Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

American Poetry after Modernism: The Power of the Word

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

American Poetry after Modernism: The Power of the Word

Article excerpt

American Poetry after Modernism: The Power of the Word, by Albert Gelpi. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 316 pages.

Albert Gelpi has now completed his critical trilogy on US poetry, a project nearly fifty years in the making. The trilogy--composed of The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet (1975), A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950 (1987), and this present book, American Poetry after Modernism: The Power of the Word (2015)--is a rare scholarly enterprise. It closely examines high points in American poetic history from Edward Taylor to Susan Howe. I can think of a handful of similarly ambitious projects over the years: Roy Harvey Pearce's The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), Hyatt Waggoner's American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968), Edwin Fussell's Lucifer in Harness: American Meter, Metaphor, and Diction (1973), and Mutlu Konuk Biasing's American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms (1987). But none of these was published recently, and none took three volumes and almost a half-century to complete. None has quite the scale and sustained ambition of this enterprise. Gelpi's trilogy is unique.

It must be admitted that the trilogy has a major limitation, of which the author seems aware--a fatal flaw in the project's highest aspirations. But let's defer consideration of that issue for a while as we consider the very real achievements of the trilogy and of the present, culminating volume.

The Tenth Muse, essentially a study of nineteenth-century American poetry though it does find a foundation in the seventeenth-century writings of Edward Taylor, sought to pursue a formalist methodology while still associating the poetic text with the living consciousness--and the unconscious--of the poet who produced it. Indeed, Gelpi saw the close engagement of the poem with the poet as a feature that differentiates American poetry from British. The book attempted to modify the discursive orientation of honored precursors, the New Critics, with a humanistic and psychological awareness. It was a study of words on a page that arise within the discursive institution of poetry, yet remain attached to an embodied author with a certain way of perceiving and ordering experience. As Gelpi put it, his purpose was "integrative: to combine a literary-historical and textual reading of the poems with a psychological sensitivity" (1975, xi). Relatively traditional in its views of both textual artistry and the psychic process of creativity, the book was nevertheless quietly innovative in its effort to synthesize the two. Equally important, the book implicitly established a canon of American poetry before 1900, consisting of Taylor, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson.

The book's most memorable and influential achievement is its emphasis on Dickinson, who was still a contested figure in 1975. Floyd Stovall's canon-making Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism first appeared in 1956 and is still in print today; a revised version, edited by James Woodress, appeared in 1963, and was further revised and republished in 1971. This volume, in all of its iterations, included the same eight writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, James, Melville, Poe, Thoreau, Twain, and Whitman--but not Dickinson. So when Gelpi concluded his study with a chapter on Dickinson--a chapter that was far longer and more intense than any of the others--he was certifying that the US literary canon had a new, female member. Gelpi argued that Dickinson was, in fact, the most complex and even heroic poet in nineteenth-century America. He found "much more fundamental inconsistency in Dickinson than in Whitman, for all his talk about self-contradiction, precisely because she accepts interplay and counterplay as the condition of consciousness and takes the risks involved in living them out" (1975, 222).

A Coherent Splendor (1987), arriving a dozen years after The Tenth Muse, had two different, though related, arguments to make. …

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