This summer, the modernist scholar Johanna Winant and I found ourselves working on a number of converging projects, from book chapters to essays on Stanley Cavell’s philosophy and Donald Hall’s poetry. Below we reflect on the process of writing together, sharing work, and discovering the kinds of friendship that collaboration makes possible
Major advances in modernist poetics have long occurred through contact with experiments in the visual and plastic arts: one need only think of the “cubist” poetics of Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and Gertrude Stein, of the New York School’s links to Abstract Expressionism, or, most recently, of conceptual writing’s regular citation of Brion Gysin’s claim that “writing is fifty years behind painting." Poets would find their community amongst artists; but also, the poetics itself would emerge out of critical engagement with the work of the poets’ artist peers: adapting compositional practices and techniques; adopting conceptual vocabularies. At times, this leads to intermedia experiment (Calligrammes, collage, concrete work); at others, to a renewed focus on the medium–specificity of poetry: both the peculiar possibilities of language as material and resource for art–making, and the repertoire of techniques and conventions through which this material is deployed.
My farewell post for the “Process” column is a brief conversation with Jahan Ramazani, University Professor and Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and a scholar whose work I admire greatly and follow closely. He gives serious attention to strong poets who aren’t always read with such insight, as well as leveling powerful arguments about how verse frames identity, feeling, and nation.
An early letter from Willa Cather to Zoë Akins in 1914 consists almost entirely of blunt feedback to the aspiring writer. Some representative lines, "This story, my dear Zoe is written to be smart. . . . There’s either got to be real feeling in a story, or an intellectual interest of the highest order. . . .
Isn’t the avant-garde always pedagogical, she said, I mean altruistically bugbearish
—Lyn Hejinian, My Life
In teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) to undergraduates in a course on modern poetry, I have asked them to think about these prose poems through the act of making a poem in response. While this is a literature and not a creative-writing course, the strategy of assigning a creative-writing exercise is effective in Stein’s case because through making a poem the students prove to themselves that what might at first appear nonsensical can be, if one reads—and then writes—word by word, startlingly lucid.
When I started my current position in the fall of 2010, I inherited an upper-level course with a simple title: “American Poetry.” The course description noted that the seminar would “trace the ‘Romantic’ and ‘Modern’ sensibility from Emerson to T. S. Eliot and beyond to living poets of the Americas.” To fulfill this aim, my predecessor had started with Whitman and Dickinson, passed through Frost and Hughes, and concluded with Sharon Olds, Derek Walcott, and Yusef Komunyakaa.