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One Robust Story?

Philip Coleman

The Cambridge History of American Poetry, edited by Alfred Bendixen and Stephen Burt, Cambridge University Press, 1,326 pp, £143, ISBN: 978-0511762284

Weighing in at over three pounds in hardback, the 1,326 pages of The Cambridge History of American Poetry, edited by Alfred Bendixen and Stephen Burt, are unlikely to make comfortable bedtime reading for many readers. The physical book is so large it’s almost a relief to discover that it’s also available for Kindle – which can be bought for nearly a third of the hardcopy cost. Nonetheless, it is a handsome volume. Musings on the book’s materiality aside, however, who actually reads works like this? Where do they read them (if not in bed) and what do they read them for? Since its publication four years ago the book has received a number of positive reviews, mainly in academic and scholarly journals. Outlining some of the volume’s “possible uses” – from classroom tool to reference work – Rachel Trousdale concluded her review in Twentieth-Century Literature with the suggestion that for “readers with the time, it is enormously satisfying to read it cover to cover: even the most knowledgeable reader will gain insight into the richness, variety, and surprising harmony of American poetry.” It is an immensely satisfying read, for sure, but part of the satisfaction of having read it cover to cover is similar to the sense of smugness readers often feel having finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, say, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Many readers who claim to have read those works probably haven’t read them at all but, to be fair, they often pick them up fully intending to do so, if and when they can find the time.

On that point then Trousdale is absolutely right: it takes a fair bit of time – three years in this reader’s case – to work one’s way through the contents of a book like this, together with all of its additional scholarly apparatus (most of the chapters contain detailed notes and they all have accompanying bibliographies). Given her focus on a single chapter (by George S Lensing) and the editors’ introduction, one doubts whether Mutlu Konuk Blasing had enough time to read the whole book in her review for the Wallace Stevens Journal, but it seems clear that other reviewers – including Walter Hunter in Essays in Criticism, Meredith L McGill in American Literary History, Timo Müller in Amerikastudien/American Studies, and Elisa New in Modern Philology – have given the volume more careful and detailed consideration. On the whole, the book has received a very positive reception to date, but as McGill writes in her response: “The future will give us new literary pasts, many of which will be incompatible with our current sense of the history of American poetry.” If one accepts that view, however, one might wonder about the point of writing (or reading) literary histories at all. Indeed it leads to the question David Perkins posed and sought to answer in a brilliantly useful and succinct theoretical study published in 1992: Is Literary History Possible? Perkins answers in the affirmative, arguing that one “function of literary history is … to set the literature of the past at a distance to make its otherness felt”.

While the essays in Bendixen and Burt’s History reveal the almost overwhelming diversity of approaches, modes, and styles to be found throughout the history of US American poetry’s development – its “otherness” to itself is often felt within and not just between individual generations – one of the book’s central achievements is its ability to bring important aspects of US American poetry’s past into our present moment in ways that speak with urgent freshness to our own time. Far from being set “at a distance”, in other words, many of the essays here, especially those that concentrate on earlier periods, reveal important ways in which the poetry (and poetries) of the nation’s past(s) may be said to inform our sense of ourselves (and of the United States of America) today. In her brilliant opening essay on the American Indian oral tradition, for example, Betty Booth Donohue writes: “Whether or not it is widely acknowledged, the oral tradition persists.” Donohue’s essay provides a wonderful way into the volume and an immediate counter-narrative to US American poetry’s development by emphasising the idea that “the impulse of Native literature is to create or make happen, not to represent or self-express”. It could be argued that there has been far too great an emphasis on projects of national representation and self-expression in the work of later generations of US American poets, and their critics, especially from the late eighteenth century to the present. It has to be said, however, that the essayists assembled here manage to strike a balance in their accounts of various poets’ negotiations of thematic and formal interests. All of the essays in the book are informed by relevant historical and contextual knowledge, but their authors also display exemplary care in their close readings of poems in themselves. The contributors to the book were very well chosen.

In their introduction, Bendixen and Burt explain that their history ends in the year 2000. This is understandable – the book had to end somewhere – but their decision to leave “for the next generation to chronicle” the work of American Sign Language poetry and “poetic texts that depend on new digital media” was regrettable, not least because of the phenomenal global significance of both movements in recent years. One could understand a reader’s disappointment in picking up The Cambridge History of American Poetry – published in 2014 – to discover that it makes no reference to digital poetry, in particular, because it has in fact been around for much longer than the editors suggest, as scholars such as N Katherine Hayles and CT Funkhouser have shown. (Funkhouser traces it back to the 1950s.) A reader might also be disappointed to find that there is no real treatment of the redefinition of “poetry” in the work of contemporary rap/hip-hop artists here, “although … their interplay with other poetic traditions” is explored. Why not treat rap and hip-hop as re-negotiations of “poetry” in themselves, as textual productions that challenge our sense of what poetry has become and means for many readers/listeners in the early twenty-first century?

While Betty Booth Donohue’s essay opens the book by problematising the relationship between written and oral then, Bendixen and Burt’s introduction seems to insist that the “written tradition” is paramount. “We do … discuss work for oral performance where it predates, and where it has proven inseparable from a written tradition,” they insist, but for many of those who appreciate poetry its oral, aural, and performative aspects are paramount – it is absolutely separable from its “written” context. One does not need to refer to Bob Dylan or Kendrick Lamar to make this point – to name just two artists whose work has radically altered our sense of the “poetic” in formal and performative terms over the last few decades. Bendixen and Burt’s introduction offers reasonable explanations for what they have put in or left out, but is it enough to say, as they do, that “the unsettledness of such questions, the difficulty of deciding what matters, has toward the end of the twentieth century become one of the questions that American poetry characteristically takes up”? A reader might be forgiven for assuming that it is an editor’s duty, and responsibility, to make this decision – to say “what matters”. By their omission, it is as if Bendixen and Burt did not feel certain kinds of poetry mattered enough, somehow, for detailed consideration in their history.

It has to be said, however, that the individual chapters in The Cambridge History of American Poetry are all, without exception, superb introductions, overviews and surveys of important moments and figures, contexts and movements, in the development of the poetry of the United States of America from the pre-colonial period to the late 1990s. Granted, some essays are better than others – David Wojahn’s essay on the “Middle-Generation Poets”, for instance, fails to consider recent critical work on the poets he surveys – but then there are real highlights here, such as Charles Altieri’s moving overview of TS Eliot’s work, which concludes with the following single-sentence paragraph: “The earthly aspect of Eliot’s torment ended on January 4, 1965.” There are several excellent essays here on individual poets, each of them written by critics who have established themselves as important scholars in relation to those writers and their times: Eliza Richards on Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Jackson on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ed Folsom on Walt Whitman, Wendy Martin on Emily Dickinson, Siobhan Phillips on Robert Frost, George S Lensing on Wallace Stevens, Bob Perelman on William Carlos Williams, Robin G Schulze on Marianne Moore, David Chioni Moore on Langston Hughes. Some of these essays introduce younger critical voices to an international audience of readers, positioning them alongside established critics, but it is interesting to note that these are also the only essays in the volume that focus on individual poets: other chapters that flag the names of specific figures in their titles (such as Christopher Irmscher on Emerson and his contemporaries or David Bergman on “James Merrill and His Circles”) are concerned with other poets too. This is interesting because it suggests that the volume is structured around a core group of “individual talents”, but the historical and contextual background fleshed out by the surrounding chapters in the volume keeps the reader aware of unfolding social, cultural, political and economic realities.

So the chapters on Frost, Eliot and Williams, for example, are preceded by a compelling overview of developments in the late nineteenth century by John Timberman Newcomb, in which he describes the emergence of poetry as a “vital, expressive form of twentieth-century life”. The vitality of US American poetry in the twentieth century, in turn, as well as the variety of its forms and preoccupations, is given ample expression in many of the chapters that follow, including Rigoberto González on Latino poetry and poetics, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon on Asian American poetry, Walton Muyumba on contemporary African American poetics, Joseph T Thomas on modern and contemporary children’s poetry, and Juliana Spahr on multilingualism in contemporary American poetry. All of these essays reinforce Rachel Trousdale’s belief that “even the most knowledgeable reader will gain insight into the richness [and] variety” of US American poetry by reading Bendixen and Burt’s History, and in some ways they point to new directions for study and research that exceed the editorial boundaries established by the volume as it stands.

That is, of course, the hope of all scholars who write surveys, overviews or histories, and it is hardly surprising that a book edited by two celebrated teachers and critics of US American literature and poetry should leave many readers asking questions and proposing new routes for further study. In one sense, Bendixen and Burt’s introduction can be read as an invitation: it is an admission that more could (and perhaps should) have been done in the book, but it is also a prompt to (younger) readers to continue the work and fill in the gaps left under- or unexplored here. The problem, however, is that for many readers it will not be easy to challenge the authority assumed and embodied by a work such as this. Volumes like The Cambridge History of American Poetry and, more recently, Gerald Dawe’s Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, are often read as providing “master narratives” but in both cases we find examples of critical voices unsettling the broader editorial agenda from within. There is no doubt, for example, that Betty Booth Donohue’s essay problematises Bendixen and Burt’s point about oral poetry in their introduction, and it is again raised and troubled by Juliana Spahr in her profoundly important and far-reaching essay on multilingualism in contemporary American poetry. Readers need to attend to these unsettling if not entirely dissenting voices within the broader monument that is the – and it is The – Cambridge History of American Poetry because they challenge critical (and editorial) ideologies and orthodoxies from the inside. Although it is not the most urgent example, perhaps, a similar case might be made for David Wheatley’s companionable nod to Trevor Joyce and Maurice Scully in his essay on Thomas MacGreevy in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets. Both poets are excluded from the volume, which is unfortunate, but Wheatley gets them into the discussion by other means.

The Cambridge History of American Poetry is clearly a major addition to the field of US American poetry studies. Earlier histories, such as Jay Parini’s Columbia History of American Poetry (1993), remain useful, as do studies such as Roy Harvey Pearce’s The Continuity of American Poetry (1961). “American poetry has not had its historian,” Joseph N Riddel suggested in a review of Pearce’s great book in 1962, but even since then the field of American poetry has expanded in radically unexpected ways and our sense of its development has accordingly been written and re-written by critics for whom the ideas of “history” and “poetry” – and what it means to be “American” – are open to constant renegotiation. The scholars who contributed to Bendixen and Burt’s volume all add to this work in new and significant ways, ultimately challenging the idea that there is or can ever be “one robust story about American poetry” or, indeed, its “history”.


Philip Coleman is an Associate Professor in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Fellow. His latest book is George Saunders: Critical Essays (2017), which is co-edited with Steve Gronert Ellerhoff. He is currenly working on an edition of John Berryman’s correspondence for Harvard University Press.



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