This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship behind IU Press Journals. Primarily written by journal editors and contributors, posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article.
James Brunton’s article, “Whose (Meta)modernism?: Metamodernism, Race, and the Politics of Failure,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, James elaborates on poetry as an antidote to the noise of self-righteous social media posts and crisis-fueled cable news.
I encountered the work of Harryette Mullen at a time when I had begun to grow cynical about the place of contemporary American poetry. It seemed that almost every new book or journal issue I picked up represented one of two extremes: the first, a plainspoken narrative aimed at the revelation of a universal truth through observation of, say, nature or some quotidian scene in a restaurant or on a city bus; the second, an academic-inflected descendant of Language poetry, with all the difficulty but none of the bite. This is an exaggeration, of course, but in light of the political landscape (the increased media visibility of police shootings of black citizens, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Donald Trump’s move from reality TV star to serious contender for the Republican presidential nominee), I felt that the poetry I was reading (and even the poetry I was writing) was talking past issues of urgency. Then I read Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary.
Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002) is similar stylistically to Mullen’s earlier Trimmings (1991), which mimics the formal experimentations of Gertrude Stein. But here, Mullen makes explicit the connection between our everyday lexicon and racism, showing, through her word play, how the language we inherit shapes our collective unconscious in ways that must be openly dealt with, even (and perhaps especially) in spaces that self-identify as politically progressive. The attitude of these poems reminded me of the work of Evie Shockley, another experimental poet whose work addresses US racism from a historical perspective. Like Mullen’s work, Shockley’s the new black (2011) and a half-red sea (2006) draw on the modernist tradition—most notably, of Langston Hughes—to contrast the beauty of poetry with the abject horror of racism.
Both Mullen’s and Shockley’s work fits the broad definition of “metamodern” given by Urmila Seshagiri and David James: contemporary literature that uses the formal techniques of modernism to critique the present. But much of the art and literature that has been labeled by scholars as “metamodern” is marked by a belief in historical progress, which Mullen and Shockley do not share. Their poems take precisely the opposite view, dwelling in moments of failure, whether at the interpersonal or the political level. My JML article unpacks how the techniques and perspectives of these two poets, who draw on the avant-garde strain within modernism, differ from other artists to whom the metamodernist label has been given and claims a place for Mullen and Shockley in metamodernist studies.
Mullen’s and Shockley’s poetry demonstrates that failure is our present reality, that the myth of historical progress is not worth salvaging, and that sharp-witted, adrenaline-fueled adaptation to ever changing circumstances—not congratulatory optimism—is necessary for our survival. Their poetry feels like a response and an antidote to, rather than a retreat from, the noise of self-righteous social media posts and crisis-fueled cable news. It is, I think, exactly the kind of engaged, self-critical aesthetic perspective that can help guide and sustain a political movement.
Ultimately, what I find most gratifying about these poems is their refusal to let us off the hook as readers. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief after reading the last line, resting assured in our own moral positions newly put to us through the beauty of poetry. What Shockley and Mullen offer is not revelation—they are not in the business of digging up the “hidden” evils of institutionalized racism, sexism, or homophobia. Rather, through recourse to avant-garde modernist techniques, they state the obvious yet unspoken failures of American democracy, pointing out how we are all complicit in systems of oppression through our very language, and leaving us to sit uncomfortably with that disavowed truth.
James Brunton teaches critical theory in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
More from the Journal of Modern Literature 41.3
Marianne Moore's Cabinets of Curiosity
Lola Ridge, American Modernism's Forgotten Radical
Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet by Terese Svoboda
Review by: Joshua Logan Wall
“The Secrets of Blood and Seed”: Primo Levi's Poetic Emergence
Barbara L. Estrin
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Whose (Meta)modernism?: Metamodernism, Race, and the Politics of Failure
The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley by Robert Creeley, Rod Smith, Peter Baker, Kaplan Harris
Review by: Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Trailing through the Thicket
Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries by Mark Scroggins
Review by: Zhaohui Liu
The First Book: Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America by Jesse Zuba
Review by: Mike Chasar
A Book of Readings on Anne Carson
Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Review by: Calista McRae
“The Eliot we have is the Eliot we make”: A Review of The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot
The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot by Jason Harding
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A Myriad of Critical Lenses on The Waste Land
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