Interlude: On Progressive Poetics and Unexpected Invitations

Recently I got an invitation to participate in a fascinating collective project led by H.L. Hix of the University of Wyoming. (Not often does something so lovely come unbidden, am I right?) Called Progressive Poetics, the work lives now on his blog, inquire, and describes itself as follows:

The Progressive Poetics project asks each contributor to respond, in light of something she or he has already said in print, to this question:

Poetry makes nothing happen.” (W. H. Auden, 1939)

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (Theodor Adorno, 1949)*

Though often cited as timeless, authoritative truths about poetry, those two pronouncements were made at particular historical moments, in particular cultural contexts, and from particular subject positions. But we (choose any “we” from those of us alive now) occupy various subject positions, live in various circumstances, and stand nearer the mid-twenty-first century than the mid-twentieth. It is not self-evident that we should (continue to) defer to Auden and Adorno, so:

What must or might be said now about poetry?

It resonated with me in many ways: because it is a collaborative undertaking; because of my interest (obsession) with questions of literature and ethics, literature of witness; because the fraught place of poetry in thepoetry_doesnt_suck_button contemporary world is something I make students talk about to excess when I teach Contemporary Poetry–(one semester we all wore this button to spread the word)– etc.  Both poets and critics are part of Hix’s project, which he hopes to eventually move from his blog to a book, though in some ways the sheer size of what the blog can hold makes it a perfect receptacle (see: my still-unwritten essay on “the capacious blog”).

What H.L. Hix sent me was a “string” with some responses he’d already gotten from others (Cherry Smyth and Cynthia Hogue**) for the project that he felt resonated with my own words. They were followed by a quotation he’d chosen from my chapter, “Introduction: Hearing Over,” in the volume that Chad Engbers and I co-edited, Poetry and Dialogism: Hearing Over (Palgrave, 2014).  Calling it a “one-question interview,” H.L. Hix asks that in 200 words a contributor respond to her own quotation and/or to the claims by Auden and Adorno on and against which he has formed the Progressive Poetics project. (200 words??? Gah.)

Here, then, is my small bit in a really large utterance.

Thank you, Harvey Hix, for your kind invitation.


* Hell yeah I linked Adorno to Wikipedia.  Don’t blame H.L. Hix for that outrage.

** Such company!  It makes one’s head woozy with pleasure.


A Generic Post (with images of some usual suspects)



Genre is something I do, so to speak, and have done for awhile.  Most of my colleagues specialize in a particular genre, and they (genres, not colleagues) are of course often used to shape ads for professorial employment.  My specialty, so to speak, genre is poetry in various forms, though there are as well novels I consider to be mine.*  But in addition I teach genre theory or genre studies** in various courses, and so it is extra shameful that I fall into a group of those shamed, so to speak, by periodical studies.


MM Bakhtin



Well, before shame, a detour that interests me.  A good chunk of my poetic genre studies have been on the vaunted and authoritative genre of the epic, and one of the things that I have mused about with this particular beast is that there is no such thing as a failed or bad epic.  If it is bad, then it is simply not an epic– that is to say, some concept of quality is built right into the working sense of the genre itself.  That’s not so of other literary genres: we have failed novels, bad lyrics, poorly wrought plays, really,  really lame short stories—well, so to speak.  But “epic” implies greatness, including in contemporary slang***.  I have been thinking about the fact that the same thing is basically true of the genre little magazine.  Vaunted.  Authoritative even as it sometimes eschews authority (I’m NOT looking at you, Wyndham Lewis).  Exactly



what makes something a little magazine**** and whether or not it should be seen as different than other periodicals that also included or reviewed literature and art is pretty hotly debated, but its quality or importance, or at least its epic, so to speak, reach, is assumed.  And this is (possibly) pertinent: it cannot be a failed little magazine because failure (of finances,of circulation, of endurance) is pretty much part of its definition.

Okay, to the shame, and I better ‘fess up immediately: I have been among the unenlightened who have mined periodicals for specific works and authors.



I’m not proud of it, but there it is.  And of course doing so, seeing the magazine “too often […] essentially as aggregations of otherwise autonomous works,” like an anthology (Brad Evans in Brooker and Thacker Volume II, 145: “a media venue for the collection and distribution of material, as we customarily think of magazines”) is not attending well to its own genre and to the bibliographic/periodical code.***** Funny (strange, laughable): I don’t really do this for contemporary periodicals.  I see articles in a context, even if digital: The Journal of International Women’s Studies; People (to name just a few elitist academic publications).  But when I poke around in the MJP, I have been more liable to search for specific authors or pieces.****** But reading cover to cover, in order, is not part of the expected generic behavior for a magazine.  Unlike the reading expectations for a novel, in which one is intended to move from beginning to end (which one may or may not always do, as long as one is



confessing), reading expectations for a magazine most likely presume skipping around or skipping altogether, reading just what is of interest, pausing on images or text that catch one’s attention but thumbing/clicking past other items.



But even so, obviously, once one thinks of it, the context matters– Scholes and Wulfman say that it is an “error” to think of a story that is published in both a magazine and a book as the same,  even if every word is consistent– what is around it (even if you skip it), its layout, etc.– these are inextricable from meaning (75).  A painting in a museum is not the same as a superior forgery of that painting or a high quality reproduction of that painting OR–here’s the clincher–that same painting in someone’s living room.

My echo, so to speak, for this post, but one that others note as well: sifting the modernist magazines to isolate specific chunks of gold (first published poem by H.D., an earlier version of a Stevens poem) has dangers (among them: “I got a rock”) that mimic the dangers of traditional Modernist studies: distinguishing, even cloistering,the artistic geniuses/genii from a rich, dialogic context.

*e.g., Mrs. Dalloway (step off, Lorentzen and Foss) or The Return of the Soldier.

** that link is to Wikipedia, and it’s a surprisingly rich page.



*** and that link is to the urban dictionary, and it’s a not-surprisingly profane page.  You have been warned.

**** a favorite, from Faith Binckes’s book Modernism, Magazines, and the British Avant-Garde: “the familiar representation [is] of little magazines as small, independent guerrilla units, who are subject to war and insurrection but are rarely open to diplomacy or trade” (40).     Now I AM looking at you, Wyndham Lewis.

Another favorite: “We must learn to stop talking, writing, and thinking as if the category of ‘little magazines’ represents something real in the textual world.  It is a dream category, an attempt to unite periodicals of which the uniter approves and exclude those lacking such approval” ( Scholes and Wulfman, Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction 60).  This gets at my point about the assumed excellence of this (apparently specious) genre.

*****Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” PMLA 121.2 (March 2006),  521.  “Bibliographic code” is an idea usually traced to Jerome McGann, and in their massive Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker argue for a “periodical code” in the study of periodicals, as do some others.  One of the things at stake here is the preservation of ads in periodicals, which have frequently been preserved with such elements excised, thus further/falsely divorcing the intellectual/social/political content from its material circumstances and, as well, obliterating clues about intended audience and periodical networks.

“There are different genres of magazines,” says my eleven-year-old, looking over my shoulder, “but I don’t think a magazine is a genre.”  Generational shame.

****** Conflict?  Attend to periodical publications in their entirety, as a genre– but also, as called for strongly by Scholes and Wulfman in Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction, to digitize them with sophisticated search engines that avert the need to browse and to visualize works and authors in full context.

A Few Don’ts by a Periodical Student

Scholars of Modernism have long noted the period’s propensity for…. well, ism(s): Surrealism, Fauvism, Imagism(e), Vorticisim, Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, (Post-)Impressionism, Symbolism…  While most dictionaries still discuss “ism” according to its lowly history as a noun suffix, “ism” (noun) is understood as an informal term meaning a distinctive (often derogatory or oppressive) ideology or practice.  Even without the implications of derogation, an ism certainly has strictures, rules– at a minimum firmly articulated best practices.  As a noun, “ism” is a word that punctuates the discussion of the modernist periodicals; one of the ways in which each is characterized is whether it does, or does not, act as a mouthpiece for a particular ism, something traceable in editorial statements, manifestos, aesthetic philosophies, or simply the creative work gathered within the covers. The term is present even in the periodicals themselves, as when Jane Heap wrote in 1926 in The Little Review that it has “unostentatiously presented all the new systems of art to America . . . about twenty Isms, in the last few years.”*

Of course, isms can be proactive and exhortative, and they can, as well, be exclusionary and prescriptive.  One of the things that has surprised me about my reading in periodical studies as a discipline (a punishment to correct disobedience; a branch of knowledge) is the extent to which it is also an ism of sorts, with more explicitly expressed rules for best practice than perhaps any other field I’ve encountered in my scholarship.

The most obvious (easily perceived; lacking in subtlety) example so far is from the foundational text by Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman called Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction (Yale UP, 2010).  Foundational architects of the MJP, Scholes and Wulfman use their book in part to give suggestions and set guidelines for teaching and scholarship with modernist periodicals.  [Sidenote: the emphasis on teaching is exemplary (model, rather than cautionary) in the MJP and its offshoots.]  In this particular book, I find phrases such as “reading any magazine from the past must start by taking up a single issue of that magazine” (ideally in one’s hands, with digital access as a lesser but acceptable substitute); or, “The best way to begin reading a magazine like this is simply to read it–to read every page.”  Though Scholes and Wulfman are explicitly directive, it is only their tone, rather than their intent, that distinguishes statements like this from some of my other readings in the field.

Perhaps the sense that one is being given directions (a course to follow; supervision or control), even step-by-step ones, is intensified by the language of/attention to data.  It’s not a word we encounter a lot in literary studies, but it appears rather frequently in the Scholes and Wulfman text as they set out the primary (early; of chief importance) goal of the painstaking (diligent or assiduous; plodding or dogged) task of collecting, listing, graphing information about the modernist periodicals such as price (and changes thereof), editors (and changes thereof), years of publication, size and length (and changes thereof), place of publication (and etc.), and more. I have also been working through the massive, rich (heavy or full-flavored; plentiful; fertile) volumes of The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, and I note formulaic qualities to the essays there as well, which, in addition to their more varied and discursive histories of the personalities, finances, and purposes that shape a given periodical, tend to catalogue information about cover design, paper, major authors published . . .that is to say, data.

Undoubtedly, timelines, lists, tables, and graphs of this information will be invaluable to scholars of the magazines–in no way do I mean to question that.  Rather, I am noting the discourse and collection of data, of clearly articulated or even prescribed best practice, that distinguishes some of the work in this field.  Because my thinking tends to find echoes, I see some interesting parallels to the period of Modernism itself, a time not only of isms and manifestos but also of the increasing professionalization (first known use of “professionalize”: 1856) of literary studies and criticism, motivated partly by the increasing social reliance on skilled scientific interpretation of data as a fundamental way of understanding our world.

* quoted on page 82 of Alan Golding’s “The Little Review (1914-29).”  The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines Vol. II: North American 1894-1960.  Eds. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.  61-84.