Major poems were written during the 1920s by poets who were publishing before the war: Robert Frost (1874-1963), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). It is therefore misleading to identify the poets who began appearing in the 1920s without acknowledging their senior colleagues, especially Pound. Although Pound published his first book of verse in 1908, he was the most influential poet of the 1920s in terms of both his own work and his assistance to other writers. He encouraged gifted writers as different as Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot; he edited journals, drafted manifestoes, and arranged for the publication of other poets' work. As a leader of the Imagists, Pound wrote a perfect Imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Petals on a wet black bough.
The first sixteen of Pound's most ambitious undertakings, the Cantos—poems drawing on a vast range of historical material—were published in 1925.
The Waste Land.
T. S. Eliot (1892-1965) dedicated The Waste Land (1922) to Pound with the words, "il migglior fabbro" (the better craftsman). The Waste Land was the most influential poem written in the English language during the twentieth century. Himself influenced by the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets and the nineteenth-century French Symbolists, Eliot wrote exposing the spiritual and intellectual poverty of modern life.
The diversity of poetic styles and techniques during the 1920s is striking. The older generation—those born in the 1880s—who published key volumes during the 1920s were Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), and Marianne Moore (1887-1972). Stevens's best work appeared in the 1930s, but his first book, Harmonium, was published in 1923, when he was forty-four. His elegant poems—described as epicurean—explored the nature of art. Williams and Moore were classified as Objectivists: poets for whom the object was not just symbolic but a thing to be studied in its own right. Moore's cerebral poetry is praised for its precise observation; her 1924 volume was appropriately titled Observations. Robinson Jeffers published Tamar and Other Poems (1924), Roan Stallion; Tamar and Other Poems (1925), and The Women at Point Sur (1927) during the decade. His plotted long poems use violent material to express the theme that "civilization is a transient sickness."
Millay and Cummings
Among the younger poets were Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), and Hart Crane (1899-1932). Millay's lyrical poetry expressed a hunger for beauty. Her best-known poem, "First Fig," from the 1920 volume A Few Figs from Thistles, caught the spirit of rebellion associated with the 1920s:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light!
Cummings wrote typographically idiosyncratic verse with traditional themes: romantic love and self-reliance. He was a New England transcendentalist who wrote poems of somewhat spurious modernism; they were not as difficult as they looked on the page:
Who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat[.]
His first volume of verse, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), was followed by volumes with Cummingsesque titles—& (1925) and Is 5 (1926).
Horace Gregory and Marza Zaturensha, A History of American Poetry,
1900-1940 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946);
David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry From the 1890s to the High Modern Mode (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).