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  • Objectivist Blues:Scoring Speech in Second-Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics
  • Charles Bernstein (bio)

238 If horses could but sing Bach, mother, –239 Remember how I wished it once –240 Now I kiss you who could never sing Bach, never read Shakespeare. . .

251 Assimilation is not hard,252 And once the Faith's askew253 I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew.254 I will read their Donne as mine255 And leopard in their spots256 I'll do what says their Coleridge257 Twist red hot pokers into knots.

Louis Zukofsky, "Poem beginning 'The'"1

Since I am interested in the contrast, as well as conflict, between poetic forms, the modernist period has drawn me again and again. I find the proliferation of new styles in the first decades of the twentieth century particularly interesting in the context of the more traditional styles that also flourished. I like to think of the period as having produced an epic collage poem of innovative and traditional poetry, popular verse, newly emerging styles of song lyrics from blues to Tin Pan Alley, and the linguistically accented talk forms emerging from vaudeville.

Perhaps the best representation of this collage is American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2000), the Library of America's two-volume anthology, which covers poets born from 1838 to 1913.2 In a dialogue, published in boundary 2, with Geoffrey [End Page 346] O'Brien, the anthology's lead editor, I noted that one of the remarkable facets of this period is the reversal of fortune for many poetic forms and styles: "Some considered marginal and eccentric not only in their time but until relatively recently now seem the most influential, while lots of the presumed majors now look more like held-over corporals from the previous epoch. But perhaps even more intriguing is how the players with the smaller parts now look so indispensable."3

I read modernist American poetry in a comparatist frame that emphasizes technical invention. One of my persistent interests is the interplay between the vernacular, the colloquial, the ordinary, and the self-constructed syntax and vocabulary of the ideolectical, i.e., the ideological play of dialects—real and imaginary—in American poetry. One way to trace this is to take the representation of speech in Paul Laurence Dunbar's African-American and Claude McKay's early Jamaican dialect poems and run that against Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics for Show Boat's "Ol' Man River"; DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin's more supple lyrics for Porgy and Bess's "Summertime" and "I Loves You Porgy"; James Weldon Johnson's early song lyric "Under the Bamboo Tree" and his later sermonic textualizations in God's Trombone; Fanny Brice's Yiddish schtick monologues (or Groucho Marx's Euro-ethnic ones); the virtually "objectivist" blues of Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton; or the transcriptive works of Sterling Brown; one might also contrast these with the more fluid poetic vernacular of William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, and the rebarbative anti-assimilationism of Louis Zukofsky's "Poem Beginning 'The'" (1926), or Melvin Tolson's much later Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965). One could jump to the other side of the Atlantic and look to Tolson's and Zukofsky's immediate contemporaries Basil Bunting and Hugh MacDiarmid, both of whom wrote major works in reinvented (or synthetic) local dialects, Northumbrian and Scots, respectively. From there we might be able to consider, under the sign of sound poetry—that is, not as a matter of influence but of second-wave modernist refinement/ revision—Cab Calloway's scat "Hi-De-Ho" as an ideolectical descendent of Velimir Khlebnikov's zaum, Kurt Schwitters's "Ur Sonata," and Hugo Ball's Dadaist "Karawane." My mix is certainly odd by most accounts, but there is something fascinating in considering McKay, MacDiarmid, and Groucho Marx, or Cole Porter, Patton, and Brice, not to say Walter Benjamin and Ludwig Wittgenstein, all born in the first four years of my putative period.

I give this list not to be exhaustive, but to suggest the tensions between the oral, transcriptive, and textual, not to say [End Page 347] popular...


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