Working backward in time, from the near present to the 1830s, by a combination of free and accidental association, in order to think forward: less a method than a way of passing the time — history as bookshelf, browsing as historiography.
American Hybrid (2009)
For a short time after its publication there was a lot of controversy over American Hybrid, a Norton anthology that made the claim — I guess I should say makes; it’s still in print — that poetry is no longer a matter of warring factions; the best poets now pledge no allegiance, it said — says — but jump sides at will. Or would if there were sides (which there are) (are not).
Let those parenthetical equivocations stand in for a fairer representation of the anthology’s own, which are not so much contradictions as uncertainties. For the purpose of the anthology has never been clear to me. I mean its editorial purpose, since the work is the work, produced for reasons — conscious and unconscious — of the authors’ own, which may or may not correspond to the imagination of the editors. But what was that imagination? Did the editors intend to produce an historical account of the literary present, or an aesthetic theory, or a manifesto? By what criteria should I judge their labor? And how strictly should I judge?
My choice has been to take the anthology as something more personal and more effervescent than a history, theory, or assault: I see it instead as lending substance to a mood, and in this regard its success is much less qualified, as the substance is not a matter of accuracy, coherence, or influence, but richness and suggestion.
The stumbling block for me (not that anyone is asking) is the title, which was meant to draw luster, I suspect, from postcolonial theory, where hybrid has become something of a master trope for the aftereffects of colonial relationships (and by extension the more symmetrical forms of engagement that occur between groups, ideologies, etc., which is how American Hybrid uses it). Associated in particular with Homi K. Bhabha, the trope of hybridity highlights the generative possibilities of such relationships, conceptualizing “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on … the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.” That hybrid is a trope is often forgotten, however, though not by the editors and publishers of American Hybrid — witness the flag-waving butterfly on the cover, each of its wings coming from a different breed. A hybrid literally is the offspring of two different species, and it has, for much of its history, carried a negative association when applied to human beings (I think, for instance, of Ezra Pound’s Fascist propaganda, which refers sneeringly to “hybrids of the Anglo ghetto” ). Postcolonialism is explicitly a critique of racism, so its redemption of the word is at once polemical and contextualized. Neither is the case with American Hybrid, which is unfortunate since some of the controversy over the anthology was owing to its “whitewashing,” as Craig Santos Perez put it, of American poetry and hybridity as concept. In any case, hybrid is not a trope I particularly like, no doubt for personal reasons: I am one generation removed from the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany (about which my father, a survivor, has written at length).
I should distinguish, though, between two versions of the trope, each of which is adopted in the anthology. Innocuous to me is the metaphor of poem as hybrid, especially in the horticultural form David St. John adopts at the end of his brief introduction (the second of two; the other, much longer, is by his co-editor, Cole Swensen):
I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.
There is a certain confusion here — the Adamic citation at the end hardly points away from the fantasy of purity; and the slippage from “poets” to “poetry” does suggest that the former are the stock from which the latter’s “exquisite hybridizations” are produced — but to speak of poetry as cultivation, evoking a “Garden” of verses, is to till the very idea of culture in its most venerable form.
The other version of the trope appears in Swensen’s introduction, and the genetic aspects are there highlighted. She speaks of “writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits,” and refers to her poets as “THE NEW (HY)BREED.” Like St. John, moreover, she ends on a reference ill-matched to her announced aims. In her case, the reference is a citation of Mallarmé, “to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe.” Impurity, I should think, would be a more appropriate goal in this context; and since the poetic legacies at issue for Swensen were earlier defined nationally (as French or English in origin), I find myself thinking about the purity of “the tribe,” which cannot be the last thought she wanted me to have.
I hasten to add that I see no malignant design in this troping. It is just something I do not care for, hence my sensitivity to it; and when the anthology appeared, it kept me from sharing in the mood.
I am not entirely sure why I am going into such detail about my response to the anthology (or rather, my reasons for not responding), except that I came across a modernist precedent for the anthology’s conceit, which in turn suggested another precedent from the nineteenth century, and I did not think I could talk about these precedents without sorting out my original feelings.
The Noise That Time Makes (1929)
A few weeks ago, looking for something else, I found a pamphlet brought out in support of Merrill Moore’s first book of sonnets, The Noise That Time Makes: A First Volume of 101 Sonnets (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929). The pamphlet includes John Crowe Ransom’s foreword to the book, the title poem with an illustration, and several reviews, including notices by William Stanley Braithwaite, Donald Davidson, Babette Deutsch, Dudley Fitts, Louis Untermeyer, Robert Penn Warren, William Carlos Williams, and Yvor Winters.
Moore is a long story in his own right: a psychiatrist as well as a poet, he wrote sonnets by the hundreds, nay thousands, and won over even Williams, who famously dismissed the form (“Never in this world did I expect to praise a living writer for his sonnets, but these have been a revelation to me“). A student at Vanderbilt, he was a member of the Fugitives, and later associated with Robert Frost. But I will leave Moore for another occasion — he is but a tangent here. What caught my eye, flipping through the pamphlet, was the title of Untermeyer‘s review: “A New Hybrid.”
Originally published in The Saturday Review of Literature — and thanks to UNZ.org, the issue is online — “A New Hybrid” drew its title from a comment by the British poet Ralph Hodgson, from a source I have not been able to track down. This is how Untermeyer introduces the comment:
Were it not for his first subtitle, I venture to doubt whether most readers would realize that Merrill Moore, a definitely modern poet, has chosen the most classic of forms for his medium. Typography and tradition notwithstanding, “The Noise that Time Makes” is composed entirely of sonnets; and it is no secret among those who know the Fugitives that Merrill Moore, M.D., at the age of twenty-five, has composed no less than two thousand such sonnets. Nor is it a fiction that Moore learned shorthand in order to get more of his fourteen-liners done between class-room and laboratory. It should be said at once that neither Wyatt nor Philip Sidney would have sponsored, had they even recognized, Moore’s employment of the key with which Shakespeare unlocked his art. Yet a group of more recent English poets were quick to identify them. “But, of course,” said one who happened to be Ralph Hodgson, “of course these poems are true to form in spite of their informality. You might say that these are the first fruits from the old sonnet stock — a new hybrid: the American sonnet.”
The expectation expressed here, that Moore’s fourteen-line poems would be not be recognized as sonnets, seems strange today; even James Merrill plays looser with the form, and Hodgson himself allows that Moore’s are “true to form in spite of their informality.” It is the informality, then, that makes them American. But what exactly does that mean? Ransom in his foreword offers one explanation:
The content of these poems is disconcertingly various. [Moore’s] memory and imagination range so freely that they provide his verse with incessant surprises. And it is an excellent thing to miss consistently the way of the obvious. Still, it is hard to find a fixed purpose and philosophy in such a miscellaneous show. We must not be distressed over this more than we need to be. I should think his situation is about as follows: His profession allows him all the opportunity his mind requires to exercise, as Kant would say, “according to principles.” His poetics are his holiday; they are serious and whole-hearted, but not restrained.
They are not even restrained by the old conventions of poetry; … “Tradition of a Young Poet” is a tradition to which Moore has no objections, and which he is far from having engaged in any conspiracy to oppose. He simply lets it take care of itself. When he is writing poetry, he is not under the influence of any conscious principles; and the thing that saves him then is that which has to save anybody who is not saved by fighting for some fine explicit cause — he must fall back on his natural good taste. And this taste is doubtless a function of Moore’s social background, which is superior.
Moore’s American sonnet is for Ransom very definitely a matter of breeding, but not in the same agricultural sense evoked by Hodgson. If the poem is a fruit of its stock, then the tree is in this case a family tree.
With regard to the superiority of Moore’s background, Ransom was probably thinking of the poet’s father, John Trotwood Moore, a distinguished man of letters in the South, but the rootedness of an individual in a tradition and locale was very much on Ransom’s mind at the time. A year after publishing his foreword to The Noise That Time Makes, Ransom contributed a polemical essay to I’ll Take My Stand, the Agrarian manifesto that infamously offered a “defense, implied and stated, of racial segregation” (to quote Louis D. Rubin, Jr., from his introduction to the 1977 reprint). Tropes of cultivation aside, there can be no slippage for Ransom between agriculture and Agrarian: the poet as gentleman farmer may produce a hybrid crop, but he himself can under no circumstances can be mistaken for a hybrid. This is the logic of slavery, carried forward under segregation. Humanity is dependent on purity; the impure person — the mixed-race child — is cut at the root, cast in the bin as property.
Hodgson’s “New Hybrid” was Anglo-American (the Italian origins of the sonnet were conveniently forgotten). Ransom, I suspect, would have seen the sonnet instead as an heirloom variety, carried over from Europe and kept alive in Southern soil. This, more or less, was his thesis in I’ll Take My Stand:
The South is unique on this continent for having founded and defended a culture which was according to the European principles of culture; and the European principles had better look to the South if they are to be perpetuated in this country. … I have in mind here the core of unadulterated Europeanism, with its self-sufficient, backward-looking, intensely provincial communities. The human life of English provinces long ago came to terms with nature, fixed its roots somewhere in the spaces between the rocks and in the trees, founded its comfortable institutions, secured its modest prosperity — and then willed the whole in perpetuity to the generations which should come after, in the ingenuous confidence that it would afford them all the essential human satisfactions.
Ransom’s South is very much an English colony, hence the aptness or inaptness of referring to Moore’s Southern sonnets as “hybrid” relates directly to his appraisal of the Southerner’s relationship to the mother country. Of course, for the twelve Southerners who produced I’ll Take My Stand, the South was also in a colonial relationship to the North (Ransom’s essay was titled “Reconstructed but Unregenerate”), hence two different stances on colonialism can be found in Ransom’s criticism. But this only complicates, does not alter, the fundamental point: that to speak of the American sonnet as hybrid grounds poetry in the discourses of race and nation, knots that take the greatest of care to untangle.
One such untangling — a hybrid American sonnet if there is one — is Juliana Spahr’s “New World Sonnet,” which appears in American Hybrid. A fourteen-line free verse poem organized by anaphora, with a thirteenth line as long as any in Howl or Leaves of Grass, it encompasses more than one language and adopts a diction that owes as much to pidgin as modernism, indeed insists that the two are intimately related. A poem as polemical as Ransom’s manifesto, but taking a very different “stand” on “European principles.” Much of American Hybrid is closer to Hodgson’s “New Hybrid” than the “DissemiNation” of Homi Bhabha, but not Spahr’s sonnet. You can hear a reading of it here.
Ariel and Caliban (1887)
Hybrid or not, the American sonnet has a long history, its Americanness defined variously by authorship, subject matter, form, and stance. I am not sure that this history has ever been written, I mean in detail, the early portion anyway (I myself have a number of questions, such as who wrote and/or published the first such sonnet), but certainly enough is known to begin thinking of an older poet than Moore that one might juxtapose with Spahr, an older instance of a “New World Sonnet” than those in The Noise That Time Makes.
And so I gave some thought to it — not much, only a little — relying on memory rather than research. And what came to mind, appropriately or not, was “Seven Wonders of the World,” a sequence of seven sonnets by Christopher Pearse Cranch, best known for his caricature of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” It was the caricature, in fact, that brought the sonnet sequence to mind, for when I think of “American hybrid” as a figure of speech, this is the figure I think about: a string-bean cyclops-like fellow in tailcoat, with body reminiscent of a bird, and no arms, just two endless legs dropping down from the shoulders, to bare feet, its head all eye under a hat, glancing up, with a tiny ponytail of an optic nerve tied back. An unforgettable image.
This is already an overlong post so I will not get too detailed in my reading of the sequence, nor in providing background on Cranch. As the caricature indicates, he was a painter as well as a writer, and an associate of the Transcendentalists. He lived for many years in Europe and ranged equally widely in his work, producing a translation of the Aeneid and the first fantasy novel for children. His “Seven Wonders of the World” is a late poem, embedded in a longer sequence of sonnets embedded in his last collection, Ariel and Caliban. The title is of course a reference to Shakespeare’s New World inhabitants in The Tempest, a play whose European characters are not English but Italian — which makes the play an especially appropriate frame for thinking about the American sonnet, since the English and Italian traditions are the principal ones to which American authors looked in Cranch’s time. Cranch’s pastiche of the play is more decidedly American than that, however. Set just after Prospero’s departure, it owes more to the stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin than Shakespeare’s original, with Ariel a prankster Ophelia and Caliban a clod Topsy. It ends with the two leaving “the oblivion of the sleepy South” for the North, a place
where pulses bound
Electric to assured results of thought.
Its fertile plains, its rocky coasts and hills
Are peopled with a vigorous race. Its ports,
Forests of masts; its fields by labor tilled;
Its growing towns and cities from afar
Flash in the morning of a crystal sky,
And stud its winding streams like jewels strung
On silver threads: — a people brave and strong,
Yet peaceful, and advancing in all arts,
Science and culture, by wise freedom nursed.
The “advancing” cited by Ariel is Cranch’s subject in “The Seven Wonders of the World”: his wonders are all technological — though I would note in passing that there are actually eight, as the fourth poem in the sequence treats two inventions as one, the telephone and telegraph. This is assuming that there are seven poems; the book gives no demarcation of where the sequence ends, inviting a reader to consider “The Fireside” as an eighth (or is it ninth?) wonder, as perhaps it was in Victorian America. But going by titles, and counting seven, Cranch’s wonders — a sequel to those of the ancient world — are as follows: “The Printing-Press,” “The Ocean Steamer,” “The Locomotive,” “The Telegraph and Telephone,” “The Photograph,” “The Spectroscope,” and “The Microphone.”
Spahr’s “New World Sonnet” is about the colonization of the hemisphere. It is tempting to read Cranch’s sonnet sequence as taking up the means. There are, however, some difficulties wit this reading. Most importantly, Cranch’s seven wonders are not, by and large, American inventions — though American ingenuity was certainly involved in their development. Nor does Cranch distinguish between the New and Old Worlds. He is rather concerned with newness and antiquity, as in his title, which binds the modern and the mythic together, even as the telegraph binds “The Arctic ice-fields with the sultry South.” Yet Cranch’s sonnets can still be taken as American, or as one version of an American Sonnet, especially when read in light of Ransom, whose Agrarianism treats the “gospel of Progress” as quintessentially American, albeit in a bad sense. Ironically, Ransom cites two British authors in elucidating this bad sense, although he absolves England itself of blame — presumably because England remains a place rooted in tradition:
Deracination in our Western life is the strange discipline which individuals turn upon themselves, enticed by the blandishments of such fine words as Progressive, Liberal, and Forward-looking. The progressivist says in effect: Do not allow yourself to feel homesick; form no such powerful attachments that you will feel a pain cutting them loose; prepare your spirit to be always on the move. According to this gospel, there is no rest for the weary, not even in heaven. The poet Browning expresses an ungrateful intention, the moment he shall enter into his reward, to “fight onward, there as here.” The progressivist H. G. Wells has outlined very neatly his scheme of progress, the only disheartening feature being that he has had to revise it a good many times, and that the state to which he wants us to progress never has any finality or definition. Browning and Wells would have made very good Americans, and I am sure they have got the most of their disciples on this side of the Atlantic; they have not been good Europeans.
Was Cranch an evangelist for what Ransom calls “deracination”? Perhaps. His spirit was certainly prepared for movement. But there are moments of disenchantment in his sequence, as in the ending of “The Ocean Steamer”:
Long leagues of ocean vanish at her stern—
She drinks the air, and tastes another clime,
Where men their former wonder fast unlearn,
Which hailed her coming as a thing sublime.
On the other hand, this disenchantment does not extend to the material effects of progress. Put in terms of “Ariel and Caliban”: Prospero’s arrival may come at the cost of the natives’ freedom, and their freedom at the cost of wonder, but neither cost is to be regretted in its due time. The colonial example — quintessentially European — indicates, moreover, some of the limitations of Ransom’s categories, as “deracination” leads on in the Progressivist narrative to a new experience of rootedness, as when Cranch’s Ariel and Caliban leave the Agrarian South for a Transcendentalist North. Though this new experience is not yet, in Cranch’s work, a new form, is not the hybridity of postcolonialism, it still stands as a rebuke to the traditionalism of a Ransom. Cranch is, so to speak, an “American hybrid” in Norton anthology terms.
Illustrations of the New Philosophy (c. 1837-39)
Ultimately, Cranch’s pictorial hybrids form a more satisfying representation than his verse of what a forward-looking American poetry might be, and his name for those pictures a more satisfying label than American Hybrid for work that, like his, interrogates what it assimilates and assimilates what it interrogates. In Cranch’s case, the interrogation and assimilation were directed at and by Emerson’s Transcendentalism hence the title given his drawings by James Freeman Clarke, who pasted them into a scrapbook: Illustrations of the New Philosophy. The situation in American Hybrid is more varied: there is no one philosophy to which all of the writers are responding. Nor, for that matter, are there two. Notwithstanding the editors’ narrative of two literary cultures blending into one, the heterogeneous group in American Hybrid is animated by a heterogeneous set of concerns. But given what is most credible in the anthology — or what the anthology most credibly establishes — it is not the singular form but the noun itself that needs adjustment. And my choice is already clear: Illustrations of the New Mood; or rather, New Mood in Poetry. As a title, it lacks the luster of postcolonialism, but then a Transcendental quaintness is more accurate.
As it happens, Cranch’s best-known poem — and his best poetic illustration of Transcendentalist philosophy — is titled with a Greek word, “Enosis,” that might do in a pinch as a synonym for “hybrid.” Liddell and Scott give “combination into one, union,” as translation, and though this communion is hardly a synonym for hybrid in Homi Bhabha’s sense — and not only because Cranch is an idealist and Bhabha a materialist — it does touch on the sense of Swensen and St. John. I am thinking in particular of their sense that “previously conceived poetic ‘differences'” are in today’s best works “being melded and re-forged.”
For Cranch, melding and reforging are future events; it is the union of minds he desires, and language is insufficient for the task, though language — the realm of “poetic ‘differences'” — is all we have in common at present for making the attempt:
Thought is deeper than all speech,
Feeling deeper than all thought;
Souls to souls can never teach
What unto themselves was taught.
We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.
Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone,
Of a temple once complete.
Like the stars that gem the sky,
Far apart, though seeming near,
In our light we scattered lie;
All is thus but starlight here.
What is social company
But a babbling summer stream?
What our wise philosophy
But the glancing of a dream?
Only when the sun of love
Melts the scattered stars of thought;
Only when we live above
What the dim-eyed world hath taught;
Only when our souls are fed
By the Fount which gave them birth,
And by inspiration led,
Which they never drew from earth,
We like parted drops of rain
Swelling till they meet and run,
Shall be all absorbed again,
Melting, flowing into one.
In “Enosis,” then, I hear both a call for American Hybrid and a calling out of its claims as superficial. Choosing between those readings depends, I suppose, on one’s mood.
1 [Back to text] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 38.
2 [Back to text] “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of World War II, ed. Leonard W. Doob (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), 229.
3 [Back to text] American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), xxviii.
4 [Back to text] American Hybrid, xx-xxi.
5 [Back to text] American Hybrid, xxvi.
6 [Back to text] Foreword by John Crowe Ransom to The Noise That Time Makes (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938), 4.
7 [Back to text] I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. By Twelve Southerners (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), xvii. On the politics of the group, see in particular Paul V. Murphy’s very readable The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina press, 2001), which includes an account of Rubin’s own views of segregation (at 222-24).
8 [Back to text] I’ll Take My Stand, 3, 5. Ransom goes on to say, “[I]t is the character of our urbanized, anti-provincial, progressive, and mobile American life that it is in a condition of eternal flux” (5). And he offers up nostalgia as a counteracting force:
It is hardly a technical term in our sociology or our psychiatry, but it might well be. Nostalgia is a kind of growing-pain, psychically speaking. … It is the complaint of human nature in its vegetative form when it is plucked up by the roots from the place of its origin and transplanted in foreign soil, or even left dangling in the air. And it must be nothing else but nostalgia, the instinctive objection to being transplanted, that chiefly prevents the deracination of human communities and their complete geographical dispersion…. (6)
11 [Back to text] I’ll Take My Stand, 6-7.
13 [Back to text] Clarke’s title includes a date, 1835, which is belied by the drawings themselves, since they include quotes from Emerson texts that Cranch could not have seen or heard until after. For its account of the scrapbook, its provenance and context, I am indebted to the early study by its discoverer, F. DeWolfe Miller, Christopher Pearse Cranch and His Caricatures of New England Transcendentalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).
14 [Back to text] For the Greek word and its translation, see Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 7th ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883), 490.
15 [Back to text] American Hybrid, xxvii. The phrase is St. John’s, but offered as a summary of a talk by Swensen, so as close to a co-authored statement as their separate introductions allow.