Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "Poetry of the Month"

(January 1902)*

 


 

Thoreau used to say that if he were to wake up after a ten years' sleep, he believed he could tell to the very day what time of year it was by the flowers in blossom.

I suppose that the skilled critic of American literature, to be properly equipped for his task, should be able to locate a new poet within at least two hundred miles of his exact habitat-should be able to tell from his references to nature what State he hails from, just as he could tell by the turn of a phrase and the fall of a cadence who his masters in poetry were.

Perhaps if all poets could be trusted for scientific accuracy and faithfulness of delineation in their treatment of nature, this might not be so impossible as it seems. But unluckily we are all overimbued with a literary phraseology which keeps us from reporting accurately, even when we see clearly. It is not every one, touched with a desire for expression, who can get away from the influence of tradition and custom and name things anew. And yet that is what every genuine poet must do-break away from the academic and the stereotyped, and bring a virgin mind to the naming of things he sees. Burns did it, Wordsworth did it, Browning did it, and Mr. Kipling has done it. It looks easy until you try it. But the great mass of material produced which is wholly derivative, wholly reminiscent, attests the difficulty of the task.

And yet I think that our verse-men in America have not been uninfluenced by the growing faithfulness of the short-story writer, who is held in so little esteem now if his local color is a shade off, or his picture the least out of drawing. Their sentiment for nature has much of Wordsworth's piety and simple directness; and this loving care for every natural phenomenon leads them to be content with an almost reportorial exactness of phrase. And this direct simplicity of diction often results in the greatest beauty through its sheer inevitableness.

There are things in Miss Evaleen Stein's poems that remind one of the love of nature in some of the late Archibald Lampman's beautiful lyrics- not quite so sure nor so distinguished as Lampman, but sensitive and delicate and sincere. I have not her first book by me, and perhaps it is just as well, for I might be led into attempting to estimate her "growth" or even her "position"-always a rather impertinent and futile undertaking. It ought to be enough to find ingenuous charm in poetry, without wishing always to judge it and adjust its rank.

I hesitate to speak of "The Book of Joyous Children." The name is enough to captivate one. And when one says it is by James Whitcomb Riley, there is nothing more to be said. Mr. Riley is so brimming with irrepressible humor, so loving and lovable and manly, that I cannot but think him the most distinctive American poet alive. I shall not insist on the obiter dictum. I am not an impartial judge; first because all his delightful rhymes, even the most trivial, are much too delicious to be criticised; and second because the man himself is much too near. I don't mean near in time; there are plenty of one's contemporaries that it would be a joy to criticise (indeed there is little else they are fit for); I mean near one's heart. If you love Riley, of course, of you will read of his Joyous Children; and if you don't-well, if you don't, you are no friend of one reviewer, at least. It is chiefly, I fancy, the heart in Mr. Riley's work that gives it so great a hold on us-its indestructible faith and spontaneous natural gladness. His is the simple human mind that has never been overlaid with sophistry nor undermined by doubt; and this native vigor of spirit and intelligence lends him power; so that he is always as happy as a June morning, just as every healthy man ought to be. The sickness of modernity has never been able to get hold of men like him; like other maladies, it is only fatal to the weak. It is a horrid disease for an artist to succumb to, and one unfortunately which they are only too liable to contract. I wish that we all might be inoculated with a touch of the Riley joy. We should all better for it, even though we could not write as delightfully as he does.

As Mr. Riley gives us a faithful picture of homely life in the Middle West, Mr. Frank L. Stanton draws the average life of his section of the South. His volume is full of hearty rhymes in the vernacular, which have nothing of hesitation about them nor that paralyzing self-consciousness which often makes more ambitious work so ineffectual. His training in journalism, if I mistake not, has heightened his power of interpreting the poetry of the commonplace, and making us so much the richer by showing us unexpected beauty in the familiar. And that is no small service to render in any time or country.

A very different source of inspiration is Mr. S.E. Kiser's. The Muse of Comedy has taken him into her favor. The incongruity of an office boy's slang set in the stately movement of the Rosettian sonnet form is inimitable in its way.

It is not to be expected that Mr. Ernest Crosby should succeed where William Morris failed; and with all my admiration for him personally and for his generous ideals, I cannot feel that his new volume comes near hitting the mark at which good poetry should aim. Perhaps he did not intend it to; perhaps he is somewhat skeptical of the efficacy of beauty of form in art, and is content if the spirit of his work is noble and true. However that may be, I should be sorry to overlook the tenor and substance of his writing.


Untitled "Poetry of the Month" feature, Reader, Jan. 1902 [back]