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Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest


33
Poetry and Drama

"KNOWLEDGE itself is power," Sir Francis Bacon wrote in classical Latin, and in abbreviated form the proverb became a familiar in households and universities alike. But knowledge of what? There is no power in knowledge of mediocre verse.

I had rather flunk my Wasserman test than read a poem by Edgar A. Guest.

The power of great poetry lies not in knowledge of it but in assimilation of it. Most talk about poetry is vacuous. Poetry can pass no power into any human being unless it itself has power -- power of beauty, truth, wit, humor, pathos, satire, worship, and other attributes, always through form. No poor poetry is worth reading. Taste for the best makes the other kind insipid.

Compared with America's best poetry, most poetry of the Southwest is as mediocre as American poetry in the mass is as compared with the great body of English poetry between Chaucer and Masefield. Yet mediocre poetry is not so bad as mediocre sculpture. The mediocre in poetry is merely fatuous; in sculpture, it is ugly. Generations to come will have to look at Coppini's monstrosity in front of the Alamo; it can't rot down or burn up. Volumes of worthless verse, most of it printed at the expense of the versifiers, hardly come to sight, and before long they disappear from existence except for copies religiously preserved in public libraries.

Weak fiction goes the same way. But a good deal of very bad prose in the nonfiction field has some value. In an otherwise dull book there may be a solitary anecdote, an isolated observation on a skunk, a single gesture of some human being otherwise highly unimportant, one salty phrase, a side glimpse into the human comedy. If poetry is not good, it is positively nothing.

The earliest poet of historical consequence the only form of his poetical consequence -- of the Southwest was Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar. He led the Texas cavalry at San Jacinto, became president of the Republic of Texas, organized the futile Santa Fe Expedition, gathered up six volumes of notes and letters for a history of Texas that might have been as raw-meat realistic as anything in Zola or Tolstoy. Then as a poet he reached his climax in "The Daughter of Mendoza" -- a graceful but moonshiny imitation of Tom Moore and Lord Byron. Perhaps it is better for the weak to imitate than to try to be original.

It would not take one more than an hour to read aloud all the poetry of the Southwest that could stand rereading. At the top of all I should place Fay Yauger's "Planter's Charm," published in a volume of the same title. With it belongs "The Hired Man on Horseback," by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, a long poem of passionate fidelity to his own decent kind of men, with power to ennoble the reader, and with the form necessary to all beautiful composition. This is the sole and solitary piece of poetry to be found in all the myriads of rhymes classed as "cowboy poetry." I'd want Stanley Vestal's "Fandango," in a volume of the same title. Margaret Bell Houston's "Song from the Traffic," which takes one to the feathered mesquites and the bluebonnets, might come next. Begging pardon of the perpetually palpitating New Mexico lyricists, I would skip most of them, except for bits of Mary Austin, Witter Bynner, Haniel Long, and maybe somebody I don't know, and go to George Sterling's "Father Coyote" -- in California. Probably I would come back to gallant Phil LeNoir's "Finger of Billy the Kid," written while he was dying of tuberculosis in New Mexico. I wouldn't leave without the swift, brilliantly economical stanzas that open the ballad of "Sam Bass," and a single line, "He came of a solitary race," in the ballad of "Jesse James."

Several other poets have, of course, achieved something for mortals to enjoy and be lifted by. Their work has been sifted into various anthologies. The best one is Signature of the Sun: Southwest Verse, 1900-1950, selected and edited by Mabel Major and T. M. Pearce, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1950. Two other anthologies are Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp, by John A. Lomax, 1919, reprinted in 1950 by Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York; The Road to Texas, by Whitney Montgomery, Kaleidograph, Dallas, 1940. Montgomery's Kaleidograph Press has published many volumes by southwestern poets. Somebody who has read them all and has read all the poets represented, without enough of distillation, in Signature of the Sun could no doubt be juster on the subject than I am.

Like historical fiction, drama of the Southwest has been less dramatic than actuality and less realistic than real characters. Lynn Riggs of Oklahoma, author of Green Grow the Lilacs, has so far been the most successful dramatist.



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