John G. Neihardt

John G. Neihardt and Traditional Form: Finding Contemporaries in the Past

By Timothy G. Anderson

John G. Neihardt, Nebraska’s poet laureate in perpetuity, believed that he had found the raw materials for an American epic in the heroic escapades of the fur traders of the old Northwest and in the collision of cultures that culminated in the Plains Indian wars.

And he believed he knew how to command a tried-and-true form through which he could preserve these stories in verse.

Working from 1913 through 1941, Neihardt wrote A Cycle of the West in five individual book-length poems. Critics and readers alike heartily approved of his subjects, but they were considerably less enamored of his choice of form for the poems, often finding Neihardt’s approach old-fashioned and unsuitable during a period of great experimentation in American verse.

Neihardt had not chosen lightly his traditional form—pentameter coupled with rhyme. To Neihardt, the poets he had first studied as a young boy—Homer and Virgil, Tennyson and Robert Browning—were part of a noble tradition, and to ignore them was a mistake. “[T]he fundamental error in modern thought,” he wrote in 1916, “is impressionism—the tendency to repudiate standards and to set up individual caprice.” (“Fear God”) Like the masters of old, he preferred rhyme and strict meter, and to maintain both he also occasionally turned to such archaic terms as ’twas and ere and ’twixt, putting him out of step with the modern movements in poetry. Neihardt chose to write his epic poems in rhyme instead of the more-often-used and more popular free verse, and even his friends sometimes wondered why. “Because,” Neihardt explained to one of them, “one may use the method of blank verse in rhyme, and the latter acts as a necessary limitation. Rhyme makes for economy & speed & gives a sort of ‘come on’ to a tale.” (Neihardt to Sterling) He chose pentameter because he believed it best suited the English language, just as hexameter suited the Greek language.

The rhyme is never forced [he wrote] and when the verse is read as written, the rhymes seem incidental. My verse method in handling rhymed pentameter is essentially that of blank verse. The unit is not the line ending in a rhyme, as I write it. The unit is the breathing length. Some very simple people have leaped to the conclusion that I write in couplets. I doubt if there are five couplets in 15,000 lines. (Neihardt to Holms)

Neihardt considered the movements of impressionism, cubism, and imagism, then becoming popular, to be mere fragmentation and believed their adherents were lowering the standards of art and poetry. He saw himself in the role of defender, arguing that instead of looking at the pieces, one should focus on the unified whole. “Poetical forms were flouted as old-fashioned,” he later recalled, referring to the Imagists and other experimentalists of the 1910s. “It was so much easier to write poetry without reference to form.” (Can Writing Be Taught?) He did not buy the argument, often put forward by free verse advocates, that the accelerated tempo of the time demanded the brief, fragmentary, impressionistic approach to poetry.

To Neihardt, the modern poets—writers like T.S. Eliot, Amy Lowell, e.e. cummings and, especially, Ezra Pound—were dismantling things, tearing them down and apart. He saw himself as a builder, disillusioned with the modern world, maybe, but still a believer. “I want to be humbugged,” he tellingly once wrote a friendly editor in New York. “I don’t want to see the skeleton. Give me the beautiful illusions of the flesh. I want to believe things.” (Neihardt to Davis) He was unapologetic to the point of arrogance about his refusal to join his fellow poets’ approach.

The poet who had the greatest impact on Neihardt was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Neihardt first discovered Tennyson as a schoolboy in Wayne, Nebraska. “I was fascinated by the way common words could be put together and made to sing while they were working,” he recalled years later. (All Is But a Beginning, 56) The way Tennyson wrote, the way he moved fighting men across the page, especially caught Neihardt’s eye—and ear. To Neihardt, Tennyson always remained the “consummate artist,” “the Virgil of English poetry.” (“Tennyson a Minot Poet?”) Neihardt knew that Tennyson, by the time Neihardt was writing his own epic poetry, had gone out of fashion. “But,” he believed, “Tennyson will come back again because he voiced great lyric moods that are, as time has amply proven, inevitable in the constitution of human nature.” (“And There Shall Be Many Other Laughters”)

When Tennyson had first written poetry, it had been in the style of Lord Byron. Like him, Neihardt relied on, nearly worshipped, writers who came before him. This was, in part, because he believed the great poets’ work, because it was great, never truly went out of fashion. “True poetry is invariably surrounded by an atmosphere of timelessness,” he wrote the year before he started work on The Song of Hugh Glass in 1913. “A genuine poem may, indeed, deal with a passing moment, but always it will catch a glimpse of the eternal in the fleeting. It is this quality that makes poetry a universal utterance.” (“Poetry of George Sterling”)

Pound, who came to represent, for Neihardt, the worst excesses of his Modern contemporaries, agreed—to a point. “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules … It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” (ABC of Reading, 13) But, at the same time, Pound believed in taking a novel look at subjects, forms and language. “‘Make it new, day by day make it new,’ was one of Pound’s mottoes. (The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound, 19) Such was never Neihardt’s motto.

Pound and Neihardt never met, and yet in some ways they were close contemporaries: Pound was born only four years after Neihardt, and he died only the year before Neihardt did. Like Neihardt, he, too, worked throughout his life on a grand project, The Cantos, published in 10 sections between 1925 and 1969 and collected into one volume in 1970.

Pound and others among the modern poets certainly knew the same old masters that Neihardt did, and they often admired them nearly as much as he did. Pound had been influenced by William Butler Yeats and, like Neihardt, by Tennyson and Browning.

But where Pound and his compatriots took to debunking the dead poets, Neihardt chose to cling to them as living colleagues.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michael. The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.

Neihardt, John G. “Fear God,” The Minneapolis Journal, 4 Apr. 1916. 17.

Neihardt, John G., to George Sterling, 24 Feb. 1914, Huntington Library Collection.

Neihardt, John G., to Elmer and Mary Holm, 22 Nov. 1938, Neihardt Collection, Nebraska State Historical Society.

Neihardt, John G. “Can Writing Be Taught?” The Kansas City Journal-Post, 11 July 1926. 4-D.

Neihardt, John G., to Robert Davis, 19 April 1906, Robert Davis Collection, New York Public Library.

Neihardt, John G. All Is But a Beginning. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Neihardt, John G. “Tennyson a Minor Poet?” The Minneapolis Journal, 12 1914. Section 2, 4.

Neihardt, John G. “And There Shall Be Many Other Laughters,” The Kansas City Journal-Post, 9 May 1926. 4-D.

Neihardt, John G. “Poetry of George Sterling,” The Kansas City Journal-Post, 4 July 1926. 4-D.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions Books, 1960.

Timothy G. Anderson’s biography of John G. Neihardt, Lonesome Dreamer: The Life of John G. Neihardt, will be published in August 2016 by University of Nebraska Press.