Millay: Official Modernism hated her: a leftist woman who rhymed and loved.
The revolt of Modernism in poetry against Victorian decorum was complex and extensive, and featured a great deal of sex.
So why is one tale told? The one dominated by the limp, morbid barrenness of sexless, Shelley-hating, T.S. Eliot—and that dry-as-dust, boring, petals-on-a-black-bough-red-wheel-barrow poetry?
Is this why poetry today finds itself in a cul de sac, without a public, in the ruins of a Creative Writing pyramid scheme which has collapsed into piecemeal, self-promoting, illiteracy?
Modernism in the early 20th century was dominated by powerful femme fatale poets—and yet the one female poet included in the accepted Story of Modern Poetry is: the brittle, spinsterish, Marianne Moore!
The revolt against the Victorian—as the Modern Poetry history has been written, codified, and solidified is so…Victorian.
Not that we care about sex, per se; we just find it interesting how things played out.
The Victorians—which the wild, crazy and free Moderns rebelled against (one can include Emily Dickinson as a Victorian, since she wrote and lived in that era, if one wants) —were actually bolder in their poetry than the Modernist rakes and waifs (Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams) who successfully overcame the now largely forgotten Victorian/Romantic influence, and succeeded them. The Victorians are far more enjoyable to read (and they sold much better in their day, too).
Maybe that’s the rub: enjoyable. Sexual excess, or enjoyment of any kind, wasn’t the ticket to become canonized in the schools: the Modernist revolution had to seem safely aesthetic—a topic for professors, in order to gain a footing in academia, since despite their “rebellious nature,” legitimate inclusion was what the successful ones were after. That meant the Moderns had to be writing a “new” kind of poetry. Even though it was boring, and the public didn’t care for it.
The fussy, heavily brocaded, Victorian, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—who wrote some really exceptional poetry which has been ignored and shut away for a century—became a wife in a secret elopement to Italy.
The leader of the Modernist rebellion, T.S. Eliot, a lifelong virgin, shut away his wife forever.
Here we have two stories presented side by side:
Modern poetry is not the story of a door opening; but of a door shutting—on so much of what was pleasing about the 19th century—but also on the alternative, Dionysian, Romantic side of 20th century modernism, too.
Eliot appealed to poets who couldn’t get laid.
True, Edna St. Vincent Millay got old.
But everyone gets old and dies.
There was a whole Modernist movement which exploded right after World War One, before, during, and after the publication of the morbid “Waste Land,” a different modernist movement which frightened guys like Eliot—led by brash young women and featuring Persian love and Poe and Hindu sex. (One of these types of women even married Tom Eliot, and—are we surprised?—it was a complete disaster.)
Here is the critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Van Doren, writing in Harper’s in the 1930s about America’s great moral transformation during the Age of High Modernism as WW I came to a close; he does not talk about Pound or Eliot. He talks about Edna St. Vincent Millay:
At home the old-fashioned family had broken up. The young could get into automobiles and almost at once be miles away. They could go to the movies and at once be worlds away. Dress and speech had become informal in the emergency of the War. The chaperon had disappeared. Boys leaving to be killed, it might be, had claimed the right to see their girls alone, and the sexes had drawn together in a common need and daring. After the War they were still not divided. The sexes would be comrades, they thought.
The early poems of Edna Millay are the essence of the Younger Generation.
How this genii—real Modernist poetry—was put away in its bottle is certainly a staggering historical fact, but something there is in us now that makes us want to let it out again.
To get a strong whiff from that bottle is just a google click away.
Search “Black Sun publisher Harry Crosby.”
You want real modern poetry?
Not Williams. Not Eliot. Not Stevens. Not those guys the clammy hand professors teach you in school.
You want the true modern poetry of that era? Take a swig of the drink, Harry Crosby.
The story of Modern poetry which has been sold to us: that Pound and Williams and Moore are the vital pieces, is without aesthetic merit, and its virtue is really that of a particular school program, and it exists as just that—a story—told by the critics and poets and historians who invested (and are still invested) in the Writing Program as the only viable institution of post-war pedagogy.
Government oversight of education, the publishing of textbooks, the editorship of periodical literature, the purse strings of grants and prizes and forums and money and awards, fell into the hands of the New Critics and their allies: John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot both belonging to the same generation of early Modernism—and not just poetry, but art, music, fashion, government, war, the architecture/building trades, espionage, banking, international in outlook—and all the more effective because it was run by pals, a tight-knit group. Of course it is much too extensive to detail here. But very briefly then:
John Quinn, attorney, art collector, British intelligence, worked with Eliot and Pound to negotiate publication of “The Waste Land” (with pre-purchases) so Eliot would win the Dial Prize even before Pound had finished his edits—Quinn, the same individual most responsible (even getting an export bill passed in the U.S. Congress) for the Armory show, which brought Modern Art to America—Eliot wins, and meanwhile, purchase of the new art by insiders is highly, highly lucrative. Who wouldn’t want to be in on all that phenomenal networking? Eliot and Pound certainly were. Without Quinn’s work behind the scenes, who knows if Americans would even know of Eliot, or Duchamp, or Picasso? Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom’s right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critic associate, reviews “The Waste Land” favorably, helps start the Creative Writing program at Princeton. Paul Engle, the father of the Program Era at Iowa, is given his Yale Younger Prize for his MFA poetry book—by a judge who is a member of Ransom’s New Critic group from the early Fugitive magazine days at Vanderbilt. Robert Lowell, as Creative Writing teacher at Iowa, is the first “poet-teacher star” of the Program Era; Lowell’s psychiatrist happens to be another member of Ransom and Tate’s circle, who recommends Lowell leave Harvard to befriend Tate and Ransom, which he does. We see that all the annual Dial Magazine Prize winners in the 1920s become the canonized Modern poets: Eliot, Williams, Pound, Moore (and Cummings, who ends up running off with the Dial editor’s wife). Ford Maddox Ford, War Propaganda Minister during World War I in England, the first to meet Pound off the boat when the latter leaves America for England, will later cross the Atlantic to help start the Writing Program Era with Ramsom and Tate.
We do not present this information as some nefarious plot; the world was smaller then; we present it languidly, merely as a picture of the clever ambitions of the cleverly ambitious, who were in the right place at the right time, and who happened to possess a certain amount of talent: Eliot, in poetry, the most brilliant. John Crowe Ransom, just from his two essays which Ransom published in the 1930s, “Criticism, Inc.” and “Poets Without Laurels,”— a blueprint for universities taking up the official role of teaching the new writing, and the best explanation of amoral Modernism—was a close second.
But as we said, these were the brilliant architects who made themselves and their “new” Modern identity—an austere looseness, a dryness, a deathly cynicism—the accepted mode for the university, and it required tweedy, learned, respectability to make it happen, even as it was Shelley and Byron hating—which guys like Eliot and Tate and Ransom, with their brilliance, learning and inside track, provided.
But what of the vast majority of the Modernists, who impulsively did what true rebels do?
These “lesser” moderns crossed paths with the more successful ones, such as Pound—but they lived for the poetry, for the revolt, for the sex. These were the Moderns who wrote beautiful love poems and threw themselves off ships, as Pound and Eliot grew old and famous. What of these “lesser” moderns? Many of these “lesser” moderns, some more respectable and less feverish than others, kept writing poetry that rhymed, made sense, and repeated the great, old themes that never die. What of them? Should we continue to bury them?
And speaking of revolt, we are not simply advocating here for the resurrection of an alternative clique of poets who worked between the wars in the hectic days of the early 20th century. This is about more than that. It is about shedding narrow, modernist aesthetic bias and embracing great poems of all eras, and having the guts to call a bad poem a bad poem, even if it was written by William Carlos Williams. Look at this poem by the currently suppressed 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett; the way she uses “revolt” is timeless, and will break your heart:
Dead! Thirteen a month ago!
Short and narrow her life’s walk.
Lover’s love she could not know
Even by a dream or talk:
Too young to be glad of youth;
Missing honor, labor, rest,
And the warmth of a babe’s mouth
At the blossom of her breast.
Must you pity her for this,
And for all the loss it is—
You, her mother with wet face,
Having had all in your case?
Just so young but yesternight,
Now she is as old as death.
Meek, obedient in your sight,
Gentle to a beck or breath
Only on last Monday! yours,
Answering you like silver bells
Lightly touched! an hour matures:
You can teach her nothing else.
She has seen the mystery hid
Under Egypt’s pyramid.
By those eyelids pale and close
Now she knows what Rhamses knows.
Cross her quiet hands, and smooth
Down her patient locks of silk,
Cold and passive as in truth
You your fingers in spilt milk
Drew along a marble floor;
But her lips you can not wring
Into saying a word more,
“Yes” or “no,” or such a thing.
Though you call and beg and wreak
Half your soul out in a shriek,
She will lie there in default
And most innocent revolt.
None of Eliot’s “escape from emotion” here.
Poe said poetry was mostly mathematical—and he was correct, since rhythm is essential to expressive speech, whether metrical, or not—and mathematics is essential to quantity associated with rhythm. Eliot carried this formula further and mistranslated it to mean lack of feeling—quantity, after all, is not associated with feverish human emotion; but it is not emotion, but its expression which matters to the poet—so Eliot is only partly correct, and when his half-truth was received as a truth, it created a race of poets who turned their back on so-called “sentimental” poetry, such as this example of Elizabeth Barrett’s, a tender and beautiful poem banned by 20th century professors because of its excess “emotion” and “sentiment.” The schools are wrong. The amateurs are correct. The expression of feeling should not to be avoided in the art of poetry. More feeling isn’t better, necessarily, but it is never necessary that feeling (we mean its expression) be critically censored.
We think the best tradition for poetry is, first and foremost, the tradition of good poems—more than successful members of super-successful, networking cliques’ poorer ones.
For the truth is: Millay is a far better poet than not only Moore, but the guys, like Pound.
Certainly, “new” aesthetics can and should be studied (even if they haven’t done anyone a lick of good) but good poems written by the flesh and blood poets who lived in the same era as the better known, tweedy, experimental poets, deserve our attention, too.
Completely by chance today, as we perused old issues of Harper’s magazine, we came upon this poem by Archibald MacLeish. It is a love poem (horrors!). It was published in 1929, when Pound and Eliot were still nearly unknown, before they became famous as Axis defenders and post-WW II Modernist school subjects.
MacLeish, like the poets Frost and Millay, wrote poems people liked to read—and he was read. He was a wealthy friend of wealthy heir Harry Crosby, who—if you googled him by now—you know Crosby published MacLeish, Hart Crane, Poe, love poems, in exquisitely crafted books, a few copies at a time, and died at 29 with a young women in a suicide pact in a painter friend’s studio.
Here is a Modernist poem, the kind of poem which is now suppressed, just like Millay and Teasdale and Dorothy Parker and Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Elinor Wylie and countless other women poets are suppressed, locked away by the Moore/Williams /Pound Official Modernism professors. We close with the MacLeish poem:
To Praisers of Women
The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered.
These were lies.
The words sound, but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks, but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.
Therefore, I will not praise your knees and your fine walking,
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.
I shall say you were young and your arms straight and your mouth scarlet.
I shall say you will die, and none will remember you;
Your arms change and none remember the swish of your garments
Nor the click of your shoe.
Not with my hands’ strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste,
Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.
What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost,
Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most?
Therefore, I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I shall say you were young and straight and your skin fair—
And you stood in the door, and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders,
And a leaf on your hair.
I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women.
I shall say the shape of a blown leaf lay on your hair,
Till the world ends and the sun is out and the sky broken
Look! It is there!