Sunday, September 21, 2008

Literary History: is it possible?

So I've been thinking about literary history – not the history of literature itself (which I'm thinking about all the time, really), but the genre of literary history: you know, those kinds of books nobody seems to write anymore, the "Story of English Literature" or the "Panorama of American Letters." Just finished David Perkins's Is Literary History Possible? (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992). Perkins's conclusion is that LH is simultaneously impossible and necessary: impossible to write with anything like historical fidelity and interpretive/explanatory power, yet necessary for us to make any sense whatsoever of past writings – any sense beyond immediate subjective reactions or ideological appropriations.

This of course after Perkins had just finished his massive (I mean big – maybe 1300 pages) 2-volume History of Modern Poetry, which I'm also winding up, after reading maybe 20 pages at a stretch over the last 15 years. So there's a sense of post-praxis theoretical summing-up in Is Literary History Possible?, that the guy's just finished devoting heaven knows how many years to his big project, & is now figuring out the balance sheets on his effort. (I feel a similar brief volume on literary biography urping around Alien-like in my guts, & wonder whether I should just write the damned thing or go in for surgery.)

And I'm also reading Andrew Duncan's rich, convoluted, & often infuriating The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003), and dipping guiltily into Humphrey Carpenter's Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. And in the background is this year's probably most pleasant read: Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a dazzling & compulsively readable anecdotal history of twentieth-century "serious" music.

Now I'm young enough & saturated enough in post-structuralism & natively cynical enough to assent to Perkins's various laments about the oversimplifications, foreshortenings, & downright shortcuttages involved in literary history (& most of them apply to biography as well, mark you). But I'm also professionally foolish enough to wonder why there aren't more folks deeply invested in twentieth-century poetry studies who want to write lively, readable, compelling histories of the genre's fortunes over the past 100 or 50 years. Am I missing something? There've been a number of quite readable accounts of modernism (the one that sticks in my mind is Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-1939), but no-one's done anything similar for postwar poetry, except David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (which I haven't read, alas).

I'm leaving aside such scholarly studies as ML Rosenthal's The New Poets, & other thematic studies that do a bit of literary history along the way, like Paul Breslin's The Psycho-Political Muse. But why isn't someone doing for postwar avant-garde poetry what Alex Ross does for 20th-c. "classical" music?

Yes, having written a massive foray into the institutional radioactive zone of biography, now I'm casting about for a next project (or maybe an after-the-next-project project). But I'd love input: What books have you found useful as baseline histories of postwar American & British poetry? Is Lehman any good? Are you writing this book right now, so I can stop wondering & sleep better? 


tyrone said...


Michael Davidson's San Francisco Renaissance book is pretty good, the sharper, less polemical sister to Lehman's book, but I think the reason it's difficult to do what you're pondering is in the very nature of postmodern poetry, its wildly variegated resistance to summary. That's why Perloff--probably the one pertson doing anything close to that kind of project--can only do so in a series of pinpoint--or more negatively, attenuated--surveys of specific individuals and/or movements.


tyrone said...

p.s.--have taught Is Literary History Possible a couple of times in my theory course. Needless to say, the surly English majors, who hate having to take "theory" anyway, often come away with a different conclusion--so just drop the damned course from the curroculum and be done with it!


Peter said...

Hey Mark/

I agree with Tyrone about Davidson's book. (Whatsup, Tyrone?) It's such a generous book in its way, treating work I care about in ways that deserve rereading.

I'd also recommend Bob von Hallberg's "Poetry, Politics, and Intellectuals: A History of American Poetry, 1945-1995," which was published as volume 8 of the Cambridge History of American Literature. (Which means you probably have to read it/get it through the library; that's how I read it.)

I'm not a fan of Perloff's version of the story of post-modern poetry, to be honest. I prefer Jed Rasula's in "American Poetry Wax Museum" &, even better, in "This Compost," which isn't a history in any sense; rather, it's what the title says - a rich mulch of texts fermenting & forming new matter for nourishing the starved soils of These States, poetry wise.

That said, & since you don't seem to be making any moves on a Ronald Johnson biography, dude, let me urge you to write the history of our more recent poetry. Call it "Eye, Ear, & Mind." You can thank me in the acknowledgements.

(By the by, I'm leading a Zukofsky reading group with a grad student at SAIC; we're going through "A" with yr "Poem of a Life" as our guide. Good times!)


E. M. Selinger said...


You mention the Ross as a model. I picked that up to browse the other day--from it, drifted back to Kenner's "Sinking Island." Good times, as P says.

Maybe one reason there's no such book yet lies in the lack of an audience--or, at least, a recognized, institutional audience--for it? Ross has a "general reader" in mind; so does Kenner; haven't most publishers given up on that for books on poetry, other than perhaps books on _poets_?

That leaves poets, profs, and grad students--all of whom might be expected to prefer the more tightly (or restrictively) focused books that do exist. Yes? Or am I looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope?

Maybe no one's written one because we're all too damned lazy, nowadays. Kids today...

But hey, I'm taking notes here for next summer's reading--and if you write it, I'll order up copies for a graduate seminar, scout's honor.


Peggy said...

"That said, & since you don't seem to be making any moves on a Ronald Johnson biography"

must mean pleasegod you will write the Prynne biography..."Aye, Aer,& Main'd" :)

Vance Maverick said...

You can do better than Ross. I enjoyed the book, I'll admit -- but for nostalgic reasons. As an aspiring teenage composer in the '70s, I read everything I could find in the libraries on "modern music", i.e., modern classical music. Among this corpus were dozens of books in the same genre -- nontechnical surveys with anecdotes and some historical perspective. Perfectly respectable, but limited. Ross reminded me vividly of those days (when it still could seem that Boulez/Stockhausen/Xenakis were on the cutting edge to somewhere) but he didn't dig deep. His intermittent "technical" asides (mostly naming a note or key or chord) don't help (I suspect him of mystification). I was grateful to have my dormant enthusiasms stimulated, but that's not entirely to Ross's credit. Having read your Zuk biography, I know you're capable of something more rewarding.

Vance Maverick said...

Whatever the MacArthurcommittee may say.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Not exactly a "baseline history," but still very helpful, even after some time has passed, is Alan Golding's From Outlaw to Classic, plus Alan's more recent forays in essay form.