Realist Poetry at MLA 2014

About the Session

MLA 2014 Special Session: Realist Poetry in the “Twilight” Era

From Nancy Glazener’s Reading for Realism to Nancy Bentley’s Frantic Panoramas, contemporary scholarship on American realism has focused solely on fiction. This panel proposes to consider the existence of a realist poetics in order to make an important intervention in this field.

This possibility has been neglected because late nineteenth-century critics and, until recently, the twentieth-century scholars who followed them, thought the era’s poetry was naively transcendent and severed from worldly insight. Because it appeared to confront the rapid social change that characterized the latter half of the nineteenth century, fiction has been considered the privileged site of realist inquiry. But as Elizabeth Renker explains “poetry had an active and vital social life in this period that literary history has only recently begun to explore, one that specifically points to a new history of American realist poetry” (The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry 136). Panelists will continue to chart this “new history” by dispelling the supposed irrelevance of poetry in the late-nineteenth century.

Renker’s paper, “The ‘Twilight of the Poets’ and the Ideology of Genre,” will provide the historical and theoretical foundation for the panel by revealing the myth of poetry’s decline and the preconditions of realist poetry. Edmund Clarence Stedman coined the phrase “twilight of the poets” to describe the state of poetic practice in the U.S. in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His term caught on and spread rapidly throughout literary culture. It became a sensationalist coin that writers quoted and further disseminated amidst broader arguments about the degraded literary status of the modern era. Suffusing literary culture through the beginning of the twentieth century, the “twilight” lens then crossed into the burgeoning genre of academic literary history. At that point, it lost touch with its nineteenth-century origins in conflict and cultural contest, and became a static, “factual” account. Renker’s paper will explore the ideology of poetry that fed Stedman’s coinage, as well as its ideological results, reading both against the grain of actual poetic practices during the putative “twilight” era.

Due to the popularity of Stedman’s formulation, American poetry was thereafter considered dead or dying. In other words, the death of poetry helped to highlight the vitality of realist fiction. While Renker’s paper investigates the ideology surrounding the “twilight” narrative, the remaining panelists will redress the misunderstanding by exploring the relationship between poetry and the literary wishes associated with realism.

In “Robert Browning as an American Realist Poet,” Nancy Glazener will examine the American fascination with Robert Browning. This phenomena was obscured by Stedman’s diagnosis of an “interregnum” in U.S. poetry, in addition to a literary nationalism that elided the transnational lives of many texts. Although Browning had some American followers before the Civil War (notably, Margaret Fuller), for many readers in the generation that came of age around the time of the Civil War and after, Browning inspired special devotion, even operating sometimes as a generational marker. Charles Francis Adams and Sidney Lanier, Civil War soldiers north and south, took volumes of Browning into battle with them; Thomas Sergeant Perry was one of a group of “Browningites” around the same time that included William and Henry James; Emily Dickinson read and absorbed a great deal of both Brownings’ poetry during the 1860s; and Edith Wharton looked back on Browning as one of her “great Awakeners.” Glazener will argue that Browning, whose followers understood his difficulty as a sign of his modernity, was admired in terms that paralleled in some ways the promotion of realist fiction as literature that equipped modern subject-citizens, especially in the post-Civil War U.S.. The Browning Society has suffered in retrospect from being dismissed (often in misogynist terms) as an amateur and status-mongering organization, but in the U.S., it brought together academic and non-academic serious readers of poetry, many of whom understood Browning as a poetic resource for reformers.

Elissa Zellinger’s paper, “Poetry’s Realist Fictions,” will examine the exchange between poetry and fiction. Realist fiction often gestures to the poetic in order to distinguish its techniques from the supposed transcendence and melodrama of genteel poetry. Through the figured poetess Emmeline Grangerford in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) or the thinly veiled transformation of Tennyson’s poem “Tears, Idle Tears,” into the novel eventually referred to as “Slop, Silly Slop” in W. D. Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), realist novels satirize poetry’s weak sentimentalism in order to bolster the healthy, rational, and modern mode of realism. This paper will reverse this practice, not by rendering fiction ridiculous, but by examining the depiction of nineteenth-century realist fiction in contemporaneous poetry. Zellinger will discuss the use of realist techniques in poems such as Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Zola” and “George Crabbe.” By depicting the psychological and human complexity of representative American lives, Robinson’s short, narrative, and character-based poems establish an interplay between poetic and fictional devices in order to imagine a realist poetics.

By recovering the often-ignored, non-canonical poetry of the early modernist period, this panel participates in a current scholarly movement exemplified by recent and forthcoming works by Max Cavitch, Virginia Jackson, and Elizabeth Renker, among others. These presentations will also accomplish several scholarly goals. In addition to dispelling the myth of a “twilight” in American poetry at the turn-of-the-century, these presentations will also begin to articulate what constitutes and composes realist poetry. In addition, panelists will help reveal how the often overlooked works of the 1880s-1900s can forge connections, rather than divisions, between poetry and fiction. This panel will begin to bridge the arbitrary modernist divide between two genres while inaugurating the idea of a realist poetics.


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