rock groups, and intoned them in a high resonant voice that made his poetry a form of contemporary prophecy.

Some of the other writers associated with the Beats—notably Amiri Baraka (at the time still known as LeRoi Jones) and Gary Snyder—evolved in other directions. Baraka became the central theorist and a leading practitioner of the Black Arts Movement. Born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 to a middle-class family in Newark, New Jersey, as the son of a postal employee and social worker, Baraka was educated at Rutgers, Howard, and Columbia universities. His work and his system of beliefs (p. 40) have gone through several distinct phases. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was active among Beat writers on New York’s Lower East Side, writing his own poetry and plays and editing two period magazines, Yugen and Floating Bear. Yet he was also increasingly impatient with what he saw as the political irrelevance of the Beats and the gradualism of the civil rights movement. In Baraka, the Beats’ scorn for materialism was gradually being transformed into a more aggressive and politically focused critique of capitalism. Race was also becoming more central to his view of American culture. His center of operations moved from the Lower East Side to Harlem, and he became a founding figure of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Black Art” (998–999) was essentially the ars poetica of the movement. He had first published as LeRoi Jones; he then became Amiri Baraka. For several years he was a stunningly forceful advocate of black cultural nationalism, but by 1975 he was finding its racial exclusivity confining. He thus embraced the revolutionary forms of international socialism. Baraka’s poetry, plays, and essays have been defining documents for African American culture for nearly four decades. His view of Christianity in “When We’ll Worship Jesus” (1972; 999–1001), a poem that should be read aloud, may be compared with that of Langston Hughes in “Goodbye Christ” and contrasted with that of Carolyn Rodgers (1945–). Baraka receives treatment in this handbook in several chapters. Karen Ford sets Baraka’s work within the long history of African American aesthetics, James Smethurst contextualizes it within the Black Arts Movement, and Lytle Shaw links the phases of Baraka’s career to a poetics of place.

Gary Snyder’s career went in a distinctly different direction, though both Lytle Shaw and Lynn Keller in their chapters here successfully identify his work with an aesthetics of place as well. Born in 1930 in San Francisco and raised on a farm north of Seattle, Washington, Snyder was educated at Reed College, where he studied literature, Buddhist philosophy, and Native American mythology. He then worked as a logger and spent summers as a forest-fire lookout in Oregon, Washington, and California. Involved with the Beat writers in San Francisco in the mid-1950s, he made a major change in his life in 1956 by moving to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Except for some shipboard work, he remained there for 12 years. He returned to the United States in 1968, and a few years later he built a home in a remote community in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in California.

Although Snyder has adopted different forms over the years, he generally prefers a direct, simple diction over intricate metaphor and allusion. In “Riprap” (956), he uses words like material objects to refine and teach us a mental discipline. One may hear Thoreau and Whitman behind such an impulse, along with his Zen studies, but the ecological imperative includes an anguish that we only fully earned in the twentieth century. Against the errors of industrial civilization Snyder sets not only a reverence for nature but also a vital celebration of human sexuality. More recently, Snyder has borrowed shamanistic effects from oral poetry and has experimented with field effects and the space of the page.

If Snyder is a central poet for the whole ecological movement, it is notable that several other poets who began work in the 1950s became key figures in loosely organized literary movements in the following decade as well. The New York School (p. 41) claims Frank O’Hara (1926–1966) and, to a lesser degree, John Ashbery (1927–). Born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, O’Hara served in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific from 1944 to 1946. He was educated at Harvard and the University of Michigan, after which he served as associate curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and editor of Art News. Like John Ashbery, O’Hara mixes high and low cultural allusions with a certain effortless glee; he also manages abrupt shifts of tone that mimic the erratic, associational paths of a consciousness stimulated by external events and images. The poems skate easily over surfaces, light on objects, absorb variations in mood, and register the cultural and political temper of the times with a grace that makes them immensely pleasurable, but an oblique sense of tragedy also gives them a haunting gravity. Jahan Ramazani examines some of O’Hara’s key poems here in detail. As with the painters he admired, O’Hara’s poems are also chronicles of the process of their composition. He was often casual about his output, sometimes not even keeping copies of his poems; O’Hara’s work survives today in part because he sent poems to friends that were later collected posthumously. Widely imitated, his voice remains exceptional. He was accidentally run over and killed by a jeep on New York’s Fire Island.

O’Hara’s career was thus violently cut short. His friend John Ashbery, however, has lived to have a long and rich career. Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York. He grew up on a farm in nearby Sodus and was educated at Harvard and Columbia. After a Fulbright fellowship that took him to France, he stayed on and worked as an art critic for several newspapers and magazines, finally returning to become executive editor of Art News from 1965 to 1972. His long poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975) mixes critical analysis of a Renaissance painting by Parmigianino with reflections on his own mental process, though it lacks the cheerful surrealism and aggressive disjunctiveness of many of his shorter poems. In his early work his approach sometimes seemed antirepresentational, with a focus on linguistic events and the structures of thought. As a result, he was often associated with abstract expressionist painting of the 1940s and 1950s. But as his witty incorporation of linguistic commonplaces and public speech was matched by the use of multiple references to popular culture, his work became more accessible and his project more distinctive. Rapid changes in focus and mood still marked his poems, but he was now questioning how a commodified world might shape human consciousness. He is thus perhaps the poet who has thought most deeply about the mental life that mass culture grants to us. In the process he came to doubt the plausibility of any coherent selfhood or the credibility of a conventionally coherent narrative.

No poet of the period, however, is more central to a literary movement than ­Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), though she did not live to see the movement—­contemporary feminism—come to fruition. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Plath grew up in ­Winthrop. She was raised by her mother after her father died of complications from diabetes when she was eight. Plath was educated at Smith College and at Newnham College of Cambridge University. Even before attending college she had published poems and journalism; her academic and literary achievements, however, were in conflict with the traditional view of women’s roles that prevailed in the 1950s, and she was unable to live comfortably with (p. 42) the contradictions. In 1953, after serving a month as a college guest editor at the New York fashion magazine Mademoiselle, she had a breakdown, was unwisely subjected to electric shock therapy, and then attempted suicide and was hospitalized for six months, events she later adapted for her novel The Bell Jar (1963). It was while in England two years later, from 1955 to 1956, that she met her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, who has been the controversial shepherd of her posthumous career.

Plath and Hughes came to the United States in 1957, and she taught at Smith for a year, while also taking a poetry writing seminar offered by Robert Lowell at Boston University; Anne Sexton was enrolled as well. Plath and Hughes returned to England in 1959 and she published her first book of poems, The Colossus, the following year, but the marriage was in difficulty, with their individual ambitions sometimes putting them at odds with one another despite willingness to support each other’s careers. In the fall of 1962, after Plath learned that Hughes had been unfaithful, they separated.

It was a brutally cold winter and not easy to maintain a household. Yet the freedom had an impact on her. That fall she began writing with an astonishing intensity, shaping nearly overwhelming emotions into flawlessly crafted poems. Into a crucible went details of her own life and the horrors of modern history; she fused them into a harrowing, ironic persona, an archetype of a modern woman in an ecstatic crisis of gendered self-recognition amidst the ruins of history. In a few short months these astonishingly lucid poems—furious, sardonic, defiant, and exquisitely musical—established a benchmark against which every American poet wishing to tell a brutal truth would have to measure himself or herself:

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you,

I thought even the bones would.

But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw,

And I said I do, I do,

So daddy, I’m finally through,

The black telephone’s off at the root,

The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now. (p. 43)

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you,

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

(from “Daddy,” 986)

Then, apparently, Plath broke through into a kind of icy calm, or so some of the final poems suggest. In December she moved from Devon to a London apartment with her two children. The whole experience had overwhelmed her, and she took her own life in February 1963. Much more than with male poets who committed suicide—Crane, Berryman, among others—critics have tended to read Plath’s poems in the light of her death, as though she were writing against some inexorable deadline. Yet the poems are a personal and cultural triumph, not funeral ornaments. Her suicide comes afterwards and tells us nothing about the poems; for they are about all of us, not about her alone.

Although nothing in contemporary feminist poetry would be possible without Plath, it is, above all, Adrienne Rich (1929–) whose poetry and poetics have shaped the movement. She grew up in Baltimore and was educated at Radcliffe College. After early work that had the controlled elegance and formality characteristic of some poets in the first years of the 1950s, she began to adapt the open forms that have been central to the American tradition since Whitman. Since then, she has become one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the century. That impact has grown not only from her poetry but also from a number of groundbreaking essays, including “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-­Vision” and “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” “Twenty-one Love Poems” (1974–1976) remains one of her triumphs and a sequence that helped belatedly highlight the tradition of lesbian and gay poetry. The opening poem invokes a couple outside heterosexual norms:

No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,

Sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,

Dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,

Our animal passion rooted in the city. (945)

Later she inserts “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” with its breakthrough explicit sexuality:

Whatever happens with us, your body

Will haunt mine—tender, delicate

Your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond

Of the fiddlehead fern in forests

&Your traveled, generous thighs

between which my whole face has come and come— (950)

(p. 44)

Rich’s position now is in many ways unique. She is our foremost feminist poet and an important theorist of the social construction of gender, but that dual status sometimes overshadows, and even obscures, the range of her most ambitious work. She has written a number of unforgettable short poems, variously visionary, historical, political, and polemical. Some of these, along with longer poems like “Diving into the Wreck” have helped to define the personal and social understanding of a generation. Yet her many long poem sequences are inevitably more complex aesthetically and philosophically, and they demand extended reading and reflection.

It is in these poem sequences especially that her recurring topic of several decades—the relationship between individual experience, contemporary political and social life, and historical memory—receives its most innovative treatment. Devoted like so many other poets to understanding the burdens of national identity, she has tried to uncover at once the texture and the governing principles of the lesson Americans are least willing to learn: that we are intricately embedded in and shaped by social life. Other poets, to be sure, have dealt with the intersection of personal and public life. It was Robert Lowell’s lifetime theme. But Rich is unusual in tracking these intersections with a keen sense for their temporal intricacy; in Rich’s work, social life and politics and the lives of earlier women (like that of Marie Curie in Rich’s poem “Power”) are registered on the pulses.

The 1960s and 1970s saw not only a new renaissance of feminist poetry with Rich at its center but also the first signs of a multicultural resurgence across the spectrum of minority poetries. Reimagining poetry as a public and popular form, a group of Puerto Rican poets performed their work at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in Manhattan. Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero, and Victor Hernández Cruz are among the poets of the Puerto Rican diaspora who developed distinctive voices. But perhaps the most accomplished poet with a Puerto Rican heritage now is Martín Espada (1957–), most well known for his witty and devastating poems of political protest. “Federico’s Ghost” (1990) tells the story of a young migrant whose death inspires the other workers to acts of modest sabotage. Here is its opening stanza:

The story is

that whole families of fruitpickers

still crept between the furrows

of the field at dusk,

when for reasons of whiskey or whatever

the cropduster plane sprayed anyway,

floating a pesticide drizzle

over the pickers

who thrashed like dark birds

in a glistening white net,

except for Federico, (p. 45)

a skinny boy who stood apart

in his own green row,

and, knowing the pilot

would not understand in Spanish

that he was the son of a whore,

instead jerked his arm

and thrust an obscene finger. (1212)

Yet another strain of Hispanic American poetry emerged among Chicano or ­Mexican American poets. That tradition—embracing such diverse figures as José Montoya, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alberto Ríos, and Gary Soto—ranges from poems of protest to poems recapturing historical mythology to poems of personal meditation. In her poem “Refugee Ship” (1981), Cervantes (1954–) writes

Mama raised me without language.

I’m orphaned from my Spanish name.

The words are foreign, stumbling

On my tongue . . .

I feel I am captive

Aboard the refugee ship.

The ship that will never dock.

Her “Poema para los Californios Muertos” (1981) affirms the connection:

I run my fingers

Across this brass plaque.

Its cold stirs in me a memory

Of silver buckles and spent bullets,

Of embroidered shawls and dark rebozos.

Ríos (1952–) sometimes manages poetry that edges into surrealism with a casual, factual rhetoric that is both convincing and uncanny. “Madre Sofía” (1982) recounts a childhood visit to a gypsy fortuneteller:

She looked at me but spoke to my mother

Words dark, smoky like the small room,

Words coming like red ants stepping occasionally

From a hole on a summer day in the valley,

Red ants from her mouth, her nose, her ears,

tears from the corners of her cinched eyes. . (26)

In her chapter, Josephine Park traces the parallel renaissance among Asian American poets, while Edward Brunner, Walter Kalaidjian, Karen Ford, Philip Metres, and (p. 46) James Smethurst describe the inventive new work being done by a new generation of African American poets. Michael Davidson meanwhile reveals the collective phenomenon of disability poetry made visible both by political activism and a newly focused body of theory.

These minority traditions are all, of course, emerging ones. They are developing and changing before our eyes. But the new is always, as Adalaide Morris shows, in an intricate dialogue with the past. As Karen Ford demonstrates, that is notably true of African American poetry. But at least one other minority poetry deserves special recognition. Neither its readers nor its practitioners have had the more full awareness of its history that Robert Parker has brought to us. The new Native American poetry nonetheless catapults an earlier unnamable genocide into contemporary articulation, with some writers now grafting protest to satire and humor. That said, different minority and ethnic literatures have suffered very different fates within the dominant culture’s institutions. Investment by a largely white professoriate in African American literature did not really begin to flourish until the 1970s. The long history of black institutions meanwhile facilitated preservation of some cultural work. The continuing effects of history and linguistic difference have also impacted the differential dissemination and interpretation of ethnic and minority literatures. That said, the will to cherish Native American literature remains more fragile. It will require greater investment both by Indian communities and the non-Indian professoriate for it to win the attention it deserves.

Born and raised in Nevada, Adrian Louis (1946–) is an enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute Indian tribe. He was educated at Brown University, where he also went on to receive an M.A. in creative writing. A former journalist, he edited four tribal newspapers and was a founder of the Native American Press Association. Since 1984, he has taught English at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, where he lives. Louis, who writes both poetry and fiction, is at the forefront of a new generation of Native American writers. Having abandoned the celebratory lyricism of some of his predecessors, he opts instead to tell harsh truths about both white and Indian cultures. Frank about alcoholism, frank about self-pity, he also displays an articulate bitterness about the humiliation and demoralization his people continue to suffer. His primary focus is not the past but the present life of Native Americans, but it is a present at once redolent with history and destabilized by moments of magical revelation. Here is his 1995 “Looking for Judas” in its entirety:

Weathered gray, the wooden walls

Of the old barn soak in the bright

Sparkling blood of the five-point mule

Deer I hang there in the moonlight.

Gutted, skinned, and shimmering in eternal

Nakedness, the glint in its eyes could

Be stolen from the dry hills of Jerusalem.

They say before the white man (p. 47)

Brought us Jesus, we had honor.

They say when we killed the Deer People,

We told them their spirits

Would live in our flesh.

We used bows of ash, no spotlights, no rifles,

And their holy blood became ours,

Or something like that. (1131)

Louis often discovers uncanny instances of transfiguration amidst loss and the ­ordinary routines of daily life. Like Sherman Alexie (1966–), his work mixes uncompromising social criticism with an unforgettable and nearly disabling irony, but Louis is unique in turning that irony on himself as often as he turns it on the world around him.

Alexie’s visibility and reputation have increased so rapidly since the 1990s that at times he seems more a natural phenomenon, like a summer thunderstorm, than a mere writer. But he is an astonishingly inventive writer. The son of a Spokane father and a part Coeur d’Alene mother, Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He was educated first at Gonzaga University in Spokane and then at Washington State University in Pullman; he now lives in Seattle. His first book of poems and prose poems, The Business of Fancydancing, was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review in 1992. His next poetry collection, First Indian on the Moon, appeared the following year, along with a volume of his short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Alexie has since reworked the short story collection into a film script, which was released as a major motion picture, Smoke Signals, in 1998. That same year he appeared on public television in a panel discussion about race with the U.S. president. And he has continued to be a prolific writer of poetry and fiction, while simultaneously exploring other media.

Proficient at adapting traditional stanzaic forms, Alexie writes poetry notable for its fusion of cultural criticism and a highly focused irreverence. He has an exuberant, inventive imagination that generates continual surprises and gives him the courage to try almost anything in his writing. Not all his experiments succeed, but no writer as productive as Alexie could succeed all the time. Meanwhile, he has followed Adrian Louis’s example of writing poetry of astonishing frankness about both the Native American world and the surrounding dominant culture. The ninth section of “The Native American Broadcasting System” (1993) opens with a portrait of a commercialized, commodified, and degraded contemporary powwow:

I am the essence of powwow. I am

Toilets without paper, I am fry bread

On rodeo grounds at the All-Indian

Rodeo and Horse Show &(1218)

(p. 48)

“Tourists” (1996) is a three-part poem with a section each about James Dean, Janis Joplin, and Marilyn Monroe individually engaging with Indian culture. Monroe’s section ends in a sweat lodge:

Cold water is splashed on hot rocks

and steam fills the lodge. There is no place like this.

At first, Marilyn is self-conscious, aware

of her body and face, the tremendous heat, her thirst,

and the brown bodies circled around her.

But the Indian women do not stare. It is dark

inside the lodge. The hot rocks glow red

and the songs begin. Marilyn has never heard

these songs before, but she soon sings along.

Marilyn is not Indian. Marilyn will never be Indian

but the Indian women sing about her courage.

The Indian women sing for her health.

The Indian women sing for Marilyn.

Finally she is no more naked than anyone else. (1223)

Other notable Native American poets include Anita Endrezze (Yaqui), Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), Joy Harjo (Creek), Wendy Rose (Hopi/Miwok), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), and Ray A. Young Bear (Mesquakie). N. Scott Momaday remains the towering figure from an earlier generation. Endrezze has been highly successful at finding linguistic equivalents of Native American views of nature. Erdrich has written protests against the indignities historically imposed on Native Americans, and she has castigated the dominant culture for its racism. Momaday has written about Native American culture with Imagist precision and economy. Whatever generalizations one might be inclined to make about the new Native American poetry, however, are likely to be undone by the next generations of poets. Much the same, oddly enough, can be said of the digitized poetry Morris describes. Both represent key elements of poetry’s future. They are guaranteed to surprise us. In the process poems will become what they have not altogether been before. We will assess them and use them differently. And we may become different in their company.


Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Doob, Leonard W., ed. “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Fletcher, John Gould. Irradiations: Sand and Spray. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.Find this resource:

Girard, Melissa. “‘How autocratic our country is becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War.” Journal of Modern Literature 32.2 (Winter 2009): 41–64.Find this resource:

Kramer, Aaron. Wicked Times: Selected Poems. Ed. Cary Nelson and Donald Gilzinger Jr. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Littlefield, Daniel F., and James M. Parins. American Indian and Native Newspapers and Periodicals, 1826–1924. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Nelson, Cary, ed. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Nelson, Cary. Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. New York: Routledge, 2001.Find this resource:

Rios, Alberto, “Madre Sofia,” Whispering to Fool the Wind. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1982, pp. 25–6.Find this resource:


(1) Except as noted, poems in this chapter are quoted from my Anthology of Modern American Poetry. The contributors to the book generally cite the most accessible source, so that readers can readily consult the full poem, rather than the place of first publication.