- The Pressure of the Contemporaneous
With ingenuity and insight, Milton A. Cohen and Stephen Voyce, scholars of different generations and contrasting sensibilities, provide painstaking investigations of modern poetry in extremis. Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics is a solid and lucid account of four canonical poets (Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams) facing the challenges of a leftward growing social movement in the maelstrom of the Great Depression. Poetic Community delivers a more extensively researched and yet theory-heavy survey of four groupings of dissident poets (the Black Mountain College writers in North Carolina, the Caribbean Artists Movement in London, the Women’s Liberation Movement in the U.S., and the Toronto Research Group in Canada) during the “Long Cold War” of 1950–1980.
Cohen starts with a compelling account of the pressure to join the Far Left in the early 1930s. Following the stock market crash of 1929 and Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, a poet’s arrival at the offices of the Communist-led John Reed Club or the New Masses seems as fated and fateful as the 1922 arrival of Hemingway at the door of Gertrude Stein’s apartment in Paris. With economic catastrophe and the rise of fascism, one did not need a clear day to see the class struggle. But what this meant for art and criticism can’t be pigeonholed, and here is where the accomplishment of Cohen’s book falls into two categories.
Cohen relentlessly recreates the mounting tensions of the 1930s that troubled Stevens and the others in what is doubtlessly the strongest component of his book. Using poems, essays, speeches, and private letters (always quoted from secondary sources), Cohen provides detailed [End Page 557] narratives of how each major poet negotiated the new environment as well as the particular judgments generated by numerous literary critics associated with the Left. Some of this material may not be new to the specialist, especially anyone familiar with the scholarship of Alan Filreis, but Cohen’s thorough coverage of his fabulous four in this respect accentuates variations and subtleties.
After all, each poet had a prior personal history in relation to politics and art, and was in a different career location as the decade unfolded. Stevens’s personal attitude toward Marxism is depicted as complex and perhaps contradictory. Meanwhile, Frost went on the offensive against the New Deal, Cummings combined his nasty attacks on “kumrads” with “defensive bitterness” (195), and Williams contributed his own version of sympathy for the working class.
The author of a book with a small number of exemplary case studies always has an assemblage of reasons to buttress his or her choices. Cohen’s selection is defended on the grounds that the four are “major” writers whose works reward “close critical scrutiny,” and who “reacted strongly” to the “juggernaut of leftism” in a manner that was “more so than for other poets, for example Marianne Moore” (2). This attempt at a justification agglomerates extraordinarily vague criteria. One could go back and forth endlessly about whether this or that other poet might also be sufficiently “major” or “rewarding” to earn inclusion. But the main problem is that this book’s exclusion of 1930s poets such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Muriel Rukeyser, and others, leads to the removal of gender, race, sexual orientation, many ethnicities (such as Jewish poets confronting anti-Semitism and the holocaust), and other facets of U.S. politico-cultural life from meaningful consideration.
This is a well-known limitation in traditional U.S. literary scholarship, but where Cohen’s accomplishment is most vulnerable is in the counter-portrait of the adversaries of the four, the “leftist” critics who collectively “beleaguer” the major poets. His notion of the “Left” rightly includes an emphasis on Communists, although not all Communists are alike. Yet I’m far from...