American Experimental Poetry and Democratic Thought

February 25, 2010

How do ideas travel across cultures? The locks of Washington DC's canal, a park ranger will proudly tell you, were designed by Leonardo da Vinci; Thomas Jefferson developed his tastes in wine, and the phrase "all men are created equal", from his Italian friend Filippo Mazzei. America the Sponge: behind the Greek columns of US courthouses, French-named "petit juries" hear cases based on British maritime law. How to establish the causes of American thinking? Alan Marshall's impressive, erudite and sometimes maddening meditation, American Experimental Poetry and Democratic Thought, provides one method, called "visionary history": extract certain motifs from American poems labelled "experimental"; align them with favourite philosophers of phenomenology and the Frankfurt School; and then claim the stew as democratic thought and the "invisible physiognomy of the poetry".

For Marshall, a poem's content is thought, and thinkers lead poems around like Virgils: Sigmund Freud for Walt Whitman; Hannah Arendt for Ezra Pound; Immanuel Kant for William Carlos Williams; and Martin Heidegger's cloudy rhetoric looming over all. Why these strangers on a train of thought? Whitman, well known for his phrase "Through me many long dumb voices", is introduced as "the champion of the visual conception". Freud's Unheimlich theory, and its discredited belief in memories from the womb, somehow explains Mina Loy's ambivalence towards houses.

Marshall's wide and accomplished reading permits the book's adventures and "intellectual experiments", and its zeal for obscure pattern recognition. Yet a "visionary history" also needs to account for actual events, not just the always-already ether of underlying (and unperceived) phenomena. Aeneas asked the muse: "load on me the causes", but Marshall shrugs off causation and music. He proposes that when Emily Dickinson's poems were published (c 1924), "the private world lay under intolerable suspicion". Evidence, please? He meshes Kant's claims for the mind's "representation" with James Madison's Federalist claims for limited governmental "representation" - a "dramatic historical conjunction" of the 1780s - and then links Madison and Kant's "bicameral" mind to Williams and Wallace Stevens. Pattern recognition on steroids: 1924 is also the year of Mein Kampf and George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue; and 1784, when the bicameral Ben Franklin invented bifocals, clearly anticipates the close reading versus theory debates centuries later.

In showcasing underappreciated poets such as Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen, Marshall does good service, and brings an array of continental thinkers into active contact with American impulses: revolution, pluralism, the local and the troublingly capitalistic. But no Allen Ginsberg; no black poets. Marshall stands resolutely against "material history", where piles of cultural factoids explain (or explain away) art. Yet even the French conjoin the terms "experiment" and "experience": Marshall, by excluding commonplace experience in the reading and hearing of poems, stifles some of the meanings.

Philosophy steers the car; poems take the back seat. Williams' banal Red Wheelbarrow shows "redistributive propensity"; his wacky, anarchic poem To Elsie, which allows "no one to drive the car", is kept quiet. For Marshall, the "motif of the house in a handful of Dickinson poems" illustrates Gaston Bachelard's "house image" thesis, a "tool for analysis of the human soul". But the Dickinson lines quoted refer instead to a door, lock, wall and floor. That would be "room", even for Inspector Clouseau. Marshall lauds Theodor Adorno's "stinging" insight that "all contemporary musical life is dominated by the commodity form". The squeaking back seats of a million American teenagers' cars say NO - although they may reify the Heideggerian phenomena later offered: Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand) and Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand).

As a free meditation, a "poetics of historiography", Marshall's book flashes brilliantly. As an experiment in causation, it might win a Scottish verdict: "not proven".

American Experimental Poetry and Democratic Thought

By Alan Marshall. Oxford University Press, 336pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780199561926. Published 12 November 2009

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