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When did modern poetry begin? Who are among its key figures? What does their work have in common? What are the most compelling accounts of the development of modern poetry that we can offer? Is there good reason to distinguish American poetry from developments in other countries taking place at the same time? At what if any point can we say modernity came to an end to be replaced by different practices in a more recent period? These are among the questions that have both vexed and inspired modern poetry scholars since the 1980s. For our answers to all these questions have changed dramatically over that time.
What is increasingly clear as scholars recover the work of forgotten poets and read more widely in original sources, among them not just books but also newspapers and magazines that regularly published poetry, is that American poetry of roughly the first half of the twentieth century is unexcelled in its richness, inventiveness, and diversity. The variety of poetry written and published in the United States in the last century represents a unique explosion of literary creativity. Its range of forms, styles, and preoccupations are in a fundamental sense uncontainable. They exceed any single story we might try to tell about them. And it is a field that continues to change, not only because poetry long out of print is being made available again and given thoughtful analysis but also because scholars continue to discover important early and mid-twentieth-century poetry that missed being published for various reasons. Our literary past is very much a work still in progress.
Prefaces to critical books often display more self-consciousness and uneasiness than we usually associate with critical discourse. These moments when critics speak about their own work can undermine our assumptions about disinterested scholarship. Moreover, they can lead to a reexamination of the critical activity and a search for new ways of evaluating critical prose that take account of the critic's attitude toward his own work. We need to examine criticism's stylistic and formal properties, not just its paraphrasable content. Such analysis can reveal the way a critic's interests and commitments are woven into the texture of his language. That language, however, will always partly betray or suppress the critic's experience. Criticism, moreover, can neither wholly escape nor wholly dominate the texts it treats. Yet it can also never be entirely self-effacing. As a result, criticism is a particularly ambivalent and compromised form of writing.
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