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The Oxford Companion to United States History

Donald D. Kummings


American poetry, the history of which spans more than 350 years, is notable for its variety, energy, contrarian tendencies, and feistiness. True, the earliest verse was imitative and derivative, displaying a heavy reliance on British prosody, diction, and verse forms (particularly pastorals, odes, elegies, epistles, and satires). By the nineteenth century, however, poets were expressing an emergent national identity and making significant strides toward liberating themselves from foreign models. By the twentieth century, American poetry commanded international attention and respect, for it had attained a high level of quality—indeed, had achieved parity among the world's poetries, including European poetry.

Colonial Era poetry was primarily metaphysical and devotional. Among the New England Puritans, the three most important poets were Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor (1645–1729), and Michael Wigglesworth (1631–1705). Though her work was conventional and often didactic, Bradstreet nevertheless wrote with honesty and sensitivity, especially concerning familial matters. Moreover, she ranks as the author of the first book of American poetry: The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung up in America (published in England in 1650). Taylor's poetry, which resembles that of such English metaphysicals as George Herbert and John Donne, was written for private purposes between 1682 and 1725 and did not appear in print until 1937. Calling his poems “preparatory meditations,” Taylor viewed them chiefly as exercises leading to the sermons he delivered as a clergyman. Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom (1662), a long, fulminating epic on the Last Judgment, became, in its day, the most popular of all Puritan poems.

Like their seventeenth-century predecessors, eighteenth-century American poets continued to adhere to English poetic modes and methods. From 1725 to 1820, in the sometimes turbulent years preceding and following the Revolutionary War, no major figures materialized. Nevertheless, there were some noteworthy developments, and often these had a political rather than religious focus. At Yale, for instance, a “school” of poets arose who became known as the Connecticut Wits. This group's principal members included Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, and Timothy Dwight, all of whom patterned themselves, with mixed success, after such British satirists as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay. In Boston, Phillis Wheatley, brought from Africa as a slave, wrote methodically but well enough to win recognition as America's first significant black poet. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in England in 1773. At Princeton, New Jersey, Philip Freneau (1752–1832) launched a poetic career in the 1770s that would freely combine nationalistic and romantic subjects and would ultimately make him not a great figure but still the most notable American poet of the eighteenth century.

In the early and mid–nineteenth century, poetry began to move in fresh directions. Among the most popular poets of the American Romantic movement was Edgar Allan Poe, some of whose spellbinding verse appeared in The Raven and Other Poems (1845). Also immensely popular in their day were the authors known as the Fireside Poets: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell. Once-beloved poems such as Bryant's Thanatopsis (1821), Lowell's The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848), Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Holmes's The Chambered Nautilus (1858), and Whittier's Snow-Bound (1866) are generally viewed by modern critics as sentimental, diffuse, moralistic, and excessively hortatory.

Sometimes grouped with the Fireside Poets is Ralph Waldo Emerson, best known as a lecturer, essayist, and the doyen of New England transcendentalism, but also the author of such once-revered poems as Concord Hymn (1837) and The Snow-Storm (1841). Indeed, because of his various commentaries on poetics, particularly his 1844 essay The Poet, Emerson is often regarded as a watershed figure in American poetic history. Urging poets to be visionary rather than literary, to use organic rather than predetermined forms, and to exploit hitherto unsung native materials, Emerson contributed profoundly to the nineteenth-century American effort to formulate an indigenous theory of poetry and to achieve literary independence from British and European culture.

Influenced by Emerson's pronouncements were both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century. Avowedly inspired by Emerson, Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) is regarded by some critics as the most revolutionary volume in American poetry. Whitman would spend the remaining thirty-six years of his life revising and augmenting this book, publishing expanded editions in 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871–1872, and 1881–1882. In sprawling, highly rhythmical free verse lines expressing his passionate commitment to the democratic ideals of America, Whitman in Leaves of Grass explored two central themes: first, the freedom and dignity of the individual and the equality of all people; and, second, the beauty and innocence of the human body and the naturalness and healthiness of sex. Dickinson wrote 1,775 poems during her lifetime but published only eleven of them. Indeed, her entire body of work did not appear in print exactly as she wrote it until 1955. Modeling her brief, intense, often elliptical poems on the metric pattern of hymns, Dickinson explored the interior life. Freely employing oblique rhymes, unorthodox punctuation, and eccentric capitalization, she plumbed such subjects as pain, death, immortality, nature, imagination, and love.

Other nineteenth-century poets deserve at least minimal acknowledgment: Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, two reclusive New Englanders, were among the century's best sonneteers; Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) ranks as one of the two best books of poems on the Civil War (the other being Whitman's Drum-Taps, 1865); in both theory and practice, Georgia-born Sidney Lanier tried in novel ways to fuse poetry and music; in The Black Riders (1895) and War Is Kind (1899), the fiction writer Stephen Crane published terse, ironic, aphoristic poems that anticipate the modern era; and in fine lyrics such as Frederick Douglass (1896) and We Wear the Mask (1896), Paul Laurence Dunbar explored themes that spoke to the condition of African Americans.

Considering the level of achievement of its poets, the modernist period, extending roughly from 1900 to 1945, is perhaps the richest in American poetic history. The period began auspiciously in 1912 when, in Chicago, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse that would become the most distinguished journal of its kind. Among the poets published in the early issues of Poetry were Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Lee Masters, Sara Teasdale, and Elinor Wylie—all minor figures, to be sure, but notable for their contributions, either in theme or technique, to the flowering of modernism. Their work appeared in such collections as Chicago Poems (Sandburg, 1916), Spoon River Anthology (Masters, 1915), and Renascence and Other Poems (Millay, 1917).

The two most important early modernists or, more accurately, premodernists, were Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) and Robert Frost (1874–1963). Robinson, revitalizing traditional forms, examined the alienation and social failure of individuals unable to adapt to a materialistic and mechanistic age. In poems such as Richard Cory, Mr. Flood's Party, and Eros Turannos, published in Children of the Night (1897), The Town Down the River (1910), and other works, he reveals a thorough understanding of frustration, ostracism, defeat, and loneliness. Frost insisted on the necessity of traditional metrics; favored speech idioms and conversational tones; and exhibited a fascination with metaphor, symbol, and synecdoche. In poems collected in A Boy's Will (1913), North of Boston (1914), and later works, Frost, like Robinson, wrote of the lives and landscapes of New England, sometimes expressing affirmative themes, more often negative ones, including isolation, fear, and despair. Among his best-known poems are Mending Wall, Birches, Home Burial, and The Road Not Taken.

Two highly significant aesthetic developments of the early twentieth century had important implications for poetry: the Imagist movement and the Harlem Renaissance. From about 1909 to 1917, and primarily in reaction to the sentimentality, didacticism, and abstract language of much nineteenth-century verse, poets in both England and America articulated a theory known as Imagism. This theory advocated the use of concrete particulars, common speech, free verse, and mundane subject matter. Imagists also called for observation without generalization or explanation, and precise and concentrated language. The American poets most conspicuously involved in Imagism included Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Though short-lived, the Imagist movement exerted an enormous influence on subsequent American poetry.

Poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the first large-scale movement in the arts created by African Americans, included Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and, most notably, Langston Hughes. The Weary Blues (1926), by Hughes; Harlem Shadows (1922), by McKay; and The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922, enlarged 1931), edited by Johnson, would appear on any list of significant works in the history of American poetry.

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) were the American poets most responsible for defining the ideology and practice of modernism. In the twentieth century's early decades, Pound seemed ubiquitous as he advocated “the new” in dozens of critical essays; championed the Imagist and Vorticist movements; compiled anthologies; edited or coedited influential little magazines such as Blast and Poetry; assisted and advised many other poets, including H.D., Frost, Eliot, Williams, and Marianne Moore (1887–1972); and published his own poems, notably Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920) and the initial sections of his lifelong epic, The Cantos. Eliot, strongly influenced by the French symbolists, particularly Laforgue and Baudelaire, would eventually be as widely acclaimed as any modern poet. His best poetry appeared early in his career: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1919), and The Waste Land (1922). The latter, because it so effectively expressed post–World War I disillusionment and contained so many radical technical innovations, became one of the most celebrated poems in American literature. Eliot also had a towering reputation as a critic. In oft-quoted essays he argued that poetry should be impersonal and that it necessarily existed in a self-referential world—ideas that had a profound impact on the so-called New Critics and, hence, on the way poetry was taught for many years in American universities.

Among the modernists, Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), and Marianne Moore rank as major figures. In poems whose language is often described as elegant, colorful, and epigrammatic, the symbolist Stevens (an insurance-company executive in Hartford) explored metaphysical and aesthetic questions, like the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived, or between reality and the imagination, for example. He also promoted poetry, an art that shapes reality and gives order, as “the supreme fiction,” believing that the “fiction” of traditional religion had lost its vitality in the modern world. Like Whitman's Song of Myself and Eliot's The Waste Land, Stevens's Sunday Morning, published in his first collection, Harmonium (1923), ranks among America's truly great poems. Williams, vociferously opposing the expatriates Pound and Eliot and the allusive, recondite, academic poetry that they and their followers produced, dedicated himself to using American speech cadences and to writing about American materials, particularly the details of everyday urban life. “No ideas but in things,” the imagist Williams insisted, and this credo resulted in fine poems as short as The Red Wheelbarrow and as long as his five-part epic Paterson (1946–1958). Like Williams, Moore tried to break with tradition. Her poems in The Dial, an influential literary magazine of the 1920s, and other periodicals, displayed her experiments with stanzaic patterns; her employment of syllabic verse; her obsession with precise observations; and her innovative use of quotations drawn from such unlikely and far-flung sources as science journals, sports magazines, travel brochures, and advertising flyers. Moore's definitive Complete Poems appeared in 1967.

Other noteworthy poets of the modernist era include Hart Crane, who, inspired by Whitman, composed The Bridge (1930), a long, visionary poem on spiritual possibilities in an industrialized America; e. e. cummings, who used visual pyrotechnics in poems satirizing advertising, politics, and mass culture and celebrating individuals, lovers, and nonconformists; Muriel Rukeyser, whose poems reflected her passionate commitment to political freedom and social justice; and Robinson Jeffers, who, in long narratives, denounced mankind as self-centered and perverse in its unmitigated destruction of the world's natural beauty.

Within the larger modernist movement, two interesting subgroups arose: the Objectivists and the Fugitives. The Objectivists—including Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Lorine Niedecker—viewed a poem as an autonomous object, a physiological entity, rather than a conveyor of symbolic value. The Fugitives—notably John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, were southern poets who in the 1920s embraced classical modes of literature and valued poetry that is structured, impersonal, ironic, and complex. The critical principles of the Fugitives, in turn, laid the foundation for the New Criticism, a formalist and internalist approach to literary analysis identified with I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke, and others.

The early post–World War II period was dominated by what was called (often disparagingly) “academic poetry.” If the early-twentieth century poets had been aggressive and experimental, their post-1945 successors were cautious and conservative, writing in the manner of the English Metaphysicals or the American Fugitives, publishing intellectual, well-wrought, impersonal, technically sophisticated poems in closed or traditional forms. But if these midcentury formalists were not daring, they nevertheless wrote impressively, and their ranks included such gifted figures as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, Howard Nemerov, and Randall Jarrell.

Eventually a strong reaction to the dominance of the formalists set in, giving rise to poetry so varied in voice, theme, and style as to defy easy categorization. As early as 1950, Charles Olson published a seminal essay, Projective Verse. A few years later, Olson and other poets associated with Black Mountain College in North Carolina, including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov, put projective verse theory into practice, writing open-form poems with lines determined by breath rather than by metrical feet. Led by Allen Ginsberg, author of the landmark volume Howl and Other Poems (1956), Beat generation writers such as Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Brother Antoninus (William Everson) rejected the classicism of the academic poets, opting instead for revitalized romanticism, vatic pronouncement, and countercultural protest. In the late 1950s, inspired by Lowell's Life Studies (1959), the so-called confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and John Berryman—wrote lyrics about highly personal matters, for example, mental illness, sexual inhibitions, marital discord, menstrual problems, and bouts with alcoholism, and in so doing jettisoned the doctrine of impersonality espoused by Eliot and his disciples.

The antiformalist reaction manifested itself in other ways as well. Believing that academic verse privileged only the external and rationalistic life, poets such as James Wright, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, and W.S. Merwin explored the possibilities of a “deep” or subjective imagism, attempting thereby to gain access to the reader's unconscious and thus deepen awareness of the inward and affective life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Black Arts movement developed, as poets such as Imamu Amiri Baraka, (LeRoi Jones), Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez, finding most contemporary poetry only marginally relevant to their concerns, set about fully utilizing African-American cultural experience and language, as in Baraka's Reggae or Not! (1982) and Sanchez's homegirls and handgrenades (1984). Last, but by no means least, the New York school, which included Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and, most notably, John Ashbery, produced painterly, surrealistic poems that perhaps owed more to the techniques of abstract expressionist painting than to the practices of poetic predecessors.

Many outstanding poets whose work does not fall conveniently into a specific “school” or category flourished in the second half of the twentieth century. Simply to cite some representatives figures—Adrienne Rich, Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, James Dickey, Robert Hayden, Mark Strand, A.R. Ammons, Audre Lord, Charles Simic, Philip Dacey, Billy Collins, Carolyn Forché, Sharon Olds—is to suggest the vitality of American poetry in these years. Of the various movements that were influential in the 1980s and 1990s, the three most prominent were women's poetry, Language poetry, and neoformalism. At the century's end, the most significant development by far was the emergence of multicultural poetry. The vibrant and impressive contributions coming from African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other ethnic minorities seemed finally to confirm Walt Whitman's description of America as a “teeming nation of nations.”

See also Cultural Pluralism; Literature; Modernist Culture.


Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry, 1961; rev. ed., 1965.Find this resource:

    Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, 1968; rev. ed., 1984.Find this resource:

      Donald B. Gibson, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1973.Find this resource:

        Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, 1986.Find this resource:

          Alan Shucard, American Poetry: The Puritans through Walt Whitman, 1988.Find this resource:

            Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan, Modern American Poetry, 1865–1950, 1989.Find this resource:

              Jay Parini, ed., The Columbia History of American Poetry, 1993.Find this resource:

                Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 8, Poetry and Criticism, 1940–1995, 1996.Find this resource:

                  Fred Moramarco and William Sullivan, Containing Multitudes: Poetry in the United States since 1950, 1998.Find this resource:

                    Donald D. Kummings