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Poets and Audiences: The Evolution of Poetry in America
(Released July 2012)

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  by Beth Dwoskin  

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Colonial Period through the 19th Century

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American poetry took its early inspiration from Europe. The first colonists were English, and their poetic style followed the standard for English poetry of the day. Yet almost from the beginning, they took their response to the New World they inhabited as their subject.

When we speak of early American poetry, we’re usually referring to native English speakers who read and wrote in English. Though diversity was a reality from the beginning in America, poetic expression by the “others”—Native Americans, slaves, and settlers who spoke Spanish or other languages—was rarely acknowledged.  These groups would have to wait two centuries before their voices were recognized and included in the American canon.

The first English speakers in America were largely Puritans and their poetry reflected three major concerns: the beauty of the New World, homesickness for the Old World, and Christian piety. After the revolution, poets began to express themselves as Americans, patriots and lovers of democracy, possibility, and manifest destiny. Poets of the colonial and revolutionary periods recited their poetry when they had the opportunity, but the English-speaking population was still too sparse and spread out to gather in pursuit of the arts more than occasionally. Recitations were mostly casual, occuring in homes, taverns, clubs, and more formally in literary society meetings. Poets made use of printed media whenever possible in the new world.

Poets and Poetry of America
Frontispiece for the 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, collected by American editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold and featuring Fireside poets William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Before World War II, poetry was a standard art form consumed by middle-class readers. Then as now, poetry in general was less likely to appeal to working-class Americans, but newspapers, magazines, and increasing literacy were all hallmarks of nineteenth century America, making conditions at least somewhat favorable for poetry as a form of entertainment. American poets found a place in periodical literature and ironically, sold well in England even as they grappled with their American identities.

As they broke away from their English forebears, poets looked to define American poetry as something unique, the poetry of a people “ … defined and unified not by blood by shared memory.” (Pinsky, 60) Poets such as Longfellow attempted narrative epics that could serve as origin tales for a young country with an untold history. According to Robert Pinsky, “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passionately determined that the young American nation develop a distinct culture for its people, wrote ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ in a conscious effort to supply such a myth … “ (Pinsky, 61) John Greenleaf Whittier made similar efforts.

William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier constituted a group sometimes called the Fireside Poets. They earned this nickname because they frequently used the hearth as an image of comfort and unity, a place where families gathered to learn and tell stories. These tremendously popular poets also were widely read around the hearthsides of 19th-century American families. The consensus of American critics was that the Fireside Poets first put American poetry on an equal footing with British poetry. (Marco Polo)

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allen Poe was an early user of symbolism and Herman Melville wrote spare, sometimes enigmatic verses. Poetry flourished and it was recognizably American in its themes and subjects. Still, the forms and structures American poets used were the same as their English counterparts—rhymed couplets, regular meters, sonnets or other standard rhyme schemes. According to nineteenth century feminist critic Margaret Fuller, “It does not follow because any books are written by persons born in America that there exists an American literature. Before such can exist, an original idea must animate this nation and fresh currents of life must call into life fresh thoughts along its shores.” (McQuade, 421)

Many readers and critics think of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as the first great American poets who made their “original ideas” literary reality. In the 1855 preface to his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, Whitman declared, “The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things …” Whitman was the first poet to use free verse successfully, making it an American art form. The effect of his innovation was not immediately apparent, but 100 years later, his influence on American poetry was profound. His insistence on the use of free verse ultimately prevailed. Today, it is rare to find a traditional or academic poet who writes regular, rhymed verses.

Walt Whitman Song of Myself
Walt Whitman's Song of Myself (abridged) as read by James Earl Jones at the 92nd St. Y in New York City, YouTube

Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry in phrases, an entirely unique and original form. She also wrote enigmatically, avoiding forthright sentiments and orthodoxies, especially regarding the Protestantism of her milieu. Like Whitman, she was unappreciated in her time but 100 years later, she is the queen of the American poetic canon.

After they left school, nineteenth century adults accessed poetry through magazines and newspapers.  The very magazines that were among the last to publish poetry in our time were among the first in the nineteenth century. The Atlantic was founded as The Atlantic Monthly in Boston in 1857. Harper's Magazine was launched as Harper's New Monthly Magazine in June 1850. The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, founded in 1865. All were vehicles for poetry from their beginnings, though only The Atlantic is still interested in poetry today. Virtually every other type of magazine published poetry as well, including women’s magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, regional publications, and popular weeklies such as the Saturday Evening Post. Newspapers were a common venue for poetry as well. It was the age of print, and poetry, which was born as an oral tradition, became a printed literary art.

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