(Roughly) Daily

“I shall have more to say when I am dead”*…

Brian Brodeur reassesses an unjustly-forgotten modernist…

On December 22, 2019, the sesquicentennial of a writer Donald Justice referred to as “the first modern American poet” passed without a whimper. Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) would’ve found this critical neglect fitting; obscurity was one of his perennial subjects. Though he won three Pulitzers and was a favorite poet of Theodore Roosevelt, Robinson, whose own mother waited seven months to name him, was attracted to characters few people acknowledged, cared about, or understood.

Before Robinson, very little lived experience had crept into the lines of late Victorian American poetry, which included the likes of rightly forgotten Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) and Robert Underwood Johnson (1853–1937): parlor versifiers Whitman famously dismissed as “tea-pot poets.” Rather than saturating his work with overblown symbols, hackneyed aphorisms, and hollow moralism, Robinson relied on the more sophisticated techniques of understatement, irony, and sparse detail. He also confronted such 19th-century taboos as alcoholism, homelessness, and assisted suicide.

So why has Robinson’s Collected Poems remained out of print since the 1970s? Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), another virtual nonperson for most 21st-century readers, Robinson is often overlooked as being insufficiently modern, unfashionably didactic, and even culturally problematic. Though this latter description might be justly applied to Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which perpetuates stereotypes of Native American life, none of these epithets accurately describes Robinson.

Understanding this collective lapse in critical judgment begins by acknowledging that Robinson continues to challenge dominant literary conventions. To begin with, his poems almost always tell a story, almost exclusively in meter and nearly always in rhyme; he also valued clarity of style and rationality of thought over the experimental fragmentation of many high modernists, and, unlike the Confessional poets who came later, hardly ever wrote about himself explicitly. Another reason for his neglect involves a commonly held misconception about literary history. Though Robinson was born nearly 20 years before Ezra Pound (1885), many consider him a peer of the much younger modernists who are often lumped together with him in anthologies of modern American poetry. Robinson broke new ground in his best books, which were published between 1897 and 1925, but his poems can sound antique when compared to The Waste Land (1922) and The Pisan Cantos (1948).

Yet it serves to remember that art has no present without its past. Acknowledging practices of earlier periods gives poets the knowledgeable freedom to experiment in their own time. Robinson’s best work offers contemporary practitioners options, ways of writing largely ignored by 21st-century American poets…

An appreciation: “‘The Flicker, Not the Flame’: E. A. Robinson’s Narrative Compression,” from @bbrodeurpoet in @LAReviewofBooks.

* Edwin Arlington Robinson

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As we give credit where credit is due, we might spare a thought for Maya Angelou; she died on this date in 2014. A poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, she published several books of poetry, seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows through a career that spanned over 50 years.

Her autobiographical work drew on her experiences as a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She went on to work as an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Then, in 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton (making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961).

Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer and the Tony, won three Grammys, and was awarded over 50 honorary degrees. She won the Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. And in 2022 she became the first Black woman to be depicted on a U.S. quarter.

Angelou at the Clinton inauguration [source]
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