Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars

Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars

Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars

Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars

Synopsis

Poetry makes nothing happen, wrote W. H. Auden in 1939, expressing a belief that came to dominate American literary institutions in the late 1940s--the idea that good poetry cannot, and should not, be politically engaged. By contrast, Michael Thurston here looks back to the 1920s and 1930s to a generation of poets who wrote with the precise hope and the deep conviction that they would move their audiences to action. He offers an engaging new look at the political poetry of Edwin Rolfe, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, and Muriel Rukeyser.

Thurston combines close textual reading of the poems with research into their historical context to reveal how these four poets deployed the resources of tradition and experimentation to contest and redefine political common sense. In the process, he demonstrates that the aesthetic censure under which much partisan writing has labored needs dramatic revision. Although each of these poets worked with different forms and toward different ends, Thurston shows that their strategies succeed as poetry. He argues that partisan poetry demands reflection not only on how we evaluate poems but also on what we value in poems and, therefore, which poems we elevate.

Excerpt

Not so very long ago, there lived a poet whom we'll call E. Brought up in a city in the eastern United States, E. decided early on that he would be a poet. He wrote poems while in high school, studied literature and languages, set out to learn from "the tradition” and then supersede it. After experiencing difficulties both in his work life and in his poetic career, E. enjoyed some success with books published by small presses his friends operated. Renowned in the limited circles in which he moved, E. became something of an arbiter of literary quality. He published criticism and, indeed, tried to define the terms by which new poetry should be judged. But his effort to devote wholehearted attention to matters literary was made difficult by events in the extraliterary world. the worldwide financial depression of the 1930s deepened his already intense interest in politics, and E. spent much of his energy working for political causes, both as a writer and in other capacities. When hostilities broke out between Fascists and leftists in several European countries, E. dedicated himself to the defense of a European country to which he had grown intensely attached. He wrote poems about the country and its troubles, he wrote journalistic articles about it, he wrote letters to officials expressing his concern over events and their significance, he wrote and delivered radio speeches. He opposed the United States, his native country, in his devotion to something he saw as larger than national loyalties. These activities, once the war was over, got him into trouble at home . . .

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