Horace Gregory probably would have been better known as a poet if he had been writing during a different time. He began publishing at the end of one of the most fertile periods of American poetry, and he was never able to free himself from the shadow of giants such as Eliot, Yeats, and Ezra Pound. His poetic forms were limited in range, consisting of shorter lyrics and the elegiac monologues composed in free verse that were his best poems. His classical training is apparent not only from the subjects of the poems—Odysseus, Circe, Venus, and Orpheus—but also from a certain formal diction and rhetoric. At the same time, Gregory found his poetic place in the 1930’s, and some of his best poetry reveals his left-wing literary politics and his sympathy with the downtrodden in that Depression decade, as well as an ability to make colloquial language work within the structures and strictures of poetry. If some of his immediate poetic models included Pound and Eliot, he also reached back to his American (and often Midwestern) roots in Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and other earlier native writers, and his poetry is often more accessible than some of his modernist models. In the end, Gregory resembles both Edwin Arlington Robinson and Archibald MacLeish. Most of his poems reveal his wide learning—he wrote poems on the British poet John Skelton, the French writer George Sand, the American journalist Randolph Bourne, and the American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as poems such as “Medusa in Gramercy Park” and “The Teachings of St. Jerome.” His love of language and his humanistic idealism are readily apparent in many of his poems.
Chelsea Rooming House
Gregory’s first book of poetry, Chelsea Rooming House, was well received. The volume, based on the Manhattan neighborhood north of Greenwich Village where Gregory first lived when he came to New York, consists mainly of dramatic monologues by residents of this downtrodden area (“Longface Mahoney Discusses Heaven,” “McAlpin Garfinkel, Poet,” and “Dilemma on Twenty-third Street”). Although some of the poems are derivative—readers can hear echoes of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in “Bridgewater Jones: Impromptu in a Speakeasy”—most present fresh and colloquial voices. The underdog speaker in “Dempsey, Dempsey,” for example, identifies powerfully with the heavyweight boxing champion as he imagines him fighting the bosses of capitalism; “No Cock Crows at Morning” has a spiritual, almost surreal quality to its simple lines. In his 1964 collection, Gregory described his subjects, saying that “the...
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