Commentary Magazine

American Poetry, edited by John Hollander

A Nation in Verse

American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century.
by John Hollander.
Volume I: Freneau to Whitman. 1,097 pp. $35.00. Volume II: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals. 1,050 pp. $35.00. Library of America.

This must surely be the most comprehensive anthology of 19th-century American poetry ever published. It comprises over 1,000 poems by almost 150 poets, and it does everything a definitive edition should do, and then some. True to the mandate of the Library of America, the poet and critic John Hollander has sought to establish authoritative texts, and has also provided detailed chronologies, biographies, and notes, creating an anthology at once pleasurable and educational, of use both to the general reader and the scholar.

The two now indisputably world-class poets that this era produced, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, are amply represented, of course, but so are those venerable, three-pronged names familiar from grade-school days: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other poets who were left behind in the wake of modernism but who once formed the literary backbone of their time.

In addition, Hollander rescues from oblivion a huge number of neglected minor figures, black and white, male and female. Although a great deal of their work is far from first-rate (proving, among other things, that being a “white male” is no automatic ticket to the pantheon), it is arguable that they should have a place in an anthology of this kind. The 19th century was an era in which, in any case, poetry was not yet the exclusive property of duly designated “artists,” much less of creative-writing departments—as we are reminded by the presence here of works by such public figures as Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some entries, indeed, are instantly recognizable as works that have transcended or bypassed the category of “literature” altogether, to become part of the cultural fabric of the nation: “A Visit from St. Nick,” “Casey at the Bat,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The New Colossus,” “America the Beautiful,” “The Man with the Hoe.”

Writing in the New York Review of Books, the poet Brad Leithauser took these two volumes, with their large complement of minor and seriously dated verse, as proof that America’s great age of poetry was to be the 20th century. It may, indeed, be true that the poetry of the American 19th century was aesthetically less accomplished than what followed it. But it was more accessible, and certainly more widely read. As others have noted, American poetry today is so rarefied an exercise that it has become mainly the province of academics, a handful of doggedly faithful readers, and poets themselves. And as for subject matter, with a few notable exceptions, poets today seem to be obsessed with the self. In these two volumes, by contrast, we get an expansive sense of a young nation defining itself—its landscape, its frontier, its political, historical, social, and spiritual concerns—in verse.

Moreover, despite the obviously dated quality of much of this poetry, there is still a great deal to appreciate and even admire in the often opulent use of language; the quaint, vigorous, noble, even heroic sentiments; the common sense and humor; the straightforward tone, blessedly free of irony; the commitment to rhyme and meter; above all, the trusting belief in the power of the word. Just as the spare acerbity of early modernism must have looked bracingly astringent to writers and readers grown weary of 19th-century rotundities, so today, after generations in which modernist acerbity has turned increasingly into a desiccated hermeticism, these relics of another age are deeply refreshing.



In that spirit, it does not seem in any way incongruous that Hollander has also given us a large selection of 19th-century popular songs, ballads, and spirituals, many of them anonymous, and including such fixtures as “Red River Valley,” “Shenandoah,” and “John Henry.” The Negro spirituals, in particular, which are at once a genuine expression of “black culture” and a legacy to the country as a whole, are amazingly familiar, a living part of our spiritual and historical consciousness. Among them are “Free at Last,” quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his March on Washington address in 1963; “Let My People Go,” used memorably in the church scene in Preston Sturges’s great film comedy, Sullivan’s Travels (1942); “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”; and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”

Nevertheless, these popular works do inevitably raise a problem, and the problem becomes painfully blatant in Hollander’s section on “American Indian Poetry,” rendered in English-language versions as recorded and transcribed by various 19th-century observers. Clearly, by including all this material Hollander is making a gesture toward today’s forces of “multiculturalism”; but in doing so he steps silently and treacherously over every relevant literary distinction, and in the case of the American Indian material he pays a very steep price.

For in this material, mostly of a ritual nature, we are dealing not so much with poetry, and not even (as is the case with a number of 19th-century works) poetry with a religious cast or purpose, as with religion itself, and religion quite foreign to us at that. Indeed, as the scholar John Bierhorst writes in the introduction to his important anthology, The Sacred Path:

Not surprisingly, the word “poetry,” as it is understood in English today, has no precise equivalent in native American languages. What are thought of by outsiders as Indian “poems” are actually spells, prayers, or words to songs. Though often appreciated as beautiful, they are seldom recited purely for entertainment. Rather they are used for gaining control or for making things turn out right.

Although Hollander provides supplemental descriptive notes and includes “pictographs” (little drawings of the carved wood pieces that were often used to conduct chants), much of this material does not really come alive, let alone qualify as literature. To be sure, in some of the longer selections there is a great deal of expressive human feeling, and everywhere there are lines that are charming and/or informative about American Indian beliefs and attitudes. At the same time, however, there are too many out-of-context offerings like “Two Cherokee Songs of Friendship”:

            Song the first.
A friend you resemble.
Chorus: Yai, ne, noo, way. E,
    noo, way, ha.

           Song the second.
Brothers, I think we are.
Chorus: Yai, ne, noo, way. E,
   noo, way, ha.

The observer’s note here dryly informs us that “These consist of but one sentence each, with a chorus. Nothing of length seems to exist among them. They repeat the song and the chorus until they are tired.”

Obviously it is a worthy thing to have books devoted to American Indian material, with information on context, purpose, vocabulary, language, etymology, mythology, ceremony, symbolism, names, places, and so forth. But to do what Hollander has done here, tacking on a section to a collection in which such material does not belong, and in a series (the Library of America) dedicated explicitly to “preserving the works of America’s greatest writers,” only makes matters worse. All we are given is a quick and often unintelligible dabble in the (recorded) words of a number of tribes and the rather cheap satisfaction, if that is what we are looking for, of feeling “multicultural.” It is a bad bargain all around, and it compromises what is otherwise a very impressive achievement.

About the Author

Carol Iannone reviewed Wendy Wasserstein’s Elements of Style in the September 2006 COMMENTARY.

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