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ClassicsOnline Home » Collection: Classic American Poetry
‘The United States themselves are, essentially, the greatest poem’ said Walt Whitman. Here are the much-loved examples of the free spirit of America in all its glory.
By David A. Walton
Classic American Poetry
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a lecture in Manhattan in 1842,
wrote ‘poets are liberating gods.’ This visionary proclamation became a credo
for America’s poets. In the early years of the country, American poets learned
to liberate themselves from the content and style of their English forebears.
Later, led by Emerson and the Transcendentalists, the poets sought to liberate
themselves from a narrow, earth-bound vision of themselves and to grasp at the
Universal. Walt Whitman saw his mission as liberating verse from antiquated
poetic forms in order to speak the vibrant, democratic language of the common
man. The Native American, the African-American and women poets sought a
language to liberate themselves from the constraints they suffered in society.
‘The Star Spangled Banner’ rang with patriotic fervor against the British foe
in the War of 1812 and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in the Civil War spoke
of God’s blessing on the battle for the abolition of slavery. Emma Lazarus,
grateful for her relatives’ experience of being liberated by America from the
oppressions of Europe wrote ‘The New Colossus’ to be inscribed on the Statue of
Liberty. In this recording we have tried to capture some of this liberating
spirit and in doing so perhaps to liberate poetry from the printed page.
In his Preface to ‘Leaves of Grass’ in 1855, Walt Whitman
said that ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.’ — A
bold statement, but glorious in its self-assertion. The poems in this
collection speak of the breadth of America, its diversity, its natural beauty,
its history and the growth of its national consciousness.
The poetry of America did not develop in isolation. The
first major North American poet, Emily Bradstreet, the daughter and wife to two
of the first governors of Massachusetts, looked to England for poetic
inspiration and example, as did her colonial successors Edward Taylor and
Philip Freneau. Taylor’s ‘Upon a Spider’ is a witty meditation on man’s sin,
much in the fashion of John Donne and the English Metaphysical poets; Freneau,
nationalistic in his politics, was, in his verses, tied to the English
tradition. And the major poets of the early 19th century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe also
adhered to English techniques and verse forms. Poe, who was classically
educated for five years in England, was deeply influenced by Coleridge and the
In spite of their English poetic roots, Longfellow and his
fellow New England poets, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier and
Oliver Wendell Holmes, (often called the ‘schoolhouse poets’ because of their
privileged backgrounds and Harvard College education) used material, which
became increasingly American. Longfellow’s paean to the spirit of native
America, ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, written in the Tennysonian narrative style,
became a national epic.
The cultural influences between England and America traveled
both ways across the ocean: Longfellow was greatly admired in England and on
his death was memorialized alongside Chaucer and Milton in Westminster Abbey;
the dark, often macabre and lyrical poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, with its
haunting sense of mood and masterly musical technique, was greatly admired by
Baudelaire and the French Symbolists. Poe’s ‘The Raven’ remains today one of
the most popular poems in both America and France.
William Cullen Bryant, from the same New England background
as Longfellow, was the first poet to sound a distinctly American note. He opens
his panoramic vision of ‘The Prairies’ with the description of ‘The unshorn
fields for which the speech of England has no name’. This nature, Bryant
proudly asserts, is distinctively American.
Drawing from nature a vision of universal truth became a
dominant theme of American poetry. Emerson and Thoreau meditate upon nature and
use it as a way of transcending egotism and becoming part of the Universal. It
is this personal effort at transcendence, which permeates Thoreau’s ‘I Am a
Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied’. Only by the side of Walden Pond was Thoreau
able to find the peace he sought.
William Cullen Bryant in ‘The Prairies’ was also visionary
in predicting the ruin of the countryside by the ‘advancing multitude’. This
theme is echoed by many of the poets on this recording. There is a strong sense
of nostalgia for the rural life in Whittier’s ‘Telling the Bees’.
Vachel Lindsay, one of the Midwestern poets of the ‘Chicago
Renaissance’ in the early 20th century compares the dreadful loss of the
‘flower-fed’ buffalo to the destruction of the great Indian nations. After the
second World War, Robinson Jeffers in ‘Hurt Hawks’ writes bitterly that man has
wreaked so much damage upon nature that the poet would rather kill a man than a
hawk. Jeffers’ outlook is a long way from Longfellow’s romantic idealization of
nature in ‘Hiawatha’. Longfellow’s Indian hero is a descendant of Rousseau’s
‘noble savage’. The Navajo Mountain Song as translated by Nathalie Curtis in
‘The Indians’ Book’ of 1905, a large collection, which expertly catalogued
Indian rituals, poems and artifacts, is a more authentic Indian voice. Some
early American poets expressed concern about the Native Americans: Freneau’s
‘The Indian Student’ in a sophisticated and humorous way, and Jones Very’s ‘The
Indian’s Retort’ much more vehemently: ‘The White man came! He stole the woods,
the hills, the streams, the fields, the game’, Very argues, much in advance of
Many poems protesting against the social inequities of the
developing country, were written during the great upheaval of the Civil War and
afterwards. In this collection, Herman Melville’s ‘The Martyr’ speaks of the
danger of intolerance, and Frances Harper, a huge force in the movement for
equality, wrote ‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ as a proclamation of the Black
American’s rights. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a popular poet and theatrical
entertainer for the white society of his day, describes himself in his poem,
‘Sympathy’, as a voice crying out in private like a caged bird.
The great outpouring of African American poetry in the first
half of the 20th century used authentic African American dialect, rhythms, and
humor to express a new racial awareness. Among the poets of this so-called
Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes is a powerful voice: ‘Theme for English B’
tells of Hughes’ growing sense of social awareness, and in ‘Trumpet Player’ he
salutes, in jazz tempo, the Negro musician who, as he plays, leaves his
Walt Whitman, perhaps the most original and innovative voice
in American poetry, took all of nature as his territory, indeed all of America.
The son of a poor father of British descent, and a Dutch mother, largely
self-educated, farmer, teacher, journalist and hospital worker, Whitman frequented
the poor sections of a nascent Brooklyn, and his free verse, with its symphonic
scope and rolling Biblical cadences, extolled the beauty of the commonplace,
the dignity of the physical. He sent Emerson his first edition of ‘Leaves of
Grass’ with the assertion that the greatest poet should change the character of
the reader or listener, and Emerson acclaimed him as being the poet who could
do just that for America.
In her own way, Emily Dickinson, writing from her father’s
secluded home in rural New Hampshire, was also forging a new language for
American poetry, a poetry of assonance and off-rhymes, economical, witty and
passionate. Using sharp, often shocking images and phrases drawn from everyday
life, she spoke with deep psychological insight of life and love and death.
Nature in her delicately-crafted poems is both comforting and deadly as a
Dickinson is the first of a long line of original and strong
women poets which America has produced, some of whose poems are represented
here: the vivid ‘Meeting House Hill’ by the radical Amy Lowell, the
foster-parent of the Imagist movement; the lyrical, more domestic poem by Sarah
Morgan Bryan Piatt commenting on her daughter’s suitor; a reflective, sardonic
love poem in conventional sonnet form by Edna St. Vincent Millay, darling of
the Greenwich Village bohemians in the 1920’s; a down-to-earth, Puritanical view
of nature in Wild Peaches by Elinor Wylie; and the sophisticated epigrams of
Dorothy Parker, famous wit and writer for the New Yorker. The tone of these
women poets is direct and personal, as is the popular ballad of ‘tough love’,
‘Frankie and Johnny’. It is fitting too that Alice Walker ends the recording
with a personal view of poetry as ‘leftover love’.
Like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, used nature as metaphor,
disguising his erudition and Harvard College urbanity by
adopting the dialect and attitudes of the rural New Hampshire where he lived
and farmed. He moved to England for three years in 1912, published his first
modest volume of poems there (borrowing the title ‘A Boy’s Will’ from
Longfellow’s poem) and achieved recognition for his original use of the
cadences of vernacular speech, what he called ‘the sound of sense’, often the
sense of darkness and deprivation among the farm workers, as in the dramatic
poem ‘The Hired Hand’.
Frost once wrote of Edward Arlington Robinson that ‘his life
was a revel in the felicities of language’. Robinson could be called the
originator of modern American poetry, discovering in the early part of the
century, a use of robust everyday speech, humor with a free verse style that
was to influence many future poets, in much the same way that Mark Twain in
‘Huckleberry Finn’ caught the dialect of ordinary southern America and
bequeathed it to all future American writers.
Carl Sandburg inherited Robinson’s colloquialism and made it
even more robust and powerful. A larger-than-life Mid-western journalist,
biographer (of Lincoln) and poet, Sandburg dismissed the over-refined
sensibilities of the ‘nature’ poets and celebrated instead the masculine,
democratic vigor and commercial success of his native Chicago.
E.E. Cummings too has an ear deftly tuned to common speech.
He embraced nature and naturalness but combined it with a fine sense of whimsy,
as in his gentle chronicle of ‘anyone’ in a ‘how town’, and great emotional
depth as in the love poem, ‘somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond’.
Among American poets, it is perhaps Wallace Stevens who
probed deepest into the nature of language and imagination. Known as the
Hartford, Connecticut insurance executive who hid his poetic talent from
associates, he spent his off-work hours examining the aesthetics of poetry and
its relation to the profoundest problems of human existence. Drawing images
from classicism, the Bible and from nature, Stevens created a poetry whose end,
he believed, is to mediate between ‘the mind and the sky’. But his focus is on
humanity: the craftsman Peter Quince making music on the clavier; Susanna
bathing in her ‘still garden’; the ‘horny feet’ of the woman on her deathbed.
Stevens refined the natural idiom, mixed it with British verse forms, and left
an inheritance for the American poets who followed him.
Poetry, Whitman believed, is the voice of the nation,
expressing its deepest concerns, ambitions and longings. We hope the poems
exemplify that voice.
Notes by Garrick Hagon
About the Readers
LIZA ROSS has appeared on stage in the West End and in
repertory across Great Britain, including Wings and The Front Page at the Royal
National Theatre. She has made many television appearances including After the
War, Poor Little Rich Girl, Two’s Company and The Month of the Doctors. Her
film work includes Batman and The Shadowchasers. Ross has also worked
extensively as a voice artist, for Naxos AudioBooks and others.
GARRICK HAGON has appeared in many films including Batman,
Star Wars, Cry Freedom, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Fatherland. His television
credits include A Perfect Spy, The Nightmare Years, Henry V, The Chief, and
Love Hurts. On London's West End he played Chris Keller in All My Sons, and he
is a frequent story reader for the BBC.
WILLIAM HOOTKINS’ numerous readings for the audiobook
industry include novels, best sellers, poetry, drama, political satires, comic
thrillers and short stories; as well as the original novels of Psycho and On
The Waterfront. He is best known for the award-winning Paul Theroux travel
books and classics of American literature.
A founder member of the Magic Theatre of San Francisco, KATE
HARPER has appeared on the stage in the UK and the USA with credits that
include Lost in Yonkers and Fatal Attraction. Television appearances include
Morse and Poirot. Film appearances include Batman and Stiff
ALIBE PARSONS is a familiar American voice on radio,
audiobooks and TV narrations. She is equally at home on the UK stage, with
numerous credits in both Shakespeare and modern plays for the Royal Shakespeare
Company, Manchester Royal Exchange, Hampstead Theatre and London’s West End.
Her television and film credits range from Aliens to
Dr. Who and Coronation Street.
JAMES GOODE’s theater credits include The Wind in the
Willows and The White Devil (Royal National Theatre), several world tours of
celebrated productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov as well as numerous plays at
theaters throughout Britain. Television credits include Shelley, South of the
Border and a spell as a presenter on the successful children’s program Watch.
He has also appeared in countless radio plays and voice-overs.
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Collection: Classic American Poetry