A Brief History of American Poetry


American poetry arose first as an outcome of the hard work by the colonialists to add their opinions and expressions to English poetry in the 17thcentury, just prior to the unification of the thirteen colonies even though, earlier to this constitutional unification of colonies, an effective oral tradition often similar to the poetry existed amongst the Native American societies. Most of the initial literary works of the colonialists seemed to rely heavily on contemporary British models of poetic diction, form, and themes. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, a typical American idiom began to appear. In the later part of that century, the poets from the soil had started to take their place at the forefront of the English language.

The history of American poetry is not easy to understand at all. A considerable volume of American poetry published in book forms between 1910 and 1945 appeared to be lost in the small circulation of political periodicals. It can be said that T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were perhaps the most persuasive and significant poets of the modern age during the First World War. Along with these two great figures of English literature, there were many African-American and female poets whose works were widely published and read in the very first half of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the young poets of the British Poetry Revival looked to their American predecessors as archetypes of the kind of poetry they wished to produce. Towards the end of the millennium, American poetry had varied and diversified, as literary scholars began to focus simultaneously on poetry by women writers, African Americans, Chicanos, Hispanics, and other cultural divisions. From Anne Bradestreet to Elieen Miles, American poetry has garnered a great deal of attention over the years for its wide range of styles and its diversity of poets.

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The tradition of American poetry is reinforced by major poets such as Anne Bradstreet, Henry Longfellow, Walt Whitman, William Carols Williams and Langston Hughes. One of the first recorded poets of the Colonies was Anne Bradestreet, who remains one of the first known female poets to write about political and religious issues in English. Phillip Wheatley was another famous voice in the colonial era who was a slave, and her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) proved to be the well-known literary work of her time.

The early poets in America from the first half of the 17th century came from the Puritan Colonies and were technically British, as puritanism seemed to dominate America’s early socio-cultural development. The first American poets were mostly British Protestants such as Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) and Edward Taylor (1642-1729). As far as the style of writing poetry is concerned, their works can be categorized as metaphysical poetry that prevailed in America. The black slaves of America were among the first in the Southern part to have pen poetry in English. Jupiter Hammon, a black American poet, spoke of the beginning of black poetry against the system of slavery in America.

18th-century American poetry has witnessed the cumulative emphasis on the land of America itself and the poems of that time reveal this aspect distinctively. In a nutshell, the gradual progress of American poetry in the colonies of America clearly reflects the expansion of colonies as well as the urgency felt by the natives of the independence from the shackle of colonial masters.

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In the 19th century, the group of poets from Concord appeared as the epitome of Romanticism in America called Transcendentalists. As you have read in the previous Block, Transcendentalism is an idealistic literary and philosophical movement started in mid 19th century America which
stressed the dominance of intuition, trust in individualism and self-reliance, nonconformity to tradition, customs and government authority. These poets uniquely defined American poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, in his “A Nation’s Strength” (1847) visualised the nation and its people like the following:

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honour’s sake Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep, Who dare while others fly… They build a nation’s pillars deep And lift them to the sky.

At the beginning of the 20th century, poetry was much more prominent in American literature. The publication of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (1912) was an epoch-making the event as it projected the path for future prospect of American poetry. Poetry in the contemporary time has been moving far away from the mainstream poetic tradition as started during the colonial regime. Subjects like the environment and the need to maintain ecological harmony seem to be a major trend in the current flow of poetic world. The new American poetry is indeed experimental in both theme and language.

In the Preface to Leaves of Grass Famous American writer Walt Whitman says, “The United States themselves are great poem”. The American landscape or the geographical condition is so vast and diversified that it amasses human creative imagination. This vast geographical area provided ample subject matters to the young poets of America. It is the European settlers, mainly the British, who initiated writing poetry in the American colonies in the English language. The colonisers in America opposed the unpleasant colonial regime and poetry becomes the medium of expressing of their national identities. It is true that similar to other colonies, the American identity emerged in opposition to their colonial masters. The American nation was born out of the defiance of its European ancestor, only after the revolutionary wars about American poetry. M S Merwin says, “I certainly do not think of the tradition of American poetry as simply a homogenised addition to the English tradition. I feel that we are lucky to inherit it with a particular closeness, but that we also inherit the whole tradition of poetry in the language. I don’t think there is much to be gained by self-conscious efforts to write some kind of genuine American poetry. If American poets write poems they will be that”.

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