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Maintaining a Place: Conditions of Metaphor in Modern American

Literature Essays and Poems in honour of Ron Callan
Maria Stuart, Fionnghuala Sweeney, Fionnuala Dillane, and John Brannigan (eds)
UCD Press


Maria Stuart, Fionnghuala Sweeney, Fionnuala Dillane, and John Brannigan

"For native work in verse, fiction or criticism or whatever is written we mean to maintain a place, insisting on that which we have not found insisted upon before, the essential contact between words and the locality that breeds them, in this case America".

Maintaining a Place: Conditions of Metaphor in Modern American Literature
takes its cue from William Carlos Williams's influential statement in his 1920 editorial for Contact magazine. Simultaneously rooted in his assessment of the condition of contemporary American poetry, and reflecting the critical and creative anxieties of other genres and geographies, Williams's calibration of the relationship between 'words and the locality that breeds them' articulates the continuity rather than the fracture between modernity and tradition. Too often read as a nativist creed, Williams's editorial and his own extensive body of poetry and prose circle the complexity of such 'contact', eschewing essentialist maxim for self-scrutinising exploration of the relationship between the national (in its various and evolving compositions) and the literary. As such, it has attracted generations of readers and critics of American literature with the seductive stability of its terms, only to reveal the necessary difficulty of 'maintain [ing] a place' in any reading or writing of a national literature.

The essays in this volume return to the rich, contested ground of national self-articulation, offering twenty-first century reassessments of critical moments in American aesthetic expression. The primary focus is on American poetry from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century, with particular emphasis on American poetry's responses to the contours of 'tradition' and 'place' at specific moments in its aesthetic development, most dramatically in the face of the formal and thematic challenges of the modern. But it also aims to capture the shifting ground of the linguistic as expressive of the often fraught relationship between the individual and the nation, the words that conceptually contain them. For this reason, it incorporates essays attending to the problematic of containment and the territory of re-vision, work focusing on the rerouting of expressive purpose into the domain of the visual, the performative, the narrative, as well as the poetic. If the essays provide the basis of scholarly engagement, the creative contributions provide the critical narrative with an imaginative grammar of the now. Reinscribing ideas of tradition, and modernism as tradition, the new poetry included here illustrates the unfinished nature of any critical or creative project by pointing to the ever-expanding domain of contemporary poetic possibility.

The grounding of the volume in the words of Williams also serves another purpose. It connects this collection with the work of an esteemed colleague, Ron Callan, who retired from University College Dublin in September 2013. His monograph William Carlos Williams and Transcendentalism: Fitting the Crab in a Box testifies to the centrality of Williams to Callan's intellectual life in a study that revisits the influence of Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson on Williams's work, and thereby re-models understandings of the relationship between subject and object in the American literary tradition. More than twenty years after its publication, the study sustains a timely resonance with contemporary critical interest in the relationship between literature and the environment, and is pertinent to our attempts to understand how writing can maintain an ethical relation to the alterity of objects.

This book is offered as a testimony to Ron Callan's contribution to teaching and research in the field of twentieth-century American literature. 'America is something that is beyond us all', writes Jean Baudrillard. 'No one is capable of analysing it, least of all the American intellectuals shut away on their campuses, dramatically cut off from the fabulous concrete mythology developing all around them'. If the walls of Ron Callan's office in UCD were adorned with iconic images of the United States (the Brooklyn Bridge, and in recent years a portrait of Barack Obama against a background of stars and stripes), it was words - as vehicles of insight, objects of beauty, and models of understanding - that inhabited the space and place Ron Callan maintained for American literature in the university. In attending to American literature, he opened out a diverse and complex sense of America in spatial terms, one dependent upon language and form. In his essay on Carl Rakosi, for example, he reads, quite literally, between the lines of Rakosi's poetry, drawing out the implications of the increased size of the space between Rakosi's lines, and the use of angle brackets figuring the spaces either side, to argue that 'space creates shapes and determines pace', and, more importantly, that these 'shapes [are] directly related to feelings'. Rakosi's poems, then, draw attention to their visual design not to make themselves objects to be seen, but as expressive, inquisitive forms. Ron Callan's final lecture to undergraduate students in UCD teased out the implications of this kind of attention to space and form in poetry, concluding with Marianne Moore's famous justification of her dramatic revisions of the size and shape of her own poems: 'Omissions are not accidents'. The concete mythology of America to which Baudrillard is drawn is everywhere present in Callan's reading of those spaces in American poetry as preludes to enquiry and imagination that demand the reader asks 'why?'

Ron Callan not only maintained a place for thinking expansively and deeply about American literature in UCD, he devoted his academic career to creating place and space for the work of others, both as editor of the Irish Journal of American Studies for over a decade, and as chair of the Irish Association for American Studies. His editorials for the IJAS in particular show the kind of intellectual leadership - inspiring and confident, but never insistent or iconoclastic - which was needed to grow the field of American Studies in Ireland. In his first editorial in 1997, he called for the community of researchers to 'build the Studies element in our title with increasing vigour', and to develop 'co-operative ventures that cross departmental and university lines'. There was a flair for practical management which was evident too, as he helped to steer the journal through difficult times financially, and he played a key role in initiating and establishing the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies. At the heart of the project to build American Studies in Ireland, however, was an intellectual commitment to 'an open forum for creative academic study', which was especially urgent and necessary in the context of the series of crises and wars which characterised American engagements with the world in the first decade of this century. Given the nature and size of Callan's contribution to academic life in Ireland and the US, therefore, Williams's words carry an extra valency, suggesting a way of thinking about the legacy of a key figure in Irish cultural debate about America, even as that debate moves forward in new, necessarily indebted ways.

It is fitting that the contributions gathered here not only collectively intervene in important current scholarly debates in American literature but also reflect Ron Callan's own critical and pedagogical interventions. Just as his work has engaged with the 'essential contact' between literary texts and the cultural conditions that 'breed them', so too the essays in this volume circle such relationships, offering their own vocabulary of connection. Indeed the opening essay by Adam Kelly, '"To Reconcile the People and the Stones": Ron Callan, William Carlos Williams, and Rudy Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear', initiates a highly original form of contact between Callan's earlier study of the influence of nineteenth-century Transcendentalism on the modernism of Williams (William Carlos Williams and Transcendentalism) and a Native American text central to Callan's teaching of North American Literature. Using the concept of 'relationality', Kelly excavates the lines of connection between Callan's method of reading Thoreau and Emerson dand the cultural practices explored in Wiebe's fictional representation of the Plains Cree tribe. For Kelly, Callan rejects the usual reading of the Transcendentalist self as 'detach [ed] from social others' in favour of 'other-directed engagement' (n). This re-reading of writers like Thoreau and Emerson in terms of, '[t]he priority of intercourse - of the relation between self and other, self and world, self and self (n) lays the foundation not only for Williams's 'passionate activity of relating' (qtd. 12), but for a reading of Wiebe's novel in terms of a 'model of relations', one in which 'autonomy and unity between peoples can co-exist' (24). The cross fertilisation evident in Kelly's reading is particularly effective in that it negotiates the connection between a Native American and a New England endeavour to link landscape and language, yet does so without sacrificing the cultural and linguistic specificity of either group. There is no easy movement here across cultures and timeframes but nonetheless an interpretative exchange emerges that informs our reading of both. Also at play here is the issue of poetic voice, even as that voice is held within the contours of prose: Wiebe's novel contains various Native American voices conditioned by a poetic, metaphoric language that is both wilfully and involuntarily misunderstood by the colonial presence, as Kelly notes Big Bear's first words to English ears testify: 'I find it hard to speak.' The particular strains upon the poetic voice are amplified in Maria Stuart's essay 'The Poetics of Disfluency: Emerson and Dickinson'. Although focusing on the legacy of Puritan religious testimony on nineteenth-century debates about the authenticity of the poetic voice, the essay opens up an area central to many of the pieces that follow: the self-scrutinising nature of the American poetic voice as it negotiates cultural and aesthetic impediments to full expression, and the significance of that struggle for expression for transatlantic scholarship.