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Poet of parts

Trampled by the modernists

January 1st, 2016

BY STEFFEN SILVIS

In 1930, even while he tasted a touch of inspirational stray ash from D.H. Lawrence’s cremation urn, Witter Bynner was being thoroughly made a meal of by T.S. Eliot and the Moderns. Considered one of the leading lyric poets in America, Bynner had watched helplessly as his reputation, and that of his friend Edna St. Vincent Millay, were trampled by the followers of avant-gardists Pound, Moore, Stevens, and Eliot. Seemingly overnight, the definition of poetry had changed, and Bynner, at that moment eucharistically sampling his friend, found himself speaking a lost tongue. That James Kraft’s biography is titled Who Is Witter Bynner? measures the depth to which the writer’s name plunged into obscurity. Yet there are parts of Bynner’s work that demand rediscovery, if not necessarily the parts he would have wished.

bynnerFamily legend has it that Bynner arrived prematurely into the world in 1881 as his mother Annie raced down a flight of stairs to save a bird from a cat’s mouth. The resulting gentle youth became an ardent follower of Walt Whitman, to such an extent that rumors circulated that he was Whitman’s illegitimate son, a tale Bynner never hurried to quash. By his early twenties, Bynner was considered one of the bright hopes of American poetry, and despite his demotion by the Modernists, he devoted his entire life to verse until his death in 1968.

Bynner first established himself with two books of poetry: An Ode to Harvard and Other Poems (1907) and The New World (1915). Though both books contain commendable verses, one finds oneself agreeing with Richard Wilbur that there is too much lazy and obvious rhyming and “a fair amount of sincere and exclamatory gush.” In fact, Bynner achieves a kind of high kitsch with these poems that lards most of his “serious” work to come, insuring obsolescence. But with the Spectra poems (1916), Bynner reveals himself as one of American literature’s lost wits.


Alarmed by the rise of the Imagist movement (and sensing that his brand of verse was challenged), Bynner and fellow poet Arthur Davison Ficke pseudonymously published biting parodies of Imagism, complete with a florid manifesto, that were soon championed by critics and poets who failed to perceive the pieces’ “crypto-badness” (as Wilbur celebrates it). One of Bynner’s best was "Opus 14":

Beside the brink of dream
I had put out my willow-roots and leaves
As by a stream
Too narrow for the invading greaves
Of Rome in her trireme
Then you came—like a scream
Of beeves.

But it was the classicist Modernism of Eliot that most exercised Bynner, and he cultivated a bitter incomprehension of Eliot’s work. In his essay “The Persistence of Poetry,” Bynner inveighed against those who “fabricate words into strained and intellectualized meanings which pass for a season among the literary fashionables as poetry.” This is a portrait of a man drowning. But even a fervid Eliot devotee must smile at the acerbic succinctness of Bynner’s Eliot epigram in his marvelously titled collection Pins for Wings (1920): “The wedding cake of two tired cultures.” Which leads to Cake.

Bynner enjoyed a modest reputation as a verse playwright, and his version of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (written for Isadora Duncan) remains one of the finest of that play. But his surrealist comedy Cake (1926) demands special attention. The protagonist, The Lady, is a supine heiress torn between her hunger for experience and her appetite for baked goods. After various misadventures (she accidentally bestrides an anthill in the presence of a swami and fails to entice a cannibal to eat her), she marries the lad who bears her cake platter.

Oddly, Cake seems to have had some influence on a later and more famous verse drama, Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1949). Eliot does seem to be referencing Bynner throughout. He begins his drama with a story, never finished by its teller, about a Lady and a wedding cake. And Eliot’s heroine Celia (the Ligeia-like name that haunts Bynner’s The New World) finds transcendence when murdered by cannibals on an anthill. Though confused by some similarities and unaware of others, biographer Kraft is the only critic to have made the connection between the two plays.

It’s a delicious line of enquiry and, like Cake, worth savoring. This and Kraft’s book should give the curious a taste for at least parts of Bynner. •

This article first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Black Lamb.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Books and Authors, Silvis | Link to this Entry

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