Thursday, June 02, 2016

Witter Bynner, The New World (1915)

In many ways, I can’t help but read Witter Bynner as against Ezra Pound, who Bynner saw as a rival (most likely, Pound didn’t see Bynner in such reciprocal light at all, though the two knew each other and maintained a correspondence).  When we think of innovation in modernist poetry, Pound is inevitably at or near the top of the list, and there is the typical narrative of his Imagism and related poetics breaking open the staid conventions of fin de siècle verse, etc.  It is true in many ways, but recent scholarship, especially that of John Timberman Newcomb and that of Suzanne W. Churchill (to mention two critics offhand), has done much to complicate this picture.

One reason I have sought out the work of people like Bynner, Haniel Long, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, Orrick Johns, and others is that they were doing extremely interesting things during the early American modernist period (1910s) contemporaneously with Pound, et al. (Long active at this time, but really coming on in the 1930s); yet they are mostly not tainted with Pound’s elitism, fascism, and anti-Semitism.  There were so many original poets in this period who have been virtually written out of history until recently — it was not all Pound, Lowell, Eliot, and the New Critics.  WCW, Mina Loy, and others have justly been posited in the last few decades or so as counterpoints, but whither Bynner and the rest?

Bynner’s The New World (published by Mitchell Kennerley in 1915) is a now-obscure long poem, but well worth reading.  Though Bynner also wrote in free verse, this work (like Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”) is rhymed (irregularly, along the lines of abbbaaba. . .).  Unlike most of Pound, it limns a Whitmanesque, democratic vision of America that welcomes immigrants and aspires to equality of all people:

What is this might, this mystery,
Moving and singing through democracy,
This music of the masses
And of you and me —
But purging and dynamic poetry! — (page 25)
Here the rhyme is a bit heavy-handed, but the passage sums up Bynner’s perspective (and his repetition of rhyme is often meant to work as emphasis).  Though he does not articulate a codified system (aside from the broad strokes), he does intend to take a political stance, having asserted at the start of this section, “‘Beauty,’ they ask, ‘in politics?’ / ‘If you put it there,’ say I” (23).

Bynner’s political stance also includes gender equality (Bynner was an early supporter of women’s suffrage):

To stop the wound and heal the scar
Of time, with sudden glorious aptitude
Woman assumes her part.  Her pity in a flood
Flings down the gate.
She has been made to wait
Too long. . . . (37)
Here, the rhyme is more subtle, with enjambment and the near-rhyme of “aptitude / flood,” even as the message remains stridently egalitarian.  Bynner makes similarly strident statements about wealth inequality and war, while avoiding the ideological approach we sometimes later see especially in the poets of the 1930s — Bynner was not a Marxist, but more a radical progressive, albeit when the term still had something of a party-political connotation.

At times, The New World verges into mysticism, something like Whitman’s deism (or perhaps unconsciously Taoist) — but, depending on your point of view, of the clear-eyed, refreshing sort (and who’s to say mysticism is inherently bad, anyway?), often bound up in visions of earthly unity (however idealistic they may have been).  For example:

Let me receive communion with all men,
Acknowledging our one and only soul!
   For not till then
Can God be God, till we ourselves are whole. (39)
There are some weaknesses here, though; sometimes Bynner’s frequent talk of the “soul” or “joy” becomes a bit too indistinct or clichéd.  Pound, with his Imagist principles, had a point in this regard, the better strategy often being to avoid or at least critique such abstractions.

There is also the larger question, which attaches to Whitman as well: doesn’t this celebration of America as “the new world” bring with it a host of colonialist assumptions?  That is, while Bynner on one level welcomes immigrants (good), he still sees America as a place for all where travelers from distant countries should “Go find the new world, win the shores / Of which the old books tell!” (11).  Where does that leave the Native people, then?  Certainly not “win[ning] the shores”. . .

Bynner would later move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he would engage with American Indian (and Mexican) culture on a deeper level.  This is not to say that he ever fully shed the biases that had been inculcated in him, but here we find a poet who was at least trying to propound a genuine democratic vision to the extent that he was capable, at a time when many of his (now-canonical) contemporaries were putting forward elitist, nativist, and/or jingoist positions.  Soon after publication of The New World, Bynner produced (with Arthur Davison Ficke) the pseudonymous anthology Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (1916, as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish respectively), which led to a rethinking not only of his poetic style, but seemingly of his own artistic and personal identity.

1 comment:

Barrett Warner said...

Nice work. And fun to play with some of this generation, like driving around in an old car on a country road.