Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rethinking Poetic Innovation at the Modernist Studies Association Conference

Earlier this month, P&PC had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Modernist Studies Association's annual conference held this year at the Hyatt Regency in the nearly post-apocalyptic downtown of Buffalo, NY. Themed around "The Structures of Innovation," there were your fairly predictable panels ("make it new," right?) on Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, DADA artwork, avant-garde little magazines, and the Paris and New York art and literary scenes. There was also a "roundtable" discussion, organized by Marsha Bryant and Alan Golding, that focused on the subject of "Rethinking Poetic Innovation" and had at least one person buzzing afterwards.

MSA roundtables are a pretty fun format in which, rather than droning on in sequence with extensive prepared remarks, five or six invited speakers offer short position papers then open the floor for discussion with each other and the event's attendees. Imagine our pleasure and surprise when, this past spring, Bryant approached and entered into negotiations with the P&PC home office about P&PC's participation! Now imagine our lone P&PC representative sitting in front of an audience of seventy-five modernists (including keynote speaker Michael Davidson, Lynn Keller, Jed Rasula, and Dee Morris) and among the roundtable's cast of Bryant, Golding, Bob Perelman, Steven Yao, Elizabeth Frost, and Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux—all tenured profs, all well published, some of whom certain members of the P&PC home office staff started reading in graduate school lo these many years ago. Hands somewhat a-tremble, our stomach feeling more like a Kurt Schwitters collage (example presented above) than the proverbial nest of butterflies, but bolstered by the presence of a younger, up-and-coming, somewhat iconoclastic generation of modernist scholars including Meredith Martin and Bartholomew Brinkman, here's the perspective on "Rethinking Poetic Innovation" that P&PC offered. (N.B. If you're a regular P&PC reader, well, bless you; the following is nothing you haven't heard from our offices before. We're posting it not for your benefit but for those at the conference—get this—who admitted to having never before heard the name of Edgar Guest.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentietth centuries, Americans regularly assembled and maintained poetry scrapbooks—personal verse anthologies that edited together poems cut out of newspapers, magazines, church bulletins, advertisements, greeting cards, and other print sources, oftentimes sampling in news articles, pictures, photographs, die cuts, or other items. Well known writers like Anne Sexton, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marianne Moore kept such albums. Over the past six or eight years, I have assembled and studied an archive of 150 or so poetry scrapbooks produced by ordinary or less celebrated readers. The photocopy I’ve distributed here today (pictured above) is a page spread from one of those albums—a 230 page-long, 300-poem collection kept in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Doris Ashley, an unmarried sawyer’s daughter in her early 20s who was living just south of Boston.

It’s an interesting document, as Ashley puts four “modern” poems, including the now iconic poems by Pound (“In a Station of the Metro,” located at the bottom of the second page) and H.D. (“Oread,” located in the middle of the first page), in conversation with two popular poems and a news report on H.L. Mencken’s late-life marriage to Sara Haardt (a published writer who, in the 1910s, was a prominent voice lobbying the Alabama state legislature to ratify the nineteenth Amendment). The juxtapositions are compelling and represent a vernacular cut and paste analogue to, if not precedent for, modernist practices of bricolage or collage, as Ashley reads across or through a highbrow-lowbrow divide and very compellingly pairs up the Pound and H.D. poems, which are frequently combined in our histories of modern poetry but which her original source book, Louis Untermeyer’s 1925 edition of Modern American Poetry, did not print together.

If Ashley recognizes the shared poetics of “In a Station” and “Oread,” she is not limited by them. In fact, what most connects the six poems here is the image of the tree—the pear tree in Millay’s poem, the pines in “Oread,” the maple tree in Anne Campbell’s poem, the “wet, black bough” in “In a Station,” and the rain of Stanton’s “A Rain Song” that waters them all. This arboreal conceit extends thematically to the newspaper article—the seasons, gardens, plants, and flowers offer an appropriate landscape in which to read about Haardt’s latish marriage (she was 31); astonishingly, this conceit extends sonically, as well, as the “wet, black bough” of Pound’s poem echoes the subtitle of the Mencken article: “Noted American Bachelor Finally Bows to Cupid.” (Note: Ashley, an aspiring writer, would, like Haardt, remain unmarried until her late 20s, and P&PC reads this page spread, in part, as an articulation of how and why Ashley justified remaining single as a life choice that was more deliberate than prevailing images of spinsterhood would suggest.)

There is certainly more to discuss about this page spread, including the alternative map through the poetry of modern America that it and other such anthologies suggest, as well as its place in the history what Kenneth Goldsmith is calling uncreative writing. (Food for thought: can we call Ezra Pound [pictured here] a “popular poet” when he appears in a scrapbook alongside poems by popular poets Stanton and Campbell? Campbell, by the way, was a poet for the Detroit News who reportedly made $10,000 per year off of the daily publication and syndication of her poetry in the 1920s and 1930s.) I’m presenting these pages here, however, to help forward four ideas that might help us to rethink poetic innovation. Those ideas are as follows:

1. Future work on poetic innovation needs to include more study and theory of innovative reading as well as innovative writing.

2. Innovative reading and writing are not limited to experts in literary spheres but happen within popular culture as well—including, as I’ve argued elsewhere in relation to the old Burma-Shave billboard poems, the commercial marketplace. Innovation is not inherently oppositional and is regularly articulated to, and expressed in terms of, the market. In fact, the very claim to “innovation” itself, in artistic and commercial spheres alike, as well as their overlap, is a form of capital worth studying further.

3. Although Ashley’s scrapbook doesn’t suggest it directly, poetic innovation within popular and mass culture likely intersected with, and affected, the work of “literary” poets more regularly than we think—not just in terms of raw materials, but form, precedent, and logic as well. When we use the French word collage to describe modernist literary practices, for example, we disguise modernism's roots in popular practice and overlook the fact that Pound, H.D., Moore, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot and others were born in, learned to read in, and were educated in an America where scrapbooking was a primary form of reading and thinking and where the word collage did not yet exist.

4. What we call “literary” poetry also affected innovation within mass and popular culture. That is, not only did popular culture provide modernist writers with resources for their art, but, as we see in the case of Doris Ashley, modernist writers provided uncredentialed readers with raw materials for thinking and creating as well.

Thanks for listening.

Note: if you're interested in these and related issues, keep your eyes out for the P&PC-endorsed book-length study Poetry & Popular Culture in Modern America, due out from Columbia University Press in the Fall of 2012.