May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
It depends on the vantage point. Look at the relative standings of Longfellow and Whittier in the last century compared with their contemporaries Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman, a Bohemian New Yorker who wrote too uncomfortably about the body electric, was suspect for his radical views, and Dickinson, Amherst’s recluse poet, remained nearly invisible and misread for decades after her death. One might nominate one of the cultural icons who settle in the popular imagination, especially the bogus, from Rod McKuen to Jewel. Robert Frost is not bogus but is wrongly appreciated, an authentic poet who in the general view became the good gray New England Frost when what he really was was the frighteningly existential loner writing his American poems in England with a war raging just across the Channel. Alien Ginsberg is another icon, the quintessential Beat whose best poetry— Howl and Kaddish —was written in something less than a decade and who then went on to become the bearded showman, packaged and available, already retro by the time the Vietnam War exploded on the American consciousness, largely parodying himself for the next thirty years.
Poetic reputations in this country change as fast as any other fashions, rising and falling, with the genuine article eventually swimming up from under to make a comeback in another form. Carl Sandburg was all the rage fifty years ago and then suffered an eclipse from which he has yet to recover. Hugh Kenner thought Ezra Pound the central American modernist, yet Pound has been under a shadow since his broadcasts from Mussolini’s Rome during World War II. In spite of the fact that T. S. Eliot’s reputation has been hurt by charges of antiSemitism, The Waste Land remains a cultural icon, still waiting to be toppled from its pedestal. It is a challenge just to look at twentieth-century American poetry without reference to that poem; it seems rather like erasing the sun without obliterating the surfaces lit by that source.
In truth one could name dozens, since even serious American readers shy away from poetry. In this we are much less like the Greeks than like the Romans: practical, interested in the markets, in sports, in getting the big jobs done, whether it be building interstate highways or launching rockets. I myself have written biographies of four poets all of whom seem underrated to me: William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Hart Crane.
Take Crane first: our Catullus, our ecstatic, tragic poet of our problematic destiny as a people. Then Lowell, the last great public poet this country has seen, who challenged both FDR and later Lyndon Johnson. Yet Lowell has suffered a puzzling eclipse since his death. Berryman, that damaged archangel, changed the very course of American poetry, enlarging it to include hitherto taboo subjects as well as charting the religious sublime, working in both directions with outrageous humor. Still, the most seriously underrated figure for me would have to be Williams, who, if the entire range of his work were to be weighed—the collected short poems along with his epic, Paterson —seems to me to have done for our American century what Whitman did for his.