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The Poetry of the Possible: Spontaneity, Modernism, and the Multitude

by Joel Nickels
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012
296 pp. Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7608-8; ISBN: 978-0-8166-7609-5.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

The Modern muse, as shown convincingly by Hugh Kenner in a seminal book, is a mechanical one. Hence, the wide-spread suspicion in high-modernist circles of spontaneity, often denounced as a myth, an illusion, a dangerous belief in old-fashioned, romantic notions of the inspired genius. In addition, this mechanical muse is also characterized as an inward turn, a preference given to the more authentic world of the inner self rather than to the harsh realities of the world outside.

Recent and contemporary visions of Modernity have started interrogating, if not rejecting these assumptions, and Joel Nickel's timely book is a clear yet very radical example of this reversal. Nickel does not only stress the importance of spontaneity in Modernist texts and authors, he also, and perhaps more surprisingly, underlines the necessary political interpretation of spontaneity which has no longer only to do with the foregrounding of the writer's individuality.

Two major lines of argumentation are developed in The Poetry of the Possible. On the one hand, the intrinsic and systematic ambivalence of spontaneity itself, which proves divided between a positive and a negative form of spontaneity. The bad form is spontaneity as self-expression, as liberation of the self, as the discovery of one's inalienable rights and independence (against society, against the State, against the masses, against the tradition, etc.). This form of spontaneity is quite logically rejected by the Modernists studied by Nickels. The good form instead is the possibility of an encounter, through a revolt against all social, political, ideological and artistic constraints, between the poet or artist and the masses, despite all the dangers that such an encounter may generate if the common rebellion of the artist and the masses toward its recuperation via the promotion of the figure of the leader (and obviously many avant-garde thinking falls prey to this critique).

On the other hand, the various meanings of spontaneity and its relevance for the outward, outbound orientation of Modernism are analyzed through the lens of today's political theory. More specifically, it is the concept of Negri and Hardt's "multitude" (as theorized in Empire and elsewhere) that helps bridge the gap between the political subtext of the Modernist writings and authors under scrutiny and the updated interpretation of spontaneity. Multitude in the sense of a network of individuals capable of horizontal and ceaselessly revocable self-organization through the resistance to a given social, economic, and political rule, may at first sight seem too metaphorical a model and, given the distance between late 20th Century Empire and early 20th-Century nation states, too anachronistic an approach of spontaneity, but Nickels manages to make his case quite convincing, for instance by paying great attention to early-20-th Century debates on anarcho-syndicalism as well as to Modernist thinkers that focused on the notion of spontaneity in these years (the main references here are Gramsci and Adorno).

Particularly refreshing is the corpus of the book. Joel Nickels rereads a "minor" kind of Modernism: two lesser known or studied texts by major Modernists (William Carlos Williams's Paterson and Wallace Stevens "Owl’s Clover," a long epic poem excluded from the Collected poems by the author himself), and various works by two minor (but important) Modernists (Wyndham Lewis and Laura Riding). In all cases, Nickels stresses very well the internal complexities and contradictions of each text and author (the most provocative case here is that of Wyndham Lewis, traditionally associated with ethical and political positions that seem light-years away from multitude thinking). His analyses illuminate the not always well-acknowledged presence of socio-political issues in these texts (those of Williams and Stevens are here first in line). No less crucial, however, is the reuse and critical discussion of Negri's multitude concept, which Joel Nickels uses as an efficient but perhaps too over-all reading frame (not surprisingly, the only critiques that he allows himself are inspired by Rancière, which may be seen as a way of being more Catholic than the pope).

The Poetry of the Possible is a clever example of the political reading of literature, and a courageous attempts to break the anti-political stance of some Modernist criticism. Its horizon is however more that of philosophy and critical than that of literature as a concrete practice, which means that the book remains silent on writing, publishing, reading as a concrete social system. Its often brilliant close readings should now be complemented by a more down-to-earth approach of the actual functioning of these texts in the literary system of their times.

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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