It appears that no one reads or is concerned with American Modernist poet John Gould Fletcher these days. I came upon him in a passing mention that he was associated with Imagism, a pioneering English-language Modernist style that I find worthy of sustaining. Turns out this was only the half of it: in Fletcher’s “associated with” resume, later in the first part of the 20th century Fletcher was associated with a southern American ruralism movement known as The Agrarians which then morphed into The Fugitives who furthermore helped birth — not sheep or lambs — but the monastic New Criticism that reigned supreme when I was in school as a young man. I’ve learned only a little about Fletcher, so don’t make me out to be an expert on him, but this linked short bio is much better than his sparse Wikipedia entry for flavor and detail, and it makes it sound like sometimes Fletcher’s “associated with” was a brief prelude to a falling out.*
“Tell you ma, tell your pa, gonna send you back to Arkansas!” Fletcher traveled and lived overseas early in the Modernist era, but spent the last part of his life back in his home state of Arkansas. Here in 1924 he could pass for “Remain in Light” era Brian Eno don’t you think.
Thanks to the wonderful collection of scanned books at the Internet Archive I’ve spent this month looking through two of the nine books that Fletcher published in the era surrounding WWI. My impressions are early and will be subject to change, but he seems to be writing in a different mode than other early American Modernists that I admire and have presented here.
Like early Pound you can see elements of Victorian era poetry remaining in his verse. He’s generally less interested in short poems of specifically observed moments than many Imagists. His free-verse often has a definite beat and attention to sound — using, a century ago, word-music techniques that a skilled modern slam poet might select today. Reading poems like today’s selection, I could imagine a live in-you-face-off between Vachel Lindsay and Fletcher in their primes in front of a raucous audience.
He’s a more genteel poet than Lindsay, and among the 19th century influences I see in what I’ve read so far are Whitman, Rimbaud, and William Blake, and today’s selection will help illustrate that I think.
Fletcher’s “America, 1916” comes in near the end of his 1921 Breaker and Granite poetry collection. This “America” is a six-page prose poem that, like the poems that precede it in the collection, attempts to sum up the state of America in 1916, but ends, in the final section that I performed, rhetorically like one of Blake’s prophetic books sung to the word-music of Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat.** There are no good online sources for the full text of this poem, but I’ll link here to a Google Books result that may allow you to read the whole thing.
Is there a prosaic political point to this poem? In the context of the rest of the poem it could be reduced to a call for America to enter World War I — which though the war had been raging for two years in 1916, was something that wouldn’t happen until a year after the poem’s date. But like Blake’s America, a Prophecy (which after all includes specific contemporary references of the American Revolution) Fletcher’s poem is doing so by making a more esoteric call for an elusive greater spiritual body of America to be born.
Is America still in an extended, excruciating, labor toward that birth? I’m no prophet, I won’t tell you, but I’ll do my best to give voice to Fletcher’s 100-year-old-words. The final sentence of the poem is one place where I made a slight change in Fletcher’s text. Weirdly, in a way I can’t quite pick out the intended significance, Fletcher ends his piece with “thou shalt arise, perhaps in vain shalt seek, to rule the earth!” As a prophecy of the subsequent “American Century” this could be counted as a palpable hit. Here in 2022, I sought to echo the internal subtlety of Bob Dylan’s opening line to his “License to Kill:”*** “Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he pleases — and if things don’t change soon, he will.” With Fletcher’s last line I did it mostly by repeating the “in vain” twice more to add weight to the dangers of vanity.
I performed only the closing section of Fletcher’s “America, 1916” today because composition and recording time are hard to come by right now. Lots of drums and I was able to play my own horn section this time thanks to getting short-term access to a better set of virtual instruments than I previously had at my disposal. You can hear my performance below either with a graphical player many will see, or with this backup highlighted link provided for those who won’t see a player.
*The bio mentions bipolar disorder, which might help to explain the bursts of output and the periods of disengagement.
**Stop the presses, ah, blog post — whatever. I’ve just discovered that the prose-poem style used in this and some other pieces in Fletcher’s collection are “Polyphonic Prose,” a term most associated with Amy Lowell, who Fletcher was specifically aligned with at the time. This short notice of Lowell’s use of the form in Poetry Magazine, November 1918 shows Fletcher highly praising that poetic form two years after the date of “America, 1916,” but before the publication of the collection in which I found Fletcher’s poem. Lowell (and to a lesser degree, Fletcher) credit a contemporary French poet Paul Fort as the inspiration of this form. At least in the Wikipedia article on Fort, Rimbaud is not mentioned as a direct influence on Fort, even though I heard Rimbaud word-music in Fletcher’s expression of the form.
***While there are few live-take liberties with the lyrics, this version of that song by Richie Havens is definitive to me.