This is the first part of the Foreword to Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry:
In the history of literature there have always been two major types of poetry, religious and social. In pre-scientific cultures, the "words of power" associated with the gods or God were always controlled by a caste of priests or priestesses who wove them into various ritual religious formats including prayers, liturgies, incantations, curses, oaths, prophecies, and so forth. This is religious or “priest-poetry,” and it was of basic importance in every culture. It came to be called Platonic or Romantic, Dionysian or ritual, emotional or "natural" poetry.
Social poetry consists basically of entertainments: songs, word games, stories, plays, puzzles, and so forth. In many ways this type of poetry is as basic as religious poetry, for it is part of the folk life of a culture. It passes on the myths and legends, the lore and the crafts of the people. Without it, there would be no culture. Nevertheless, the class of priests tended to disdain this kind of poetry, which came to be called variously Aristotelian or Classical, Apollonian or secular, intellectual or "artificial." Both types of poetry have always flourished in Europe, and both have always been "formal" there.
In Colonial America religious poetry was paramount, especially in New England. America was a clean slate upon which might be written the Word of God; it was to be the New Jerusalem, dedicated to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The land was to be filled with Light, a Light that had been obscured in the corruption of the Old World. The Bible was The Book. Art for Art's sake, or for any other than God's sake, was corrupt, like the art of Europe — or, if not corrupt, at best it was frivolous. If language did not serve the purposes of pragmatic communication, it was to serve the purpose of the Church Militant.
However, if America were a clean slate, ought not the literature it produced to be written in a new way? How else to differentiate corrupt literature from purified literature? As America grew and Puritanism was transformed; as other religions came into America, this attitude toward literature was also changed. But a new element worked itself into the fabric of development: The colonists more and more saw themselves as an autonomous body of people. Pride of country demanded that America be identifiably America, not England-in-America. Americans wanted a unique American national personality, separate from that of the mother country.
A distinction may be made between the "amateur" and the "professional" poet. The former is one who uses poetry as a vehicle for a particular purpose, as Edward Taylor (1642?-1729) did. The latter is simply one who dedicates her life to writing poetry. Thus, Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672) was America's first "professional poet." Edward Taylor was the first "amateur" and the first poet to evince what would later be seen as Emersonian qualities. There is a third possibility, however, besides the professional and the amateur poet. There is the “agonist,” the theoretician of poetry who worries about what poetry is or ought to be, and how one ought to go about writing it, which in America led to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century, during what has been called the “Romantic” movement in England and America, of which Emerson is popularly supposed to be a member. In fact, however, although Emerson when he was a young man had all the tools of a professional poet, apparently what he most wanted to be was a priest-poet. As a result, he became that third type of poet, the agonist, emphasis on the; he was America’s first and, so far, foremost theoretician of poetry.
When he was young, Emerson could write perfectly acceptable, standard verse in any formal manner he chose, as Hyatt H. Waggoner pointed out in “Chapter II, The Apprentice Years: Composer of Verses” of his book Emerson As Poet (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974). In fact, he was a virtuoso performer in the old British formal tradition. He could do anything he wished to do with the English language, but it came too easily to him, apparently, and he felt uneasy about his facility. He agonized over this lack of difficulty he experienced young. As a result, he attempted to roughen up his meters, and his mature writing style is more “amateur”-seeming than his youthful work. Clearly, he chose to do what he did in his later work. Emerson began to explore the convergence of prose and verse.
Most of Emerson’s later poems develop from prose germs, as if the poems were somehow simply the upper range of ordinary language. Emerson's prose is hardly less full of tropes than his young work was, and often it impresses in the same way the poems do, and yet the question of the frontier between them remains. Emerson wondered what gulf is crossed — if any — in getting from one to the other. It seems that if many of his poems lie closer to the boundary, they compel some awareness of qualities in the performance that point both ways. It's not just a matter of mixing vulgar diction with a certain amount of gorgeousness — but that must be part of it.
For two centuries, until the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, much if not most of American poetry had been derivative and imitative, a sub-branch of British poetry, and this is what fretted Emerson deeply. Only four or five poets had been exceptions to this rule. Ever since William Cullen Bryant, who has been called “the father of American poetry,” though some American literati had been kicking against the traces, most had been unable to break away from traditional accentual-syllabic metrics in practice, including Emerson himself, the agonist for a new poetics. Most of the trouble seemed to be technical — American poets had difficulty in getting personal voices out of the old forms. Emerson prescribed a remedy: invent new forms; cast off the burden of tradition and allow American poems to grow naturally, like plants; operate through intuition in order to attain Vision, which is poetry's core, and the form will follow "organically."
Perhaps, as someone who wished to be a priest-poet, Emerson simply had a theory that poetry ought to be "revealed" to someone who was truly a poet, and that one therefore ought not to have to "think" about what he was doing. Apparently, when he "thought" about metrics, it came very easily to Emerson, and he hated it, so when Walt Whitman came along with his system of grammatic prose-parallels, which Emerson must have recognized as the system used in the Bible, he hailed Whitman as a genius of a “poetic” prose style.
It is true that Emerson's prose sometimes came close to being more "poetic" than his verse, but what he probably wanted was some hybrid system that was neither verse nor prose. Such a system cannot exist, however, because verse is “metered language” and prose is “unmetered language,” and one cannot have unmetered metered language. The Modernists soon came up with a term, however, that covered what Emerson wanted, "free verse," which makes no sense at all.
Emerson’s great white whale of American literature Walt Whitman became the exemplar of Emerson’s agonisms, the guidon-bearer of the Modernist revolution of the early twentieth century. Because of the old convention that poetry ought to be written in verse, and because people still thought that prose could not be a vehicle for poetry (even Emerson suspected that this might be the case), the twentieth century had to have a new term to apply to prose poems; hence, the confusing term "free verse" was borrowed from the French Symbolists of the nineteenth century who called non-syllabic prosodies vers libre. Whitman never used the term; probably, he never heard of it. He knew he was writing prose poems. If Emerson had been born a bit later he would very likely have been writing lineated prose and calling it "free verse," and perhaps he would have been as happy as many ensuing "poets" who hadn't a clue what they were doing and were happy not to have to think about it.
Reacting against the pervasive English conventions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the “Modernists” who followed from Whitman’s prose-poem examples were wildly experimental. The so-called (later on) "Modernist" period, which began about 1912 and lasted through the 1920s, came up with all sorts of prosodies that were called "free verse," though in fact a system is a system, even that of Whitman, and each system can be analyzed, identified, and given a descriptive name. Instead, so many poets wrote to justify prose poetry as a kind of "verse" that "free verse" came to be accepted as a term that actually describes something that exists.
Whitman's influence upon twentieth-century American poetry was not, however, merely prosodic and technical. Like the English Romantics he was the champion of the "common man" and of ordinary speech, and he was the first American poet to speak in prose poetry in what we today would call the "confessional" voice, the subjective first person singular, as Emerson had demanded in his essay “The Poet.” Furthermore, he made the egopoetic "I" into a symbol of the New World as a whole — Whitman maintained that he spoke for America, not merely for himself.
By the time World War II was over in 1945 the Modernist period was pretty well past, though most of its exemplars were still living: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, Amy Lowell, Robinson Jeffers, and Carl Sandburg to name a few. But there was another group of poets also, the late American Romantic formalists including Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the Southern “Fugitives” including John Crowe Ransom and Alan Tate.
The poets who returned to civilian life after having served in the armed forces, like Howard Nemerov, John Ciardi, Karl Shapiro, James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, and Randall Jarrell, or as conscientious objectors like Robert Lowell and William Stafford, and their female counterparts such as Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov and others, had two literary choices, basically: They could either return to the earlier formalism of the pre-Modernist nineteenth century and become post-Romantics, or they could continue the well-laid-out and well-traveled road of the Modernists and become post-Modernists. The so-called “academic poets” of the 1950s chose the former route, and almost everybody else chose the latter. All of these people, many of them subsequently hopping from one “school” to the other, were dubbed “Post-Modernists.”
The rest of the forward to Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry may be found here, as well as essays on the poets mentioned above and many others:
of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam
Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.SFASU.edu/sfapress/, 2012, 336 pp.,