- Chances of Rhyme
The words transnational and globalization appear frequently within scholarship on contemporary poetry, but so far there have been few sustained attempts to narrate recent developments across more than two language-groups or geographical regions. Academics in the field have generally chosen to challenge the primacy of the nation-state as the horizon for literary historical inquiry by studying poetry that shares a single language or script (for example, Francophone, Lusophone, or Sinophone writing); that originates in one part of the world (Latin America, the Pacific Rim, Central Europe); or that is produced within communities that share strong historical and cultural ties (the Black Atlantic, the British Commonwealth, the South Asian diaspora). Such projects are already daunting in scope. In the present era of pervasive budget cuts, curtailed language instruction, and increased productivity demands, who has the training, time, and resources required to engage in even more broad-based comparative research?
At least one person can now be said to fill the bill. Jacob Edmond's A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature recounts the history of avant-garde poetry from the late 1960s to the turn of the millennium in the United States, the People's Republic of China, and [End Page 175] the Soviet Union/Russian Federation. Edmond concentrates on six figures: Yang Liang and Bei Dao, menglong shiren (Misty Poets) who defied Cultural Revolution-era restrictions on writerly freedom; Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Dmitri Prigov, samizdat poets whose careers extend into the post-Soviet period; and Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein, founding members of the avant-garde movement known as Language poetry. Throughout, Edmond shows himself to be thoroughly grounded in the relevant literary traditions, and whether a given poem is written in English, Russian, or Mandarin, he proves able to supply the kind of intensive, patient, erudite textual analysis that one associates with the Yale school back in its heyday. (Incidentally, again like a Yale school alum, he frequently relies on Charles Baudelaire as a point de repère, by-the-by exhibiting, too, his advanced knowledge of French.)
If I seem to be praising Edmond for traits and achievements that used to be the norm within the discipline of comparative literature, that is precisely the point. One cannot take them for granted anymore in the academy, especially when it comes to the study of the canon-murky post-Vietnam War period. Indeed, as Edmond's subtitle suggests, his book is at least partly intended as an inquiry into method, a demonstration of how one might analyze "cross-cultural engagements" and "constellated system[s] of interconnections" without falling back on discredited Eurocentric or area-studies-derived models for comparison (12). He concedes up front that the poets whom he discusses "write in diverse languages and historical circumstances" and are "not united by a single stylistic approach," facts which make it difficult, if not outright impossible, to argue for convergence or coherence based on shared themes, forms, or agendas, let alone based on common antecedents. Instead, he depicts his chosen writers as all jointly responding "to the seismic shift in geopolitics, economics, and culture that took place from the 1970s through the early 1990s," in other words, the endgame and aftermath of the cold war (14). Their responses are worth elucidating and juxtaposing because they all actively "complicate" the binaries of "sameness and difference, everydayness and strangeness, them and us, local and global, particular and universal" that [End Page 176] inform people's experience and preconscious understanding of the contemporary world (10). By presenting different possible versions of this process, Edmond believes that he is "highlighting the contingency of any single frame, any one linguistic, geographic, historical, or cultural position" while also helping readers "recognize" that the ideological binaries on which they implicitly and habitually rely constitute "something other than an unmediated 'picture' of reality" (195). The ultimate goal is to awaken them to their own agency, that is, to enable them to "read and write . . . differently" the scripts that govern their lives...