Poets duel in the mud

mud-wrestling-poets-VRTWho, besides poets, likes the local poetry scene? Years ago, Mikhail Horowitz warned me, “The smaller the pie, the sharper the knives.” Oh, I’ve gotten compliments, but the slights are what I remember. The poet who’d reviewed my first book with kind words accepted the second to say, “Nice cover!” and handed it right back. Always a smile. And a sugary “Good luck!” It has made me regret my Waspy training in politeness.

Once upon a time poets in Woodstock knew how to fight. It was 1923, when the arts colony was in its heyday. Greenwich Village bohemians swam nude in the Sawkill. Young poets and painters walked the country lanes with the democratic swagger of Walt Whitman. Hard cider solved the inconvenience of Prohibition. Rivalries flourished with manly abandon.

The showdown began in Little Italy when several dozen young writers, some of whom had recently returned from tours of the European avant-garde, gathered at a restaurant to plan their assault on the literary establishment, or more specifically to figure out what to do about two floundering literary magazines, Broom and Secession, which they’d launched abroad and brought home to New York.


Called by Malcolm Cowley, the meeting attracted Hart Crane, who soon drank too much, Glenway Westcott, and Matthew Josephson. (Among the no shows from their circle who’d go on to major careers were William Carlos Williams, e.e. Cummings, and Jean Toomer.) Another absentee was Gorham Munson convalescing in Woodstock. He’d founded Secession in Vienna as a rival to Broom and viewed Malcolm Cowley and others as young rubes from America who’d been easily seduced by the dashing nonsense of Dada, a charge to which Cowley might happily have pled guilty.

In his memoir, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s, Cowley recalled his hope of doing Dada in New York. “We planned, for example, to hire a theater some afternoon and give a literary entertainment, with violent and profane attacks on the most famous contemporary writers, courts-martial of the more prominent critics, burlesques of Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Paul Rosenfeld and others — all this interspersed with card tricks, solos on the jew’s harp, meaningless dialogues and whatever else would show our contempt for the audience and the sanctity of American letters.”

Mathew Josephson

Mathew Josephson

But first there was the problem of the forthcoming issue Broom sitting in Mathew Josephson’s apartment in sorry shape. Munson felt no sympathy. He’d met Josephson a few years earlier though their mutual friend, Hart Crane, and hadn’t been impressed. “I met a rather stiff young man, narrow in his interests, brittle in his thinking, and at moments charmingly pompous in his speech,” Munson wrote in his memoir, The Awakening Twenties: A Memoir-History of a Literary Period. Nonetheless, he later recruited Josephson to be an editor for Secession, which proved to be a grievous mistake.

In Cowley’s telling: “I had known of a quarrel between them, based on a conflict of personalities: Munson was wax-mustached and a little solemn, while Josephson was addicted to practical jokes that weren’t always funny to the victim.” After “Munson had accepted a very long and bad romantic poem” for the magazine, Josephson, as the editor, “had omitted all but the last two lines.”

We might snicker, but Munson never overcame his offense. To Cowley’s Little Italy gathering he sent a letter. “I had come to regard Josephson as a literary opportunist, an example of last minuteism, a kind of stage player of the arts — to adapt a phrase of Nietzsche. I emphasized these things and called him an intellectual faker — fighting words, they turned out to be.”

Cowley read the letter to his assembled drinkers and would be Dadaists. “Because his feelings were intense, Munson was betrayed into using a pompous style,” Cowley recalled. “His rhetoric was as noble as Cicero’s; his phrases scanned; I have the impression that his statement was written more in blank verse than in prose. I began to read it seriously to my audience, but halfway through I was overcome by my sense of absurdity and began to declaim it like a blue-jawed actor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. The effect was unfortunate.” Drunken Hart Crane rose in defense of his friend Munson. Glenway Wescott marched out. The “apprentice gangsters” at the next tables told the young bohemians to shut up.

Josephson must have taken delight in being denounced in such elevated terms. As he later wrote in his own memoir of the period, Life Among the Surrealists, Munson charged “that I was a low, cunning, self-seeking, and dishonest character, a ‘fakir’ as a writer…Any movement of the American vanguard ‘must part from Josephson else Munson and his allies would shun it like the plague.’ Midway in the reading of this long-winded manifesto, written with studied effort and with pompous rhetorical flourishes, Malcolm was overcome by its sense of the absurd…and began to declaim it in the manner of a ham actor reciting Shakespeare.”

Josephson decided to take action. A friend had advised, “There’s no use discussing things with the man, I would give him a good thrashing.”

“I had heard rumors of his coming,” Munson later reported, “But dismissed the reports as only bluster…I was mistaken. Here he was knocking at the door, after traveling 100 miles to avenge himself…I had some guests for tea, when Josephson burst in shouting for battle.”

Josephson insisted that Munson started it. “It was he wanted to ‘parley’ with me. As I really disliked this business of fisticuffs and wished to get it over with, I became all the angrier.”