ACTIVE ROMANTICISM: THE RADICAL IMPULSE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AND CONTEMPORARY POETIC PRACTICE by Julie Carr and Jeffrey Robinson, eds., Reviewed by George Bornstein
 

ACTIVE ROMANTICISM: THE RADICAL IMPULSE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AND CONTEMPORARY POETIC PRACTICE
Eds. Julie Carr and Jeffrey Robinson
(Alabama, 2015) 276pp.
Reviewed by George Bornstein on 2015-06-25.

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The fourteen essays in this collection make for a book that is difficult to review. On the one hand, the essayists aim to show the survival of what they call an "active romanticism" in modern and even more in postmodern poetry. On the other, they aim at a genealogy of that impulse, as the subtitle indicates. The volume succeeds better in the first aim than in the second, perhaps because the contributors are mostly active poets rather than scholars. Poet-critics are not necessarily the best critics. Even T. S. Eliot, a poet-critic treated here only briefly and dismissively, thought poets too preoccupied with their own poetry to write disinterestedly about anyone else's. In "The Music of Poetry" (1942), he confesses that "I can never re-read any of my own prose writings without acute embarrassment," and goes on to explain why. According to Eliot, the poet "is always trying to defend the kind of poetry he is writing, or to formulate the kind that he wants to write. . . he sees the poetry of the past in relation to his own . . .He is not so much a judge as an advocate [and] his knowledge is likely to be partial. . . What he writes about poetry, in short, must be assessed in relation to the poetry he writes." The poetry that most of the contributors to this volume write tends to be avant-garde, distrustful of the traditional "I" or subject, socially engaged, and formally innovative. The contributors resist conservative mores, traditional gender roles, social conventions, and constraints in general.

In their introduction, editors Julie Carr and Jeffrey Robinson clearly state their aims. They define "active Romanticism" ideologically as a "poetic response . . . to a 'social antagonism' (Marx, Adorno) to lift a repression that, at its core, keeps democratic pluralism in check" (1-2). They offer four premises to which active Romanticism subscribes: the poet writes as a social being aware of exclusion, inequity, and repression; Romanticism is a "continuum" of formal beings critical of a social situation; it challenges prevailing forms and language, which it recasts from a democratic point of view; and finally, like Shelley's west wind, it "scatters its sparks among later iterations of itself" (5). In other words, the editors champion a poetry of the oppositional left, though one capable of drawing on modernist poets like Ezra Pound, who stood on the right but scathingly opposed the poetry and politics of his time, always trying to "make it [poetry] new."

The editors' view of poetry is sharper than the accompanying view of scholarship. Here they rely more on textbook anthologies than on the work of earlier Romanticists, whom they see as continuing to preach a nineteenth-century poetics of the self. In dismissing major critics like Meyer Abrams, Geoffrey Hartman, and Harold Bloom as "conservative," the editors fail to indicate that these three belonged to the first generation of Jewish scholars in what had previously been all-gentile English departments, and they do not even mention scholars like David Erdman or Carl Woodring, who wrote on Romantic politics. Some of this neglect presumably derives from the volume's heavy reliance on Poems for the Millenium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (2009), co-edited by Robinson and the poet Jerome Rothenberg. But whatever the cause, the editors neglect a half-century of scholarship on the political and social implications of Romantic poetry. The one Romanticist whose work they seem to appreciate and utilize is the justly influential commentator Jerome McGann, who can hardly be tagged either conservative or a-political. Perhaps not co-incidentally, McGann provides the blurb printed on the back cover of this book.

Of the first three essays, the third is the strongest, but the first two--by Elizabeth Willis and Don Beachy-Cook --are worth noting. After nimbly examining Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden in the manner of much recent Emily Dickinson criticism, Willis turns to her own poetic poetic volume, Meteoric Flowers, ending with its evocation of Walt Whitman. In the second essay, which features more jargon than the first, Beachy-Cook rehearses some well-known passages from Thoreau, Keats, and others. In the third essay, the distinguished poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis recycles parts of earlier work to focus on "gender represented, constructed, and played through in the literary tradition" (47). After pairing Ezra Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" with Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper," she proceeds through Mary Robinson's essay "A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination" (1798) and concludes with Coleridge's "The Apotheosis, or The Snow Drop" before a coda on "torqueing texts" or appropriation of a single text as opposed to a plethora of them. The relation to Romanticism is intermittent and comes mostly through gender tropes.

The next three essays range from Romantic sex to the continuing influence of Whitman. In "A Deeper, Older O: The Oral (Sex) Tradition (In Poetry)," Jennifer Moxley links the poetic exclamation "O" with oral sex and orgasm in a way that would have seemed more unusual twenty years ago than it does today. After examining some contemporary transgressive poems, Moxley finds "erotic overtones" in Wordsworth's "meanest flower that blows" as well as in Shelley's "O wild west wind." By the time she arrives at the story of Orpheus, she finds it still more erotic: "Having failed to go down successfully," she writes, "Orpheus is blown by the north winds and finally resorts to blowjobs" (78). One rejoices that she did not consider Lear's exclamation in his death speech ("O! O! O! O!" in the Q1 text). In contrast, Jerome Rothenberg briefly surveys Poems for the Millenium, Volume Three, which most contributors to this volume cite as their source for quotations; after some interesting remarks on Goya and Lorca he too invokes Ezra Pound, in particular his use of the word "active" in the title of his Active Anthology. Bob Perelman's equally short essay on "Copying Whitman" is less Whitmanian than Perelmanian in its free-form self-expressiveness.

The volume takes a more scholarly turn with Nigel Leask's essay on Robert Burns's use of the vernacular, particularly in the "Habbie stanza" (named for the Scottish piper Habbie Simpson [1550-1620]), a six-line stave in which Burns wrote fifty poems including the famous "To a Mouse." As Leask convincingly shows, "Burns's vernacular 'revolt against literature'" anticipated the "active Romanticism" explored by this volume (108). Turning from Burns's vernacular to the "Hyper-Pindaric," Simon Jarvis examines first Abraham Cowley's "The Resurrection," which may have been the first English Pindaric, and then Keston Sutherland's recent "Hot White Andy," one of the newest. Likewise finding Romantic antecedents for contemporary poetry, the poet Judith Goldman moves from Laetitia Barbauld and other Romantics to the poetry of our time, ending with the bibliographic code of Stacy Doris's volume Conference (2001): a code hinging especially on the presence or absence of a small airplane at the top of the jungle-like design of the front cover. To buttress her points, Goldman cites Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, and Edward Said, but she tends to accept their theories rather than challenging or refining them.

In one of the strongest essays in the volume, Robinson gauges the influence of Shelley on the avant-garde poetry of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and eight later poets. Shelley's merging of form and radical politics, Robinson argues, "may turn out to be his greatest contribution to modern experimental poetry" (182). In Yeats and Eliot Robinson finds a resistance to this merging, and in Auden he sees further resistance to a transformation that never really occurs. His remarks on all three are necessarily brief and among earlier scholars he refers only to Michael O'Neill's overview in The All-Sustaining Air (2007). On the other hand, George Oppen's mid-twentieth-century reworking of "Ozymandias" makes Shelley's influence clear: among other things, Robinson cleverly notes that if we count the blanks between the lines of Oppen's poem, they all add up to a sonnet-like fourteen, as in Shelley's famous original. While Robinson thus builds his essay around a politically charged Romantic sonnet, Julie Carr uses Lyotards's essay on "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde" (1984) as a way of linking contemporary poets like the Canadian Lisa Robertson to the Victorian Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Since Rothenberg has often insisted that poetry is an international art, this volume fittingly includes three essays on European and Latin American poetry. In an essay on Romanticism and "Ethopoetics," which considers "how the subject changes itself through poetry making" (198). the Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez chiefly examines the visual poetry of one Spaniard, Garcia Lorca, and three Chileans: Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, and Juan Luis Martinez. Taking aim at literary nationalism, Jacques Darras, professor emeritus at the University of Picardy in Amiens, seeks in his very short essay to "get rid of mythical nations legitimized by 'Romanticism'"(232). Finally, in a difficult essay on the German Romantic poet who called himself Novalis, the poet-critic Andrew Joron seeks to show how--in Novalis's poetry-- "the Romantic attempt to overcome the Kantian dualism between inner freedom and outer necessity was raised to a higher power, or in Joron's translation of Novalis's German, 'logarythmized' " (234).

Active Romanticism thus casts a wide net. Though some essays succeed better than others, the volume as a whole testifies to the continuing impact of Romantic poetry on our "Postromantic" present. But conspicuous by its absence from this collection is the poetry and criticism of Wallace Stevens, who after Yeats was the strongest devotee of Romanticism among the moderns. From the 1930s onward Stevens explicitly pledged allegiance to what he called a "new Romanticism." When he resumed publishing poetry again in that decade with the volume Ideas of Order (1936), he included not only "The Idea of Order at Key West" but also the somewhat less famous "Sailing after Lunch," which boldly declares:

It is the word pejorative that hurts.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .
Mon Dieu, hear the poet's prayer.
The romantic should be here.
The romantic should be there.
It ought to be everywhere.
But the romantic must never remain,

Mon Dieu, and must never again return.
Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Knopf 1968), 120

As Stevens explained in a letter about the poem, "Poetry is essentially romantic, only the romantic of poetry must be something constantly new and, therefore, just the opposite of what is spoken of as the romantic" (Letters [1966] 277). Many of Stevens's finest poems spring from that sense of a "new romantic," including "Domination of Black," "The Idea of Order at Key West," and--among many others-- his masterly long poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. As Stevens's work and that of the poets explored here demonstrate, we seem likely to have a continuing line of new romantics whose work will both build upon and veer from the old.

George Bornstein is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Michigan.


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