Essay

From the Archive: New Poetry

The bibliography was "the meanest job I ever undertook," wrote Harriet Monroe in 1917. That was the year Poetry's founding editor published The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Verse in English, containing more than a hundred authors, from Thomas Hardy, to Langston Hughes, to Wallace Stevens, to Adelaide Crapsey. The volume addressed a public demand which Monroe felt responsible for answering. She had observed that in both the United States and England poetry was experiencing a "renascence." "Indeed many critics feel that poetry is coming nearer than either the novel or the drama to the actual life of our time," she wrote in the anthology's introduction. And with that widespread resurgence, both literary scholars and enthusiasts were debating a term: "the new poetry." Not keen on labels, Monroe prepared her collection with some trepidation. While most people assumed that treatment of form distinguished the new poetry from the old, Monroe explained: "The difference is not in mere details of form, for much poetry infused with the new spirit conforms to the old measures and rhyme-schemes . . . The new poetry strives for a concrete and immediate realization of life . . . It has set before itself an ideal of absolute simplicity and sincerity . . . an individual, unstereotyped rhythm."

Monroe traced the roots of the new English poetry to Yeats and Synge. She claimed that these Irish lyricists were inspired by the "primitive" simplicity of old Celtic songs and that they rejected the stiff "pulpit eloquence" of Lord Tennyson and his followers. Yeats himself described it this way: "'We tried to strip away everything that was artificial, to get a style like speech, as simple as the simplest prose, like a cry of the heart.'" Monroe also acknowledged Whitman's impact on the new style, as well as that of non-English language poetry and art. She asserted that "the new poetry" was cosmopolitan, drawing from the spirits of French symbolistes, Italian sonnet-writers, and Japanese and Chinese artists. " . . . [these influences] are by no means a defiance of the classic tradition. On the contrary, they are an endeavor to return to it at its great original sources, and to sweep away artificial laws — the ober dicta of secondary minds — which have encumbered it."

Poet Conrad Aiken titled his unfavorable review of the anthology, "The Monroe Doctrine of Poetry," but it was otherwise well-received. The New York Times review from March 11, 1917, called it "a book that will give great enjoyment, and bears strong witness to the often heard assertion that we are in the midst of a revival of poetry." Even so, the reviewer admitted to avoiding the twenty pages of Ezra Pound, was baffled by an experimental poem by Bodenheim ("To A Discarded Steel Rail"), and concluded that "the loveliest of the 'new poems' are first brothers to their elders."

For twenty-first century readers, The New Poetry is a surprising, sometimes odd, collection. You'll find Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and early Kunitz and Cummings sandwiched between long-forgotten names. The most pleasing aspects of the book are the lengthy bibliographical notes at the back, and the way that alphabetizing the poets creates juxtapositions. In the introduction to the third edition, Monroe delighted in that too: "On the whole modern poets are individualists, which is perhaps the healthiest tendency of all . . . In this anthology we present them as individuals, connected only by the alphabetical chain which, with delightful unconcern, neighbors Edgar Lee Masters with Charlotte Mew and Winifred Welles with John V.A. Weaver."




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Originally Published: September 2, 2008

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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