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An Introduction to OTHERS: A MAGAZINE of the NEW VERSE
by Churchill, Suzanne W.


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Others (1915-1919) was a small, plain, unassuming little magazine that managed to do big things for modern poetry. Its subtitle, “A Magazine of the New Verse,” asserted its dedication to new and experimental forms of poetry, and its motto heralded its avant-garde stance: “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others.” Those “others”—virtually unknown at the time—became some of the most celebrated modern American poets, including: T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Williams declared that Others “saved [his] life as a writer,” but it would be more accurate to say that the magazine launched his life as a writer, because it provided a forum in which his unconventional writing could be understood as poetry and he—and others—could be recognized as poets (Autobiography 135). Founding editor Alfred Kreymborg describes the little magazine’s power to shape poetic identity: “Just as the men and women one discovered among the Imagists and the finer pages of Poetry and The Little Review had come up out of nowhere, so with these men and women [in Others]. This nowhere had at last assumed a recognizable shape and sentience and one was able to say something sharply relating to a person and his place” (Troubadour 189). Providing a place for new poets and innovative forms to be recognized, Others promulgated free verse to the reading public and set it on a course toward becoming the preeminent form of twentieth-century American poetry.

Although Others was not the first little magazine on the American poetry scene, it was distinctive for combining a dedication to poetry with an avant-garde ethos and a New York sensibility. The Masses emerged from Greenwich Village in 1911, emphasizing radical political ideas more than poetic innovation: many of the poems it published were written in traditional rhymed, metered forms. Established in 1912, the Chicago-based Poetry allotted more space to poets and made room for formal experimentation, but it was strict in its editorial controls and intent on shaping a literary canon through essays, reviews, and bios. Making headway in 1914, the Little Review was boldly avant-garde in its aesthetic stance, but, as Cristanne Miller argues, tended to feature foreign, European, and expatriate writers. “Many of the Little Review's contributors lived outside the U.S., and the focus of its affiliation with foreignness resided in ancient cultures, European metropolises, expatriation or . . . the concept of exile”; in contrast, Others was rooted in America, publishing “primarily work written by poets living in the U.S.—most often in New York” (Miller 458). Like the Little Review, Rogue, which appeared only a few months before Others, was an avant-garde miscellany; though New York-based, its tone echoed the arch, cosmopolitan sophistication of European fin-de-siècle decadence. Others built on the precedents established by these rival little magazines, attracting many of the same contributors and readers while earning the distinction of being the most daring and innovative poetry magazine of its time.

Others was first issued in July 1915 from Grantwood, a bohemian art colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey. The rustic retreat was only a short ferry’s ride from the metropolis of Manhattan, where the idea for the magazine was originally conceived. Others was the brainchild of an unlikely duo: Alfred Kreymborg, son of working-class German immigrants, and Walter Conrad Arensberg, a wealthy, Harvard-educated art collector. Circulating in the same New York avant-garde circles and possibly meeting first in the pages of Rogue, the two men were drawn together by mutual interests in chess and modern poetry. After the initial frenzy of planning, Arensberg soured on the project: he wanted to showcase European artists and use expensive Italian paper, while Kreymborg insisted on American poets and a modest format. With a private donation of $276 from Arensberg, Kreymborg settled on a minimalist 5 ½” x 8 ½” goldenrod cover, with a distinctly modern block typeface announcing OTHERS: A MAGAZINE of the NEW VERSE. There were no designs or insignias, only the title, editor, date, location, and price (15 cents a copy, $1.50 per year). Inside the magazine, a spare list of contributors appeared in place of a contents page, followed by the contributors' poems. No manifesto, editorial commentary, reviews, articles, or bios. Just new verse, pure and unadorned.

“Since Others lacked any significant supplementary editorial discourse,” John Timberman Newcomb argues, “its verse became a self-defining manifesto” (“There is Always Others” n.p.). In the course of its four-year lifespan, Others did publish a few short editorial statements (mostly to deny allegiances to groups, schools, or “-isms”), a handful of prose pieces, and a couple of plays, but it never articulated an editorial program, instead embodying its avant-garde agenda through the new verse it published. A recognizably “other” poetic idiom rapidly emerged in its pages. Poems were typically written in free verse, using simple, everyday language, or as Marianne Moore put it, “in plain American which cats and dogs can read!” (“England” 129). Stanzas were spare, slim, and fairly uniform. Some verses were Imagistic and experimented with typography and punctuation, such as Kreymborg's “Wizardry” (Others July 1915)—

Your hands,
so strong,
so cool,
wizards
improvising sleep
. . . (16)

—while others adapted the compressed form for pungent meta-poetic metaphors, such as Jeanne D’Orge’s “The Meat Press” (May/June 1916):

I have a longing
To strip raw live flesh
From my bones
And squeeze it in the meat press.
Blood will drip,
Enough to write a few lyrics
Red and sacramental. (217)

Series of short poems and longer verses were often arranged in a form that Newcomb calls the “sequence poem”: “multiple sections headed by Roman numerals, eschewing linear narrative for nonlinear juxtaposition in which the components play obliquely against one another, and demand the reader’s active participation in linking them” (n.p.). Wallace Stevens' “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” published in Others in December 1917, is perhaps the most famous example of a sequence poem, but Mary Carolyn Davies' “Songs of a Girl” and Mina Loy’s “Love Songs” set the numerical trend in Others' first number. “Except for three poems by Horace Holley, every work in the first issue of Others employs some version of this structural principle,” Newcomb observes, arguing that “such nonlinear sequences of juxtaposed elements became the signature form of Others, and represent its foremost formal contributions to the New Poetry” (n.p.).

Others' minimalist format and exclusive focus on poetry enabled a new, experimental, free verse idiom to be recognized as poetry. If the magazine contained nothing but poetry, then everything published therein was de facto poetry, even if it lacked rhyme and meter, defied narrative coherence, or flouted the rules of syntax, punctuation, and capitalization. Each poem appeared as a separate unit of individual expression, surrounded by white space, and subject to its own internal rules, rather than to the conventions of English poetry. In rejecting formal conventions, Kreymborg explained, the free verse poet was not trying “to do away with form; form was the very thing he sought, and sought, in many cases, to the exclusion of all else. The form was something which should give permanent shape to an intrinsic mood or experience. Since no two moods or actions were alike, no two forms could be identical” (“Free Verse Revolt” 53).

For decades, critics assumed that the desire for unfettered individual expression also influenced the content of the verse in Others, rendering an idiosyncratic, private, and personal idiom. Although in fact the poetry is stirkingly diverse in subject matter and perspective, the first person dominates, and the poems manifest an almost obsessive preoccupation with depicting private rooms and interior spaces (Churchill, Little Magazine 2-4, 61-100). This urge to lay open real and imagined interiors pervades the magazine, from the first poem in the first issue, Davies' “Songs of a Girl,” which begins—

There is a morning standing at my window, looking into my room (3)

—to the last poem in the final issue, Emanuel Carnevali’s “Serenade,” which concludes:

Come on, open that window
or I'll go home. (19)

In these and other poems, the room serves as a metaphor for a psychic interior: the space of the individual mind or imagination (Little Magazine 62).

The individualistic, inward-probing free verse idiom in Others became so recognizable that it fell victim to a wildly successful hoax, “The Spectric School,” engineered by conservative poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, with assistance from their more avant-garde leaning friend, Marjorie Allen Seiffert. Others dedicated its entire January 1917 issue to the Spectric School, featuring poems scarcely distinguishable from standard Others fare, such as “Night,” by Elijah Hay (Seiffert):

I opened the door
And night stared at me like a fool,
Heavy dull night, clouded and safe—
I turned again toward the uncertainties
Of life within doors. (10)

With its narrow, free verse stanzas; plainspoken language; and first-person speaker alone in a room, “Night” mimics the look, sound, and subject matter of a typical Others poem. The poem’s speaker—a rakish, plainspoken bohemian—fulfills the stereotypes of the modern, pleasure-seeking artist. Anne Knish (Ficke) typifies the New Woman, and Emanuel Morgan (Bynner) embodies the more flagrant stereotype of decadent gay aesthete. Although the Spectra Hoax aimed to undermine the respectability of the new verse, it actually helped solidify the modern poetic idiom and reinforce new gender roles, which began to seem more familiar and even liberating. The revelation of the hoax in April 1918 only drew more attention to the new poetry, generating wider interest, amusement, and appreciation, even among the hoaxers themselves. Others survived the attack, Seiffert (Hay) remained a loyal contributor to the magazine, and both Bynner and Ficke were converted to the cause, having discovered something deeply appealing about the new-fangled free verse they had been parodying (Churchill, “The Lying Game” 23-24). Bynner even continued to publish in Others under his pseudonym (Emanuel Morgan), admitting, “I can't get rid of Emanuel Morgan! . . . I don’t know where he leaves off and I begin” (“Soulful” 11).

All told, Others was issued monthly for four years, with occasional lapses. Kreymborg edited the magazine for the first year, though the October 1915 issue, featuring the “Choric School” (modern dance poems), may have been arranged by Ezra Pound, who supplied a brief Foreword. After the first year, guest editors frequently assumed the reins. William Carlos Williams edited a “Competitive Number” in July 1916, assembling an all-star cast that included Sandburg, Moore, Stevens, Amy Lowell, Loy, Pound, and Bynner (as well as his alter ego Emanuel Morgan!). Williams also coordinated a “Spanish-American Number” in August 1916, with translations by his father, W. G. Williams, and Helen Hoyt edited “A Woman’s Number” in September 1916. After a two-month lapse, “Three Others” appeared in December 1916, featuring poems by Maxwell Bodenheim, Williams, and Kreymborg. The subsequent issue was given over to the Spectric School, and the April 1917 number was devoted to Loy’s Songs to Joannes, a revised and expanded version of the “Love Songs” published in the first issue. William Saphier then took the magazine to Chicago, editing three issues: “A Chicago Number” (June 1917); “A Number for the Mind's Eye, Not to Be Read Aloud,” which included Stevens' “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (December 1917); and “A Play Number” (February 1918), featuring Djuna Barnes' “A Passion Play” and Saphier and Bodenheim's “The Kitchen Absurd.” In December 1918, Lola Ridge helped Kreymborg revive Others, and the remaining six issues were published in New York. Although these issues continued to showcase innovative poetry, they also included occasional art reproductions, plays, and prose essays. In July 1919, Williams again seized editorial control and issued the final number, pronouncing Others dead in a bellicose essay, “Gloria!,” and extending its obituary in a pugnacious prose supplement, “Belly Music.”

In its brief but colorful career, Others published poetry by more than one hundred new writers. Since the magazine's circulation never reached more than 300, according to Kreymborg's estimate (“Early Impression” 12), a significant portion of its readers likely comprised its own contributors. Three Others anthologies, published in 1916 and 1917 by Alfred A. Knopf and in 1919 by Nicholas L. Brown, no doubt helped extend the enterprise to a larger audience. These anthologies earned serious reviews in larger periodicals and conferred upon ephemeral magazine verse the more respectable status of book publication, with its implications of enduring value (Churchill and Jaffee n.p.).

While the little magazine and its anthology offshoots generated a sizable interest in the new poetry, not everyone agreed that it was good poetry. Upon reading Mina Loy's “Love Songs,” which depict “Pig Cupid . . . / Rooting erotic garbage,” a conservative critic denounced Others as “hoggerel” (T. N. P. 7). Heralding the appearance of Others in Poetry, Alice Corbin Henderson derided the New York rival as a passing fad, a wave of decadent self-indulgence: “Replacing the outworn conventions of the I-am-bic school, we now have the I-am-it school of poetry. (NOTE: Les I-am-its are not to be confused with Les I'm-a-gists, who are already out-classed and démodé.)” Henderson supplied extracts from several representative poems before concluding, “We regret to say the printer announces that there are no more I’s in the font” (103, 105). Henderson’s satire was picked up and summarized for the general audience of Current Opinion (“Voices” 434). In a similar syndicated send-up titled “I-Sores is the Modern Substitute for Poetry,” Clement Wood satirized the free versifier's penchant for introspection:

Modern typewriters especially fitted for the production of free verse contain a whole row of I-keys and an I lock that writes a complete line of I’s when one key is pressed. Thus science keeps step with the arts. Poetry is, shall we say, cutting its ‘I’ teeth. (26)

For Wood and other skeptical critics, free verse represented not only an inferior form of poetry, but also a lower breed of poet: a young, pleasure-seeking narcissist (Churchill and Jaffee n.p.). Harriet Monroe reinforced this view, describing Others as “the high-pitched instrument of the young intransigeants” and “a haven for the wildest orgies of proud-spirited youth” (“Editorial Comment” 86, “Others Again” 150). Such remarks indicate the way free verse was associated with sexual liberation and licentiousness. Free verse was conflated with “free love”; writers of vers libre were dubbed “vers libertines” (Moore, “'New' Poetry” 121); and one critic likened the modern poetic style to “the elimination of corsets in versifying” (Julius 3). Critics described Others as “esoteric” and “irrational,” “free-footed,” “queer,” and even “pornographic” (Churchill, Little Magazine 5).

Yet many liberal-minded readers greeted the new magazine with bemused appreciation, and even lauded free verse as a healthy expression of American inventiveness and democratic individualism: “the new poetry is revolutionary,” wrote J. B. Kerfoot in Life, announcing the arrival of Others: “It is the expression of a democracy of feeling rebelling against an aristocracy of form” (568). Although H. L. Mencken was not convinced by the “highly dubious rumble-bumble about the 'inherent Americanism' and soaring democracy of the movement,” he nevertheless praised Others' originality and freshness, and lauded the free verse movement for making “an effective war on the cliché, and so purg[ing] the verse of the nation of much of its old banality in subject and phrase” (40-41).

Although Others generated lively controversy in its time (see Churchill and Jaffee for a more detailed discussion of popular debates about free verse), it acquired a more idealized and mythical status in subsequent memoirs and histories of modernism. Contributor Robert Alden Sanborn waxed nostalgic about Others only three years after the magazine's demise:

the free verse movement in America . . . crystallized in Alfred Kreymborg's group of Others. That was a magic moment. No one who was touched by the kindling breath will ever forget the joy of it nor cease to regret that a great fiery wind devoured it. It will be worth while someday to review that frail but vital page in American literary history. (174-75)

Kreymborg's own 1925 memoir, Troubadour: An American Autobiography, betrays its nostalgic, romanticizing tendencies in its very title. Decades later, Kenneth Rexroth celebrates Others' seemingly magical accomplishments with similar idealism:

It is with this magazine [Others] and the group that grew up around it that modernism in American poetry really begins. William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, T. S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Marsden Hartley, Wallace Gould, Alfred Kreymborg himself, Maxwell Bodenheim, and the socialist poets Lola Ridge and James Oppenheim, the anarchist Arturo Giovannitti, dozens of others—Kreymborg produced them all suddenly on the literary stage in America, like a conjurer pulling rabbits from a hat. (155)

Assuming a more measured, objective tone in their 1946 volume The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography, Hoffman, Allen, and Ulrich memorialize the magazine for its role in publishing the mythic giants of modernism: “Others is to be remembered for its publication of excellent verse by Wallace Stevens (“Peter Quince at the Clavier”), T. S. Eliot (“Portrait of a Lady”), Marianne Moore (“To Statecraft Embalmed”), and William Carlos Williams” (20). The Little Magazine thus establishes the precedent of measuring a little magazine chiefly in regards to the canonical poets it brought to fame, a critical practice Adam McKible and I refer to as “strip-mining,” in which “individual artists [are] extracted from the heterogeneous terrain in which they first published and singled out as the elite geniuses of modernism” (Churchill and McKible 4). Whether mythologizing Others as Kreymborg's singular magic act or strip-mining the magazine for individual gem-poems, postwar literary histories tend to extricate the magazine from its social and historical contexts, obscuring its complex entanglements in the conditions of modernity. Recently, however, scholars have begun the work of re-contextualizing Others.

John Timberman Newcomb instigated the turn in scholarly assessments of the magazine with his 1989 article, “Others, Poetry, and Wallace Stevens: Little Magazines as Agents of Reputation.” While Newcomb focuses on Wallace Stevens' rise to canonical heights, he does not treat Others as a convenient or accidental receptacle for Stevens' “titanic” poetic achievements, but recognizes the little magazine as a crucial mechanism in the marketing and dissemination of modernist poetry (256). Since then, Newcomb and other scholars, bolstered by the rise of modernist periodical studies, have recognized Others as an important venue not only for poetic innovation, but also for social and political experimentation.

In The Little Magazine OTHERS and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry (2006), I trace correlations between formal experimentation and social change, focusing on the ways in which Others unsettled conventions of gender and sexuality. In the 1910s, free verse was widely associated with women's emancipation. A female journalist writing about Others in 1915 observed that “a notable feature of the [free verse] movement is the early prominence taken in it by women. Two, at least, of the best known leaders are women, Miss Amy Lowell and Miss Monroe, and, nearer at hand, we find two of the five contributors to the first number of 'Others' are women” (Johns 7). The terms used to describe the new verse—“corsetless,” “queer”—register the challenge it issued to sexual decorum. The moral uproar was aroused as much by the poetry's erotic content as by its formal improprieties. Kreymborg said of the public reaction to Mina Loy's notorious “Love Songs”: “To reduce eroticism to the sty was an outrage, and to do so without verbs, sentence structure, punctuation, even more offensive” (A History 489). Others' poets presented a variety of challenges to conventions of gender and sexuality, in poems as diverse as Alice Groff's “Herm-aphrodite-us,” which celebrates a bisexual ideal (January 1916); Moore's “Critics and Connoisseurs,” which deftly outmaneuvers gender categories (July 1916); and Williams' “The Young Housewife,” which both indulges and critiques an aggressively heterosexist fantasy (December 1916). No sooner was the poetic idiom of the New Woman formalized in the September 1916 “Woman's Number” and its male corollary implicitly established in the subsequent “Three Others” issue featuring Williams, Bodenheim, and Kreymborg, than these modern gender identities were parodied in the “Spectric School” issue that followed.

Others was socially progressive not only because it disrupted norms of gender and sexuality, but also, as Cristanne Miller shows, because of its strong affiliation with the mixed, immigrant, urban populations of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side of New York. “While Kreymborg and his coeditors did not set out to embrace a particular social agenda,” Miller argues, “it is hardly coincidental that the contributors to Others celebrate a linguistic and cultural mixing echoing the popular idiom of America as melting pot and affiliated with the figure of the immigrant” (456). As Miller explains, contributors such as Lola Ridge, Loy, and Moore represent Jews in their poetry as part of the vibrant urban culture of modern America, closely associated with the modern poet, rather than as reviled, deracinated, exiled aliens. As with modern gender identities, the Spectric Hoax reinforced the poetic affiliations it parodied: Anne Knish (Ficke) was not only a representative New Woman but also a Hungarian-born Jew. Readers who had not read her fictive biography would still recognize the pan-cultural and Judaic references in her verse. In the co-authored Spectra poem “Prism on the Present State of Poetry,” Knish declares:

All our emprises
Are toward a far Jerusalem,—and returning
Through the round of the world,
Find in the heart and loins of ancient home
The Sepulchre. (January 1917: 19; qtd by Miller 467)

Both deliberately and parodically, Others poets embraced cultural hybridity and ethnic mongrelism. “Jews and immigrants were not just an 'other' modernist poets defined themselves against or a figure for ambivalent affiliation and disdain,” Miller argues, “but a crucial part of Others, literally and metaphorically, in providing a figure for self-identification as cultural outsider open to radical change” (472).

According to Miller, Others’ headquarters in lower Manhattan contributed to its identification with Jews and immigrants, as well as to its embrace of fluid, hybrid identity politics. Others' engagement with its modern, urban milieu is also central to Newcomb’s forthcoming chapter on the magazine, which examines its response to “the conditions of urban-industrial modernity”: “Others sponsored a great deal of verse directly exploring the defining themes and settings of American life in the 1910s: the daunting cityscapes of the industrial metropolis, the changing dynamics of labor in the Machine Age, the horror of global warfare” (“There is Always Others” n.p.). Newcomb surveys a broad range of Others’ linguistic, cultural, and racial identifications, pointing out that, while the “Negro Number” advertised in the December 1917 issue never materialized, the magazine published eight poems by African-American poet Fenton Johnson. These poems, “empathetic vernacular vignettes of African-American city life,” typified the magazine's investment in the local conditions of New York, while evincing its nondiscriminatory editorial practices. By drawing attention to urban themes, labor activism, and machine-age imagery in Others, Newcomb shows that the magazine's aesthetic interests were inseparable from its strong social and political investments. He “remind[s] us that perhaps the best way to understand the politics of Others is finally through its title and motto, which have usually been read in an aesthetic register, but carry strong sociopolitical resonances if we listen for them” (n.p.). These resonances can also be detected in the “Spanish-American Number” of August 1916, which, according to Gabrielle Hayden, represents “an intervention that is both politically and artistically radical”: “In its opening manifesto and in its selection of texts, the Spanish American number claims Latin American literature not as a primitive phenomenon to be imitated and appropriated by U.S. writers but as avant-garde in its own right” (n.p.).

Others was a remarkably democratic space for its time, representing men and women in almost equal proportions, and opening its pages to ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, as well as to poets with radical political views. The magazine evinces the diversity of modernism, linking anarchist, communist, and socialist writers such as Lola Ridge, Adolf Wolff, and Carl Sandburg to avant-garde aesthetes such as Man Ray, Mina Loy, and Marsden Hartley, and to popular poets such as Sherwood Anderson, Louise Bogan, Vachel Lindsay, and even Robert Frost, who never published in the magazine but contributed funds to support it and supplied three poems to the Others for 1919 anthology (Churchill, Little Magazine 7). Others returns us to the chaos of early modernism, when it was difficult to distinguish the greats from the fakes, or the Imagists from the “I-am-its.” Embedding individual genius in the context of forgotten influences and innovators, Others takes us back to a time when Jeanne D’Orge shared with H. D. a penchant not only for pseudonyms, but also for stylistic brevity and passionate intensity, and when Orrick Johns' “Olives” mirrored Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons in its formal structure, linguistic playfulness, and erotic intimations. The social and political dimensions of modernist poetic experimentation are obscured when poems are studied in isolation, but in the pages of Others the poems become part of an energetic, multi-vocal artistic and social discourse. Reading Others today allows us to recover the spirit of excitement, collaboration, and optimism that characterized early modernism, when a host of “Others” came together, motivated by the belief that “the new verse” could not only reflect the modern world, but actually transform it.

―Suzanne W. Churchill, Davidson College (2011)

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WORKS CITED

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