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Would Poetry Disappear?

American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity

John Timberman Newcomb

“[Newcomb] offers fascinating insights on such rarely studied poets as Francis Brooks and casts new light on others, e.g., Stephen Crane.” —Choice

“I know of no other study that covers American poetry of the fin-de-siècle in such detail—or that makes such a cogent case for reading it in the first place. Would Poetry Disappear? shows that the young poets of that era were the real “lost generation,” and that those who bucked Official Verse Culture deserve our attention. The book is filled with excellent close readings, lively prose, and fascinating examples; it ought to be read by both Americanists and students of modernism.” —Joseph Harrington, author of Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics

“This is a genuinely ground-breaking work. It is the first major rethinking of turn-of-the-century American poetry we have had in decades. In many ways it is the first serious, intellectually challenging study of the period we have ever had. Because of that, it is sure to be widely influential. Indeed, it is likely to be considered the standard work on the period for many years to come.” —Cary Nelson, University of Illinois–Champaign-Urbana

Soon after 1890, American poetry entered a severe crisis that many diagnosed as fatal. Two powerful convictions—that the dominant genteel traditions of American poetry were moribund, and that no new directions were possible—drove many aspiring poets into other fields, or even (it was said) killed them off young. Poetry had lost its traditional cultural functions, and poets and readers found they needed to reimagine its uses in a world of million-selling novels, daily newspapers, and hit songs. This study describes the crisis between 1890 and 1910 as the crucial moment when American poetry first engaged with modernity. Facing their own obsolescence, young American poets of these years found they could use their anxieties and alienation as the basis for their modern poetics. Would Poetry Disappear? proposes a diverse cast of young poets—including Stephen Crane, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ellen Glasgow, William Vaughn Moody, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Francis Brooks—as the first moderns of American poetry. Without their pioneering struggles, 20th-century poetry could not have been so vigorously modern.

John Timberman Newcomb is visiting associate professor of English at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign.

Apr 2004
Literary criticism, 19th and 20th century American literature, poetry
312 pp 6x9 9 illus.

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