|Harriet Monroe's Poetry and Canadian Poetry
In 1922, E.J. Pratt submitted a sheaf of his poems to the Chicago-based Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. They were rejected. "They nearly got in," wrote the editor Harriet Monroe apologetically, "but we were dreadfully overcrowded." Monroe's explanation may have been more diplomatic than truthful, for in spite of repeated attempts, Pratt's work did not appear in Poetry until 1941, six years after Monroe's death, when E.K. Brown was invited by the current editor, George Dillon, to prepare a special Canadian issue. Pratt was one of many Canadians who have sought publication in the magazine that his biographer has aptly termed the "Debrett's Peerage of modern poets."1 From its establishment in 1912, this limited-circulation monthly has served as a major arbiter of English-language poetry, reflecting most of the new trends in literary theory and technique, and bestowing its seal of approval on poets and poetic movements. The judgement of its editors has been by no means unerring, for the doggerel of many forgotten poetasters lies buried in its backfiles. But as a bibliographer of American literary magazines pointed out in 1978, it "has presented work by every major American poet from Ezra Pound . . . to John Ashbery," and has been a dominant force in establishing the international influence of anglophone poetry.2 Over its more than seventy-five year history, the magazine has been quite hospitable to Canadian writing. In addition to the special issue of 1941, the magazine was edited from 1968 to 1978 by Canadian expatriate Daryl Hine who, while not showing inordinate favouritism to Canadians, increased the representation of their work, and especially made a point of printing reviews of Canadian books. All the editors, from 1912 to the present, have published Canadian writing, with varying frequency. But the policies of founding editor Harriet Monroe, who controlled the magazine from 1912 until her death in 1936, are of special interest to the historian of modern literature. Her promotion of the work of Pound, Eliot, and the imagists, if she had done nothing else, would make her a major figure in literary modernism. But she was also anxious to make her magazine the primary medium for the international development of modernism in English-language poetry, an aim which was to encompass all the English-speaking countries, including Canada. In keeping with her rigorous though somewhat eclectic editorial policies, Monroe was quite selective in her acceptance of Canadian work. Many other would-be contributors from north of the border undoubtedly shared Pratt's experience: an examination of the magazine from 1912 to 1936 reveals only about fifty poems by identifiable Canadians. At first glance, furthermore, the poems accepted from these Canadians do not seem to reflect a clear and consistent editorial attitude toward Canadian poetry or modern poetry in general. If, as seems evident, Monroe found Pratt's work rather old-fashioned in its use of rhyming couplets and traditional rhythm patterns, some of the Canadians she accepted were even more committed to older traditions of form and content. A detailed examination of the Canadian contributions to Poetry during the crucial period of Monroe's editorship should show not only how early twentieth-century Canadian literature was presented in a major international forum, but also how gradual, uncertain, and complex was the evolution of modernist poetic techniques and critical standards in Canadian writing, as in English-language literature in general. Monroe's own literary career, as well as the editorial policies of her magazine, reflect the processes of the transition from Victorianism to modernism. Before she discovered free verse and imagism, Monroe had, in common with many other literary Americans of her generation, a taste for late Victorian and Georgian poetry. Her own first collection, Valeria and Other Poems, published in 1892, has been described as "entirely conventional in theme and form," and imitative of the English romantics, Spenser, and Longfellow.3 And like many other Americans in the 1890s, she was at first quite favourably impressed with the Victorian Canadian poets who were publishing regularly in the American magazines. "I have long noted with admiration this busy group of poets," she wrote to the Canadian editor J.E. Wetherell in 1895. "Mr. Scott is an acquaintance of mine, Mr. Campbell I met once . . . and with Mr. Roberts and Mr. Lampman I have had a little give-and-take of letters."4 After she had been converted to the imagist doctrine, however, her attitude to Canadian literature changed. In 1917, she reviewed Duncan Campbell Scott's Lundy's Lane and Other Poems. "There would seem to be hidden somewhere, in this Canadian of the Scottish names," she wrote, "a poet capable of deep communion with nature a fact which makes us regret all the more the lumbering and cumbersome imitations of Victorian imitations, and the tiresome banalities and trivialities, which usually content him."5 "Pan is somewhat out of fashion these days," she informed Charles G.D. Roberts in 1929, in her second rejection within a year of nature lyrics from him.6 Of the Canadian poets of Roberts' generation, only one made it into Poetry. Bliss Carman's "The Rainbird" appeared in the May 1914 issue, and his "Lord of Morning" and "Noon" in June 1915 the latter issue also featuring the first publication of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It is difficult now, looking at the juxtaposition of Eliot's ground breaking poem and Carman's limpid nature idylls, to see the consistency of Monroe's editorial principles. Although the term "Victorian" became for her synonymous with bad poetry, she retained something of her fondness for the kind of nature lyrics for which the Canadian Victorians were best known. In her overall rejection of the Lundy's Lane volume, she found praise for "Night" and "Spring on Mattagami." Carman was an enthusiastic reader of Verlaine, and Monroe perhaps heard in his work some remote echoes of French symbolism, while finding in the work of the other Canadians only the excesses of an obsolete tradition. "These men . . . belong to another poetic period than the present," a reviewer named Royall Snow wrote in a 1922 issue of Poetry about Carman and his contemporaries, expressing a judgement with which the editor must have agreed. "Mr. Carman has more of an eye for nature herself and a conventional felicity in description . . . . He belongs to the nineties with a vigor of his own."7 But such qualified approval suggests that for Poetry the days of the nature lyric were over. No further work by Carman, or by any other prominent Canadian Victorian poet, appeared in the magazine. In fact, before Carman appeared in the magazine, Monroe published the work of a younger Canadian who seemed to be working in a new poetic idiom. Best known as a writer of novels, Arthur Stringer had published seven volumes of poems when Monroe printed his "A Woman at Dusk" as the opening work of her August 1913 issue. His 1914 book of poems, Open Water, has been described by Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada as "a turning point in Canadian writing" for its use of free and blank verse, and for Stringer's prefatory defense of these techniques.8 Stringer included "A Woman at Dusk" as the title poem of a later volume, published in 1928, but it is typical of the poems he was writing around 1913-14. A slow-moving mood piece in one hundred and forty lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, it appears to explore, through imagery of inertia and silence, ideas of spiritual paralysis that were becoming typical of the new poetry. Like Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (1912) or Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" (first published in Poetry in 1915), Stringer's poem uses a passive female figure as the representative of weary, inarticulate confusion in the face of cosmic enigmas. The woman sits and ruminates on the failure of intellect, the failure of romance, even the failure of consolation through passive acceptance. With the tacit encouragement of the male speaker in the poem, she comes at last to a discovery of unthinking passion as a momentary stay against confusion:
But soon the voices fail, and soon we know
How keenly fugitive the glimpse, how close
The shadow is, how bitter-sweet the end;
And being mortal, how our mortal love
Only on wings of fire may find relief,
And from the rise and fall of passion's tides
Still catch at some forbidden tranquility!9 The reverberations of Pound and Stevens may have caught Monroe's eye when she accepted the poem and featured it so prominently in the magazine. Yet the poem also illustrates how relative the qualities of modernism were, how grey the areas of distinction between the new poetry and the poetry of Victorianism. The wistfully nostalgic evocation of emotions associated with romantic love, or feelings of regret, or undirected sensuous experience, is reminiscent of such standard Victorian Canadian poetic fare as Bliss Carman's "Low Tide on Grand Pré" or some of Archibald Lampman's Keatsian lyrics. Like Lampman, Stringer achieved a minor reputation as a Canadian Keats, and the source of this reputation is readily seen in the milk-like throats, the far-off glories, the casements burning with sunset gold, the sleeping hills, the mist and moonlight with which "A Woman at Dusk" is liberally sprinkled. But this sort of thing is only superficially related to Keats, of course, as a reviewer named Margery Mansfield pointed out in a 1929 review written for Poetry of A Woman at Dusk and Other Poems. "I cannot see . . . that Arthur Stringer should be hailed as 'the Keats of the Dominion . . . . He is sometimes banal, and in his more ambitious poems always too lengthy." Allowing that the title poem was "perhaps the best achieved as a whole," but "a bit tedious," Mansfield concluded that the book would "compare favorably with most of the verse written in the United States during the fallow period between 1900 and 1910."10 Monroe must have agreed with this judgement on second thought, for Stringer made no further appearances in Poetry. Over the next ten years, however, the magazine featured the work of several other Canadians, including Arthur Phelps, Louise Morey Bowman, Raymond Knister, Martha Ostenso, and Florence Randall Livesay. Like the work of Stringer, most of the poetry of this group was only mildly experimental, and often bore at least as much relationship to nineteenth-century lyrical traditions as to the new ideas and methods. In many instances, in fact, the only clear differences between the work of these poets and their predecessors of the nineties is the diminished use of distinctively Canadian allusions and landscape, and perhaps an increased attempt to explore subjective experience in what was assumed to be modern psychological terms. In the July 1918 issue Arthur Phelps wrote of an "Old Man's Weariness with an unlocalized but evocative use of natural setting, and with a combination of undecorated diction and languid feminine endings appropriate to the mood suggested by the title:
I want to lie alone beside the sedges,
Where the dim-faced waters are quietly singing.
There is peace there, and a deep old happiness
That the drake knows when he is tired of winging
The far heights, and avoiding
The craft of the gray hunter. I have long avoided the gray hunter death
And now I am weary and in much need of learning
What still peace is. I need the voice of the sedges
That knows not any of the old earth yearning
And its cry, but is quiet,
Like the air and water.11
Phelps, a professor of English in his early thirties, seems to have been particularly attracted to the life-is-fleeting and death-is-beautiful themes, which one cannot help suspecting came more from his reading of pre-Raphaelite or nineties poets than from his own deeply felt experience. Still, the colloquial directness of language in such poems as "An Old Man's Weariness," "There Was a Rose," and "You Died For Dreams" betokens an attempt to avoid traditional banalities, as Monroe obviously noted.
Monroe found even more to satisfy her tastes in the work of Louise Morey Bowman. "Cold Tragedy," published in 1924, consists of three related poems on ''Florence," "Venice,'' and ''Rome,'' each exploring the contrast between the exotic setting and the loneliness of the lovelorn, exiled speaker.
The deliberately interrupted rhythm pattern and the occasional memor able image ("like tall carved flowers") as well as the colloquial diction appear to remove the poem from Victorian conventionality. But it could also be observed that more than twenty years earlier Charles G.D. Roberts wrote several poems similar to this, often including the contrast between foreign urban and Canadian rural settings, and collected some of them in his 1898 volume New York Nocturnes.
In fact, most of Bowman's poems consisted of Victorian conventionalities interspersed with unusual technical devices or allusions to things exotic. Monroe, however, seems to have been inordinately impressed with this work, even to the point of denying the Victorian elements in it, as she did in her review of Bowman's Moonlight and Common Day (1922): "A rare and exquisite spirit, sometimes dancing, sometimes brooding, companions us in this book; a spirit so fine that one accepts with little question a certain looseness of technique, and forgives phrasing sometimes too careless and obvious. Mrs. Bowman happily possesses a modern and individual imagination. Her feeling is her own, not inherited or borrowed; her style is simple and direct; and such faults as she might be accused of are not Victorian reminders."13
In spite of Monroe's disclaimer, and her emphasis on the poet's ability to combine "clocks and sundials . . . with power-house engines," an examination of Bowman's work indicates that it is by no means free of "Victorian reminders." The continuity between Victorianism and modernism is evident in much of the work that appeared in Poetry during its first two decades, including another Canadian contributor who seems to have particularly impressed the editor. Florence Randall Livesay (the mother of Dorothy Livesay), a journalist and poet living in Winnipeg, began in 1915 to submit to Monroe's periodical her translations of Ukranian folk songs, gathered from farmers and urban workers of Manitoba. As English poetry, Livesay's translations certainly partake of the simplicity and directness that Monroe liked in Bowman's work. Usually written in a doggerel rhythm, with an occasional unevenness inclining toward free verse, and with only an incidental use of rhyme, the poems speak of the Slavic heritage of war, homelessness, misery, separation and death, and occasionally of love, marriage, and rural festivals. A stanza of "My Field, My Field," a "fragment of a very old song," gives the flavour of these works:
Monroe's admiration of Livesay's work presumably prompted her to ask Livesay to do an article for Poetry on "Canadian Poetry Today." The result, published in the October 1925 issue, must have made the editor flinch, for Livesay came out squarely in favour of the Canadian Victorian tradition, with praise for Carman, Roberts, Lampman, and Scott, and their modern imitators such as Wilson MacDonald, some of whose work Monroe had rejected just a few months earlier. Livesay also had praise for the work of E.J. Pratt, as well as for the Canadian Authors' Association, which over the next few years was to become the favourite target of the Young Turks of the McGill Fortnightly Review.15 Whatever her reservations may have been, Monroe published Livesay's article, thus publicly acknowledging that the Victorianism she deplored was alive and well in Canadian literature.
More precisely, Monroe was acknowledging the eclecticism that prevailed in Canadian literature, as indeed it did in modern literature in general. Side by side with the imitations of earlier poetic techniques, the uniformity of rhythm and rhyme, the rhetoric of sentimentality or the idealization of nature, are exercises in free verse, the use of simple diction emphasizing one-syllable native English words instead of the established language of lyrical poetry, and the representation of nature as cruel, frightening, or independent of human relevance. In 1924 Poetry featured the work of two Canadian writers (both, coincidentally, better known for their fiction than their poetry), Raymond Knister, and Martha Ostenso. Knister's "The Hawk," in the April 1924 issue, is an effective application of Pound's principles of imagism:
The succession of verbs and their implied metaphors wade, plunge, shear, make do not add up to any clear unity of effect, leaving the essential nature of the hawk elusive; but this perhaps is as Knister intended. The contrast is sharply drawn between the vague, ominous, almost mythic bird and the silent, morbid and diminished landscape, creating an internal conflict within nature that excludes human experience.
Martha Ostenso's "Waste-Land" is not quite so effective. A slightly longer poem, consisting of twenty-nine alternately rhyming trimeter lines, it depends on an accumulation of descriptive detail lichen, crows, wasted streams, withered fruit, windless air to draw a predictable conclusion about the reflexive relationship between the sterile landscape and humanity:
In spite of its relative conventionality, the work evidently impressed Monroe as a successful attempt to abridge and restate T.S. Eliot's influential 1922 poem. In its use of the imagery and ideology popularized by Eliot, it tentatively contributes to the attempt to separate modern Canadian literature from its Victorian antecedents.
But this separation was to be more significantly advanced in the last few years of Monroe's editorship. In October 1929 she published a series of eleven poems by A.M. Klein. In February 1930, the magazine featured Leo Kennedy's "Of One Dead"; and the July 1934 issue included sequences of poems by A.J.M. Smith and W.W.E. Ross. Klein, Kennedy, Smith and Ross are usually recognized in Canadian literary history as among the poets who made the clearest and most emphatic break with Victorianism. At the time, these young Canadians saw themselves in such terms; Klein, Kennedy and Smith, with F.R. Scott and others, had loudly proclaimed the new era in the McGill Fortnightly Review and the short-lived Canadian Mercury. "Having as yet no worthwhile tradition of their own," Kennedy had declared in the Canadian Mercury in 1928, "the young [Canadians] are inclined, and wisely, to look abroad for that which will interest them. . . . Sherwood Anderson, . . . Lawrence and Willa Cather influence their style; Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot . . . affect their philosophy."18
As Kennedy's own work demonstrates, however, there could be a wide gap between youthful ideals and poetic practice. Kennedy's poem, "Of One Dead," reflects elements adapted not from T.S. Eliot or Wyndham Lewis, but from Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, or at best, the early Yeats:
As in the earlier case of Stringer, a Poetry reviewer was not nearly so impressed with Kennedy's work as Monroe had been. When Kennedy published The Shrouding (which included "Of One Dead") in 1933, Harold Rosenberg wrote in a review entitled "The Bushel of Platitude": "No doubt there was once, and perhaps it still exists somewhere, a kind of life which Mr. Kennedy's verses about Death and the Earth might adorn. Yet though he inscribes his book with quotations, yesterday fashionable, from Webster and T.S. Eliot, it is hard to say that he has really kept going . . . . The little mannerisms, cutenesses, and looking-glass skirmishes of an old-made vocabulary can do enough damage in their place. What was Mr. Kennedy doing while he was reading Webster and Eliot?"20
Even A.M. Klein, who in the long run was to be more successful than Kennedy in absorbing the new influences, reveals in his "Sequence of Songs" in Poetry for October 1929 a similar dependence on stale rhetoric and conventionally sentimental postures. In these eleven brief lyrics of romantic love, the echoes are again of the languid sensuality of the nineties, with plentiful references to orchard-walks and blossom petals; or, in spite of the self-conscious negatives, to the vacuous sentimentality of the modern popular song:
Of the young Canadian poets who appeared in Monroe's Poetry after 1929, only Smith and Ross reveal an unqualified commitment to genuinely new angles of vision and innovative rhetoric. Ross's "Irrealistic Verses" and Smith's "Emblems of Air" (both published in the July 1934 issue) are sequences of brief lyrics exploiting natural images, mythological allusions, cryptic juxtapositions and fragmentary articulations, in the manner of such modernists as Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.
Smith is more inclined than Ross toward the mythological allusiveness of the new writing. His "To a Young Poet," for instance, uses the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in an appeal for the artist to renounce "romance" and cultivate a Joycean remoteness and purity in the pursuit of an austere artistry performed "perfectly" but "as though without care":
Smith's "The Crows," on the other hand, is a more self-contained meditation on natural images, recalling in its conciseness Knister's "The Hawk," and moving more smoothly than Ostenso's "Waste-Land" from nature to human spiritual desolation:
If Smith's work recalls the austere moralism of Eliot or Pound, Ross invokes the fragmentary and sometimes playful imagism of William Carlos Williams:
Or, as in "Reciprocal," he effects a sensuous, Whitmanesque union of nature and mechanism, a union much more successful than the collocation of "sundials and powerhouse engines'' that Monroe claimed to find in the work of Louise Morey Bowman:
In Ross and Smith, Monroe had finally discovered at least two young Canadian poets who seem to have freed themselves from nineteenth- century literary conventions. If they were rather imitative of Eliot or Williams, the imitation is not only to some extent inevitable as Kennedy noted, it is also quite skillfully achieved. But Monroe's discovery of Smith and Ross comes almost at the end of the long and meandering course of her editorship, in which the new modernism can be seen emerging with many disgressions, regressions, and false starts. The new era did not involve the abrupt rejection of old idioms and whole-hearted commitment to new ones, no matter how eagerly Monroe and others may have proclaimed such an abrupt process. As her attitude to Canadian literature shows, Monroe's conception of the new poetry remained unfixed and eclectic. The fact that she could repeatedly reject Pratt, a highly individualistic writer whose work did not fit easily into any category, while enthusiastically welcoming the work of Bowman or Phelps, reveals how unpredictable her standards were. Her editorial standards must be acknowledged, however, as among the most important factors in the evolution of literary modernism. An examination of the pages of Poetry during her editorship shows concisely the arduous and uncertain process of the emergence of modernism in Canadian poetry.
Peter Martin, "An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Little Magazines", in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, ed. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie (Yonkers, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 1978), p. 728. [back]
Carlin T. Kindilien, American Poetry in the Eighteen Nineties (Providence: Brown U P, 1956), p. 36. [back]
Harriet Monroe to J.E. Wetherell, 15 August 1895, Wetherell Papers, University of Toronto. [back]
H[arriet] M[onroe], Rev, of Lundy's Lane and Other Poems by D.C. Scott, Poetry 10:1 (April, 1917), 49-50. [back]
Roberts quotes Monroe's words in a letter to her, 15 Nov. 1928, Monroe Papers, Regenstein Library, Univ. Chicago. [back]
Royall Snow, "From the Nineties to the Present," Poetry 20:5 (August, 1922), 285. [back]
Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (Toronto: Ryerson, 1967), p. 3. [back]
Arthur Stringer, "A Woman at Dusk," Poetry 2:5 (August, 1913), 153. [back]
Margery Mansfield, "A Canadian Poet," Poetry, 34:2 (May, 1929), 108-10. [back]
A.L. Phelps, "An Old Man's Weariness," Poetry, 12:4 (July, 1918), 190-91. [back]
Louise Morey Bowman, "Cold Tragedy," Poetry 24:6 (September, 1924), 308. [back]
H[arriet] M[onroe], "A Canadian Poet," Poetry 21:1 (October, 1922), 43. [back]
Florence Randall Livesay, "My Field, My Field," Poetry 9:2 (November, 1916), 76. [back]
Florence Randal Livesay, "Canadian Poetry Today," Poetry 27:1 (October, 1925): 36-40. Monroe's rejection of MacDonald is noted on a letter from William Arthur Deacon to Monroe, 26 November, 1924, Monroe papers, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. [back]
Raymond Knister, "The Hawk," Poetry 24:1 (April, 1924), 25. [back]
Martha Ostenso, "Waste-Land," Poetry 24:3 (June, 1924), 128-29. [back]
Leo Kennedy, "The Future of Canadian Literature," reprinted in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, p. 36. [back]
Leo Kennedy, "Of One Dead," Poetry 35:5 (February, 1930), 258. [back]
Harold Rosenberg, "The Bushel of Platitude" [rev, of Leo Kennedy's The Shrouding], Poetry 44:6 (September, 1934), 345-46. [back]
A.M. Klein, "A Sequence of Songs," Poetry 35:1 (October, 1929), 23. [back]
A.J.M. Smith, "To a Young Poet," "The Crows," Poetry 44:14 (July, 1934), 197-98. [back]
W.W.E. Ross, "If Ice," "Reciprocal," Poetry 44:14 (July, 1934), 181-82. [back]