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Choice of the dance as a source of life-affirming images, this book argues, was not accidental among four of today's most influential poets. A common preoccupation of T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, and William Carlos Williams--despite temperamental and artistic differences--was to find an order beneath the surface of visible things. Humanity's quest for cosmic order always has been expressed in dancing "before words were and when words failed."
For the first time this book shows why and how the dance became central to these poets' perception of experience. All four found models in the poetry of Whitman and Yeats, both lovers of the dance. All four were sensitive to cultural movements, three of which were concurrent with their poetic development: the revitalization of classical ballet, the explosion of modern dance, and the "mythic renaissance"--a fresh exploration of myth and ritual by scientists and humanists alike. The ties of myth and ritual to dance have been traced in a number of seminal books.
It was no coincidence, the author feels, that her chosen poets all knew and admired dancers. Eliot was a balletophile from his Paris student days. At the age of twenty-three Crane wrote of lsadora Duncan's impact on him: "It was like a wave of life." Roethke taught at Bennington with Martha Graham and called himself "dancing-mad." At twenty-six Williams wrote a verse tribute to Isadora, and at seventy-two he still asserted that poetry "began with the dance."
The Universal Drum begins with an overview of the intellectual and artistic crosscurrents in the early 20th century that provided a congenial climate for the poets' experimentation with language, form, and theme. This introduction is followed by detailed analyses of dance imagery in the poems of Eliot, Crane, Roethke, and Williams. Each was willing to try to give words to gesture, to suspend the workings of the mind for the intuitive experience. Each saw himself--sometimes seriously, sometimes wittily--as a modern shaman dancing order out of chaos.