- Limited Affinities
Two sets of affinities underlie most contemporary American poetic practices. On the one hand, there is a surrealist genealogy which would include the New York School as well as the vatic or “deep” imagism of the sixties popularized by Robert Bly and James Wright and devolving into the much decried scenic mode. More recently, a more properly Bretonian neo-surrealism has been embraced by writers like Dean Young. On the other hand, there is what Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain call the “studied affinities” (10) of a tradition now freed from the cautionary quotation marks given it by Louis Zukofsky on the occasion of the now famous 1931 “Objectivist” issue of Poetry. The tradition encompasses by way of precedent Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams and by way of descent the New American Poetry, Language writing, and a range of as yet under-theorized practices. The Objectivist tradition has arguably been more successful in staking a claim to avant-garde status in North America than surrealism (to which it has been hostile since Zukofsky’s programmatic essay “Sincerity and Objectification”). It is about time, then, that an anthology emerges that takes advantage of the considerable scholarship produced on Objectivist poets over the last two decades. DuPlessis and Quartermain have compiled just such an anthology. Theirs is an excellent collection of essays on the six core poets of what they call, quite deliberately, not a movement, a school, a generation, or even a group, but a “nexus.” Yet the book aspires to be more than a resource for studying or teaching the diverse work of Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky. For in addition to arguing for “a central place in twentieth century poetry and poetics” for these poets (2), the editors also aim to invigorate the criticism of poetry by promoting what they call “cultural poetics,” or “readings inflected with sociopolitical concerns” (20). The editors contend that “in attempting culturalist readings of poetry, critics are struggling with and against accepted institutionalized paradigms for the analysis of that genre” (21), but the banner of “cultural poetics” risks allowing that struggle to resolve itself into a critical pluralism constrained by liberal humanist pieties and a narrowly discursive model of materiality.
DuPlessis and Quartermain distinguish three phases in the Objectivist tradition. The first or properly “Objectivist” phase runs from 1927–1935; a second “underground” or “dormant” period lasts through the late fifties; and what Ron Silliman has called a third or “renaissance” phase gives rise in the sixties to both renewed reception and production. The editors find this history more complex than is usually acknowledged, suggesting that “the linear, ideal literary historical narrative from production to reception gets disturbed, torqued, or folded upon itself” (5).1 Rather than organize the anthology chronologically, then, they arrange it thematically in four sections to emphasize the complexity and breadth of both the object of study and the methodological principles of the project. The editors describe the organization best themselves:
Discussing poetics and form, the essays in the first section insist on poetry as a mode of thought; those in the second analyze and evaluate a generally left-wing Objectivist politics of the thirties.... The third section focuses on the ethical, spiritual, and religious issues raised, mainly in the post-Holocaust fifties and sixties, by Objectivists’ affiliations with Judaism.... The final section explores the sense of nexus directly.... Running through all four sections are two related threads: Objectivist writing as aware of its own historical contingency and situatedness, and Objectivist poetics as a site of complexity, contestation, interrogation, and disagreement.(6)
These two constant “threads” that bind the collection are implicit in the titular figure of the nexus. DuPlessis and Quartermain charge this carefully chosen figure with two tasks: to characterize links between writers in a manner that resists standard narratives of literary development and descriptions of literary formations, and to maintain a multifaceted critical endeavor around those writers. In a sense, the figure is a prophylactic against reification. What the editors want to promote...