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This article is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets David C. Ward
12 October 2012-28 April 2013
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Come listen all! Walt Whitman
In the twentieth century, American poets created a literature that was both responsive to history as they experienced it and linguistically inventive in a manner that influenced writing worldwide. Whereas previously American poetry was largely a derivative branch of British verse, by the beginning of the 1900s it was poised to declare its independence as a distinctive literary tradition. Modern American poets built on the foundation that Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound had created: our nation's poetry should express both the aspirations of our democracy (Whitman) and be formally well-crafted, using language that was innovative and responsive to both poetic tradition and the present moment (Pound). Ironically, Pound looked askance at Whitman's verse, finding it too vulgar and popular for his taste. However, Pound was excellent at discerning the strengths in other writers, and he recognised the rude vitality of Whitman's poetry. He made peace with his predecessor in a poem called 'A Pact' (1916). It concludes:

It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is the time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

The sap and root were their shared experience as Americans. What was also emerging at the turn of the twentieth century in poetry and the other arts was a growing sense of a unique ...


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