Monday, November 23, 2009

An American Critic's Perspective on 21st Century and Pre-21st Century Literature in the English Language

An American Critic's Perspective on 21st Century and Pre-21st Century Literature in the English Language

by Belford Vance Lawson 

The people who made money and a livelihood, even a career, by compiling anthologies of poetry for American students entering junior high school or high school sometime after 1950 made a point of including Robert Burns so that Alfred Lanier and Alfred Tennyson were not mistakenly believed to be the only type and/or nationalities of poems and poets available to English-speaking people in the then lower 48.

There was a sappy, drippy American poet-William Cullen Bryant- who was popular in the late 19th century who succeeded as an Americanized Tennyson-Three names-sounds like Edward Arlington Robinson but wrote earlier-a "plashy marge" type(referred to swampy reedy embankments next to a flowing river). I remember at Groton being reduced to stitches at the corniness-whoever spoke in real life about "plashy marges"?- of Bryant.

But back to Burns. Everybody who read around in these anthologies eventually read  about Burns' take on the Afton Waters in Ayrshire. We also knew about Burns' accent poetry--wee sleekit cownrin' beasties. Burns was widely, whether or not well, anthologized not just on the Atlantic shores but all across America.

I don't take any special credit for knowing these things, because by the time I was 14 I knew that literature was going to be a primary psychic and cultural environment for me throughout my life, and once I formally committed to majoring in English there was so much to continue to learn.

But until the 60s, the anthologists (e.g. Louis Untermeyer, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and those type boys) saw to it-abetted by schoolteachers who taught the English they were told to teach whether they knew any English or not-that every body stateside  got a feeling for Irish and Scottish poetry-as well as for the poetries that, each with its own flavor, began to emerge from the many sub-Americas.

The lifetimes of Baltimore's Edgar Allen Poe and upstate New York 's Walt Whitman overlapped, but their poetry did not converge in subject or in manner. The poetry of each might have been written on different planets by different species.

Much the same, I speculate, could be said about the relationship between Burns and his British and Irish contemporaies. I imagine that Burns was taken much more seriously in the USA than in England , and this is because of American anthologists wanting to prove their breadth, in order thereby to rout the stereotype of American provinciality.

There remains no question that Burns' Afton poem garlanded the dreamtime of many an American child for many decades, many fortnights, many moons....