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

By Westover, Jeff | Style, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Westover, Jeff, Style


Matthew Hart. Nations of Nothing but Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing. Oxford UP, 2010.

Matthew Hart's Nations of Nothing but Poetry contributes to the growing field of transnational criticism, joining such studies as Anita Patterson's Race, American Literature, and Transnational Modernisms (Cambridge UP, 2008) and Jahan Ramazani's Transnational Poetics (U of Chicago P, 2009). Although Hart derives his main concept of the synthetic vernacular from the poetics of Hugh MacDiarmid, he persuasively explains why the concept also applies to Basil Bunting, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and Melvin Toison.

Drawing on Edward Sapir's belief that "'provincial' language is a fundamental element of literary art," Hart zeroes in on the contradiction between the materiality of language, particularly in the form of dialects, and the universal appeal of successful literature (8). To explain what he means by "synthetic vernacular," he draws on Adorno's claim that "the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived." Hart equates Adorno's concept with "the idea of a language that articulates some collective sense of nationality," while he correlates the thing conceived with the "actual" poetic discourse of nationhood (8). From this perspective, the vernacular can only be synthetic because the sign is never wholly adequate to the concept. Focusing on this divide, Hart explores how different poets from both sides of the Atlantic forge distinctive idioms in relation to their specific dreams of nationhood. He relates his study to modernism's preoccupation with mimesis by examining the way his poets "strain the representational norms of vernacular language to the breaking point, thereby registering the contradictoriness - and uncanny durability - of the politics of locality in a transnational age" (16).

Hart views MacDiarmid's "Synthetic Scots poetry as a creative solution to the problem of reconciling Scottish nationalism and socialist internationalism" (52). He argues that this solution is only partially effective because of Scotland's contradictory status as a partner in promoting the British Empire and as a victim of English linguistic domination. The characteristic gesture of a MacDiarmid poem is always double, as in the following example: "Noisy, inorganic, and dredged up from textbooks and dictionaries, the language of 'On a Raised Beach' . . . binds language to a place . . . and yet reveals it to be always out of place, forever rejoining and remaking the world" (67). To explain this dynamic, Hart contrasts MacDiarmid's method with Pound' s in Cathay: "Rather than comprising a systematic reflection on the contemporarneity of an ethnohistorical type, the 'nexus of personae' at work in MacDiarmid's Scots poems are part of a catch-as-catch-can program to 'represent an alternative Scot' in the present moment" (65). Hart sees this as laudable but also notices that it undercuts the political efficacy of MacDiarmid's thought. In the long run, for MacDiarmid, "poetry ... is the true test of politics, its forms and languages allowing for imaginative complexities far greater than those encompassed by mere theory." Unfortunately, however, "this aesthetic victory has little parallel at the level of activism or political theory" (77).

In his chapter on Bunting, Hart tries to account for the paradox of what the poet "called 'a dialect written in the spelling of the capital' - a Northumbrian vernacular verse, that is, which looks like Standard English" (79). As with MacDiarmid, Hart detects a regional cosmopolitanism at workin Bunting's writing, a quality he connects to synthetic vernacularism. For Hart, the chief tension driving Bunting's poetry is the tension between the dialect of the spoken word and the potential durability of the written word. His poem Briggflatts "never engages with graphic forms of writing without also troubling their suitability for recording a life and defining a Northumbrian poetics" (88). …

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