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  • Poetry:The 1940s to the Present
  • Anita Plath Helle

Many of this year's book-length studies and edited collections are group portraits that invite us to consider the search for new narratives, histories, and ordering principles for representing groups, movements, affiliations, associations, and official and unofficial "circles" of American poets at midcentury. Such histories evince familiar bonds of fraternity, sorority, religion, civic passion, friendship, and rebellion, but also included among them are speculations on how poetic histories might be written differently, less monolithically, more flexibly, and with greater attention to the fact that the problem with any category, as Elizabeth Bishop once commented wryly, is that "none of the books ever gets it right." While the borders of late modern and contemporary American poetry have been expanding for some time to include the transnational and transpoetic, abundant compelling new work on cultural interrelatedness, hybridity, and poetic syncretisms make an even stronger case for reconsidering oppositions of experimental and mainstream traditions.

i Poets at Midcentury

A good example of the flexible approach, Thomas Travisano's Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic (Virginia) links members of a largely "private, unofficial circle" of poets through "polyphonic exchanges" conducted by means of letters, criticism, poetry, readings, and conversation in youth, midlife, and old age. Such a history knocks yet another prop from beneath the already fragile paradigm of confessionalism by joining the psychologically imperiled individual of the postwar period to the "petit recit," or "little narrative," rather than the "master narratives" of modernism/modernity. [End Page 389] The musical metaphor is taken seriously. Building on Eileen Simpson's Poets in Their Youth (1982), Travisano's notion is that psychological, aesthetic, and political resonances also matter, merging a critique of the unified self and heterogeneity with aesthetic elements pioneered by Frost, Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. A final section on "postmodern elegies" composed by members of the group on the deaths of their colleagues offers a compressed version of the entire argument—as references to loss multiply, there is an even greater need to reconsider distinctions between confessional and postconfessional verse.

An argument for redefining the confessional paradigm around a shared discourse of "manliness," Ian Gregson's The Male Image: Representations of Masculinity in Postwar Poetry (St. Martin's) includes chapters on Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, and C. K. Williams. Gregson's nuanced yet forceful argument that male writers use confessional strategies to loosen the rigidities of gender from an earlier era treats masculinity as both demand and symptom. As a result, the emphasis falls on the more experimental and conflictual rather than proto-confessional features of Berryman's and Lowell's poetic. In the chapter "Men and Mermaids: Robert Lowell's Martial Masculinity and Beyond" (pp. 12–38) Gregson emphasizes the subversive potential of boyish comedic strategies, mixed metaphors, and authorial double takes as a rejection, or at least a border play, on masculine identity structures. In Berryman, however, the "macho camp" of barroom voices and poetic nightmares of dismembered women suggest a "conviction of masculine guilt." Not all this is old hat. A chapter on gender, "The Politics of Camp: Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery" (pp. 166–80), veers from the typical celebration of camp as an elitist theatrical maneuver, instead emphasizing the voiding of the "core of the self and its depths." Gregson finds an atypical response to masculinity in C. K. Williams, demonstrating that a masculinity shaped by feminist discourse and a defamiliarized "masculine creepiness" can function as a critique of the body politic.

The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain (Alabama), is likely to shape the way we read Objectivism—no longer about "objects"—for some time to come. In their introduction, DuPlessis and Quartermain propose that literary histories themselves can participate in the quality of "openness" for which the more radical modernists were known. Emphasizing the difference of "nexus" from "group" or "movement," the nexus of the title [End Page 390] stands for "a confluence of interests cutting across notions of movement, period, generation," bringing an openness to a discussion organized not around line and division but around...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 389-412
Launched on MUSE
1999-01-01
Open Access
No
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