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Thirteen poems: Sherwood Anderson.

THE STORY OF SHERWOOD ANDERSON, HIS LIFE AND HIS WRITING, has moved in and out of American consciousness both during his lifetime (1876-1941) and since his death. At times it has been well told and remembered; at other times it has been forgotten.

A self-taught man capable of being both businessman and mystic, Anderson's life spanned the fault line of America's transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. His prose masterwork, Winesburg, Ohio, signaled a shift in American writing from external literary structures to internal psychological concerns, in doing so, it captured the undercurrent of estrangement in that time of change. Anderson's life was embroiled in the two faces of the American dream, industrialism and socialism; his story bears repeating in our current time of cultural change.

Today Anderson the writer is known almost exclusively for his prose work: short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, and newspaper articles. What is often left out of his familiar story is that he wrote, published, and was deeply committed to poetry.

Of the twenty-three full-length volumes published in Sherwood Anderson's lifetime, two were devoted exclusively to poetry: Mid-American Chants in 1918 and A New Testament in 1927. Three others contained a mix of prose and poetry: The Triumph of the Egg in 1921, Horses and Men in 1923, and Perhaps Women in 1931. Other volumes devoted to prose often prominently featured poetry at the beginning or in the body of the work. One of the last works to be published while he was living was a small chapbook, Five Poems, in 1939.

Critics reviewed Anderson's poetry at the time it was published and for the most part dismissed it completely. Since his death, there has been even less attention paid to his poetic work, with only a few scholarly articles and one full-length study in the form of a master's thesis. (1) The poems have rarely been in print.

Born in Camden, Ohio, on September 13, 1876, Anderson and his five siblings saw their father's fate shift as his craft of harness making became obsolete in the face of mass manufacturing. From a dependable provider for his family, Anderson's father became an unreliable housepainter fond of drinking and telling tall tales while Anderson's mother stoically looked on.

As a teenager, Anderson was interested in the popular books of the day but not as interested in school, barely completing the first year of high school. Spurred by the family's need for income, he quit school and became known for his industrious work ethic.

Seeing his fortune aligned to this industrial part of the American dream, Anderson relocated to Chicago from the small town of Clyde, Ohio, in 1896 as he was just turning twenty; instead of upward mobility he found only manual labor. The Spanish-American War brought relief to his situation by giving Anderson the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Army and be stationed briefly in Cuba after the close of the war.

A veteran at age twenty-three, Anderson again tried formal schooling and finished the equivalent of his senior year of high school at Wittenberg Academy in Springfield, Ohio. He did well enough to attend college but instead chose a paying job in Chicago as an advertising solicitor. Anderson's outgoing personality led to success in this position and, in turn, the opportunity to become a copywriter, which allowed him to recognize his talent for writing.

His marriage to Cornelia Lane in 1904 was followed by the birth of three children. In terms of livelihood, Anderson left salaried employment to build up and head two businesses, United Factories and Anderson Manufacturing. By 1912, at age thirty six, he was living the American industrial dream.

However, the part of Anderson that was uncomfortable with the dream he was living began to make itself known. As early as his honeymoon Anderson was writing poetry, (2) and throughout his business career he found time to work on novels. The conflict between his work and his writing became so great that it resulted in a psychological crisis. Although the exact accounts vary, in late November 1912, he abruptly walked out of his business office in Elyria, Ohio, and wandered the state in a dazed condition for four days. Located and identified in Cleveland, he was briefly hospitalized. Regaining his senses, Anderson closed his business and went to Chicago to seek employment; by 1916 he had divorced his wife. Once again working as a copywriter, he set out to become a literary writer.

The timing could not have been more fortuitous. As an antidote to the industrial influences of his youth, Anderson found its antithesis in the egalitarian philosophy of socialism sweeping through Chicago.

Even more fortuitous, Chicago was a hotbed of the modernist movement in the arts and letters. Developing abroad since the late 1800s, early modernism encompassed many experimental styles that, in reaction to the European realist tradition, shared "a high aesthetic self-consciousness and non-representationalism, in which art turns from realism and humanistic representation towards style, technique, and spatial form in pursuit of a deeper penetration of life." (3)

Although many of the writers making a name for themselves in Chicago--Floyd Dell, Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and also Anderson--came from humble circumstances in small Midwestern towns and were often self-taught, the city itself was no backwater. Chicago was a major player in the still developing modernist movement in America during the early 1900s. The Little Review and Poetry, two of Chicago's new literary magazines at the time, were publishing James Joyce and Ezra Pound while many of the Chicago writers listed above gained national and international notoriety.

As such, Anderson the writer walked onto a world stage. In a workmanlike way, he wrote and published two novels and one book of poetry. But it was the 1919 publication of his prose work Winesburg, Ohio, written in a self-described mystical state at the age of forty-three, that changed American literature. Breaking with conventional realism and literary form, the book was critically acclaimed for its unique short story structure, which allowed internal psychological concerns to drive the work's gestalt.

In 1921 Anderson received The Dial's first Dial Award for significant achievement by a young American writer. (In subsequent years the award went to T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.) No sooner than he was hailed, the modernist movement closed ranks under the dominance of Eliot and Pound. Both writers privileged reason and intellect over the emotional and native intelligence favored by Anderson. Critics followed suit, and Anderson's ensuing work was often maligned for sentimentalism and lack of form.

Sticking to his own brand of individualism, Anderson continued writing and publishing, eventually becoming disenchanted with the business of making a living as a writer. In 1927 he moved to Virginia and struck out to become a self-sufficient newspaperman by purchasing the Marion Publishing Company in Marion, Virginia. The newspaper business proved financially successful. However, at fifty-six Anderson again became restless with his work and turned over the paper to his son in 1932.

Following his divorce from Cornelia Lane in 1904, Anderson married and divorced Tennessee Mitchell and Elizabeth Prall before finding a satisfying soul mate in Eleanor Copenhaver, whom he married in 1933. Together they traveled while he continued to write and publish. In 1941, at the age of sixty-five, the writer died from peritonitis.

The poems in American Spring Song: The Selected Poems of Sherwood Anderson were published either in literary magazines or in books between 1915 and 1939. In terms of literary context, Anderson's poems reflect a number of his influences: Walt Whitman's poetry, the fitful birth of modernism, and sentimentalism at the turn of the century. His poems should also be viewed from the perspective of Anderson's own personal context: life circumstances, psychological makeup, sense of self, and philosophy of life.

Like most progressive writers of his time, Anderson read Whitman's poetry, directly acknowledging its importance and influence in a letter to Viva Elizabeth Haught in 1935: "I think that any American writer who was not influenced by Walt Whitman would be dead to the work of our most significant poet." (4)

Whitman's sensuality, embrace of nature, vernacular sensibility, and utopian ideals are echoed in the themes and subject matter of Anderson's first volume of poetry and are amplified in his second volume. Anderson found Whitman's mystic vision appealing and, as expressed thematically in a poem in Anderson's A New Testament, akin to his own personal philosophy that all creation is one: "You are a man and I would take hold of your hand. You are woman, I would embrace you. You are a child, I would be unashamed to stand in your presence. The flower that is myself has a long stem." (5)

Whitman's influence, as well as the Bible's, is evident in the construction of Anderson's poems. The stanzas are based on the cadences of everyday human speech. Comparing the 1933 edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass (for which Anderson wrote the introduction) to Anderson's two full length volumes of poetry reveals more formal similarities: run-on lines, typographical devices that create separate sections within poems, and italicized stanzas that function as refrains.

The diction of Anderson's poems also shows a kinship to Whitman. Both Anderson and Whitman revered the everyday person and chose to use vernacular language as the basis of their writing. Choosing the common over high diction had strong ideological overtones for Anderson, who states, "The English had got their books into our schools, their ideas of correct forms of expression were firmly fixed in our minds. Words as commonly used in our writing were in reality an army that marched in a certain array and the generals in command of the army were still English." (6)

Like Whitman, Anderson often referred to his poems as "songs" or "chants." Anderson also chose to call his work "testaments," using that word in poems, as rifles for individual poems, and for the title of his second full length book of poetry A New Testament.

In addition to the inheritance of Whitman's influence, Anderson was in the forefront of the first wave of modernism in America. This avant-garde contained the spores of what later would be termed abstractionism, surrealism, and imagism. The heady time also opened up new expressive possibilities for Anderson. A major creative breakthrough came by way of the avatar of modernism, Gertrude Stein (later she and Anderson became lifelong friends).

By the early 1900s Anderson had read Stein's writing, which revealed to him a radical place where form could be abstracted from content. He embraced this writing style. Referring to Stein's Tender Buttons (New York: Claire Marie, 1914), Anderson states:
 My mind did a kind of jerking flop and after Miss Stein's book
had come
 into my hands I spent days going about with a tablet of paper in my
 pocket and making new and strange combinations of words. The result
was I
 thought a new familiarity with the words of my own vocabulary. (7)
 Here was something purely experimental and dealing with words
 from sense--in the ordinary meaning of the word sense--an approach I
 sure the poets must often be compelled to make. Was it an approach
 would help me.) I decided to try it. (8) 

His ensuing experimental approach to writing was closer to poetry than prose, and it also embraced qualities similar to visual art. Anderson's intimacy in the interdisciplinary sensibility of the era is relevant here. In addition to his writing, Anderson was enthralled with painting, both producing and occasionally exhibiting his own work. He was also friends with America's groundbreaking artists, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keefe, and Arthur Dove. He shared with them, through Stein's influence, an understanding of creative expression based on abstraction that broke with the representational mode of the previous generation. For Anderson, "words ... were as the colors used by the painter.... Words were the surfaces." (9)

Abstraction in writing was one thing; however, on an even more elemental level, Stein provided Anderson with the means to apply such a concept to his own sense of self: "All of the more beautiful and clear, the more plangent and radiant writing I have done, has all been done by a kind of second personality that at such times takes possession of me.... This, I think, might bring me to what Stein did for me.... [S]he taught me to recognize the second person in myself, the poet writing person, so that I could occasionally release that one." (10)

This "second person" can be referred to as Anderson's lyric self. In the past, poetry was stylistically defined as lyric poetry, narrative poetry, or dramatic poetry. Lyric poetry, based on the emotional sensibility of the poet, was gaining popularity at the turn of the century. For Anderson lyric poetry was not a style but a recognition of self. The "poet writing person"--the lyric self was the most elemental aspect of Anderson's personal response to the world; a response that would break with intellectual, external, egotistic, linear, and cultural instincts prevalent in the literary and industrial climate of the time, as opposed to emotional, internal, selfless, nonlinear, and individualistic instincts that Anderson found more true to himself. Anderson makes such a lyric self known through his poetry when he writes in "Song of Industrial America," "I'm a song myself, the broken end of a song myself." (11)

The surreal is another modernist tendency present in varying degrees throughout Anderson's poetry. It can be seen particularly through the expression of the irrational, the juxtaposition of incongruous images and the evocation of altered states of mind. For example, Anderson evokes the surreal in only fourteen words by a quick, unimaginable (but unforgettable) image, as in "One Who Looked Up at the Sky," "It would be strange if, by a thought, a man could make Illinois pregnant." (12) On a grander scale, the surreal manifests through a recurring metaphor that creates the hallucinatory atmosphere in Anderson's poem "Testament of an Old Man."
 My brain is a hound that has come out of its kennel....
 My awakened brain is a hound dog come out of its kennel. It is a
 dog, white and silent and swift....
 My hound brain is a whispering wind. It runs backward and forward.
 My hound mind has seen cities rise out of the plains and it has seen
 cities destroyed....
 Look how it runs.... Someday it will not return to its kennel. (13) 

Although he had traveled abroad, there is no evidence that Anderson knew the main European proponents of surrealism or had an affinity with their stated philosophies. Whether or not his style stemmed from European literary origin or his own psychological mindset, it is obvious Anderson had no qualms about altering reality.

Anderson's creative altering of reality was at odds with his penchant for concrete detail, especially in its imagism. This distinctive characteristic is present in his published poetry and prose and is put to diverse use as exemplified in the following two examples. In his first volume of poetry, a poem of only twenty-nine words develops from a single image, "Against the cold white night a stain of red .../ My unborn son is dead." (14) This concrete image in "Unborn" is constructed simply by the color red on white; its content heightened because the red color is a stain; and that it relates to the complexity of an unborn son, which is left for the reader to resolve.

In contrast, the lengthy poem "The Man in the Brown Coat" possesses an abstract texture but depends on a series of highly concrete images ("a yellow house opposite our house," "the window before my desk," "the side door of my house bangs") to achieve that effect:
 There is a yellow house opposite our house. My wife goes out a side
 and passes along our street between our house and the yellow house.
 The window before my desk makes a little framed place like a picture.
 yellow house across the street makes a solid background of yellow.
 The side door of my house bangs. There is a moment of waiting. My
 face floats across the yellow background of the picture. (15) 

Sentimentalism would be a charge critics would often make of Anderson's published work. From teenager to young adult, his reading was a mix of popular and classic books, some of which reinforced his melodramatic impulses. Growing up he also absorbed and practiced the folk art of story telling. As he developed and read more purely literary works, he still found sentimentalism in the genteel belle art tradition of the time. And despite the progressive influence of Walt Whitman, Anderson would also absorb Whitman's occasional emotional gushes. For example, Whitman repeats the line "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" twenty-six times in a poem of the same name in the 1933 edition of Leaves of Grass, of which Anderson wrote the introduction. (16)

Anderson's sentimentalism would be easier to dismiss from a literary standpoint if he had grown out of it or had learned to revise to allow for a more sophisticated writing style. But this was not Anderson: it was not external evocations of sentiment he was seeking to express but internal, emotional truth. If in this desire he overreached, as witnessed in his use of cliched language and melodramatic ploys popular at the time in Mid-American Chants, then so be it. He took a risk with his writing style and defends his Mid-American Chants in one of his letters: "It is of course all amateurish ... but I am and I hope will remain that." (17) This non-aesthetic stance was subject to misinterpretation as pure sentimentalism when, to him, it was worth risking in staking out the authentic emotional state he believed to be fundamental to human experience and the source of his poetry.

In other words, Anderson's personal context in terms of his sense of self and philosophy of life took precedence over purely literary concerns. He resisted being defined by elitist sensibility. He believed strongly, if not mystically, in the creative response of his own existence. This existence was one where life was a process. It was not separated from art or literature; emotion and empathy were privileged over more traditional, craft-oriented approaches to writing, whether it be poetry or prose: "I refused to quibble over words and sentences put down. That did not interest me" (18); "It is possible at times, I think, to get into the flow, the under voices becoming audible" (19); "I have a belief that in this matter of form it is largely a matter of depth of feeling. How deeply do you feel it. Feel it deeply enough and you will be torn inside and driven on until form comes." (20) Emotion being one part of process, empathy was the other:
 The man is there in the field with his horses, and sometimes
 is fused. The field is in the man and his horses. The horses are in
 man. There is something lovely, a fact. I am closest to the man. I
 no way to tell the horses or the fields. It seems to me that I want
 man to feel as I at the moment feel. There is at least hope that I
 tell him in a poem or painting. (21) 

Being in the moment was what was important to Anderson, as he shared with a writer asking for advice, "it was then you were writing well. It may have been because you had forgotten you were writing and were thinking only of the moment." (22) From Anderson's standpoint, self-conscious refinement of writing was often a deterrent to being authentic: better to be amateurish, to acknowledge "crudity," (23) or, rather than strive to make a perfect poem, better to simply render "just the broken ends." (24)

The result was writing (poetry, prose, or experimental) that did not lend itself to the critic's traditional dualistic analysis of form and content. Anderson states the case that would make most critics cringe: "I think it would be a great mistake to waste anytime at all thinking of 'form' as form.... Form is, of course, content. It is nothing else, can be nothing else. A tree has bark, fiber, sap, leaves, limbs, twigs. It can grow and exist and not grow in the soil of your own being.... The great thing is to let yourself be the tree, the sky, the earth.... My meaning is that life is not so separated from art." (25) Such statements, more philosophical than critical, simply weren't in keeping with the literary thinking of the time.

In terms of how form is usually presented on the printed page, Anderson's approach was consistent yet consistently idiosyncratic. He was consistent in that the poems were composed of elements that would appear in print as poetic lines (consisting of a single sentence or phrase), poetic passages (consisting of more than one sentence), or a mixture of lines and passages. The spaces that functioned as line and stanza breaks, however, could be idiosyncratic. In some cases, the line and stanza breaks were followed by a blank line allowing the reader to pause. At other times, the lines and passages were presented with no break between them creating intentional enjambment.

Anderson was at his most idiosyncratic, however, when it came to indentations. In his first full length book of poetry, Mid-American Chants, all lines and passages begin flush left (and if long enough are indented on the following lines). In his second full length book of poetry, A New Testament, all lines and passages begin indented (and if long enough are not indented on the following lines). In other published poetry, there are no indentations of lines and passages at all. For the purpose of readability, I made the editorial decision to standardize the indentation of the poems in American Spring Song: The Selected Poems of Sherwood Anderson to conform with Mid-American Chants, which is also the familiar way Walt Whitman's poems are presented. (26)

However, to reiterate: content for Anderson was more important than form. And in terms of content, his writing lent itself to a response that was boldly all Anderson. If the polarities of the literary context he absorbed can be reduced to the push of the concrete (Whitman) and the pull of the abstract (Stein), Anderson's personal response to such magnetic yet antithetical sensibilities was to embrace both. Like Whitman, he was empathetic; like Stein, he was estranged. Unlike Whitman, his quest for transcendence brought the pain of non-transcendence; unlike Stein, his response to that pain was not intellectually cool but emotionally warm.

The fusion of the concrete and the abstract made Anderson's life unique and his writing open to simultaneity: dark and light; pathos and hope; pain and love; and, anticipating Martin Buber's philosophy of life, I and Thou. Anderson's was an existential response not of despair but of a fierce affirmation of life and death.

More than the literary devices of tone, voice, or style, it is the lyric self, "the poet writing person," that defines all of his writing. (27) It is particularly resonant in his poetry; he does not speak through a character or a narrator but directly from that lyric self to the reader, as in, "I am born-why am I not born? (28) In essence, the simple statement and question strike to the heart of existentialism. Rather than answering the question, it leaves the reader to struggle with the question of existence.

The nakedness of this lyric self certainly made critics who were used to urbane, impersonal modernism uneasy with his poetry. In fact, it made Anderson himself uneasy, as he noted in a letter to Mary Chryst Anderson late in life, "the thing least to be desired in this world is to be known as poet." (29) In the same sentence, Anderson openly acknowledged a penetrating revelation: "The truth is that I have always known I was essentially a poet." (30)

Many critics acknowledge this lyric self that is at the heart of Anderson's most enduring prose. It is this lyric self in its boldness, passion, tenderness, outrageousness, and vulnerability that allows Anderson's best poetry to be discovered by another generation, at a time when individuals are confronted by cultural hegemony, societal transformation, and personal estrangement. For a contemporary audience seeking self-definition and who has been left numb by self-doubt, the lasting testament of American Spring Song: The Selected Poems of Sherwood Anderson is its affirmation of the lyric self; both Sherwood Anderson's and our own.


(1.) Winfield Scott Lenox, "The Significance of Sherwood Anderson's Poetry" (master's thesis, Loyola Univ., 1961). This study has much in common with this volume of selected poems and is recommended for a more in-depth discussion of the relationship between Anderson's poetic instinct and his prose.

(2.) Hilbert H. Campbell, ed., "Sherwood Anderson: Honeymoon Journal and Other Early Writings, 1904," The Sherwood Anderson Review 23 (1998): 49.

(3.) Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds., Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930 (New York: Penguin, 1991), 25.

(4.) Viva Elizabeth Haught, "The Influence of Walt Whitman on Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg" (master's thesis, Duke Univ., 1936), 41.

(5.) Sherwood Anderson, A New Testament (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1927), 24.

(6.) Sherwood Anderson, A Story Teller's Story, ed. Ray Lewis White (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve Univ., 1968), 262.

(7.) Ibid., 263.

(8.) Ibid., 260-61.

(9.) Ibid., 261.

(10.) Sherwood Anderson, Letters of Sherwood Anderson, ed. Howard Mumford Jones and Walter B. Rideout (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), 300.

(11.) Sherwood Anderson, Mid-American Chants (New York: John Lane, 1918), 18.

(12.) Anderson, Testament, II.

(13.) Ibid., 32-37.

(14.) Anderson, Chants, 53.

(15.) Anderson, Testament, 73.

(16.) Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, ed. Charles Cullen (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1933), 143-47.

(17.) Anderson, Letters, 20.

(18.) Ibid., 446.

(19.) Ibid., 445.

(20.) Ibid., 387.

(21.) Ibid., 362.

(22.) Ibid., 449.

(23.) Sherwood Anderson, "An Apology for Crudity," Dial 63 (Nov. 8, 1917): 437-38.

(24.) Sherwood Anderson, The Writer's Book, ed. Martha Mulroy Curry (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975), 278.

(25.) Anderson, Letters, 202.

(26.) The issue of experimentation in lineation extends to the larger issue of experimentation in Anderson's poetry (as well as his other writings). In essence, Anderson produced different versions of poems (both in form and content) and approved the publishing of these variants over many years. Anderson's devotion to experimentation in poetry is dealt with in more depth in American Spring Song: The Selected Poems of Sherwood Anderson. Anderson's experimentation in his other writings has received little critical attention and is deserving of further study.

(27.) Ibid., 300.

(28.) Anderson, Testament, 118.

(29.) Anderson, Letters, 300.

(30.) Ibid. Appearing in the same letter, this quotation and the preceding one are quite provocative and deserve more attention than the scope of this introduction can provide. Anderson's poetic ambiversion is present throughout his literary career. On the one hand, he would deride poetry: "The many men have told me they wanted leisure to write poetry. Great God! The amount of physical labor needed to make a man widely known as a poet of merit is infinitesimal. All the actual physical labor of writing done by the greatest and most profound of poets could be done by an average newspaperman during any average month of work." Sherwood Anderson, Sherwood Anderson's Notebook (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926), 61. On the other hand, he would also elevate poetry: "The story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a poet." Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1919), 29.

There are numerous plausible and documentable reasons for Anderson's vacillation, ranging from shyness to the need for income derived from more commercially popular prose to a psychological defense mechanism to his penchant for mythologizing himself. Further investigation and assessment of Anderson's poetic nature and its impact on all his writing is long overdue. See Lenox, "The Significance of Sherwood Anderson's Poetry."

With an Introduction by Stuart Downs
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Title Annotation:A Special APR Supplement
Author:Downs, Stuart
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:May 1, 2007
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