An innovative exploration of early twentieth-century avant-garde poetry’s relationship to the public sphere
“It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,” as the poet William Carlos Williams memorably declared. In Omnicompetent Modernists: Poetry, Politics, and the Public Sphere, Matthew Hofer examines, through a multilayered literary critique of interwar modernist poetry, what it might mean to get the news, and more, from a poet.
Using pragmatist ideas about the public sphere as a tool, Hofer reveals how Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, and Mina Loy sought to use literature to both express and enable thought. In Hughes, Pound, and Loy, Hofer attends to poets whose work vigorously imagined possible new relationships between language, thinking, and public society. Each poet had different goals and used different methods, but all found both inspiration and encouragement in popular political theory. Hughes advocated for a more just vision of color and class in the United States. Pound sought to condemn those whom he associated with public harm, linguistically, socially, economically, and politically. Loy championed the “psycho-democratic” representation of women, in both public and private life.
Although Hughes, Pound, and Loy are rarely considered together, what unites these three writers is how each reconceived the public realm, and revolutionized aesthetic form to articulate those visions. Hofer combines sharp intellectual historiography with rigorous literary criticism and the result is a study that reinvigorates both the poems and poets under consideration and speaks to the immense power of language in manipulating public opinion—with pertinent implications for the politics of the present.