Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity (2006) and How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse (2012)—look past the oversimplified narratives and supposedly "key" texts and movements constructed to explain and package American poetry and find in the process huge archives of interesting material that everyone seems to have forgotten and that, when brought to light, complicate the stories and party lines by which poets and literary historians have been navigating for, like, ever. That is, while most scholars are looking one way—picking, for example, over the corpses (er, we mean corpora) of a few great modern poets to find some overlooked detail to bring to light—Newcomb looks the other way, at the masses of stuff that aren't really hidden but that everyone's chosen to ignore because they think they know what it's all about.
Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory 1910-1945, for example, and many scholars of poetry by women, working class writers, and writers of color have made it part and parcel of what they do. But Newcomb's success doing so now, over the course of two books and after the era of large-scale canon expansion, shows us that what Nelson claimed and illustrated over twenty years ago—that "we no longer know the history of the poetry of the first half of this century; most of us, moreover, do not know that the knowledge is gone"—is somehow, amazingly, still the case. With PhD programs in English turning out high numbers of graduate students focusing on modernism and American literature, all of whom would probably cut out the Norton Anthology's table of contents in exchange for new material and new archives to distinguish their work from their peers, Newcomb's research method—when everyone's looking one way, just look another—stands as a sort of testament to the persistent myopia of American poetry studies. One might say that while most everyone else is watching the same ol' rabbit being pulled out of the same ol' hat, Newcomb's trying to figure out how to saw the magician in half.
Fireside Poets—the revered and astonishingly popular group of sagely, bearded, three-named New England writers including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom many people perceived to be the first "real" American poets—were old or had died. Younger poets wanted to move American poetry forward and address the concerns of a new "modern" era in new ways and forms (the Fireside Poets, btw, were famous for their religiosity, dedication to an idealistic but quickly fading agrarian way of life, and scorn for anything modern that would challenge that religiosity and agrarian ideal), but whenever they tried to do so, they were criticized for not writing like the Big 6, who had made American poetry American after all. At the same time, though, whenever poets in the new generation did write like the Big 6, they were criticized for being derivative, for being Fireside knockoffs or retreads. This double bind—in which poets were damned if they wrote like the Fireside poets and yet damned if they didn't—left American poetry in such a pickle, Newcomb claims, that some people wondered if poetry had in fact run its course and was on the verge of disappearing. Despite our sense today of that time as a dearth period out of which the Phoenix of "modernism" would spring on or about 1910 or 1912, however, Would Poetry Disappear? reveals that people were in fact writing or trying to write "literary" poetry, and if we read that poetry from the perspective of its relationship to this double bind, it can get kind of interesting. In the process, the poetic renaissance of "modernism" looks less unique and messianic; it didn't breed lilacs from the dead land and feed dull roots with rain, because the land wasn't in fact so dead and the roots weren't that dull. As our mama used to say, there are no dull texts, only dull readers.
official verse culture," and it's a departure from many books on modern poetry because it doesn't focus on a few key revolutionary figures (a Big 6-equivalent of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Gertrude Stein, for example) or fetishize avant-garde cliques like Objectivism or Futurism; instead, it attributes poetry's "survival" to a large scale shift that was effected not by messianic figures or movements but by "the collective efforts of hundreds of people involved in the New Verse movement"—efforts that were both more populist and more diverse than the stories we now tell about "modernism" would have it.
Poetry after Cultural Studies, see, for example, Angela Sorby's study of Longfellow's "The Birds of Killingworth," which confronts the mass killing of birds and thus becomes part of the early U.S. environmental movement.) If Longfellow was about God, farms, and family homesteads, the new poetries were about the gutter and skyline, the skyscraper, and the subway; How Did Poetry Survive? ends, in fact, with three chapters about poems that analyze the social and cultural impact of these very subjects. Poets in the New Verse movement published widely in newspapers and magazines and, in taking urban-capitalist modernity as a key topic, experimented with form, diction, syntax, and various modes of representation in all sorts of ways "to create a poetry of everyday experience that was widely accessible to nonspecialists, yet still sufficiently complex and nuanced to attract the admiration of literary professionals and connoisseurs." Some of these poets you may remember but won't find all that many people talking about at the Modernist Studies Association these days: Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Harriet Monroe, for instance. Others—like Arthur Davison Ficke, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Orrick Johns, Alice Corbin Henderson, Jean Starr Untermeyer, Witter Bynner, James Oppenheim, Maxwell Bodenheim, Elinor Wylie, Laura Benet, George Sterling, Clinton Scollard, Margaret Widdemer, and Marguerite Wilkinson—you may have never heard of unless you're in the habit of casually browsing through the early years of magazines like Poetry. We here at P&PC can vouch for their popularity, too; we learned of them not from Poetry or Newcomb's book, but by examining poetry scrapbooks kept by ordinary readers during that time (like the one pictured above, for example), which are chock full of verse by these and other folks attached to the New Verse.
Cary Nelson), and those interested in poetry of aesthetic and formal experimentation (aka the school of Marjorie Perloff). You might remember the recent brouhaha when Helen Vendler harshed on the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove? (For Vendler's harsh, click here; for Dove's response, click here.) Kinda the same sort of thing. For Newcomb, it's not the formal experimentation of modern poetry that allowed poetry to survive the crisis of 1880-1910. Nor is it modern poetry's turn to social themes and subject matter that allowed it to survive. Rather, it's the combination of these two traits that makes it modern and—more importantly—made it relevant for American readers. How Did Poetry Survive? does not come out and say it explicitly, but it seems to be claiming that, all this time, as one camp of poetry criticism has been berating the other in one form or another, poetry scholars and critics have actually been two sides of the same coin. They were right. And we were right. And approaching modernism via Newcomb's map of the collective accomplishment of the New Verse—rather than via a Big 6 or something like it—can show that to us. Everyone goes home happy, right?
Charles Oluf Olsen, Leland Davis, Eleanor Hammond, Ethel Romig Fuller, Howard McKinley Corning, Borghild Lundberg Lee, and Ada Hastings Hedges, all of whom published in Poetry) were staging a version of the more well-known New Verse scenes back East; the Portland Telegram called them an "insurgent group" because of their desire to wrest control of, and thereby make more relevant, the Northwest Poetry Society, and Poetry's editor Harriet Monroe visited them in 1926, suggesting that she and other New Verse poets recognized that while there were definite scenes in the nation's two largest cities, the renaissance they were leading and learning from was in fact a much broader phenomenon than even the "hundreds of people" Newcomb pegs to Chicago and New York. In fact, it's quite possible that without these and other poets around the nation sending their New Verse poetry to Poetry (like so many trains sending livestock to the Windy City's slaughterhouses, perhaps), Chicago might never have achieved the status as a literary center that it ultimately acquired. Scholars have been tracking this geographic problematic in regard to other modernist centers—that the "Harlem" Renaissance wasn't happening only in Harlem but in African American communities across the U.S., for example, or that modern artists were involved in scenes throughout Europe and not just Paris—and thus, rather than adhering to a narrative in which Paris, London, New York, and Chicago lead the way, are mapping out what "modernism" meant in various places and how it took shape in relation to different social and cultural forces. We here at P&PC don't see any reason why the same shouldn't be done in studies of American poetry as well, giving artists across the nation a share of the credit for "modernizing" poetry that places like the Big Apple and the Hog Butcher For the World have otherwise been monopolizing for so long.
Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have broken down this binary that, in conventional narratives of American literature, makes the urban center into a default position (urban, engaged, important, universal, and "realist") against which everywhere else is imagined to be backward, disengaged, simple, of local interest and "local color" and thus merely "regional." We here at P&PC suspect that there is much to be learned from the New Verse about how modernity was affecting more than just urban centers, and we'd thus call on critics to stop fetishizing the city as somehow the epitome or primary barometer of modern experience. For example, Vachel Lindsay—a famous figure in the New Verse movement—lived in Springfield, Illinois, traveled the U.S. (oftentimes on foot) reading to people in between the cities, and helped pave the poetry-reading circuit at schools in the South and West where East Coast poets wouldn't have deigned to visit since they couldn't imagine any "culture" out there in the hinterlands. In fact, Lindsay called on poets to leave their urban centers and bring their art back to small towns. It is time, we think, to revisit the urban bias of modernist studies and realize that "modernity" didn't just happen in cities and to poets living in cities, but happened elsewhere in various ways as well; after all, if we focus only on the cities with their skyscrapers, gutters, and rapid transit systems, we not only ignore how things like electricity, telephones, automobiles, changes in food production and distribution, the building of Carnegie Libraries, etc. transformed and modernized life outside of urban centers, but we also risk losing sight of the larger systems of production that provided the meat, grain, cotton, timber, and other things that the city needed and consumed. In a sense, modernism has been so busy studying the poetry of "blue" areas that, like the Democratic party, it has caricatured and thus lost the "red." How the New Verse related to, understood, and analyzed modernity as something more than an urban phenomenon is a crucial but unacknowledged part of Modernist Studies and one that, from our perspective, How Did Poetry Survive? does nothing to correct.
Edith Granger who did much of the work, Granger's listed 30,000 poems indexed or cataloged by title, author, first line, and subject—this in an era when poetry, according to How Did Poetry Survive?, was hanging by the thinnest of threads. (For more on Granger, see the great "Edith Granger Project" being run by Audra Deemer.) The next edition of Granger's (1918) would include 50,000 titles, and most of those were mainly poems printed in books and anthologies, not in magazines, newspapers, or elsewhere. What the juxtaposition of Granger's and Poetry—two publications, both assembled by women, and both published out of the Windy City—reveals is that the exaggerated drama of poetry's extinction and resurrection at the core of How Did Poetry Survive? is dramatic only because it features a certain type of poetry important to certain people. For many other people, poetry wasn't dead or dying or irrelevant; it was in fact proliferating so quickly that folks needed an index devoted to it just to keep track of it all. And if Poetry could be said to have reinvented or transformed how people went about getting their poetry, Granger's could be said to have done so as well: it became the go-to public library reference guide for poetry all across the U.S. for most of the century—and it's still going too. In other words, maybe it wasn't just Poetry and the little magazine scene that Poetry represents to us today, but Granger's, which we've more or less forgotten but which tells another kind of story, that helped American verse survive in a modernizing world.
Chicago" in Poetry) indicates that maybe the impulse to "modernize" poetry didn't come solely from within the literary tradition but from popular culture as well. Maybe, that is, the imaginative power attributed to literary poetry and to poets seeking to make verse relevant to modernity didn't begin with the New Verse movement but developed in relation to, and was perhaps even triggered by, popular poetry. Finally, you can hear Charlton Lawrence Edholm (author of "Song of the City") sighing years later, belles lettres has caught up! Listen to Edholm trying, in Whitmanesque cadences, to teach the Poet about the city, perching him on top of one of the skyscrapers that How Did Poetry Survive? says the New Verse movement took up as subject matter in helping to save poetry:
Here on the topmost girder, stand for a moment and listen,
Close your eyes lest you sicken
To look on streets a-swarming,
A swift Death-drop below you.
Close your eyes to the workers, on thin and narrow planking
Nonchalant. Tossing and catching
The flying, red-hot rivets
Above the heads of the city ....
In fact, as "Song of the City" proceeds—in a fairly innovative verse form of varying line lengths, metrical structures, and strong enjambments, mind you—to go through a catalog of urban sounds particular to the modern city (page two of the broadside, pictured below), Edholm even picks up on the topic of Newcomb's Chapter 8 ("Subway Fare: Toward a Poetics of Rapid Transit) with the line, "The screech of the hurtling trains, that hurry recruits to the battle." Skyscrapers and rapid transit in the same 1908 poem, yo!
capsule biography says he was born in Omaha in 1879, was raised by parents who were also writers, studied painting in Europe, had his work exhibited at the Whitney, and eventually settled in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a town of 4,000-5,000 on the Hudson River. He was an editor at Live Stories and Out West and published widely—poems, articles, short stories, serials, novels—all over the literary map, from the New York Times and The Saturday Evening Post to Sweetheart Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, and The Phantom Detective. Are you saying to yourself about now, "Oh, that Charlton Edholm"? Neither are we.