Poetry published in the United States during the 1930s was, as in any other era, extremely varied aesthetically and ideologically. However, in general it was marked by social engagement and a concern for history, ethnicity, race, and region. It was also a period in which writing associated with the organized Left, particularly the Communist Party, in no small part set the poetic agenda.
The economic crisis of the Great Depression and the various political crises that the financial collapse engendered brought politics and ideology into the foreground of much 1930s poetry. This was not only true of the work of such left-wing poets as Muriel Rukeyser, Joy Davidman, Edwin Rolfe, Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, and Horace Gregory, but also that of writers with announced right-wing, sometimes even fascist, sympathies, such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Also, left-wing institutions that supported the work of radical poets, such as the journal New Masses, gained an increased prominence. At the same time, "mainstream" institutions became more open to the Left and poetry of social engagement generally. For example, a number of radical poets, including Rukeyser, Davidman, and Margaret Walker, won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets award during this period. The leading poetry magazine, Poetry, featured "social realist" issues edited by prominent leftist poets.
The political engagement of many poets, both left and right, had a tremendous impact on the form of poetry in the 1930s. An overriding concern for poets of the era was the relationship between high literary culture and the new popular culture industries that came of age by the end of the 1920s (e.g., sound film, pulp fiction, radio, comic books, advertising, phonograph recordings). Some poets, generally the more politically conservative ones, such as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Alan Tate, and John Crowe Ransom, maintained a "high modern" antagonism to popular culture and often looked back to an idealized vision of an earlier historical moment, whether the Holy Roman Empire or the pre-Civil War South, for a model of organic society.
The more Left-influenced poets, including some of the older modernist generation (e.g., William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish, and Langston Hughes), as well as the younger radicals, often, though not universally, engaged popular culture in a more positive fashion. These writers considered how to address the working class, "the people," or some other oppressed group (e.g., African Americans), whether in modernist or traditional high literary forms, in adaptations of folk culture or popular commercial culture, or some amalgamation of the above. The manner in which various poets answered the question of how one might speak by, for, of, and to the people had tremendous implications for poetic diction, rhythm, rhyme, received forms (whether the sonnet or the blues), theme, intertextual relationships, voice, the arrangement on the page—and in fact what constitutes poetry. Of course, such poets as Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay (and Walt Whitman for that matter) had considered these issues decades earlier, but the question of audience, form, and cultural work took on a new intensity in atmosphere of the Great Depression.
Leftist influence during this era can be roughly divided into two periods. The first, from about 1928 to 1935, was dominated by the notion of an oppositional culture that was rooted in a workers' or folk tradition that allegedly existed outside of commercial culture. Left-influenced artists who subscribed to this approach tended to look for or imagine "folk" cultures or a "worker" culture that lay outside of mass consumer culture—though they were often also influenced by the formal artistic radicalism of the early twentieth-century modernists (who, as mentioned earlier, often looked back to an idealized pre-capitalist community). They were not only interested in folklore and documentary, but in recreating a distinctive working-class or folk voice in a manner that was paradoxically engaged and objective. For example, the African-American poet Sterling A. Brown in the title poem of his 1932 volume Southern Road combines the form and subjectivity of the blues and the collectivity of the chain gang call-and-response song.
The second period was the Popular Front era of the later half of the 1930s. A notable aspect of Popular Front aesthetics was a cultural mixing of the "high" and the "low," of the "popular" and the "literary," of Walt Whitman and the early T. S. Eliot, of folk culture and mass culture, of literary and non-literary documents, of different genres and different media. This mixing of high and low frequently functioned satirically, as seen, for example, in the work of Kenneth Fearing, Frank Marshall Davis, and Langston Hughes, which often made use of a pastiche of the diction and rhetorical styles of hardboiled fiction, advertising, journalism, newsreels, political speechmaking, and radio drama. Although the relation of these artists to mass culture was less adversarial than that of their high modernist predecessors, a critique of mass culture that highlighted some awareness of the costs of using the resources of mass culture was an important part of even those artists who seemed most sanguine about the possibilities of such a usage.
Another important feature of much Popular Front art is an interest in race and ethnicity and the relation of racial identity and ethnic identity to American identity. This aspect of the Popular Front has often been misunderstood in that Popular Front constructs of "the people" have been set in opposition to particularized ethnic or racial identity. However, when one considers the poetry of Sterling A. Brown, Don West, Aaron Kramer, Frank Marshall Davis, Langston Hughes, Waring Cuney, and Margaret Walker, to name but a few of many examples, it is clear that race and ethnicity remain overriding concerns during the Popular Front, albeit concerns that are as much about transformation of identity as they are tradition.
Finally, many of the artistic, literary, or quasi-literary works of the Popular Front era are marked by concerns with place and history in American identity, an interest that is often closely connected to the above mentioned concern with race and ethnicity. While the place represented, recreated, and dissected is most commonly a specific city or urban neighborhood, such representations are frequently rural, as seen in Don West's poems of the southern mountains. These concerns mark not only the work of poets commonly associated with the Left of the 1930s, but also the work of older writers, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and, more Page 764 | Top of Article obliquely, Wallace Stevens, as well as that of the conservative poets, including Alan Tate and Robert Penn Warren, who were associated with the Agrarian literary circle of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Interestingly, Tate, Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and others associated with the Agrarians published some of the seminal works of the New Criticism during this period, particularly Warren's and Brooks's 1938 Understanding Poetry, which enshrined a formalist modernism detached from author and social engagement as the dominant model for literary evaluation.
As noted above, there were considerable aesthetic and ideological differences among poets during the 1930s. Even among writers who could be considered leftist, or among those who could be seen as conservative, there were different emphases in aesthetics and political concerns. However, poets of the era generally examined the generic limits of poetry, often with questions concerning who poetry is written for and what poetry can do in the mind. Certainly these questions had been asked and answered before the 1930s, particularly in the modernist era preceding the 1930s. What is unusual about these poets, and the radical poets, critics, and journals of the 1930s generally, is that they placed these questions in the foreground.
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