Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars / Edition 1

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"Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote W. H. Auden in 1939, expressing a belief that came to dominate American literary institutions in the late 1940s—the idea that good poetry cannot, and should not, be politically engaged. By contrast, Michael Thurston here looks back to the 1920s and 1930s to a generation of poets who wrote with the precise hope and the deep conviction that they would move their audiences to action. He offers an engaging new look at the political poetry of Edwin Rolfe, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, and Muriel Rukeyser.

Thurston combines close textual reading of the poems with research into their historical context to reveal how these four poets deployed the resources of tradition and experimentation to contest and redefine political common sense. In the process, he demonstrates that the aesthetic censure under which much partisan writing has labored needs dramatic revision. Although each of these poets worked with different forms and toward different ends, Thurston shows that their strategies succeed as poetry. He argues that partisan poetry demands reflection not only on how we evaluate poems but also on what we value in poems and, therefore, which poems we elevate.

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Editorial Reviews

Carla Kaplan
By offering a truly culturally informed close reading of American political poetry, Thurston's book makes many important things happen: he opens up what we mean by 'political poetry, ' he reshapes literary categories such as 'modernism, ' and he offers a wonderfully readable example of the best sort of mix of literary history, literary criticism, and cultural studies.
Walter Kalaidjian
Examining the formal conventions of traditional English lyricism and experimental modernism, Michael Thurston makes a strong case for poetry's social agency across the divide of modernist political culture.
From the Publisher
By offering a truly culturally informed close reading of American political poetry, Thurston's book makes many important things happen: he opens up what we mean by 'political poetry,' he reshapes literary categories such as 'modernism,' and he offers a wonderfully readable example of the best sort of mix of literary history, literary criticism, and cultural studies. (Carla Kaplan, University of Southern California)

Examining the formal conventions of traditional English lyricism and experimental modernism, Michael Thurston makes a strong case for poetry's social agency across the divide of modernist political culture. (Walter Kalaidjian, Emory University)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807849798
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/12/2001
  • Series: Cultural Studies of the United States Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 9.23 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Thurston is assistant professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Making Something Happen

American Political Poetry between the World Wars
By Michael Thurston

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2654-6

Chapter One

Extract from the Introduction Making Something Happen

Not so very long ago, there lived a poet whom we'll call E. Brought up in a city in the eastern United States, E. decided early on that he would be a poet. He wrote poems while in high school, studied literature and languages, set out to learn from "the tradition" and then supersede it. After experiencing difficulties both in his work life and in his poetic career, E. enjoyed some success with books published by small presses his friends operated. Renowned in the limited circles in which he moved, E. became something of an arbiter of literary quality. He published criticism and, indeed, tried to define the terms by which new poetry should be judged. But his effort to devote wholehearted attention to matters literary was made difficult by events in the extraliterary world. The worldwide financial depression of the 1930s deepened his already intense interest in politics, and E. spent much of his energy working for political causes, both as a writer and in other capacities. When hostilities broke out between Fascists and leftists in several European countries, E. dedicated himself to the defense of a European country to which he had grown intensely attached. He wrote poems about the country and its troubles, he wrote journalistic articles about it, he wrote letters to officials expressing his concern over events and their significance, he wrote and delivered radio speeches. He opposed the United States, his native country, in his devotion to something he saw as larger than national loyalties. These activities, once the war was over, got him into trouble at home, trouble with the law and trouble with parts of the literary establishment, in which his poems were no longer welcome.

E., of course, is Ezra Pound (1885-1971). Brought up in Philadelphia, educated in languages at Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania, fired from his first teaching job at Wabash College, Pound published his first book himself and through the 1920s depended on the presses of his friends and acquaintances. A forceful critical intellect and a shrewd judge of new poetry, Pound made himself the center of poetic modernism (a term he did not use himself) and helped construct the framework through which we still read the poets for whom he proselytized. Interested since the early 1910s in economics and history, Pound devoted himself to these and to political efforts during the 1930s, and when war grew increasingly imminent in Europe and he saw his beloved Italy threatened, he took up verbal arms in poetry, in prose, and on the radio. The difficulties these activities brought him are famous: an outdoor prison cell in Pisa, a controversial Bollingen Prize in 1949, and thirteen years in St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

But E. is also Edwin Rolfe, the Communist writer and unofficial poet laureate of the Spanish Civil War's Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Born in Philadelphia in 1909, briefly educated at the University of Wisconsin's Experimental College, Rolfe was called to poetry early on. Indeed, he took the pseudonym Edwin Rolfe only after being forbidden to publish any more poems in his high school newspaper. Rolfe spent most of his life in New York, moving in 1943 to California, where he lived until his death in 1954. Throughout the 1930s and for scattered periods later in his life, Rolfe worked as a writer, taking jobs with the Daily Worker, Sport and Play, the Furniture Workers Industrial Union's Furniture Worker, the New Masses, Action: Magazine for Jewish Masses, and the Partisan Review, on whose editorial board Rolfe served in the magazine's early years. More important, he also wrote poems, publishing some in the publications he worked for and some in Poetry, Pagany, and the New York Times. His first book, To My Contemporaries, inaugurated his friend, Sol Funaroff's, Dynamo Press poetry series.

A member of the Young Communist League even in high school, Rolfe throughout his life was interested in Marxist economics and politics. He participated in union and party activities in various roles. When the Spanish army, led by General Francisco Franco, rebelled against the Popular Front coalition government, Rolfe answered the party's call for soldiers in the International Brigades. In Spain, he edited Volunteer for Liberty, the brigades' English-language magazine; gave talks on Radio Madrid; and coordinated troop movements. He fought in the Ebro offensive, the International Brigades' last in the war. Upon his return from Spain, Rolfe-a "premature antifascist"-was barred from combat service in the U.S. Army during World War II, denied screenwriting employment in Hollywood, and called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Rolfe worked for Tass, the Soviet news agency; wrote a history of the Lincoln Brigade; and collaborated on documentary film projects and a novel, The Glass Room. It became so difficult for him to publish his poems that he brought out his second book, First Love and Other Poems (1951), in an edition of just 375 copies at his own expense. In fact, Rolfe's last two books of poetry, First Love and Other Poems and Permit Me Refuge, were published during the early 1950s, at the height of the postwar anti-Communist inquisition, the last posthumously. The books, as Allen Guttmann has remarked, suffered under the inquisition, coming out at a moment when the political commitments registered in the poems were cause for public humiliation and criminal prosecution (264). Rolfe died of a heart attack on May 24, 1954.

Similar stories, Pound's and Rolfe's, but one of them we have heard before, whereas the other has all but disappeared from literary history. There are many reasons for this. Pound wrote a great deal more than Rolfe did; his cantos alone triple Rolfe's entire poetic output. Pound was a central agent in literary movements at the heart of most histories of twentieth-century poetry, while Rolfe was a peripheral figure, writing in and for an audience that, though not much smaller than Pound's intended audience, was much less influential and culturally central. And Pound was, by most standards of literary judgment, a much more gifted and accomplished poet. But these standards of centrality and quality are themselves bound up with an assumption, or a set of assumptions, about poetry captured in W. H. Auden's famous shorthand: "[P]oetry makes nothing happen."

Auden's assertion is one of the most famous in modern poetry, as familiar and oft-repeated as "April is the cruelest month" or "Death is the mother of beauty." Like those lines, it has become a shibboleth. Through its repetition, it has engraved itself as an inscription or an epitaph. The latter, of course, is the most appropriate association, for the line occurs midway through what might be the most famous elegy in modern English poetry, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats." More than this, the pronouncement effectively inters the view shared by many poets throughout the 1930s that poetry could, quite directly and concretely, make something happen.

Though this instrumental view of poetry's political possibilities shaped the work of some poets close to him (especially Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis), Auden never really held it himself; he frequently expressed in his verse the pressures exerted on private life by the inexorable forces of history but continually resisted the temptation to yoke poetry to any specific political program. Faced with the ascent of Hitler in Germany and the gains of Fascists across Europe, Auden registered a palpable dread that certainly seems anti-Fascist, but he asserted in essays and practiced in verse the argument that poetry must remain separate from politics. Even when deciding to travel to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and join the International Brigades against Franco, Auden kept his writing and his political commitments rigidly compartmentalized. To E. R. Dodds, he wrote on the eve of his departure for Spain: "I am not one of those who believe that poetry need or even should be directly political, but in a critical period such as ours, I do believe that the poet must have direct knowledge of the major political events" (quoted in Carpenter, W. H. Auden, 207). And Auden's experience of politics in Spain seems to have soured him even on "direct knowledge of the major political events." Auden recorded little about his travels in Spain in 1937, published only a few paragraphs describing Valencia, and refused to comment on his experiences when he returned to England (211-15). When asked by Nancy Cunard to contribute to a collection of writers' position statements on the Spanish government, Auden's response was lukewarm though clearly opposed to Franco and fascism (220). And Auden's most sustained writing about the Civil War, "Spain," continues his practice of working through a pressing historical situation without taking a firm political position, of fending off agendas with polished and powerful ambiguity.

By 1939, Auden had become even more dubious about poetry's capacity to intervene in the political. He had become more distrustful of the realm of politics, had even come to feel compromised by speaking out on politics outside of his poems. In March of that year, he wrote to Dodds again about his relationship to politics: "The real decision came after making a speech at a dinner in New York to get money for Spanish Refugees when I suddenly found I could do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring. I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.... Never, never again will I speak at a political meeting" (quoted in Carpenter, W. H. Auden, 256; emphasis in original). It was in this frame of mind, in the midst of this more extreme turn away from politics, that Auden wrote the section of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" in which the famous line occurs, a section not included in the poem's initial publication (257). That passage is worth quoting now in full:

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all; The parish of rich women, physical decay, Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its saying where executives Would never want to tamper; it flows south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth. (Auden 248)

On one hand, this passage forcefully dissociates poetry from praxis. And as Samuel Hynes shows in his study of "the Auden generation," this is not what Carpenter calls a categorical rejection of "all Auden's attempts during the previous ten years to involve his poetry in politics" (W. H. Auden, 256) but a continuation and distillation of what Auden, throughout the preceding decade, had thought about poetry as it relates to politics. On the other hand, in the poem's context, Auden's pronouncement is more nuanced, more equivocal than the oft-cited short form would have us think. The line, after all, includes not only "poetry makes nothing happen" but also the words that link this thought in a syntax of continuity and make it part of something larger and more complex. History, the force that through society drives politics, drives poetry as well; "mad Ireland," with its class divisions, sectarian strife, and nationalist struggles, provoked the great poet's great poems. But history will continue to happen in spite of the poems' power. Human drives and divisions are as constant, and as constantly shifting, as the weather, and poetry cannot change this fact. But this is not to say that poetry is powerless or dead. "It survives," Auden assures us not once but twice: "it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth." Far removed from the direct action of "executives," poetry remains, an agency if not an act. At the very least, then, it makes itself happen, and as Auden's own poem demonstrates by its influence, poetry makes other poems (and critical judgments) happen. At his elegy's conclusion, Auden specifies a broader potential for poetry:

With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress; In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise. (249)

Even now, at the end of the 1930s and in the midst of a European war, after his skeptical experiments with instrumental verse and political commitment, after proclaiming poetry's inability to affect the machinations of history, Auden holds out a vital role for poetry: the transformation of lived experience into fruitful freedom through the cultivation of imagination. So while "poetry makes nothing happen" in that it cannot directly effect change in history, it makes quite a lot happen in the indirect and mediated ways Auden leaves open for it.

Auden's, of course, is the road most often taken in modern poetry as poet after poet resolves to fashion from his or her subjective responses and linguistic resources a set of interventions not in politics but in imagination. These poets' best efforts have resulted in poems we rightly value. But while Auden's poetic pronouncement is limited in specific ways by his poem's occasion, by its historical moment, and by the rest of the text, the line has come to summarize a set of institutional assumptions about poetry as a special kind of discourse, removed from the world of action and consequence and thus prevented from acting, prevented from having consequences. When, for example, Wayne Booth sets out to summarize his and his colleagues' initial opposition to ethical criticism, he turns to Auden: "We knew that sophisticated critics never judge a fiction by any effect it might have on readers. 'Poetry,' we were fond of quoting to each other, 'makes nothing happen'" (4). Denied the power to catalyze, poetry, in this view, ascends to the inert nobility reserved for elements that cannot combine. A poem, after all, is usually written by an individual and read by individuals. Poems seem the worst possible avenues for political action. They are personal, interior, walled off by form and function from the world of practical politics. And those assumptions set in place a seductive corollary: poems that try to make something happen in the direct way that Auden rules out in his elegy are bad. So poetry cannot do political work, and when it tries to, it is doomed to (poetic and political) failure.

This set of assumptions dominated American literary institutions for a generation, from the late 1930s until the rise of a newly politicized literary criticism in the 1960s. During this time, writers' and readers' expectations changed in fundamental ways. Things widely thought possible for poetry just a few years earlier were now almost universally judged impossible. Poetry could no longer successfully address the political, and poets who tried found that they could not publish, that there were no readers for their work. This decoupling of poetry and politics was brought about by the confluence of national politics, especially the anti-Communist inquisition (beginning before World War II with the Dies Committee and continuing in the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC in the late 1940s and 1950s), and literary politics, where new, formalist methodologies wrought deep changes in the institutions that publish, recirculate, evaluate, and preserve literary works. The terms for literary study in the United States were largely set by this confluence. When Cleanth Brooks, founding father of the New Criticism and coauthor (with Robert Penn Warren) of Understanding Poetry, the textbook that would make it the dominant model of poetic pedagogy in the postwar United States, discusses the 1935 anthology Proletarian Literature of the United States in his 1939 volume Modern Poetry and the Tradition, he easily dismisses political poetry on the basis of these assumptions. "The characteristic fault of [this] type of poetry," Brooks writes, "is sentimentality," the appeal to readers' emotions in an attempt to "move" them (50; emphasis in original). Instead of the intellectualism, the allusive texture and abstruse difficulty of the modern poetry Brooks values (poetry consonant with the tradition of poetry that requires New Critical exegesis), the poems in Proletarian Literature speak in a common and comprehensible language, allude to contemporary events rather than to classical literature, and seek to involve their readers emotionally. These poems, if not transparent, are at least legible to an untrained reader. But these are precisely the qualities that allow Brooks to "convict poems of Genevieve Taggard, Langston Hughes, and others in the collection" (51). Political poetry mistakes its mission; it diverts from the expected and sanctioned track and refuses to remain aloof, concerned only with irony and internal coherence. It tries to make something happen.


Excerpted from Making Something Happen by Michael Thurston Copyright © 2001 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Making Something Happen 1
1 Tradition and the Political Poet: Edwin Rolfe 42
2 All Together, Black and White: Langston Hughes 86
3 Getting the Goofs to Listen: Ezra Pound 135
4 Extending the Document: Muriel Rukeyser 169
Conclusion: The Age Demanded 211
Notes 223
Works Cited 249
Index 265
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