Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.
By this author
Are you Team Pound or Team Stevens? It’s a question that readers of modern poetry often end up asking themselves. All would agree that both Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens are important to the history of modern poetry; that, without The Cantos and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” without “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Plain Sense of Things,” modern poetry would be a fundamentally different thing. But agreeing on a poet’s importance doesn’t mean agreeing on a poet’s value, and, as Marjorie Perloff and other critics have noted, lovers of Pound tend not to be lovers of Stevens and vice versa.
Moreover, choosing sides here seems to express something more than mere personal preference. Do you believe that poetry is about subjectivity and the imagination? That it speaks not so much to the world as to “the delicatest ear of the mind,” as Stevens put it? That, in other words, poetry is the self speaking to the self about the self? Then you’re probably on Team Stevens, along with Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and others. Or do you believe that poetry is about hard surfaces and sharp angles, about particulars rather than essences or types? And that it should—indeed, must—include not just the self but also history and politics and economics? Then you’re probably on Team Pound—and a venerable team it is, counting Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie among its members. To love both Pound and Stevens is akin to loving both the Yankees and the Red Sox: it’s possible, but not particularly likely.*
Lawrence Joseph, whose “In Parentheses” appears in the current issue of Commonweal, is one of the rare poets—really the only one I can think of—whose work belongs to the traditions of both Pound and Stevens. Joseph has been hailed as one of the great poets of post-9/11 America, and rightly so. His most recent collection, Into It (2005), charted the serious damage done by America’s endless wars—damage done to those we’ve invaded and to ourselves. In “Rubaiyat,” for instance, we see soldiers, aided by digital cameras and the Pentagon’s Military Diaries Project, turning horror into home movies: “soldiers starring in their own / war movies, training digital cameras // on themselves—a child is put / in a wheelbarrow after stepping on a mine. / Politics? Personified.” Joseph trains our eyes to see politics personified—to remember the particular, real, and mangled bodies that are elided beneath the abstract label of the War on Terror. The child’s body is mangled, and so too is America’s politics and its soul. War begets war, violence begets violence, and our war footing now seems permanent: “Cyberwar and permanent / war, Third Wave War, neocortical war, / Sixth Generation War, Fourth Epoch / War …”
Yet what I want to focus on isn’t Joseph’s strength as a poet of war and its aftermaths, although his strength as such is considerable. Rather, I want to talk about how Joseph’s work bridges the gap between two very different conceptions of modern poetry: the meditative, self-interrogating poetry of Stevens and the fractured, history-interrogating poetry of Pound.
In early 2014, two of America’s best liberal journalists, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, engaged in a public debate about the history of race in the United States. Chait offered a tempered but optimistic reading of American racial history as a “progression” from slavery to Jim Crow to desegregation to President Barack Obama.
Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:
Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.
(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)
This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:
"I look at the people queuing at the till, and I wonder are they going home, or are they going far away from the people they love. There are no other journeys.
In Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon—a John Ashbery–loving, Jacques Derrida–spouting young poet—asks himself a rhetorical question: “Who wasn’t squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it, lying every time she said ‘I’?”
Danielle Chapman is a poet sensitive to life's intensities. Her new collection, Delinquent Palaces, regularly charts the fierceness of sensory experience, how the world, in its overabundance and strangeness, can strike us like revelation, as when she describes a "wad of gum" being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: "Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness."
Literary biography is perhaps the hardest genre to get right. Though spending lots of time in the archive is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. You need to turn this research—the lunch receipts and discarded drafts and report cards and love letters—into a compelling narrative; you need to present not just a sequence of events but a life, with its recurring motifs and central dramas, its rising action and sudden reversals. Likewise, though citing from the work is crucial, it’s not enough. You need to be a critic, able to tell us how the poems or novels or plays work, how they fit into the broader fields of literary and social history.
Finally, and most importantly, you need to have a theory of how the life and the work relate to one another. You can’t reduce the work to the life, but you have to show how the life informs the work. You can’t claim that biography explains any given poem or novel, but you have to show how the alchemical transformation happens.
There are so many ways to screw things up, and the list of those literary biographers who have screwed things up is long and venerable.
This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:
My next column for the magazine features a review of Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, so I'll keep my proselytizing short here. Rankine has written several strong collections before, but Citizen (2014) is of an entirely different dimension, especially in terms of formal originality. The book blends poetry, prose, and visual art, all in an attempt to show how race continues to shape and deform the American experiment.