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Crosby’s "Rivals": A Brief Selection of Atlantic Monthly Poems in the 1920s

Edward Brunner

Crosby’s biographer Geoffrey Wolff disclosed that Crosby all his life submitted poems to the Atlantic Monthly. Wolff writes: "Usually his poems were turned down flat, without comment, but a few came close. One rejection, dated October 25, 1927, and signed by the Atlantic Monthly Company, is representative. It reads, in part: ‘To us, the difficulty with the sonnet seems that the questions invited are such that it is hardly surprising no answer is given. And if we may put our own question, is the rhyme of the last line of "Study for a Soul" permissible?’"

According to Wolff, Crosby submitted groups of poems on fifteen occasions to the magazine. The Atlantic Monthly only a small amount of verse over the course of a year – about two dozen poems. No doubt to appear in such exclusive company was appealing, and perhaps Crosby dreamed of making a splash in his own neighborhood. The magazine was, after all, published in Boston, and he had a connection there in his classmate Ellery Sedgewick. To understand why Crosby’s submissions were at best very long shots indeed, here is a sample of verse that the editors found suitable for printing in the period when Crosby was submitting his work.

Note: the dialect poetry reproduced here accurately reproduces the magazine’s investment in such work: in both 1925 and 1929, the editors published not just one or two poems in dialect but dialect poetry in groups of three "songs." In both instances, the writers were identified as women from the south, allied with a plantation. As for the other poets, Archibald MacLeish was, in the 1920s, the brash young Harvard graduate who had turned away from his employment at the Choate Law Firm to pursue an artistic career in Paris; Harry knew him in Paris and published his work. Bliss Carman was a member of the "Vagabond" group, a loose gathering of kindred spirits in the Whitman tradition that were a fresh nativist response to the British decadents – the "Vagabonds" were healthy nature poets – and, in their emphasis on life-style and freedom from constraint, genteel precusrors of the Beats.

from the Atlantic Monthly, 1922

Theodore Maynard

The band began its music, and I saw
    A hundred people in the cabaret
    Stand up in couples meekly to obey
The arbitrary and remorseless law
Of custom. And I wondered what could draw
    Their weary wills to this fulfillment. Gay
    They were not. They embraced without dismay,
Lovers who showed an awful lack of awe.

Then, as I sat and drank my wine apart,
    I pondered on this new religion, which
    Lay heavily on the faces of the rich,
        Who, occupied with ritual, never smiled –
Because I heard, within my quiet heart,
        Happiness laughing like a little child.

Biographical Note: "Theodore Maynard, a poet new to the Atlantic, sends us his sonnet from California."

from the Atlantic Monthly, 1925

Mississippi Melodies
Virginia Moore

III. Cotton Chorus

Niggah standin’, niggah squattin’,
Flirt yo’ fingahs in de cotton
    Boles what huddle thick;
Tag along de Aprul harrow
What wedged wobbly, deep, an’ narrow –
    Pick, pick, pick!

Drap no riffraff in de cotton,
Nothin’ sharp an’ nothin’ rotten
    Lak a leaf o’ stick;
Swang it on yo’ giant shouldah
‘Foh de racin’ sun am oldah –
    Pick, pick, pick!

All de cankahs in de cotton,
Wo’ms an’ weevils am fohgotten
    An’ fohgotten quick,
When de bended backs an’ fingahs
Ob a hund’ud blackbird singahs
    Pick, pick, pick!

Gunny sacks ob cleanes’ cotton,
Lak a goss’mah cloud a-clottin’,
    Once was flowah-sick –
Pink an’ pale an’ vi’let gloomin’,
Color ob a ‘latto ‘ooman –
    Pick, pick, pick!

Augus’ sun am pow’ful hot an’
Set on arguin’ wid de cotton
    Lak a luni-tick –
But de cool ob night am comin’
An’ de dimmy stars am hummin’
    Pick, pick, pick!

Biographical Note: "The primitive and natural melodies of Virginia Moore are rooted in the earth of the Mississippi plantation where Miss Moore and her family have lived for generations."

from The Atlantic Monthly, 1925

Conversation Balnéaire
by Archibald MacLeish

I indicate the evening sea. I say,
This endless silence edged with unending sound!
I say, This colorless where colors sway
and swim like lustre in a pearl, this drowned
moonshine, this shallow of translucent air,
this bubble that the winds break, the clouds change,
this smooth, this vague, this sea!
                                                You merely stare.
You turn your face to me. You say, it’s strange,
unreal almost. I don’t know what they mean,
these waves, this water. If I shut my eyes
it’s gone—like that—as though I’d never seen
the sea at all.
                   And I, But realize
how many more have looked on it as we,
            Your eyes change. You say, The sea!

from The Atlantic Monthly, 1925

by Bliss Carman

My glorious enchantress,
She went in silken hose,
With swaying hop and curving lip
And little tilted nose,
As full of fragrant fire
As any English rose.

Her voice across the morning,
Like olden balladry
Or magic notes from woodland throats,
It laid a spell on me
As wondrous as the west wind
And haunting as the sea.

She might have walked with Chaucer
A-jesting all the way,
Her figure trim a joy to him,
Her beauty like the day,
With that unfailing spirit
Which nothing can dismay.

Her heart was full of caring,
Her eyes were touched with dream.
In happy birth, in noble worth,
I thought that she did seem
As fair as Kentish roses
And rich as Devon cream.

I loved her airy carriage,
Her bearing clean and proud,
When glad and fond she looked beyond
The plaudits of the crowd,
Or when in prayer or sorrow
Her comely head was bowed.

I loved her eerie piping
Of measures without name.
Wild as a faun at rosy dawn,
Out of the crowd she came
To breathe upon old altars
A fresh untroubled flame.

I loved her lyric ardor,
Her chosen words and dress,
Her dryad’s face, her yielding grace,
Her glowing waywardness,
Her deep adoring passion
No careless eye would guess,

And all the while as lovely
As early daffodils,
When woodland Spring comes blossoming
Among the western hills,
And from her trilling garments
A mystic glory spills.

O sorceress of raptures
Beyond the dream of art,
be still our guide to walk beside
And choose the better part –
Thou lyric of enchantment!
Thou flower of Nature’s heart!

from The Atlantic Monthly, 1927

The Bestiary
by Lillian White Spencer


In pale moon fields the unicorn,
Crowned by his diamond-piercing horn,
Is hunted, though with poor success.
Man’s trespass he will not endure.
Woman, to tame him, must be pure.
Alas! This causes awkwardness.

Sea Serpent

Through hoary legend and old rhyme
He swims Atlantic tides of time.
Andromeda was once his prey,
And rumor says to Jonah he
Showed depths of hospitality,
And that he sails the blue to-day.


He was the ancient Hebrews’ friend
That to the desert they would send
With all their sins for company,
While, good and dull, they stayed behind.
The emissary did not mind:
"Why, these are pleasure trips," said he.


About the blacksmith’s red forge dance
Elves whom King Francis First of France
Bore on his shield. And, leaping higher,
Around the family hearth they flit.
But men grow bald if on them spit
These glowing scarlet sprites of fire.


Twelve-footed, with a puppy’s whine,
On sea salts only did she dine
(Homer himself has told us this).
Thrusting her six heads through the wave
She snatched up sailors to her cave,
And had for neighbor Charybdis.


White-pinioned steed whose flight is far –
To realms beyond the utmost star,
Where is your glory soaring now?
Here lies a feather from your wing;
There, in your hoofprint, flowers spring;
But men have chained you to a plough.

… [Spencer also writes stanzas on a gargoyle, the herd of Diomedes, porphyrions and centaurs.]


This lion-eagle’s flaming breast
Guards in the sun his golden nest
And orbs of fire strike thieves dead.
So, to his treasure, men are blind –
Still . . . one or two declare him kind;
Poets can charm him, it is said.


High-eyried on an Eden palm,
His gold wings dripping sweetest balm,
One sings with everlasting breath
Whom Eve sought vainly to entice. . . .
Now, nowhere save in paradise,
Dwells Beauty free from taint of death.

Biographical Note: "Hunting through mythology, astronomy and the classics, Lynn White Spencer has collected a menagerie the likes of which were never seen on sea or land – and we include Noah’s."

from the Atlantic Monthly, 1929

Black Songs
by Nancy Byrd Turner

[There are three "Black Songs" altogether; all are in dialect. This is a reprinting of the one that is a sonnet, entitled "Black Cat."]

Don’t never cross a road what a black cat cross –
‘T ain’t nothin’ but sorrow, ‘t ain’t nothin’ but loss.
Brindle cat, spotted cat, dem’s all right;
Safety in a yaller cat, blessin’ in a white;
But, de black cat ructious, wid a bristle in his tail,
He fotchin’ for de Debble, and he better not fail.
De black cat travel wid his belly in de dus’;
He gwine whar he gwine, and he gwine kase he mus’.

Black cat, black cat – when he cross yo’ track,
No matter where you gwine,
Toa dippin’ or a dyin’,
No matter whar you hurryin’,
To a marryin’ or a buryin’ –
                      You better turn back!

Biographical Note: "Nancy Byrd Turner achieved deserved reputation by writing the one poem in celebration of Lindburgh’s flight to Paris which was worthy of the events, and of poetry."

[Note: the poem referred to in this note, entitled "The Ballad of Lucky Lindbergh," was collected by Turner in Star in a Well (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935), pp. 154-157. That volume also collects eight dialect poems, including "The Black Cat."]

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