Poetry of the suburbs

Dr. Peter Monacell, assistant professor of English

Dr. Peter Monacell examines 20th century American culture

By Jennifer Truesdale

"My topic may seem esoteric at first, but I hope with some description you'll see it deserves scholarship and serious consideration," Dr. Peter Monacell, assistant professor of English, says modestly.

Admittedly, when an English professor says he's writing a literary criticism about American suburban poetry, it might seem obscure. However, there already exists a broad canon of poetic works on the topic. But beyond scholarly work, Monacell explains that bands such as Green Day and Arcade Fire offer good examples of North American suburban depictions, and how song lyrics are closely related to poetry. Suddenly, the original concern about obscurity falls away, and this research is more alluring than Monacell's modesty allows.

"There is literature that discusses fiction's relationship to suburbia, but there is little in regard to poetry and suburbia," Monacell explains. "I am interested in how the suburbs get constructed in culture. Suburbia is historically associated with conformity, and poetry is historically associated with individuality. Poems that are about suburbia, particularly poems that are written in the voice of a suburbanite, can tell us a lot about how the suburbs themselves are socially constructed as places where you lose your individuality."

Growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., Monacell found an early love for poetry, closely reading selections of poems and exploring his voice through his own writings. The desire to write led Monacell to study modern and contemporary American poets in college and graduate school, poets such as William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Louis Zukofsky, James Dickey, Charles Bernstein, and Mona Van Duyn, all of whom have had a lot to say about the American suburban experience.

"Suburbia is historically associated with conformity, and poetry is historically associated with individuality. Poems that are about suburbia…can tell us a lot about how the suburbs themselves are socially constructed as places where you lose your individuality."

It was in graduate school, however, that he discovered the passion for cultural criticism that would send him down his current path. Cultural criticism, he discovered, uses the cultural artifacts of a particular time, such as fiction, movies, songs — a poem about suburbia — to gauge the social, political and economic themes of that period. This type of critique also evaluates how literature in turn affected the times and became an actor in history itself.

This is the approach Monacell used in his dissertation when he completed his doctorate degree in English from the University of Missouri in 2011. He's been teaching at Columbia College since 2012 and now is looking to show how this subject matter can illuminate our culture and society in ways that other areas of study cannot. With the help of the faculty summer research grant he received earlier this year — and the Stafford Library — he's been busy revising and expanding upon his dissertation, conducting additional research and composing a new chapter with the goal of compiling materials for a book proposal sometime next year.

"The library here at Columbia College has been a great resource for me. The interlibrary loan has enabled me to do my work. We've also recently acquired the MLA database, and that's been essential to my research. It's the Cadillac of the field. What a suburban thing to say!"

So what exactly does Monacell's cultural critique of suburban poetry say about the American way of life?

"We tend to think of suburbia as being a mid-century phenomenon and it is, but it didn't just come out of the blue," Monacell says. "Suburbia was being conceptualized in the decades prior to WWII. It makes sense, then, that some of the great modernist poets are already negotiating the ways that suburbs are being constructed both architecturally and ideologically."
"We tend to think of suburbia as being a mid-century phenomenon and it is, but it didn't just come out of the blue." 


That mix of architectural and ideological aspects of suburbia is important. Monacell points out that the suburbs are designed as pastoral spaces, and poetry often is concerned with the pastoral.

"Broadly speaking, ‘pastoral' is the idealization of rural spaces and lifestyles in opposition to urban society," explains Monacell. But while many poets have historically idealized the pastoral for the individuality and creativity it inspires, Monacell argues, the pastoral of the suburbs is a bought-and-sold commodity that has seemed depersonalizing and conforming. The collision of these ideas of pastoral is the focus of Monacell's research.

"Suburbs get designed as these supposedly pastoral spaces and then poets come in and wonder ‘Can I write pastoral poetry here?' That's very much related to individuality. But poets are vexed in their attempts because of conflicted feelings about suburbs themselves," he says. "The writers I'm interested in had a profound sense of connection to place. It makes sense, then, that there is some personal crisis when they go to the suburbs where there is this overwhelming cultural discourse that tells them they've moved to nowhere."

"The Bungalows"

by John Ashbery (1970)

They are the same aren't they,

The presumed landscape and the dream of home

Because the people are all homesick today or desperately sleeping,

Trying to remember how those rectangular shapes

Became so extraneous and so near

To create a foreground of quiet knowledge

In which youth had grown old, chanting and singing wise hymns that

Will sign for old age

And so lift up the past to be persuaded, and be put down again.

This topic will be further explored in Monacell's book, which he hopes will contribute to the field for its examination of the subject matter as much as it does for his methodology, which uses cultural criticism to place poetry in the historical context of suburbanization. But in the meantime, you can read his article, "In the American Grid: Modern Poetry and the Suburbs," published in the fall 2011 edition of the Journal of Modern Literature, about modernist poets dealing with the advent of suburbia. He also has plenty of recommendations on which poets you should read. Or you could even take one of his classes. This semester he's teaching classes on contemporary poetry, as well as poetry writing.

"Hopefully the book will serve as a touchstone for other people who want to engage in similar discussions not just about poetry's relation to suburbia, but also about poetry's relation to 20th century culture and American history in general."



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