- The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures by Harris Feinsod
At turns elusive and monumental, ephemeral and robust, diminishing and expanding in the shadow of the hard power of American empire, the soft power of "cultural diplomacy" programs, and the influence of nation-based literary-historical paradigms, "the poetry of the Americas" is an unusual literary formation in that its formidable history lacks a historical account. This absence is a function of disciplinary boundaries, but it is at bottom a problem of labor and scale. Articulating the far-flung hemispheric coordinates of the poetry of the Americas has, until Harris Feinsod's highly anticipated book, proved too challenging. As Feinsod writes, in his exceptional literary history The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures, "this story is scattered in archives on three continents," often in correspondence and ephemera (5). Appropriately, Feinsod's methodology is defined by travel and discovery—that watchword of conquest and colonization—for he finds the story within the institutions (libraries, foundations, archives)that have formalized enlightenment models of modernity. Some of his archival finds are indeed world-reshaping, for the poetry world, but also for cultural histories of World War II, the Cold War, and the Sixties. This scholarly process, Feinsod notes, required illuminating the inter-American cultural formations that gave rise to the field "the poetry of the Americas." At least since José Martí's dispatches from New York, this field has enfolded a political project, a set of aesthetic practices and cultural relations, a projection into the future, a retrojection into the past, a utopian imaginary alternately advanced and resisted. To invert Gertrude Stein's declaration: there are many theres there. Feinsod's great achievement is to map the complex relations of these coordinates.
The question "which poets?" underlies his introductory genealogy of the category "the poetry of the Americas." Complementing Charles Bernstein's use of aesthetics over poems and poets to theorize a "poetics of the Americas," Feinsod presents an abundance of poems, poets, and poetic sites and practices.1 Moving fluidly between formalist and historicist concerns, he foregrounds anxiety over the question. He was often asked, when describing his project, "so which poets do you write about?" His response, "Lots of them," would inevitably disappoint, his interlocutors wanting names (15). On this conundrum I side with Feinsod, even as the productive contradictions of his rationale underscore his study: "The invocation of breadth is not an evasion but a desire to attenuate authorial status in the structure of literary history" (15). Yet Feinsod offers many iterations of the ne plus ultra of "authorial status," with granular detail and in animated style: poets' letters archived at elite universities; a poet performing for 130,000, as Pablo Neruda did at São Paulo's Pacaembú Stadium in 1945; a poet facing "banishment from the island," as Ginsberg was from Cuba in 1965, Feinsod reasonably styling him as a reality show contestant who deemed inter-American poetry antagonistic to the Cuban revolution rather than an expression of it (207); and poets publicly and privately asserting their "authorial status," sometimes by aligning with other poets and sometimes by denigrating them.
This tension underlies readings of poets bearing singular names like Brazilian footballers: Neruda, Borges, Cortázar, Hughes, Williams, Olson, Paz, Ginsberg, Lowell, Bishop, Walcott. With the exception of Neruda, who seems to float above the fray, The Poetry of the Americas has no sacred icons. Feinsod skillfully undercuts the monumentality of such poets in three primary ways. First, he mobilizes their formal decisions and "geopolitical desires," networking them across the hemisphere. His command of the materials emboldens this critical position. For instance, he describes Jorge Luis Borges "as a key sluice gate in the Good Neighbor-era projects of hemispheric literary intercommunication" and as "a journeyman lecturer" (129). [End Page 610] Hagiography this is not. Second, The Poetry of the Americas expands the roster of "poets of the Americas," encompassing poets confined to nation-based apertures "whose achievements gain enhanced legibility within a hemispheric frame" (3...