Alfred Kreymborg says in his neglected history of American poetry, Our Singing Strength, that Anne Bradstreet "remains the first of Americans to choose a poetic career." She was our first professional poet. According to Hyatt H. Waggoner, in American Poets, Edward Taylor was our first amateur and our first "Emersonian." Mrs. Bradstreet's, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America was published, significantly, in England, not in America, in 1650. Kreymborg wrote, "She is by no means The Tenth Muse she was christened; nor is her style, copied after her ponderous English master, Joshua Sylvester, worthy of more than sympathy. But she left appealing memories of the gentler aspects of Puritan life in the reveries of a Puritan wife and mother."
Waggoner agreed, more or less, noting that "very little of the verse in her first volume...seems today to justify the title...."
But 'Contemplations,' which was published only after her death in the revised and augmented collection that appeared in 1687, shows her growing self-confidence and skill. "Contemplations' could be called our first nature poem, though she would not have thought of it that way. When she contemplates the splendor of a New England autumn, with its colors that seem 'painted' but are really 'true,' she finds her senses 'rapt' and hardly knows what she ought to feel,
I wist not what to wish, yet sure, thought I,
If so much excellence abide below
How excellent is He that dwells on high,
Whose power and beauty by his works we know.
(American Poets, p. 8)
"If this foreshadows Bryant," Waggoner continued, perhaps with a sense of disappointment in not discovering more vatic or Platonic spirit behind this Puritan matter, "other parts of the poem introduce themes and images that have continued to engage our poets through several centuries." Not only themes and images — constructions and a way of seeing as well, not to mention a tradition of gentility that continues to haunt the schoolroom and the American consciousness when it regards the subject of poetry.
Bradstreet's earliest pieces, those in the 1650 edition, were largely technical exercises. She imitated English masters and used English meters; she tried to reproduce England, her native country, not New England. It was, perhaps, a way of keeping interested in life, in staying alive intellectually in a rigorous spiritual and physical climate. Keeping the mind alert has never been easy for a woman in American society; what must it have been like in Puritan Boston? Fortunately, Anne Bradstreet was the wife of a governor, and she had indulgences not accorded many others of her sex. If her early pieces, however, were all we had to remember of her, we would not remember.
Anne Bradstreet did not set out to be America's first professional poet. She had the distinction thrust upon her by well-meaning relatives and friends who took it into their own condescending male hands to pamper this harmless vanity of composition. What hurt could it do? "But," as Adrienne Rich points out, "she was a spirited woman with a strong grasp on reality; and temperament, experience, and the fact of having reached a wider audience converged at this point to give Anne Bradstreet a new assurance."
Her poems were being read seriously by strangers, though not in the form she would have chosen to send them out. Her intellectual delight was no longer vulnerable to carping ('Theyl say my hand a needle better fits'); it was a symptom neither of vanity nor infirmity; she had carried on her woman's life conscientiously while composing her book. It is probable that some tension of self-distrust was relaxed, some inner vocation confirmed, by the publication and praise of The Tenth Muse. But the word 'vocation' must be read in a special sense. Not once in her prose memoir does she allude to her poems, or to the publication of her book; her story, written out for her children, is the familiar Puritan drama of temptation by Satan and correction by God. She would not have defined herself, even by aspiration, as an artist. But she had crossed the line between the amateur and the artist, where private dissatisfaction begins and public approval, though gratifying, is no longer of the essence. For the poet of her time and place, poetry might be merely a means to a greater end; but the spirit in which she wrote was not that of a dilettante. (Rich, Foreword to The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Henley.)
Anne Bradstreet became, at this point, our first confessional as well as our first professional poet. She was, at least in her later poems, an egopoet, not a dramatic one, nor even a "maker," and another American precedent was set, one that would be broken by Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore, but that would be observed by many other women and not a few men, including Edward Taylor.
Given the United States' national bias against the profession of letters, one felt more at ease with our first amateur poet, Edward Taylor. Here, America was no longer in artistic competition with England and her great makers. One might lower one's sights and see that American poetry is all about something other than world-view, craft, and words — it is about vision, soul, and salvation. It is not concerned with communication on any mundane, humane level. There must be no misunderstanding on this point. Taylor was not any kind of great poet. Rather, his importance lay in his foreshadowing Emerson. As Waggoner put it, "Taylor's anticipations of what was destined to become the main tradition in American poetry — insofar as American poetry is not simply a rather inferior branch of British poetry — are somewhat more apparent in the way he uses language and his attitude toward poetic forms than they are in the substance of his poems."
Taylor used words "roughly." He used them for pragmatic Puritan purposes: poems were "preparatory meditations," aids in achieving the frame of mind in which he composed his real work, his sermons. Sometimes, of course, his poems also took the place of the Catholic confessional. God would hear if no one else did. Taylor would never publish his poems, not even accidentally, until long after his death; not until the twentieth century would they appear in print. Although he was a remarkable preacher, his status as an amateur poet remains indisputable. We must wait for Emerson, who, unfortunately, was not a great poet either — he was a great "agonist," a theoretician of poetry and its role in American culture.
It was Emerson who laid down the ground rules for the first "great" American poet, perhaps the only great American poet, according to some: Walt Whitman. The Good Gray Poet, as he was called, was great not necessarily because he wrote great poems, but because he played the game according to Emerson, who invented the poetic equivalent of baseball, which, to the discerning eye, was certainly not cricket.
According to Emersonian critics, until Whitman there had been only two currents in American poetry-imitation British, that is, professional-artistic, and Transcendentalist, that is, amateur-theological. If one dismisses America's professional poetry as not even American, but something existing in Limbo somewhere over the Atlantic above the route of the Mayflower, one is left with pure American circa mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, things soon went wrong. As Waggoner explained,
There are then not two distinct major "lines" in American poetry..., but three lines springing from the two figures [of Emerson and Whitman] considered separately and together. There are those poets who responded to Emerson but not, in an important way, to Whitman. There are others, chiefly in the twentieth century, who have responded to the aspects of Whitman that are farthest from Emerson, that distinguish him from Emerson. And there are those, chiefly in the present and very recent past, who have responded to both Whitman and Emerson, or else to precisely those aspects of Whitman that are most Emersonian.
Whitman himself, and Dickinson, Robinson, and Frost are the chief of those who...would have written very differently, or perhaps not at all without Emerson. They define the direct Emerson line. (American Poets, p. 91.)
The Whitman-minus-Emerson line was a phenomenon of the poetic renaissance of 1912 and after. In the 1920's and 1930's particularly there were poets whose Whitmanism had nothing clearly Transcendental or Emersonian about it. Carl Sandburg is perhaps the clearest example — until his latest work — but Ezra Pound is another.
The Emerson-Whitman line, broken in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, may be traced in Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, and a good many contemporary young poets like Denise Levertov, many of whom are not conscious of any debt to Emerson. Once or twice distilled, through Whitman and the late poems of William Carlos Williams, their kinship with Emerson is still recognizable if unavowed. (American Poets, pp. 91-92.
Alas! poor Taylor, what he hath sown! There is only one element missing from this neo-Platonic, "Transcendentalist" firmament: "Furor Poeticus" — Divine Madness. The true prophet cannot be merely a transcendental philosopher, nor a Man of the People. Kreymborg says that Leaves of Grass "was intended for the average and the average ignored it, as to this day they ignore it. No, the true visionary must be mad. Fortunately, there are two candidates for this vacancy in America's poetic history: Manoah Bodman (1764-1850) and Jones Very (1813-1880), both amateurs in good standing.
If one is looking for a true original, a native innocent in American poetry, perhaps Bodman is it. He was a lawyer, not a professional writer, but he was much more interested in the state of his soul than in law, and literature seems not to have entered into his consideration at all. Moreover, Bodman lived all his life in the remote western hills of Massachusetts and does not appear to have had contact with many outsiders other than itinerant evangelists, of whom he himself evidently was one in a small way, for there is record of his having delivered orations in neighboring villages. Bodman was contemporary with Freneau, Bryant, and Dickinson, but there seems little evidence that he was interested in his literary peers.
If one must make literary comparisons along Emersonian lines, however, it might be pointed out that Bodman is a forgotten link between Edward Taylor and Walt Whitman in the chain of American poets that Waggoner terms Transcendentalist or Emersonian. Bodman, in fact, pre-empted Emerson in the area of visionary experience, for he actually saw things that weren't there, and he spoke with what he thought were angels and the Christian saints for a long time — even with God himself — but he had fallen prey to Salem-style delusion, for it was at last revealed to him that these Beings were not holy, but apparitions from the Pit, out to devastate his soul. It's too bad Emerson knew nothing of Bodman. The practicing vatic might have warned the theorist of Puritan traps hidden beyond the Transcendental veil.
The reclamation of early American poets has been a major scholarly preoccupation of recent years. Bodman is no less interesting than some of the others who have been disinterred. This graveyard raiding was begun in 1960 by Donald E. Stanford, who brought to light the work of Taylor, a poet unknown to his own generation as a poet, though not as a preacher. Then, in 1965, N. Scott Momaday brought out the first complete edition of the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, a nineteenth-century poet who was also largely unknown, or at least forgotten. To these bodies of work, Nathan Lyons added Emerson's protégé Jones Very with his edition of Very's Selected Poems.
These three poets have certain associations with one another: like the Calvinist Taylor, Very was a preacher, a Unitarian "Quietist." Both wrote for religious reasons, Taylor as an exercise in meditation, for the poems helped him to organize his thoughts and prepare him to preach. Very, however, believed that his own poems were divinely inspired; he was, so to speak, only the medium through whom God spoke. Reading his poems, one wonders that God has so thin a voice. Very's, and therefore Emerson's, connection with Tuckerman is stronger, for Tuckerman was Very's pupil at Harvard.
Lyons wrote a readable and informative introduction to Very's poems, though one might question its organization. In Part I, titled "The Man," there is a good deal of Very's theology and a fair amount of his remarkable poetic theory, for which, no doubt, Emerson was largely responsible. In Part II, "The Poet," there is more theology and theory. When Lyons did make some comments about Very's achievement and procedures, one was not encouraged to believe the poet is worth the trouble. If one ranges over the Introduction one finds, among a few complimentary remarks, a good many assertions of this sort:
Very's stylistic canon is...sharply limited..., [his] poems are without drama;..though many were written in what he claims was mystical communion, they generally only state his mystical paradoxes…. Invariably the sonnets are metrically regular (occasionally too facile, even monotonous) and the rhyme correct…. Very pads frequently, often without major damage, in the usual ways.
Jones Very evidently didn't need to resolve the structural difficulties of "mystical communion" that were to plague later Emersonian vatics, for the Lord passed his messages on to Very in sonnet form. When one examines the poems one discovers that all these things Lyons said are only too true. Even the "best" of the poems aren't good enough to justify more than a page or two in some comprehensive anthology of American poetry.
One must admire Lyons' honesty, but why bring Very forth into broad daylight under the circumstances! The answer is simple: though Very isn't a good writer, he is in the Emersonian mainstream; therefore, he's an American Good Gray Poet, not a Bad Old British Bard. One is not to honor writing and art in these United States, one is to honor vision and theology. If this be the criterion, then, of what constitutes our national poetic pantheon, perhaps Manoah Bodman and Jones Very should be granted the recognition they deserve as the greatest American poets. They are the only two who believed with their souls that they had communicated with that which is beyond. Even Walt Whitman never did that.
From Visions and Revisions of American Poetry by Lewis Turco, Fayetteville AR: University of Arkansas Press, UArkansasPress 1986. ISBN 0-938626-50-7, trade paperback, $12.95. Recipient of the 1986 Melville Cane Award for criticism of the Poetry Society of America. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.