Rhymes and Relationships

Literature as a ‘lived social reality’ animates Harris Feinsod’s bold exploration of poetry’s cultural power

By Matt GolosinskiMay 14, 2018

Ask him today why poetry matters and Harris Feinsod retorts: “I think a culture devoted to a common goal of complex verbal expression stands a better chance of nourishing a healthy relationship with reality.”

But as a 14-year-old skateboard punk haunting suburban Baltimore’s office parks and struggling to land a move, Feinsod seemed an unlikely candidate to pursue literary scholarship, let alone the kind of exploration showcased in his recent book The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures, which critics call “groundbreaking,” “indispensable,” and “field-changing.”

Back then, he says, his poetic sensibilities extended as far as an anthology of Victorian verse in the family library “or maybe the lyrics in my grunge CD collection.” One favorite band was Pavement, whose lo-fi, jagged melodies and bursts of noise seemed to dismantle indie rock pieties to carve out new terrain. That kind of ambition offered a model for young skaters whose transgressions on exurban concrete expanses effectively reimagined what those spaces could be.

“For me, there’s a connection between what literature attempts to do — reimagine our cultural landscape, repopulating it with alternate life practices — and what as kids we were trying to do,” says Feinsod, English and comparative literary studies. “There was a sense of ‘what else can we do with this place?’”

Today that impetuous spirit combines with Feinsod’s wide-ranging interests — music, literature, history, cultural studies, art, and photography — and informs his approach to research and teaching. His scholarship examines and integrates various subjects, including poetics, transnational literary studies, modernism, and the historical avant-garde in Europe and the Americas. “I just don’t want to feel like I have to police the borders of my interests or imagination,” he says. 

Political Pentameter

He marshals these passions to excellent effect in The Poetry of the Americas, a deeply researched literary-historical project that examines the intersection of poetry, culture, and politics from the 1940s to the 1960s, a period of global transformation that includes the early Cold War. The book draws upon some 35 archival sources and new interviews to offer fresh insights about relationships among well-known poets (Bishop, Ginsberg, Neruda, and Paz), as well as to reveal the importance of more obscure writers (Carrera Andrade, Kemp, Blackburn, Randall). The text also reinterprets some canonical works while giving voice to complex, often contradictory literary conversations among these artists whose work imagined a poetry that transcended multiple borders.

In writing the book, Feinsod says he quickly became “a kind of archive rat and historian,” scouring thousands of pages of correspondence and manuscripts and making important early discoveries. One noteworthy find: an unpublished visual poem by Pablo Neruda, unique in the writer’s body of work. This “beginner’s luck,” says Feinsod, then fueled his voracious enthusiasm for historical accuracy. “I’d sometimes go to great lengths, for example, to find out where (American Objectivist poet) George Oppen was in Mexico City on a particular day in 1949.”

The Poetry of the Americas is steeped in political and cross-cultural considerations, as well as literary ones. That’s because its backdrop includes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, an approach announced in 1933 that proposed a more convivial, less interventionist US hand in Latin American. During his presidency, Roosevelt declared the United States would never build an “ancient Chinese wall” that would isolate the country while “the procession of civilization went past.” As part of his vision for constructive engagement, dozens of poets embarked on cultural ambassadorships between and amongst the Americas, says Feinsod, noting a long tradition of Latin American and postcolonial poets serving in official diplomatic posts.

“People tend to see poetry either as totally unrelated to the political or social world, or else as this thing called ‘political’ poetry that follows a certain protest script,” says Feinsod. “One of the things I’d like to suggest is that almost every poetic expression is in some way shaped by or in dialogue with political questions.”

Geopolitical complexity, including the United States’ response to Communism after World War II, created tensions and apprehensions that altered the way nations across the Americas engaged diplomatically. Artists and writers, as well as politicians, reflected these tensions and were shaped by them, a fact artfully documented in Poetry of the Americas.

“My book thinks about the ways in which the history of the Pan-American Highway, or pre-Columbian ruins, or the FBI surveillance of Puerto Ricans are all really very much part of structuring the kinds of imaginative, literary, expressive possibilities of writers,” says Feinsod. This broad perspective was something he cultivated while pursuing his doctorate at Stanford University, after moving away from what he terms a very narrow focus on poetry to embrace collaborations with cultural historians who took seriously all kinds of material realities. His mentors include dissertation adviser and scholar of early modern literature Roland Greene and the eminent literary theorist and historian Hayden White.

Better Living through Literature

“In White’s view, literature gives us access to what he and others have called ‘the practical past,’ the whole terrain of feeling and imagination that other modes of history can’t always capture,” says Feinsod. “I subscribe to that view and also to the claim that great literature fortifies us to answer very basic ethical questions.”

Literature also offers students a way to historically situate themselves and to better understand and engage with the structural forces that shape economics, politics, education, health, race, and identity in society, says Feinsod. “Our students need to be able to learn about recent cultural and political history and claim their own account of it,” he says. “The literature of the near and distant past can be a really important mechanism for awakening their experience of their own place within larger structural forces.”

Feinsod’s current research project includes Into Steam: The Global Imaginaries of Maritime Modernism, a book-length study of transoceanic poetry, narrative fiction, visual art, and radical history from 1890 to 1945. The scholarship explores the rise of industrialization on the oceans but tries to skirt conventional, tidy narratives of modernism to convey “the rhythms of globalization” as actually experienced and recorded by those who worked or traveled at sea in various capacities. Feinsod developed the idea for the book after joining Northwestern in 2011 and while teaching a course called “Oceanic Studies.” He describes the class as a sort of cultural history of modernity “from Columbus to the container ship.”

He and Northwestern colleague John Alba Cutler, English, also continue partnering on a digitization project, Open Door Archive, launched in 2014 in collaboration with University Library. The website has reissued seminal multilingual magazines and multimedia that had largely been forgotten or else mostly inaccessible to scholars. The first publication they reissued was El Corno Emplumado, a periodical from the 1960s that brought together Beat poets and Latin American revolutionaries in Mexico City. “It has always been legendary in much of Latin America, but little known in the United States,” says Feinsod. “I’m proud of that work and I’ve heard from museum curators and readers in Mexico who have been using the site to access rare materials.” The project continues this year, now providing a platform for Northwestern undergraduate students to help curate material and contribute writing to the site. Another batch of magazines is being digitized for an expected fall 2018 release.

If there is one aspiration that animates Feinsod’s work it is a desire to contribute to and perpetuate what he calls the “lived reality of literary community, and especially to expand our imagination of what that community looks like” in a contemporary global setting. It’s a goal inspired in part by an experience from Feinsod’s undergraduate days at Brown University, when the poet Robert Creeley regaled the students with stories of working with Charles Olson at Black Mountain College and his recollections of visiting Ezra Pound during his incarceration in St. Elizabeths Hospital.

“Suddenly the whole panorama of literary history came alive to me as a lived, social phenomenon,” says Feinsod. “These things that had felt like they were distant, parts of books, were actually much closer. Widening our understanding of that history, and whom we count a part of it, has been the driving impetus in my scholarship.”