Back to the previous section.
Forward to the next section.
George Sterling is one of those easterners who has been for so many years in the West that he has come to be known as a poet of the Pacific Coast. Though his present address is a certain picturesque club in San Francisco, he was born, nevertheless, in Sag Harbor, New York. He has published a profusion of books, most of them containing lyrics of poise and distinction. A metrist and a lover of the sounding phrase, Sterling has little in common with the modern mood of poetry. His poems, at their most elaborate moments, are often merely grandiloquent, but at his best he presents vigorious and simple beauty in the manner of the 'nineties.
The sonnet, with its dignity and smoothness, has been used with understanding and technical skill by this quiet southerner who teaches English in the high school at Morristown, New Jersey. David Morton was born in Kentucky in 1886. After a decade of newspaper work, he became a teacher. He seldom comes to New York City, and then only for an afternoon or evening. He has written often of ships, or ships that move, somehow, through misty and visionary seas, whose sails are more beautiful than real. These sonnets of his, however, for sheer melody, are not often equalled in these days, and the combination of simplicity and richness in his word choice, is rare.
Ah, never think that ships forget a shore, Or bitter seas, or winds that made them wise; There is a dream upon them, evermore; And there be some who say that sunk ships rise To seek familiar harbors in the night, Blowing in mists, their spectral sails like light.
Grotesque, whimsical, satirical, Maxwell Bodenheim grins through the mists of American poetry with a grin that occasionally approximates a leer. His tongue is often as sharp as his verses. Young, born in Mississippi in 1892, for three years an enlisted man in the army, and an uncompromising artist in his work, he writes and talks with no concessions to any mood but his own which is at all times that of crisp and penetrating wit. I have seen him at a meeting of "The Poetry Society of America" rising to criticize a poem, analyzing it with a dry tone and a slight lisp, while his words seemed to burn the very paper on which the poor verse was written. Yet he can also be brilliantly funny, with an impudence which seems calcluated, but is in reality heart-felt. His mannerisms, both in writing and in life, are not posed. They are the man and the poet. In the midst of much that is sentimental in American writing, his carefully cerebrated, often exaggerated irony, proves an interesting antidote, and makes him one of our most distinctive poets.
The first night that I met Aline Kilmer was at her house in Larchmont, just before the children, Michael, Deborah and Christopher, went to bed. Kenton was away at school. It was these unusual children who moved with quaint grace through her early poems. Fair-haired, wide-eyed, with the movements of an elf and the shyness of a faun, little Michael is like a cherub stolen for an earthly visit. I had only just met the father, Joyce Kilmer, shortly before he entered the army, and had just missed seeing him in France shortly before he was killed in action. The children have inherited their mother's gentleness and wistfulness, and their father's dreaming eyes. It is a family over which there seems to fall the beauty, mysticism and faith of the Roman church, with an especial benediction.
TRIBUTE Deborah and Christopher brought me dandelions, Kenton brought me buttercups with summer on their breath, But Michael brought an autumn leaf, like lacy filigree, A wan leaf, a ghost leaf, beautiful as death. Death in all loveliness, fragile and exquisite, Who but he would choose it from all the blossoming land? Who but he would find it where it hid among the flowers? Death in all loveliness, he laid it in my hand.
The Benét family, whose forebears, chiefly military, have numbered one Chief of Ordnance in the U.S. Army, have now turned to more amiable tasks. It is a long path from machine guns to iambic hexameters. William Rose Benét, the best known of this clan of writers, is poet, editor, essayist and novelist. He is a close friend of Christoper Morley's, and their work together on the New York Evening Post has attracted much attention. Benét's poetry is most striking in ringing ballads like "The Horse Thief," though some of his later lyrics have been characterized by a poignancy and a philosophical melancholy that promise an even greater depth. The surface characteristics of his work are the dazzling and somewhat brittle use of color, the chice of exotic and elaborate words, and the use of a dramatic method that tends to be Browningesque. He is one of the ablest technicians writing verse in America, and at his best has genuine poetic power.
Slight, quiet, looking somewhat like both of her brothers, Laura Benét has written charming verses in the invervals of a strenuous life in Army Posts, in Settlement Houses and factories, teaching, inspecting foods, placing orphans and editing. She is connected now with the New York office of that curious and decorative international publication, "Broom," issued by Americans from Italy, where the paper is cheap and living is simple. Now that Colonel Benét, father of this tribe of poets, has retired from the army and is writing his reminiscences, they have purchased a house in Scarsdale, where the famous garage in spite of summer heat has already seen the writing of two novels by the two brothers, and, we understand, is soon to be occupied by the sister. Surely the task of adjusting this temperamental family, including three grandchildren, is one which even as calm a mother as Mrs. Benét must find difficult, and Miss Laura proves an able assistant.
Soon after I came back from vacation, my sophomore year at college, I heard that there was a boy in the freshman class who was about to publish a book of poems. That seemed odd for one so young; and he is still young, this Stephen Benét, younger than anyone represented in this book, Hilda Conkling and Milton Raison excepted. I found him pitching pennies in the hall of a dormitory. After that we talked together, wrote poems and plays together, acted in plays together, and played together. For this reason, perhaps, I shall not attempt a critical estimate of his work; but he was already well known as a poet before he was graduated from Yale, and has since made a reputation as a novel and short-story writer. He spent last year in France, on a prolonged honeymoon, and has now returned to write a play and a new novel. It does not matter how much prose he may write, however, Stephen Benét is always the poet, with a richness of imagination, a command of rhetoric, a crispness of phrasing, that, while it reminds one of his brother, has a peculiar brilliance of its own.
A shy, gay, sprightly little person is Lizette Woodworth Reese. "You wouldn't think that I taught school forty-five years, would you?" was the first question she asked me. No, I wouldn't. Her eyes are so young and her walk so brisk. She was born in 1856 in Waverly, Maryland, then a suburb of Baltimore, but now included within its districts. Her first volume of poems, "A Branch of May," appeared in 1887, her latest, "Spicewood," in 1920. Perhaps the best known of all her poems is the sonnet "Tears"; but there are others among her lyrics which have the same rare quality of deep beauty. It was only last year that she retired from her position of teacher in a Baltimore high shcool, yet this unusual woman, one of the finest of our lyricists, has preserved through these arduous years an extraordinary breadth of understanding, and unflagging vitality.
When I consider Life and its few years -- A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun; A call to battle, and the battle done Ere the last echo dies within our ears; A rose choked in the grass; an hour of fears; The gusts that past a darkening shore do beat; The burst of music down in unlistening street, -- I wonder at the idleness of tears.
Pascal D'Angelo once herded goats in Italy on the ancient and quiet lands near the garden of Ovid, with its wild roses and clear springs. Coming to America as a youth, he carried water and learned the use of pick and shovel. The desire for self-expression moved him learn English, so he bought a Webster's dictionary for a quarter and started the struggle. Still young, shaggy, often shabby, but proudly naï.ve, he brings you that worn and torn dictionary wrapped in an old newpaper, to show you how he started. Convinced that he is a poet, excited and pleased by each new bit of public acknowledgement, he will come to you displaying his trophies: a picture in an Italian newspaper, an article in a Sunday Magazine, a new poem in "The Century." He considers it only proper that those more affluent than he should help him to go on with his writing; for does he not give them beauty? He is part of a new phenomenon in American letters, this Pascal D'Angelo, the fusing of the old-world peasant mind brooding over centuries of loveliness, with the action and articulateness of new America.
At present the editor of "Contemporary Verse," an enthusiast for poetry, a translator of Scandinavian verse, and a writer of lyrics, is Charles Wharton Stork, born in 1881. Like Miss Rittenhouse and Marguerite Wilkinson, Mr. Stork has attempted to cultivate a popular interest in American poetry, and his magazine is broader in its appeal than the perhaps more discriminating "Poetry." For some years a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, now devoting himself entirely to his writing, Mr. Stork is often the academician in his approach to art. His translations, however, are powerful and swift-moving. That they are appreciated abroad is clear from the fact that he was decorated by the King of Sweden in 1921.
A young newspaper man born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, still living there and working in Detroit, Stirling Bowen has had a background curiously similar to that of many of the young men poets represented in this volume, a background of unconventional and highly formative labor. Bowen has worked as reporter, as shophand, and in a construction gang, although he is the son of a professor. His verses were first called to my attention by Carl Sandburg. They are unusually powerful along lines of regular techique and show the masculine grip and clarity that characterizes him personally.
Hazel Hall has lived for many years in Portland, Oregon, though she was born in St. Paul, Minnisota. Her first volume of verse, "Curtains," appeared last year and contained lyrics of compressed wisdom, sadness and beauty. An invalid, she has perhaps been able peculiarly to understand the intimate household problems of women, and to see in the walls and windows of rooms, escape of pleasure and beauty from acquaintanceship with pain.
Quietly but determinedly southern, William Alexander Percy is that unusual type, a lawyer who both writes and publishes poetry. Intensely interested in the problems of the South and in his own profession, he yet finds time in Greenville, Missippi, to fashion exquisite lyrics of a classical form and tone, which he occasionally varies with a more rigorous note. Once or twice a year he escapes to New York for an orgy of music-hearing. It is an unusual experience to talk with him of American poetry; for even in Greenville, Missippi, it is possible to gain more perspective on current literature than is given to most of us in New York City, or even in Chicago; and this prematurely gray, soft-voiced gentleman from the south has a keen power of criticism and a command of the trenchant phrase.
Back to the previous section.
Forward to the next section.