III. THE INNOVATORS: FREE VERSE.
Adventures in Verse.
The second decade of the twentieth century is notable in the history of American verse; and interest
centres in the year 1915 -- the year which saw the publication of Masters' Spoon River Anthology, Amy
Lowell's A Dome of Many-Colored Glass (a second edition) and Robert Frost's North of Boston. Vachel
Lindsay had published The Congo and Other Poems in the preceding year and in the year following
Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems appeared. The appearance of these volumes heralded a new and
somewhat startling development in poetical expression. Whatever the judgment of later years regarding
the permanent value of free verse, the popularity and significance of the new movement cannot be ignored.
The influence of Walt Whitman is obvious; but the spirit of the time -- its impatience with the formulas of
the past, its revolt against the conventions and the limitations of tradition, the demand for freedom and a
blunt reality, -- is unmistakable in the productions of these writers and those whom they represent. Their
work should not be taken too seriously; to a great degree it is experimental, an episode, interesting and
typical of the spirit of the age.
The most remarkable of the volumes named is The Spoon River Anthology. Its author, born in Kansas,
but since infancy living in Illinois, an attorney in Chicago, had published privately several modest volumes
in both verse and prose before the Anthology appeared. His compositions had been in the conventional
metres and had created no particular impression; the appearance of this book, however, produced a
literary sensation. The Spoon River Anthology is a collection of epitaphs in which are told, with extraordinary
condensation and a vivid realism, the life stories of an entire township for a generation. The form is
free verse; the stories vary in character, but the sordid and tragic predominate; the tone is ironic, if not
cynical. The purpose of the Anthology is to portray life with the faithfulness of one who has no illusions
and who has been impressed by the drama of life in a community lapsed into moral decay. There is
little question as to the power and place of Masters' work as an original and impressive piece of creative
literature; its merit as poetry is a different matter. Subsequent volumes of Masters' verse, Songs and
Satires (1916), The Great Valley (1916), Toward the Gulf (1918), Starved Rock and Other Poems
(1919), and Doomsday Book (1920) have not added to his reputation as a poet.
Miss Amy Lowell, one of a well-known Boston family, a leader in the group of free verse poets, published
her first volume, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass, in 1912, but her second volume, Sword Blades and
Poppy Seeds (1914) is more significant of her position in this movement. Men, Women and Ghosts
(1916), Can Grande's Castle (1918) and subsequent volumes further illustrate the peculiarities of the
new school. Miss Lowell is versatile; she has written poems of distinction in the verse forms of the established
order, but it is rather as one of the so-calledImagist poets that she takes her place in the modern group.
The classification is not very definite, but certain rules formulated by the Imagists are, in brief, as follows:
1. "To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact,
nor the merely decorative word.
2. "To create new rhythms -- as the expression of new moods -- and not to copy old rhythms, which
merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon `free-verse' as the only method of writing poetry. We fight
for it as for a principle of liberty. . . .
3. "To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. . . . We believe passionately in the artistic value
of modern life.
4. "To present an image (hence the name: `Imagist'). . . . We believe that poetry should render particulars
exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. . . .