The Magazine

Metre Reader

America’s coming-of-age in poetic form.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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Pound, as an example once again, was a great proponent not only of Imagism but of T. S. Eliot, H. D., James Joyce, and others. The Open Door reminds us of the vitality of modern and late-modern poetry. Poetry “makes nothing happen,” as Auden famously observed. Certainly poetry’s language is non-utilitarian. But by that measure, it is free to look to the center of most anything that is happening. And by covering 100 years of poetry, The Open Door offers an ample record of such observation. 

Another early modernist landmark included here is Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry published that poem in 1915, and its unique power was felt immediately. Pound and Eliot, plus the other modernists included here, amount to a well-earned crow on Poetry’s part, celebrating the large changes that resulted from little-known writers publishing in a little magazine. 

Wallace Stevens’s early contributions provide other examples of success. When asked by Harriet Monroe for information about himself to be placed in a contributor’s note for the publication of “Phases,” Stevens wrote in reply, “My biography is, necessarily, very brief; for I have published nothing.” In fact, Stevens had published before. (And with this exchange in mind, one smiles over the inclusion of the Stevens poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which the speaker states, I was the world in which I walked.)

Then there is Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine,” in which Moore says, 

No swan 

.  .  . so fine 

as the chintz china one with fawn-

brown eyes and toothed gold 

collar on to show whose bird it was

 

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth 

candelabrum-tree .  .  . 

it perches .  .  . 

.  .  . at ease and tall. The king is dead

The spareness of language and the clarity of eye evident in Moore’s poem supplants what the modernists considered to have been 19th-century windiness. Starkness and clarity became benchmarks for generations to follow, and examples of it have been published regularly in the pages of Poetry.

Not all modernist poetry is spare, however, so one wonders why
Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” first published in Poetry, and a high point in modernism, is missing—unless the editors did not want to tangle with second-guessing Harriet Monroe’s insistence that Stevens shorten the poem. (He did so for Monroe’s periodical, but restored the poem for its inclusion in Harmonium.) 

“I see no objection to cutting down,” Stevens wrote Monroe. But, using language that resonates with another great Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” he did require a certain order for the stanzas, saying, “The order is necessary to the idea.” As Pound’s early and late versions of “Metro” suggest, and as Stevens had in mind when he wrote Harriet Monroe, ideas that gave order were foremost to the modernist enterprise. 

There are other poets here who provide great moments—Auden and “The Shield of Achilles,” for example, or William Butler Yeats and his late poem “The Fisherman.” But perhaps the most interesting poems are ones that are not so well known. “Look” by Laura Kasischke has a jammed-prose appearance and a fierceness of account that makes it a high-speed chase through a domestic odyssey of near-Biblical violence. 

The poem opens, Look! I bear into this room a platter piled high with the rage my / mother felt toward my father! 

And it concludes:

God punched a hole in the drywall on
     earth and pulled 

out of that darkness another god. She—

just kept her thoughts to herself. She just—

followed him around the house, and
     every time he turned a light on,

she turned it off. 

Or there is Craig Arnold’s “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” which finds that, in an early morning’s ritual over a grapefruit in the kitchen—when all is possible / before the agitations of the day—one encounters 

a pause     a little emptiness 

each year harder to live within 

each year harder to live without.