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

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

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

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


Modernism is typically associated with novelty and urbanity. So what happens when poets identify small communities and local languages with the spirit of transnational modernity? Are vernacular poetries inherently provincial or implicitly xenophobic? How did modernist poets use vernacular language to re-imagine the relations between people, their languages, and the communities in which they live?

Nations of Nothing But Poetry answers these questions through case studies of British, Caribbean, and American poetries from the 1920s through the 1990s. With a combination of fresh insights and attentive close readings, Matthew Hart presents a new theory of a "synthetic vernacular"-writing that explores the aesthetic and ideological tensions within modernism's dual commitments to the local and the global. The result is an invigorating contribution to the field of transnational modernist studies. Chapters focus on a mixture of canonical and non-canonical writers, combining new literary histories--such as the story of how Melvin B. Tolson, while a resident of Oklahoma, was appointed Poet Laureate of Liberia--with analyses of poems by Gertrude Stein, W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot.

More broadly, the book reveals how the language of modernist poetry was shaped by the incompletely globalized nature of a world in which the nation-state continued to be a primary mediator of cultural and political identity, even as its authority was challenged as never before. Through deft juxtaposition, Hart develops a new interpretation of modernist poetry in English-one that disrupts the critical opposition between nationalism and the transnational, paving the way for a political history of modernist cosmopolitanism.


Matthew Hart’s Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing is the first volume in the Modernist Literature & Culture series to focus primarily on poetry, and the first to engage with issues of transnationalism. The modernist canon has been steadily expanding for some time now, not only by including a wider range of cultural objects but also, in response to postcolonial and global studies, by embracing figures and locales formerly thought to exist beyond modernism’s pale. Nations of Nothing But Poetry makes an important contribution to conversations about the transnationalizing or globalization of modernist studies by demonstrating the considerable yield of its key term: synthetic vernacular writing.

Hart derives his concept of the synthetic vernacular from what Hugh MacDiarmid in the mid-1920s called “Synthetic Scots,” an invented literary dialect that combined rare and obsolete instances of Scottish regional expressions with contemporary idioms. Drawing on dictionaries and chance encounters with unusual language in old texts, MacDiarmid created—or synthesized—a Scottish vernacular idiom whose palpable Scottishness nevertheless had a transnational political edge. Depending for its effect on the spectral absence of standard English, and inspired by the macaronic experiments of Joyce and Eliot, MacDiarmid’s synthetic vernacular was aimed at English linguistic and political hegemony in Britain. For Hart the political dimension of MacDiarmid’s poetic practice is representative of a set of issues in modern Anglophone poetry more generally: “the vernacular is not just a linguistic problem,” Hart writes; “it is a discourse of power.”

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