An Exchange of Letters
New York Times Book Review
A Problem of Poetry
March 4, 1962
To THE EDITOR:
I venture to suggest that the problem in poetry, today, is not more prizes, more work - shop meetings, more writers' conferences, more courses in creative writing, but how to win back, for poetry the public it used to have, and which, I believe, is still there, waiting.
Forty years of Modernist domination have led most literate people to conclude that "poetry" is something they cannot understand, and would not like if they could. It is not merely that too many Modernists are willfully obscure, but also that, too often, in their poems, there is implicit a tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, an attempt to strip human dignity of its last shred. Certainly, the artist should be true to life. But how can a warped view be a true view? An art that has failed to strike roots into some sort of popular favor is an art sell-doomed.
Throughout these years of Modernist staff-control in our colleges and editorial offices, a poetry, equally contemporary, and some of it good, has been produced by Traditionalist poets, stubbornly resistant to the tyranny of fashion. But who reads it? Our main cultural media have systematically barred it, as being "out of date." By Traditionalist (I do not like the term), I mean poetry written in the humanist tradition and in accordance with the principles of English prosody.
Time is doing its work. Even against the vested interest that Modernism has become, Traditionalist poetry is again wedging forward. Evidence? Phyllis McGinley gets the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Robert Graves is elected to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, Robert Frost is invited to present a poem at President Kennedy's inaugural. The Royal Society of Literature re-discovers John Masefield, Jesse Stuart is granted the large award of The Academy of American Poets. Already several critics, originally well-disposed toward Modernism, have announced its end, the latest being Stephen Spender. And some Modernist poets, perhaps sensing a change of wind, have even begun to put a little prosody into their prose.
Paul Scott Mowrer
TO THE EDITOR:
In a recent letter Paul Scott Mowrer asks for a return to "out of date", traditionalist, humanist, or popularly favored poetry. For forty years, he says, we have had poetry that is too modernist-that is, since, 1920. But before that time we had the fireside poets (Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, S. R. Lowell) who are simply not read, except as literary history. All the other poets whom we can refer to with any respect survive because they were modernists. Whitman, Dickinson and Poe were certainly innovators bucking the traditions of their own times. So-called "conservative" poets (Robinson, Masters, Frost, Sandburg, Marquis and Lindsay) were all innovators, at their best - not traditionalists. The real traditionalists and imitators (Markham, Amy Lowell, Masefield, Crapsey, Teasdale and Kilmer) are not read.
Not until after 1920 -did we catch up with such firm reputations (in foreign countries) as those of Lear, Carroll, Swinburne, Hardy, Mallarme, Hopkins, Rimbaud, Housman, or Rilke - who are still read because they were modernists and innovators of either a style or emotion. It is after 1920 that we see almost all the first important books of poetry appear here. Andthese are by the very well established, humanist tradition-making, popularly favored and modernist poets: Stevens (born 1879), W. C. Williams, Pound, Jeffers, M, Moore, the Fugitives, H.D., Eliot, MacLeish, Dorothy Parker, Cummings, Aiken and Hart Crane. And all born In Mr. Mowrer's safe age, the 19th century, over 60 years ago! Yet, all of them were rebelling against their times instead of looking back forty years as Mr. Mowrer encourages us to do. In short, the traditional philosophy in poetry has never really existed in this country; what is traditional and what is modern is not a matter of years, or of authors, or of style. It is a matter of perspective. But the perspective Mr. Mowrer offers is a view that seems to be a matter of his own eclectic taste, without much serious regard to the actual facts.
A. Kirby Congdon
TO THE EDITOR: -
Mr. Mowrer struck at the core oft vital matter when he stated the need of winning back the. audience for poetry. But there is more to the matter than his brief letter is able to suggest. On the basis of more than twenty-seven years' experience as editor of a nationally circulated poetry magazine, I am in a position to say that there is a silent waiting audience which is not only interested In poetry but hungry for poetry - that is to say, poetry as it has always been known before the innovations of the past half century. What this audience desires is not only the swing of a singing rhythm and the delights of a rhyme, but - in some respects deeper still and more fundamental - the pulse of a genuine emotion and the sweep of imaginative utterance.
Stanton A. Coblentz
Mill Valley, California
April 24, 1962
TO THE EDITOR: -
In a recent letter to- the editor, A. Kirby Congdon comments on my plea for finding some way to win back a wider public for poetry and suggests I have ignored "the actual facts."
If the modernist poets he names are really being read, as he says, my argument falls. It is my contention that they are not read, not by any considerable public. To have a sound basis for a poetic culture, these days, a mere campus public, an ivy-ivory-tower public, however distinguished; is not enough.
Mr. Congdon divides poets into "innovators," who, he says are read and "imitators,' who are not. But the best poets have always been both imitators and innovators, their innovations being mainly, not technical, but the fruit of a God- given personality.
The most-read poets, according to Mr. Congdon, have always "bucked the traditions of their own times" - surely a dubious statement. But if it is true, the future would seem to lie open wide to our many contemporary traditionalists, for they are bucking the modernist tradition of the present time as hard as they can.