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  • Poetry:1900 to the 1950s
  • Jeff Westover

The year 2015 proved to be a banner one for histories of American and modernist poetry, so much so that it is not possible to cover them all. Cambridge published one, and Richard Grey published another. Cambridge Companion to American Poets was also published this year. In addition, David E. Chinitz and Gail McDonald have edited Companion to Modernist Poetry. Because of space limitations, however, only the last title is covered.

i Introduction

Scholars offer new ways to conceive of modernism and expand its boundaries in research published over the last year. At the same time, materialism continues to be a prime frame of analysis for many of the critics covered below, including Elizabeth Anderson, Harris Feinsod, Peter Middleton, Mark Noble, Bonnie Roy, and Rebecca Walsh. It is not news that materialism (together with its correlative, empiricism) is a foundational philosophy for contemporary thought, including the historical approaches, linguistic theories, scientific outlook, and epistemologies it adopts, as well as its conceptions of selfhood and experience. But it may be worth noting the reach and depth of the commitment to this way of thinking. Even Anderson in her study of mysticism in H.D. emphasizes the material basis for religious experience and belief. [End Page 315]

ii General

According to Peter Middleton's "Poetry, Physics, and the Scientific Attitude at Mid-Century" (MoMo 21 [2014]: 147–68), scholars of modern poetry "need to listen closely to how the discourse of nuclear physics around 'mid-century' represents the material world as constituted entirely of forces of attraction and repulsion, explosive energies, electrical fields, and a tiny number of distinct types of particle." Pointing to the physics metaphors in Charles Olson's "Projective Verse," a passing statement in Wallace Stevens's "Imagination and Value," and parts of William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Middleton discusses the attitudes of modern poets toward science in the middle of the 20th century. One attitude was that "poetry should look to the new physics for inspiration," and it was shared by Karl Shapiro and Muriel Rukeyser, while Marianne Moore and Stevens also addressed scientific ideas in their poems. Middleton focuses on Olson and Rukeyser because these poets sought a cultural prestige and epistemic authority for poetry, conceiving it as a legitimate "mode of inquiry." They wanted poetry to have a scientific outlook, an idea that Middleton believes to be fundamentally important for 20th-century poetry. This is largely owing to the fact that nuclear weapons had been invented. The pervasiveness of physics in public discourse reflected general concerns about authority and competitiveness on the part of social scientists as well as artists. In addition, the idea that one theory could explain everything, together with the paradox of the uncertainty principle, had a deep impact on the popular imagination. Rukeyser argues that "poems can be scientific when they model human relations as a system." Middleton believes her poems create systems of human meaning by grouping sets of ideas through parataxis. Truth as system leaves out uncertainty, which Middleton believes that Olson allows for in "Projective Verse." In The Geopoetics of Modernism Rebecca Walsh explores the concept of environmental determinism in relation to modernist experimentation in two figures relevant to this review, H.D. and Langston Hughes. While theories of environmental determinism seek to account for the impact of landscape and climate on the character and accomplishments of inhabitants by reading land as cause and man as effect, writers do not simply echo or reflect these ideas. They also reconfigure and subvert them in nuanced ways through experimental poetic devices.

In "Vehicular Networks and the Modernist Seaways: Crane, Lorca, Novo, Hughes" (AmLH 27: 683–716) Harris Feinsod "salvages the cliché [End Page 316] of transatlantic liners passing in the night as a figure for the comparative cultural history of modernist poetics, literalizing the trope of passing liners through a fresh enumeration of some archives of shipboard and portside poetry." He points out that "the seaways were modernism's most embodied transnational circulatory system—one of its governing infrastructural networks." Feinsod concludes that the transatlantic connections among modernist writers are not as unified as some literary historians have claimed, which justifies "navigational reading" as...


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