'How Did Poetry Survive?'

July 16, 2012

Poetry, John Timberman Newcomb believes, has lost status in recent years. In the introduction to his new book, How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse (University of Illinois Press), Newcomb argues that American poetry has been "segregat[ed] ... from modern social experience" -- with the result that poetry is hardly even considered "literature" anymore.

This isn't the first time that American poetry's star has waned. In How Did Poetry Survive?, Newcomb traces the genre's changing fortunes at the turn of the 20th century, arguing that poets' engagement with modern topics and "ordinary life" played a key role in their works' return to widely acknowledged cultural relevance.

Newcomb, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes that this history merits study not only for the value of the works that have been largely forgotten, but also for the light it sheds on poetry's current struggles -- and its uncertain future.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Newcomb via e-mail to find out more about his book.

Q: You write that your book differs from most other depictions of the emergence of modern American poetry. What is new or unusual about your account?

A:
Most histories of modern American poetry written since around 1945 emphasize the stylistic innovations of the 1910s and 1920s, especially Imagism and free verse, and also focus narrowly on just a few canonical figures, as if they produced their great works in a vacuum. In contrast, mine balances an emphasis on formal innovation with American poets' bold turn toward modern subject matter, especially the industrial city as the defining space of 20th-century experience. I also cast a much wider net than most, discussing works by dozens of poets, often juxtaposing well-known and nearly forgotten poems written on similar subjects in order to provide a more comprehensive sense of the variety and richness of the "New Poetry" movement.

Q: What does it mean to "make visible another possible past for modern American poetry," and why is it important to do so?

A:
In the decades after 1945, the number of early 20th-century American poets considered worth studying in an academic context diminished from dozens to just a few, which I consider a great loss to our sense of our own literature. In essence, the scholarship of the postwar era created a particular and rather narrow past for modern American poetry focused around a few titanic figures.

But if you look back at surveys of contemporary verse written before 1945, you find that a great many more poets were taken seriously as artists. It may be surprising to realize that among those eventually "lost" were some of the most popular writers of the day. Among many others, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, and even Robert Frost to some extent were dismissed from the academic canon, in part precisely because they were popular among a general reading public. I feel that a past that ignores writers so influential in their own time is woefully incomplete, and thus my work attempts to create a more inclusive and comprehensive version of American poetry's past.

Another part of the lost past I hope to return to general awareness is the vast and rich vein of poetry that engaged the urgent social and political issues of the day. During the 1910s, the two most significant categories of this socially oriented verse dealt with the struggles of organized labor and the catastrophe of world war. By taking these poems seriously as works of art as well as historical documents, my book seeks to enhance our sense of modern poetry's value as a form of social comment.

Q: "In 1850," you write, "poetry was the central genre of American literary culture. Fifty years later it was widely viewed as a mawkish refuge for dilettantes and sentimentalists." What was the cause of this seismic shift?

A:
These 50 years were defined by breakneck change, in which the United States transformed itself from a predominantly rural confederation of states into a world power of industrial capitalism. Great cities grew, vast concentrations of wealth were accumulated, giant logistical systems were developed, newspapers and other consumer goods were marketed on a mass national scale, and new technologies drastically altered the pace and complexity of everyday life. While often exhilarating, such changes also created tremendous psychic disorientation, and that led to a need for refuge. In the years after the Civil War, poetry was seized upon as such a psychic refuge, the antithesis and ostensible antidote to the accelerating pace and growing impersonality of everyday experience. Its aging custodians, deploring the “unpoetic” times, clung to rules of form and elevated standards of diction codified decades or even centuries earlier, and demanded portrayals of American life in nostalgic pastoral imagery – as if by excluding the voices and spaces of the city they might nullify the destabilizing force of urban-industrial modernity.

Confined to this nostalgic and escapist role, poetry became less and less relevant to most people's lives. By the mid-1890s, when the last of the revered "Fireside poets" died and no younger writers seemed worthy to assume their places, we begin to find numerous commentaries wondering whether literary poetry was, quite simply, obsolete in a world of hard-headed prose and instantly consumable cultural commodities such as dime novels and popular songs. The great achievement of the New Verse movement of the 1910s was to make poetry relevant again by immersing it into the spaces, technologies, and social dynamics of the modern city.

Q: You mention "poetry's current disciplinary crisis in the American academy." What is the nature of this crisis?

A:
Since the advent of more historically-based approaches in the literary academy in the early 1990s, poetry has declined noticeably in its status among scholars of American literature relative to prose fiction and other forms of prose. In fact, one major book of scholarly essays on New Historicism and American literature contains no work dealing with poetry at all, as if "American literature" was to be understood entirely as American fiction. There's a perception around that poetry and history don't mix, or that poems don't speak to historical contexts as vividly as prose works do. I don't believe this is true, and I hope my book shows that many poems of the 1910s and 1920s spoke powerfully to the most pressing concerns of modern American life at that moment.

Q: Are there lessons from the "New Verse movement" for those who might like to see a "further revival [of American poetry] in the 21st century"?

A:
Don't turn your back on the world around you, or on history, or on "ordinary life." I am not an expert in very recent American poetry so it's presumptuous for me to say so, but some recent verse I've read seems primarily or entirely concerned with the inner life of the poet -- his or her responses to the natural world, to works of art, to somewhat rarefied emotional states. Lyric poetry addresses these precious aspects of being human better than any other form of writing, and this will, I hope, never stop being the case. But poetry can and must also speak to the mundane, the political, the technological -- to every aspect of 21st-century experience.

Poetry can also tell great stories: one recent work of narrative verse I would strongly recommend for its success in balancing the political, personal, and historical is David Mason's Ludlow, which juxtaposes the story of a violent labor conflict in Colorado in the 1910s with the author's reminiscences of childhood and his adult experiences.  

Q: Who is your intended audience for this book? What do you hope they'll take away from it?

A:
I hope that students, teachers, and anyone else interested in 20th-century poetry would find the book illuminating, and I tried to avoid using overspecialized jargon that might make it less comprehensible or appealing to readers who aren't specialists in the field.

I hope that readers would come away from it with a refreshed sense of how much lively and potent poetry was written during this era, much of it nearly unknown now. I also hope that at least one poet will appeal to readers so strongly that they will seek out more of that poet's work.  One way to do this is to visit the companion web anthology that contains the full text of every poem mentioned in the book.

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