- The Little Magazine "Others" and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry
As Suzanne Churchill astutely notes in the opening pages of her detailed and compelling study of the short-lived poetry journal, Others: A Magazine for New Verse (1915–1919), the modernist little magazines both individually and as a group generated a potent "self-mythologizing discourse" of their origins (32). Their narrative has, by now, become tiresomely familiar, revolving inevitably around a rejection of bourgeois tastes and an open disdain for anything so crude as profit or even paying subscribers. Deeply invested in the economies of cultural capital which equated commercial success with aesthetic degradation, magazines like Blast, the Little Review, and Blue Review succeeded through failure, their often miniscule readership the most telling sign of their aesthetic brilliance. T.S. Eliot's New Criterion, arguably among the last of the modernist little magazines, had a circulation of just a few hundred when it was finally shuttered in 1939, and at its height, Others had just over 300 paying subscribers. Such ventures, in fact, were often designed to fail and those few that, like Harriet Monroe's Poetry, actually managed to stay afloat, became tainted by their success.
Some of the most interesting portions of Churchill's book, in fact, track the many attempts of Others to achieve this kind of paradoxically successful failure. Her chapter on William Carlos Williams, in fact, insightfully links the poet's critique of closure in his work with a simultaneous attempt to end Others, the magazine which played so crucial a role in his own initial success. For Williams, she argues, "to blast Others out of existence…is to destroy the shelter that had produced a false sense of security, enabling its once rebellious poets to dwell in safe seclusion" (127). Zombie-like, however, the magazine kept coming unexpectedly back to life in irregular forms (first as a quarterly, then an anthology) only to once again fail successfully, enacting repeatedly this distinctly modernist pattern for accruing cultural and aesthetic capital.
What makes Churchill's book so interesting, however, is the way in which she resists this avant-garde narrative and its inevitable emphasis [End Page 136] on an autonomous aesthetic formalism which deliberately isolates itself from the presumably contaminating influences of American culture. By interweaving a detailed and carefully researched cultural history of Others with often startlingly revealing close readings of the work which appeared in its pages, Churchill seeks to recover what she calls "the social dimensions of modernist formalism" (2). Drawing heavily on metaphors of space and interiority, she attempts to "renovate formalism" and "reframe" it as a "social process—a collective movement to renovate the structures we inhabit, not alone or in isolation, but in relation to others" (23, 24). In general, the results are impressive, and Churchill demonstrates not only a scholar's genuine passion for her materials, but a wide command of the critical literature on American poetry in the period between the turn of the century and the publication of The Waste Land. The book's numerous (sometimes even excessive) footnotes sparkle with intelligence, and over forty pages spread across four appendices list the contents of each issue of Others, index the numerous contributors, and track the various anthologies which grew out of the magazine. This alone is important bibliographical work and the kind of thing one hopes Churchill might also make available on-line.
In its first three chapters, the study focuses primarily on the cultural history of Others, linking it to other little magazines and arguing forcibly for its importance in developing American vers libre. Magazine theorists will find much that is useful here, including the really excellent chapter on the infamous "Spectric" hoax, an earlier version of which appeared in American Periodicals 15.1 as "The Lying Game: Others and the Great Spectra Hoax of 1917." Churchill's welcome focus on the magazine page itself as an aesthetic space is particularly engaging, productively adding to what she calls the "muddle of modernism...