Counter-Revolution of the Word:The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945–1960
Alan Filreis
University of North Carolina Press, $40 (cloth)

Alan Filreis’s Counter-Revolution of the Word is less a work of literary interpretation than a penetrating historical and sociological study. It is comparable to now-classic books like Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, Alan Golding’s From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry, Robert Von Hallberg’s American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980, and Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory.

Against the grain of received history, Filreis, a colleague of mine at the University of Pennsylvania, reveals the deep engagement of many politically progressive poets of the 1930s with modernist poetic innovation. (The converse is also true: in an earlier book Filreis reads the putatively conservative Wallace Stevens within the socio-cultural context of the ’30s.) He also tracks a number of ’30s poets, showing the dire effect of McCarthyite redbaiting on their careers. However, his principal focus is on the conflation of anticommunism with antimodernism in the immediate postwar period. Such a conflation might seem counterintuitive, since the left is often associated with populist styles that reject modernist difficulty, while radical modernism is often associated with an aesthetic at odds with explicit left political content. But the toxic mix of what Filreis calls “anticommunist antimodernism” is not only pervasive in the 1950s, but also provides an ideological foundation for the official verse culture of the 1970s onward.

Filreis’s book is filled with telling examples of how the aesthetic and political right denounced non-conventional poetry as if it were a part of the Communist menace. Such poetry was smeared as unnatural and corrupting, as an affront to moral values as expressed in proper grammar, and, moreover, as foreign and therefore un-American. “The vocabulary of thirties-bashing was cast in the idiom of incurability; tropes of cancer and mass death abounded. Leftist writing of the 1930s was dismissed ‘in a phrase: it was an alien growth’ . . . ‘poison,’” while, by extension, modernist poetry was denounced as “barbarous dissonance” fomenting “death and decay.” Writing in The New York Times in 1949, influential art critic Howard Devree was already warning of the anxious conflation of Communism and modernism, noting both were feared to be “possessed of the devil and . . . dangerous to American culture and realism”:

Another curious, disconcerting and, in fact, frightening part of the new attack has been the tendency of the attackers to refer to modern art in practically the same terms used by Hitler and the Communist hierarchy. It is called ‘degenerate art,’ and there are thinly veiled accompanying demands for its suppression and for censorship.

Filreis is not alone in relating these images of the alien and nonhuman to the imagery of Don Siegel’s 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the charged postwar environment, the lyric became a symbol for anti-modernist resistance, clearly “identified with the postideological moment,” a bulwark against what Colonel Cullen Jones, in a 1951 article, “Abnormal Poets and Abnormal Poetry,” derided as modernist effeminacy and its “sexual abnormalities.” Jones may seem, in retrospect, a marginal figure, but according to the headnote in A. Stanton Coblentz’s 1945 collection The Music Makers: An Anthology of Recent American Poetry, he published thirty-five poems in 1944 in such widely circulated publications as The New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly and would certainly qualify as representative of the official verse culture of his time.

One thing the anticommunist antimodernists had right was that the poetic form of radical modernism was political; Filreis calls this the “cold war politics of poetic form.” A 1953 article by Donald Davidson targets parataxis in poetry—the juxtaposition of two images or units of sense that lack any immediately apparent connection—for its “treacherous political irresponsibility in the act of eschewing relations of cause and effect while the related elements [are] left to stand in unordered, unsubordinated lists.” Just a few years earlier, Robert Hillyer, in the widely circulated Saturday Review of Literature, assailed modernism in poetry as an “illusion of independent thought” and a “propaganda” machine of “the powers of darkness.” Writing in the Bulletin of the Poetry Society of America, Hillyer accused modernists of “a cold conformity of intellectualism” that eliminated “diversity” and insisted on “a critical censorship, in its effects like that of the Kremlin.”

He cast modernism in the role of a “mosquito that sucks your blood,” a “parasite in the grain.

Modernist poets were smeared as perpetuators of the “Big Lie” (that their work is really poetry), who, if they were to capture the free world, would enforce their worldview by means of “secret police, concentration camps, and execution squads,” in the words of Coblentz in 1950. Coblentz, a central figure in Filreis’s study, had been featured in The New York Times Magazine in 1946 with his article called “What Are They?—Poems or Puzzles?” In a later essay he cast modernism in the role of a “mosquito that sucks your blood,” a “parasite in the grain.” Images of purity versus degeneration abound. Consider Ben Lucien Burman’s “The Cult of Unintelligibility,” published in the November 1, 1952 issue of the Saturday Review. The influences of Gertrude Stein, Berman says, are “still to be found in many strategic strongholds, like the lurking germs of a yellow fever, they must be constantly fought and sprayed with violent chemicals lest the microbes develop again and start a new infection.”

It gets worse:

The editors of Pinnacle, the magazine of the League for Sanity in Poetry, described modernism as genocide: poets were being exterminated. (‘The actual mandate, to be precise, prescribes not that all poets be exterminated, but only those who respect the literary traditions of three thousand years.’) To this murderous ‘revolution,’ wrote another antimodernist, ‘there must be a counterrevolution . . . The world has no . . . use for any kind of bigotry and regimentation.’ It was ‘futile . . . to seek the cause of the rise of our poetic dictators in any agency or factor outside their own little, warped minds and hearts,’ a conservative editor wrote; so, he continued, ‘the only way to eliminate the trouble is to eliminate them.’ By imposing a ‘tabu against beauty, modern poets . . . have unwittingly signed their own death sentence.’

The connection of radical formal innovation to genocide is likely to strike contemporary sensibilities as bizarre. These ideas, however, belonged to the immediate postwar mainstream, and they underwrite the allegorical unconscious of the anti-modernist factions of official verse culture in our time.

While the postwar polemic takes a sometimes-apocalyptic turn, there is nothing new about such viscerally negative responses to radical modernism. Russian Futurist poets allied themselves to the 1917 revolution while Italian Futurists allied themselves with the right; either way, those who rejected radical change expressed shock and dismay at the new art and the social disruption to which it was symbolically, and actually, attached. The confusion as to whether radical formal innovation is leftist or rightist, ethical or nihilistic, persists. In the United States, during the first decades of the twentieth century, the modernist “revolution of the word” and even the simple practice of free verse were more often debunked than celebrated. We now take Whitman and Dickinson as canonical, but the contemporary responses to their work were chilling and preemptive. Poe located the problem as quintessentially American, as a phobia of the aesthetic, a fear that sensation undermines morality. The battle erupts on many fronts, historical and contemporary. Brian Reed, in his recent study Hart Crane: After His Lights, is able to chart how both the body of this poet and the body of his work remain sites of acute aesthetic and political struggle, which plays out, in what must seem an odd passion play to the uninformed, in contemporary responses from the 1920s and 1930s and also in reviews of his work in our time.

Filreis’s study traces how these anti-modernist dynamics, fully alive in the first half of the century, morphed into important tools for Cold War hegemony. In this context it becomes harder to shrug off such now-peripheral figures as Peter Viereck, who, writing in Political Science Quarterly in 1952, “argued that the modern ‘anything goes’ aesthetic led to communist (and fascist) mass murder.” Filreis associates this noxious doctrine with the emergence of the neoliberalism articulated by Daniel Bell:

Bell’s social narrative telling of the convergence of communism and modernism led him to propose a “vital center”—in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s celebrated term—where limits could be placed on the urge toward ‘anything goes,’ an attitude symptomatic of both communists and modernists.

While the anticommunist antimodernists claimed that modernist obscurity constituted an elitist betrayal of the general reader, they failed to recognize that this general reader was the pure product of an elitist Cold War ideology. But the greater irony is that much of what the anticommunist antimodernists rejected in radical modernist poetry was also reviled by the totalitarian governments that they opposed. In the defense of human freedom as articulated by the individual poet in the lyric poem, these Cold Warriors hollowed the lyric of its enunciative and sonic richness and undermined the articulation of human freedom through unfettered expression.

The demonization of the aesthetic left in poetry is still with us. It persists, often in defensive, sometimes farcical, form in the teaching and writing of those who, ironically, may sense they are on the wrong side of history. As with anticommunist antimodernism, dogmatic protest against the dogmatism of others is the standard operating procedure. The intellectual heir of anticommunist antimodernism is a post- or neo- liberalism that underwrites its defense of dominant aesthetic values as common sense. Critiques are dismissed as unjustifiable agonism (ideology of the avant-garde), part of a struggle that is now said to be outmoded. The post-partisan creed is that the avant-garde has won its battles and now it is time to return to kinder, gentler forms—poetry with a human face. It is the end of ideology all over again. The only way not to be divisive is to accept the dominant poetic values as inevitable and natural, as craft rather than ideology, sincerity rather than artifice.

Filreis provides a vivid lineage for a literary culture that promotes anti-intellectualism in the pursuit of “core values”—traditional form, the authentic subjective voice, legibility, the common reader—that are still claimed as fundamental literary virtues. The ideology of the ’50s anticommunist antimodernists is now embedded in the mainstream; it has come to shape common assumptions of popular taste about poetry.

While it may be tempting to mock the anti-modernist claims documented in Counter-Revolution of the Word, Filreis’s sober approach acknowledges the social cost for many poets. Ludicrous attacks on formal innovation become ominous when they cost someone a job or erase significant poets from cultural memory. But beyond the prices paid by individual poets, demonizing aesthetic invention and poetic difference has broader ramifications, from the diminished intellectual fare served up daily by the mediocracy to the stunted—and stunting—conception of literature promoted in too many classrooms.

Those who do not want to repeat poetic history in farcical form are condemned to study it. Counter-Revolution of the Word does just that.