I usually do not mess around with a “best of a hundred years ago” post, however fun it might be, because I am too ignorant to make basic judgments. To the best of my knowledge, for example, I have read no more than four novels from 1916: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sholem Aleichem’s cheery Motl the Cantor’s Son (I think just the second half, Motl in America, is from 1916), Gustav Meyrink’s well-titled Bats, and L. Frank Baum’s Rinkitink in Oz. However easy it is to pick out the best book from this group – Rinkitink is awesome – I do not have a good sense of what other novels are in contention.
But this year I have been reading a lot of English-language poetry from 1916 – eight or ten books depending on how I count – plus, recently, plenty of individual poems from French, Italian, German, and Russian from various collections, so I thought I would pull some of them together. Maybe just the books, to make my task easier.
It is the ferment that is so exciting, the variety, the movement. On the one hand, Robert Graves, in his first chapbooks Over the Brazier and Goliath and David, sounding like Housman or Hardy, skilled but not radical:
from The Shadow of Death
Here’s an end to my art!
I must die and I know it,
With battle murder at my heart –
Sad death for a poet!
The old forms are good enough for war poetry.
Then there’s Lustra of Ezra Pound:
from Further Instructions
You are very idle, my songs.
I fear you will come to a bad end.
You stand about in the streets,
You loiter at the corners and bus-stops
You do next to nothing at all.
Which is not really how it seems, reading the poems and their mixture of ancient Greek, classical Chinese, and now.
H. D. wants her songs to do something. In Sea Garden she strips them down more than Pound, merging the Maine coasts with ancient Greek myths to create her new voice:
from Sheltered Garden
O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
Make it new, make it new, as explicitly as possible, in this year of the birth of Dada.
Even for Pound, though, “newness” was less a goal of its own than a search for a voice, which is closer to what I see in 1916. Many poets, not all but many, found the old poetic modes inadequate, at least not them, thus all the improvisation, innovation, and flailing about. What, in Amores, is D. H. Lawrence trying to do that is new other than express himself?
But oh, it is not enough, it is all no good.
There is something I want to fell in my running blood,
Something I want to touch; I must hold my face to the rain,
I must hold my face to the wind, and let it explain
Me its life as it hurries in secret.
I am not sure that is good, but is it ever Lawrence. Their flavors are not as strong as Lawrence’s, but H. D. is working on a similar problem; so are Isaac Rosenberg (Moses) and Conrad Aiken (The Jig of Forslin, A Symphony and Turns and Movies). Edwin Arlington Robinson (The Man against the Sky) has already found a strong voice. Robert Frost is only on his third book, Mountain Interval, but it feels as if he had been Frost forever. Maybe I should have started this post with Frost. What a confident poet.
from The Oven Bird
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
And, I remind myself, I have heard poets singing just as loudly in Russian, German, Italian, and French. The list is long; the idea of “best” becomes moot.