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Chasar, Mike. 2012. Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press. $84.50 hc. $27.50 sc. 304 pp.

At the end of 1959, four major writers gathered at the University of Iowa for a symposium titled “The Writer in a Mass Culture.” The outlook was grim, with three of the four guests allowing for almost no intersection between literary writing and mass culture. Participants Mark Harris and Dwight Macdonald nodded along with Norman Mailer as he called mass culture “a dreadful thing” (189), with only Ralph Ellison seeing things differently. Meanwhile, symposium organizer and longtime Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Paul Engle sat quietly, not interrupting to point out that he was the winner of the 1932 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and a writer of numerous poems for Hallmark greeting cards (199). This anecdote, told in the final chapter of Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, illustrates a division between high and low cultural production that was commonly believed to be true at the time. Although contemporary scholarship in modernism and cultural studies has rejected such a split, instead examining the ways in which these two sides are not only compatible but also symbiotic, such scholarship has been slow to study the popular poetry of the early twentieth century. Chasar fills in this gap, not only arguing for the validity of the popular poetry of the time, but also creating a blueprint for how scholarship can read cultural production as poetry. Across the book’s five chapters, Chasar analyzes newspaper scrapbooks, poetry radio shows, and American car culture, all to reconfigure the role that popular culture played (and continues to play) in the formation of avant-garde poetry movements.

According to Chasar, Everyday Reading is “about how and why millions of people read the poetry they did; how and why that poetry influenced the reading, mass media, and communication practices we experience today; and how, at times, that poetry intersected with literary culture in the United States” (8). He explains that scholarship “has been slow to conceptualize the relationship between popular poetry and modernist poetry as anything other than strictly adversarial in nature” (13). Following primarily from Stuart Hall and Cary Nelson, Chasar harnesses the methodologies of cultural studies in order to read modernist poetry anew. Recent studies have sought a new definition of modernism that focuses more on the everyday urban experience of the modernist period and less on the specific aesthetics carved out by modernists themselves. Chasar furthers the efforts of those who call for scholarship to read early-twentieth-century culture, such as Joan Shelley Rubin and John Timberman Newcomb, by not merely locating this [End Page 160] new modernism within popular modes of cultural production but, in fact, by reading it.

In his first two chapters, Chasar explains the oft-forgotten popularity of poetry in the early twentieth century. Contrary to the notion often put forth by the early and midcentury poetry establishment that poetry was fading from American life, Chasar notes that poetry scrapbooks, collections of various poems clipped from newspapers, were extremely common between World War I and World War II. These can be considered literary projects in their own right, whose collage form mirrors that of the high modernism practiced by Eliot and Pound. Chasar also examines radio poetry programs of the era, extremely popular shows where listeners would send in their favorite poems to be read on air, often mailing in clippings from their scrapbooks. Although it would be easy to dismiss such programs as tarnished by radio’s corporate motivations, Chasar explains how these programs were often at odds with radio’s advertising goals, and how scrapbooking and radio poetry developed gift economies that in fact worked against the expected capitalist exchange economy. These poems were “swapped . . . given . . . extorted . . . shared . . . and presented . . . as real, emotional, or symbolic capital” in economies that expressed value not in money or potential profit, but in the value of gift exchange itself (118). Chasar reads these gift economies as actively undermining or resisting capitalist modes of consumption, providing a foundation for his examinations of how later poetry movements...


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