Of Things Exactly as They Are: American Poetry of the 1930s. American poets, clockwise from left, Stephen Vincent Benet, Hart Crane, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Charles Reznikoff, Muriel Rukeyser, Wallace Stevens, Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams, Marya Zaturenska, Louis Zukofsky.

"Of Things Exactly As They Are"

The title of this website comes from Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar." In that poem, the line expresses the demand of a nameless "they" that the man with the blue guitar play a tune "of things exactly as they are". "They" have found themselves in a world devoid of life, "flat and bare" and they believe the tune, "beyond" this world but "exactly as it is," will restore significance.

The use of the line here is an attempt to convey a sense of the position of poetry in a certain time, specifically, the America of the 1930s, the America of the Great Depression. The period was a time of now-unimaginable cultural instability. The depredations of the Great Depression, coincident with the rise to power of totalitarian regimes in Europe, led many to fear imminent and violent political revolution (McElvaine 90-94). Many others endured the deep hopelessness of economic failure.

In the midst of this experience poetic expression maintained a widespread presence in the cultural landscape. The title suggests this presence, but it also suggests the use of the poetry of the time. It suggests the need on the part of the poets whose work is here collected, not to simply represent, but, also, to define the world in which they found themselves. In the midst of the volatility of the Depression, poets wrote in order to declare that things were exactly as they saw them to be, and, indeed, that they had the capacity both to know that the world was as they saw it and to express this nature through art.

By saying what was, poets, and their readers, gained a measure of control over their circumstance, in the line of Frost's definition of poetry as a "momentary stay against confusion." It goes without saying then, that there is measure of irony in the use of the term, for this multiplicity of proclamations "of what is" cannot but present contradictory and opposed impressions. As such, the idea of the expression "of things exactly as they are" indicates the diversity of poetic expression during the decade. Thus, through their work, we are able to perceive a wide swath of the cultural landscape of the 1930s. This poetry points us toward the variety of claims on the reality of the times.

To the present imagination, it may seem that poetry does not offer the best avenue for cultural understanding. Poetry is, in our own time, largely withdrawn from popular culture and the public consciousness. It is, roughly speaking, an isolated and elite form of literature, written by and for a minute sub-section, yet this has not always been the case.

I do not suggest the existence of some lost American Golden Age of universal poetic appreciation, but it is undeniable that the form has enjoyed a much wider reach in time past than it does today. With a significant presence in both elite and popular culture, it has been employed both to entertain and to instruct, aesthetically, morally and politically.

For evidence of this claim, we need only consult The Anthology of Magazine Verse, an annual collection that appeared at irregular intervals over the course of the past century under the direction of a number of editors.

During the 1930s, when the Anthology was compiled by one Alan F. Pater, its contents were supplied by a truly diverse group of publications. We find expected sources, The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and the like, along with a host of specifically literary journals, but we also encounter verse that first appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Farm Journal and Farmer's Wife, publications called Dog World, Wee Wisdom, The Sunday School Times, and Our Dumb Animals. Verse cropped up in magazines put out by sport, religious, and professional organizations, including the Journal of the National Education Association. And, of course, it being the 1930s, political publications of the day contributed their fair share. Indeed, New Masses, the aggressive Communist journal of the arts, is one of the major contributors to Pater's Anthologies.

Poetry also had a significant presence in the nascent stages of the first truly mass media, the radio. John Spaulding, writing in the Journal of Popular Culture, recounts this collaboration:

During the thirties and forties, many radio stations had their own local bards who read poems sent in by contributors, clippings from newspapers, and poems by established poets. Three of the most popular voices reading poetry—Ted Malone, David Ross, and Tony Wons—also published their favorite selections in book form. "Tony Won's [sic.] Scrapbook," a 15-minute program of poetry, began in 1930 and was broadcast by CBS six times a week for a total of eight season, ending in 1942. Ted Malone's program, "Between the Bookends," was broadcast every day for 15 minutes at 2:00 pm on NBC and was repeated five times a week. Begun in 1935, Malone's show continued for the next twenty years. During its first year, Newsweek ("Poetry" 9 Nov. 1935:25) reported that Malone's program received more fan mail than any other unsponsored performer on any network—from 4,00 to 20,000 fan letters a month. Joseph Auslander, the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, once asked Malone to be the United States' "Voice of Poetry," and in 1939, Malone made special broadcasts from the homes or worksites of 32 American poets. (Spaulding 149-150)

It is interesting to note that, despite this popularity, many regarded the social position of verse as less than secure. Spaulding quotes from a 1940 issue of Saturday Review to the effect that radio offered the potential for a "reestablishment of delight in poetry" and from Education in 1941: "Radio is the technological Moses that will lead poets out of their house of bondage.... Radio would give poetry back to the people" (Spaulding 150). Likewise, Lisa Steinman, in Made in America (1987), writes that

Between 1900 and 1930 cultured readers turned to the high sentiments of American genteel poetry, like that of Trumbull Stickney and Thomas Aldrich, while the average American read the sentimental verse of poets like Edgar Guest and James Whitcomb Riley in the leading magazines of the day, such as the Saturday Evening Post. Although such poetry was viewed as a refuge from the harsh realities of the world, and so as having an almost sacred character, it was not generally taken seriously. Nor were those who wrote poetry. (Steinman 15)

These concerns speak to an anxiety about the quality of a presumed national culture as well as the role within it presence in it of poetry-as-art and, as such, the role and the rights of the poet as a spokesperson for that culture. With the crises of the 1930s, such qualitative concerns deepened into fears regarding the prospects for the survival any American culture. The poetry of the decade acted in part as an arena for the expression and examination of such anxieties.

This website will present a selection from the poetic experience of the decade. It consists of a collection of the works of fifteen poets, each of whom lived through and wrote during, at least part of the American Great Depression. Along with selections of their poetry, each poet is introduced by a brief essay introducing the work and career of that poet. Also included are a sample of audio recordings of readings of the poems, mostly by the poets themselves.

About the composition of this selection, I find it useful to quote Cary Nelson from his own discussion of American poetry in the first half of the 20th century:

I want to resist the tendency toward decisive canonical judgments because my aims are different: to suggest the range of voices, styles, and discourses at work in the period, to point toward rather than wholly represent their writing practices, to provide possible entrances into their work, to raise interest in rather than settle the status of these poets, to identify poetry that may be able again to do useful cultural work in our own time. (Nelson 19)
Nonetheless, I feel that the selection reflects the diversity of the decade's poetic production, both stylistically and in content, despite the fact that all of those represented here were acclaimed either during the decade or have since come to be regarded as important literary figures.

It is hoped that this collection, this collage of poetic material, will, used in concert with the other materials in the larger American Studies 1930s site, serve as both a gateway into and a resource for further exploration of both the decade of the 1930s and of the diverse poetic and cultural heritage of the United States.

Site Index | Home | AS@UVA | 1930's Website

Caleb Dulis, MA '05, June 2005