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  • Editing America:Nationalism and the New Poetry
  • Erin Kappeler (bio)

In the May 1920 issue of Poetry magazine, Alfred Kreymborg noted, “Touring America is very easy now-a-days. All you have to do is to hitch Pegasus to the locomotive. Poetry will carry you and yours anywhere you care to go.”1 Kreymborg’s vision of contemporary poetry as passenger car was meant as a joke about the poet’s lack of material ties to any one place; the impoverished poet, having no steady work, was free to get up and go whenever he pleased. But Kreymborg’s joke also offers a metaphor for the so-called new poetry, which Poetry’s founding editor Harriet Monroe had worked to define since her magazine’s inception in 1912. Monroe repeatedly argued that the new poetry was not characterized by any coherent theory or identifiable form; instead, it was the unprecedented range of forms, genres, and subject matter encompassed by the new poetry that made it remarkable. This formal diversity, Monroe wrote, was a reflection of the heterogeneity of modern American life. Poetry printed free verse poems about skyscrapers and cityscapes that offered readers a glimpse of metropolitan living; translations of Native American songs by Mary Austin and Lew Sarett that allowed readers to tour the southwest; poems by Edgar Lee Masters and Robert Frost that guided readers through the small towns of the Midwest and the Northeast, respectively, in both “traditional” and modern metrical forms.2 If contemporary poetry could move the vagabond poet across the country, it also offered stationary readers a way to see America without leaving their homes.

Recent studies of the new poetry have restored this poetic diversity to view, contributing to the growing sense that the divide between “experimental” and “traditional” poetry, like so [End Page 899] many of the binaries that structured twentieth-century studies of modernism, was a polemical construct rather than a reality.3 In what follows, however, I argue that the desire to prove that modernist poetry was socially and ethically engaged has led literary historians to employ certain conceptions of culture anachronistically, leading to a fundamental misrecognition of the nature of the new poetry. Current accounts posit that the new poetry was an identifiable, if heterogeneous, body of work that reflected a commitment to multiculturalism, making it an ethical counterweight to the troubling imperialist poetics of figures such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But the new poetry was not a collection of texts; rather, it was a polemical discourse about American identity that was shaped by social scientists, literary scholars, and cultural critics.4 The idea of the new poetry emerged at a time when the concept of multiculturalism as we understand it had not yet crystallized, meaning that a celebration of poetic diversity could as easily be used to champion racialist logic and American exceptionalism as to promote cross-cultural understanding. The ethical dimensions of the discourse known as the new poetry are complicated at best, a fact that highlights the need to interrogate the historiography and research methodologies that inform current historicist approaches to modernist poetry.

The mischaracterization of the new poetry is symptomatic of the failure of much of the most suggestive and creative historicist work on American poetry in the 1910s and 1920s to question the narrative structure that has governed literary histories of the twentieth century. Though a great deal of attention has been paid to the polemical and promotional aspects of modernist claims to have made art new by breaking with an outmoded genteel culture, the idea that modernism constituted a real cultural break is remarkably persistent in studies of American poetry. The desire to preserve “modernist” as an honorific rather than a descriptive term—a holdover from triumphalist accounts of poetic modernism as a literary revival—has produced an under-historicized emphasis on modernist poetry’s diversity and cosmopolitanism, which have been understood as early forms of contemporary pluralism. As Len Platt has argued, the need to create distance between the horrific consequences of racialist thinking as they were manifested in the twentieth century “fundamentally distorted our perceptions of modernism and modern literature,” which was all too often implicated in scientific...


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