12 March, 2012Issue 18.5LiteraturePoetry

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A Return to Formalism

Stephen Ross

BritishCary Nelson (ed.)
The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary Poetry
Oxford University Press, 2012
736 pages
ISBN 978-0195398779


The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry emerges at a contentious moment in the field of literary studies. Senior academics have begun to predict that English departments will soon shrink to the size of classics departments or be subsumed into nebulous mega-rubrics like media studies. Meanwhile, cash-strapped government antipathy to humanities programmes makes certain that whatever happens, the status quo will not persist. This new Handbook offers a fascinating glimpse at this unfolding drama through the lens of American poetry studies.

Much of the pressures to reform have come from the academy itself. Beginning with the so-called “cultural turn” of the humanities in the 1970s, the academy has gradually shifted its attention from interpretive criticism, or analysis of the formal and aesthetic qualities of literary texts, to historicized readings of the social and cultural contexts of their production. This shift brought a deep suspicion of the purportedly elitist cultural assumptions that animated nascent English literary studies in the early decades of the 20th century. The past four decades have seen a systematic revision of the values upon which English departments were traditionally founded, values originally elaborated by a group of poet-critics known as the New Critics.

The New Criticism emerged from the poetry and prose of high modernists like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, whose aesthetic practices were championed and codified from the 1920s onward by a later generation of poet-critics clustered around the American South (parallel developments occurred at Cambridge under the influence of I.A. Richards). The New Critics, such as John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren, founded their critical methods on meticulous close readings of choice texts, typically poems, as self-enclosed, self-referential, and a-historical aesthetic objects. They made sharp distinctions between high art and mass culture, and did not shy away from value judgments (Richards famously wrote an essay titled “Badness in Poetry”).

The form of close reading everyone learns to do in high school and university is largely the product of their efforts, with the once-ubiquitous handbook Understanding Poetry, co-edited by Brooks and Warren, serving as probably the most influential touchstone of their critical ethos. Though the New Criticism has fallen from favour, it is difficult to imagine the existence of English departments as we now know them without it.

If the New Criticism is the modern academy’s whipping boy, cultural studies holds the whip. And yet, as the Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry shows, current scholarship informed by cultural studies has begun to develop a more nuanced relationship to New Criticism, discarding its cultural politics while warming to its “formalist” reading methods. Rachel Blau-Duplessis begins her entry, a 13-page knockdown précis of the field’s current state of affairs, with a (rather clotted) summary of the new union of formalist and cultural critique:

Critical intersections between cultural studies questions and the poetic text have often been considered suspect. This gets structured as a debate between the historical and the aesthetic, as if cultural studies lined up on one side, and poetry on the other.

Further on, she adds:

Cultural studies readings often resist purely aesthetic strategies of formal analysis, yet to address the text successfully, readings evoking cultural studies methods need to assimilate formalist readings dialectically, making sure that a poem gets treated as an art object saturated with aesthetic choices (even banal ones).

In other words: cultural studies ought not to condemn new critical formalist methods outright, but should instead consciously add them to its repertoire (“dialectically”—that is, with a leftist torque). Critics will be obliged to make gestural dismissals of the New Critical “hegemony”, but may then conduct close readings of their chosen texts wherever they see fit. At the end of her essay, Blau-Duplessis labels this reading method “social philology or socio-poesis”. Jargonic malaise aside, this should be seen as a positive development; in practice, it works very well, as the best entries in the Handbook show.

Blau-Duplessis’s mention of “banal choices” must not be overlooked, as a number of essays in this volume work to recover the very poets and poetic tendencies condemned by the New Critical establishment as banal or otherwise inferior. Melissa Girard’s “‘Jeweled Bindings’: Modernist Women’s Poetry and the Limits of Sentimentality” and John Timberman Newcomb’s “Out with the Crowd: Modern American Poetry Speaking to Mass Culture” exemplify just two of the more obvious examples of such recoveries.

Newcomb’s survey of mass cultural influences on modernist and postmodernist poets tells a different story about high modernism’s use of “non-literary” subject matter than “the guardians of turn-of-the-century academic-genteel culture, our distant disciplinary predecessors” would have wanted to tell (though how Newcomb’s story undermines their assumptions still remains to be explained). By a similar token, Girard explores the ways in which influential new critical norms sidelined the “sentimental modernism” practiced by poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Genevieve Taggard, Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan, and Sara Teasdale. Though, as Girard argues, the work of these women was very popular in its day and was “invested fundamentally in challenging the subjective limits of the traditional lyric”—and thus more complex than the retroactive label “sentimental” accounts for—their use of traditional forms led to their marginalization as minor outliers in the modernist revolution. Brooks, Tate, and Ransom patronizingly reviewed Millay at the peak of her career—Ransom most unforgivably in a notorious essay titled “The Poet as Woman”. Their critiques centered on the purportedly “personal” and therefore minority quality of Millay’s work.

Yet, as Girard convincingly shows, Millay’s exploration of the lyric self in traditional forms achieves far more nuanced effects than the New Critics would allow, and in fact lays the foundation for the advent of the later “confessional” modes of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and others in the late 1950s. Whether or not modern readers will find much of value in the poetry of the “sentimental modernists”, reading their work helps us understand the source of the personal lyric mode which remains the default mainstream form of poetry writing, in the United States at least.

While established figures like Pound and Eliot make frequent, if sometimes perfunctory, appearances throughout the volume, a select group of other figures emerge as the true heroes. William Carlos Williams is perhaps the main tutelary figure here, being the focus of a number of the essays and treated as a salutary alternative to the perceived cultural elitism of Poundian/Eliotic high modernism: internationalist yet home-grown, an experimentalist but also a family doctor, a “pure product of America” and of immediate British and Puerto Rican descent. Muriel Rukeyser also appears surprisingly often (in nine of the volume’s 26 chapters), with her Book of the Dead, a verse chronicle of a mining disaster in West Virginia, treated by several critics as a long-lost masterpiece. Rukeyser herself, a communist through the 1930s and 40s, has suffered critical neglect due to her political commitments, as have a number of other writers taken up with unusual frequency in this volume. Just as the “sentimental modernists” were dismissed as too “personal”, Rukeyser and other socially engaged writers like Kenneth Fearing, Aaron Kramer, and Charles Reznikoff were dismissed as too “journalistic”.

The Handbook’s hobby horse is the systematic neglect of leftist American poetry—and, in fact, all politically committed poetry—particularly of the first half of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, this is also the hobby horse of the volume’s editor, Cary Nelson, author of Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, among other books. Numerous chapters contribute to Nelson’s recovery project and draw from his work. A quick roll-call of topics gives an idea of the Handbook’s presiding themes: “Modern American Poetry and the Labor Problem”; “Economics and Gender in Mina Loy, Lola Ridge, and Marianne Moore”; “Incidental Poetry, Popular Culture, and Ordinary Readers in Modern America”; “Forms of Dissent in Postwar American Poetry”; “The End of the End of Poetic Ideology, 1960”; “The Poetry of American Political Prisoners”; and “Modern American Poets Speaking to Mass Culture”.

Of course there’s no rule against having a leftist hobby horse, even in a volume whose magisterial dimensions suggest broad-stroke, non-partisan survey. One is left a bit uneasy, however, by the frequency with which Nelson himself is invoked by the volume’s contributors (in 13, or precisely half, of the essays—by contrast, Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom each get only one mention). The following passage, from the volume’s final essay on “Writing (at) the Human-Machine Interface”, may be taken as a typical example:

In an afterword to her groundbreaking investigative poem The Book of the Dead (1938), Muriel Rukeyser declared her intention to use her writing to “extend the document” (“Note,” 146). Documentary wasn’t the only vehicle of worker-oriented poetry: as Cary Nelson has shown in his studies of early twentieth-century American poetries of the Left, traditional ballad and song forms, lyric, narrative, and dramatic poems, and other recognizably literary verse continued to do vital cultural work throughout this period. Overlooked by a practice of close reading that has prized the interior, psychological, aesthetic, and mythic, however, this poetry of fact extended to support social and political engagement has until recently remained all but invisible.

Nelson himself is open about the ideological agenda of this volume in his introduction, and in any event this work of “textual recovery and critical rereading” is needful and timely. What’s most interesting about this agenda is that it tends to subordinate questions of gender and sexuality to those of race, class, and nationality, bespeaking the very recent “transnational” turn in the humanities. While there are no individual chapters on such cultural studies mainstays as feminist or queer poetics, there are entries on Native American poetry at the turn of the 20th century, Asian American poetry, transnationalism and diaspora, and several on African American-related subjects (all, incidentally, focused on musical themes).

Timothy Yu, author of the transnationalism chapter, writes: “Scholars within American literary studies have become increasingly transnational in their outlook, reframing questions of U.S. national identity in a global context of imperialism, migration, and hybridization.” The best of the Handbook’s entries, like Jahan Ramazani’s “American Poetry, Prayer, and the News” and Al Filreis’s “The End of the End of Poetic Ideology, 1960”, make this new outlook seem obvious and appealing in its capacity to transition seamlessly from the local to the global, and back again. Blending sensitive close readings with expert analysis of the broader cultural moment, their work partakes of the best parts of formalist and cultural criticism without succumbing to an ideological parti pris. Herein lies one of the more promising ways forward for intelligent, humane literary criticism.

Stephen Ross is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.