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  • A Cambridge Companion: Modernist Poetry
  • Douglas Kerr
Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xviii + 259 pp. Cloth $85.00 Paper $29.99 [End Page 239]

This companion is a companion for The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (1999), The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism (2005), The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry (2007), The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel (2007), not to mention The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (2007) and much else. With so much companionship available, the student of modernism is unlikely to succumb to the intimations of isolation which the modernists themselves inherited from the Romantic poets before them. And yet the self-reflexivity of many modernist texts meant from the start that they would be their own first exegete, while their frequent opacity ensured they would always be the cause of exegesis in others. Criticism has been a constant companion to modernist poetry, and modernist poetry has had a lot to do with the development of both critical theory and practice in modern times. The introduction to this volume observes, further, that even those modernist productions which seemed most transparent, such as William Carlos Williams's "democratic model of modernist poetry," now seem to require as much exegesis for the twenty-first-century reader as the learned and elitist The Waste Land.

The structure of Cambridge Companions may vary but the brief is the same: some essays providing historical and intellectual context, several concentrating on the principal works or groups of works, and an account of the reception and developing reputation of the subject. This example of the species performs all these functions reliably and is a book that can be recommended warmly to scholars and students alike. The latter, in particular, will be introduced in its pages to a distinctly twenty-first-century story about modernism, while at the same time understanding how that story has evolved, and continues to evolve, over the decades. Jason Harding, in the final essay here, "Modernist poetry and the canon," deals directly with a question that haunts the volume, and its subject. What counts as modernist poetry? Who's in, who's out, and who decides? "The modernist canon, like all literary canons," Harding reminds us, "is open-ended and amenable to change."

The introduction by Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins acknowledges that modernism is a broad church comprising the elitist and democratic, the difficult and the transparent, even while modernism itself has sometimes been a battleground for these contesting tendencies, as well as for national and regional variations. The architecture of this volume shows what sort of decisions the editors have made on the question of the modernist canon, and for the most part it discloses a familiar [End Page 240] landscape. After four chapters setting the scene—on philosophical and political contexts, modernist schools and movements, formal techniques and devices, and sexual politics—there are eight essays on individual poets and groups. Here we find chapters for Eliot and Pound, for H.D. and the modernist "torquing of myth" (in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's nice phrase), for Yeats and Ireland; a chapter each for two traditions of U.S. modernism (roughly, one descending from Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and the other from William Carlos Williams) and a separate one for the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Drew Milne was given the difficult task of writing on "Modernist poetry in the British Isles," and the awkward and partial assimilation of the modernist spirit and British poetry, a highly complicated issue which his thoughtful essay does not have the space to untangle fully.

Milne notes in passing that Robert Graves and Laura Riding's quirky A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) seems to have baptized the movement, if movement it was. But it might be said that "modernism" only became the name of a phenomenon at a time when the phenomenon itself had become indefinable. Radical and reactionary, traditional and iconoclastic; democratic and elitist, anti-romantic and super-romantic; inward and impersonal; left, right, and centre—most of us who try to say what modernism is or was tend to fall back on notions...


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