TraditionalismTraditional writers include acknowledged masters of traditional forms and diction who write with a readily recognizable craft, often using rhyme or a set metrical pattern. Often they are from the U.S. Eastern seaboard or from the southern part of the country, and teach in colleges and universities. Richard Eberhart and Richard Wilbur; the older Fugitive poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren; such accomplished younger poets as John Hollander and Richard Howard; and the early Robert Lowell are examples. They are established and frequently anthologized.
The previous chapter discussed the refinement, respect for nature, and profoundly conservative values of the Fugitives. These qualities grace much poetry oriented to traditional modes. Traditionalist poets are generally precise, realistic, and witty; like Richard Wilbur (1921- ), they are often influenced in these directions by 15th- and 16th-century British metaphysical poets brought to favor by T.S. Eliot. Wilbur's most famous poem, "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" (1950), takes its title from Thomas Traherne, a metaphysical poet. Its vivid opening illustrates the clarity some poets have found within rhyme and formal regularity:
Traditional poets, unlike many experimentalists who distrust "too poetic" diction, welcome resounding poetic lines. Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) ended one poem with the words "To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God." Allen Tate (1899-1979) ended a poem, "Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!" Traditional poets also at times use a somewhat rhetorical diction of obsolete or odd words, using many adjectives (for example, "sepulchral owl") and inversions, in which the natural, spoken word order of English is altered unnaturally. Sometimes the effect is noble, as in the line by Warren; other times, the poetry seems stilted and out of touch with real emotions, as in Tate's line: "Fatuously touched the hems of the hierophants."
Occasionally, as in Hollander, Howard, and James Merrill (1926- ), self-conscious diction combines with wit, puns, and literary allusions. Merrill, who is innovative in his urban themes, unrhymed lines, personal subjects, and light conversational tone, shares a witty habit with the traditionalists in "The Broken Heart" (1966), writing about a marriage as if it were a cocktail:
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.
Obvious fluency and verbal pyrotechnics by some poets, like Merrill and John Ashbery, make them successful in traditional terms, although their poetry redefines poetry in radically innovative ways. Stylistic gracefulness makes some poets seem more traditional than they are, as in the case of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) and A.R. Ammons (1926- ). Ammons creates intense dialogues between humanity and nature; Jarrell steps into the trapped consciousness of the dispossessed -- women, children, doomed soldiers, as in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (1945):
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Although many traditional poets use rhyme, not all rhymed poetry is traditional in subject or tone. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917- ) writes of the difficulties of living -- let alone writing -- in urban slums. Her "Kitchenette Building" (1945) asks how:
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall...
Many poets, including Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren began writing traditionally, using rhyme and meters, but abandoned these in the 1960s under the pressure of public events and a gradual trend toward open forms.