Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
Recent work by scholars of twentieth-century poetry points to a number of contributions that the historical poetics working group has made to contemporary poetry studies. The collective first gathered in 2002 on the occasion of “The Traffic in Poems,” a conference which eventually led to the publication of The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth Century Poetic Exchange (Rutgers UP, 2008), edited by Meredith McGill. A brief statement on the group’s website outlines its main motivations, which are to “historiciz[e] the terms through which we recognize, describe, and evaluate poems,” in order to “encourage skepticism about the normative concepts that have been used to study and teach poetry.”1 Though articulated with a fairly broad brush, this skepticism has proven remarkably generative. In part this is because, as McGill explained in 2015 review essay, historical poetics breaks with the familiar “dualisms” of text and context that seek to preserve the separation of the literary object from its reception. Instead, historical poetics enjoins critics to become “newly attuned to the history of literariness, the shifting sands on which our own literary judgments are based” (291). Though anchored in the verse cultures of the Anglophone nineteenth century, the working group’s preoccupation with “the historical constitution of poetics and the poetics of historical thinking” has led scholars working across other periods, fields, languages, and media to a wide range of insights.
In what follows, I discuss two major interventions—Sonya Posmentier’s From Cultivation to Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Johns Hopkins UP, 2017) and Harris Feinsod’s The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford UP, 2017), with a brief detour through Sarah Ehlers’s more recent Left of Poetry: Depression America and the Formation of Modern Poetics (U of North Carolina P, 2019). These books depart from the core premise of historical poetics—that “literary history,” as McGill writes, “isn’t cumulative” (291). Nor, these studies hasten to add, is literary history inevitably Anglo-American, Eurochronological, mimetic of race and religion, monolingual, white, middle-class, liberal, or politically innocent. And they do much more than that. By shifting the interpretive burden from questions that foreground literariness, literary judgment, and the transmission of symbolic capital to questions that prioritize the “deep historical antagonisms” that structure literary history, these studies recenter attention on poetry’s profoundly agonistic character (Ehlers 19). In turning away both from the paradigmatic “story form”—Posmentier’s term for the overweening attention in literary studies to narrative fiction and the novel—as well as from Virginia Jackson’s by now well-known account of the attenuation of reading norms and poetic genres in the twentieth century, these studies demonstrate that historical poetics need not be tethered to the nineteenth century (or the eighteenth, for that matter) or to the white Anglophone world. They show that reading, listening to, and making poetry has always entailed differentially complex, highly mediated struggles with and for representation. In the specific periods under study—black literary production in the long twentieth century; the dominant diplomatic and cultural regimes of the modernism and the Cold War; and the Depression era—these struggles involved an awesome array of materials and a range of heterodox practices that exceed the literary and the critical norms that govern conventional literary histories. As such, this scholarship models how the methods of historical poetics illuminate the dynamic interplay between poetry and the dramatic collisions of crisis and culture that shape our senses of history and of the present.
Of the three, Posmentier’s has perhaps received the most critical attention.2 Focused on “how black writers in the twentieth century have responded to environmental alienation resulting from the vexed legacy of the plantation, urbanization, and various forced and free migrations,” Posmentier deliberately invokes the lyric “to index the richly historical debates that have arisen around the characteristics typically associated with lyric” (3; 4).
I do not invoke the qualities of lyric poetry as “givens” inherited from a much older European classical tradition but rather as vital modern concerns about the capacities of literary genre. Whereas Jackson and Prins define the history of modern lyric reading almost entirely as a product of “Anglo-American” (by which, it seems, they mean whiteAmerican and European) criticism, I attend to a different history of the lyric generated on the margins of American and European modernity. (4)
Thus situated, the lyric in Posmentier’s account is, of necessity, modal and inter- or trans-medial. And because she is invested in understanding how “lyric time reorients the temporality of black history,” her study traces lyric modalities as they conduce through mutable, differentially disposed ecologies. As such, Posmentier engages with a range of proximate, shifting genres—from “poem[s] to novels, dancehall, blues, and other forms of expression”—including Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary requiem on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, which frames her book’s extended inquiry into the ways in which black culture registers the roar of the hurricane and engages the rhythms of unnatural disasters that disproportionately devastate black and brown communities across the U.S. and the Caribbean. Across a “lyric archive” stretching from the work of Sterling Brown, Bessie Smith, and Zora Neale Hurston to that of the late Kamau Brathwaite, Posmentier shows that “destructive environmental experiences may have threatened black culture, but they also occasioned its production” (159).
At the same time, building on work by Sylvia Wynter, Édouard Glissant, and Brathwaite, among others, Posmentier frames her project against the “mimetic fallacy, whereby we naturalize, romanticize, or nationalize the relationship between race and region” (12). She works against this tendency by drawing out the tensions between these Caribbean theorists so that Wynter’s focus on “ongoing intimacy with the earth”; Glissant’s emphasis on “alienation from the landscape”; Brathwaite’s transnational concept of “nation language” and his “call for a poetry worthy of hurricanes” stand in uneasy relation to one another. Posmentier shows how these tensions, and their differences from one another, structure the working of a broader diasporic poetics. The title of her study organizes these conflicting impulses into a desire for cultivation or “rootedness and growth” and “the fact of rupture and discrepancy” or catastrophe (162). As Angela Hume observes in her review of From Cultivation to Catastrophe, this tropological tension is central to the story Posmentier tells: it is constitutive of the diasporic consciousness that animates the “lyric ecology” that is the object of her study.3
In this sense, the movement suggested in Posmentier’s title is neither progressive nor chronological—from the “provision grounds” of the Jamaican plantation troped in Claude McKay’s sonnets to the catastrophe that threatens the lyric archive of Brathwaite’s Shar/Hurricane Poem at the century’s end—but is instead dialectical. While the book’s first half focuses on tropes of cultivation it shows, too, catastrophe’s continuous historical, shaping presence. Likewise, Posmentier’s coda, which turns to M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan UP, 2008), makes a kind of deep structural sense. Zong! engages the 1781 massacre of enslaved Africans aboard the slave ship Zong; Philip created its poems out of the “universe of words” that constitutes the only public record of it—a legal document, known as Gregson v. Gilbert, in which the ship’s owners sought compensation from the insurers for their murdered slaves. Philip characterizes this document as “modest,” “fragile,” and “‘meagre’”; it is a “limitation”; a “tombstone”; a “public marker”; a “public moment” and a “textual monument” (194). The story of this massacre, she repeats, “cannot be told,” and yet it “must be told, and will be told” (206). In Zong!, utterance exists within a textual ecology marked by multiplicity, irretrievability, and impossibility (200).
As such, it is a remediated text—a “recombinant antinarrative,” in Philip’s words, full of explosive clusters of “anti-meaning”—that continually struggles with the mimetic fallacy (204). In Posmentier’s analysis, that is, the undoing of the mimetic relation is precisely what the lyric ecology of Zong! enacts:
There is no bleaker artistic imprisonment, no greater catastrophe than this one—the poet inside the body of enslaving discourse, replicating its murderous logic. Evoking and transforming this violence becomes the poem’s curiously optimistic project. Philip’s mutilation of the words does not merely repeat but also expands, explodes, dismantles, sinks, and disperses the “tight space” of language. By the end of the poem the words spread out; they are pale, overlapping, they fill the page. They become, a “surrounding atmosphere”—not the tight space of the legal text or cargo hold but another kind of linguistic ecology in which we immerse ourselves. (219-220)
This ecology is a “structure of interconnection among and between [the poem’s] subjects and their environment” (223). Posmentier’s reading of Zong! makes perhaps the most persuasive case for a black diasporic historical poetics, where, as Posmentier writes, “historical” also admits “nonhistory as a poetic practice and historical method articulated by black diasporic writers” (212). Such an approach enables us to attend, to adapt Blanchot, to the reading of the disaster. And so, to borrow Philip’s memorable formulation, historical poetics might also attend to the ways in which texts cannot be read, and must be read, and will be read.
In addition to collecting the voices of others, “Zong! collects the sounds of catastrophe,” Posmentier argues, “and it also requires us to reimagine the technology of the printed page, as well as the technicity of reading. Should we read down the page, across it, or both? Must we repeat words to make the syntax work? How can we read the fragmented words?” (223) In pursuing questions like these, Posmentier directs us to open up our approaches to lyric and textual study, to consider how texts always pertain to more “expansive ‘environment’[s] that both surround and include us” (221). Philip embraces the lyric as a contaminated or broken mode of resistance. As such, it is poised against both the pragmatic function of language and a narrowly circumscribed, coherent, stable subjectivity anterior to language. The lyric is thus an activity responsive not only to generic conditions and reading norms operative in the legal document but also to the conditions and norms that mediate the agonistic relationships between reading, composition, and labor. In the final sections of Zong!, which reflect on the process by which she composed the poem, Philip records how the questions “Should I keep on reading?” and “How do I read a work like this?” limn every aspect of the text. She meticulously notes where in her reading and rereading she is slowed down and where she “cannot read on” (201).
Just as Philip insists on the lyric’s historical capacity to communicate, to make breathable if not wholly tellable or legible “the story that cannot be told,” so too Posmentier attends to how the emergence of the ecological in the spatiotemporal “breaks” of black lyric poetry gestures to a modulated, tentative archive of collective experience. In doing so, Posmentier realigns the emphasis on verse cultures and histories of reading in the historical poetics working group to illuminate musical cultures and the co-constitutive norms of hearing and listening. Her analyses embrace the complexity of these entanglements but do not seek to undo them; rather, in listening to how the “sonic” and the “graphic” converge, they refuse what Joseph Roach calls “catastrophic closure” (156).
To put it more simply: Posmentier reads poetry with music in her ear. This method enables her to interpret the relationship between racial and environmental terror in ways that foreground the improvisational, speculative, open-ended character and fugitive rhythms of her objects. In turn, she gives us “diasporic ensemble[s]” (166) that variously and vociferously talk and sing back to the “taxonomic thinking” and violent, virulent “strategies of cultural domination” characteristic of progressivist historiography in general and of the colonialist discourse of the Americas in particular (13).
Posmentier’s chapter on Their Eyes Were Watching God, precisely because it is focused on a work of fiction, illustrates the many advantages of her approach. She argues that Hurston’s novelization of the hurricane entails the stretching, stopping, and “cracking” open of time. In the process, the novel incites readers and characters alike to recalibrate their relationships to and senses of historical meaning. In order to understand this recalibration, Posmentier finds its structural reflection in a “Proposed Recording Expedition into the Floridas,” an application that Hurston submitted in 1939 to the Federal Writers’ Project. “Musical and lyrical forms,” Posmentier argues, “interrupt the prose form” of both Hurston’s novel and the proposal (170). The comparison is fruitful because it allows us to hear the “deep intimacy between place and recording” in Hurston’s work without recontaining that work under a placed-based or sound studies rubric. Instead this intimacy mediating between forms acts as a “call for a reparative poetry that can encompass the diffuse experiences of violence, sexual longing, and prayer”—as well as a diffuse constellation of genres (172). Reading and listening to Their Eyes this way enables us to conceive of the diasporic consciousness at work in the novel as intergeneric and transmedial, an activity conducted through multiple genres and media that is not “pan-Africanist”—especially insofar as that designation signals an obsession with “origin”—but as a way of perceiving the world that, in Brent Edwards’ formulation, “forces us to consider discourses of cultural and political linkage only through and across difference” (qtd. in Posmentier, 177, emphasis added). Hurston’s emplotment of the hurricane foregrounds how the unruly storm “disrupts the rhythm and economy” of the laboring “migrant workers in the muck”; “demands a rethinking of time”; reshapes the narrative discourse; and attunes us to “the copresence of lyric and sound” (167). The nondiscursive and nonhistorical aspects of the hurricane thus give rise to a reckoning with the unequal arrangements of space and time in which migrants labor and readers read.
Building on Posmentier’s critique of historical poetics, Sarah Ehlers’s Left of Poetry is motivated by a question that readers of this essay likely return to again and again: “Are the politics of poetry located in the poem itself or in the way that we choose to read it?” (11). Left of Poetry seeks to answer this question by arguing for a “radical historical poetics” of the Communist thirties. By “radical historical poetics,” Ehlers means “the radicalization of poetic culture at specific historical moments, the use of the poetic to conceive of radicalism and its history, the place of radicalism in histories of poetry, the importance of a radical historical framework to understand the nature of the poetic, and the potential radicalization of broader methodological interests consolidated under ‘historical poetics’” (13). Approaching this period as a moment defined by coterminous historical, political, and literary crises, Ehlers tracks the “development of left lyric” through work by Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Genevieve Taggard, Edwin Rolfe, Jacques Roumain, and the little-known Jewish American communist poet Martha Millet (1918-2004). By foregrounding this poetry’s retheorizations of “liberal subjectivity, coherent personhood, and the subject’s relationship to history” in relation to a “broader range of genres as well as figures, forms, and tropes”—including those of mainstream and left poetry criticism, Left of Poetry joins Posmentier’s and Feinsod’s books in offering a different vantage point from which to consider “the story of New Critical repression” and conventional narratives of literary modernism and its legacies (10; 16-17). She also keeps company with these scholars in foregrounding archival materials in order to attend to the “confrontations and slippages” between poetic and seemingly anti- or non-poetic forms like photography and documentary film.
As she writes in her chapter on Roumain, Ehlers’s seeks to read communism as it is imagined through the lyric in order to understand “how Depression-era left writers waged struggles over poetry as an object and ideal of political efficacy” (144). Like Posmentier, she draws on Fred Moten’s work to theorize a capacious, fugitive lyric that disrupts the naturalized assumption of history’s forward march. In Roumain she finds a poet who calls for a poetry of the “immediately internationalized present” of 1939; a poetry that in Roumain’s words “reflect[s] that which in common language one calls an epoch…the dialectical complexity of social relations, of contradictions and antagonisms of the political and economic structure of a society that a define historical period” (165). For Roumain, revolutionary poetry performed testimonial and analytic work, because the lyric poet of the black radical tradition was not free to recollect emotion in tranquility but was instead “essentially not free.” From this anti-Romantic position, Roumain articulated a poetics in which “thoughts are so deeply determined by history, that they have no real value if they do not reflect and express the dialectic pulsation of life”—as Roumain wrote in the Masses. Roumain’s poetry wants to demolish fantasies of poetic freedom and literary autonomy, and as such, it necessarily collapses the divide that Ehlers initially postulates between the politics-of-the-poem and the politics of reading.
Moreover, though neither Ehlers nor Posmentier engage in what Hume suggestively calls a “decolonial lyric studies,” their work begs the question. As George Ciccariello-Maher observes in Decolonizing Dialectics, it is not from the “Internationale” but from Roumain’s adaptation in “Nouveau sermon négre” [“New Black Sermon”] that Fanon’s theorization of the wretched of the earth takes flight (75-76). Given the way it springs from the enduring tensions between communism, black internationalism, and anticolonial struggle, Roumain’s decolonial poetics are perhaps an ideal ground of contestation from which to pursue the question of what it would mean to decolonize lyric studies. At the very least, this thought experiment would require work like Ehlers’s to attend more to such tensions. The claim, for instance, that “Roumain underscores how any internationalist vision must acknowledge and incorporate…histories of slavery and black revolt” feels understated, if not hollowed out, in its very verbs—underscore, acknowledge, incorporate (170). This is not an internationalist poetry of mere advocacy, acknowledgment, and incorporation; the relation to history it envisions is not progressive or abstract but, as Ciccariello-Maher puts it, one of “continuous struggle” at once “long and indeterminate” (76). That is the horizon of Roumain’s militant poetics: the object of struggle as Roumain articulated it is not the destabilization of the “fiction of the modern subject”—whatever that means—but the freedom of the black subject (Left of Poetry 169).
* * *
Feinsod’s meticulous readings in The Poetry of the Americas, alongside his cultural historical framework, are recognizable beneficiaries of historical poetics. Feinsod’s core argument is that the idea of the poetry of the Americas—contested, polyvalent, “neither linear nor progressive”—“is revealed in the very form of verbal art” (16). This claim shares much ground with the methods of historical poetics, which study how generic protocols, conventions, and reading norms constitute poetic form. Indeed, Feinsod explains his preference for the term poem over lyric in order to foreground the former “as a comparative unit of critical discourse” and because poem “always requires the formal, generic, and contextual specification that scholars of ‘historical poetics’ such as Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins call for in their attention to the ‘enormous variety of verse genres in active circulation’” (16). In and of itself, this distinction illuminates a key difference between Posmentier and Feinsod’s approaches. The former begins from the historical modality of the lyric, attending to the lyric’s transmutation through the textual, archival, and social ecologies of modern black literature, while the latter begins from and returns to the institutional contradictions and generic possibilities of poetry in the “inter-American political system” (2).
Feinsod also draws much from the tutelary spirit of the project, his mentor and friend Roland Greene. In an important essay reprinted in The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Johns Hopkins UP, 2014), edited by Jackson and Prins, Greene argues for reading the poetries of the Americas “obversally,” as “alternative engagements with problems of history and knowledge” (623). Rather than understanding hemispheric poetry as a unified poetry of “a common outlook,” Greene traces the shared “search of a poetry of greater knowledge” in Haroldo de Campos and Allen Ginsberg in order to argue that though they are modally and geographically distinctive—they “do not touch one another”—both poets “circa 1960 [share] an imaginable relation” (629). At the close of the essay, Greene concludes that “the hemispheric canon, if such a thing exists, is held together by misapprehensions and resistances as much as by affinities and recognitions, and that mutual ignorance—with its reckless experiments, inadvertent conversations, and obversals—often has more power than understanding” (630). Feinsod builds not only on Greene’s obversal approach, but also on his emphasis on the “integrationist” school of thinking about poetry, which “takes seriously ‘the notion that poems rarely exist in isolation from other poems’” (17).
By reading differentially situated poems “in and of history” across “many nesting scales of affiliation,” Feinsod adds to historical poetics the great contribution of comparative poetics, allowing us to read and hear a poetry of the Americas as it emerges and withdraws, in fits and starts, between the forces of institutionalization and social formation (17; 7). His stated ambition is, like Greene’s, to “find terms that allow us to compare diverging poetries”; and he finds them brilliantly, in the tropes that enable us to interpret this corpus anew, across multiple linguistic, cultural, political, and historical structures of relation (16). He manages to do so while keeping in view how “transnational dynamics of integration could inflect the ethos of even those poets who wrote or fought on behalf of political projects of national self-determination in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere”—an approach that smartly avoids the pitfalls of writing “the literary history of the Americas as a top-down story of superpower hegemony or a bottom-up tale of postcolonial resistance” (19).
Feinsod’s nimbleness at enacting this approach is on display throughout, but especially in “The Ruins of Inter-Americanism” and the subsequent chapter, “The New Inter-American Poetry,” which deftly “re-provincializes” now-conventional accounts stressing the cultural nationalist, anti-institutional, coterie-, and community-minded impulses of the New American poetry with a “multidirectional” hemispheric account of the many heretofore occluded “transnational enmeshments” and institutional debts that animate midcentury U.S. poetry (192). His argument here shares conceptual ground with Posmentier’s, insofar as its emphases jostle productively against what Juliana Spahr calls, after Eliot, the “stubborn nationalism” that continues to shape understandings of avant-garde modernism and movement literatures.4
Feinsod’s discussion of Elizabeth Bishop—in a chapter tellingly titled “Questions of Anticommunism: Hemispheric Lyric in the 1960s”—points to just how much his work contributes to the historical poetics of the Americas. One of the most exciting things about his account is that it is not about Bishop. That is, by writing as he does in all six of his chapters about multiple writers and multiple works (in this particular chapter it’s Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, and Heberto Padilla), Feinsod avoids two persistent problems characteristic of Bishop studies and of author studies more generally: the first, a nagging, indefatigable biographicalism; the second, the auratic suck of canonicity that obscures the many behind-the-scenes interactions, encounters, misencounters and relationships that go into the making of poems (not to mention poets, authors, readers, fields, institutions, networks).
“Questions of Anticommunism” brings these contradictions into a particularly bright light. Bonnie Costello has probably been the most persuasive in documenting and arguing against the first problem.5 As for the second: in 2006, writing in the New York Times Book Review, poetry critic David Orr gushed: “You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces—Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray—but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911–79).” To this and similar claims, one might retort, pace Margaret Ronda’s critique of the “innovation paradigm” that dominates modernist and contemporary poetry studies: “…even if poetry remains a widespread cultural enterprise across the second half of the century and into the present, it cannot be understood as possessing sustained, meaningful influence on the wider spheres of American social and political life” (Remainders, 16). At the very least, it is clear that the process that Thomas Travisano dubbed “The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon” twenty-five years ago has accelerated so precipitously that even if one is unpersuaded by Ronda’s critique or by Charles Bernstein’s attacks on “Official Verse Culture,” it will be hard not to agree with the latter’s 2017 assessment that claims about Bishop’s literary and cultural significance have come to border on the fetishistic or downright “wacky.”6
In his introduction, Feinsod explains his multi-author approach this way: “The invocation of breadth is not an evasion but a desire to attenuate authorial status in the structure of literary history” (15). Like many of Feinsod’s reviewers, I share this desire. Yet as Michael Dowdy points out, it is not without its own productive contradictions, given that throughout The Poetry of the Americas “Feinsod offers many iterations of the ne plus ultra of ‘authorial status,’ with granular detail and in animated style…” (610). Nevertheless, Feinsod reminds us that authorial status obscures much, including the anticommunist poetics that “powers major collections of so-called middle generation lyric poets, such as Bishop’s Questions of Travel (1965) and Lowell’s For the Union Dead (1964) and the broader “relation[s] between lyric formalism and Cold War cultural policy” (258). The strengths of this argument are twofold: first, they show that “Bishop’s celebrated aesthetic formalism… does not lift her poems into an autonomous realm of literariness” (260). And second, Feinsod’s historical poetics method shows how the historical constitution of Bishop’s poetry “disperse[s] anticommunism’s drift in ludic sound schemes such as homophony and rhyme” (260; 259) and enables us to hear “a presemantic music of Cold War developmentalism” (265).
This argument is usefully pitched against scholarly efforts to recuperate Bishop as a socially conscious progressive feminist. “We ought to forestall the questions of travel and outsiderhood that drive most accounts of Bishop’s social being,” Feinsod rightly maintains, “for the questions of power, poverty, and politics that she makes the driving questions of her polyvocal sequence” (260). While I’m convinced by the general claim that the many poets The Poetry of the Americas gathers together sometimes understood their poems as “acts of cultural diplomacy” and wanted to “make poetic forms into cultural-diplomatic bulwarks against the perceived blunders of political inter-Americanism,” in Bishop’s particular case it’s hard to know how far her inconstant desire to take on “the role of ad hoc cultural diplomat” infiltrated and shaped her poems (4). (With regard to her Brazil book for the Life World Library, by contrast, the argument seems indisputable.)
I also found myself quibbling with some of the account’s more straightforwardly historicist claims. For instance, Bishop’s “first anticommunist shudder” was not in 1961—as she suggested to Lowell in a letter about the “fear and horror of Communism”—but much earlier: Bishop’s letters from Mexico to Marianne Moore in the ‘40s spend more time anxiously dismissing her new friend Pablo Neruda’s anarcho-communist politics than describing his poems. Likewise, in the final chapter, Feinsod claims that “Some South American Poets,” Kenneth Koch’s strange parodic anthology of three generations of fake Argentinian poets, enlists heteronyms to (re)invent cosmopolitan modernism, “intervene in Latin American literary history” and “respond to a 1967 crisis in cosmopolitan performance,” are complicated by the fact that Koch first published his hoax collection in 1965 and 1966, in the sixth and seventh issues of Mother: A New Journal of the Arts (338). Given this publication history, I would argue that rather than the kinds of richly textured heteronyms we see in a writer like Fernando Pessoa, Koch creates shallowly generic figures: the crisis is not cosmopolitan, but one incited by U.S. Cold War Latin Americanism—a crisis of self-authorization, as Neil Larsen describes it.7 Koch creates these figures because they are generic; that is, because they’re produced in and circulated through the anthologization and translation of Latin American poetry in the United States. Likewise, if his primary object of parody is the U.S.-published Latin American poetry anthology, then the intervention is not in “Latin American literary history” per se, but, in an emergent instrumentalist, appropriative reading of that history.
More simply, some of the poems in question are just weirder—more various and contradictory in their textures and utterances, their discourses and energies, their shapes and horizons—than the book’s cultural historicism often admits. I was also struck by three absences in The Poetry of the Americas: the absence of Nuyorican and Chicana/o poetries; the relative absence of theory; and the absence of a conclusion. Since other reviewers have already remarked on the first and third absences, let me pause briefly on the second, which is perhaps the most puzzling. Even the practices and concepts that are among the most formative to the book—translation, anthologization, diaspora, the archive, institutionality, culture, media—are only lightly theorized here. Feinsod is an excellent translator; he is the author of most of the translations in the book and co-translator, with Rachel Galvin, of the first two books of the Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo—but that fact only makes me wish he had spent more time with the politics and ideas of translation that animate the poetry of the Americas.
To take one example: in his discussion of the little-known militant communist Peruvian poet Javier Heraud Pérez (1942-1963), Feinsod explains how after Heraud’s murder by a “squad of armed forces and local landowners,” poets throughout the hemisphere sent “transnational messages of solidarity and homage” (234). In one such message, Neruda condemned the “fuerzas oscuras” of “nuestra América oscura,” which Feinsod translates as the “dark forces of our dark Americas”—a missed opportunity to reflect on Neruda’s deliberate invocation of a singular, accented América against the encroachment of an imperialist, expansionist United States. Feinsod convincingly argues that these messages—especially through translation in the U.S.—transformed Heraud into a Lorcaesque figure of “martyrological reception,” part of “a hemispheric community of poets united against Cold War anticommunism” (229-30). And yet in this case, to echo Greene, misapprehension and mutual ignorance seem to animate communitarian identification as much as understanding or a shared search for knowledge. A more thickly theorized, sociological account of translation would help to clarify the contradictory, fragmentary character of this hemispheric community.
These criticisms aside, Feinsod’s and Ehlers’s studies demonstrate that historical poetics can illuminate the poetries of the procommunist thirties as well as those of the anticommunist sixties. More generally, all of these books require us to revise several assumptions about twentieth-century literary history, print culture, and poetry: for starters, this period is not defined by the dismantling of the book that some book historians have suggested it is, but, in effect, a “remantling” and repurposing of the book through counter- and sub-cultural practices, rogue and iterant anthologies, parodic entreaties, experimental almanacs, proliferating zines, irreverent calendars, impolitic correspondences, and other paraliterary genres and collective modes. Nor is this period explicable through an impulse to “decenter the human” or the “I,” especially insofar as the construction of subjectivities converges, as often via the lyric as through other poetic genres, through the discrepant anticolonial poetics of relation and opacity, the impulses of poststructuralism, and a self-reflexive attention to the social, psychic, ecological, and economic conditions that interanimate postwar poetry’s public intimacies and mediatic utterances. The work of these scholars demonstrates that while Jackson’s influential lyricization thesis remains centrally important to thinking about the lyric and twentieth century poetic genres, it may also be prized open to alternate histories of interpretation, compositional practice, and cultural production. Such histories present an altogether more vexing, more unevenly multilingual, more capacious accounting of the generic figures and narratives that orient our disciplines today.
In her “Epilogue,” Ehlers quotes her mentor Alan Wald’s remark that “one of the main ‘constraints’ on earlier scholarship of U.S. communist writers had been ‘the limitations of liberal thought as it has manifest in politics and literary criticism.” “Wald’s statement,” Ehlers claims, “continues to ring particularly true in influential areas of modernist literary studies and poetry studies. In both fields, calls to expand scholarly work to new sites of inquiry have largely reinforced neoliberal paradigms of connection and compromise” (220). This perception strikes me as accurate and worth repeating, in part because “Modernist Studies without Modernism,” Andrew Goldstone’s empirical study of the bibliography of scholarship on modernism, shows it to be true. (As far as I know, no similar study of the bibliography of poetry studies exists.) Goldstone’s essay lends force to Wald’s and Ehlers’s claims, but it also goes further, arguing that far beyond the purview of modernist studies, all fields of literary studies would do well to take a hard and considered look at the “unexamined standards of reference” that organize them. How, we should be asking, do these standards align with the paradigms and objectives of the neoliberal era?
With work in contemporary poetry studies in particular, it seems especially pressing to ask which historical antagonisms, if any, inform our standards of reference—and why. As Dowdy insightfully remarks, Feinsod’s Poetry of the Americas addresses itself “at bottom [to] a problem of labor and scale” (610). As a white, cisgender, able-bodied, male, increasingly indebted member of the vast class of graduate workers, teaching postdocs, adjuncts, part-time and full-time staff and contingent faculty that variously makes books like Feinsod’s, Posmentier’s, and Ehlers’s possible, I feel in awe of them, grateful for them, and, at the same time, envious of them. Mindful of the inequities that structure this uneasy, incoherent, and still largely invisible group, I am not sure what to make of my envy. It may be an ugly feeling in Sianne Ngai’s sense. But it may also be something more. In a 2017 interview with Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Devika Sharma, Ngai remarks that envy “is the only negative emotion in the repertoire of the subject of advanced capitalist society that proceeds from her cognition of social or distributional inequality.” This trouble of mine, that is, is not with these authors or their works but with the “subsidized” and indebted relation to inequality that we all differently share.
Feinsod’s book impresses in part because it is, in Mark Wollaeger and Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s words, a “dauntingly comprehensive study” and an “achievement of storytelling” built out of research done in nineteen archives spread across three continents. This is a feat of synthesis and erudition that sits uneasily alongside other truths worth acknowledging. Namely, that this comprehensiveness would not be possible without many things, perhaps chief among them, the archivization of the poetry of the Americas in the U.S. (Feinsod draws on material from just one archive located in Latin America) and a matrix of institutional supports, connections, funds, and intermediaries perhaps no less complex than those The Poetry of the Americas brings to light. At the same time, to put this point somewhat more bluntly—and perhaps unfairly, given its sensitive treatments and significant complexity—it feels like the kind of unsustainable and unrepeatable project that could only have come out of the objective inequalities that structure the worlds of elite universities, academic publishing, and the tenure-system, which are themselves supported across multiple “scales of affiliation” by contingent labor.8 But I’m not sure saying so says very much. Perhaps Feinsod’s nearly 500-page “multiply archival” examination may be read as both an eloquent response to Rodrigo Lazo’s meditation on the “impossibility of an archive” of the literature of the Americas and an injunction for scholars of all stripes to attend more to—and work more on—the seemingly non- or anti-poetic inequalities and historical antagonisms that determine our precarious present. The horizon of that struggle is continuous, long, and indeterminate, and ever unfolding.9
- In addition to the website, see especially Yopie Prins, “‘What is Historical Poetics?,’” Modern Language Quarterly 77.1 (Winter 2016): 13-40.
- See, for instance, her talk with M. NourbeSe Philip and Ibrahima Seck as part of “Sites of Memory: A Language for Grief” at The Center for African Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh in 2017 and this recent symposium edited by the poet-scholar Margaret Ronda. The subtitle of the occasion in Pittsburgh, “A Language for Grief,” comes from a 2015 New York Times essay by Posmentier entitled “A Language for Grieving,” which discusses how black poetry builds “an architecture for grief” to “address those aspects of grief that the law cannot.”
- Angela Hume, “Toward a Decolonial Lyric Studies,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2018.
- See Juliana Spahr, “Contemporary U.S. Poetry and Its Nationalisms,” Contemporary Literature, vol. 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 684. Spahr elaborates this argument in Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment (Harvard UP, 2018).
- Costello argues persuasively that we should read Bishop’s poetry as “a configuration of various social impulses struggling toward transition, and as a meditation on the very problem of negotiating a relation between particular experience and the generalities of language” rather than in biographical or personal terms (“Elizabeth Bishop’s Personal Impersonal” 334). Yet even as Costello made this case again a decade later in The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop, she admitted that “biographical readings have prevailed” (83).
- Thomas Travisano, “The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon,” New Literary History, vol. 26, no. 4, 1995. Charles Bernstein, “The Brink of Continuity (on Ashbery).” Postmodern Culture, vol. 27, no. 2, Jan 2017, n.p.
- Neil Larsen, Reading North by South: On Latin American Literature, Culture, and Politics (U of Minnesota P, 1995): 15.
- “Contingent faculty subsidize tenurable faculty,” as John Warner writes in a piece for Inside Higher Ed.
- Rodrigo Lazo, “The Invention of America Again: On the Impossibility of an Archive,” American Literary History, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2013.