Julie Carr and Jeffrey C. Robinson: From 'An Introduction to Active Romanticism'

Cover drawing (“Ruckenfigur”) for Active Romanticism, by Susan Bee
Cover drawing (“Ruckenfigur”) for Active Romanticism, by Susan Bee

[The excerpt below comes from the introduction to Carr’s and Robinson’s Active Romanticism: Essays on the Continuum of Innovative Poetry and Poetics from the 18th Century to the Present, which University of Alabama Press will be publishing later this year.  Designed as a followup to Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, in which Robinson & I tried to create an assemblage or anthology of romantic & postromantic poetry, this volume will bring together essays & critical work by a number of poets & scholars: Dan Beachy-Quick, Jacques Darras, Rachel Blau Duplessis, Judith Goldman, S.P. Jarvis, Andrew Joron, Nigel Leask, Jennifer Moxley, Bob Perelman, Jerome Rothenberg, Elizabeth Willis, and Heriberto Yépez. (J.R.)]


"Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.  While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition—not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam—of all political life.”  “In antiquity, “speech and action were considered to be coeval and coequal, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant not only that most political action, in so far as it remained outside the sphere of violence, is in transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.”                                                                                                                                               Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The critical texts of the English and German Romantics were true revolutionary manifestos, and established a tradition which continues today. . . .But in 1800, as again in 1920, what was new was not so much that poets were speculating in prose about poetry, but that this speculation overflowed the limits of the old poetics, proclaiming that the new poetry was also a way of feeling and living.
                                                                                     Octavio Paz

The writer sees himself in the Revolution. It attracts him because it is the time during which literature becomes history.  It is his truth.  Any writer who is not induced by the very fact of writing to think, ‘I am the revolution, only freedom allows me to write,’ is not really writing. . . .                                                                                        Maurice Blanchot (on Sade), “The Gaze of Orpheus”


The most sublime act is to set another before you

                                                                                     William Blake


In Active Romanticism fourteen poets and critics bear witness to the effects of Romantic poetry and poetics on modern and contemporary innovative poetry.  By “active Romanticism” we refer to a poetic response, either direct or indirect, to a “social antagonism” (Marx, Adorno), an attempt to lift a repression that, at its core, keeps democratic pluralism in check.  “Romanticism” begins roughly around the time of the French Revolution and other movements leading towards liberation; however, “active Romanticism” does not limit itself to poetry written historically in that time, the period traditionally thought of as “Romantic” (roughly from 1785 to 1830).  Rather, by definition it renews itself at any given moment of perceived social crisis. Indeed, we believe that a radical re-configuring of what has long been accepted as the body of Romantic poetry and the recovery of the radical dynamic of Romantic poetics, perpetually obscured in traditional accounts of Romanticism, would constitute on the level of culture and language a significant response to the increasing conditions of human and natural destruction on a global scale.  Romanticism, Henri Lefebvre, following Stendhal, has said, both follows and precedes revolution, (Lefebvre 295) which suggests that its transhistoricity is deeply implicated in historical event, word in deed.


There are not only important parallels but genuine continuities between contemporary and Romantic poets seeking to find ways for poetry to intervene in social crisis.  Crises of democracy could be said to define a form of Romanticism that can spring up at any moment.  Romanticism’s perennial genius for renewal led the surrealist André Breton to say: “Romanticism asserts itself as a continuum.” (Rothenberg and Robinson, xxiii) The "assertion” Breton refers to often invites formal and linguistic experiment as an interruption in and defamiliarization of inherited elements of the medium of writing, since those elements are often interpreted by the poets as a fundamental carriers of oppression.  Contrary to repeated and vigorous assertions from the nineteenth century to today, the Romanticism we bring forward in the essays in Active Romanticism has never come to an end but has continually reemerged over the past two centuries by poets whose politics drive them towards poetic experiment.


Moreover, the full range of Romantic poetry, whether labeled that or not, although honoring regional and geographical specificity, has never been solely an English-language phenomenon, nor, as comparatists would have it, a phenomenon claimed by a small cluster of nation-states; this Romanticism spread and found its home literally across many locales, a reverberation to Goethe’s call for a Weltliteratur. Essays in this volume include studies of French, German, North American, and Latin American as well as British Romanticism.


This volume thus seeks to correct what we see as a general flaw in the long literary-historical interpretation of the modern and contemporary reception of Romantic poetry and poetics.  Along with this effort comes a necessary re-definition of “Romanticism” or Romantic poetics itself.  In most traditional accounts, Romanticism lasted, as the editors of recent textbook anthologies of Romanticism have insisted  for a short, discrete period in history, its poets burned out by their excessive visionary zeal, its youthful naiveté with respect to the “real” world of the market, of human tragedy, and of the power of nation-states.  Poets, so goes the narrative, subsequently respond to the Romantic with a more “mature” poetry: later (Victorian, Modernist) poets such as Browning, Arnold, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Frost, Bishop, Larkin and others successfully, at times heroically, write wiser, tougher, more ironic poems, being cautious about Romantic excess.  As the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature says: Victorian poets “cannot sustain the confidence that the Romantics felt in the power of the imagination.  The Victorians often rewrite Romantic poems with a sense of belatedness and distance.” (1038)


Twentieth-century Modernism, according to traditional literary histories, picks up where the Victorians left off; again, the Norton says: “The years leading up to World War I saw the start of a poetic revolution.  The imagist movement, influenced by the philosopher poet T. E. Hulme’s insistence on hard, clear, precise images arose in reaction to what it saw as Romantic fuzziness and facile emotionalism in poetry.” (1897) Without denying the spectacular innovations in poetry and other arts at the start of the twentieth century, in English language poetry and throughout the poetry of the West, this collection argues for a much earlier systemic source for innovation in lyric poetry.  Many of the avant-gardes represented here see modern and contemporary innovations not as a break with a retrograde nineteenth-century past but as a development from experimental Romantic poetry and poetics.


The proposed revision of the common view of Romanticism as a period in literary history embodied in Active Romanticism has immediate implications for the place of social critique in poetic practice.  If it lasts for merely four or five decades, Romantic poetry and its accompanying political critique die with the death of the movement; if, on the other hand, they constantly renew themselves in the face of perceived social inequity and with the desire to acknowledge the previously unacknowledged, they present social critique and response as a fundamental principle of poetry since (at least) the French Revolution.  To put it differently, Romantic poetry and poetics reject the common view in both nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries that poetry is an art of consolation, that it represents, in Herbert Marcuse’s phrase, “the affirmative character of culture.” (Marcuse 88-133).


Thus, by means of the following essays, we are making a claim for Romanticism as an enactment of the avant-garde, a claim that links vitally a poetry of the past and a poetry rediscovering itself in a present at any stage of subsequent history.  Our book insists, against the grain of established cultural expectations, upon Romantic continuities, recurrences, and proliferation.  Asserting that Romanticism is a force in the work of a critical imagination sustained over time, we and the writers included here make our own challenge to a cultural hegemony that has refused to acknowledge that connection as having any systemic reality.  However, a previous intervention into the canonized version of Romanticism, Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, appeared in 2009, a work that subsequently inspired the idea of the present volume.  This large compendium of mostly nineteenth-century poetry from around the world along with extensive commentaries counteracts the more popular view of Romantic poetry mentioned above, attempts to lift the repression not only on many important poems but also on a radical poetics, and calls its readers to the formally experimental and politically progressive core of Romanticism that holds within itself a potentially never-ending renewal in subsequent poetry. Volume Three joined with the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium, with their focus on “modern and postmodern” poetry, to embody from the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth the “continuum” of Romanticism. Romanticism in this characterization spreads, somewhat wildly, often unexpectedly, across nations and other geographies as an invitation, during an era of enormous stress on communities and environments, for further pointed innovation.


. . . . . . .

 [an extra note on the word “active”]


Our use of “active” in “Active Romanticism” bears close resemblance to Ezra Pound’s in his gathering of poems by contemporaries, Active Anthology, 1933.  For Pound poetry must be “experimental” and readers must see in them what is “living.”  Both words project an ongoing, ever-changing relationship to the present, a conscious vitality that continually renews itself with every poem.  By contrast, poets who do not experiment build a “cenotaph” to past experience.  “Experiment,” says Pound, “aims at writing that will have a relation to the present analogous to the relation past master work had to the life of its time.” That Pound generally chose to dismiss Romanticism and later nineteenth-century poetry as a “rather blurry, messy sort of a period, a rather sentimentalistic mannerish sort of a period,” shows that, like many modernist poets, he misread Romanticism as escapist, idealist, and thought-less.  Pound’s use of “active,” with its focus on poetic experimentation predicted a poetry of participation, but we argue that Romantic formal innovation often lies in tandem with its leftist politics and imagines its “relation to the present” as poetically an intervention into and disturbance of culture.