Early Modern Contemporary

Browning waxed Shakespearean; Eliot got metaphysical. How do contemporary poets continue to respond to and reinvent the early modern imaginary? This question is often approached as a matter of broad generic or thematic affinity as scholars explore the lyric sequence after Petrarch, for example, or attend to the continued resonance of devotional or meditative practice. These connections, valuable as they are, tend to say more about the scholars’ deep retrospective knowledge of poetic tradition than they do about how poets engage the early modern.

But engage they do: consider Radi Os, Ronald Johnson’s groundbreaking erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Adrienne Rich’s famous riff on Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” More recently, we might look to Karen Volkman’s Nomina (2008) and its metaphysical contortions, or the quieter return of Donne in Carl Phillips’s Riding Westward (2006). Working towards more experimental ends, we have K. Silem Mohhamad’s anagramatic recastings of Shakespeare’s sonnets in his Sonnagrams (2009) and Jen Bervin’s erasures of them in Nets (2004). Finally, one might note Paul Hoover’s Sonnet 56 (2009), a poetic and pedagogical tour de force. In these examples—and many more—the early modern persists in ways subtle and startling.

Attending to such formal engagements, this roundtable joins a conversation vibrant in practice, if less so in dedicated critical reflection. A decade ago, the University of California Press published Green Thoughts, Green Shades: Essays by Contemporary Poets on the Early Modern Lyric, an edited collection whose subtitle articulates the volume’s more reflective, appreciative orientation. Two recent panel discussions have moved beyond this durable backward glance to address, instead, how the early modern continues to inflect and animate contemporary poetic practice. A panel at the November 2010 meeting of the Association of Literary Critics, Scholars and Writers invited six scholar-poets to discuss this confluence. Six months later, Columbia University sponsored an event—“Re-Making it New: Contemporary Poetry and Tradition”—that encouraged a more interactive dialogue between poets and scholars. The proposed roundtable aims to bring this inchoate conversation to a more prominent national stage at MLA as it gathers participants who are emerging and established poets, renaissance scholars, critics of contemporary poetry, and various permutations thereof.

Kimberly Johnson, looking critically at the lax attention experimental poetic theory has paid to the early modern, examines the development of an antiabsorptive, antitransparent poetics in the post-Reformation period, and traces the legacy of these developments into twenty-first-century poetry. In doing so, she demonstrates that the material innovations of contemporary experimental writing are—rather than innovations–reapplications of strategies that developed in response to theological reform. Poem’s discussed include “Envoi” by Steve McCaffery, one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca.”

Similarly discovering the early modern roots of what often appears to be a singularly postmodern phenomenon, Joseph Campana explores contemporary poetry’s fascination with erasure, a poetic procedure spearheaded by Ronald Johnson in Radi Os, which selectively erases the first four books of Paradise Lost. Is this vogue for erasure, Campana asks, a facet of contemporary writing we might describe as unoriginal genius, as Marjorie Perloff calls it, or uncreative writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith argues? Or, might there be something Ronald Johnson learned from the poetics of early modernity that throws into relief contemporary poetic innovation?

Jeffrey Pethybridge will speak more broadly about how early modern materialisms of mind and body have recurred in contemporary science and verse alike. To illustrate this point, Pethybridge will discuss the conceptual rhyme between the early modern humorial theory and contemporary psychiatry’s focus on the material cause (brain chemistry) at work within the experience of melancholy and depression—a conceptual rhyme that plays an important role in his forthcoming book of poems, relevant excerpts from which you can find here.

Anton Vander Zee explores another sort of conceptual rhyme with material consequences as he notes the ways in which contemporary poets—particularly Karen Volkman—have adapted a hybrid language of bodily torture and literary form that we see exemplified by the sonnet tradition. What problems emerge, Vander Zee asks, from summoning these two extreme discourses into what we might call a poetics of torture? Vander Zee will focus on one sonnet in particular–“That’s what it says to the bloomingest more.”

Zeroing in on a particular—and particularly overlooked—early modern exemplar, Brett Foster will offer a short catalog of contemporary Spenserian poetics. Topics addressed will include the complaint mode, rewritings of mythology, use of the Spenserian stanza, matters of poetic persona, and echoes of Spenser’s language or figures. Poets discussed will include recent writing from poets including as Linda Gregerson, Kimberly Johnson, Joseph Campana, and Nate Pritts.

Emily Rosko rounds out this conversation by offering one answer to a question that motivates this panel: what drives these recent engagements? Does this have anything to do, she asks, with the institutionalization of poetry in the academy—particularly as this plays out amongst a new breed of Creative Writing Ph.D.s? Her own second book of poems, Prop Rockery (2012), emerged in part from her reading of Shakespeare’s Complete Works in preparation for exams. Poets have always been avid readers, but less so have they been trained scholars. With the rise of the Creative Writing Ph.D., will we see the rise, as well, of a research-based poetics—one at home in the stacks and archive?

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Rosko’s presentation is different from the one describe above. You can find the relevant Shakespeare passage here, and a poem with which she will conclude here.