Joel Nickels, The Poetry of the Possible: Spontaneity, Modernism, and the Multitude
London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012; 272pp; ISBN 978-0816676095
Joel Nickels' book is a fine work of scholarship attentive to the political nuances and ambivalences of the modernist writers he examines. The focus is on four major literary modernists: William Carlos Williams, Wyndham Lewis, Laura Riding and Wallace Stevens. Despite the American status of three of these, and at times the local or national concerns their writing is working through, the broad political questions of the 1920s-1940s are of international concern, especially in relation to the polarities of fascism and communism, making Lewis an apt addition. At the heart of this book is the question of how political organisation can be effected. Within this are the questions of: from what impetus political organisation arises; how power is constituted; and how that relates to the people, the workers, or what Nickels calls the multitude, following the term employed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. All his writers are at times deeply drawn towards the crowd and see within it the potential for collective political change. The spontaneity of the book's title is concerned with how political agency and action may emerge from within this multitude, especially given that they exist in an administered social environment. Broadly speaking, the four writers Nickels has chosen are acutely aware of this problem and try out different representations and figurations of spontaneous collective processes. What emerges is a complex picture since none of the modernists under discussion adhere to any specifically clear political position. Nickels therefore dubs them utopian, but more in their desires and speculative poetry than in the sense of having a programme for change or even a consistent vision. Instead, the author, or poem's voice, is often represented as participating in moments of collectivity.
Nickels focuses on lesser discussed works of his modernists, which makes for new understandings of their oeuvres. He looks at Williams' Patterson which engages with the history of the New Jersey place of the same name and early twentieth-century fiscal ideas for improving equality for workers, such as Social...