- Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry 1945–1960
If you had any dreamy sense of the courageously apolitical nature of the lyric, and if, in your cups, you find yourself preaching that the heyday of the pure lyric was the 1950s – think Berryman! think early Lowell! – and if you have nothing but scorn for critics on their soapboxes creating about the political marketing and huckstering of poetry during the Cold War, then read this book and weep. Alan Filreis has had a devil’s own job of it scouring and devouring the archives across the States for soundbites from the poetry journals of the Cold War. He has sent research assistants, laptops in hand, to collections at Amherst, Columbia, Miami, Stanford, Duke, Dartmouth, the University of California at San Diego, at Los Angeles, the Huntingdon, Howard-Tilton, the Schlesinger, the Milton Eisenhower, the Taniment, the Fales, Harry Ransom, Beinecke, the Van Pelt libraries, the Sarah Lawrence Archives, you name it, Filreis or one of his RAs has been there. They were on a mission: to discover the charters, manifestoes, prejudices, creeds, and spats of the poetry wars by all of the big fish in that turbulent pond. Not only to takes note of the obiter dicta, the fiery prefaces and editorials, the barn-storming tirades, encomiums and anathemata of the different sects and their various acolytes and disciples; but also to map the terrain, to give some shape to the competing armies of Cold War poetry’s Grub Street.
Out of the turgid gloom of the Cold War’s Dunciad emerge some surprising findings. One expected the usual suspects, lined up as follows: on the right, the New Critical poet-critics with their well wrought urns and jars in Tennessee; on the left, the Beats and grey-listed CPUSA / New Deal bards, dreaming of liberation from the tidy metaphysical lyric and its Congress for Cultural Freedom sponsors. Instead, Filreis paints a crowded and bewilderingly complex picture. It is made complex by the simple but critical expedient of entering into the communist – anticommunist equations of the Cold War the elephant in the room largely ignored so far by literary-political scholars of the period: modernism. By tracking the elephant to its lair, which turns out to be everywhere in the archival record, Filreis manages also to fracture the easy-going binaries of the expectation.
Now you have, on the extreme right, the anticommunist antimodernists, men like the “immensely wealthy reactionary poet” Archer Milton Huntingdon who thought modernism was Stalinist somehow (172), or Stanton Coblentz, editor of Wings, or the redoubtable Colonel Cullen Jones inveighing against the “ratty-minded sophistication and psychosis” of modernism (203), or Robert Hillyer with his hatred for the trickiness of poet-critics, his McCarthyite obsession with communist infiltration, seeing in the radical abstraction and difficulty of modernist technique the same devious, shape-shifting, invidious, anti-Americanism of the Red Decade. These wounded lions roar against modernism’s deformation of the sacred line of poetry as against insults made unto this great nation. These are the caricatures of the Cold War, blustering fools with nasty poisonous pens constructing their idiotic Leagues for Sanity in Poetry and their Avalon National Poetry Shrines, with money to spend blacklisting, inciting foaming mouths, red baiting poetry pages across America.
In the middle ground Filreis finds the pro-modernist anticommunists, moderate minds who have taken the assault on the 1930s to heart as necessary to the health of poetry, but who still love their Joyces, Eliots, Stevenses, and who may even have a secret hankering for work written abroad. This is a rowdy group too, as it includes repentant communists who retreat to the high [End Page 953] ground of an orderly, personal sublime, poets like Spender and Robert Graves, but also powerful intellectuals with a growing sense of entitlement to the public sphere as the world swung to the right, but who have sophisticated tastes, guilty pasts, and a learned contempt for the...