Camille Ralphs

Literary canons are fickle beasts and in this exciting new column for Poetry London, Camille Ralphs asks whether some ejections from the English-speaking canon have been just, and what the poets themselves might have done to warrant them.

“Who now reads [Abraham] Cowley?”, Alexander Pope sighs in his Imitations of Horace (1773). And who now reads Cowley? The flâneuse of the bookshop idyll, idly browsing poetry anthologies released a century or half a century ago, will notice that some names leap out: not famed names, but the names of poets who, in spite of likely having had some intimations of their immortality, are now unknown. It’s easy to assume that they bought their own silence, that is, that they brought this on themselves: poetic history, like history elsewhere, has a survivorship bias. Poets who were heavily anthologized are flung out of the canon even as they seem to grasp the bubble reputation in its mouth. Since this is the first installment of this column, it seems apt to start by looking at some poets who became known, in at least some part, because of their alleged newness.

As a guiding principle for an anthology, “the new” can’t help but claim some objectivity in gatekeeping or tastemaking, and I’m not unaware of personality’s effect on what’s considered trendy. But the self-interrogating introduction to The New Poetry (1917), edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson of Poetry (Chicago) magazine, admits that “the new poetry” is “a phrase no doubt rash and imperfectly descriptive”; like many “new” poetries before it, this one “strives for a concrete and immediate realization of life”. Monroe is confident, however, that “even the most extravagant [modernist] experiments… are valuable… as an assault against prejudice”. She is more prescient elsewhere. Some of right now’s knees, even, might jerk at this take: “If our criticism is to have any value, it must insist… that poetry existed before the English language began to form itself out of the debris of other tongues, and that it now exists in forms of great beauty among many far-away peoples who have never heard of our special rules.”

Yes, Monroe is prone to holus-bolus bouts of orientalism; when she writes, for instance, of “oriental directness of vision and simplicity of diction”, modern readers may sigh wearily – may think of Sarah Howe’s “(g) stray dogs”, where Ezra Pound is locked inside a “traitor’s cage” in Pisa after barking Fascist platitudes on the Italian airwaves, yet carries in his pocket a book of Confucius’ analects, a shred ripped from a culture he could only barely understand (for Pound’s impact on Poetry, and on Monroe herself, is unignorable). But excusing such “far-away peoples” faux pas, these sentences could have been penned in 2016.

Soon after Poetry’s first issue was released, reviews suggested that it might become “a house of refuge for minor poets”. Yet a desultory look through this book’s contents shows that they include John Masefield’s sandalwood and gold moidores and cheap tin trays; Edgar Lee Masters’s platoon of smalltown US ghouls; and Amy Lowell’s imagistic grazings. That is not to speak of Pound, Frost, Lawrence, Aldington and so on. Its last owner scribbled three names in the inside cover: Brooke, H.D. and Gibson. Two are widely known today. Who now, though, writes on Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, who has four short poems here and one long extract – more than the young T. S. Eliot (post-Prufrock, which was published in 1915), Wallace Stevens, and Rabindranath Tagore? Why don’t we speak more of Allen Upward, Adelaide Crapsey and Sara Teasdale?

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was a Georgian poet leaning into modernism, and he is unlucky that he fell between two such contrasting stools (“well, Georgianism only lasted five years”, as Larkin would gloomily remark some time later, mourning the short life of the Movement in the Fifties). But there are more reasons for his disappearance. Grasping after closure, his sonnets and other formal work can clunk and drag: “He knows no black oblivion more deep / Than that blind white oblivion of noon skies”. He has no big-hit lyrics, unlike Walter de la Mare; nor do we find in his poems the sunstruck, too-corruptible arcadia of Edward Thomas. Gibson’s later, more fragmented work is better – has more mettle and, indeed, more metal. His poor eyesight scuppered his attempts to go to war four times; he served just two years, later, then was injured and flown home. Hence Battle, his salvo of war poems that demonstrate the dislocation of shell-shock while keeping something of that ordered Georgian conversationality. While it is often true that Gibson’s “uninspired and rhythmically flat”, as Martin Seymour-Smith once wrote, I do find some exceptions:

They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply 
Who know it wasn’t I,  
But someone, just like me,  
Who went across the sea  
And with my head and hands  
Slew men in foreign lands...  
Though I must bear the blame  
Because he bore my name.

Battle was read by Rosenberg, Graves, Owen, Gurney and Sassoon. And its depersonalized mellowness in such extracts feels more morbid, perhaps, than their much better-known work.

Morbidness brings us to Adelaide Crapsey. The little-known inventor of the cinquain form, Crapsey, like many Western poets of her time, took inspiration from sparse Japanese stanzaic structures; yet we do not find her poems in the major Imagist anthologies: she was placed in a sanatorium in 1913, and Des Imagistes was published in 1914, Some Imagist Poets in 1916. Quite unfairly, she was dubbed an “unconvincing… 5th-rate imagist” by Daisy Friedman in the New York Times in 2010 – her poems had appeared in an American anthology, and Friedman felt that other writers, such as Plath, should take her place. But works such as “The Lonely Death”, whose soft, obsessive repetitions make a sonic catacomb resembling Charlotte Mew’s “Not for That City”, have a cool-eyed death-stare that is also proto-Plath:

                                  ... myself
 Will shiver, and shrive myself
 Alone in the dawn... 
 In the grey of the dawn; and myself
 Will lay myself straight in my bed,
 And draw the sheet under my chin. 

What’s more, rereading Plath’s and Crapsey’s work, a reader cannot help but sense some nearly word-for-word sameness. Crapsey’s “The Warning” ends “Why am I grown / So cold?”, while at the end of “Bee Meeting” Plath writes “Why am I cold”. In Crapsey’s crepitative “Dirge”, love’s said to “call and call”, staccato, pointless; in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, “they had to call and call / and pick the worms off me like sticky pearls”. Edward Butscher, back in 1994, argued that Crapsey’s “modest gift forged a group of cinquains – ‘November Night’, ‘Trapped’, ‘The Guarded Wound’, ‘Amaze’, ‘The Warning’, ‘Night Winds’, ‘Triad’ – that have entered the canon”. Some seem to have exited since then; all are worth knowing. One more reason we don’t see much of her work: she was just thirty-six when TB took her in 1914.

It was in her own time that Sara Teasdale was called “unsophisticated”, though she’d won the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1918. Her reviewers thought her temporary, and were all too right: she killed herself in 1933, aged forty-nine, after becoming a recluse. But her pellucid poems are less saccharine and singsong than the taste of then’s town found them, and deserve a second look. Here is her “After Death” in its atemporal entirety:

Now while my lips are living
           Their words must stay unsaid,
And will my soul remember
           To speak when I am dead?

Yet if my soul remembered
           You would not heed it, dear, 
For now you must not listen,
           And then you could not hear.

There’s much of Christina Rossetti in the epitaphic quatrains, the fixation on remembrance, here – of that ridiculous, tall question: what comes after after? Is there any point in anyone’s regret? As if in answer to these questions, in “The Answer”, Teasdale makes light and lasting indulgence of her hurt:

Lithe as a bending reed
Loving the storm that sways her—
I found more joy in sorrow
Than you could find in joy.

Less lithe-looking today is Allen Upward, who was once admired for his treatise on Chinese myth, The Divine Mystery (1913), but who is the only poet mentioned in this column with no entry in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. The extracts in Monroe’s selection come from his collection Scented Leaves from a Chinese Jar (1913). Here is “The Word”, set as prose poetry he must have hoped would sound as “simple” as a pictogram, as axiomatic as Confucius: “The first time the emperor Han heard a certain Word, he said, ‘It is strange’. The second time he said, ‘It is divine’. The third time he said, ‘Let the speaker be put to death’.” Perhaps the same would now be said of Allen Upward’s poetry. But it’s worth noting that “The Mermaid” (which appeared, with other Upward poems, in Des Imagistes) may well have touched on Eliot’s absorbent mind: in it, a boy “combed the green tresses of the sea with his ivory fingers, believing that he had heard the voice of a mermaid”.

NB: Part 2 will follow in October 2021.

Author’s correction: Of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, I have written above that he eventually went to war after having been rejected by the Army four times. While the latter detail is true, it is not the case that Gibson ever saw action. He was accepted as a Private in 1917, but he remained in England, and his war poetry was for the most part pieced together from reports (making its psychological rawness even more impressive). I am grateful to Ira Lightman for pointing this out.

Camille Ralphs has two published pamphlets, Malkin: An ellegy in 14 spels (The Emma Press, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award, and uplifts & chains (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2020). She is poetry editor at the Times Literary Supplement.

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