In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Fate of Modern Poetries
  • Peter Baker (bio)
Dewey, Anne Day . 2007. Beyond Maximus: The Construction of Public Voice in Black Mountain Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press. $60.00hc. 304pp.
Jenkins, G. Matthew . 2008. Poetic Obligation: Ethics in American Poetry After 1945. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. $42.50hc.282pp.
Nicholls, Peter . 2007. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. $99.00hc. 240pp.

Fifteen years ago, I began a review essay on two books about modern poetry by stating: "Modern poetry studies have a tenuous hold within the various institutional structures that define the academy . . ." (1994, 151). Thankfully, this is no longer the case. The three books under consideration here represent a small sampling of the recent rich discourse on modern poetry and reflect the greater purchase such discourse has gained [End Page 188] within the academy. Many factors account for this relatively higher level of visibility, but certainly one prime mover has been the increased access to and valuation of the archive. What were previously viewed as "paratextual" materials, notably letters, journals, interviews, etc., are not just open to examination—they are sites of editing and publishing activity in and of themselves. This turn to the archive may have been prompted by New Historicism, but by now it has become an integral part of varying critical approaches ranging from the historical to the hermeneutical. Anne Day Dewey's Beyond Maximus might be situated on the historical end of this spectrum, as she attempts to trace the shifting roles of poet and public over the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s (and somewhat beyond). G. Matthew Jenkins' Poetic Obligation situates itself firmly on the hermeneutical side, focusing on depth readings of a range of texts through the critical lens of the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Levinas. Peter Nicholls' George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism gives the initial appearance of being a straightforward "monograph," but it too moves deftly between the historical and the hermeneutic. Taken together, these three studies demonstrate the vitality, range and perspicuity of contemporary approaches to modern poetry.

Dewey's Beyond Maximus is an impressive feat of scholarship, an original, syncretic reading of five poets loosely grouped under the "Black Mountain" heading: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Ed Dorn. Just to dispose of one of my main objections to the work's theoretical framework (and maybe also to identify myself as part of a slightly older generation of scholars), let me say that I don't believe there is a "beyond Maximus"—I think Robert Creeley, for example, would have rejected out of hand the idea that his work represented some kind of "advance" over Olson's. That said, it is impossible to do justice to the complex argument Dewey engages that identifies Olson as an inheritor of the modernist tradition of Pound, Zukofsky and others, an argument mediated by strong reference to the historical theories of Brooks Adams. Dewey sees Olson's "field poetics" as emerging from this tradition: "The significance of the force field as a model of social force for the Black Mountain poets has its origins in modernism" (2007, 17). Summarizing her argument all too briefly: Dewey essentially sees Olson's break with the historicizing, epic aspirations of Pound and others manifested in his attention to natural place, but in turn this is what limits where Olson is able to take his field poetics. As she writes, "Olson's search for the natural ground of cultural forms prevented him . . . from articulating positively the new forces that displace cultural subject and natural object as centers of agency driving contemporary history" (54). Hence, Olson's turn in the later Maximus poems to an idiosyncratic mythopoetics that is itself a kind of "failure" to articulate the natural and the social: [End Page 189] "Conscious of his invasion by or inseparability from these collective cultural forces, Olson seems to have lost confidence in the individual's ability to create myth that would unify human and natural being" (63). To which I would say, if Olson's Maximus Poems are a "failure," at least they are an exemplary failure in the sense of Slavoj Žižek's...


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