Poetry and Anarchism
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Poetry and Anarchism
Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century. Andrew Cornell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016. Pp. xiv + 416. $29.95 (paper).
Crisis and the US Avant-Garde: Poetry and Real Politics. Ben Hickman. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2015. Pp. 200. $120.00 (cloth); $72.84 (eBook).
Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes. James Gifford. Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2014. Pp. xx + 296. $34.95 (paper).

During the 20 January 2017 presidential inauguration demonstrations in Washington, D.C., an antifascist protestor identified as part of an anarchist Black Bloc punched white nationalist Richard Spencer, touching off an absurd yet serious national debate: “is it okay to punch a Nazi?” That the video clip gained meme status indicates a widespread frustration, a perceived ineffectiveness of civil political discourse and a readiness to abandon nonviolent means for more violent tactics or, at least, to check the quiet normalization of the far right with a gleefully small-scale action that, though violent, is schoolyard in its proportions. In some sense the protestor’s surprise punch is an avant-garde gesture, an act of radical political guerilla theater. Indeed, scholars of the avant-garde have recognized an intimate link between anarchist and avant-garde tactics. Ben Hickman’s new book begins with a statement from Joshua Clover, reflecting on his 2009 arrest and role in the UC Davis Occupy movement in which he admonished “capital-T Theory” for leading him—as well as so many other poets writing in the wake of Language Poetry—to imagine that poetic language equates to political action, repudiating “ideas which allow activities at the level of language to claim the same material force as a thrown brick.” Clover has since reiterated this sentiment: “Certain things will have to be actively destroyed on the side of capital . . . And they will not be destroyed with [End Page 867] language” (1). Since the 2008 recession and subsequent Occupy Movement, a resurgence of anarchist activity has propelled anarchism to the forefront of the US cultural consciousness. According to Clover, despite this reanimation, avant-garde poetry is not participating. Instead, it has been absorbed into capitalist social formations. By contrast, political anarchism retains the shock of the new. There is historical precedent for understanding anarchist activity as avant-garde strategy. In February of 1967, wearing black masks and hoisting fabricated skulls on the tips of pikes, a group of artists who called themselves Black Mask—whose inspirations included the work of Amiri Baraka—marched along Wall Street with a sign “Wall Street is War Street,” protesting a culture of violence and oppression, specifically the Vietnam War and the treatment of African Americans by the police. A spokesman for Black Mask explained that it had “nothing to do with moral witness, peaceful demonstration or even resistance—this is aggression, the beginning of revolutionary struggle” (Cornell, Unruly Equality, 206). This is the first recorded appearance of the “black bloc aesthetic,” but connections or cross-pollinations between artists, writers, and anarchists reach back to the 1920s (Unruly Equality, 260). Anarchist philosophy, despite its communitarian values and aesthetic manifestations, has often been reductively perceived as a radically violent antistatist position. For instance, even as Lola Ridge, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Malcolm Cowley, and others mourned the 1927 execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, their literary commemorations elided the pair’s anarchist affiliation—an attempt to rescue Sacco and Vanzetti from an irreparably maligned ideology. In fact, Dan Colson has argued that the erasure of anarchism from literary history begins with poets and writers themselves. This may explain why there is a relative dearth of literary-historical research on the subject, until now.

The contemporary resurgence of anarchism on the political stage makes the timing of recent investigations of poetry and Left politics opportune. Three recent books offer perspectives on poetry’s relation to anarchist and Marxist politics. In combination, they recover the extent and influence of anarchist thought in the twentieth century, making the case that any history of the avant-garde or of late modernism is incomplete without reckoning with the importance of anarchism. In presenting anarchism’s developments from 1915 to...