Brian McHale reviews Alan Filreis' Modernism from Right to Left

McHale, Brian, "The Red Decade and the Blue Guitar." Poetics Today, Vol. 18, No. 1. Spring 1997, p. 113-116.

Alan Filreis, Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture, no. 79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiv + 376 pp.

Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. xvi + 316 pp.

Only very rarely does a work of literary-historical scholarship map out a terrain of research so authoritatively and with such imagination that it is as though that terrain were freshly discovered. The value of the "discovery" is confirmed when subsequent researchers begin to use the map to navigate the new terrain. This is precisely the relationship between the two books under review here and Gary Nelson's trailblazing Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (1989).

In Repression and Recovery, Nelson conclusively demonstrated how much of the literary history of the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century had literally been lost, consigned to oblivion, through the operation of mechanisms of deliberate cultural repression. His book inaugurated a project of restoring to cultural memory the poems, poets, poetry journals and presses, indeed entire schools and movements that had been edited out of the literary- historical record. To recover these lost poets and movements is not only to make available again texts that are valuable in their own right (whatever that might mean) but, more importantly, to restore the cultural context in which all writers operated in those decades, the "major" as well as the "minor" ones, the canonical as well as the forgotten. In short, Nelson's map of modern American poetry recovers for us an entire landscape that most of us never even knew existed.

And now Walter Kalaidjian and Alan Filreis have used Nelson's map to explore regions of that rediscovered landscape. The marks of their indebtedness to Nelson are everywhere; indeed, they make no effort to hide them. Explicitly acknowledging Nelson's inspiration, each revisits some part of the corpus that Nelson has restored to our awareness, and pursues one or more of the lines of inquiry opened by Nelson's project. Kalaidjian, for instance, pursues Nelson's provocative linking of verbal and visual arts in the interwar decades; but where Nelson focused on works of visual art directly associated with his literary corpus—illustrations, editorial cartoons, book jackets and decorations—Kalaidjian ventures further afield, investigating the iconography not only of book jackets and illustrations but also of Constructivist posters, the mural art of Diego Rivera and the women artists of the Depression-era Federal Arts Project, and the work of various postmodernist activist artists. Unfortunately, Kalaidjian's publisher has not allowed him the luxury of the kind of color reproduction that made Repression and Recovery such a visually splendid book; he has had to make do with plain black and white.

Filreis, on the other hand, does not particularly take up this visual-arts aspect of Nelson's recovery project. Happily, this has not prevented him from reproducing one astonishing find (69), a caricature from the Yale literary magazine, the Harkness Hoot, showing Wallace Stevens playing a one- string guitar. This image appeared in 1933, fully three years before Stevens began composing "The Man with the Blue Guitar"!

What Filreis does take up, however, and in a big way, is Nelson's challenge to recontextualize the canonical modernist figures relative to their newly restored and newly expanded literary and cultural milieux—to reread the "foreground" figures against their rediscovered "backgrounds." Nelson tended to restrict his own gestures of recontextualization to slyly provocative one- liners; for example, he devoted exactly one sentence to the The Waste Land in the course of an extended discussion of 1920s modernist poetry studded with the names of forgotten poets and the titles of poems no longer read. Filreis, by contrast, has developed a richly nuanced, elaborately documented account of Wallace Stevens's relationship to the left-wing poets, publishers, and reviewers who were his contemporaries, his rivals, and even (to a certain extent) his allies.

The cornerstone of this account is Stevens's long sequence Owl's Clover (1936), one section of which ("Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue") is explicitly conceived as a rejoinder to and dialogue with one of Stevens's left-wing critics, Stanley Burnshaw. Owl's Clover, however, is almost too easy a case. It is, indeed, a textbook instance of the operations of cultural repression described by Nelson: by the time the poem was published in book form in 1938, Stevens had already censored it, editing out Stanley Burnshaw and much else that is explicitly "political" besides; subsequently, the text was entirely omitted from his 1954 Collected Poems, appearing only in the Opus Posthumous of 1957. More striking, because more unexpected, is Filreis's careful demonstration of the intimate dialogic relationship between "The Man with the Blue Guitar" and the left-wing discourses of Stevens's milieu. This is unexpected because nobody until Filreis has taken "Blue Guitar" for a "political" poem in any sense—that is, nobody has done so since we conveniently "forgot" the very texture of 1930S literary culture.

I do not, however, want to give the mistaken impression that Kalaidjian and Filreis are merely Nelson's epigones, dutifully carrying out a research program devised by their master. Quite the contrary, while they indeed begin with certain of Gary Nelson's literary-historical premises, each extrapolates differently from them—differently from Nelson and differently from each other. Kalaidjian, for instance, shuttles back and forth between the interwar years and our own time, the i98os and 1990S, developing a number of fruitful juxtapositions and comparisons between politically radical modernism and the radical practices of postmodern artists. Especially illuminating is his juxtaposition (in chapter four) of the "transpersonal poetics" of so-called Language writers, such as Fanny Howe, Alan Davies, Bruce Andrews, and Bob Perelman, and the subversive poetry of Kenneth Fearing, a radical 1930s poet who is long overdue for revival and reconsideration. Kalaidjian also explores the "interventionist" visual art of Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Mike Mullican, and others, in a context enriched by his earlier discussions of Soviet Constructivism and its American reception, and of Depression-era mural projects.

Filreis, meanwhile, develops a particularly fine-grained aesthetics of reception, based, however, not on an Iserian "implied reader" or Riffaterrean archilecteur or any other such construct, but on the empirical, documentable readings and responses of Stevens and his contemporaries. Kalaidjian, too, has valuable things to say (160-65) about the left-wing reception of, for instance, the radical (but evidently "incorrect") poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. His version of "reception," however—and almost anyone else's, for that matter—looks crude beside Filreis's nuanced account of the "circuits of reception" (185), or the "circle of reputation and response" (62) that joins Stevens and his critics. This circle was a tight one: Stevens' left-wing literary-political readers, writes Filreis, "constructed the setting in which he was read by still others, and in which he read himself (10; Filreis's emphasis).

Filreis's attentiveness to the dynamics of actual reception yields fruit of more than one kind. For one thing, it allows him to demonstrate, absolutely convincingly, how Stevens's "Blue Guitar" inscribes the opposing voices of the poet's own cultural moment, in effect anticipating in its internal dialogue the actual external dialogue that the text would provoke among its various readers (279-290). This demonstration is a tour de force of literary-historical reconstruction; but no more so than Filreis's more general and, I presume, more controversial argument about the evolution of the lyric in response to the Popular Front aesthetics of the mid-1950s (206-10).

This literary-historical episode traces another tight circle of reception. Responding to initiatives to forge alliances with progressive but non-communist cultural figures, left-wing critics began actively to seek ways of "redeeming" bourgeois lyric poetry. The most successful means they developed involved reading the lyric as a troubled reflection on its own status, as expressing, more or less inadvertently, the poet's doubts and confusion—a salutary confusion, however, from which he or she might yet emerge into the certainty of commitment. Poets such as Stevens began, in turn, to shape their lyric personas in response to these new Popular Front protocols of reading; they began, in Filreis's words, to "thematize the lyric 'confusion' conveyed by the disorganized artist" (212).

Thus, according to Filreis, the left-wing critics of the Popular Front period actually invented, under the pressure of contemporary political exigencies and in collusion with the poets themselves, the strategy of reading the lyric as self- reflective, as poetry-about-itself, that has subsequently had such a long and successful career in poetry criticism. No wonder, then, that Filreis is able so confidently to conclude that "the American mid-thirties marks a significant moment in the lyric's long thematic evolution" (207). These are pretty heady claims, and are sure to invite argument; for instance, didn't Mallarme have something to do with the evolution of lyric poetry's thematization of its own status? Nevertheless, whatever our reservations, Filreis certainly does compel us to rethink—as, indeed, do Kalaidjian and Gary Nelson—our casual, unreflective, and uninformed dismissal of the radical poetry of the interwar decades as unworthy of serious aesthetic (whatever that means) consideration.


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