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Exorcising Modernism


Table of contents

  • Mikołaj Wiśniewski, Introduction
  • Grzegorz Czemiel, Taking Out the Trash: Mina Loy's Exorcising of Modernist Aesthetics.
  • Alan Golding, "The wedge of the WHOLE FRONT": Document, Pedagogy and Postmodernity in Charles Olson's Cultural Poetics.
  • Joanna Orska, Sincerity and Objectification: Object in Translation.
  • Christopher Patrick Miller, We Must Talk Now: George Oppen and a Genealogy of "Objectivist" Sincerity.
  • David Bergman, Orality and Copia.
  • Anna Warso, "But there is another method": John Berryman's The Dream Songs.
  • Nick Selby, Answering "Each in His Nature": Some Ways out of The Cantos.
  • Tadeusz Pióro, The Influence of the New York School on Contemporary Polish Poetry.
  • Mikołaj Wiśniewski, Williams, Schuyler, and the Romantic Poet "Nowadays".
  • Agnieszka Salska, Galway Kinnell: Tradition and the Individual Talent.0
  • Kacper Bartczak, The Poetics of Plenitude and Its Crisis in Wallace Stevens, Rae Armantrout and Peter Gizzi: A Pragmatist Perspective.
  • Charles Altieri, Dodie Bellamy's Version of Stevens: The Place of Imagination in Erotic Experience.

Introductory Note

Is the title of this book "Exorcising Modernism," or is it "Exercising Modernism"? In a sense, it is both, for it is intended to reflect the ambivalent attitude of the poets discussed here to the tradition of High Modernism which they challenged, but which also – undoubtedly – determined their attitudes and stylistic pursuits. In other words, the process of "exorcising modernism" cannot be regarded without taking into consideration the ways in which modernism was, and perhaps still is, "exercised" by post-war American poets. Some of them are typically associated with the prewar modernist avant‑garde, but have, in their later work, engaged in a thorough critique of its ideological assumptions. This is the case of Mina Loy whose poetry from the 1940s is discussed in the opening essay by Grzegorz Czemiel. Loy explores modernism's blind spots, giving voice to the human "refuse generated by great modernist designers," and "reclaiming a social territory abandoned by the moderns." By doing so, Czemiel argues, she has worked out a new and original "trash poetics," akin to postmodern phenomena such as camp or rubbish art. Other such transitional figures discussed in the volume are: Charles Olson, Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. The latter two grew out of the great experimental movement of late modernism, "Objectivism," but have developed it in directions different from those delineated by the movement's founder, Louis Zukofsky, broadening and complicating the notion of "Objectivism" itself. For example, Reznikoff 's "testimonial verse," as Joanna Orska points out, has to be read not only along the lines of the "objectivist" tenets worked out by Zukofsky in his famous manifesto, but also in reference to Hebrew mysticism –Kabbalistic theories of language – as well as to the poet's personal experience when he was commissioned, in his capacity as a lawyer, to work out a "universal encyclopaedia of law." Both of these factors – Reznikoff's professional background and his Jewishness – gave a new "spin" to "objectivist" poetics.

Apart from Zukofsky, the modernist father-figures, whose influence was both "exercised" and "exorcised" by the later generations of poets, are those of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and – of course – Ezra Pound. Two of the poets discussed in this volume – Elizabeth Bishop and A. R. Ammons – overtly grappled with the Poundian legacy in their work. As Nick Selby demonstrates, Bishop and Ammons contested Pound's understanding of "nature," which "reaches back to Romantic conceptions," and proposed instead an approach that can be interpreted as an early shift towards eco‑critical thinking. "Their answer to Pound's legacy," Selby argues, "are poems that seek to exorcise 'nature' as the ghost‑in-the-machine of modernity."Stevens, on the other hand, is presented here primarily as the poet who – in the words of Kacper Bartczak – "pushed literature on the path of increased ironic self-awareness." Bartczak shows how this ironic attitude is continued and, in a way, radicalized in the poetry of two contemporary authors: Rae Armantrout and Peter Gizzi. Finally, Williams's "anti-poetic sentimentalism" (as Wallace Stevens called it in his well‑known "Preface" to Williams's Collected Poems 1921-1931) is discussed in the context of just one of the many poets of the second half of the 20th century who invoked the famous Rutherford doctor as their "predecessor." The work of James Schuyler – as presented by Mikołaj Wiśniewski – shows a predilection for Williamsian "earthy tastes," but it also manages to work out new solutions to the poetic quandaries dramatized in Williams's lyrics.

Other essays presented in this volume address developments in post-war American poetry which directly challenged the tenets of modernist aesthetics: the turn towards orality (in the poetry of David Antin, for example) and confessionalism (as opposed to the ideal of poetic impersonality). An interesting "local touch" is added by Tadeusz Pióro, an O'Hara scholar and renowned contemporary Polish poet. Pióro, who published his first books of poetry in the early 1990s, discusses the influence of the New York school of poets on young Polish authors whose growing interest in the work of O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch and Schuyler sprang from their need to "exorcise" the modernist attitude – insistence on "crafted language," high seriousness and metaphysical depth – prevalent in the poetry of the older generation of Polish poets such as Zbigniew Herbert or Czesław Miłosz.

The volume closes with an essay by Charles Altieri who chose to seriously consider a very recent work that many readers might be tempted to dismiss as frivolous or even offensive. In her 2013 book, Cunt Norton, Dodie Bellamy reworks the voices of famous poets of the English language by cutting their work up and combining it with hackneyed pornographic phraseology. Focusing on Bellamy's controversial rendering of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Altieri points out that, far from being merely a crude literary joke, it "provides one of our fullest images honoring many of the civilizing roles imagination can play."