Make It New
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 bumptious and popular for his taste. However, Pound was excellent at discerning the strengths in other writers, and he recognized 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 and their “commerce” was to express that experience in poetry.

“Flood-tide below me!
I see you face to face!”

     Walt Whitman
     From “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”      1856

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Walt Whitman, 1819–1892
G. Frank E. Pearsall
(active c. 1871–1896)
Albumen silver print, 1872
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Ezra Pound 1885–1972
Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)
Collotype print, 1913
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