Resistance to The "New Poetry"

Louis Untermeyer (1923)

On Intellectual Obscurity in Poetry

It is against what seems to many of the young elite to be an undisciplined emotionalism that the latest generation is revolting. Seeing the immediate past and much of the present as a welter of ecstasies and inchoate naturalism, they respond to the full swing of the inevitable pendulum. They are all – or at least their manifestoes are – for a new intellectual discipline, for severity of structure, for the subjection of material to the design. Form is the word most often on the lips of these younger writers; they speak of the mathematics, the architecture of literature, of mass and planes, of suspensions, dissonances and modulations – of an abstract form, as a musician, despising the theatricalism of opera, might speak of absolute music. It is primarily a turning away from naturalism, a progression – or, as may be contended, a retrogression – to French ideas of a still earlier generation. Our newest "new men," with their aristocratic malaises seeking decorative avenues of escape, may well become a set of belated American Parnassians. But there is this difference in the two periods: Frenchmen, since Flaubert, have adopted the theory that the purpose of art is to conceal art; the young American doctrinaires – and I am thinking of the more determined secessionists – believe that the function of art is to reveal art, carefully, consciously. This, it seems to me, explains their preoccupation with verbal craftsmanship and deliberate technic. The word aesthetic does not have for them, as it had for us, the connotations of Oscar Wilde and the delicately decadent nineties; they speak of a rigorous and crystallized aestheticism.

How far, one asks, can such a program carry them? … When emotion is minimalized does not the artist suffer from a lassitude of the creative faculty? … If instant is repudiated or impoverished can the intelligence be a sufficient substitute? Will not intellectual subtleties and nuances of form ten toward the very artistic decadence from which we have revolted, the decadence that appraises the values of life chiefly as aesthetic values?

It is too early to look for answers. But there are portents which, in themselves, suggest certain replies. … The artist on fire to make something is concerned first with what he wishes to express, second with the method of expression. When the order is reversed, when the manner assumes primary importance, the resulty is technically adroit, fastidious, often sensitive, but more often precious and artificial. This is the true minor note and it is here that decadence begins. The over-nice preoccupation with shades, the elaborate analysis of a spent emotion, the false emphasis on half-tones lead inevitably to verbal legerdemain and a series of elliptical vagaries. This tendency has already found a similarity of speech in the language of many of the "emerging" intellectuals. Highly euphuistic, their work seems determined to make four syllables blossom where only one grew before. It is essentially an intellectual circumlocution that fascinates many of the most recent experimenters. One of the youngest, Hart Crane, in an effort to avoid such a commonplace as "darkening dusk," speaks of

the graduate opacities of evening.

It is these cold victories of the intellect that point to their own defeat. It is a return to the lifeless classicism which they would be first to repudiate, a return with only a slight difference: instead of a literature written by scholars for scholars, the new mode seems to be attempting a poetry by artists for artists only. Scorning the old-fashioned prosody, they are fashioning a diction which is no less stilted, a new-fashioned rhetoric which, in spite of its scientific patois, is no less rhetorical.

Here one can chart the possible descent: artificiality of language, excitation of imagery, tenuous thoughts, obscurantism. It is only those who lack rich creative blood who lay stress on equivocal tropes and spend their slight energy exorcising the cliché while worshipping the nuance. Erudite Gratioanos may surround their emotional poverty with verbal elegances, but their reasons "are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them; and when you have found them they are not worth the search." The great workers are essentially simple and direct, never "secret or obscure"; as Emerson said, "they never seem to condescend."

From Louis Untermeyer, "The Cerebralists" in American Poetry Since 1900 (New York: Holt, 1923).

Charles Edward Russell (1929)

The New Poetry: Trend or Fashion?

At the beginning of the new period, which was more than a renaissance, we were all for fixed forms, and overdid them. Every high school journal resounded with ballads, rondeaus and triolets, sometimes of a propitious merit, sometimes otherwise. Fashions in literature as much as fashions used to be in clothes: a lunge in one direction, and then a lunge in reverse. Reaction from too much formalism lunged now toward no form at all and the world was regaled with the singular manifestation that is called free verse.

As this cacophony so plainly falls outside the definition with which we started [Edmund Clarence Stedman’s definition: "Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion and insight of the human soul"] it might well be omitted from consideration but for the extraordinary space it long occupied in the public view and for the unusual length of its visitation. As a psychological curiosity it may be deemed of incomparable interest: as literature it has another aspect. Luckily, what free verse really means, the essence and heart of it, is not a matter of opinion but of cold fact: an opinion of it would hardly be worth bothering with here. The fact involved stares at us, first blankly, then comically, as soon as the obvious test is applied. Suppose this morning we were to read in our newspaper this paragraph:

"He rounded the house toward the road seaward. They saw him between the low oak-bush and the log wall, moving his arms as if a multitude waited outside the gap-roofed shed."

Not one human being, however minded about art and literature, and whether reading these lines once and indifferently, or many times and heedfully, would imagine them to be poetry. Not one would fail to scorn the suggestion that they should be called poetry.

Yet restore these lines to the book from which they were taken and to the manner in which they were printed there, and observe:

He rounded the house toward the road seaward.
They saw him between the low oak-bush and the log wall,
Moving his arms as if a multitude waited
Outside the gap-roofed sheds.

Now, by this simple magic, the lines heretofore merest prose are in the view of this delusion transformed into unquestionable poetry and the writer of them is crowned with a prize.

To accept such a doctrine we must believe that the only difference between poetry and prose lies in a sufficiency of capital letters in the printer’s type case. At once then, with only the printer’s artful aid, any work hitherto classed as prose becomes poetry, from the Germania of Tacitus to the reports of the stock market.

Free verse was not the only emotional malaria that came with this period and had its febrile exhaustion and passed. For a time we were hot upon the trail of the adjective and furnished forth our poetic tables with fantastical banquets of strange verbal dishes. This quaint faddism went so far that poems came to be judged upon no other basis than their supply of epithets that sent us scurrying to the dictionary, sometimes to search in vain there, sometimes to be rewarded with discoveries more startling than joyous.

Other phases of the Jugend Bewegung [German: "youth movement," but with the sense of "boy wonders"] were not so diverting. A cynical writer of the times discerned a new definition of poetry. He said it meant two quatrains, the first incomprehensible, the second indecent. This, in truth, was a gross exaggeration. Yet it must be admitted that among the practitioners of emancipated thought were some that went far, being adrift between mysticism and pornography, and others that went still farther. Some of their verse making was mawkish, some morbid, and some plainly pathological, with revelations of stigmata familiar to alienists. Yet the bulk of the poetic output remained uninfected by all this, and, considering the times, was conspicuously wholesome and sound.

From Charles Edward Russell, An Hour of American Poetry (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1929), 153-156.

William Rose Benét

"Mr. Moon’s Notebook" (1928)

[A humorous column appearing regularly in the Saturday Review of Literature, a weekly that was The New Criterion of its day, devoted to defending against change. Stephen Rose Benet was the Hilton Kramer of his day. He quotes here from three poems in White Buildings, the opening of "Stark Major," the closing lines of "Lachrymae Christi," the opening lines of "Pastorale" and a single line from the middle of "Lachrysme Christi." See F. Cudworth Flint’s commentary on these parodies in "metaphor in Contemporary Poetry," above.]

March 1st: Just Craning around.

The more I think of it the less I can make out of it. Last night there was champagne and today – No, no, no, don’t make that pun or I shall scream! No. No. Now. Now. Easy; be easy; everything under control; tha-at’s right! Light night – there was – champagne; and today – there’s – Hart Crane. That’s better. Now it’s over. I knew it would be better. I knew I could walk around that obstacle safely; if I only took my time to do it. But still – the more I think of it, the less I can make out of it. I mean Mr. Crane’s poetry.

I thought I’d be sure to like any writer named Crane. I have always liked the poetry of Stephen Crane and the drawings and writings of Walter Crane. But the poetry of Hart Crane – well, suppose there had been a great deal of champagne the evening before and then the next day you started in reading something like this:


The lover’s death, how regular
With lifting spring and starker
Vestiges of the sun that somehow
Filter in to us before we waken.

Oh dear, oh dear! Keep it away! There it is coming nearer again. Humming behind its hat! You know I didn’t really read that; that’s just the way the words looked to me on the page. They make more sense than that, really; that’s just the way I feel today. But I’m getting all right. Pretty soon everything will come quite into focus. I’ll try again now:


From charged and riven stakes, O
Dionysus, Thy
Unmangled target smile.

O, thy unmangled target smile, O – O – whoooop, my unmangled target smile, O, o,o, o, that unmangled target smile! Oh, dear! There, I feel so much worse again. I don’t see why I can’t read the words correctly. Every time I pick up the book, though, the type on the page seems to form into thinks like

No more violets,
And the year
Broken into smoky panels.
What woods remember now
Her calls, her enthusiasms.

It’s not a question, because there’s no interrogation point. And yet it seems to be a question, and it simply breaks my whole afternoon up into smoky panels. And it induces the dangerous frame of mind that sets me to doing the same thing. I know I’m in no state; but still, we’ll entitle it "Musette"; and I’ve got a swell first line to start it off with:


Let us by apples be believed;
No rainy crow
Jangling a heaven sparked with light
Can murk the orchard more;
For apples now relate, remind,
Vertumnian …

The neighing night
Falls to flat peace, lays gold on gray;
The rose and violet shower …
And this is past.
Your eyes immediacies
Apples incredulous of heaven.

Yes, I did that. No, that wasn’t Crane. I did that. Pretty good, eh? That wasn’t Crane. That was all that’s left of the champagne. And here’s another one too. It’s even a bit better. I call it

Rhetorical Question

A dromedary dreams all neck
Peered round but patient wax impressed the die of steel …
Poised on a pin-point. Dark
Riddling said Paracelsus is the illusion yet
Magammon will not miss the way,
His house being bright.

Pretty darn deep, that one. Ha! I should say it is. A lot too deep for you, my good man. Yes, sir, that’s my riddle! Yes, sir, taradiddle! Yes, sir, that’s my riddle now!

I don’t think poetry’s much of a craft after all. There’re two poems dashed off just like that, and Crane only has about twenty-five or thirty in his volume. I could do a book in a week. And all as good as those I showed you. And Eugene O’Neill says Crane’s poems are "profound and deep-seeking." So are mine. What do you mean by saying mine are not expressions of seeking? They certainly are expressions of seeking. They certainly are deep. Why are they jokes, if this sort of thing is considered with the most intense respect by Edmund Wilson in the New Republic:

Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes

Why is that good; somebody tell me! And if it is, why is this not good? The little thing as it crawls into my head is called:


O vengeful lip
that followed lashing. I had turned
away; the fire engine
clanged through my body yet I turned
away – and then
curled vengeful cracking
like a whip.

I can just see those people! Can’t you just see those people! Pretty dark good too, to stick that unexpected rhyme in at the end. Pretty daring. Then, if one wants a dash of the Continong:


… and in the yellow light
barring the floor
eyes hurdling
blush-coloured flesh;
thirst whispered pool,
and yellow turned to crome;
Of Poringland
The oak
uprose …
Old Crome! Old Crome!
That light, that tree,
Those bathers …
Thirst …

This is obviously an expression of acute nostalgia on the part of an exiled Briton with a rather nice taste in painting. It absolutely gets me. As to where he is when he is thinking all this – oh, well, anybody can see that he’s somewhere in Paris. I’m good, aren’t I? Really I’m extremely good. Three arresting poems in – let’s see – half an hour. And I actually feel no sense of exhaustion. No, I do assure you. In fact, I’m feeling better. And just then a splendid line boomed into my head. Listen – oh, it’s a knockout – "I smell your gas-range fears." So, let’s go. I think it must be from the poem called:


You nudge a cornice for I could not
pursue that quenching posture if
the curdled wheat
ate into blonde exuberance
but no
no blaze of silver burnish. From the door
I smell your gas-range fears.

This is a bit more difficult, but as some critic has said, I "focus on the consequences of the state of mind." In the first place, it’s quite apparent that I am walking along with some one with an inferiority complex. Who should it chance to be but Bill Apstly? He is always overcome when he sees a policeman; perhaps because he once lived up the river. So I note him crowding against a building rather abjectly, and admit that nothing could make me do the same, even if – well, here we have to go back a bit in my history. I hail from Kansas. I ran a threshing machine out there all one summer. Aptsly came to work on the same farm. I am a heavy man, of about two hundred pounds, with rather bright yellow hair. When I say "curdled" of the wheat, it is an expression of dislike, just as much so as if I said "that damned wheat" – only more poetic. So now you begin to get it. Even if work in a wheat field had destroyed my fine physique I wouldn’t go around like a scared jack rabbit. That’s what I mean to say. But poor old Apstly shows "no blaze of silver burnish," e. e.: courage. No, there he is, cowering in the doorway at the mere sight of a policeman. He exudes terror like a poisonous odor of gas. See? What? Why couldn’t I have told my story more directly? Good heavens, my dear person, this is poetry!

But that’s a pretty good story about Apstly and myself, isn’t it? I could work it up, with a bit more plot, maybe, and sell it to a magazine. No, when I called the poem "Apstly," I didn’t know about Bill then. But I do now!

Stephen Rose Benet, "Mr. Moon’s Journal," Saturday Review of Literature 4:33 (March 10, 1928), 665.

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