Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "Poetry of the Month"

(March 1903)*


 

Mr. Edmund Gosse has written an introduction to a volume of selected poems by Mr. Madison Cawein, issued in England and in this country. The title of the volume, "Kentucky Poems," is an index of the book; it is the poetry of American nature to which Mr. Gosse has evidently wished to call attention.

As the contents of the collection has already appeared is separate volumes, the book does not strictly come under the head of new poetry. Mr. Gosse, however, has several noticeable things to say about the fortune of verse in America, and about Mr. Cawein's poems in particular.

After remarking that serious poetry in the United States seems to have been passing through a "crisis of languor, since the disappearance of the New England School," he continues, "Perhaps there is no country on the civilized globe where, in theory, verse is treated with more respect and, in practice, with a greater lack of grave consideration than America. No conjecture as to the reason of this must be attempted here, further than to suggest the extreme value set upon sharpness, ingenuity and rapid mobility is obviously calculated to depreciate and condemn the quiet practice of the most meditative of the arts." And again, "Whatever be the cause, it is certain that this is not a moment when serious poetry, of any species, is flourishing in the Unites States."

Now, is this true? And if it is, what is the reason for the temporary decadence of poetry? I fancy no one will seriously contend that the present time is productive even of tolerably good poetry, to say nothing of poetry of eminent significance and power. I suppose there has never been a time in the past half century when books of verse were less in demand. While the faithful "remnant" is always to be found, eager to receive and encourage what is new, sensitive to all artistic beauty and appreciative of delicate originality, the mass of readers care very little for any recent invention of the Muse. Considering the quality of most of such inventions, there is no reason why the average reader should care for them. But why is the level of poetic production not higher? Why does no man write poetry that compels attention and interest?

The answer must still be that art is a natural product of the intellectual garden, and springs up on the right soil as readily as mushrooms of a morning. You cannot get poetry out of an unpoetic people. There may be something in Mr. Gosse's hint that our mercurial wit and restless eagerness are too completely engrossed in other affairs to flower successfully in verse. It only remains for us to bide our time with what patience we may, and believe that the period of materialism will pass and an age of ideals and intellectuality return. If there is no great poetry, it is because there are no great people. Art is the voice of a nation, and when that voice becomes obscured or faint, it means that the nation is perilously near to shame. When Mr. Gosse says, "Where is American poetry?" we cannot reply. If he should ask, "Where are American ideals?" he might come nearer the root of the matter, and we should have just as much trouble to answer him. There is a foolish notion commonly accepted that art and poetry are in no way the vital product of a civilization, but are at best esoteric amusements-avocations for the leisure class. Such an idea in itself argues the utter absence of any noble regard for things of the mind and concerns of the spirit. The truth is that the decay of American poetry means the decay of American ideals-if there is any decay.

Pending the decision of such curious questions, however, the publication of books by contemporary poets continues. Miss Edith Thomas with "The Dancers," and Miss Ethelwyn Wetherald with "Tangled in Stars," will add to their established and growing fame. Miss Thomas's pleasing style and lucid expression made her acceptable to the magazines from the first, and will be found unimpaired in the present collection. It is so graceless a task to criticise any worker in a craft in which one may have made efforts oneself, that I hesitate to be specific in speaking of such books as this.

One question there is that has often occurred to me. How long can a writer contribute to the magazines without detriment to his art, or rather I should say without stifling his inspiration? I do not mean to imply that the magazines are inhospitable to originality. On the contrary, I think they are as hospitable to it as could reasonably be expected. The magazines form a ready forum for new poets; and if, after a fair trial, a man cannot get a hearing in one periodical or another, it is safe to conclude that his work lacks certain qualities which all good writing must possess. However able and new and penetrating a poem or a story may be, if it merely expresses its author, and makes no appeal to the public, it is only half great after all; for all the best art must be both expressive and impressive and in an equal degree. Serial publication offers an easy test of the latter requisite quality in writing, for which our aspirations ought to be grateful, though I doubt if this aspect of the case very often occurs to them.

But after all our stripling has won his first laurels in the magazine field, when he has achieved a certain power of self expression, a certain facility which ensures him a ready hearing (not to mention a ready market), what then lies before him? How is he to grow? What influences will help his genius to unfold? The truth is that after a man has achieved a degree of excellence which makes him always welcome in the columns of our periodicals, when he is sure of his audience and sure of his cheque, he is in a more perilous position than before. There will be no inducements to him to grow, no influences helping him to develop. All the pressure will be in the opposite direction. Editors will want him to repeat his first success. Some passing phase of his growing fancy will be held up to him as the standard pattern for all future contributions. And he is in danger of consciously making all his work conform to the type of excellence and execution which his editors demand. To do that, evidently, is to cease to grow.

In other words it seems to me that the magazines are an excellent influence on the exuberance of a young writer up to a certain point; but after that point has been reached, they exert a pressure which is far from beneficial, and tends to flatten out genius rather than to foster it. But perhaps I am all wrong after all, and one ought not to look for popular poets to grow into elemental and prophetic bards.


Untitled "Poetry of the Month" feature, Reader, March 1903 [back]