Interview with Al Filreis on modernist poetry and the cold war
Al Filreis is Kelly Professor, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, Co-Director of PennSound, and Publisher of Jacket2 – all at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his books are Secretaries of the Moon, Wallace Stevens & the Actual World, Modernism from Left to Right, and Counter- Revolution of the Word. He has taught a massive open online course, “ModPo,” to 36,000 students.
C. Derick Varn: In your book, The Counter Revolution of the Word, you discuss the way some poetry editors and literary critics turned on modernism in the 1950s in order to fight communism. While the red scare is no longer with us, do you see any of these attitudes towards modernism and post-modernism in the writings of any modern critics and poets such as Dana Gioia?
Al Filreis: Anticommunist antimodernism is not quite possible in the post-Cold War era. But motives for antimodernism certainly do persist, and they range from right to left. Conservative antimodernism continues and appeals to those who claim they can’t understand the dislocation, post-subjective non-narratives in much contemporary verse, for the conservative complaint often refers back to a supposed golden age of the coherent, stable “I” of a writer who has straightforwardly true things to express. But, to be sure, many of contemporary poetry’s detractors today are otherwise politically liberal. The Red Scare was a particularly good moment – a long moment, though – for bringing together the disparate elements of traditionalism. By the way, a moment ago I said that detractors’ motives range from right to left, and I hasten to point out that anticommunism in general ranged similarly: let’s not forget that liberal anticommunism was a major force in the 1950s.
C.D.V.: Why do you think that conservative or even hard right politics of some the modernists, such as T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, did not give modernism more of a pass from anti-communists aesthetic writing in the 1950s?
A.F.: Logic suggests that it would. But as I point out in the book, Eliot and Pound and Gertrude Stein, all conservatives, were deemed by anticommunist antimodernists in the 1950s as having contributed to the sort of fragmentation in art that was leading to the demise of traditional core American values.
C.D.V.: How much effect has anti-modernist, anti-communism affected the long term reputations of poets like Kenneth Patchen and Louis Zukofsky outside of academia?
A.F.: Reputational factors are difficult to disentangle. But the research I did for Counter-Revolution of the Word make it clear to me that both Patchen and Zukofsky suffered from the phenomenon I describe as “the fifties’ thirties,” which is to say – the reading of the poetry of the 1930s in the 1950s. Their poetry was attacked individually, and they were frequently lumped together roughly with many other poets out of favor. Then again, Zukofsky has always been seen as a “difficult” poet, and (because of the scope and complexity of his major poem “A”) he is difficult to teach in classrooms. And the main embrace of Patchen has always been outside academia anyway.
C.D.V.: Are there any strict or concerted ideological litmus tests consistently applied to avant-garde poets today?
A.F.: By those from outside experimental poetry? – e.g. traditionalists and other detractors of experimental poetry?
A.F.: I see no “strict” ideological “litmus tests” being applied, or, if so, rarely. This is not 1950 or 1952, when almost every cultural argument was waged from within the anticommunist mindset. It was an issue – but also a mode of thinking – that was pervasive. Nothing pervades today so much. To be sure, some of the complaints made against contemporary poetry featuring discontinuity, parataxis, the shifting or incoherent subject or speaker, non-narrativity, etc., are motivated by cultural conservatism. But because there’s little in the way of successful widespread explicit psycho-social enforcement among citizen readers – as there was during the anxious apex of Cold War – there are also detractors of experimental writing today who could not by any stretch be said to affiliate otherwise with social or political conservatism. In the 1950s, an alliance formed against modernism using anticommunism as a strong bond; for its intensity, that was an unusual moment in the history of our art.
C.D.V.: Do you think poetry is more or less seen as safe today regardless of its political or aesthetic commitments because of the perceived marginality of its influence?
A.F.: Generally – yes, alas.
C.D.V.: To shift the topic a bit and to move from the pessimistic topic of poetic marginality: You have been running a fairly massive and from what I understand free online lecture series on modern poetry. Have you been surprised at any of the kinds of engagement with “difficult” poetry could have been getting from students who may not have that much of a prior history with avant-garde poetry?
A.F.: 36,000 people took the course on modern and contemporary American poetry. My sense is that most of the “ModPo” people were unfamiliar with the poets and the poems we discussed. Some told us of their experience with Dickinson and Whitman forty years earlier. Others had encountered Frost through the family or high school. A few “knew enough” to be wary of Gertrude Stein. What delighted me was how open they were to reading and discussing, and being challenged by, “difficult” poems – poems that were better read in a group (a large group!) than alone. The ModPo discussion forums were lively and full of terrific insights. The whole experience was completely remarkable for me. Extraordinary outreach!
C.D.V.: Do you think these kinds of actions will increase the interest in poetry?
A.F.: I can only guess that ModPo has increased interest in modern and contemporary poetry, yes. The response has been completely positive. Many participants in the first running of the course have organized friends and family to sign up for the fall 2013 course. Between the fall ’12 and fall ’13 instances of ModPo, we might have reached 100,000 people, most of whom were new to poetry when they began. Given the millions of potential readers, that’s not a lot. But it’s not nothing either.
C.D.V.: We live in a time of contradiction: there may have never been more poets and more outlets for poetry, and yet it seems harder and harder to get readers for said poems. Or least, we are told that often. Do you think ModPo gives a model that can be scaled for more interactive mass readings?
A.F.: I think I don’t agree with the premise here. I think there is a huge readership of poetry. The problem is that it’s not coherent, no longer trackable (through book sales, etc.), and doesn’t fit existing categories. My sense is that despite cliches to the contrary, poetry is very much alive and well. The usual hyperbolic lament – that there are more poets than readers – only undescores how the writer/reader relationship is now complex and merged.
C.D.V.: I was hoping you would object to the premise actually. I find the issue is more “marketability” than readership. I think ModPo, however, does help give people access to the vocabulary and processes that help people engage with modern and post-modern poetry. In that spirit, I’d like to thank you for your time, and give you a chance to have a final word on anything you’d like to expand on in the interview?
A.F.: This was fun. Thanks.