The early 20th century American Modernist poets I often feature in this project were born in the 19th century. What American poets could they look to as their influences while they developed the poetry that rapidly re-shaped English language poetry? The answer/list for American American-Modernist influences is surprisingly short, and as a result these poets looked to writers from outside the United States. A summary list would include the early 19th century British Romantic poets and those still emulating that style in the UK. French writers got attention (even those French writers who had been influenced by American writers). Classical poets were still part of the British-influenced education system, so like Shakespeare the turn of the century Americans might have gotten “some Latin and little Greek” in school.
What are we left with for home-team poets? Poe, that formative poète maudit? Not much — even though his influence on some of the French writers was there second-hand. Dickinson? Less than some now may imagine in our age where she is considered a giant of American poetry. Dickinson was not significantly published in the mid-19th century, and so she was, on the printed page (beginning in the 1890s) a near contemporary of the Modernists. So, for our early Modernists at the beginning of the 20th century, Dickinson was considered more often as a new, interesting oddity than as the canonical mainstream. Longfellow, the massively successful American poet whose own roots lay in recasting European language poetic forms to American English? It is to laugh. Did even Vachel Lindsay or Carl Sandburg, the most populist and public minded of early Modernist era American poets ever dare to tip their hats to him? I haven’t seen it if they did, as Longfellow was already beneath contempt. Sandburg and the Black American Modernists like Fenton Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Bennett did look to Afro-American Spirituals, Blues, Jazz lyrics and forms, but like Dickinson this influence would become greater later in the 20th century than it was in the first part. That leaves us with Whitman, who “broke the new wood,” as Ezra Pound put it, with his free verse, his hardly subtext eroticism, his ostensibly personal I-am-the-one-who-wrote-these-lines voice, and his poetry of mystical optimism.
Today I’m going to perform a poem by the only poet whose pioneering interests and corresponding influence are plausibly greater than Whitman — and not just because he was a direct influence on Whitman and Dickinson: Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can trace Emerson’s spirit in 20th century (and 21st century) American poetry not by his poetic tactics (he was often a mediocre-to-awkward poet) but by his underlying world-view, one that helped form a widely influential New Thought movement in the United States called Transcendentalism.
What did Transcendentalism give American poetry?*
- Individualism and equality of office. Every person’s soul has an equal potential to receive important revelations and insights. From the start this included women and eventually it included all ethnic backgrounds and races.
- The Book of Nature is the scripture. Nature isn’t just a decorative metaphor — it’s the revelation of all that is.
- The job of poetry is not just to be beautiful, it’s to instruct. Transcendentalists didn’t do irony** that much and they almost never took to the poète maudit stance. That is not to say that it didn’t have stoic threads*** in its weave, or that its optimism was unbounded.
- America is not only, maybe not even primarily, an Atlantic continent. It’s also a Pacific one. We should be open to China, India, Japan, et al as artistic and philosophic influences.
That last one is shown distinctly in today’s piece, a poem of Emerson’s from 1856 that shows he’s been deep into the Hindu Mahābhārata**** — something I haven’t been. Reading Emerson’s poem to prepare for composing my music and performing it, I’m as lost as an ordinary someone listening to a Tolkien adept, or as a father listening to my daughter talk anime or Homestuck. My research says that many of the stories in this Hindu sacred epic deal with wars and wars between gods — and that behind it all, though not usually as an active part, is Brahma, the maker of the universe, who, as Emerson’s poem tells us, is above and beyond such struggles. The poem final line, “Find me, and turn thy back on heaven” then says that all else, even some heavenly reward or alliance, is illusion — that nature, the all that is, Brahma’s abode, is the highest revelation.
Influencer. “Hey, @Fuller, @Thoreau, @Alcott — this easel thing is a great lifehack for reading Indian sacred literature.
My musical performance is available below with a graphical audio player. The acoustic guitar composition here is within another Asian and Afro-American influenced musical style, one that its founder called “American Primitive.” I’m not fond of that label, but John Fahey meant it in the sense that it looks to show a direct experience in the music, not that it was unsophisticated or ham-handed. In my case the pork-fingers are a risk, but it fits Emerson’s text (linked here) well. No player visible? This highlighted link is your alternative way to hear my performance.
*Note to readers: I am not a scholar of American literary history, just a curious visitor who writes about my exploration. I’m not an expert on Transcendentalism either. I could be wrong in details or significance in today’s post, or with many others here. All this is offered as “It seems to me (sometimes).”
**Dickinson, who may have been a Transcendentalist, and certainly was familiar with its precepts, does have access to a side-eyed, darkly humorous at times, irony.
***Robert Frost, the stoic, seems to have a deep and dark reading of the Book of Nature which he shared with his British friend Edward Thomas.
****By later in the century, we began to take for granted that South Asian and Japanese religion, philosophy, and art are available for American poetry, while Emerson was there at the beginning. I’d expect the non-Asians, however well-meaning, to misunderstand some of it, even as they appropriate it — but then I’d assume some Asians misunderstand, or differ in their understandings, too. Yankee Emerson was one of the first here, and I have no standing to discuss what he got egregiously wrong or surprisingly right. Let me also note since this is cruel April, that T. S. Eliot, a half-century after this Emerson poem was published, took to studying Indian religion in college, dropping his own samples from Hindu and Buddhist scripture into the Modernist landmark “The Waste Land” while still an expatriate American.