Paul Stephens, The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015), 241 pp.
Nov09

Paul Stephens, The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015), 241 pp.

Paul Stephens, The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2015), 241 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2 As the digital media affect ever greater portions of everyday life, scholarly interest in their impact on cultural production has increased as well. Poetry is not usually associated with technological innovation, and recent studies such as Wesley Beal’s Networks of Modernism (2015) and James Purden’s Modernist Informatics (2015) limit their focus to narrative texts. Yet Marjorie Perloff’s seminal Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991) demonstrated at an early point that the challenges of the digital age have inspired a variety of responses among contemporary poets. While the medial and material dimensions of this strand of poetry have since been examined by various scholars, the more fundamental question of how poets have reacted to the abundance of information made available by the new technologies has not been addressed. Paul Stephens’s study approaches this question by tracing the notion of information overload and the poetic strategies it engendered from the early twentieth century to the present.   The study opens with a comprehensive introduction that examines the concept of information overload from a variety of perspectives. While Stephens admits to reservations about the term, citing the “antidemocratic attitude toward the production of information” and the “rejection of popular and mass culture” it might be taken to imply (16), he argues convincingly that it captures a widespread feeling and is therefore a useful tool for cultural inquiry. Stephens defines information by distinguishing it from knowledge, which involves understanding, on the one hand and from data, which can be meaningless, on the other. He points out that anxieties about information overload are almost as old as literacy itself but have exponentially increased in recent decades, changing human behavior in general and cultural production in particular (16). The Introduction contextualizes the concept in related debates around issues like the archival dimension of poetry, the role of information technology and digital interfaces, and the economy and pathology of attention. Stephens approaches these issues in a thoughtful, nuanced manner. Both optimistic and skeptical voices on the abundance of information and its social and psychological effects are taken into account.   The historical survey opens with a chapter on Gertrude Stein, whose psychological studies with William James and Hugo von Münsterberg acquainted her with the potential problems of information overload at an early point. The question of whether modernization requires a new kind of attention can be traced throughout her oeuvre, and Stephens identifies various answers to this question. On the one hand, Stein resisted the “pathologization of...

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Simone Knewitz, Modernist Authenticities: The Material Body and the Poetics of Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams (Heidelberg: Winter, 2014), 249 pp.
Nov09

Simone Knewitz, Modernist Authenticities: The Material Body and the Poetics of Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams (Heidelberg: Winter, 2014), 249 pp.

Simone Knewitz, Modernist Authenticities: The Material Body and the Poetics of Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams (Heidelberg: Winter, 2014), 249 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2 Within the larger context of modernism, the complex relationship between the material body and poetic expression is one of two analytical foci of Simone Knewitz’s study.  In order to examine this relationship in detail, Knewitz chose works by Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams, and, in a final chapter Jean Toomer, as the objects of her scrutiny.   As Knewitz argues, this is by no means an arbitrary selection, as “Williams was in daily contact with physical bodies […] and the epistemological question between self and world is at the center of his poetry.  Lowell […] has been literally subjected to her body, being reduced to her obesity by literary critics” (17).  Toomer, finally, was famously insistent that he did not want to be categorized by his “body”, i.e. by his partly African ancestry, but saw himself, in a color-blind fashion, as an American artist, who took his inspiration from works of art, not from his “race.” The second focus of Knewitz’s book concerns the question of “authenticity” in modernism.  Here, she acknowledges the historical nature of the term, and opts for the Romantic definition as “related to the search for an essential, inner, core—the real and truthful self—and notions of originality and identity” (19). However, she does not take the definition at face value, but as a starting point from which to deconstruct the concept in the tradition of Derrida, Butler, and Foucault. Thus, Knewitz also acknowledges that when it comes to Lowell’s and Wiliams’s claims about “the body as a locus of authenticity” she needs to “distinguish their position from [her] own” (20). The methodological solution to this essentially ironic interpretation of authenticity is her application of theories of “performance” and “performative language” to the poetry of Lowell, Williams, and Toomer. The main body of Modernist Authenticities is made up of five chapters, which all contribute to the argument that in modernism authenticity has to be seen as a performative, procedural concept, in spite of its relation to the apparently stable “materiality” of the body.  At the same time these chapters have the character of independent essays, full of background information and well-researched contextual findings.  In her chapter “Poetry and Materiality: The Flower as Modernist Trope,” we learn about the history of the trope of the flower and its cultural significance reaching back to classical antiquity. Then, the pastime and science of botany is presented as a “female” science (at least in the U.S.), and a poem by Longfellow is introduced as...

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Andrew S. Gross, The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015)
Nov09

Andrew S. Gross, The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015)

ANDREW S. GROSS, The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015) Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2 This book on the reactions to Ezra Pound’s Bollingen Award has itself won a prize, the Rob Kroes Publication Award by the European Association of American Studies. Since one of the effects of reading this book is a heightened sensibility to the politics involved in awards, I should begin by spelling out the implications of the Rob Kroes Award: it singles out an example of American Studies as a model for the way this “undisciplined discipline,” as Boris Vejdovsky puts it in the preface, is practiced in Europe. The expectations this might raise are completely fulfilled: the book is indeed a wonderful example of the kind of interdisciplinarity surrounding interpretations of literature and history that is one of the characteristics of American Studies: it brings together the study of poetry and its reception with what one might call a History of Ideas, intellectual history, or perhaps more narrowly, the history of “academic trends” (191) from 1949 to the end of the 1960s. It reads a number of literary and non-literary texts in the attempt to understand how well-known and lesser known writers negotiated the relation between the arts (in particular: poetry) and politics in the era of the Cold War. The introduction lays out the events that are fraught with ironies and contradictions: Early in 1949, a committee at the Library of Congress announced that the Bollingen Award for the best volume of poetry published during the last year would go to Ezra Pound for his Pisan Cantoes, written outside Pisa while imprisoned and awaiting a trial for treason. In radio broadcasts, letters, and poems Pound had openly supported Mussolini and Hitler during the war and had escaped a harsh sentence only because his attorney had pleaded insanity. At the time of the announcement, Pound was an inmate of St Elizabeths, a federal mental hospital in Washington whose director had diagnosed him vaguely as mentally unsound. That a man can be accused of treason and deterred by one arm of the government and be honored by another was one of the oddities that did not escape commentators in the ensuing controversy about the award. Why should a country that had just defeated fascist regimes in Europe honor a poet with fascist and anti-Semitic sympathies at home? The irony central to Gross’s book though is the fact that a poetry award that is so clearly political was subsequently defended largely by insisting on the autonomy of art and by declaring a separation of art from politics – to underline...

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Sascha Pöhlmann, Future-Founding Poetry: Topographies of Beginnings from Whitman to the Twenty-First Century, European Studies in North American Literature and Culture (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2015), 424 pp.
Nov09

Sascha Pöhlmann, Future-Founding Poetry: Topographies of Beginnings from Whitman to the Twenty-First Century, European Studies in North American Literature and Culture (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2015), 424 pp.

Sascha Pöhlmann, Future-Founding Poetry: Topographies of Beginnings from Whitman to the Twenty-First Century, European Studies in North American Literature and Culture (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2015), 424 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2 Sascha Pöhlmann’s study of American poetry belongs to a currently growing body of scholarly works partaking in a ‘temporal turn’ in literary and cultural studies. Pöhlmann carves out a poetic mode within American poetry and poetics which, as he claims, finds a “crucial beginning” (41) with Walt Whitman and can be traced through the poetry of the twentieth and into the early twenty-first century. The author calls this mode “future-founding poetry,” appropriating a term Whitman used in his 1876 preface to Leaves of Grass (17). Pöhlmann defines “future-founding poetry as poetry that aims to actively mark and perform a beginning that is relevant to a combined imagination of both present and future” (2). His theoretical framework explicitly fuses the aesthetic and the political: The poets working in this mode “consider the future as a contested discursive space in which they can and should intervene through their own various symbolic and imaginative practices” (60). As Pöhlmann sets out to describe a tradition in American poetry that he sees beginning with Whitman, he seeks to avoid constructing a linear narrative; instead he envisions the works of the poets discussed as a continuum of shared aesthetic concerns, connected through “family resemblances” (18). The first five of Pöhlmann’s six chapters each center on single, exemplary poets. After first conceptualizing the framework of future-founding based on Whitman’s poetry and prose, Pöhlmann turns to the modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams, the African-American poet Langston Hughes, feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser and finally Allen Ginsberg’s countercultural future-founding imagination. The last chapter provides an exception to the established structure by tracing the mode of future-founding in the occasional poetry responding to the events of 9/11. Notably, Pöhlmann favors the term “beginning” over related and established concepts such as “newness” or “originality” to construct his theoretical framework, arguing that the concept of “beginning” enables a more productive model to engage with the poetics of temporality. A beginning, “time that is bounded and marked as meaningful” (11), denotes a point in time or a span in time; it is an event which points beyond itself and which not merely happens, but is made; beginnings can be repeated (with a difference) and are thus potentially iterative; they are also socially meaningful (12-13). From these conceptual clarifications, Pöhlmann derives the characteristics of future-founding: as indicated by the term “founding,” this poetic mode is concerned with the present as well as with the future; future-founding also denotes an ongoing procedure,...

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Mark Noble, American Poetic Materialism: From Whitman to Stevens, New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2015. 242 pp. / Paul Mariani, The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 496 pp.
Nov09

Mark Noble, American Poetic Materialism: From Whitman to Stevens, New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2015. 242 pp. / Paul Mariani, The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 496 pp.

Mark Noble, American Poetic Materialism: From Whitman to Stevens, New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2015. 242 pp. Paul Mariani, The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 496 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2   Wallace Stevens’s poetry has frequently been regarded as philosophical[1] and used to support claims of a postmetaphysical age.[2] This encourages one to either read his work as part of a history of ideas or to attempt to write his literary biography. Both options tend to neglect his poetry—the first one for the sake of his ideas, the second for the events of his life. These two publications on Wallace Stevens deal with the resulting challenges of interpreting his poetry and give two snapshots of different approaches to contemporary scholarship on his work. Mark Noble’s critical study appeared in the Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture Series, which in recent volumes focused on new approaches to canonical as well as uncharted areas of American studies. He investigates the established poetic genealogy from Lucretius via Emerson and Whitman to Santayana and Stevens from the perspective of materialism “in order to sketch a short history of the atomized human subject” (2). The book consists of a theoretical introduction, four topical chapters dedicated to each of the poets, and a conclusion that connects the argument with the work of Gilles Deleuze[3] and Alain Badiou. Two of the essays collected here have been published previously,[4] which may account for occasional stylistic and argumentative inconsistencies. In line with his theoretical approach and argument in the tradition of the history of ideas, Noble uses an abstract language to elegantly convey important poetic genealogies. He speaks of a “vexed model of poetic vocation—one in which what charters the poet’s revisionary project coincides with what limits the intelligibility of every materialism” (3). His points of departure are Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 The Swerve and Michael Serres’s The Birth of Physics (1977/2000) as two extreme interpretations of Lucretius, whose De rerum natura is used as a template for a history of ideas. Greenblatt defends secular humanism as Lucretian inheritance, whereas Serres argues that the fluidity in Lucretius destabilizes precisely the epistemological preconditions of secular humanism. One is led to ask how this volume’s focus on human materiality contributes to current debates on basic philosophical questions. The author’s aim is to recover materiality from the recent surge in “material culture studies” for a literary criticism inspired by the history of ideas. Elegantly synthesizing previous research on canonical authors and engaging with two contemporary theorists, the balanced work has by now become an important and well-known literary genealogy. It is...

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Marcus Münch, Building New Faith on New-Found Shores: Die religiöse Dimension in der Dichtung der Fireside Poets (Trier: WVT, 2016), 239 pp.
Nov09

Marcus Münch, Building New Faith on New-Found Shores: Die religiöse Dimension in der Dichtung der Fireside Poets (Trier: WVT, 2016), 239 pp.

Marcus Münch, Building New Faith on New-Found Shores: Die religiöse Dimension in der Dichtung der Fireside Poets (Trier: WVT, 2016), 239 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 62.2 Marcus Münch’s study of the “religious dimension” in the poetical works of William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes takes as its theoretical starting point  William James’s and John Dewey’s conceptualization of religion  as an ahistorical, mystical, individual attitude,  which is not necessarily connected to an exclusive set of religious practices and dogmata, but which includes broader interpretations of the term “religious,” in the sense of “attitudes that may be taken  toward every object  and every proposed ideal” (Dewey, qtd. in Münch, 6). From this premise, Münch derives three analytical distinctions for his study:  the direct involvement with “religious experience” of the poets themselves, the interpretation of their individual involvement as it is expressed in their works, and finally the role of the public and of institutionalized religion.   All in all, the study addresses the first two aspects fully and within a well-informed, broadly conceived contextual frame. The range of historical references and the number of different potentially influential “theologies” is impressive and testifies not only to the extensive research undertaken for this doctoral dissertation, but also to the central role of religion within US-American cultural history of the nineteenth century.  It feels very ungenerous to criticize that the third aspect, which examines actual historical religious practices and institutional frameworks, remains rather vague and limited to sporadic examples or general statements.  After all, this is understandable given the limits of what can be tackled in a dissertation project dealing with five individual authors, whose collective output amounts to several thousand pages of primary material, within a historical period ranging from the antebellum period to the Gilded Age.  Nevertheless, the monograph offers many interesting readings of hitherto generally under-studied texts and examples of the ways religion was “negotiated” in the works of the poets.  Münch’s readings reflect a general tendency towards what Harold Bloom called a “creedless” and “experiential” religious experience in American cultural history. In his first chapter, Münch identifies a development in Bryant’s oeuvre away from a rejection of Puritan doctrine in his youth, to an apparent acceptance of the basis of predestination, i.e. God’s absolute sovereignty and the sola fide principle. The young Bryant was repelled by the “horrible doctrine” of Puritan hell and expressed an alternative vision of death as peaceful “sleep”, for example, in his probably best known poem “Thanatopsis” (1815/17).  In Bryant’s later poems, however, Münch recognizes a renewed continuity with the Puritan dogma. Within this larger claim, he singles out poems...

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