In my episodic way here, I’ve touched on the rise of Free Verse in Modernist poetry. Free Verse poetry may still be rhythmic and musical, but it follows no strict meter, nor does it use any rhyme scheme. Now an established tradition, it came to poetry written in English in a non-straightforward way.
I think we can largely assign this happening to Walt Whitman, the American who was writing verse with eccentric line lengths and no rhymes by the middle of the 19th Century. Whitman did not immediately gain imitators in English, but French poets like Jules Laforgue took up the cause of Vers Libre later in the century. In Laforgue we can see a direct link from Whitman through his pioneering French translations of the American’s work.
The main thread of the Free Verse revolution for poetry in English then jumps to England, where before WWI Britons F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme made common cause with American ex-patriot Ezra Pound. Pound must have certainly been aware of Whitman (more on this later) and though I’m unsure if Flint or Hulme knew of the American poet, all three shared an interest in Modernist French poetry.
I can only surmise, but in starting their Free Verse revolution, it may have been advantageous for this small group to present this as a French idea rather than as an American one. At the beginning of the 20th Century, France was an established cultural force, a place from where new intellectual and artistic ideas were expected to emerge—and in painting and music Frenchmen were the leading edge of artistic Modernism in a way that Americans were not yet.
This strange path, from America to Paris to London misses one poet, a too often forgotten writer of Free Verse before the 20th Century, Stephen Crane. As a young man in his early 20s he was introduced to the just-published first collection of Emily Dickinson (1890), and mixing his take on Dickinson’s compressed musings on the infinite with the just-died Whitman’s Biblical cadences and love of parallelism, Crane in 1895 published a collection of short Free Verse poetry “The Black Riders.” Today’s piece uses the words of one of those short, untitled poems from Crane’s book.
If, a couple decades later, one of the short poems in “The Black Riders” was to appear in an Imagist anthology, on a quick glance or reading it wouldn’t look or sound out of place, but the pieces in Crane’s collection are not really Imagist poems, not even in the same way that sections of Whitman or Dickinson are. Crane’s “Black Riders” pieces are too full of abstract concepts and romantic notions—and even though Crane is questioning or mocking these concepts, he’s not presenting the issues through concrete new images as the Imagists would.
It’s interesting to wonder how Crane might have developed if he’d lived a full life, rather than dying at age 28 at the end of the 19th Century. Still and all, here was an American, in America, writing Modernist verse with Modernist attitudes while still a young man and with the 20th Century still on the horizon.