Nations of Nothing but Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing

By Redding, Patrick | College Literature, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Nations of Nothing but Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing


Redding, Patrick, College Literature


Matthew Hart. 2010. Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing. New York: Oxford University Press. $55.00 hc. 256 pp.

Matthew Hart's Nations of Nothing But Poetry is the first volume in the new Oxford series "Modernist Literature and Culture" to focus primarily on poetry and to engage with issues of transnationalism. Hart's book, and the Oxford series more generally, are representative of what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz have called the "the New Modernist Studies." Two of the most distinctive features of this methodological shiftin the study of modernism are an emphasis on approaching literary objects and languages from beyond the confines of the nation state and a new openness to literature's engagement with mass media. Much of the intellectual energy of Hart's book derives from the ambitious and elegant way it conceives of modernism as a transnational formation. Hart's specific intervention in the field rests on his claim that modernist vernacular poetry-often associated with the regional or the local-is in fact deeply aware of its position within multinational and global networks of language, culture, and political power.

In terms of its desire to sustain a rigorously comparative angle of vision, Hart's book succeeds at almost every turn. Hart builds on the work of Anita Patterson, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Charles Pollard to call our attention to a unique constellation of vernacular poets from Scotland, the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean who are nonetheless engaged in a common intellectual project. The central figures discussed in Nations of Nothing But Poetry are Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting, Kamau Brathwaite, Melvin B. Tolson, Harryette Mullen, and Mina Loy, though W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot also make significant cameos. Such an eclectic list of poets indicates the synoptic nature of Hart's interests and the surprising nature of his claims about relationships across national and temporal boundaries. His ambition is nothing less than an account of twentieth-century vernacular poetry as a social force across the globe.

Fittingly enough for a book concerned with acts of synthesis, Nations of Nothing But Poetry fuses theoretical models from across several disciplines. Hart draws upon major currents in modernist and postcolonial studies: theories of the vernacular and "minor" literature, "Afro-modernity," and arguments about diasporic and world literature. The writings of philosophical critics of political power-Giorgio Agamben, Etienne Balibar, Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, David Harvey, Fredric Jameson-as well as leading theorists of postcolonial and diasporic thought-K. Anthony Appiah, Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Frantz Fanon, Dilip Gaonkar, Simon Gikandi, Paul Gilroy, Edouard Glissant, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak-are cited frequently and with great precision in this book. Unlike some academic studies with a prominent theoretical armature, Hart also has a good ear for the vernacular. He is a careful close reader, offering nuanced and pointed remarks about the lexical and formal elements of individual lines of poetry. His discussion of Pound's translation of Women of Trachis and Mullen's Muse & Drudge were particularly insightful to this reader, casting those works in an entirely new light.

While attentive to details of poetic form, Nations of Nothing But Poetry persistently focuses its attention on the relation between different scales and temporalities of social analysis. Hart conceives this book not as a series of commentaries on diverse poets across the globe, but rather as a justification for fresh conceptual frameworks that can attend to the experience of 'alternative modernities.' He argues that the uneven economic, spatial, and temporal developments of modern life must be understood without reference to a single norm (historically derived from the West). For this reason, the category of 'nation' receives extended critical treatment in Hart's analysis. …

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