When Did Modernism Begin? Formulating Boundaries in the Modern Anthology

Article excerpt

BLANDNESS AND STRUGGLE, AT TIMES, CO-EXIST in odd settings. The modern poetry anthology, for example--its introductions are both the site of the blandest prose ever written in English, as well as a passionate struggle over the boundaries of an archive. As the place where aesthetic principles were articulated and the boundaries of the archive delineated, the introductions to anthologies are not made up of very promising writing. Their bland conventionality fairly leaps out at one. All anthologies make similar, generalized noises in their prefatory remarks. They articulate their unimpeachable aesthetic standards and grumble about what they have had to omit. They make general claims for a catholicity of taste, and for the value of poetry now being written. Many make nervous sounds about copyright.

But within their bland prefaces modern poetry anthologies also record a struggle about an emergent entity and the conditions under which that entity--which became known as modernism--might be known, represented, and archived. The struggle was all the more passionate because the first generation of modern anthologies represented a literary period that was still under construction, that was still producing poetry. The site of an awkward, self-conscious struggle over its principles of inclusion, the modern poetry anthology, anxious not to appear arbitrary, could not leave its organizing principles alone. Particularly anxious about when modernism began, modern anthologies come up with competing claims: in 1870, or with those born after 1840, or with Whitman, or with Hopkins--or even William Ernest Henley, perhaps. The dates change with editors' commitments to various ideological definitions of modernism, and so at times modernism begins in France with Baudelaire, or with the Georgian anthologies (5 vols., 1912-22), or with Chicago's Poetry magazine (1912-).

Now, trying to decide which of these starting points correctly locates the beginning of modernism probably leads only to naively empirical coffee-room chat. It is more productive to redirect the question, to look at what is at stake when one claims that modernism began. Such an approach commences by looking at how anthologists' uncertainty about dates manifests itself. Harold Monro, in his 1929 edition of Twentieth Century Poetry, is typical both in his assertiveness and his hedging: "The name of the book should not be accepted too literally. Its intention is to cover the whole of our own period. What then is our Period? Chronological Pedantry would naturally confine it within certain decades.... Certain chronological boundaries were necessary, though as arbitrary as possible." This was not a comfortable principle for Monro; "arbitrariness" was not enough. A page later he finds it necessary to justify including Hopkins, whose dates appear outside the anthology's chronological range. Argues Monro: "But Chronology may now be dropped, he [Hopkins] belonging temperamentally and technically to the Twentieth Century, not to the Nineteenth" (7, 8). There is anxiety about claiming temporal boundaries, since under the pressure of creating a satisfactory archive of poetry--one with principles of inclusion and exclusion that do not limit themselves to the chronological--they inevitably became fuzzy.

But Monro's is not just an anthologist's nuts-and-bolts anxiety about including or excluding individual names; his anxiety (like that of all modern anthologists) is tied to the principles of inclusion themselves, to history, to modernism as an event. Directed at the principles that individual names represent, Monro's anxiety reveals that, in order to understand modernism's origins and how these anthologies constructed modernism as a concept, we need to flip the question from one of production to one of reception. The question is not about when modern poems were first produced; rather, the question is more fruitfully asked about what the conditions were that first made it possible to think of modernism as an event. …


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