http://bostonreview.net/BR33.4/bernstein.php: Here Charles Bernstein reviews Alan Filreis's book *Counter Revolution of the Word.* I haven't read the book yet but it sounds like I have to do so asap.
This book is about the conflation of Modernist experimentalism and communism by the political and cultural right in the 1950s America. As such it appears to be companion piece to Jed Rasula's "American Poetry Wax Museum," in which Jed shows the reactionary politics of New Criticism. And also Cary Nelsons' "Repression and Recovery", which shows the extent to which New Criticism worked to expunge radical (both politically and formally) poetry from American Poetry.
From the review: "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 an important point here is that the historical avant-garde - dada, Surrealism etc - was deeply political and their reception was mostly seen in political terms. This is even true in my favorite area of study, the Finland Swedish Modernists, who were accused of being foreign/German instigators and Bolsheviks (even though Björling fought on the side of the anti-communist Whites during the Finnish Civil War).
Here's another key point:
"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 unnatural part is important. The foreign = the unnatural (see my "Disabled Text"
essay from back in June). Proper grammar = realism, the natural, American, morality.
Here too it's important to distinguish between Modernism and the historical avant-garde. For Yeats, Jarry's Ubu Roi represented "the savage god" that would come. For Eliot, Stein was "of the barbarians" because of her ungrammatical use of language.
Here is a quote from the book followed by Bernstein's analysis:
""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.”"
I like this point because it shows the connection between the grotesque and the historical avant-garde. I also like the quote because it shows some of the irrationally fearful attitudes of opponents of the historical avant-garde.
Feelings which persist (see fore example Reginald Shepherd's recent entries on the Harriet blog)!
Bernstein makes a similar point toward the end of the review:
"The demonization of the aesthetic left in poetry is still with us... 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."