Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960

Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960

Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960

Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960


During the Cold War an unlikely coalition of poets, editors, and politicians converged in an attempt to discreditif not destroythe American modernist avant-garde. Ideologically diverse yet willing to bespeak their hatred of modern poetry through the rhetoric of anticommunism, these "anticommunist antimodernists," as Alan Filreis dubs them, joined associations such as the League for Sanity in Poetry to decry the modernist "conspiracy" against form and language. In Counter-revolution of the Word Filreis narrates the story of this movement and assesses its effect on American poetry and poetics.

Although the antimodernists expressed their disapproval through ideological language, their hatred of experimental poetry was ultimately not political but aesthetic, Filreis argues. By analyzing correspondence, decoding pseudonyms, drawing new connections through the archives, and conducting interviews, Filreis shows that an informal network of antimodernists was effective in suppressing or distorting the postwar careers of many poets whose work had appeared regularly in the 1930s. Insofar as modernism had consorted with radicalism in the Red Decade, antimodernists in the 1950s worked to sever those connections, fantasized a formal and unpolitical pre-Depression High Modern moment, and assiduously sought to de-radicalize the remnant avant-garde. Filreis's analysis provides new insight into why experimental poetry has aroused such fear and alarm among American conservatives.


Then they returned to America crying out, “God is dead! Long live
grammar!”—Edward Dahlberg, “The Act of Concealment” (1952)

The New Deal had sanctified the alphabet.
—Ralph de Toledano, Lament for a Generation (1960)

Counter-revolution of the Word is about conservatives’ attempt to destroy the modernist avant-garde in the anticommunist period after World War II. The antagonists readers will meet in these pages by no means constitute a monolithic force. They were not ideologically of a kind. But aesthetically?. Well, yes, aesthetically they were more or less unified; they knew what they formally opposed, and the narrative of that surprising unity lies at the center of this study. A few of these people did work together, such as the band of poets and poetry editors—most of them reactionary antimodernists—that the prolific Stanton Coblentz helped assemble under the banner of the League for Sanity in Poetry. Others among Coblentz’s colleagues, however, would not have recognized themselves as allies; quite aside from their hatred of modern poetry, differences between them—academic, theoretical, personal—would have gotten in the way. In this telling of the story of the attempt to roll back modernism, to finalize “what might be called the divorce of the two avant-gardes” (aesthetic and political), we see bona fide conservatives joined by a variety of liberal anticommunists who shared the anticommunist ground. The people whom I dub “antimodernist anticommunists” came to the matter of poetry with the real heterogeneity characteristic of the postwar right and so-called New Conservatives. Some of them, like Max Eastman, hardly an unknown—indeed, at one time a major figure—had been both communists and supporters of modernism. Others, like the now-forgotten Read Bain, proudly stood to the left of center on social issues and were willing to tolerate contemporary poets who tended toward the traditional side of the modern idiomatic and metrical scale. Some, like E. Merrill Root, were lifelong radical individualists who were consistent in their beliefs, at least in the abstract, but organizationally made the journey from the communist left to the extreme right—in Root’s case, from editorial posts at the New Masses to the poetry editorship of American Opinion, the magazine of the John Birch Society. Other figures freely conceded that they had moved from left to right: the Poetry Society of America’s A. M. Sullivan, for . . .

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