B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
People, especially French and American people, tend to forget that the heart of the United States was once French. Not only was all of Canada and all of the Mississippi drainage from the Alleghenies to the Rockies under the French flag, as everybody knows, but French and French-Indian mountain men had penetrated to the West Coast before any of the officially recognized explorers and discoverers, for whom they were in fact often the guides. Deep in the Northern Rockies is the town of Coeur dAlene, Idaho. In Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, many of the leading merchants in the small towns are descended from the French, and they often still name their children Pierre, Jeanne and Yvonne conspicuous among the recent rash of movie-star first names, dictated by the mysteries of Hollywood numerology which cause the Roman Catholic clergy such distress at baptism. Not only are towns all over the Middle West named such things as Prairie du Chien and Vincennes, not only are their leading families named Sublette and Le Sueur and Deslauriers, but something very few people realize French life survived intact in hundreds of small isolated communities until well into the twentieth century.
When I was a boy, during the First World War, I took a canoe trip down the Kankakee River from near Chicago to the Mississippi. We passed through many villages where hardly an inhabitant spoke a word of English and where the only communication was the wandering tree-lined river and a single muddy, rutted road out to the highway. There is a book about it, Tales of a Vanishing River, and there was a popular humorous dialect poet, Drummond, who used to recite his poems in high-school assemblies and on the Chautauqua Circuit (a kind of pious variety tent show for farmers, now vanished) back in those days. I am zee capitain of zee Marguerite vat zail zee Kankakee. This was not off in the wilds somewhere it was a long days walk from the neighborhood of Studs Lonigan.
Midwestern Naturalism of the first quarter of the century was essentially a French-inspired movement. Its sources were in Zola and Turgenev, and in a lesser, but then more popular writer, Maupassant. In Theodore Dreiser, Zona Gale, Willa Cather, Hamlin Garland, down to Vardis Fisher and H.L. Davis in our own day, the very conception of the family epic is Balzacian, modified by Zola, and the locale is in each case even Idaho and Eastern Oregon a land first trod by French moccasins. Zola and Balzac taught the novelists of the early twentieth century method, Flaubert and the Goncourts taught them style. Not only is Main Street a flimsy and unironic imitation of Madame Bovary, but Sinclair Lewis never realized how very like Carol Kennicotts Gopher Prairie were the small French towns which broke the hearts of thousands of self-dramatizing Duses of the Second Empire.
I myself was born in South Bend, Indiana, on the site of an old portage of the voyageurs, and in sight of a monument to the Chevalier de La Salle, whose flowing locks in pigeonlimed bronze were my first intimation that people had not always looked like twentieth-century Americans.
Henry James, of course, owed everything to Flaubert the conception of the novel as an extraordinarily complex organization of what a later generation was to call abstract art. This is a false conception there is nothing abstract about a novel and the French influence in Henry James and his like is literary and artificial. Actually, he writes like an etherealized Trollope or Jane Austin. Nothing in criticism, unless it is some of the dreadful blunders of Sainte-Beuve, or the silly enthusiasms of Poe, is quite so comic as Henry Jamess book on French novelists, with its utter inability to understand what those novels were about. They might as well have been in Swahili or Etruscan for all Henry James understood them, for the simple reason that his life and background were totally different. The Midwest Naturalists responded to French nineteenth-century literature because it was about a life they could recognize as very much like their own, and its values and aims were theirs.
Baudelaire to Rimbaud, Balzac to Ibsen, there is one factor operating in Western European literature too seldom recognized, and for the suffering authors it was sometimes the most important. This is de-provincialization the struggle for metropolitan community with the new, emancipated and uniform standards of a new level of capitalist culture. It is seriously open to question if the system of values represented by the lycanthrope Borel is superior to that of Charles Bovary. It is just more citified. By the end of the First World War, Ben Hecht in Chicago, who had just gone through the Munich Commune, thought of himself as completely a member of the same City State as Ernst Toller, Louis Aragon, Blaise Cendrars or George Grosz. In 1923 Sam Putnam, Lawrence Lipton and myself, led a Dadaist movement in Chicago known as The Escalator which was quite as lunatic as anything ever managed by Max Ernst or Francis Picabia or Tristan Tzara. Notice the names German, Catalonian, Rumanian the Western European City State community has not only arrived, it has grown sick of itself.
Where did Nora go when she escaped from the Dolls House? She went to town and got a job. Henry Jamess characters go to art galleries to resolve their mysterious tragedies. His women are already completely emancipated as emancipated as the authoress or the heroine of the Princesse de Clèves. But this is artificial; like Malrauxs art, it is writing which has fed on writing. In the long run archaism in the arts is of interest only to the very refined it is a brave and very precious sort of soul that finds Abadie and Violet le Duc more exciting than Phidias, and Sacré Coeur more fun than Amiens. When the chi-chi has died away, cannibalism is an uncommon curiosity, in art as in anthropology.
It should be made clear, in a sort of parenthesis, that the New England tradition so ably reinstated by Van Wyck Brooks is neither characteristic of the rest of America nor really essentially British in inspiration. It is a reflection of the dominance of the German universities in the first half of the nineteenth century. Emerson, Longfellow and their friends were typically Teutonic in so many ways, and even Thoreau is not Rousseau in the woods near Boston but Rousseau as filtered through the German Romantic notion of natural self-sufficiency a very different idea from Rousseaus essentially communal concept. As a matter of fact, the only Englishman all the New Englanders liked, and who liked all of them, was that most Teutonic Scot, Carlyle.
This brings us to Whitman. It is true that Whitman filled his poems with pidgin French. It is also true that his poem on the defeat of the Commune is the best poem, in any language, that still unhealed schism in the French soul inspired. It is true that he looked to what he thought of as the French spirit as the leader in a revolution of morals especially sexual morals. But I am afraid he thought of France entirely in terms of Fourier, Proudhon, St. Simon, Blanqui the mother of free communes and free love. America in those days was dotted with Fourierist Phalanxes, Etienne Cabots Icaries, and similar French communalist experiments. The American Warren ran a Time Store in Cincinnati which not only anticipated Proudhon by several years, but which actually made mutualism work.
France, of course, in Whitmans day was not the France he imagined. That France existed largely in books read by cranks. It was in America that it came to life in Group Marriage, Comradely Love, Vegetarianism and Funny Money. Whitman, I am afraid, for all the doctors of comparative literature try to do with him, is an autochthone, a real original, and if his roots are anywhere except in the pre-Civil War North with its swarming cranks, reformers and humanists, they are in Isaiah.
Which brings us back to poetry and the twentieth century. How many Americans would be prepared to admit that the greatest American poet of the turn of the century did not write in English at all, but in French? How many have ever heard of him? Hardly any. I am referring of course to Stuart Merrill. Yet who is there to compete with him? Trumbull Stickney? George Santayana? I do not care for Edwin Robinson or Robert Frost myself, so I would say that Stuart Merrill remained the best American poet until the end of the First World War, with the sole exception of Carl Sandburg. Of course, if you prefer, you can have Vielé-Griffin.
One of the most hilarious examples of intercultural error known to me is G.E. Clarciers statement: Merrill . . . fondant aux États-Unis le mouvement socialiste. The American Socialist movement is at least as old as Babeuf and the Social Democracy of his day never heard of Merrill. Alas, he was what the Bolsheviks call a petty bourgeois dilettante, although a very admirable one, but he loved to entertain French admirers around café tables with fairy tales of his career as a revolutionist in the States.
Before we go on, two minor points should be cleared up. Frost and Robinson are presented in the contemporary academy in America as intensely American writers. They are nothing of the sort. Robinson is a rather vulgar imitator of the early nineteenth-century British narrative poet Crabbe, when he does not imitate those incredibly soft and sentimental productions, the narrative poems of Tennyson. Robert Frost discovered himself as a British Georgian poet. In his young days he lived near and was greatly influenced by the man who has slowly emerged as the best of the Georgian poets Edward Thomas and he belongs squarely in that tradition.
Now we come full circle. Who was the idol of the Georgian poets? Francis Jammes. Now that the dust of the explosions of the epoch from Apollinaire to Georges Schéhadé is dying away, it does not sound so incredible to recall that the great international influences in poetry in the early years of this century were Jammes and Verhaeren. They wrote about different things in different ways, but they were two faces of the same coin, two poles of the same literary universe the world of H.G. Wells and Theodore Dreiser, of Gerhart Hauptmann and Romain Rolland, the world which was given international viability in the criticism of Georg Brandes, and which found poetic expression in the English language in figures again as diverse as John Masefield in Britain and Carl Sandburg in America. The Marxists are perfectly right, incidentally, in pointing out that this literature, realistic if not naturalistic, and always with at least an undercurrent of social criticism, is the last artistic expression of capitalist culture to believe in its own health. All artistic expression after these times starts by calling itself decadent. Recently, when the Nobel Prize went to modern Russia for the first time it went to a poet [Boris Pasternak] who, whatever his varying favor with the Bolsheviks might be, was for one thing the leading living disciple of Francis Jammes.
Literary epochs play leapfrog with one another. French poetry after Apollinaire ignored the recent past and went back to Rimbaud and Mallarmé finding in them of course not Symbolism, but a revolutionary syntax of the mind. The most powerful current immediately before the First World War was programmatically anti-Symbolist. If this was true in France it was even more true in the English-speaking world where Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarmé meant the sentimentalities of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Dowson, and the pallid Art Nouveau descendants of the Symbolists, the disciples of Maeterlinck, seeking the blue flowers of their souls under purple and green lights on a stage masked in heavy scrim, like pea soup.
Derème, Toulet, Carco and the poets of Le Divan could be thought to have had a considerable influence in America. There certainly existed a large number of poets, more or less their contemporaries, who wrote much like them. The average literate poet of the early years of this century owned and read the Mercure anthology. But I doubt if this was a real influence. Rather it was what biologists call convergence. Modern taste has never revived these writers, and today the average young American poet has never heard of them. There is nothing to compare to the revival of Toulet and Carco in France let alone to the remarkable contemporary reputation of O.V. Lubicz-Milosz. Arthur Davison Ficke, even the still living and quite good Witter Bynner, are largely forgotten, and only Edna St. Vincent Millay survives, read by passionate high-school girls.
Did Edna Millay read Renée Vivien or Lucie Delarue-Mardrus? Although she was married to a French intellectual, I would be willing to wager a considerable sum that she never heard of them. Instead, she attempted what is probably the worst translation of Baudelaire a personality utterly beyond her in any language. Again, as part of the revolt against provincialism and for a world-wide liberated urban culture, I imagine she thought of herself as standing for French values against New England Puritanism. But, alas, even worse than Whitman, I fear she thought of French culture pretty much the same way as a G.I. out for the night in Gay Paree. It is very simple Tristan Derème is read today in France and Arthur Davison Ficke is not read in America for the reason that Derème is an incomparably better writer.
The best poet of the Divan style in America is the critic Edmund Wilson, who has a genius for conveying the very taste and smell of old, unhappy, far-off seductions a regular heterosexual Cavafy. His rigorously unsentimental contemporaries refuse to take him seriously as a poet.
Similarly, a large body of bad Parnassian or Verlainean verse might be extracted from bygone American magazines, but like minor and provincial French verse of the same kind it is better left forgotten. On the other hand, there is in America, as in France, a vast amount of good, but forgotten, provincial verse. For two generations the American hinterland has produced innumerable poets of the kind and quality of Pomairols.
While discussing this period it occurs to me to ask: Where was the Prince of Poetry in those days? The God of the Closerie des Lilas, did he have no influence in America? I think Paul Fort is too intensely French to travel. In certain formal and syntactical ways, yes, but in any real sense, no. Amy Lowell wrote a book titled Six French Poets (Regnier, Samain, Spire, Fort, Jammes and Verhaeren). In it she pays tribute to Fort. She borrowed several devices from him, notably what she called polyphonic prose. Unfortunately, although she was an extremely powerful personality a little like Gertrude Stein she was not one of Americas best writers and her influence never extended much further than the reach of her personality. Polyphonic prose was never taken up by anyone else.
Amy Lowell does, however, bring us to the first major climacteric in twentieth-century American poetry, the Imagist movement. This was a bona fide movement of the Parisian type, with members, leaders, its own tradition, its own magazine and annual. For this reason any number of doctoral theses have been written demonstrating its connection with French poetry. I think this is so much waste paper. The connection is almost nonexistent.
Did Imagist theories of free verse owe anything to the tireless propaganda of Vielé-Griffin? I think not. There is a simple, obvious reason why not. Vers libre is libre of the French alexandrine and the syllabic structure of French poetry. American free verse is free of the accentual pentameter and the quatrain. In fact, as free verse in America became more sophisticated, it often adopted syllabic structures, as in Marianne Moore, whose verse is not free at all, but counted. Of course, poetry in the English language has always been free in Vielé-Griffins sense. The rules of classical French poetry have no counterpart in even the strictest English prosody.
Imagism is part of the world-wide movement of the time anti-Symbolism. If we had nothing but the Imagist Manifestoes to go by, we might think it was very like the poetry of Reverdy that it was literary Cubism. It was not. It was much more conventional syntactically and it was actually, however anti-Symbolist its program, influenced at second and third hand by certain Symbolists, notably Gourmont and Laforgue, who were favorites of two of the leaders, Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound. The notion of any intelligent influence can be dissipated instantly by a perusal of Ezra Pounds essay on leading French poets of those days, in which he names as the great hope of French poetry Max Elskamp! This at the height of the careers of Apollinaire and his colleagues! Pound himself was a sort of late-born Symbolist, actually an Art Nouveau poet the last of the Pre-Raphaelites. A bitter struggle broke out between Pound and Amy Lowell for leadership of the Imagists, and partly it revolved around who knew best what was the latest thing from Paris, France. Amy Lowell was a little out of date Spire and Fort were getting usé in 1920 but at least she knew French poetry. But Pound was on the scene, he drank with Georges Fourrest and flirted with models who had slept with Willy, and he seized the loudspeaker of authority and clung to it. And today many an American Ph.D. thinks Pound is the founder of Imagism and the first American to introduce modern French poetry to the United States. Georges Fourrest and Max Elskamp!
One American Imagist who was thoroughly conversant with the French poetry of his time was John Gould Fletcher. In fact his major work, a series of reveries called Blue Symphony, Red Symphony, Green Symphony, etc., can best be characterized as a deliberate attempt to turn Imagism into a kind of Neo-Symbolism. It is not easy to pinpoint any one French poet as the inspiration for these poems. None of the later Symbolists fit exactly. There are ideas derived from Merrill, Vielé-Griffin, St.-Pol Roux, as well as the early work of Salmon and Apollinaire. But basically the resemblance is closest to the Belgians, and it is my opinion that the school of Maeterlinck is not Symbolist at all, but a literary parallel to Art Nouveau in the plastic arts. The theories behind John Gould Fletchers practice, however, came straight from Remy de Gourmont . . . as might be guessed from the very idea of symphonies in color. The Blue Symphony in particular was very influential in its day and prepared the way for the long philosophical reveries which are so characteristic of modern American poetry Eliots Waste Land, Pounds Cantos, Williamss Paterson, Zukofskys Poem Beginning A, Lowenfelss Some Deaths, Tylers Granite Butterfly and much of the work of Conrad Aiken. Five long poems of my own are all deeply indebted to John Gould Fletcher. Had he written in French, Fletcher would have been a recognized landmark in literary history. As it was, he went out of fashion in his middle age, was little read, changed his style, much for the worse, and finally, as have thirty other important American poets in the twentieth century committed suicide.
The British Imagist F.S. Flint, who later gave up writing altogether, did know contemporary French verse very well indeed. His translations of Cendrars, Aragon, Éluard, Soupault, Jacob and the rest, from their classical period, remain the best translations of modern French verse in English, and they were done over thirty-five years ago. They seemed to have had no influence on the Imagists, however. They encouraged them in their practice of free verse, but the problems of French poetry in the early Twenties were either over the heads or outside the interests of English and American writers.
The leading Imagist, and the only one still read today, was H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, then the wife of Richard AIdington). She was more influenced by Meleager and the Choruses of Euripides than all of French literature rolled together. Her personality greatly resembles Renée Vivien; some of her poetry has the same scene and subject as Les Chansons de Bilitis. But there the resemblance ends. She is a far harder, brighter, cleaner poet than Louys or Vivien a much better one, if you will.
Imagism was a revolt against rhetoric and symbolism in poetry, a return to direct statement, simple clear images, unpretentious themes, fidelity to objectively verifiable experience, strict avoidance of sentimentality. I suppose this is the actual programme of all good poetry anywhere. The Enemy of the Imagists was Tennyson and Victorianism generally. I doubt if anybody writing in France in 1912-25 was consciously engaged in a struggle against Lamartine or Hugo.
There was an important but usually ignored influence. All the Imagists were familiar with Judith Gautiers Livre du Jade that precious minor classic of French letters. From it they got their first intimation of Chinese poetry a poetry which fulfilled and surpassed the Imagist Manifesto beyond the abilities or dreams of even the best of the Imagists. Amy Lowells (with Florence Ayscough) Fir Flower Tablets, Witter Bynners The Jade Mountain (The 300 Poems of Tang), Ezra Pounds Cathay are translations from the Chinese, and are in each case incomparably their respective authors best work. Judith Gautier not only was almost certainly the first inspiration for this interest, but she provided the Americans with her special interpretations of Chinese poetry a mood of exquisitely refined weariness and excruciating sensibility which is not, as a matter of fact, characteristic of Chinese poetry until the eighteenth century. None of these authors, including Judith Gautier, read Chinese yet they made the best translations in any language.
Even those Imagists who could not read Le Livre du Jade in French read beautifully translated selections in Stuart Merrills Pastels in Prose. This was a translation of French prose poems from a wide variety of writers, mostly Symbolist, and was an attempt to acclimate the prose poem in America. It is the only work by which Merrill is known to most Americans. It failed in its purpose. Not only have few prose poems of any importance ever been written in English, but from Baudelaire to Léon Paul Fargue there are no good translations from the French. It seems to be a medium singularly unfitted to the spirit of American poetry. In fact, the only important prose poems in America are to be found in William Carlos Williamss Kora in Hell, a sort of prose Vita Nuova which shows a familiarity with Max Jacob and Fargue.
There is one other curious influence, one of those vagaries of history due to the personal element that eludes the strict mechanists. Pound knew Georges Fourrest and tried vainly to write witty epigrams like his Here lies George Fourrest under the sod. / He never feared the cops, syphillis or God. Pound never managed anything as good as that. But F.S. Flint knew a considerable poet then teaching in London Jean de Bosschère. He introduced him to the other Imagists and their own concepts of free verse probably had some influence on Bosschère rather than the other way around. He certainly had a definite influence on Flint himself, to a lesser degree on Aldington, and probably on Pounds Villanelle of the Psychological Hour the only poem Pound ever wrote in anything like the idiom of modern French verse. Then Bosschère published in London and Chicago in a face en face edition, French and English, his Closed Door. This contained the famous Ulysses Builds His Bed, the first competent example of dissociation and recombination of elements in the cubist manner that most poets who read no French had ever encountered. Its effect was tremendous. Out of it came the germinal idea for Joyces great epic. Out of it came the technique of The Waste Land. Anthropologists are familiar with phenomena like this in what they call acculturation or in diffusion of culture elements. Something not of primary importance in one culture will be transmitted to another almost by chance, and find a niche unoccupied in the other culture pattern and proliferate all over the place. It is like the spread of the English sparrow and the starling all over America, or rabbits in Australia. Pascal Covici, then a Chicago book dealer and later one of Americas largest publishers, was especially fond of Bosschère and published practically everything he wrote, while Cendrars is, to the best of my knowledge, except for his Anthologie Nègre, represented only by a poor translation of LOr, made long ago. Such are the exigencies of the diffusion of culture and of comparative literature.
Meantime, literary cubism was coming into existence in English. Gertrude Steins Tender Buttons and the abstract dissociative poems of Walter Conrad Arensburg antedate the fully developed style of Reverdy by ten years or more. Both were wealthy Americans who had lived for long periods in France and who were very much alive to what was going on in the most advanced circles. Arensburg gave up writing, became the leading exponent of the Baconian heresy the idea that Bacon wrote Shakespeare to prove which he spent thousands. He was a close friend of Marcel Duchamp, and, aided by Duchamp, he built one of the two or three largest collections of modern painting in the world now in the Philadelphia Museum. (It contains almost the entire oeuvre of Duchamp himself.)
(Incidentally, Arensburg made, some forty years ago, the best translation of LAprès-Midi dun Faune in English. In the notes he pointed out that the afternoon which is the putative subject of the poem takes place after the poem is over . . . Tard succombent au fier silence de midi: I know of no other American writer who ever attached any importance to this line.)
Until just before the Second World War, when she became a great world celebrity like the Aga Khan or Brigitte Bardot or Princess Margaret, Gertrude Stein published her books at her own expense and was read only by a tiny coterie, mostly of Americans living abroad. She is one of the most intensely American writers that ever lived. Her words, her ideas, her materials, all are the purest Americanese, and even her extraordinary syntax is simply a development of tendencies latent in typically American speech. Yet she is also an American writer whose work stands fully in the mainstream of French poetry from Apollinaire to Surrealism.
Arensburg and Stein both lived abroad, they both wrote for small coteries of sophisticates, they both contributed to the magazine Others edited by Alfred Kreymborg, and it is with this magazine and the group that grew up around it that modernism in American poetry really begins. William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Marsden Hartley, Wallace Gould, Alfred Kreymborg himself, Maxwell Bodenheim, and the socialist poets Lola Ridge and James Oppenheim, the anarchist Arturo Giovannitti, dozens of others Kreymborg produced them all suddenly on the literary stage in America, like a conjurer pulling rabbits from a hat. The effect on the press and the conventional poetry circles was terrific. It surpassed by far the noise made by the Beat Generation or the alcoholics of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald Lost Generation. American literature was never the same again, and of course today many of these names are modern classics, poets loaded with honors and taught in the grammar schools and endlessly and exhaustively explicated in hundreds upon hundreds of Ph.D. theses. Their influences are, without exception, largely French.
French they may have been. Up to date, except with a few exceptions, they were not. It takes as long almost for new poetic idioms to cross a language barrier as it does for the use of the blowpipe to travel from one tribe to another in the Amazon. The time lag was considerable. Pound had just discovered Laforgue and was translating his prose extravaganzas and singing his praises to all comers. Laforgue is the principal influence on most of these people. All the early work of T.S. Eliot is extremely Laforguean. He now attributes that special spleen and irony to Corbière, but it is extremely doubtful if he had ever heard of Corbière prior to 1920. The real leader of the group to which Eliot and Pound belonged in London was the novelist, polemicist, and very great painter, Wyndham Lewis, and Lewiss narrative style is Laforgue reduced to a formula: Describe human beings as though they were machines, landscapes as though they were chemical formulas, inanimate objects as though they were alive. This is pretty much the formula of the Laforguean poetry of the English poetess Edith Sitwell too, and she had a considerable influence on American poets. Marianne Moore is a poet very like Edith Sitwell, but without her depth. She not only took over the Laforguean aesthetic, but she wrote in syllabic verse which structurally often resembles specific poems of Laforgues. Aikens poetry was much like Laforgues in its choice of inadequate, spleen-ridden and troubled narrators the first person of the poem almost always sounds like Eliots Prufrock or a slightly healthier Laforgue himself. But Aikens long, mellifluous, easy line with its obvious sonorities and sentimental rhythms sounds much more like Valéry Larbaud. Dozens of Aikens poems are pure Barnabooth.
It is very important to understand that modernist American poetry and English, as well of the generation just before and after the First World War, the generation of Supervielle and Cendrars, of Reverdy and Breton was hopelessly stuck on Laforgue. This peculiar blockage is extremely difficult to understand and merits a long essay or an American Ph.D. thesis in itself. Puzzling about this, I comfort myself with the memory that shortly after the Second World War, Roger Caillois informed me that the best American novelist was Horace McCoy.
Actually the Socialist-Populist writers were more aware of contemporary French literature. They read the French socialist and anarchist press and wrote in a sort of international Whitmanesque revolutionary idiom like many of their now forgotten compeers in the French journals of the movement. I suppose their favorite foreign poets were Verhaeren and the German, Richard Dehmel. But they were aware of what was going on, as the aesthetes of this period were not. They had a living contact with intellectuals in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Geneva. The Laforgueans had derived their knowledge of the latest thing from courses in French literature at Harvard and I doubt if either Pound or Eliot has ever heard of Herman Gorter to this day. When Gorter and his friends seized power in postwar Rotterdam, weeping men and women recited hastily made translations of his poems from soapboxes to ragged crowds in the slums of New York and Chicago. Mayakofskis poems were translated into American before they were into French. Sandburg wrote one of the first poems to Brancusi in any language, and it is still one of the best.
The large Yiddish-language press, then by far the most civilized journals in America, published translations of poetry from all over the world, and the American Yiddish poet Yehoash was translating Japanese haiku and introducing ideas derived from Apollinaire into Yiddish verse before anybody ever dreamed of doing such things in English. A section of New York, utterly unknown to the real Americans, was an international capital with an international language into which literature from all over Europe was translated, dozens of magazines and newspapers of higher quality than anything in English, and the best theater in the Western hemisphere. It must not be forgotten that almost all Jewish poets of those days still read Yiddish, although they wrote in English, and were thus exposed to international influences unknown to their Gentile colleagues. Cosmopolitanism somebody in Russia called it a few years back.
If the proletariat had an international culture, so did the rich. Walter Conrad Arensburg moved from specific imitations of Mallarmé, Reflets dans lEau: The swan existing / Is like a song / With an accompaniment / imaginary . . . through imitations of Toulet: Sleepy head / Lay aside your sandals / That have fled / Down a night of candles / By the bed . . . to the pure cubism of A drink into home use indicates early Italian, otherwise the elements of how keep outside. Use what listens on Sundays and catchy elms will oxidize pillows. Blunders are belted in cousins . . . to abstract poems with titles like Axiom and Ohm, which can be compared only with Picabia, but which, quite unlike Picabia or Tzara, were written in dead earnest.
Mina Loy somewhat resembled the early Soupault, although when she wrote her best verse it is unlikely that she had ever heard of him. Later she married the boxer Arthur Craven, a famous figure of the great days of Dada. Gertrude Stein, of course, was plugging away, writing poetry and prose which might well have puzzled Barzun (the father, not the son), but she did not contribute much to literary magazines until ten years later.
Marsden Hartley was one of Americas greatest painters. Working in Germany and Paris before the First World War, he was one of the first abstract expressionists and in those days he wrote some rather odd poetry, obviously French in inspiration. When he returned to the States he abandoned all this and painted for the rest of his life in a powerful, rocky, Fauve-like style the landscapes and seascapes and people of his native Maine. His poetry underwent a similar change. It is simple, direct, painfully honest, unabashedly personal. Little appreciated in the long period of academic English-inspired metaphysical verse of the self-styled Reactionary Generation, he is coming back into favor, at least among young poets.
Now we come to the last two poets of this group, whom I have held back because they are by far the best. (A comparative study like this must pass by, at least to an extent, questions of value and concentrate on historical connections. Arensburg, Oppenheim, Bodenheim, several others, are not very good writers. I forgot poor old Bodenheim, by the way. He was a sort of hobo Laforgue, a poor and rather absurd poet who spent his life cadging drinks in the Bohemian quarters of New York and Chicago and living off the fringes of the movement first the anarcho-syndicalist IWW, later the Communists. Like all such pathetic people, he had a rather frightening dissolute integrity of his own. He was, I suppose, the most Laforguean of all, but Laforgue came to him through the worst of all channels, the English Decadents, Wilde, Dowson, Symons and Ben Hecht!)
To resume the thread Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams are poets of world importance, completely devoid of the provincial, derivative character that marks most of these people. They have, vis-à-vis French poetry, none of that flavor of the backwoodsman seeing Paris for the first time that we associate with even such important figures as Rubén Darío.
Wallace Stevens might be said to have fulfilled and completed Laforgue, more than anyone in French poetry, or any other language for that matter. (Rimbaud does not fulfill Laforgue no two life attitudes could be less alike.) Stevens shares Laforgues irony and his sensual wisdom, but he has something Laforgue lacks as a poet and lacked as a man a very simple thing: good health. The bitterness of Laforgues irony becomes a tonic rather than a corrosive bitterness in Stevens and produces a skepticism and animal faith, a completely laïque affirmation beyond the capacity of a dying and unhappily exiled man. The pure Voltairean malice in the Laforgue tradition is revealed in all its innocence and grandeur.
Today it is William Carlos Williams who emerges as the greatest of this group the classic American modernists and as Americas greatest living poet. He was partly educated in France. He has lived there for extended periods. He knows personally most of the heroic generation of post-World War I poets and has translated a novel of Soupaults. He was a friend of Valéry Larbaud and the American editor of Commerce. Intensely personal, local, antiliterary, absolutely devoted to the achievement of a truly American vision, he is none the less the one American poet who ranks with the best of his French contemporaries, who speaks to them as an equal in a language they can understand. I would say too that the ordinary French reader today could get more out of him than from any other American poet except Whitman. It is the true autochthones who circulate most freely in all lands. Williams could be said to belong in the Cubist tradition Imagism, Objectivism, the dissociation and rearrangement of the elements of concrete reality, rather than rhetoric or free association. But where Reverdy, Apollinaire, Salmon, Cendrars, Cocteau and Jacob are all urban, even megalopolitan, poets of that Paris which is the international market of objects of vertu, vice, and art, Williams has confined himself in single strictness to the life before his eyes the life of a physician in a small town twenty miles from New York. In so doing, his localism has become international and timeless. His long quest for a completely defenseless simplicity of personal speech produces an idiom identical with that which is the end product of centuries of polish, refinement, tradition and revolution.
The next generation, the young men and women who began to write during and just after the First World War, had more connections with France and were more alive to what was actually going on there. The reason was obvious they were there. Many of them went abroad as soldiers and stayed on, traveling about Europe and living as cheaply as possible off the inflated currencies with their hard dollars. This is the famous Lost Generation. They werent very lost. They had a ball in Europe. They all started publishing their books and selling their paintings in their early twenties. Most of them came back to the States to enormously successful careers or very highly paid jobs. Ernest Hemingway, on safari hunting rhinoceros, has never looked very lost to me. Although the First World War broke the isolation of America and pulled it into the general orbit of Western civilization, the experiences of Europe in the war actually had little meaning for these young Americans. Malcolm Cowley, one of their leaders, and a poet who became a successful editor and publisher, wrote a book about those years, Exiles Return. It is a good book, and a fine study of the mind of his generation of Americans abroad, but it shows less than no understanding of what had happened to the European spirit. A good deal of it is taken up with the high days of Dada. To Cowley, and to most of his well-off friends, Dada was just a continuation of the American-college-boy pranks they had known at Princeton and Harvard. They might be able to write about it, but they could never understand in their hearts that the war and the counterrevolutions that followed it had destroyed the foundations of the Humanist tradition, that the very word civilization had come to stink of blood. Perhaps it was a Nazi who first said, When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver. But it was Max Ernst who exhibited a billet of wood with an ax chained to it and the card, If you dont like this piece of sculpture, you dirty bourgeois, make one for yourself. And who was it who wanted to show, in the same Rhineland Dada exhibition, a loaded pistol mounted in a frame and pointed at the spectator, with a little string on the trigger and the caption: Please pull. The state of mind behind this state of affairs was totally incomprehensible to the average American poet drinking Pernods which cost him two and a half cents American money on the terrasse of the Dome and congratulating himself on what a rebel he was against American Prohibition. No happy man has so much einfuhling that he can truly comprehend a broken heart.
Still they did their best. They bought drinks for the leading personages of the period if they could persuade them to visit their tables. They financed literary reviews. They helped stage demonstrations and plays in which people continuously shot off pistols and cranked klaxons. (Ah, the klaxons! The true Mona Lisas of the Twenties! Where would we have been without them?) The exiles were always good for a loan which seemed very sizable on the receiving end, translated into francs, but which was cheap at half the price. They bought a taste of the disorderly old age of a culture. In other words, they were like schoolboys who discovered they could make love to a decrepit and dissolute but unbelievably depraved duchess for less than the price of ten minutes in a short-order whorehouse back home.
Duchesses in dissolution, alas, are over the heads of schoolboys, and so, like Malcolm Cowley, the exiles returned to good jobs. What had they accomplished, the young men of the Twenties, the expatriates? A good deal, some of it unwittingly. They broke for a moment the continuity of American culture. They introduced to America the alienated and outraged European avant-garde, and although few of them understood what they were doing, there were others, in America and expatriated, who did. They started a tradition of publishing the most vital American writing, as well as a lot of translation from modern French writing, in Paris a tradition which persists, more or less on dying momentum, to this day. They ran a number of reviews, expensively gotten up by European standards, which may have had little public support but which were studied avidly by every alert writer and painter back home. Similar magazines, necessarily cheaper and less worldly, proliferated all over America.
The Little Review, edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, started in Chicago and moved to Paris, where it finally died in Gurdgieffs dude ranch in Fontainebleau. Broom was founded and edited by Alfred Kreymborg and Harold Loeb in Rome, Paris and Berlin, and eventually was taken over by Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson and moved to America where it promptly died. Contact was edited by WilIham Carlos Williams and Robert MacAlmon and included a book-publishing venture. The Transatlantic Review was edited by the dynamic and endlessly fertile British novelist Ford Madox Ford, but published mostly American and French writers. There were many others. At the end there were still plenty, and they and their editors were more closely integrated with European life and more comprehending. Eugene Jolass transition and Sam Putnams New Review were even read by Frenchmen!
Most of these magazines also published good reproductions, and so laid the foundations, not only of modern American abstract art but of the fabulously successful American art market. Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Arensburg Collection, and the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, the beautifully organized collection of modern French painting in the Chicago Art Institute, as well as the millionaire art dealers of New York this would all have been a much poorer thing had it not been for these apostles of acculturation who often had to hide from their printers till money showed up at American Express from Grandma in Sheboygan, Michigan.
Then came the Stavisky riots, the manifesto for the United Front (signed by dozens of American writers and artists in France), the Spanish War, Munich the thunderous footsteps of the Golem marching toward the door and everybody left for America . . . except Henry Miller, who didnt have the fare and didnt believe in politics anyway.
Let us give what the American commerçants call a brief rundown on the leading poets of that period.
Malcolm Cowley started out as a populist poet, but from Harvard, not the Middle West. For five years in Europe his work was full of echoes of Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Cendrars, Soupault (Soupault and Duchamp seem to have been very congenial minds to the Americans) even Tristan Tzara and Roger Vitrac. Then he went back to the States, wrote the best poem on the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, gave up poetry and became an editor of a political weekly, The New Republic.
Hart Crane worshiped Rimbaud, or at least the Rimbaudian legend. He never learned to speak more than a few words of French, but his Voyages are the best recreation of Rimbaud that exists in English and his whole life was a sort of acting out of Bateau Ivre. Formally, however, as a prosodist, he was quite conventional and influenced mostly by early Elizabethan blank verse probably because he also thought of himself as an avatar of Marlowe. He spent quite a bit of time in France in the last years of his life, but he had more trouble with the police than he did contact with his French colleagues.
Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse ran a very ambitious publishing house, the Black Sun Press. They wrote together a book of beautiful erotic poems, Sleeping Together, which bears comparison with the Golls Dix Milles Aubes. Then they returned to America and Crosby shot himself at a drunken party. His work somewhat resembled Artauds, if Artaud had been mad for the sun instead of the way he was.
Archibald MacLeish lived in Paris in those days and his best poem is Portrait of a Man, in memoriam to Harry Crosby. It is a very deliberate imitation of Apollinaires Zone. Larbaud, St.-John Perse, Apollinaire, Cendrars especially their use of tourism as a symbolic system MacLeish was deeply influenced by them and he echoed and imitated them quite consciously. In his young days he was almost a new Stuart Merrill, whom he greatly resembled in personality.
Matthew Josephson wrote a sort of Dadaist poetry, went back to America, became first a successful advertising man and then an even more successful biographer and forgot about poetry, Dadaist or otherwise.
Jolas spent several years trying to shift the basis of Surrealism from Freud and Marx to Jung and St. John of the Cross, publishing in transition Joyces Finnegans Wake and imitating it in polylingual poems full of neologisms which nobody read. He and his friends launched The Revolution of the Word, complete with manifesto (which he persuaded all sorts of French personages to sign), but nothing came of it and he went back to America. As an apologist for his own brand of Surrealism, he was, if anything, a more cogent and learned polemicist than Breton himself, and to his door can be laid the beginning of the present popularity of Jungianism, with its chaos of undigested symbology and its antinomian mysticism. Out of him come the pseudo mahatmas of On the Road but, alas, all devoid of his curious and amusing learning.
Yvor Winters suffered from tuberculosis and was forced to go from Chicago, not to Paris with all his colleagues, but to the New Mexican mining town of Raton, high in the desert mountains. He actually knew more about French literature than any other practicing American poet of his generation and in his early work did a better job of intelligent assimilation of the whole tradition from Baudelaire to Aragon and Breton than anybody else. He cannot be said to have shown specific French influence. Like William Carlos Williams, his work was his own completely but it was part of the world of modern European literature. Only he of all poet-critics of the time in America had any comprehension of the profound spiritual crisis which this evolution embodied. Suddenly he identified himself with the antimodernism of Valéry or Maritain and became the strictest of contemporary Parnassiens. This is a phenomenon typically French again, so much so in fact that his poetic style and critical opinions are still very little understood in America. He once wrote a long attack on H.D. which was at the same time his own farewell to Imagism hers and his own dissociative, Reverdy-like brand of it. Now this essay has an odd note about it of never quite comprehending H.D. and of somehow missing the whole point of her work. The reason is simple. In its original form it was not about H.D. It is very close to being a paraphrase of Charles Maurrass famous attack on Renée Vivien, Le Romantisme Féminin: Allégorie du Sentiment Désordonné.
In the meantime, there was growing up in Vanderbilt University, one of the few institutions of learning in the American South, a little coterie of political reactionaries, under the leadership of their English professor, John Crowe Ransom. Their roots were in Europe, too, though not in the antimodernism of Maritain and Valéry, but in the antimodernism of Léon Daudet, Maurras, and in the theories of Pareto, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Major Douglas the social credit, classless syndicalism and new agrarianism which came to so disastrous an end in a gas station in Milan and a fiery hole in Berlin. Their idol was T.S. Eliot, Classicist, Anglocatholic, Royalist. They tolerated Fernandez, but thought he was too broad in his tastes. They approved of Ezra Pound but wished he paid more attention to the rules of verse. They believed Nigras should be kept in their place. Their real mentor, who imported these ideas for them they lacked the languages was a political professor named Donald Davidson, whose writings somewhat resemble those of a literate Senator Eastland and who is one of the leading think tanks of the modern South.
They numbered one genuine poet in their ranks, a then young girl named Laura Riding. The association was fortuitous. She did not share their ideology. Like Williams, Stein, Winters, she was a genuinely autochthonous American modernist. Her poetry bore a slight resemblance to Reverdys but I am sure this resemblance too was accidental convergence again. She left the Ransom group (who called themselves The Fugitives fugitives from modernism, liberalism, humanitarianism, socialism, interracialism, and all the other cusswords of the reactionaries), migrated first to London, where she was one of the early muses of W.H. Auden, and then to Paris and Majorca, where she ran a press and a magazine for several years with Robert Graves. She is without doubt Americas most unappreciated good poet. Unfortunately her best poetry is small in bulk and came early. Later she broke down into a dull wordy chaos and then stopped writing altogether. She is one of the many casualties of the permanent crisis of the modern mind, like René Crevel, Rigaut, Artaud, Mayakofski, Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, Dylan Thomas, and the rest but for a while she was one of the very finest poets of her day in any language.
Walter Lowenfels lived in Paris for many years and was one of the better American contributors to transition. He published a series of books printed by Darantière, who printed so many of these people called Some Deaths, the deaths being those of D.H. Lawrence, Apollinaire, Hart Crane, Rimbaud and a couple of others whom I have forgotten. Structurally they bear considerable resemblance to Apollinaire. Lowenfels, a fairly wealthy man, returned to America after the Stavisky riots (he was one of the first signers of the famous manifesto), gave up poetry and became a correspondent for The Daily Worker and editor of its Pennsylvania edition. Only in recent years, arrested under the Smith Act outlawing the Communist Party, was he moved to return to poetry. In his young days he was certainly one of Americas best poets, and one of those most in the current of contemporary French life. He is, incidentally, the hero of the very amusing episode Jabberwhorl Cronstadt, in Henry Millers Black Spring which shows how much comprehension Henry has of the refinements of modernist verse. Miller, of course, is another writer so American he is completely assimilable to French culture and stands at ease in the small company of Restif, Céline, and Sar Péladan.
e.e. cummings lived in France after the First World War, but for him Paris seems to have been a place of beautiful streetwalkers and abundant liquor. He is a conventional and sentimental poet whose typographical and syntactic oddities are the pranks of an incurable Harvard Boy. They certainly have nothing to do with the sickness of the European heart which began in 1848 and became fatal in Père Lachaise in 1871. Everybody pretends not to notice that among his comical cut-ups are some of the most scurrilous bits of anti-Semitic doggerel in any language, including German. Anti-Semitism is unknown in America except among lunatics. So in the sense that he is a sane and educated man and an antidreyfusard, he may be said to show French influence. It is a little ominous that he is just beginning to be appreciated in France.
John Brooks Wheelwright was a different kind of Bostonian, a perfect descendant of the revolutionary humanists and eccentrics of the 1840s. Descended on both sides from ancient Mayflower families, and moderately wealthy, he lived for a while abroad and read a great deal of modern French poetry. But he had his own ideas about what kind of modernism he wanted, and he again was a true indigène, and so, a good European. Too hot for the orthodox, he became an impassioned Trotskyite, Anglocatholic and several other kinds of violent and peculiar exceptionalist. Walking home one night, he was killed by a drunken driver near the bridge across the Charles River in Boston which his father had built. Dead in his prime like so many American poets, he was not, like most of them, already burnt out. No one has ever taken the place of this dynamic, inexhaustible and lovable mind and completely original talent. Had he written in French, he would have died loaded with honors. As it is, few people have ever heard of him.
Already revolutionary politics has begun to intrude into this narrative. With the onset of the permanent world economic crisis, the rise of fascism and the development of war economies, the Americans went home from Paris, and other international movements than those founded by Picasso and Apollinaire captured the allegiance of American poets. Aragons Front Rouge was recited to jazz trumpets and drums in John Reed clubs (the American Union of Revolutionary Writers) in San Francisco and Chicago the trip to Kharkov caused all sorts of convulsions in advanced literary circles. Mimeographed magazines of Proletcult poetry flourished in provincial towns. The theses of Leopold Auerbach were passionately debated in unheated furnished rooms and rattling boxcars. This movement produced some excellent prose the early work of Mike Gold, Dos Passos (Dos Passos was strongly influenced by the program, but not the practice, of Jules Romainss Unanisme. In fact, Unanisme, which had produced a poetry either monstrous or dull, or both, found in Dos Passos USA its major realization), Farrell, Richard Wright and others, even Steinbeck in a sense but the bitter fact is that it produced almost no poetry of any consequence whatsoever. The American Roman Catholic Church is the most ultramontane in the world. Similarly the American Communist Party has always been more Russian than the Russians, more Staliist than Stalin. The witch-hunting or petty-bourgeois hunting of the bureaucracy, the tedious lets play we all work at the Pulitov Iron Works pseudo-proletarianism of the Bohemians of Greenwich Village drove most bona fide writers away or out of proletarian literature and into actual trade-union work, and robbed those who stayed of the self-respect essential to poetry. With the exception of Mike Gold, who has not done any important writing in twenty-five years, all the novelists and short-story writers ended up bitter enemies of Bolshevism in all forms . . . many of them professional antibolsheviks, a very lucrative occupation in the States.
There was a moment when French influence was very important in American writing. From Kharkov to Les Cloches de Basle, all eyes were on Aragon. Would he be the leader of an assertion of the valid rights of literature against the anti-intellectualism of the bureaucracy? Nothing happened, and one by one the writers dropped away. The leading literary quarterly in America, bitterly reactionary, paranoid in its antibolshevism, was once an organ of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers and carried, along with myself, Louis Aragon on its masthead. No one of my generation is ever likely to forget Aragons speech attacking Léger and praising as the pure representative of the working class Gromaire!
When the split came, Breton did not carry any of the older American modernists with him. A whole new crop of American poets sprang up specifically disciples of Bretons brand of Surrealism. The most important of these poets are Charles Henri Ford, Parker Tyler and Philip Lamantia, all still writing today. Together they edited one of the most dynamic magazines of Surréalisme Outremer called View which was livelier if less learned than transition. All three are certainly among the finest non-French Surrealists. Parker Tylers Granite Butterfly is an excellent philosophic revery of the type written by Lowenfels, Zukofsky, myself, and others a form which begins in France with Un Coup de dès. This poem of Mallarmés, along with Zone and Le Cimitière marin, even Carcos LOmbre have been of immense influence on American poets of my generation.
In the meantime, as a sort of effort to stave off disorganization, the poet Louis Zukofsky organized a movement with manifesto called Objectivism. It owed a good deal to Apollinaire and the Cubists and to the principles, but not the practice of the German Neue Sachlichkeit. Just at this moment people in France notably Léger were talking about the return to the object. Zukofsky himself was deeply read in French poetry and had translated André Salmon, in fact, all of Prikaz. His own poetry somewhat resembled the Salmon of the days of Prikaz but owed even more to William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pounds Cantos. He has a peculiarly knotty, Kabbalistic sort of mind and his long philosophical-personal epics, actually reveries, resemble nothing so much as the permanent crisis of the modern heart filtered through the baffling convolutions of the Zohar. Incidentally, he was a friend and translator of the great Yiddish modernist, Yehoash. Zukofsky included me, along with Williams, Pound, Horace Gregory, Lowenfels, Wheelwright, in fact, anybody who would say yes and didnt write sonnets, in his Objectivists but after putting out a very stimulating anthology (printed by Darantière) the movement died for lack of interest on the part of its members. Zukofsky did discover the one American poet who is, without ever having heard of him, an almost exact replica of Reverdy Carl Rakosi, who published one small book and then fell silent.
The Rakosi book was published by James Laughlin at New Directions. For over twenty years Laughlin alone imported French writers into America by the bucketful. He took up where Jolas stopped and has lasted four times as long. He has published everybody from Julien Gracq to Éluard, from Queneau back to Louise Labé. At one time he was very awake to what was going on in France. People were just beginning to talk about Michaux in St. German when Laughlin appeared with a bilingual Selected Works of Michaux. In 1940 the baby Surrealists in the American cornbelt cut their eye teeth on the New Directions Annual Surrealist numher. In recent years he has been more interested in publishing the work of Asian writers in English and has turned away from the French writers of post-World War II. He is himself an excellent poet, a kind of intimiste, who owes much to the example of French poets as diverse as Toulet, Éluard, and Queneau.
The Second World War produced nothing in American poetry. Like most everybody else in the world, Americans seemed to be ashamed of themselves fighting a war in the middle of the twentieth century; but unlike the more seasoned British, they were unable to write out this attitude in a mature way. Of course, there was nothing in America like the French press of the Resistance, which was by definition stimulating. However, anything that crossed the ocean by chance from North Africa was eagerly read and by the end of the war American poets who read French were well aware of the wartime work of poets like Char and Frénaud. Les Éditions de Minuit and Poésie were easier to buy in America than in Paris.
Has the French poetry that has come after the Second World War had much influence? I think not. Modern American poetry now has a long tradition behind it and it is deeply involved in developments of its own. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, all of whom have lived for long periods in France, owe much to the classic period of French modernism, but they are now following roads which diverge widely from the poets represented in anthologies like Rousselots and Bealus. Ferlinghetti has translated Prévert and fancies that he himself writes like Prévert. Actually, if he resembles anybody, it is much more Queneau.
Kenneth Patchen is one of the Old Masters of the universe of discourse which is that of American poetry after the Second World War. Once again see how often we come to these American writers, truly indigenous, who are so easily comprehensible to the French! The simplest definition of Patchens style is that he writes as Aragon might have written if Lunacharski had been chairman of the Kharkov Conference. Aragon at the great turn said, We do not need to concoct synthetic nightmares, the nightmares of the daily press can always surpass us in horror. Well, Patchen really captures that horror, in the way no social-realist ever could. He writes of a world in which every man has become Antonin Artaud, where René Crevel and Mayakofski shoot each other at every street corner, and where every body of water six feet deep contains its own corpse of Hart Crane and every barroom floor a bloated Dylan Thomas lost in a coma from which there can be no return.
Ever since the wave of worldwide reaction which is a reflection of the by now admittedly incurable economic crisis and the economy of permanent war, American poetry has been in the hands of a coalition of the pillowcase-headdress school which originated at Vanderbilt so long ago, and the ex-Stalinist paranoiacs of a small circle of cocktail drinkers in New York. These people control the scholarships and fellowships that bring American intellectuals to Europe and French intellectuals to teach in Iowa State Universitys School of Creative Writing. They also publish lavish quarterlies subsidized by American millionaires. They also control that milksoaked biscuit Encounter, which is not really what it seems edited by John Foster Dulles but is a publication of the international beni oui-oui. So they have given the impression abroad that this is what American poetry is today, a sort of hayseed imitation of Valéry at his most pompous, a bumpkin version of Patrice de la Tour du Pin at his most vapid. The truth is that, like the Proletcult Boys before them (many of them were Proletcult Boys!), they are not poets at all, but politicians, professors and manipulators of prizes, fellowships and scholarships. They are the present American Academy, even more ridiculous than the one which the Bull on the Roof recently entered as the last Dadaist joke of his extreme old age. No one of importance in American poetry takes them seriously, except their poor students, to whom, if they show any originality, they can always give a failing grade in Creative Poetry 2679132 A.
The great trouble with transatlantic communication is that it is like short-wave radio it gets distorted by the overpowering signals of the official stations. French people seldom really realize, having never seen the country, that America is a commercial civilization with a mass culture and an official literature which in no way reflects the actual life of the country. But its noncommercial culture is by no means underground; it is just not exported by the American State Department or Hollywood or the big slick magazines and the academic quarterlies. Except by accident, important American intellectuals never show up in Europe on Fulbright Fellowships. The entire official and academic, but not the privately sponsored, fellowship system is a kind of U.S. State Department Gold Curtain, through which only mice can pass.
Finally, although some of the people in the collection presented by Europe are important poets and good friends of mine, they show no perceptible French influence. Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, John Ciardi, Richard Eberhart, all speak French, are well-read in the language and have lived in France; perhaps for this very reason they have been little touched by French poetry. I myself have translated a great deal of French poetry and probably read more of it than I do American poetry, but since my early twenties I do not think I have been much influenced by it. French poetry influenced American in the days when it was changing rapidly, and when it, more than the poetry of any other language, was the first to catch the funeral music of the end of our civilization. Its influence was so powerful because it was so different from American.
Today America has not just been dragged into the orbit of Western Civilization. It, more than any other country except Japan, reflects the inner moral collapse of that civilization. Between Cartier and Champlain thousands of Indians in Northwestern Canada died from the diseases imported by a handful of men in a couple of small boats. The gulf that opened before Pascal, the black bile of Baudelaire, the sacrificium intellectis of Rimbaud, the cacodaemon in the bowels of Artaud, these are commonplaces in America today, as common as measles among the Iroquois. And just as common on both sides of the Atlantic are those highly exportable commodities, the castrated pimps of circumstance in the night of man. The world ill has long since smitten Bolivia and Afghanistan. French poetry and American poetry in the age of Strontium 90 are much alike.
This essay was written in 1958 as an introduction to an anthology of American poets in French translation published by the Parisian journal Europe (February 1959). The English version was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) and in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1961. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
[Rexroths translations of French poems]
[Other Rexroth Essays]
HOME INDEX SEARCH
Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA