U.S. Poetry and the Politics of Form

— Sarah Ehlers

Counter-revolution of the Word:
The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960
By Alan Filreis
University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 422 pages, $40 cloth.

LAURA BUSH’S 2003 “Poetry and the American Voice” symposium is infamous because it never happened. Intended to be a White House celebration of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes, the event was cancelled when several poet-invitees (including former laureates) declined the invitation and, instead, composed poems protesting U.S. involvement in Iraq. When the symposium was called off, the First Lady’s spokesperson explained that a celebration of poets was in danger of being turned into a political event.

From one perspective, Alan Filreis’s important new book Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960 seems to unearth the variegated history producing the former First Lady’s public declaration that an event celebrating American poetry shouldn’t be “political.” Indeed Filreis describes a striking paradox: in the middle of the 20th-century, conservative critics decried experimental verse forms in an attempt to destroy the modernist avant-garde and to undo its associations with the Left. Yet by treating modern poetic experimentalism as a form of communist subversion, and by privileging a traditional lyricism defined by individual expression and reflection, it appears that these critics effectively convinced American audiences that poetry and politics don’t mix.

In this sense, Counter-revolution of the Word maps the creation of a notion that Laura Bush’s press corps had apparently internalized — that is, that American poetry should be distinct from politics. But Filreis also reveals how tangled poetry is and has been in U.S. politics, and his book’s specific focus on political re-narrations of poetic forms reveals the ways in which seemingly innocuous statements like Bush’s are actually the product of a long ideological antagonism.

Amassing interviews, archival materials, journals, magazines and unpublished or forgotten monographs, Filreis pieces together the complex of poets and critics that constructed and re-constructed versions of modernist and avant-garde poetry during the Cold War. Filreis’s archive is vast, but what I find methodologically interesting about Counter-revolution of the Word is the author’s ability to make use of meticulous archival research while carefully close-reading individual poems along the lines of his books’ rubric.

The sprawling study — Filreis uses the adjective “scattered” to intimate how materials are strewn across archives and special collections and to suggest current gaps in knowledge — considers the work and impact of better-known, even canonical, poets like Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser, Walter Lowenfels, Genevieve Taggard, Edwin Rolfe, Ezra Pound and Williams Carlos Williams. At the same time, he initiates discussions of lesser-known artists like Norman Rosten, Alfred Levinson, Eda Lou Walton, and Martha Millet, among others.

Also important are materials like critical books and reviews that are now rarely (if ever) read, which Filreis uses to analyze mid-century debates about poetry and poetics. Indeed, some of the most interesting figures in Counter-revolution of the Word turn out to be its rather unlikable antagonists — traditionalists and right-wing critics like Robert Hillyer, Stanley Coblentz, Richard Weaver and Peter Viereck.

Poetry As Political Terrain

Counter-revolution of the Word explores how the field of American poetry has been a ground on which political battles are waged. While the book is ostensibly about “conservatives’ attempt to destroy the modernist avant-garde in the period after World War II” (ix), it resists turning the story of mid-century American poetry into a simple narrative of “us versus them” (i.e. radical versus conservative, or traditional versus experimental). Instead, it parses the nuanced and changing political views of well- and lesser-known American poets and critics, ultimately showing how conservatives and staunchly anticommunist liberals used the rhetoric of the McCarthy period to effectively subdue radical poetic forms.

“Through Counter-revolution of the Word, a detailed exploration of ideological antimodernism,” Filreis explains, “I offer what I hope is a persuasive response to a fascinating and seemingly unanswerable question: Why has avant-garde writing been such a strong conductor of American conservatives’ doubts and fears?” (xv)

Anticommunist critics, as Filreis demonstrates, often attacked poets on formal grounds as a way of displacing attacks on their politics. The tension and fluidity between traditional and experimental forms is still very much with us in American poetry, a point I will return to later.

While the poets and critics under discussion were varied in their politics, the book’s antagonists were aesthetically of a kind, and they used Cold War rhetoric to uphold traditional notions about poetic forms. At stake for all of the writers and reviewers included in Filreis’s study were the rights to the literary history of modernism.

Divided into two parts, the narrative arc of Counter-revolution of the Word is far-reaching, and it is consistently complicated through myriad examples: no one story is wholly representative but each is illuminating. The first half of the book, “The Fifties’ Thirties,” explores how the conservative affront on modern poetry required a re-telling of the 1930s during the anticommunist period in the 1950s. In the book’s second half, Filreis details how antimodernists used the ideologies of anticommunism to condemn and censure the modernist avant-garde and usher in what they deemed a “post-ideological” moment.

“The Fifties’ Thirties”

In many ways, Counter-revolution of the Word is the study of a moment more than it is the study of any one particular poet or group of poets. According to Filreis, during the 1950s poets and critics actively rewrote the political and artistic milieu of the 1930s and effectively destroyed several careers

Through case studies of poets like Martha Millet, Filreis shows how — while many of the basic tenets of communist and modernist poetries altered very little, especially aesthetically — the contexts in which such poetries were critiqued changed a great deal.

For example, during the anticommunist 1950s, publications like Poetry magazine ceased to accept work from writers known to have radical politics (a resonant example is Walter Lowenfels), even though they had regularly published their work in the decades prior. The 1930s were being rewritten from the vantage point of the 1950s. As a result, 1920s poets had to be de-radicalized and radical poets damned.

The example of Walt Whitman’s afterlife, which Filreis traces in the first section of Counter-revolution of the Word, is instructive in this regard. To briefly summarize: from the many versions of Whitman available there emerged a Whitman agreeable to Cold War politics. More specifically, the “radical socialist” Whitman popularized during the 1930s became, during the 1950s, “a nationalistic Whitman, a deradicalized Whitman, a Whitman whose language was not to be deemed revolutionary…” (96-7)

In the so-called post-ideological moment, the socialist Whitman was losing ground, and a tempered, even capitalist, Whitman was gaining it. As Filreis puts it: “Despite the predilection against drawing lines, despite the ‘end of ideology,’ new lines were clearly being drawn.”(100)

New lines were being drawn, indeed. Nowhere, it seems, was the consolidation of the conservative ideology more apparent in the 1950s than in relation to matters of form. Oftentimes conservative critics during the McCarthy period attacked formal experimentalism so that they might repress prewar poetry without being accused of disagreeing with its politics.

Taking Norman Rosten as a case-in-point, Filreis illuminates these changes in which poets and poems were being accepted by mainstream editors and reviewers. Rosten published three books of poetry in the first half of the 1940s, but then dropped from view later in the decade. When Rosten published The Plane and the Shadow in 1953, he had left behind the mode of the “modern documentary epic” that had characterized his earlier work and adopted the “quietude of the meditative, tight, personal lyric that was now characteristic of the modernist inheritance in U.S. poetry.” (152)

Reading the 1953 book against Rosten’s earlier, multi-vocal The Big Road — and along the lines of what had become aesthetically acceptable — Filreis demonstrates how Rosten’s political affiliations made him subject to harsh criticisms, and shows how internalizing the new aesthetic ideology led to the end of Rosten’s career as a poet. The example of Rosten is one of my favorites in the book not only because it breathes new critical life into what might have been a forgotten poet, but also because Filreis so deftly moves between archival research and original readings.

Still further, Filreis embeds in Rosten’s story not only the socialist Whitmanian tradition but also another poet potentially forgotten — Alfred Levinson, to whose book Cauldron Rosten wrote a foreword in 1948.

Learning how the social and literary landscape of the 1950s effectively rewrote the 1930s requires a sophisticated whodunit and the patience of a scholar like Filreis who attends to individual lines and who spent time in archives tracing correspondence and decoding pseudonyms

Filreis shows how 1950s revision of the ’30s was not just an attempt by conservatives to cover up a radical past; it was also, in some cases, the project of former radicals turned anticommunists. In order to change the supposed trajectory or influence of modernism, these critics also had to rewrite the 1920s, closing in on its most traditionally formal elements and making modern poetry apolitical.

“Anticommunist Antimodernists”

The central protagonists in Counter-revolution of the Word are the so-dubbed “anticommunist antimodernists.” This network of poets and critics attempted to forward the notion that formally experimental poetry was “bad poetry,” and thus to restore a traditional notion of poetic form that would suppress the idea of the avant-garde. These figures deemed modern poetic experimentalism “a form of communist subversion or something exactly like communism.” (x)

The new attack on experimental forms not only attempted to undo the ties between modernism and radical politics, but it also had to reckon with the social history and usage of traditional forms.

Some of the most aggressive attacks on modern experimentalism or avant-gardism came from Robert Hillyer and The Saturday Review of Literature as well as the conservative traditionalist organization The League for Sanity in Poetry, headed by Stanley Coblentz. Filreis explains: “For reactionary antimodernists […] modern poets were linguistic skulkers along meaning’s back alleys, trench-coated, bearing illegible sectarian messages, picking among the litter, and avoiding the light of clarity.” (190)

As this description suggests, a major component of the anticommunist antimodernist agenda — to the extent that they comprised a coherent network — was an argument about difficulty and accessibility.

Such critics launched their attacks by setting up the experimental poet as the enemy of the democratic audience: according to this logic, experimental poets thwarted meaning so as to submerge audiences in a labyrinth of confusion that would lead to widespread chaos. Obscurity and complexity were acts of betrayal against the greater reading public, and modernist style was nonsensical and blatantly irresponsible.

The importance of the historical data Filreis uncovers in Counter-revolution of the Word seems important to the contemporary moment, which is marked by continual debate over whether or not poetry has a wide audience in the United.States. As Filreis points out, at mid-century one of the major arguments against formally experimental poetry was that it was “too difficult” and that it alienated mass audiences.

Pairing this account of the 1950s with the present moment suggests that Counter-revolution of the Word might be, from one vantage point, an uncovering of the conservative politics that have provided the foundation for many current debates and attitudes about the popularity and circulation of contemporary American poetry. In this sense, Filreis’s study might also open up conversations about how critics use mass audiences as props for forwarding their own notions about what poetry should or shouldn’t be.

But to return to an earlier query: Why has avant-garde writing been such a strong lightning rod for American conservatives’ anxieties? Filreis answers this in his chapter on grammar. There, he elucidates how conservative critics conceived of experimental verse, and he offers possible answers to his own tough questions. Thinking about modernist uses of paratactical structures — and the conservative reaction to these syntactical forms that conjoin seemingly disparate elements — Filreis writes:

Once modernist parataxis staved off subordination, anything and everything could be thrown together, and that was the beginning of the end. Here avant-garde writing was such a strong conductor for the doubts and fears of the American conservative because it represented a style that refused to subordinate what the conservative felt were inherently unequal elements. (294).

Friends and Enemies of Poetry

Such fears also seem connected to a broader question of loyalty. In the conservative viewpoint, metrically regular meditative lyrics demonstrated both tranquility and loyalty by staying “true” to individuals and their emotions. On the other hand, fragmented experimental forms, which used quotation and collage, were loyal only to dangerous abstractions. Such arguments were not only confined to debates in literary magazines and periodicals, but also seeped into schoolroom practices and religious discourses.

Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World (which Filreis cites) is now almost ten years old, but the project it sets forth is still relevant to our considerations of the study of 20th-century American poetry. From the outset, Davidson posits that 20th-century poetry “has become marginalized in favor of narrative,” especially in relation to the questions of Marxist cultural theory. He intimates that this “neglect of poetry within Marxist theory has been based to some extent on a narrow definition of poetry as ideology whose separation from the production and reproduction of social life is a necessary condition for its existence.” (xii)

Filreis’s study seems to take up Davidson’s call to expand the way 20th-century American poetry is conceived, especially in relation to social life. Counter-revolution of the Word is also in the company of important, like-minded monographs such as Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery and Revolutionary Memory as well as Alan Wald’s Exiles from a Future Time and Trinity of Passion.

Perhaps surprisingly, also relevant to Filreis’s study is the March 2009 publication of a Norton anthology titled American Hybrid. According to the book’s website, the editors suggest that the basic premise of the anthology is to demonstrate how the “‘fundamental division’ between experimental and traditional is disappearing in American poetry in favor of hybrid approaches that blend trends from accessible lyricism to linguistic exploration.”

Counter-revolution of the Word vexes such claims and generates a host of questions. What does it mean to break down the traditional-experimental split? What are the implications of a traditional and experimental hybrid that claims to overcome division and speak with one voice?

In some ways, the assumption of an “American hybrid” seems to cover the very historical ruptures Filreis’s study so masterfully exposes and explores. If, as Filreis writes, “rhetoric about poetic form was often unacknowledged Cold War politics” (163), then what sort of unacknowledged politics is the rhetoric of the hybrid?

These questions at any rate indicate the significance of Counter-revolution of the Word on multiple fronts: not only does Filreis’s book reveal a deep relationship between poetry and politics rooted in the postwar period, but it also speaks to political histories of the roles and forms of contemporary American poetry.

ATC 140, May/June 2009