Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry

By Seiler, Claire | Twentieth Century Literature, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry


Seiler, Claire, Twentieth Century Literature


Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry, by Justin Quinn. Oxford University Press, 2015. 218 pages.

Justin Quinn's new book tracks the movement of Central and Eastern European (primarily Czech) and American, British, and Irish poets and poetry across the Iron Curtain between 1948 and 1989. As Quinn stresses, the unassuming preposition across is key to his approach. Studies that remain on either side of the Cold War's principal geopolitical divide, or within a single nation or language, afford only "an impoverished sense of the unprecedented transnational dynamic of the era" (42) and its poetry. Nor will comparison of putatively discrete traditions suffice to enrich that sense. Between Two Fires instead returns to one of the foundational insights of transnational studies, namely James Clifford's description of cultural exchange and other "practices of displacement ... as constitutive of cultural meanings rather than as their simple transfer or extension" (quoted in Quinn, 24). Quinn emphasizes poetry's traversal of "the well-policed borders [and] formidable linguistic obstacles" of the Cold War. Between Two Fires attempts to show how poetry "was transformed in the process" (25) and by the circumstances of its own movement during the conflict.

Quinn's history begins with the treacherous conditions in which Jan Zabrana, in 1950s Prague, translated radical American poets into Czech (chapter 2). It then moves to the critical, institutional, and interpersonal means by which Mirsolav Holub and other poets of Warsaw Pact nations achieved extraordinary visibility in the field of Anglophone poetry beginning in the 1960s (chapter 3). Recounting how Czech and American poets came to read and reimagine one another's work from within their respective Cold War contexts, these core chapters constitute a significant contribution to the transnational literary history of the latter half of the twentieth century. Quinn's subtle translations and readings of Zabrana and Holub alone would be of value; but no other scholar offers anything approaching so textured an analysis, in English, of the literary-cultural field in Prague during the first two decades of the Cold War, from the Soviet-backed Communist Party of Czechoslovakia's seizure of power in early 1948 through the Prague Spring of 1968. The book makes a persuasive case that it is "impossible to form a complete picture of poetry in the [Cold War] US or UK without reference to translations from [the] world" (3) on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The opening chapter positions Between Two Fires in relation to recent work in world literature, Cold War cultural studies, and transnational literary studies. By Quinn's reckoning, these fields have broadly neglected the geographic mobility, aesthetic and linguistic malleability, and political manipulability of Cold War-era poetry. Although this stocktaking chapter too often siphons off its critical energy by calling out weaknesses in other scholars' work, its attention to the mutual implication of transnational and Cold War cultural studies will prove instructive for scholars in both fields. Drawing on Stephen Clingman's (2009) work on narrative, Quinn observes that transnational criticism broadly replicates established "routes of scholarship, above all through the binaries of modernism and postmodernism, colonialism and postcolonialism" (21). For Quinn's project, the latter binary is of greater concern than the former. Since the "structure of center-periphery that marks postcolonial theory ... persists in transnational criticism in the form of the First World-Third World framework" (3-4), that criticism perforce neglects the literature of the "Second World" (5). [1] Quinn further observes that transnational literary scholarship tends to restrict itself to a single language, English, and to a single genre, the novel. The study most proximate to Between Two Fires, Jahan Ramazani's A Transnational Poetics (2009), is an exception to the genre rule of transnational literary studies as Quinn describes it. …

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