- Lines and Circles:Transnationalizing American Poetry Studies
“I am a lead pencil,” begins a piece that, if it were less widely known, might well seem the start of a poem. After all, nonhuman beings often speak in poems: “I am a frog,” begins one; “I am a lamp,” begins another; “I am a lonely, woodland lake,” begins a third (Smith; Cornford; Tabb). But even though it may have implications for poetry, “I, Pencil” is in fact a 1958 essay by the economist Leonard E. Read, an essay that personifies a humble, everyday pencil so it can tell the story of its making. The pencil recalls its genesis out of cedar felled in Oregon; milled in San Leandro, California, where it’s also kiln-dried and tinted; combined with graphite mined in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) that has been purified with Mississippi clay and treated with candelilla wax from Mexico; lacquered (a technique originating in China and Japan); and plugged with an eraser made of rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies. In the midst of the Cold War, Read’s pencil traces the transnational movement and coalescence of money, labor, commodities, and skills. A libertarian hostile to the idea of a command economy, Read wants to show that the pencil’s fabrication can’t be centrally planned. But another effect of his essay is to highlight the migration of labor, materials, and ideas across an interconnected world. In this, it is unlike the nation-centered, exceptionalist narratives of US literary history.1
Since the Cold War, the flow of ideas, culture, and capital across national borders has only intensified. Yet the influence of nation-first epistemologies persists in literary studies. In his frisky, wide-ranging, and eloquent essay, Stephen Burt wonders “whether ‘American poetry,’ as a category and a concept, might be obsolete, and whether the term and the set of works to which it has pointed no [End Page 308] longer coheres” (271). He sketches a quick history of concepts of the “Americanness” of American poetry, defined by American individualism, or American communalism, or American innovation, or American non-Europeanness. But without directly rebutting them, he largely abandons them as relics of earlier ways of thinking about literature. In the introduction to The Cambridge History of American Poetry (2014), Burt and co-editor Alfred Bendixen concede that “poetry crosses borders and boundaries, and that American verse has always existed in the context of the transatlantic, the transnational, and the international” (3). They refuse to take “poetry’s ambition to be self-consciously American . . . as an index of its value” (9). So too Burt in his essay. This turn in American literary historiography is remarkable, even though Burt doesn’t himself remark on it: he puts little stock in the “American” part of “American poetry” as ethnographic descriptor, evaluative norm, or principle of coherence. The unifying Americanness of American poetry is no more. Did the publishers of his co-edited history of “American poetry” forget to check whether Burt believed in one of the two god terms in the book’s title? If he does, it seems to be in the minimalist sense of poetry written by US citizens.
There’s no problem for him with the second term. Indeed, his essay’s main emphasis is on “poetry” in its various contemporary incarnations, and while many scholars have been intent on absorbing poetry into various other cultural practices, Burt wants to spotlight its distinctiveness—an aim that I, for one, endorse. Even when seeming to dissolve themselves into other genres and discourses, poems often insist, I argue in Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres (2013), on poetry’s peculiar forms and freedoms. Burt gets at the specificity of poetry by engaging the debate that, ever since the “battle of the anthologies” and “poetry wars” in the 1950s, has been more pervasive than any other in the field: between process models of poetry (also known as “open form,” “performative,” “raw”) and made-thing models (aka “closed,” “formalist,” “cooked”). He fair-mindedly acknowledges the advantages of the once-vanguard but now-ubiquitous model of poem as historical process, ventriloquizing it largely in the voice...