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  • Freeloading in Hobohemia:The Politics of Free Verse in American World War I Periodical Culture

What are the politics of free verse? Although the gamut of modernist politics revealed by hindsight makes it problematic to assign a particular politics to a particular aesthetic, this question was addressed with considerable urgency in the 1910s, the foundational decade of American modernist verse. In 1916, a combative discussion on the subject occurred in the New York Times magazine. The poet Josephine Preston Peabody began the exchange by critiquing free verse as undemocratic, claiming that it was “in the worst sense of the word … aristocratic”—exclusionary because its irregular rhythm and lack of rhyme made it impossible to memorize and therefore to share.1 In contrast, regularized poetic meter was “the most democratic thing” in mimicking “the rhythm of the heart-beat,” producing a form that was inherently collective because it ran through all “the great moments of life.” She predicted that World War I would “make poetry democratic again” and would discourage “mere experimenter[s] with words, making intricate verbal patterns for the entertainment of [their] friends.” A week later the poet James Oppenheim gave the modernist reply, decrying Peabody’s equation of democratic art with popular appeal and arguing instead that “democratic” art should not be understood as a formal quality. For Oppenheim, the vitality of art in a democratic society was conditional not on formal choices but on free speech, on tolerating a constellated set of practices and modes of expression that enables each man to “be pre-eminently himself, whether that means being a hod carrier or a philosopher.”2 [End Page 665]

Oppenheim’s and Peabody’s argument may now struggle for footnote status, but it exemplifies a broader phenomenon, namely, how questions about literary modernism’s public and political instrumentality became especially acute during World War I and frequently revolved around the issue of free verse. The debate over the civic responsibilities of American modernism—and the formal choices that responsibility entailed—was highly public; not confined to little magazines, it spread to the New Republic, the New York Times, and even the Saturday Evening Post. Modernist “bohemians” were alternately dismissed as esoteric, insincere, pretentious, elitist, and hermetic, and by 1917 this shaded into charges of “slacking,” unpatriotically withholding labor (and money) from the state. In contrast, magazines like Poetry and the Little Review fostered a counterpublic sphere of debate on the war, one that frequently defended the relevance of modernism, as well as free verse, to a moment of collective emergency.

This article seeks to recover the contours of that debate by focusing on three publications: the Saturday Evening Post, Poetry, and the Little Review. These periodicals took dramatically divergent positions on modernist instrumentality during wartime and did so in dialogue with one another. Of particular importance to them all was how experimental poetics could engage the rapid expansion of the state, along with the role of poetry in accommodating the new forms of sociability this expansion entailed. A few facts sketch out how fundamentally the American state changed in these years. By 1919 the annual U.S. federal budget was $19 billion, up from $0.75 billion in 1916. During the war the state assumed control of commodity prices, railroads, and labor relations as a way of rationalizing the war economy, thereby delighting Progressives, who had long argued for more dramatic state intervention in these areas; it also asserted control over radio transmission and political speech in unprecedented ways.3 The war transformed the organization of veterans’ health care and pensions; it paved the way for a national airmail system and a federally supported, nationally integrated road network.4 Yet much of this expansion occurred through governmental partnerships with preexisting corporate infrastructures, often reconfirming an already powerful discourse that aligned civic participation and political agency with consumer choice. In this circumstance of dramatic state expansion and the alteration of (or innovation in) how a variety of social services were provided and administered, citizens’ relationship to government and one another underwent substantial changes that both posed challenges to representation and transformed what modern citizenship entailed. As I explain here, in this rapidly transforming situation...

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