1921 in Poetry

Twenty-two centimeters long, two hundred ninety-four pages, one hundred eighty-three poems packed between two non-descript gray cloth covers, the Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1921, edited by William Stanley Braithwaite, was published in Boston by Small, Maynard & Company in 1921. On the surface, this book seems merely like a compilation of poetry, reviews, and indexes extruded from publications in the United States. Compared to a shoe or bottle, it seemed extraordinarily conventional and easy to understand. However, there are many personalities, movements, and events lurking beneath a facade of normalcy.While there is no overt order to the way the poems appear in the anthology, Braithwaite clearly outlined the sections of the publication which include his introduction, his acknowledgments, his selection of pieces, an inventory of the artists and their poems,  a list of works about the field in 1920-1921, and a directory of first lines.  These sections reveal a structured format.  Thus, it is evident that the publication was designed to reach a large audience to be read and to be studied. Both the introduction and the register of articles and publications concerning poetry  disclose the subscribers’ enthusiasm, interest, and knowledge about the subject.

This publication has become a window into looking at Wallace Stevens’ early work in the context of other poets of his time. Wallace Stevens, a man with a passion for writing but a career as the vice-president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity, Co in the early 1920s, has only two poems included in this anthology and had compiled no books of his craft by the date Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1921  was printed. Interestingly, the owner of this publication, who made his  own list of favorite poems on the back page  and occasionally starred compelling pieces,  did not highlight Stevens’ work. This reader actively engaged in the works seen by his frequent markings, stain from a bookmark, and poem that was cut out of the anthology.

Handwritten list of favorite poems in Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1921, ed. William Stanley Braithwaite (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1921). Image courtesy of The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Several recognizable names emerge from the pages such as Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, yet more frequently the poems and poets that fill this volume have not made it into the canon. Certain  artists such as Hazel Hall, Stirling Bowen, and Kenneth Slade Alling were respected in their time but since fallen into obscurity. The poems in this anthology span both themes and styles.  While the majority are rhymed lines about nature such as “Pine trees,”  others are far more experimental in terms of form and topic like “W’y be Black Folks am So Good” and “Creation (a Negro Sermon),” which are both written in African-American dialect.

To some scholars, William Stanley Braithwaite, an African-American Boston born editor of several literary magazines and poet in his own right, was revolutionary for his support of innovative pieces and poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Other experts such as Craig Abbot challenge this perspective saying that Braithwaite was against traditional filler poems  but was not as open to change as often perceived.  This idea of Braithwaite as a progressive thinker stands in stark contrast with some of the notions he expressed in the introduction of this volume. He defined American poetry as art that ideals that reflect the American people, but he questioned to whom the term “American” should apply and the values of his rapidly changing nation now. His anti-immigrant stance is highly apparent when he lamented that the Russian names from Rosenfeld to Oppenheim were “invading the table of contents and title pages” of poetry books. He proclaimed that all the poets included in the anthology were descents of the original settlers of America and heralded the Saxon influence on poetry. Braithwaite’s extreme views can even be seen in his inscription to his friend, “a New Englander and lover of her perfection in the antique,” and reflects the radical patriotism that transpired during World War I and the xenophobia and racism that exacerbated in the 1920s.  The historical insight in context of the breadth of works makes this anthology particularly interesting.

Starred poem; Wallace Stevens’ “Cortege for Rosenbloom” below, from Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1921, 164. Image courtesy of The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Bibliographic Information:

William S. Braithwaite, ed., Anthology Of Magazine Verse For 1921 And Year Book Of American Poetry. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., [1921]

[Poem by Wallace Stevens].


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