Patea, Viorica and Paul Scott Derrick, eds. Modernism Revisited: Transgressing Boundaries and Strategies of Renewal in American Poetry. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.
In his introduction to Modernism Revisited, Paul Scott Derrick argues that modernism probed cultural and epistemological shifts that are still crucial for approaching art and thought in postmodernism’s wake; the essays collected in this volume, revisit American modernist poetry with a view to suggesting new remappings and new readings of the tropes of modernism – political, cultural, ideological and aesthetic. This collection, Derrick goes on, rests on a posited affinity between the modernist sensibility and the conflicting impulses that informed American modernity: the American need to ‘transgress boundaries’ in search of new forms of experience and expression, and the concomitant impulse to hold onto the certainties that sustain a tradition can be rethought in the context of the radically constructive and destructive ethos of international modernisms and the historical avant-gardes. The book is divided in three sections bringing together essays that inflect distinct aspects of the ‘americanness’ of the American modernist poetic tradition, and at the same time rethink the American modernist experiment against the backdrop of contemporary approaches to the aesthetic and cultural components of modernist forms.
In the first section of the book, Marjorie Perloff revisits the institutionalization of modernism; this she does, in order to argue that – albeit auraticized and criticized either for its extremisms or its failures - modernism still ‘matters’ to a new century which is “witnessing . . . a renewed sense that art matters” (33). Perloff reconsiders some of the most influential theoretical positions that defined the critical reception of modernism in the last few decades: the polemics generated by Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), about the failure of the avant-garde to bring about the destruction of the aura of the work of art and the destruction of art as an institution; the debates about the bridging of the gap between high and mass culture generated by Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide (1986); Fredric Jameson’s positions about the doublebind of modernist and avant-garde resistance, as oppositional cultural forms are taken in by the very social and ideological structures they had turned against. Seeking a new ethos with which to approach modernism anew, Perloff argues that readers and critics should resist deflecting the difficult relation between political and aesthetic radicalism within modernism, and engage with the complex ways in which modernist works radicalized the nature of the work of art and created forms that involve the contingency of both the subject and the object world. In the era of new platforms of reception and “intentionally transient art forms” (28), Modernism, Perloff goes on to argue, elicits responses from new expanding readerships that acknowledge modernism’s involvement with the complexity of life itself. The essays that follow implicitly concur with Perloff’s contention about the enduring challenge of forms that take in and inflect the difficult relation of the work to the notion and the texture of both self and world.
Barry Ahearn explores how Robert Frost works with and against the form of the sonnet, moving in and out of formal, subjective, intersubjective and epistemological boundaries, A fundamental ambivalence informs Frost’s use of formal constraint: form is “the marker of human limitation” (44), on cognitive, experiential and existential levels, since Frost “associates collapse and confusion with resistance to form” (40). Frost posits the very ‘limitations’ of form as tokens of life, affording insights into uncharted and uncertain regions beyond constraint. In this essay, Ahearn sets the terms for an implied dialogue between Frost’s embrace of and resistance to form, and the modernist radicalisation of form. Just as Ahearn revisits Frost’s social and aesthetic conservatism, Hél?ne Aji explores the dialogue between Williams and Pound through their correspondence, and revisits a dichotomy that defined subsequent developments in American poetry and criticism. Aji charts a ground of affinities by exploring how both Pound’s and Williams’ poetics converge not only in an attempt to (re)invent an American poetic idiom, but also in the intent to find and define a place for poetry within modernity. Zhaoming Qian discusses a lesser known encounter of a different kind and provides an insightful record of Pound’s encounter with Naxi pictographs from Lijiang in southwest China, through Pao-hsien Fang. Fang, a native of Lijiang, with whom Pound corresponded during the composition of the late cantos, and who had let Pound know that the Naxi “had the world’s only surviving pictographs” (78) is a “name … missing from all Pound biographies” (76).
In a similar vein to Aji, Viorica Patea offers a revisionist reading of Eliot’s aesthetic and cultural conservatism and inscribes Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, his “mythical method,” and the forms that came to be perceived as closed and hermetic, in the context of the modernist exploration of changes in perception and the nature of subjective experience. In the context of the avant-garde’s exploration of the unconscious, Patea argues, the Eliotesque notion of impersonality appears grounded on a distinction between personality and the self. Eliot’s approach to myth is discussed by Patea as involving the repressed archaic forces underlying the antinomies of modernity. Against the grain of reading Eliot’s forms as hermetic artefacts, Patea reads the wasteland as an “open-ended quest for consciousness” (98).
In a similar vein to Ahearn’s revisiting Frost’s poetics of constraint, Isabelle Alfandary reconsiders e.e cummings’ “ungrammar” as the defining element of his poetry and explores how ungrammaticality becomes the space where a contingent lyrical voice assimilates the experiments of the historical avant-garde.
Bart Eeckhout revisits Stevens’ aphorism about poetry’s resistance to the intelligence and explores how Stevens’ poetry revolves the epistemological premises of philosophy after Kant, by predicating the transgression of the mind’s bounds on an acute awareness of limits. Stevens’s resistance to “the intelligence,” Eeckhout argues, also implies that the ‘mind’ is not the primary mechanism for engendering meaning. Gudrun M. Grabher discusses how the haiku informed the modernist “skepticism” towards language, suggesting new ways of perceiving the relation between language and the world of things. Grabher stresses the dichotomy between the analytical and discursive modalities of the western mind and zen philosophy which seeks to understand the world through cognitive intuition. Grounded on Zen philosophy, as a formal and cognitive trope that aims at an unmediated contact with reality, the haiku offered a paradigm of experience where the subject does not constitute the world; Pound, Moore, Lowell, Williams and Stevens, Grabher argues, all explored modalities of experience that transcend the division between subject and object, perceiver and perceived.
Ernesto Suárez-Toste reconsiders tensions between American modernism and the continental avant-gardes, focusing on Williams’ and Stevens’ experiments with the unconscious. In reconsidering Williams’ distrust of the Surrealist exploration of the unconscious through automatic writing and the dream, Suárez-Toste also posits an epistemological ground where Stevens’ and Williams’ exploration of the relation between the poem, the perceiving subject and the object world, seem to converge; a convergence that, Suárez-Toste argues, invites us to relativize the dichotomy between the legacy of symbolism and the legacy of objectivism in American poetry.
Manuel Brito posits “the motif of the journey through language and selfhood” as an avatar of the Enlightenment trope of the journey and discusses how the American modernists’ journeys into language become catalysts of the “displacement of the self relation to its cultural references” (176). The exploration of the possibilities of language also involves a mapping of subjectivity. Like other essays in this book, Heinz Ickstadt explores Robert Creeley’s eclecticism and revisits the dichotomy between the distinct legacies of Williams’ and Stevens’ poetics. Ickstadt discusses how Creeley inflects elements of both legacies in poems where language and form become integral and contingent part of the very texture of reality; like the earlier modernists, Creeley sees the poem as an experiential principle containing both abstracts and conceptual patterns, inscribing the materiality of language into the very texture of experience.
Charles Altieri revisits the difficult categorisation of Lowell’s confessional style as either an “anti-Modernist or post-Modernist breakthrough” (207), and examines how Lowell shares the psychological and the stylistic refusal that defined the modernist sensibility. Altieri relates the modernist cultivation of impersonality to a new perception of realism that is not intent on describing or representing the object world, but a realism that is intent on contingency involving both subject and object. Against the backdrop of the Lacanian imaginary and the role of desire in the constitution of both the inner and the social self, Altieri reads the modernist poetics of impersonality as a resistance to a subjectivity that constitutes its self-image as a figure of authority. In this way, Altieri sees Lowell’s confessional style consonant with voices that seek to restore a lost intimacy with the object world. Altieri reconciles Lowell with the poetics of Plath, O’Hara and Creeley who, in their distinct ways, invest the poem with a subjectivity divested of an authority-driven self-image.
Overall, Modernism Revisited offers challenging readings of both poets and their legacies, and invites rethinking established habits of reading, periodizing and categorizing American modernist poetry. It also implicitly suggests a ground of affinities between modernist, postmodernist and contemporary poetics. Offering insightful readings of individual poems and charting connections within American modernism, this collection opens new grounds and invites further exploration of how contemporary American poetry re-turns to the contingent in the wake of the postmodernist critical dialogue with the tradition of modernism.
Faculty of English Studies, University of Athens, Greece