A Summer Summary

My apologies for the break in blog posts. Here’s an overview of my summer research. And from here on out, I’ll be posting similarly formatted updates quite regularly.

I. Correspondence

From a defense of Shelley’s “Defense” to a list of unknown poets for Harriet Monroe to contact, the scattered correspondence of Alfred Kreymborg demonstrates the tension between his position as a radical and a conservative within the Modernist movement. By looking at correspondence from the Special Collections at the University of Virginia, University of Chicago, Newberry Public Library, University of Buffalo, Beinecke Library, and Rosenbach Library, I was able to construct a biographical picture that extends beyond that which Troubadour provides. From the avant-garde to the establishment, Kreymborg was constantly concerned with promoting emerging art, and occupied a number of positions aside from his acknowledged roles as an editor and anthologist. Under the New Deal, he ran the Manhattan and Bronx companies of the Federal Theater Project; he helped to start an artists’ colony for experimental theater in Asheville, North Carolina called the Chronicle House; he served on the Executive Committee of the leftist American Writers’ Congress; he served as President of the Poetry Society of America; he was a judge for the Pulitzer Prize Jury for multiple years; he wrote reviews for the New York Times and Saturday Review of Literature; and he wrote recommendations for young artists for grants and positions at artist colonies. Fittingly summarizing Kreymborg’s extensive activity within the artistic community, Wallace Stevens called him a “long lost explorer,” and wrote to Harriet Monroe that he is the “greatest concocter outside of politics. I have never heard so many schemes spoken of in so short a time” (Stevens 215, 232).
Along with a more complete idea of the various positions that he held, the scattered correspondence provided Kreymborg’s opinions on his contemporaries’ work, reflections on his own work, support and admiration from other literary figures, and the occasional writer’s quarrel. One of the more interesting, recurring subjects throughout his correspondence—often in the form of a defense—is his shift toward writing in conventional forms. In describing his shift toward a more conservative poetics, Kreymborg’s tone greatly varies depending on the person to whom he is writing, indicating that he recognized the contradiction of being a radical writer composing sonnets. To Williams, he avoids a serious discussion by trying to be comic: “I’ve been writing sonnets mostly. What-eh-who-why-which? Yes, sonnets.” Whereas to Scofield Thayer of The Dial, he writes, “Much of the work I am engaged in at present is determined to express itself in the sonnet form—decidedly a novel experience in my innocent life.” From Harriet Monroe to Emmanuel Carnevali, he explained his poetics with a variety of correspondents, and he consistently argued that there is a revolutionary spirit to his work despite its form, writing to Langston Hughes, for example, that No More War “will give Tories a pain in the neck and set their hounds on my trail. But I’m used to such unAmerican [sic] action.”
Along with his shift in poetics, Kreymborg began appreciating writers that seem to be at odds with his earlier career. In an undated letter sent to William Carlos Williams sometime after the Others venture, Kreymborg cites Swinburne and Sidney as models for Modernist poets to look toward for values within literary criticism. And later in his life, Kreymborg revealed financial motives for his increasingly conservative position.
Although he had constantly been in difficult economic situations—asking figures like Alfred Stieglitz and William Rose Benet for financial assistance—Kreymborg was able to obtain grants, fellowships at artist colonies, and part-time lecturing positions. Writing to Benet in 1948, Kreymborg revealed that his wife had been carrying the majority of the financial burden for the past five or six years, and he was actively attempting to relieve her of the stress. So, when Jerome Moross to Kreymborg about an idea to “jazz up” Volpone, Kreymborg could only reply, “As to your plan, it is excellent and interests me decidedly…[but] I simply cannot afford, at my age (60), to gamble on experimental stages.” Like many other artists of the period, Kreymborg’s financial situation probably had a great deal to do with his adopted Marxist ideology—but unlike other Marxists, Kreymborg maintained his support for avant-garde art, and applied his ideology to works that appear at odds with groups like The New Masses (in which he was published).
[For an example, see his introduction to Poetic Drama: An Anthology of Plays in Verse. Marxist ideology applied to Greek drama, etc.]

II. Critical Work
The amount written on Kreymborg is underwhelming; aside from his role with little magazines, he is hardly mentioned in the biographies and critical studies of his contemporaries. Mentions of Kreymborg that I could find provided varying portraits, from Raymond Nelson’s assessment that Kreymborg was “widely regarded as the most demanding experimentalist of the new generation” to Conrad Aiken’s view that Kreymborg’s early poetry is the “poetic paraphrase of the lisp and coo” (Nelson 115,
Lorenz 9). In Gorham Munson’s The Awakening Twenties, he challenges Kreymborg’s roles as editor an anthologist, claiming, “[Kreymborg] never acquired any skill in literary criticism; in fact, throughout his career he eschewed criticism, being more promoter than editor in the various publishing ventures he planned and sometimes executed” (Munson 34). Yet Conrad Aiken notes the importance of Kreymborg’s venturesome editorial decisions, stating that between Kreymborg and Williams’ role in Others, he learned “flexibility, new colors and tones, and a new recklessness with form” (145). Critics have noted that in his early experimentalism, Kreymborg was a precursor to more radical writers (Symons), and that in his shift toward more conventional forms, he was more successful than other Modernist poets (Filreis). I have just started reading Craig Monk’s Writing the Lost Generation, in which he dedicates a chapter to Kreymborg’s Troubadour, calling it one of the “first, tentative steps toward defining modernism as a movement” (21).

III. Kreymborg’s Work
Due to the extensive amount of poetry that Kreymborg wrote, I have had trouble narrowing down which poems to focus on, and am unsure how I should approach writing on the various texts—for each book, I have taken notes on what appear to me to be the most representative or the most skillful of the poems. In Mushrooms, Kreymborg’s experimentation is largely reliant on the sounds of his poetry, to the extent that in some poems, the sound provides the foundation of the meaning. Like the expressive, flowing rhythm of a Chopin nocturne (a composer that Kreymborg admired), Kreymborg’s
“Nocturne” sets the playful image of dancing pantaloons to verse that seems to expressively ‘dance’ along as well, propelled by the off rhymes and quick alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables. In “Vista,” Kreymborg imitates the visual and aural experiences of the snow and the sea with lulling, repetitive phrases and pauses both within and between the lines.
In Blood of Things (in my opinion, the best of Kreymborg’s poetry) he extends his attention to sound to longer poems, and he deals with his themes more imaginatively. In “Endings,” for example, Kreymborg plays with alliteration and assonance, beginning the poem, “Life, loving to listen/to old folk/arguing the comparative/claims upon glory/of the diseases they’ve had.” The trudging lines somewhat undermine the seriousness of the claims of the ‘old folk,’ and the speaker ends the poem with an unconventional view of life and death, saying, “Life/likes his to end in adventure,/while Death/likes hers to end at home” (60). There are also Imagistic tendencies within many of the poems, such as “Her Body,” in which Kreymborg writes, “Her body gleams/like an altar candle—/white in the dark—/and modulates…” (72).
In the poetry published during and after his sojourn in Europe—beginning with Less Lonely—Kreymborg wrote almost entirely in conventional verse forms. Yet despite the restrictiveness of the form, musical principles were still central to his poetry. In The Lost Sail: A Cape Cod Diary, Kreymborg models his poems after Sonatas, Suites, and Sonatinas—yet the intention and the execution seem at odds in some of the poems. In “Sonata in Blue,” the first movement begins with conventional images of nature that culminate in the speaker’s recognition that “Just to be able to touch the things I
see/Brings me one step closer to poetry” (37). As the ‘Sonata’ progresses, its ‘exposition’ focuses on simple memories with Conrad Aiken on Cape Cod, establishing the theme as composition through common experience. Yet the piece ironically ends with slaves rowing Cleopatra down the Nile—undermining both the theme and musical form (the final movement should be a recapitulation or coda, but instead introduces a new theme). With The Lost Sail, Kreymborg also began writing poems with overt political messages—in “White Blood,” he writes, “In Seventy-Six, we broke our chains in two/And clamped them on the black humanity” (59). In the poetry following The Lost Sail—such as Manhattan Men, The Little World, Ten American Ballads, and No More War—politics became a central theme to Kreymborg’s work.
In “Edna: Girl of the Streets” and Erna Vitek, Kreymborg’s prose is very simplistic, and in terms of both style and narrative, it is fairly conventional. “Edna” was seized by customs and resulted in Bruno being sent to court—which greatly helped with its popularity—but the theme seems to have been misinterpreted, as it is hardly licentious. Like the American realist prose writers before him, Kreymborg was not so much experimenting as merely attempting to write about ‘common life.’ The plays that Kreymborg wrote (especially the one acts) show far more innovation than his prose. In Plays for Merry Andrews and Plays for Poem Mimes, there is experimentation in both the dramatic form and the poetic dialogue.

AK Texts Read:
Troubadour
There’s a Moon Tonight
Blood of Things
Less Lonely
The Little World: 1914 and After
Scarlet and Mellow
The Lost Sail: a Cape Cod Diary
Plays for Poem Mimes
Plays for Merry Andrews
A History of American Poetry (the sections dealing with Modernism)
Erna Vitek
“Edna, Girl of the Streets”
“Story of Poetic Drama” (from Poetic Drama: An Anthology of Plays in Verse)

Critical Texts Consulted that mention AK:
Allen, Charles. “Glebe and Others.”
Bak, Hans. Malcolm Cowley: The Formative Years.
Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life and Work of Mina Loy
MacGowan, Christopher. William Carlos Williams’ Early Poetry: the Visual Arts Background.
Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode.
Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns 1915-1931.
Vitelli, James R. Van Wyck Brooks.
Nelson, Raymond. Van Wyck Brooks: A Writer’s Life.
Munson, Gorham. The Awakening Twenties.
Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923
Filreis, Alan. Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism.
Lorenz, Clarissa. Lorelei Two: My Life with Conrad Aiken.
Symons, Julian. Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature

What I’m Working on Now…
Kreymborg’s role as editor/anthologist, especially dealing with American Caravan
Kreymborg: I’m No Hero, Manhattan Men, and No More War
Monk: Writing the Lost Generation
Kreymborg’s reviews in the Saturday Review of Literature
NY Times microfilm articles dealing with Kreymborg.