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THE MODERNISM REVIEW
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Bartholomew Brinkman. Poetic Modernism in the Culture of Mass Print. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. Pp. ix + 272.         

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review by J. J. Allaster

 

 

Brinkmann

 

Bartholomew Brinkman’s Poetic Modernism in the Culture of Mass Printcounteracts the idea that literary modernism was largely a rejection of mass culture. The emphasis by many modernists on the difficult, the obscure, and the fragmentary has been supposed by many critics to correlate to a rejection of not only the antecedent generation of “versifiers,” but also the popular culture around them. While this antipathy towards mass culture, typically associated with poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, does not accurately represent the full range of modernism and modernist responses to larger cultural forces, Pound and Eliot did, as Brinkman asserts, negotiate not only with the material conditions of modernity, but also with the emergent and burgeoning culture of mass print in ways that complicate the notion of a simple, unreflexive rejection. Brinkman’s study reveals several ways that modernists responded to mass print and mass culture, and shows how these responses were consolidated over time through publishing practices and institutionalization, thereby obfuscating the role mass print played. 

Brinkman’s particularly engaging introduction elaborates a history of the rise of mass print, as well as two of its attendant cultural responses. One of these was cultural bibliophilia and the accompanying rise in book collecting, which was in part a rejection of the cheap mass-produced media such as newspapers, paperbacks, magazines, and other print ephemera. The fetishization of rare and finely-made books created not only an inflation in the value of these editions, but also an industry which catered to the collector’s preoccupation with the materiality of the physical object of the book by manufacturing high quality impressions which were deliberately limited in quantity to create scarcity for particular first editions (a strategy Brinkman notes in his third chapter that T. S. Eliot attempted to adopt for his publication of The Waste Land in 1922). A second cultural response to the rise of mass print was scrapbooking, which was often associated with the feminine, criticized for its imitative quality, and linked with popular culture, as exemplified by magazines such as Tit-Bits (1871-1984). Despite its ubiquity in the larger cultural sphere of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Brinkman asserts that there has been a hitherto neglected relationship between many modernist poets’ creative practices and scrapbooking.

In addition to tracing this historical process, Brinkman offers an insightful theorization of these two acquisitional strategies, which he asserts are in many ways oppositional. The fine book collection, like a library, is ruled by a logic of totality and timeless unity—it is a fetishized ideal that is supposed to contain all the texts required for a complete education or those representative texts that make up an ideal whole (depending on the purpose of the collection). Much like Eliot’s notion of tradition in his famous “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” this is a closed system that works with an associative or metonymic logic whereby each work is removed from its historical context to stand in for that context as a part to the whole (a Shakespeare folio representing the Elizabethan age for example). New discoveries or works can be included in the whole, but only after it is reimagined as a totality that includes the new work. Scrapbooking, on the other hand, functions much like a thesaurus through metaphor and analogy. Whereas book collectors idealize a hypothetical perfect, closed system that is precisely arranged in a seemingly objective fashion, scrapbookers engage in a continually open process that has no claims or pretence to completeness; they arrange their work with a logic of association that cannot be removed from personal experience. Where the two strategies are most similar, however, is that they are both fundamentally curatorial and that they are both able to make the ephemera of a burgeoning mass print culture relatively longer lasting.  

In the first chapter, Brinkman traces the emergence of new “objective” anthologies, the most famous example of which is Palgrave’s Golden Treasury(1861). These anthologies, as Brinkman demonstrates, helped create a notion of objective poetic value that would be essential to the project of New Criticism in the early twentieth century by presenting the supposedly finest poems out of their original context as the literary equivalent of a greatest hits album. The Golden Treasuryfocused solely on lyric poetry that contained a single idea or situation, eschewing narrative and didactic poetry. This focus further helped establish the idea of an individual poem as an object unto itself. As a media object, the anthology embodied a paradoxical relationship with mass print. While on the one hand the anthology attempted to impose order on what Brinkman calls a heap of scraps (Palgrave literally cut many of the poems out of other books), it also embodies a collector’s principle in its attempt to build and consolidate a miniature library of the greatest poetry in the English language. Along with a proliferation of anthologies over the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, these notion of objective value and arrived at by principles of selection would be incorporated into the ideas of modernists such as T. S. Eliot (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”) and Ezra Pound (“I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” “The Renaissance,” The ABC of Reading). 

The second chapter turns to Poetrymagazine to show how it further helped consolidate the poem into an aesthetic object in its own right. Through careful close readings of the poetry, prose, and especially the bibliographic code and physical presentation of the magazine itself against the same content in other magazines such as Atlantic MonthlyHarper’sCentury, the popular magazine Life, and the African-American magazine The Crisis, Brinkman shows how Poetry sought to set itself apart through its presentation of poems surrounded by white space, and more generally through the high quality of the magazine’s production, which despite being a magazine, appealed to the consumer desire for finely printed books. These techniques encouraged the reader to appreciate a particular poem’s specificity as a discrete unit worthy of sustained attention.Lifeand The Crisis, on the other hand, created a radical intertextuality through different presentation strategies for their respective content that supported dialogic and contextual readings. Life, especially, reflected scrapbooking culture and anticipated many aspects of the avant-garde collage through its novel page layouts and themed content. 

Chapter three focuses on Marianne Moore to show how her own practice of scrapbooking informed what Brinkman calls her “scrappy” poetics. Brinkman situates his argument against Marjorie Perloff’s classic definition of modernist collage as the “central artistic invention of the avant guerre,” which, he argues, denies the spatial dimension of language, and, in the case of poetry, its bibliographic code. Instead, Brinkman offers scrapbooking as a feminized practice which predates the masculine avant-garde collage. He accomplishes this through a close reading of several pages of Moore’s own personal scrapbooks and a twenty-one-page mock newspaper she produced with her mother, called “The Daily Scale,” which was constructed like a scrapbook, through the cutting and pasting of various print media products. Brinkman convincingly shows how several of the techniques incorporated in these scrap-books informed her poetic process and suggest that her poems require a “radial” reading practice, which does not compress meaning into a particular image, but instead radiates across the body of poetic work in a dialogic fashion. Brinkman goes on to show how the concept of “scrappy” poetics, as a response to the culture of mass print, can apply to several modernist long poems such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson

The fourth and fifth chapters both argue the consolidation of a particular canon of modernist poetry against an increasingly fecund market of mass print material, albeit in different contexts. The fourth chapter focuses on T. S. Eliot’s work with Faber & Faber as an editor. Focusing on Eliot’s work on the collected poems of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and, surprisingly, Rudyard Kipling, Brinkman shows how Eliot’s selection and arrangement principles echoed the ‘objective’ anthologies that emerged in the nineteenth century and were intended to create a sense of coherence for each poet’s body of work. Regarding Pound, Eliot chose to model his selection and arrangement on Pound’s Personaeof 1926, which already emphasized Pound’s development as a poet. However, Eliot’s key editorial decision was to excise twenty-three poems, most notably Homage to Sextus Propertius, in order to create what he thought of as Pound’s ideal poetic trajectory. With Moore, on the other hand, Eliot’s work as arbiter was much more significant. He chose to order the poems in reverse chronological order to obscure her poetic development and shape the readerly response to the poems by leaving the simplest (and thus in his opinion the most difficult poems) until the end of the volume to reward the readers who made it through the more ostensibly difficult later poems. Eliot’s choice of Pound and Moore should be unsurprising to any scholar of modernism, but his decision to create a selected volume of Kipling’s poetry is more mysterious. Brinkman argues, however, that Eliot’s choice was part of an attempt to shore up a postimperialist and insulated sense of British nationalism, which was largely unsuccessful.

The fifth chapter focuses on the rise of the modern poetry library and archive which began largely with the University of Chicago (thanks in part to a sizable literary bequest by Harriet Monroe) and The State University of New York at Buffalo under the librarian Charles D. Abbott. Combined with the Library of Congress, which was late to the game and quickly trying to catch up, Brinkman shows how these collections and their collecting practices were influenced by the New Critical ideas of objective poetic quality and thus helped enshrine a particular canon of modernism that has been called into question since the seventies. In fact, as an example of this trend, Brinkman points to a document prepared by Allen Tate for the Library of Congress selection committee, which Tate arbitrarily limited to sixty poets of his own selection and included forgotten writers like Kimball Flaccus, Frederic Prokosch, and Marya Zaturenska, but omitted poets who have since grown in critical esteem such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lola Ridge, and Jean Toomer. Tate used this list to write to thirty-four major university libraries in order to make a comprehensive bibliographical record of the holdings across the country, undoubtedly influencing those libraries’ acquisition priorities in turn. 

Brinkman’s study will be of particular interest to scholars of modernism, print culture, and the materiality of texts because it is such an insightful exploration of the consolidation of poetic modernism as a reaction to, and even incorporation of, the culture of mass print. Not only does this work open up several avenues for further exploration such as the concept of “scrappy” poetics or the relationship between anthologies of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and the development of New Critical idea of the discrete and ‘objectively’ valuable poem, but it also judiciously contributes to existing critical debates, including those regarding canon formation, the aesthetic principles of modernist long poems, and the relationship between mass culture and modernist art. Brinkman’s dialogic and contextual readings of particular print materials (Lifeand The Crisisfor example) offer an exceptional model for future scholarship on such material and illuminate how important the context of publication can be. This is especially effective with the example of Claude McKay’s “America,” which was originally published in The Liberator (1921). Brinkman shows how the republication of the poem in The Crisis (1922),when read dialogically with the rest of the magazine, reveals the connection between the poem and the larger cultural sphere of black leftist politics in the early part of twentieth century America. This reading rightfully challenges the aestheticization of the individual poem as a distinct object that was largely a response to the larger culture of mass print. As demonstrated in this example, Poetic Modernism in the Culture of Mass Print’s lasting value will be found in the way it impels scholars to reassess relationships between any given print culture and the wider social sphere it influences and by which it is influenced.