The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: Modernism and After

Article excerpt

The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: Modernism and After. Charles Altieri. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. 245 pp. $89.95 (cloth).

Charles Altieri's book is richly rewarding, but it is also frustrating. The frustration stems in large part from its identity, discussed openly in the book's introduction. It is clear that Altieri considers this an "Introduction" to American poetry, as he compares it to two other introductory works on the same topic also published by Blackwell, namely Christopher MacGowan's Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004), and Marjorie Perloff's 21st-century Modernism: The New Poetics (2002). It is not clear why Perloff's book or Altieri's own are classed as introductions to their subjects, as both forward sophisticated arguments that demand familiarity with their topics on the part of their readership. Altieri rightly points out, however, that MacGowan's book is invaluable for "any student who wants basic information" (2) about twentieth-century America's most influential poets. It allows Altieri to free himself from the demands of a comprehensive survey and to pursue what he terms a more "idiosyncratic path" (2). Blackwell is right, however, not to market his book as an introduction, for as Altieri disarmingly warns us "[T]here will be times when this book will prove somewhat rough going" (2). This is indeed true, but despite this, the central arguments of the book are undeniably fascinating.

Altieri plots the rise of modernist poetry out of its desire to absorb the impact scientific thought had had in challenging traditional conceptions of modes of perception and comprehension. Older scientific models informed the still venerated literary values of "copying nature in order to disclose principles of behavior that could be generalized" (3). Modernist experiment, however, embodied the desire to explore art forms that honored the findings of the "new realism" in science, by shifting attention, in poetry's case, to the "felt moment of perception" (4). This in turn offered hope for "relief from an over-moralized world long on opinion and short on fresh intense modes of feeling" (5). Altieri's focus on the scientific influences on the development of modern poetry brings to the fore his book's focus on "the most important psychological feature of this new constructivism," namely "impersonality," defined here as "the reliance on the expressive power of the work rather than the expressive power of the artist's meditative presence" (6). However, this central feature of modernist poetry also determined the nature of the crisis it was to face, for, as Altieri explains, "[T] he separation on which modernism thrived, between the authority of the art and the presumed and problematic authority of 'sincere' artists, left it with almost no means to take up the traditional roles of delighting and instructing - at a time when an emerging economic depression made the lack of overt instruction seem irresponsible" (7).

Altieri uses Williams to exemplify how "the limitations of early modernism became painfully evident" (99). The poet is seen to move rapidly away from the confidence of Spring and All in 1922, when he had reveled in "how his lyrics might draw 'many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being'" (99). With The Descent of Winter (1928), Williams "finds his imagination haunted by the absence of what might transform making into loving, seeing into compassionate identification" (101). For Altieri, Williams's 1935 collection, An Early Martyr and Other Poems, acts as the arch-signifier of the cul-de-sac into which modernist poetry had run itself, as it sought but failed to find the means by which poetry could reengage with pressing social concerns. …