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Marshes, Poor Pierrot, Song of Women among them— mirror with a most caressing music the beauties of flesh and flowers, earth, air and water. One of them, Widow La Rue, has grim terror veiled in a very skilful ballad, soft and wanton like a scarf. Notwithstanding, there are holes, I think, in the weave of the book. Some of these very poems, for the most part green beneath the bark, contain dry twigs, dead branches. And over a number of them rhetoric reigns. Possibly Mr. Masters is a poet who looks sometimes with too dissective a mind, and losing the sense of mystery in vainly seeking the cause, now and then forsakes poetry for speculation and analysis. Not always content to witness, select and mirror the image, he seems to try going about it, back of it, into it even; till it withers and is broken and no longer is able to communicate its sap and bloom to his words. The language then becomes clever, toneless, literary, and even rattles a little at times. Also one feels that in strange contradiction to his patrician quality of mind that directs an unflinching gaze, this book shows now and then a slight strain of idealism—the “cream tart of the bourgeois,” according to Rodin. Like the Friar Yves of his own poem he weeps because
Nothing is left but life indeed.
then, as if to console himself, he fashions sometimes utopian heavens, dreams of wholesale liberty, democracy, nobility, made almost from the butterick-patterns of poetry, and wearing a false glad air, among the strange, proud, authentic, wistful cadences of the book. But if cleverness tarnishes these pages somewhat, as indeed it did with Byron and Browning, or sentimentality blunts them sometimes, as in the case of Whitman even, one thing is clear and refreshing: Mr. Masters never writes from a sense of chic; is afraid of no detail that happens to belong in the picture—no inelegance as of rubber heels or Christian Science. Striking almost at random, Toward the Gulf evokes a wealth of shapes and casts exciting shadows, which, though varied, seem held together by the mad idea of unity. As in the last poem, Botanical Gardens—a review of all life —a flower, a tree, a man, a woman, stand side by side in the landscape moved or warped by the same impulse of seed, root and branch. About them in this book falls frequently the relentless light of a gray day, but sometimes the brilliance of the sun or the ease of rain. In a manner more formal than is usual with Mr. Masters, and equally poignant, Poor Pierrot seems to reach the soul of rain. Here is the better half of the poem: I have learned the secret of silence, silence long and deep. The dead know all that I know, that is why they sleep.
They could do nothing with fate, or love, or fame, or strife—
I would glide under the earth as a shadow over a dune,
Mid-American Chants, by Sherwood Anderson. John Lane
new bridges, a creator who, lacking the implements of song,
will tear song from his bare breast, from the naked earth:
Behold, I am one who has been building a house and driving nails with stones that break. The hammer of song has been given me. . . . I shall build my house with great hammers. New song is tearing the cords of my throat.
These songs represent a new plasticity in poetry. To quote from Mr. Anderson's brief preface: “Words run out beyond the power of words.” And when the words run out thus, and they are given to us, the suggestions, the halfutterances prove as forceful, as direct, as the more evolved crests of expression. Of course this method is one of shifting planes, of broken images, but the truth is in the final unity of the impression received. Many of the songs are moving as music is moving; we are emotionally stirred without knowing exactly why. Does the musician know the meaning of every note that comes to him? Mr. Anderson has been content to set down chords and phrases without troubling about context or sequence, letting the compelling emotion take care of that, letting the chain of associations work out in its own way. In a sense these songs are musical improvisations, with recurring themes and motives. In the Song of Industrial America, we have the opening theme, “They tell themselves so many little lies, beloved” . . . “They tell themselves so many little lies;” and then the
recurrent, “I’m the broken end of a song myself” . . . “I’m a song myself, the broken end of a song myself.” In the Song of the Soul of Chicago, it is “the bridges, always the bridges,” and so on. There is indeed much more design in the songs than Mr. Anderson would seem to indicate. Perhaps he wanted to forestall the critics by simply making them a present of what they might choose as their chief weapon—crudity! And they have taken the cue. But the crudity here is a knowing crudity, an expressive crudity. Mr. Anderson has a sure sense of what he wants to do. He is not fumbling. If there is apparent groping, a choked articulateness, it is because this is precisely the emotion to be conveyed. And what he conveys in this book is the groping, choked struggle of the soul in “Mid-America” towards song: I am a little thing, a tiny little thing on the vast prairies. I know nothing. My mouth is dirty. I cannot tell what I want.
My feet are sunk in the black swampy land, but I am a lover.
First there are the broken things—myself and the others. I don't mind that—Prm gone, shot to pieces. I’m part of the scheme—I’m the broken end of a song myself. We are all that, here in the West, here in Chicago. Tongues clatter against teeth. There's nothing but shrill screams and a rattle. That had to be—it's part of the scheme.
Little faint beginning of things—old things dead—sweet old things—a life lived in Chicago, in the West, in the whirl of industrial America.
God knows you might have become something else—just like me. You might have made soft little tunes, written cynical little ditties, eh? Why the devil didn't you make some money and own an automobile P
It is the cry of the singer under the burden of industrialism, the dust of the cities against the clean green life of the corn-fields, the strident need for song above the clatter of the machines. And through it all is conveyed also a certain love of this thing that we call our civilization—the dust, the weariness, the undercurrent of remembrance of old sweet natural things; the factories, the engines, “the bridges, always the bridges”—with, somehow, a willingness to see the thing through, and the faith and the prayer that we may get back to the clean life of the growing corn at last. Of course this “interpretation” really limits the book. It doesn't need any interpretation, any more than music does; it is to be felt. As Mr. John Butler Yeats says: “What can be explained is not poetry.” It is significant, I think, that “Mid-America” is becoming self-conscious, is expressing itself in song in a fashion distinctive to itself. One has no wish to be partisan or sectional; but is it not through local consciousness that we shall achieve national expression? By local consciousness, of course, one does not mean anything so slight and superficial as “local color,” which is only skin-deep. Mr. George Moore has said that cosmopolitanism kills art. But art was always cosmopolitan; the barriers which he assumed to be so absolute were always transcended, there was a tremendous amount of borrowing in the antique world. What really isolated art and produced that unique flavor which we call national or racial was the artist's attachment to place upon which his sense of identity depended; and this selection of place and atmosphere,