- Poetry:1900 to the 1950s
Self versus society, modernist impersonality, and antisubjectivity persist as themes in poetry scholarship focused on this period. In addition, three recent literary histories attempt to assess the development and variety of American poetry and will no doubt become important reference works. A fourth volume, The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry, aimed at students and teachers as well as scholars, has value as a handbook for poetry courses.
Several chapters in A History of Modernist Poetry, ed. Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge, 2015), address American poetry, but because the focus of the volume is European and transatlantic, such poets as Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and H.D. are given more pride of place than Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, who are lumped together in a single chapter (though Stevens and Williams are also discussed in a separate chapter on late modernism.) The volume includes one chapter on African American modernists and another on the Objectivists. For the sake of clarity I discuss the chapters on black poets and on Moore, Stevens, and Williams here and the chapters on Stein, Loy, and the Objectivists in relevant sections below.
Fiona Green's "Form in Modernist Poetry" (pp. 23–45) considers Stevens and Moore (and Ezra Pound) as exemplars of modernist form. Green argues that character, taken in its multiple senses as a printed [End Page 315] letter on a page, distinctive feature of a personality, and quality of an object, is a good guide to the style of Stevens's Harmonium, and she concentrates on Moore's tendency to notice the emergence of patterns as she read the prose on which she drew for her poems, so that her syllabics were part of her strategy even before she began to write. In "Modernist Periodicals" (pp. 118–36) Paige Reynolds explains that these periodicals "expose the productive tension between the emergence of mass print culture and the long-standing practices of poetic recitation and performance, and they reveal the role this tension played in shaping modernist poetry." Reynolds notes that some poets and editors espoused poetry as dramatic performance while others emphasized or expressed "the tension between language as printed and read." She argues in turn that the periodical should be regarded both as a social forum and as a social form, and in this context she explores poetry as performance in such writers as Moore, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stevens, Claude McKay, Loy, Williams, and Louise Bogan and such venues as Others, Poetry, Seven Arts, the Little Review, the Liberator, Glebe, Broom, and the Dial. Bart Eeckhout and Glen MacLeod's "American Poetry in the 1910s and 1920s: Stevens, Moore, Williams, and Others" (pp. 324–40) discusses the work of the three poets in light of the 1913 Armory Show and also touches on the work of Robert Frost, Hart Crane, and E. E. Cummings. The authors do a fine job of explaining the influence of innovations in the visual arts on Stevens, Williams, and Moore. Georgia Johnston's "Modernist Poetry, Sexuality, and Gender" (pp. 81–98) discusses modernist challenges to gender norms by focusing particularly on the conflict between individuals and society. Johnston addresses Heliodora and Helen in Egypt by H.D. as well as Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry." By asserting "individual sexualities," writes Johnston, "early twentieth-century poets were able to contravene the classificatory gender work of the turn-of-the-century social sciences." In "American Modernism from the 1930s to the 1950s: Williams and Stevens to Black Mountain and the Beats" (pp. 341–58), Stephen Matterson argues that through the work of these two poets modernism consistently renews itself and provides a model for the development of subsequent American poetry. Mark Whalan's "African American Modernisms" (pp. 359–80) ranges from Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer to Langston Hughes and Melvin Tolson. Whalan emphasizes the social imperative of these poets to represent black life and describes the various strategies for doing so, noting Cullen's formalism [End Page 316] and McKay's great achievement with the political sonnet as well as the representation of lynching in many poems of the...