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  • 17 Poetry:1900 to the 1940s
  • Suzanne Clark

Centenary observations of the modernists continue, with a biography and edition of the poetry of Hart Crane and a biography of Allen Tate, and interest in the publication of biographies and letters of other figures of this period. Critical discussion highlights a diverse selection of the writers active in this period, and much of it is informed by increased interest in the cultural contexts for writing. The South rises again as a literature informed by region, seen in major studies of Warren, Tate, and Davidson. Books on Frost's poetry reread him in context. Even Wallace Stevens is viewed through the critical lens of social and geographical location, and he and Auden are also located within a poststructuralist reading that revises their relationship to culture. While many of these studies include close-reading as a strategy, most attend not so much to form as to the contexts and cultural implications of poetry. Another sense of location informs books, essays, and tributes to the influence in literary history of H.D., Frost, and others. Finally, several essays take up the relationship of music and poetry, especially in Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.

i Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson

Three major biographical inquiries focus on members of the Fugitives/ Agrarians at Vanderbilt—Warren, Tate, and Davidson—and on the relationship of their writing to region. Even though these writers all participated in the history of literary criticism in major ways by developing the New Criticism, all of the books take up themes from the South in the poetry and other writing rather than addressing aesthetic theory or modernist formalisms.

a. Warren

The increasing critical interest in Robert Penn Warren may very well be further stimulated by the appearance of William Bedford Clark's two-volume edition, Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren (LSU). Clark's introduction makes the case for the significance of the letters, not only because of their author's centrality to modern American literary history, but also because they articulate a genre Warren recognized as itself literary. They should be seen as reflecting Warren's interest in the processes of making both self and text, Clark argues. The very extensive interactions among the literary figures in Warren's correspondence locate him at the center of an impressively collaborative literary culture. Clark has annotated and footnoted the letters with helpful detail. Volume 1, "The Apprentice Years," has letters from 1924 to 1934; volume 2, "The 'Southern Review' Years," includes letters from 1935 to 1942.

Randy Hendricks takes the narrative of exile and return for Robert Penn Warren's defining relationship to the South in Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (Georgia). The wanderer is the creation of a conflict between industrial and agrarian cultures, a narrative prompted not by a single region, Hendricks says, but by juxtaposition; thus Warren's poetic irony is not New Critical but dialectical. Hendricks says Warren believed in "a perpetual conflict at the root of human existence" that forces us to test identity and ideas, and that both his poetry and his criticism tend to find this narrative as well. Warren's irony is, then, in the structure of rhetorical parataxis and juxtaposition, an irony that typifies the Southern exile.

Hendricks devotes a chapter, with its epigraph "Who Speaks for the Negro," to the question of race, though he argues that Warren's view of the Civil War is a regional or national version of the history of the wanderer, with its doubleness, its inner conflict. The legacy of the Civil War is polarization, rigidity, and an unwillingness to be self-critical—but these are flaws shared by North and South. Hendricks argues that Warren's major theme is "the integration of the individual personality" even in works such as Segregation. Warren thought of regional identity as being like racial identity, Hendricks says, as in the problem of "passing." One may wish at this point that Hendricks had addressed the critics of such identifications or shown some awareness of the criticism they might over here, but he does not.

The problems of language for the wanderer who returns...


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