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  • 17 Poetry:1900 to the 1940s
  • Matthew Hofer

Motivated interdisciplinarity characterizes much of the recent scholarship on modern American poetry, as does a tendency to assert a broader view of literary and cultural history. This exerts almost as much pressure on the idea of the exclusively modern as it does on the uniquely American. While 2005 offers, perhaps for these reasons, comparatively few single-author studies—albeit some memorable ones on W. H. Auden and Christianity, Wallace Stevens and philosophy, and most surprisingly Jean Toomer and U.S. poetic history—a number of ambitious and provocative monographs do distinguish this year's scholarly output. Comprehensive accounts of 20th-century aesthetics (anchored firmly in modernity) include Jennifer Ashton's From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge) and Susan M. Schultz's A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Alabama), though they view the legacy of modernist poetry from radically different perspectives and to equally disparate effects. On the other hand, Susan McCabe's relation of poetic and visual cultures in Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (Cambridge) exemplifies the pervasive and productive crossing of boundaries in the disciplinary register, and Cristianne Miller's analysis of gendered literary communities, Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schüler (Michigan), does so in the international register. [End Page 369]

i General Studies

Of the total scholarly output from 2005, the study most likely to stimulate animated conversation among poets and poetry critics, and a share of heated controversy too, may be Ashton's From Modernism to Postmodernism. Here, in a series of chapters on Gertrude Stein, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, Ashton reconsiders the relation of modern to postmodern—and specifically to Language—poetics. In contrast to the notion that postmodernism can be understood as an extension of some salient aspects of modernism, she asserts that the modern/postmodern divide, in its historical and theoretical dimensions, remains intact. That is to say, while she acknowledges that Williams and Zukofsky might plausibly be categorized as postmodernists avant la lettre, her analyses of both Stein and (Riding) Jackson, each of whom has been claimed as an important precursor for the Language poets, aim to demonstrate that their postmodernism is closer to the New Criticism than modernism ever was.

The project of Ashton's study is ultimately to show that the commitment among Language poets to the open text, indeterminacy of meaning, and "literalist" materiality (in the sense of inviting readers, when experiencing a text, "to become, quite literally, who its author is") is "identical" to the New Critical paradigm. Moreover, she proposes that the "codified misreading" this unrecognized identity produces is in fact "a necessary consequence" of its New Critical foundation. This is all remote from what Ashton finds in modernism. She therefore seeks to recover Stein and (Riding) Jackson, if not Williams and Zukofsky, from their conscription in a retroactively "postmodern" poetic genealogy. Her case proceeds by recalling, through a series of ingenious readings, an unequivocally modern commitment to the autonomy of the work of art—vide Michael Fried in "Art and Objecthood," a touchstone of this study—by way of analyses of repetition (Stein), naming (Stein), and ambiguity ([Riding] Jackson). The arguments deployed to this end are lively as well as learned, displaying an impressive range of reference throughout, and drawing productively on philosophy and history as well as cultural theory and literary criticism.

A closely related study of 20th-century poetry and theory, one equally large in scope if utterly opposed in conviction, is Schultz's A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. However, while the first half of this book provides fresh readings of many of the same [End Page 370] figures as From Modern to Postmodern, including Stein, (Riding) Jackson, and several prominent New Critics, the second engages in a more sustained—and more admiring—look at some significant postmodern poets, dedicating whole chapters to the work of Ronald Johnson, John Ashbery, Susan Howe, and Charles Bernstein. The work engages with the best criticism available, even when Schultz herself notes that the criticism may not conform at all points with the...


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