The poetic souls in our lives often see the beauty and rhythms of the world. They will strain to listen to those hidden symphonies of nature or human life. Sometimes they will be inspired to put pen to paper or brush to canvas for the whole world to see, and if society is fortunate, to the enrichment of all. Arkansas native John Gould Fletcher was one such figure, a poet who saw the beauty in the world and was celebrated for his contribution to literature.
Fletcher was born January 3, 1886, in Little Rock to a fairly wealthy family. His father, Captain John Gould Fletcher, Sr., was a Confederate veteran, cotton broker, and banker.
The family already had already played a distinguished role in the settlement of the state. Fletcher’s great-grandfather, also named John Gould Flecther, was a veteran of the American Revolution and became one of the earliest settlers of Randolph County in northern Arkansas when they arrived in 1815. Fletcher’s father had already served three terms as mayor of Little Rock between 1875 and 1881 and a term as sheriff of Pulaski County before his only son was born.
In 1889, the family moved to the famed Albert Pike House in what is now downtown Little Rock. Ironically, Pike himself had also been a noted poet and author years before. Fletcher’s father had come into possession of the mansion after the Arkansas Female College, which occupied the home in the 1870s and 1880s, moved out due to financial pressures.
His mother, Adolphine Fletcher, had a great love of literature and the arts, which deeply influenced the future writer. Later in his life, Fletcher cited his mother and the atmosphere of their old mansion as the inspiration for his life as a writer. As a youngster, Fletcher read constantly. Famed gothic and horror writer Edgar Allen Poe was reportedly his favorite. However, he and his younger sister had a very sheltered childhood. He was not allowed to leave the property on his own until the age of ten out of fears for his safety and received his earliest education at home from private tutors. Eventually, he attended private schools in the city before attending the city’s high school.
In 1904, Fletcher enrolled at Harvard University. He was captivated by the many art museums and symphony concerts in the Boston area, and his artistic heart began to bloom. He soon began writing his own poetry. After his father died in 1907, he became disenchanted with college and moved to Europe, not returning until years later.
In 1913, he paid a London publisher to print his first collection of poetry. Sales were slow, and critics were unenthused though they saw great potential in his talent. Fletcher, disappointed in his effort, had all the unsold copies destroyed and tried again. On a trip to Paris, he was inspired by the thrilling new symphonies and the rising Post-impressionist art movement to try an entirely new style of poetry, which he published in 1915 as Irradiations. He was becoming part of a new movement among poets called Imagism, which tried to treat poetic subjects with more concrete, direct phrasing rather than so many abstract metaphors. He continued his new direction with Goblins and Pagodas in 1916.
However, he was not afraid to experiment with his writing, and his efforts were not always commercially successful. In 1918, he wrote a collection of poems modeled on Japanese art and poetry called Japanese Prints, which was a disaster. But he would try again. "Within our hands, we hold reality," he wrote in one poem. Starting in the 1920s, he would start seeing his greatest success, including winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1939.