Best American Poetry 1919?
Scudder Middleton, Lenora Speyer, Gladys Cromwell: these are some of the names that dominate the Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1919, edited by William Stanley Braithwaite—(no relation to David Lehman, though the idea of the collection is the same).
Some contributors still ring a proverbial bell—Claude McKay, Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edwin Arlington Robinson—but the vast majority have vanished from our poetic landscape, buried beneath layers of snow. Good-bye Edwin Piper, adios Willard Wattles.
Looking at the Best American Poets from 1919 reminds me that the deck of the present will get severely re-shuffled over the next eighty years. Many “name poets” will go the route of Josephine Fishburn and Leyland Huckfield.
There’s something kind of charming about how small the poetry world was back then—in a mere 67 pages, every single poem that was published in the US between August 1918 and July 1919 gets mentioned. For instance, Mina Loy published The Black Virginity, in Others. Amelia Josephine Burr published over a dozen poems. Hilda Conkling published 16 poems in Poetry, A Magazine of Verse , though not a single one is included in the anthology.
1919. World War I had just ended. Dada was blooming in Europe. Prufrock had been published four years earlier. Pound was about to leave London for Paris. None of that modern energy is visible here. I wish more of the poems included inspired. Many feel stilted, sing-song-y, with predictable rhymes and rhythms, unnatural in the throat. More than fifty years after Whitman’s debut. Even the rare free verse piece, a list-y homage, “For Walt Whitman” by Nelson Crawford, feels awkwardly derivative and narrow in scope, like watching a Led Zeppelin cover band: “Blustering Western politicians, ignorant of history, blunderers in logic, opponents of free speech, of justice to women, of world service by America,/Impassive women, believing that sex is sinful, unwilling to face proved truth, taking refuge in ponderous, ridiculous, superstitious platitudes,/And you paid sixty dollars for a set of Walt Whitman’s works and have not opened it except to paste in your bookplate with its fatuous Latin motto—/All your conventional illiberals, evaders of fact and decision, distrustful of others, distrustful of yourselves./You will praise Walt Whitman this month because it is fashionable to observe his centenary.”
In some ways, William Stanley Braithwaite’s Introduction is a more vivid snapshot into the psyche of the era than any of the poems.
The end of the first year of Peace—as we call it—following nearly five years of terrible warfare, is more fittingly a time for reflection than critical comment.
When the roar of guns died into final silence on the major battlefields of Europe and Asia, there came into being the deeper and broader sounds of the hostilities of the human soul; the score or more of little wars that went on throughout Europe and Asia for months after the Armistice was signed in France was lost in the great turmoil of social and economic conflict. All the great nations that were involved in the World War were thrown into ferment by either the victory or defeat each had achieved. The victors were as dissatisfied with what they found at home as the vanquished. The war had been a great leveler of the national fabric everywhere. The result had been that the people after fighting for their governments against other governments, began a warfare against their own governments. Riots and strikes have been the manifestation of this conflict. Something went wrong, very wrong, after all the sacrifice that had been made to prosecute a war “for democracy”.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...