Thursday, September 30, 2021

20th Century American Poetry (DOB 1894-1896)

Source of book: I own this.


The Library of America editions have been part of my home library ever since my wife got me the Robert Frost years ago. Since then, I have slowly added to the collection, mostly through library sales, but occasionally through a new or used purchase of my own. 

 This particular book is volume two of the set of 20th Century American Poetry. So far, there are only two volumes, but clearly at least two more will be needed to fill out the eventual collection. I own the first as well, but decided to read a portion of this one first. 


The books are laid out in an interesting manner. Rather than alphabetically by author, or in the order the poems were written or published, LoA decided to organize them by the year of the author’s birth. This volume begins with 1894 and e e cummings. These are large books, in this case containing nearly 900 pages of poems, followed by more than a hundred pages of short biographies and notes. I arbitrarily decided to read a bit more than one hundred pages, and end with a particular year. 


While I will not discuss every single poet, here is the list of who was included in the section I read: 


e e cummings, H. L. Davis, Rolfe Humphries, Eugene Jolas, H. Phelps Putnam, Charles Reznikoff, Bessie Smith, Genevieve Taggard, Jean Toomer, Mark Van Doren, Alter Brody, Babette Deutsch, Abraham Lincoln Gillespie, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Robert Hillyer, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Pasos, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Ira Gershwin, Ramon Guthrie, E. Y. Harburg, and Isador Schneider.


Some of those are very familiar, some are pretty obscure, and some were more famous then than now. Also interesting is how many song lyrics are included. There was definitely a golden age of song in the first half of the 20th Century, and some of my own favorites are included. 


With the exception of cummings, it is surprisingly difficult to find the works of the other poets still in print. This is a shame, particularly in the case of Reznikoff and Toomer, who I found particularly delightful and unique. One of the beauties of collections like this is that they do tend to preserve the best of writers who may not have been either popular or prolific or consistent enough to have endured on their own. 


The book started with cummings, and I will admit it was a bit of a revelation to read him now. I don’t think I had actually read more than a poem or two of his since high school, and even then, very little. (The Fundie literature curriculum we had kind of tried to pretend the 20th Century never happened, or minimized the importance of writers from that period because they were “atheist” or “pessimist” artists.) In any case, reading cummings was a heck of a lot of fun, particularly out loud. I read a few to my kids as well. 


I could have quoted more, but will limit myself to a few. 


First up is this one, which is just brilliant. 


Humanity i love you


Humanity i love you

because you would rather black the boots of

success than enquire whose soul dangles from his

watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both


parties and because you

unflinchingly applaud all

songs containing the words country home and

mother when sung at the old howard


Humanity i love you because

when you’re hard up you pawn your

intelligence to buy a drink and when

you’re flush pride keeps


you from the pawn shop and

because you are continually committing

nuisances but more

especially in your own house


Humanity i love you because you

are perpetually putting the secret of

life in your pants and forgetting

it’s there and sitting down


on it

and because you are

forever making poems in the lap

of death Humanity


i hate you


This one has aged extremely well. American humanity in particular seems to have this worship of the wealthy, an anti-intellectual streak, and a jingoistic “patriotism” that is more Pavlovian whistle than anything meaningful. 


That poem is fairly “modern,” but still in recognizable stanzas. Other poems are on the verge of incomprehensibility, and a challenge to get right when reading aloud, but fascinating all the same. This bit of “Memorabilia” is typical. 


i do signore

affirm that all gondola signore day below me gondola signore gondola

and above me pass loudly and gondola

rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona or what

not enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth God only,

gondola knows Cincingondolanati i gondola don't


“Cincingondolanati” cracks me up every time. 


This one is also a bit more experimental, although still in stanzas. I loved this one. 


somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond


somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

any experience,your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, 

or which i cannot touch because they are too near


your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers, 

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose


or if your wish be to close me,i and 

my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;


nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals 

the power of your intense fragility:whose texture

compels me with the colour of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing


(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens;only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands


This is a poem that is a challenge to interpret. On the one hand, some of the language seems erotic, although not unmistakably so. On the other, some scholars believe it was written for his infant daughter, which also makes since, particular the very last phrase. Whatever it is, as a delicate picture of love, it is gorgeous. 


The next one is one of my all time favorite poems to read aloud. I have done so a bunch of times this month, and read it to the kids. My 10 year old took a bit to understand it, and admittedly it takes some thought. The story is wonderful: the offbeat couple who find love together, even though the other residents of the small town never understand, but pursue their meaningless lives. 


anyone lived in a pretty how town


anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn't he danced his did.


Women and men(both little and small)

cared for anyone not at all

they sowed their isn't they reaped their same

sun moon stars rain


children guessed(but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

autumn winter spring summer)

that noone loved him more by more


when by now and tree by leaf

she laughed his joy she cried his grief

bird by snow and stir by still

anyone's any was all to her


someones married their everyones

laughed their cryings and did their dance

(sleep wake hope and then)they

said their nevers they slept their dream


stars rain sun moon

(and only the snow can begin to explain

how children are apt to forget to remember

with up so floating many bells down)


one day anyone died i guess

(and noone stooped to kiss his face)

busy folk buried them side by side

little by little and was by was


all by all and deep by deep

and more by more they dream their sleep

noone and anyone earth by april

wish by spirit and if by yes.


Women and men(both dong and ding)

summer autumn winter spring

reaped their sowing and went their came

sun moon stars rain


Where to start with all the amazing things cummings does with words? First, each line has four accented syllables. But the unaccented syllables are all over the place. In the last line, “sun moon stars rain,” every syllable is accented. There are multiple lines like that, which seem both like a break in the action and a moment when the beat goes on. When read with the beats falling like they would in music, the poem sounds almost hip-hop. There are also some wonderful ways of thinking about things. The use of “up” and “down” such as in “down they forgot as up they grew.” In the sense that Christ used it, perhaps the “forgetting” of the magic of life and love is the descent that matches the physical ascent of growth. It is just a genius poem in so many ways. 


As a final bit of cummings, I want to mention his lovely tribute to his father, “my father moved through dooms of love.” In particular, a couple of stanzas are a pointed commentary on the ungenerosity that plagues our nation these days (and in cummings’ day too.) 


then let men kill which cannot share,

let blood and flesh be mud and mire,

scheming imagine, passion willed,

freedom a drug that’s bought and sold


giving to steal and cruel kind,

a heart to fear, to doubt a mind,

to differ a disease of same,

conform the pinnacle of am


though dull were all we taste as bright,

bitter all utterly things sweet,

maggoty minus and dumb death

all we inherit, all bequeath


and nothing quite so least as truth

—i say though hate were why men breathe—


Killing when we cannot share, freedom as a drug that’s bought and sold. Using charity to steal, conformity as a virtue. And truth something we can’t even pass on. cummings is an interesting writer, and I really enjoyed his selections. I intent to get a complete edition if I can. 


Moving on, I was struck by this poem by H. Phelps Putnam. Putnam was a bit of a character, starting out writing advertising copy for insurance companies. He had a flamboyant love live, with multiple marriages, and well-known affairs with both men and women - including Katherine Hepburn, who later said he absolutely fascinated her. He didn’t write that much, though, and died young of ill health exacerbated by his drinking. This poem was excellent, I must say, and another one that seems ever more relevant as we discover the depths of our depravity toward the indigenous peoples and see the results of our environmental degradation. 


Words of an Old Woman


If you wound my hide it bleeds to enrich your crops; 

After all these years I keep on giving blood

For the foreigners who called me a virgin land

And went about their business raping me.

But I think that maybe I should have been long dead,

For they gashed my body with these festering wounds,

Destroying the decent privacy of an old woman

With sperm which should have better spent itself 

In the young whore they left across the sea - 

I was never raped by a bull, I was never borne

To a cloudy lust on the back of a silly thought.

I was chaste and they called me virginal,

And it was unwise to make mistakes with me,

Me, a matronly woman with the Sun my paramour.

Laden and satisfied, with clear streams cooling my flesh.

I had given suck to races, wonders, and gods

And my skin was still smooth and the uplands of my body

Broad and luxuriant, and my thighs were wide to the Sun

And my body-hair luxuriant and odorous.

I was ripe and calm and my children settled down.

What had I done that my life should be used again?

I felt the bewildered Portugee breaking in,

Who spilled diseases into my ancient veins;

I felt the Spanish blade probing my side,

Pulling my guts out to the light of day

In lust for the seven cities of a feverish dream;

And I felt the French who called me heathenish,

Infesting my quietude with their earnest holy-men.

So I learned the ferocious manners of new folks

And I was sick of the day that I aruse

Gleaming and fresh from the seas

And my neck alive with burning jewels of ice.

I was a tall girl with my head at one end of the world

And my feet at the other, beautiful,

And fit for the close embraces of the Sun.

Yes, I had cause for lament, but it was too soon; 

It was little grief and small indignity - 

I had not learned the extent of such disease.

The stubborn conquerors came in flotsam waves,

The low inheritors of a gimcrack world;

The unholy horde came from the northern lands,

And the acne slowly destroyed my loveliness.

I grew decrepit and my teeth fell,

My hair withered and my breast flattened,

My sweat was rancid and my baths foul; 

I was foster-mother to cheap merchandise.

Listen, forced children, I will tell you this - 

It is dangerous to fool with the old and the wise,

And I, who am both, am dangerous.

I have touched new flesh with my unwilling hands,

The bastards of other places and distant times;

I have molded fools in the images of men,

Making them lovelorn in other lands,

Making them desirous with a secret homesickness,

Uneasy in my arms or in other arms.

For I have the strength of my own habitude,

I have the force of the mistress of the Sun.

I shall trouble the girlish countries over the seas; 

They will wake at night and shriek in their narrow beds,

Having dreamed in sleep of my final certitude. 


One of the poets that is surprisingly difficult to find is Charles Reznikoff. I had heard of him, although I am not certain I read any of his poems previously. In any case, I love many of them, and had a difficult time choosing which ones to feature. Here are the favorites I went with. 


The Shopgirls


The shopgirls leave their work 



Machines are still, tables and chairs



The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin.


The way that he leaves the final words of the first two sentences is delightful. It creates a brief pause and an emphasis on the quiet, then the darkness. In contrast, the mice and roaches need no pause before they take their places in the empty shop. 


This next one really felt poignant after the last 18 months of Covid, when for weeks at a time, my wife and I have waved at each other, having little time to connect. Even without the personal meaning, it is a beautiful and perceptive poem. 


Though our thoughts often


Though our thoughts often, we ourselves

are seldom together.

We have told each other 

all that has happened; it seems to me - 

for want of a better word - that we are both unlucky.

Even our meetings have been so brief

we should call them partings, and of our words

I remember most “good-by”.


One more struck me as an experience I have had, and described perfectly. 


I like this secret walking


I like this secret walking

in the fog;

unseen, unheard,

among the bushes

thick with drops;

the solid path invisible 

a rod away - 

and only the narrow present is alive.


I could have quoted more. Unfortunately, Reznikoff is a bit hard to find, and what is available is his longer poetry, not the short stuff. 


Next up is Genevieve Taggard. I liked her poems quite a bit, but this one in particular. 


Everyday Alchemy


Men go to women mutely for their peace;

And they, who lack it most, create it when

They make–because they must, loving their men–

A solace for sad bosom-bended heads. There

Is all the meager peace men get–no otherwhere;

No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves,

Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl's hair,

No sound of valley bell on autumn air,

Or room made home with doves along the eves,

Ever holds peace like this, poured by poor women

Out of their heart's poverty, for worn men.


This is, in our culture, the way that the emotional labor is borne mostly by women. I’m not entirely sure what the cure is, except to say that men need to be a place where women can go for their peace too. 


Jean Toomer is another poet I had heard of, but not read. He was one of the Harlem Renaissance writers, but didn’t want to be thought of as either black or white. (He had significant ancestry in both, and probably could have passed for white in some places, although he never tried to.) He wanted to be thought of as simply “American,” and it is hard to blame him. His poetry, in any case, is excellent, particularly this one, which is simply stunning. 


Her Lips are Copper Wire


whisper of yellow globes

gleaming on lamp-posts that sway

like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog


and let your breath be moist against me

like bright beads on yellow globes

telephone the power-house


that the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down

dewy corridors of billboards)


then with your tongue remove the tape

and press your lips to mine

till they are incandescent


Hot damn, that is amazing. One of my new favorite poems. 


This one is also excellent. 


Storm Ending


Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,

Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,

Rumbling in the wind,

Stretching clappers to strike our ears . . .

Full-lipped flowers

Bitten by the sun

Bleeding rain

Dripping rain like golden honey—

And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.


Yet another poet whose poems are difficult to find now, but who should be better remembered, is Mark Van Doren. Although his poetry is good, his greatest legacy is in those he taught as a professor at Columbia. Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Whittaker Chambers, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg are just the best known of his students. Here is my favorite of the poems of his in this collection. You can hear him read it if you like


This Amber Sunstream


This amber sunstream, with an hour to live,

Flows carelessly, and does not save itself;

Nor recognizes any entered room -

This room; nore hears the clock upon a shelf,

Declaring the lone hour; for where it goes

All space in a great silence ever flows.


No living man may know it till this hour,

When the clear sunstream, thickening to amber,

Moves like a sea, and the sunk hulls of houses

Let it come slowly through, as divers clamber,

Feeling for gold. So now into this room

Peer the large eyes, unopen to their doom.


Another hour and nothing will be here.

Even upon themselves the eyes will close.

Nor will this bulk, withdrawing, die outdoors

In night, that from another silence flows.

No living man in any western room

But sits at amber sunset round a tomb.


The final poem I want to feature is by Lorenz Hart. When I started dating my wife, I discovered that she was a huge Ella Fitzgerald fan, particularly of the epic “Songbooks” set, which she borrowed from the library periodically. I spent the next few years finding CD copies of all of them on Ebay as tokens of my affection. We then proceeded to listen to them while we took dates out to the coast and elsewhere, and I came to share her love for Ella and the classic songs of the Jazz Age. 


One of the less known (at least to the average person, not fans) songwriting duos were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. While everyone seems to know Rodgers’ collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II, the earlier Hart collaboration is not as familiar. This is a shame, because, in my view, Lorenz Hart was one of the finest lyricists of his or any era. My choice for this post is one of my favorites of his songs. There are various versions with different numbers of verses - Ella's version has several more - but this is the one in the book. 


Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered


After one whole quart of brandy,

Like a daisy I awake.

With no Bromo Seltzer handy,

I don't even shake.

Men are not a new sensation;

I've done pretty well I think.

But this half-pint imitation

Put me on the blink.


I'm wild again, 

Beguiled again,

A simpering, whimpering child again - 

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

Couldn't sleep

And wouldn't sleep

Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep - 

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

Lost my heart, but what of it?

My mistake, I agree.

He’s a laugh, but I love it

Because the laugh's on me.

A pill he is,

But still he is

All mine and I’ll keep hm until he is

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered

Like me.


Seen a lot -

I mean a lot -

But now  I'm like sweet seventeen a lot -

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

I'll sing to him,

Each spring to him,

And worship the trousers that cling to him -

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

When he talks, he is seeking

Words to get off his chest.

Horizontally speaking,

He's at his very best.

Vexed again, 

Perplexed again,

Thank god, I can be oversexed again -

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.


Sweet again,

Petitie again,

And on my proverbial seat again - 

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

What am I?

Half shot am I.

To think that he loves me

So hot am I -

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

Though at first we said, “No sir,”

Now we’re two little dears.

You might say we are closer

Than Roebuck is to Sears.

I’m dumb again

And numb again,

A rich, ready, ripe plumb again - 

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.


Take it away, Ella!