- Reflections on Contemporary Poetry [III]. A review of The New Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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608 ] Reflections on Contemporary Poetry [III] A review of The New Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson New York: Macmillan, 1917. Pp. xxxi + 404.1 The Egoist, 4 (Nov 1917) 151 Each of us, even the most gifted, can find room in his brain for hardly more than two or three new ideas, or ideas so perfectly assimilated as to be original ; for an idea is a speciality, and no one has time for more than a few. With these, or with one, say, hexagonal or octagonal idea, each sets to work and industriously and obliviously begins building cells; not rebelling against the square or the circle, but occasionally coming into collision with some other Bee which has rectangular or circular ideas. All the ideas, beliefs, modes of feeling and behaviour which we have not time or inclination to investigate for ourselves we take second-hand and sometimes call Tradition.2 * We cannot change much; the point is to do a good job where we can. In literature especially, the innovations which we can consciously and collectively aim to introduce are few, and mostly technical. The main thing is to be quite certain what these are. The title of Miss Monroe’s anthology, and her interesting and admirable introduction, and the inspection of the forces she has mustered, lead me to wonder whether a whole generation can arise together and insurrect, as this introduction leads me to believe that it has insurrected. Perhaps the word is invidious, but there is certainly a hit at the Victorian Age in toto. And the struggle is one in which much more appears to be involved than technical form (many of the poets included adhere closely to conventional forms): “The new poetry strives for a concrete and immediate realization of life; it would discard the theory, the abstraction, the remoteness, found in all classics not of the first order” [vi]. There is the demand for a “style like speech . . . like a cry from the heart.”3 Certainly if a spontaneous revolution is possible, if it is possible for a whole generation, and not merely an isolated individual here and there, to ariseasonemantowringtheneckofrhetoric,onewouldexpect,asisindeed the case, that the various volunteers should come variously armed. Among [ 609 Contemporary Poetry [III] these forces we find Mr. Masefield, provided with his marline-spike, and Mr. Gibson, with a knitting-needle, and every description of weapon between the two.4 It may be possible to assemble such incongruous allies in a common cause; it is possible that once assembled they appear only to march up the hill and down again; it is also possible that among a whole petrified host a few Davids may be found.5 But not to pursue a tedious metaphor, I find a certain discrepancy between the introduction to the book and the contents. The Introduction, which makes many excellent points which are worth making, is cut large, but not large enough to cover everybody; it is made so large that it obscures rather than exploits the distinct technical triumphs of certain poets and the distinct individuality of certain among these. This, I am sure, is due to no lack of understanding on the editors’ part as to what has been accomplished; it is due rather to a generous desire to recruit forces. The result is, however, that there are three several criticisms to be passed: one on the Introduction, one on the merits of a number of individual poems of importance, and one on the anthology as an anthology. As to the last point, the book has emphatically permanent value. An anthology of contemporary verse can be a document of great importance for future generations. It ought not to contain many good poems, but a few; and it ought to embalm a great many bad poems (but bad in a significant way) which would otherwise perish. Bad poems, from this point of view, need to be as carefully chosen as good; Miss Monroe and Mrs. Henderson have chosen wisely. Most anthologies exhibit only the vicesofaparticularsect;andthebadnessofapoemisimmeasurablyheightened , the reader’s vision clarified and his mind instructed, when bad poems of totally different types are set off against each other. The resultant impression is a unique picture of a very chaotic world indeed; a world prevailingly Yanqui, but all the more interesting for that.6 One thinks of Henry James asking his way of an Italian mill-hand in the streets of Salem.7 There are certain poems which have been...