To appreciate Malcolm Cowley’s poetry, it is necessary to see it in relation to the major cultural movement of his time, usually described by historians as artistic or cultural modernism, or simply modernism. Modernism represented a radical break with the centuries-long traditions of Western humanistic, realistic art. The humanistic tradition was characterized by a belief that art has a moral and social function in the larger process of human civilization.
The theories and practice of modern artists developed in reaction to both the humanistic tradition of Western civilization and the profound changes in Western society that resulted from the rising prestige of science and technology, the Industrial Revolution, and the organized use of scientific knowledge and technology by modern financial capitalism. Characteristic ideas of modern art included a repudiation of any criteria except the aesthetic as a basis for judging art, and the contention that the artistic imagination is an essentially irrational, as opposed to rational, process that governs scientific investigation and ordinary human communication.
The complex and revolutionary impulse of modern art, its antinaturalist aesthetic, its repudiation of the traditions of Western art, the social alienation and rebellion of artists, and their profound hostility to modern society constituted an epochal change in art history. The sometimes confused and alienated psychology that they represented, together with the explosion of experimental forms that it produced, were manifested while Cowley was beginning his literary career. His critical study of that historical epoch and its influence on modern American writers was the subject of his most famous book, Exile’s Return. It was also the subject of his first published book of poetry, Blue Juniata.
When Cowley published Blue Juniata in 1929, the book was described by Allen Tate as an important historical record of the entire literary generation of the 1920’s. Blue Juniata was published at the urging of Hart Crane, who wanted it organized to reflect the “emotional record” of its author in accord with the values of modern poetics. Instead, Cowley structured the book historically in five sections, each containing poems describing periods and places that Cowley experienced with his contemporaries. The sections include poems about his years of adolescence and World War I, the years of expatriate artists in France and Europe after the war, the migration to New York and the frenzied life of the Jazz Age, and a section of miscellaneous poems reflecting the poet’s sense of upheaval in the decade of the 1920’s. The book mirrors Cowley’s private reaction to his time and the time itself.
If the aesthetic of modern art was antinatural, the title section of Blue Juniata is filled with poems celebrating nature. The title is taken from a river in west-central Pennsylvania, the rural environment that Cowley loved but to which, like the childhood homes of Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others of his generation, he could not “go home again.”
Cowley’s poems reflect the modernist poetry movement in other ways. In the second section of the book, called “Adolescence,” he reprints poems written during his bohemian days after the war. Poems such as “Kelly’s Barroom” imitate the style of the French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue and his theme of youthful disillusionment. Laforgue had been recommended to younger American poets such as Cowley by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, whose “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was also derivative of Laforgue.
The third section of Blue Juniata consists of poems written in Europe, where many of Cowley’s American friends had been influenced by the French Dadaist artists and by the international avant-garde centered in Paris and led by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, and other European artists. Cowley’s poems of those years include English versions of some of the great modernist poems, such as Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Marizibill,” and an ironic poem undercutting a classical theme that he entitled “Mediterranean Beach.” Such poems as “Valuta” satirize the exploitation by artists of postwar Europe’s economic situation, while “Sunrise over the Heiterwand” hints at the political confusion of Pound and Eliot. Another poem of Cowley’s Paris years, “Château de Soupir: 1917,” is a satire on Marcel Proust’s monumental novelÀ la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931). A poem entitled “Two Swans” is a commentary on the outlaw sensibility of Charles Baudelaire and later Symbolists, who maintained that poetic beauty was to be found in the bizarre and criminal underworld.
Many of the poems of the fourth section of Blue Juniata (“The City of Anger, Poems: 1924-1928”) are portraits of literary friends. In ”The Narrow House,” Cowley describes Kenneth Burke as a pastoral recluse of vast ambition and hopes who has husbanded his land in rebellion against the industrial age. Another remarkable poem, “The Flower in the Sea,” portrays Hart Crane’s obsession with the Symbolist idea of the “Poète Maudit” and his fascination with the sea. It is a portrait whose prophecy Crane fulfilled several years later, when he committed suicide by jumping overboard in the Gulf of Mexico. One poem, “Buy 300 Steel,” satirizes Cowley’s friend Matthew Josephson, who was forced to work at a job he hated as a stockbroker in the Roaring Twenties. Harold Loeb, an heir to a small portion of the Guggenheim copper fortune and the man who financed the avant-garde art magazine Broom, is described in Cowley’s poem “Tumbling Mustard” as representing the frenzied energy of the artists of the 1920’s. Allen Tate, with his taste for classical poetry and poetic styles, is addressed by Cowley in his sonnet “Towers of Song.”
Social and political themes
Even in his poems about New York, Cowley reveals a social consciousness that distinguished him from his peers. Two poems of the late 1920’s, “The Lady from Harlem: In Memory of Florence Mills” and “For St. Bartholomew’s Eve (August 23, 1927),” are overtly political, reacting to the injustices felt by liberal artists at famous trials in New...
(The entire section is 2614 words.)