A paper delivered for the Poetry Division of the Modern Language Association at the MLA Conference in Chicago, December 1995:

(c)Alan Filreis, 1995
Not to be quoted without permission of the author.

I've been trying to find a way of saying something about how in the fifties the attack on the radical partook of the attack on the disjunctive. I'm not saying that these two second-guessings wholly coincided--only that they shared key aspects. A perhaps unhelpfully reductive way of stating the situation is this: the American modernism that came to us came partly as the result of the fifties' version of the way the thirties had distorted the twenties and teens. I mean that there were two key moments of distortion - what were significantly generational distortions: fifties' thirties-bashing, which created an easily villified aesthetic; and the alleged bashing of teens- and twenties-style modernism by young American poets of the thirties. I would suggest - and I can't much go into it here - that the story of thirties' twenties-bashing - radicalism's supposed rejection of and ignorance of modernism - was a tale told especially well by the fifties - to establish a cleaned-up lineage from Midcentury "directly" back to some sort of "real" modernist attitude of the first decades.

Although generation envy wasn't the cause of any of this--but rather an effect--I do think that one way of seeing the fifties' thirties' modernism in formation is through various expressions of this envy. Today I've brought along three:

ONE: Plain Old Thirties Bashing

In 1946, in an essay for Poetry, Meredith criticized Rosten's political verse as "poster-writing" that "evoked a primary response." Why Rosten's use of "blank and free verse [that] read like a shopping list" (by which Meredith meant something quite poetically deficient) "evoked a primary response," while what Meredith and many other young poets were now preparing themselves to do presumably evoked something less "primary" and more complexly "human"--is necessarily left unsaid. Then there was in Rosten "the omission of articles and an excessive use of participles"--all quite horribly unnatural--and, worst of all, "words and phrases connected by commas where conjunctions are wanted...clauses and sentences joined by conjunctions where periods and a breath of air are needed." In criticizing Rosten's ambitious book about the building of the Alcan Highway, The Big Road (1946), an ambitious work written in something of a series-not-essence style, Meredith made a connection between, on the one hand, poetry written before the war "in which political ideas were presented in a simplified form and [which] advanced causes important to poets and free men" and, on the other hand, these particular syntactical sins--such as commas where conjunctions should go. No effort here to counter-theorize the politics of form: simply an acceptance of the idea that omitted articles and conjunctions in lieu of full stops represented "shortcomings...a real carelessness with regard to the sound of the verse." If postwar readers of Poetry were to agree that "Mr. Rosten's book would be more readable if it were better poetry," Meredith nonetheless leaves them to figure for themselves what that more "readable" poetry would NOW be, except to say that it would have "the form, the precision and the scope of art." Here was an aesthetic for the postwar period coming into existence in reaction against something the hatred of which could just then be culturally sanctioned and remain unmentioned as such. This was much more effective than if Meredith had felt the obligation to spell out the emerging neo-modernist counteraesthetic. He claimed that "[t]he issue here is not intelligibility vs. obscurity, or popular as against private poetry," but he was protesting too much. These were exactly the issues. That's why Meredith used the phrase "the scope of art"; but he and others were engaged in the work of re-narrowing that scope that had been first widened not by thirties radicals but by modernists earlier--both generations, though very differently, having urged that nothing be considered in itself unfit as poetic material.

TWO: Stein in the Fifties

Well, the fifties really did begin in 1946--on July 28, 1946--the day the New York Times obit file buried one Gertrude Stein and helped raise up a new one--a Stein who might have learned to love th The Ike Age. Stein's fifties run from 1946 to 1957, when John Ashery inaugurated Stein's sixties by writing in Poetry that Stanzas in Meditation was "the most successful of [Stein's] attempts to do what can't be done, to create a counterfeit of reality more real than reality. And if," Ashbery added, "on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do." Until then the fifties' Stein was a poet of the possible.

Before I convey the impression that I think any one version of Stein was generally accepted in the fifties, let me be sure to say that I am aware that she was attacked a good deal in this period--when she was thought about at all. Indeed Williams was right in 1951 to wonder "Why...have we not heard more generally from American scholars upon the writings of Miss Stein? Is it lack of heart or ability or just that theirs is an enthusiasm which fades rapidly of its own nature before the risks of today?" Williams was probably referring to Louise Bogan's Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950, that comprehensive book in which Stein is given one paragraph. A little later, in 1954, in Grant Knight's 229-page survey of literature in the century's first fifteen years, Stein is mentioned in just one sentence. In all his mid-fifties journals, Ginsberg's only brief engagement with Stein is to pass into his notebook a random critical comment Williams made one day in conversation.

So there was some silence, even from usually noisy corners. Meantime, the attacks: they befit cultural anticommunism. When the regionalist writer, Ben Lucien Burman, assailed Stein in 1952 with the usual charges of unintelligibility, the new twist was the use of anticommunist rhetoric borrowed from McCarthy and Hoover, complete with immunological metaphors. Incomprehensibility, artificiality, especially the abhorrence of regionalism were undermining American cultural strength. Midcentury Americans, Burman argued, were bold when it came to their political opinions, but timid when it came to literary opinions; in politics we are safe from destruction because we are certain; in literature we are damnably soft, susceptible to invasion. Here the influence of Stein "[is] still to be found in many strategic strongholds, like the lurking germs of a yellow fever, they must be constantly fought and sprayed with violent chemicals lest the microbes develop again and start a new infection."

In the book-length attack on Stein published in this period by B. L. Reid, Stein's problems were reduced to the neurotic and the unAmerican. Her talk of war as a dance evinces signs of insanity--of "monumental detachment." Because she liked to arrange buttons, she could be said, like lunatics, to have "enormous patience with triviality." Worst of all, she was a poet who liked Burma Shave rhymes--a sign for Reid of sinful "unproductive catholicity"; thus she was guilty by association with the Low, the Unfit, the Pop.

(By the way, Burman had published with his attack a Stein-Joyce Quotation Quiz, aimed at proving to his readers that they could not tell modernism from insanity. I am tempted to give this quiz to my students of avant-garde poetry at Penn, for one of the insane people Burman quoted is really pretty good: "The Lord is my Hospital I shall not want. He marries me green pastors partners. He leadeth me leadeth me leadeth.")

I mention Burman and Reid's idiotic claims against Stein because they were just cruder versions of Karl Shapiro's doubts. In 1956, reviewing the Yale edition of Stanzas in Meditation, Shapiro discovers Stein's essential adolescence: "Do not the [Yale] editors know that every poet at about the age of 17 tries to...create an artificial space-time in which he can 'mean' and 'not-mean' at the same time?" For Shapiro, in fact, Stein was not properly understood as the obscure poet; the better Stein--the Stein now to be preferred--was the poet who "turned to writing about historical relations." He actually said: "[Stein] was on bad terms with the Imagination."

Of course Shapiro was not really in the Reid-Burman camp of anticommunist Modernism-bashers. He was more in the business I think of suppressing a version of modernism others might find in Stein--and the result was to feature and commend the chronicler of an American moment--all in the name of modernist critical first principles! This became an influential strategy--and it had emerged, as I've said, around the time of Stein's death. The Times obituary paid inch-long homage to what most of us in this room consider her major achievement, and moves quickly to the very last period when in her writing "she forgets about herself and her genius" in favor of the really important things--for instance, description of day-to-day life. We are obviously to think that life's experiences cured her of her postnational atomism and led her to the light of a new national holism. The obit quotes Frances Hackett (of all literary people!) noting solemnly that "Hers is a powerful personality, which needed the American army to liberate her." It forces the whole career into the image of a squat sedentary Ernie Pyle, a Yank Magazine Clara Barton--the author of Brewsie and Willie, famous protective friend and confidante of American GI's, putting her finger responsibly on the pulse of a new home-sick home-bound optimistic generation of American men. (Soon Stein herself was homebound, by the way: what a big fuss was made of the arrival at the Metropolitan of Picasso's portrait in 1947.) A logical connection was being forged, with its implication of stylistic cause and political effect: as her later writing is less disjunctive, so her chats with soldiers necessarily convinced her that this generation of men "would not become dissolute in the manner of the generation that lived in the wake of the first World War." Newsweek proclaimed the end of the Stein whom Americans knew as the author of books consisting of "a series of typographical errors written in Paris by an 'arty' woman who should have come home long ago." Stein's coming home wasn't merely celebrated by the arrival of the Picasso at the Met, but later in the publication of the text that helped domesticate and further resemanticize Stein: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), causing a fascinating cold-war media event, a moment of disproportionate cultural interest which had Time magazine quoting "Fudgemaker Toklas" babbling about the recipes as "entertaining refreshment for a Ladies Bridge Club" and suggesting not so ironically the use of the cookbook as a key to understanding "some of Gertrude's less earthly lines." I've studied this odd "publishing event" across U.S. newspapers and weeklies--that is to say, beyond New York--and find it fascinating, but let me quickly say that such a view of Stein in general was not confined to mass media assimilations of an old, by-then-seemingly-disarmed challenge posed by the "word-systems" of the major work.. Take Stephen Spender, in a typically standoffish, skeptical review of Elizabeth Sprigge's 1957 biography; Spender had much to criticize, but praised Stein in a way that stressed the possible, the local, the unabstract, the bodily: she was no longer to be deemed "a genius of invention" but rather a figure of "a good deal of inertia" whose talent lay in "her ability to stay put and hang on" - language that all but undoes newness and expatriation. Spender wrote: "She had a certain massive, weighted-down greatness." This is, I think, something of the American Stein constructed in media commendations of Alice's cookbook.

So the fifties gave us this typical Stein at home: On a Sunday in April 1957, Dale Guhl of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, returned from church, having heard in her minister's sermon a powerfully affecting reference to Gertrude Stein. The minister had pointed out the "real cause of Gertrude Stein's success": she was a nice person who was surprised whenever she met someone who was empty. She expected "a somethingness" in people--was always disheartend to find people "filled with nothingness." This is why, concluded Dale Guhl of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, agreeing with her minister, Gertrude Stein was "a force in modern literature" (unquote).

THREE: It's the Fifties: Don't End Lines with Prepositions

To be conservative in the U.S. in this period meant, if nothing else, holding to the view that the risk of total annihilation was acceptable in return for real security and real containment. This logic quietly sanctioned a qualitative change in the idea of change. For conservative poets this was especially difficult since what one "happened" to see--let's say, as one turned to look out the window, in that standard subjective lyric gesture--was to be described properly in the rhetoric of the natural, the seasonal, the perennial. William Jay Smith's "The World below the Window" seems to be about poets' unchanging vision--sight of quotidian things--things "there still" so long as the poet "think[s] they will" be there. The poet throws open his window and expects the geraniums he put on the sill last night to be there for him to see, a thought that gives way, just as we expect it will, to a modest contemplation of the "Fulfillment" of poetic sight in, say, the rendering in such a poet's poems of birds flying inevitably South, which in turn leads to the thought that such a scene signifies both life and death. Not much of a poem. (At one level of Stevensean modern-lyric competence or another, little poems like this one positively fill the mainstream poetry magazines of the late forties and early fifties.) But what is remarkable is the insertion frequently of what I discern as cold-war language. In the opening stanza of Smith's poem, the triple rhyme (and its attendant suggestion of formal stability and fully met expectation) is counterpoised by the most unlyric phrase "To the best of my knowledge":

     The geraniums I left last night on the window sill,
     To the best of my knowledge now, are out there still,
     And will be there as long as I think they will. 

Even the grandly somber parallelism ending the poem ("In life life-giving, and in death undying") it's hard to imagine reading "To the best of my knowledge" as a pointed, ironized politically-hedging Americanism--diction from the era of subpoenas and phrases formed under oath. The poem also doesn't seem to convey the awareness that it can imagine a time when one could not throw open the casement, when the same geraniums one put out the night before would be gone the next morning--when birds would have migrated a last time--when, in short, the traditional poetic trope of perennialism as merely a metaphorical death would give way to death itself.

"The World below the Window," first published in 1949, was significant enough to Smith to be placed first in the collection, Poems, 1947-1957. In the same book we find "Three-Syllable Sonnet":

     Those Fulbright
     and those Gug-
     genheim Fel-
     lows one meets
     left and right,
     all of them
     here on some-
     thing good -- well, 

perhaps not to be on's a poor show all I know -- with them on, better off.

Smith's headnote indicates that somewhere in the Western Europe of Marshall Plan days, when American intellectuals seemed indeed to have the run of things, he overheard a question posed to one touring grantee by another dictionally with-it American: "What are you over here on?" In other words, of course: On what grant? The dangling "on," which Smith deems an ugly Marshallism, is the basis of the sonnet satire, refuting in itself any claim these foundation- and state-supported representatives of American intellectual culture could make on behalf of their own aesthetic credentials. What better a way for a poet with pretensions to standing in the great modern tradition-- not a cold warrior, but nonethless a "real" poet--to discredit run-of-the-mill Fulbrights and Guggenheims, than to note that the establishment was wasting its money on writers that can't write? However much Smith's position here seems indeed conservative, it is a conservatism at odds with itself: as historians have demonstrated, and as organizations such as the American Committee for Cultural Freedom made fairly clear at the time, a main purpose of sending such American intellectuals abroad was to fight communism by the very demonstration for Europeans of the diversity and robust experimentalism of American art and artists. This arguably effective (and anyway quite conscious) strategy was not universally admired among conservatives; state-supported modernism was not exactly the art which the reactionary film director Leo McCarey and other anticommunists had in mind when they advocated new art forms that, in McCarey's words, avoided "the ugliness of the world" and would "get a point across without giving offense."

The difference between McCarey's popular anticommunism (hidden in It's- Just-Entertainment arguments designed to move Hollywood away from social-problem films) and William Jay Smith's high-cultural or "intellectual" anticommunism here is the difference between works like McCarey's paranoid commie takeover films and a work like "Three-Syllable Sonnet." For what is really the butt of Smith's satire is of course not communism, or poet-dupes of communism, but modernism--or, to be sure, a straw-man version of modernism. What's wrong is not so much

              ...those Gug-
              genheim Fel-

--their presence in Europe as our ambassadors--as the open form the poem satirizes: an anything-goes modernism--of an apparently less responsible generation of over-eager enjambers, adolescent carriage-returners, hyper-active hyphenators. The kind of poetry that enables lineation like "genheim Fel-" and "to be on's" and "lows one meets" is not the sort one cares much to see representing the U.S. abroad. It's not so much that "one meets" these state- and public foundation-sponsored poets "left and right" when in Europe, but that such indiscriminateness produces poetically "a poor show." The geranium on the sill in "The World below the Window" should be "still there" next morning, but so, in Smith's fantasy, should the rule that good modern American poets don't end sentences with prepositions. This generation envy is really about poetry's alleged need once again to put on a good show--the show a matter conveniently separably aesthetic, the need very broadly but still discernibly political.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50sbook/mla-talk.html
Last modified: Monday, 24-Jun-1996 13:22:56 EDT