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Textual Fluidity, or Why We Need to Acknowledge Poetry Books in Multiple Versions

Navigating the Fluidity of American Poetry Collections: Editorial, Critical, and Pedagogical Issues1

Juliette Utard

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  • 1 This special issue forms a diptych with a special issue of Sillages critiques entitled The Poetry B (...)

… literary works in all periods exist in multiple versions, or what I call a “fluid text.”
(Bryant, 2011 146)

  • 2 To truly acknowledge such fluidity, the plural pronoun “they” might actually be more appropriate th (...)

1All poetry collections exist in multiple, often strikingly different, versions. Leaves of Grass, whose cover illustrates the present issue, is a case in point: apart from its title, the author’s name, and a portion of lines and phrases, very little has been left unchanged from the first print edition of 1855 (a thin quarto containing only twelve untitled poems lavishly punctured by ellipses) to the dramatically expanded “deathbed” edition of 1891-1892 (almost four hundred poems long) often viewed as the definitive, if not final, authorial version—not to mention the five separate versions in between. So, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about Leaves of Grass? Given the extraordinary extent of the author’s interventions, it is truly a wonder that we should even think of these radically distinct versions as just one book. The truth is that the title now serves as an umbrella term for so many different volumes of poetry that placing them side by side—the slim and the hefty, the oversized alongside the portable, the paperbound and the hardcover, the UK- and US-produced, print and screen, green and brown, abundantly annotated and scribble-free—one must altogether relinquish the myth of a “definitive,” “final” or “authoritative” edition and embrace the textual fluidity of those ever-shifting leaves.2

2However spectacular in its pliability, Leaves of Grass is hardly exceptional. As John Bryant has argued, “fluids texts are the norms” not the transgression (Bryant, 2007 17). Even when the cover design and publication details are strictly identical, no two poetry collections are ever quite the same, if only because each copy is subjected to the tear and wear of different users, whose marginalia may add to the textual flux of the object. As scholars of Medieval and Renaissance literature well know, these handwritten addenda may, in turn, acquire value and be subjected to additional scholarly scrutiny in the rare books departments that hold poets’ archives. Since the 1960s, mass-produced copies of poetry books with little or no value in and of themselves have become increasingly treasured too when formerly owned by famous authors, precisely because they attest to their “bodymind” engagement with a poet’s work by way of annotations that register physical as well as intellectual responses to the published material (Constantinesco and Lurie). Amanda Golden, for instance, has made a compelling case for attending to the books from Sylvia Plath’s personal library, as has Chris Beyers regarding Wallace Stevens’s book collection.

  • 3 American poetry abounds in examples of well-meaning yet disastrous “minor” corrections, such as wha (...)

3Even leaving aside the case of famous book-owners, one would be ill-advised to assume that similar-looking editions contain the same text: oftentimes, spelling and punctuation are unobtrusively altered, typos corrected (or added),3 dedications altered or suppressed, blurbs and other paratextual framings tailored by publishing houses’ advertising services to suit and celebrate special occasions (such as poets’ birthdays, publication centennials, or the release of biographical films and documentaries). One simply cannot judge a poetry book by its cover or take the stability of its textual content for granted. The truth is that any edition comprises many printings, thus branching out into many versions of the supposedly identical text: typically, while some “original” editions of Leaves of Grass display a closing period at the very end of what would later become “Song of Myself,” other copies issued from the same printshop—and supervised by the same authorial hand—display an unstopped final line (“I stop somewhere waiting for you”) that has naturally bolstered arguments about Whitman’s open-ended poetics. Which of the two originals are we therefore talking about, the first or second? With or without the concluding period? The collector’s item, the mass-produced twenty-first-century facsimile, or the digitized open-access screen version displayed on The Walt Whitman Archive?

4The multiplying versions of poetry collections—themselves a multitude of poems whose order, as well as wording, may be tinkered with in each new printing—can be quite dizzying. Which is why we need to collectively address them as editors, critics and teachers—not just in bookstores when confronted with the practical problem of having to choose between a multitude of ready-bound volumes, but also in libraries and classrooms. On the one hand, the digitization of printing processes has reduced (though in no way eliminated) the material gaps and mishaps between successive printings; on the other hand, the accelerated printing cycles have increased the number of coexisting editions, urging us to integrate these variants into our theories and practices of the poetic text. In examining the editorial, critical and pedagogical implications of poetry books in multiple versions, the following contributions by scholars from both sides of the Atlantic chart a rich field at the intersection of poetics, textual practice, book history, print and digital editing, and education.

5The original impetus for this issue was a Modern Language Association panel entitled “Literary Works in Multiple Versions” run by the Association for Documentary Editing during the 2014 convention in Chicago. Taking the topic in a slightly different direction, the present issue proposes to focus this time on poetry books, inviting a plurality of perspectives on a poetic form seldom regarded as a literary genre in its own right (Utard, 2019 142; 2022 7). How does the poetry collection, a plural form in itself, make way for its multiple versions, and how is it reworked by them? How do these multiple versions then challenge our assumptions about poetry, redefining our reading, editing and teaching practices?

Poetry Collections: Solid Objects and / or Fluid Texts?

  • 4 Poetry is also the primary source for Jerome McGann and George Bornstein (to name but a few). In Ma (...)

6The phrase “textual fluidity” is borrowed from John Bryant who, in The Fluid Text, defined it as “any literary work that exists in more than one version. It is ‘fluid’ because the versions flow from one another” (Bryant, 2002 1). A Melville scholar immersed (so to speak) in maritime fiction, Bryant also produced a fluid-text edition of Typee (2006), thus conflating theory and practice at the service of what he insists is “a fact, not a theory” (2002 1). Drawing on the work of Bryant and the many textual scholars in the field of Anglo-American literature who, in the wake of Jerome McGann, have embraced the historicity of textual matter, this special issue shifts the focus from fiction to poetry4 and from individual texts to collections in the hope of dispelling lingering assumptions about poetry books as stable objects. Why is it that, in the age of textual constructivism, “[b]y and large, texts arrive as givens in our classrooms, libraries, and canons” (2011 146)?

7While the essays gathered here apply different methods and lenses (ranging from Modernism to the present day and from textual scholarship to education research), they all construe poetry books as time-specific and site-specific objects, affected by time, place, usage, and a wide array of ongoing authorial, editorial, and readerly interventions. This is not to say that they dismiss a material approach to books as embodied media or “solid objects” (Mao) since they also investigate the physicality of poetic texts; on the contrary, this issue interweaves historicist and material methodologies—exploring both ends of the water spectrum at once, the solid and the fluid, the congealed and the flowing—and ultimately pick apart the tenacious myth of a selfsame, permanent, stable object seemingly frozen in time.

8Versions are site-specific (as well as time-specific), as illustrated by an amusing case mentioned by Bryant, which I like to see as a “backflip” performed in the full title of Moby-Dick when the novel first appeared, quasi simultaneously, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, the British version was published first in October 1851 under the (now submerged) title The Whale; or, Moby-Dick while the American version, printed only a month later in New York, flipped the order over, sporting the title Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (Bryant, 2022 109)—a change which reflected the novel’s generic backflip from the more conventional sea adventure that Melville had first intended, to the more experimental, formally fluid novel that is now recognized as a literary feat. More generally, comparing traditions in editorial page-setting in the United States and Great Britain, Kathryn Sutherland comments on the embodied cultural histories of Anglo-American editorial practices, contrasting what she calls the “clean look” of American endnotes and the “messy” entanglement of British footnotes:

Even the clean look of the edited American page with critical apparatus tidied away at the back of the volume (the encounter of author and reader unsullied by history) signaled an important departure from what would remain standard British editorial practice, where the record of variant readings, deposited like archaeological layers at the foot of each page of text, continue to provide both a historically compromised and a more classical look. (46)

  • 5 An interesting countermodel here is, of course, the American long poem, whose textual flow runs fro (...)

9While multiplicity is not limited to poetry (as the previous example makes clear), poetry collections tend to be by nature multiform and polytextual.5 Themselves a subcategory of poetry books, collections literally “contain multitudes” in the sense that they include (but also exclude) poems selected for inclusion into book-form through a process that in itself exhibits a “work of revision” (Sullivan). Which poems eventually make it into a book, but also where they end up within a sequence and why, are but some of the many questions we can productively address as we look at poetry books in multiple versions. Recognizing these variations makes it possible to investigate and interpret the shifting positions of individual poems, as suggested by Neil Fraistat in Poems in Their Place. What indeed might be the “connective narrative fabric” tying a choice of poems together (Fraistat 6)? How does each new, temporary assemblage produce what Walter Benjamin called the “magic circle” of the collection (487)? As Michelle Taylor and others (in particular, White and Thomas) underline in their essays, various versions serve various (aesthetic, commercial, political) purposes, each reaching toward a specific readership. In fact, I would argue that each poetry collection points in two temporal directions at once, fashioning a poet’s legacy in retrospect, while also prospectively forging its reception—at once a past-shaping testament and a future-founding manifesto.

Textual Fitness: Evolutionary Versus Creationist Criticism

10Why then do we keep thinking of poetry books (all books, for that matter) as solid rather than fluid? One reason may be that we are still in a post-Romantic age, and our beliefs remain deeply attached to Romantic conceptions of poetry as the inherently perfect, instantly accomplished production of a genius-poet. Reframing this as part of a wider religious and philosophical debate, Robin Schulze wittily called this belief “textual creationism” (i.e., that texts are created ex nihilo), a theory which she pits against Christian evolutionism (i.e, that texts necessarily evolve for the better) and Marianne Moore’s “textual Darwinism” (i.e, that texts are fundamentally evolutionary), as delineated in the following passage:

Certainly, in terms of textual and editorial theory, we still have our creationists, critics who, despite historical, physical evidence to the contrary, cling to the romantic belief that texts have a single perfect and special creation at the hands of their authors. Unconcerned with any historical record of textual changes, such critics trust that the text that they have in hand is the text that has always been and always will be. We also still have our textual Christian evolutionists, critics who freely admit the physical evidence of textual change and diligently record substantive variants. Looking at the paleontology of the text, however, they see evidence of directed, intended change for the better. The author’s final—or latest—version stands as the perfected fruition of a gradually unfolding design. […] Last, but not least (or best), we have our textual Darwinists who look at the evolutionary record of a text and see, not progress toward a predetermined goal, but a series of local adaptations—the text adjusted, again and again, to suit the author’s sense of its fitness in relation to the pressures of the author’s changing social, cultural, and textual conditions. In such a reading, the author of the text falls from superhuman status to become a responsive part of a dynamic process—a creative force among many forces. (Schulze 274)

To these textual “Darwinists” who, by contrast with the first two types, believe in textual adaptability,

A version of a text becomes unremittingly historical, a product of a particular time and a particular place, designed to meet the needs of that time and place. Texts do not become better or worse, they simply become different as the world around them changes; each version achieves its own kind of fitness “in relation to its conditions.” (Schulze 275)

11Although working through a different analogy, textual fluidity too posits that poetic texts adapt to the pressures of their natural/cultural environment, “a product of a particular time and a particular place, designed to meet the needs of that time and place,” to take up Schulze’s words. Poetry collections are in flux and only temporarily “congeal” into the tactile objects that we as readers manipulate, whether in print or on screen (since the “digital” too involves touch, as evidenced by its etymology).

12One of the many consequences of the historicization of texts is the fascinating axiological reversal whereby “the work of revision” can now be revalued, finally eroding the myth of the perfect first draft. In the early twentieth century, writers began to embrace revision as a welcome opportunity or, in Hannah Sullivan’s words, a “second chance” rather than dreading and erasing it as evidence of a personal failing (1). Sullivan notes how “heavy and intensive revision has become an indicator of authorial integrity and the difficulty and seriousness of the revised artwork” while “minimal revision suggests careless or commercial writing, poised for quick success in the market” (2).

13Quite tellingly, five out of the eight essays in the present issue are devoted to key figures of the Anglo-American Modernist canon (namely, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens and E. E. Cummings), confirming the intricate connections between Modernism and the history of textual revision. This seems fitting: textual fluidity is consistent with the Modernist project as showcasing hermeneutic instability. Still, the instability of their production (as opposed to its reception) was only reclaimed much later, once legal and technological conditions made such realization possible, as George Bornstein astutely remarked in Material Modernism:

Modernist texts are protean, existing in multiple and equally authorized forms […]. The conjunction of copyright protection and codex production have obscured that condition temporarily, reinforcing instead the tendency to think of such works as authoritative, hegemonic, closed products. With the demise of modernist copyrights and the rise of electronic media to complement or even challenge book distribution, the original protean nature of these contingent texts as ongoing processes will re-emerge. (35)

14While the essays gathered here all focus on Modernist and Postmodernist poetry books, textual fluidity is certainly not solely a (post)Modernist reality. As Renaissance scholar Jeffrey Todd Knight has compellingly demonstrated in his study of early modern compiling strategies, Bound to Read, poetry books were extremely fluid long before the predigital age: “In the early handpress era, the printed work was relatively malleable and experimental—a thing to shape, expand and resituate as one desired” (4). Thanks to New Historicism and the archival turn in poetry, the fluidity of poetry books is now finally being rediscovered at the level of bibliographic codes (such as changes in format, layout, cover design, spacing, or font size and type) in addition to the linguistic codes that have long absorbed all the limelight (typically, wording, syntactic order, grammar, or register).

15Versioning, an interesting term first coined by Romantic scholar Donald H. Reiman, is a literary concept now fully integrated in the language of digital technology that presciently emphasized the fluidity of texts. British Romantic scholarship too played a key role in reevaluating canonical poetic texts as multiple (Reiman; Stillinger). In his study, Reiman advocated against composite editions (such as variorums) which “chop all but one version into small pieces and then mix and sprinkle these dismembered fragments at the bottom of pages, or shuffle them at the back of the book as tables of ‘variants,’ or ‘collations’” (169)—a practice he condemned as editorial butchery. Instead, he argued in favor of a pluralistic approach to poetic texts as multiple and coexisting. At issue was the long-standing tendency to regard authorial intention (and more often than not, the later version) as the guiding principle in establishing an authoritative edition. In fact, to consider either the first or the last editions as the best similarly erases the complex interchanges between poetry collections and a cultural, technical, and ecological environment that is in constant flux.

16This issue’s ambition is to move beyond both “textual primitivism” (Stillinger 120), where first is best, and textual “meliorism” (Sullivan 97), where last is best, in order to welcome the era of “textual pluralism” (Stillinger 121) where equally valid, coexisting­—if competing—versions of poetry books can fully be acknowledged, and their practical and theoretical consequences fruitfully explored.

Corrected, Restored, Remediated: Editorial Corpus-Building

17Recognizing the multiplicity of coexisting versions means that “no single ‘text’ of a particular work […] can be imagined or hypothesized as the ‘correct’ one,” as argued by McGann in The Textual Condition; but it also implies “that the archive includes not just original manuscripts, proofs, and editions, but all the subsequent textual constitutions which the work undergoes in its historical passages” (McGann 62). Developing and expanding poets’ archives in the United States and Europe in the aftermath of World War II led to an upsurge of scholarly interest in the physical evidence of textual transformation (critique génétique being one of its most obvious upshots): textual fluidity was no longer an enemy to be defeated but a rich, meaningful material for critical interpretation. As Linda Anderson, Mark Byers and Ahren Warner argue in their introduction to The Contemporary Poetry Archive, poets’ archives play a key role in that they ask us to “reframe the poetic work as processive and diachronic” and therefore “reactivate the questions of poetics” from a fresh perspective (10).

18Like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is another famously shapeshifting, polymorphous American poetry collection. As has been well documented, it was first published under the supervision of Ted Hughes by Faber and Faber in 1965, and later restored with a foreword by their daughter, Frieda Hughes, in an effort to “reinstat[e] her original selection and arrangement,” as advertised on the cover (see fig. 1). Plath’s surviving papers indeed had made it possible to recover her design for the book (in particular, her preferred selection and arrangement for the poems) and thus reimagine her work in a state of flux.

Fig. 1. Cover design of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: The Restored Edition; A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement. London: Faber & Faber, 2004.

19Similarly, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons as reissued by City Lights in 2014 (a hundred years after the first edition) now offers readers a chance to both correct and celebrate Stein’s poetic corpus: with more than one hundred emendations by Seth Perlow based on “Stein’s own handwritten corrections—found in a first-edition copy at the University of Colorado—as well as corrections discovered among her papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University,” Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition was hailed as an editorial tour de force (Stein n. p.). Stein’s post-publication revisions, compiled from the rare books departments of two libraries where they had been available only to scholars, could now be circulated among general readers for the first time, thus underlining the generative power of archives.

20Still, the discourse accompanying such editorial events, inasmuch as it relies on the clear-cut dichotomies of lost/found, botched/restored, excised/recovered versions, perpetuates a common misconception of textual fluidity as necessarily corrective and meliorative. Even among digital-born readers navigating the flux of online texts and attuned to the constant versioning of literary materials, textual fluidity tends to be dismissed as an accident, not a condition, of poetry books, causing it to be understood as a flaw that needs to be corrected and set straight—rather than a welcome opportunity to deflect textual straightness and queer our textual practices. In fact, it is more accurate to envisage books as adapting bodies that constantly respond and adapt to their physical and cultural environment regardless of their author’s intentions, to experience them as “variants” that bespeak the way we think of human bodies as well as textual bodies.

21On the one hand, labels that present the latest version as “restored” draw a parallel between the labor of scholarly editors working to salvage “submerged” versions of literary texts and art conservators who assess paint damage, implement retouching interventions, and devise storing conditions. But as conservators and restorers well know, even as they attempt to “clean” artworks in order to restore them to their original condition—an endeavor that primarily consists in removing unwanted particles that have accumulated over time—, they also sometimes unwittingly deposit extra matter that may very well one day turn out to be toxic to the existing material, or produce overpaint that is detrimental to the work’s visual quality (Modestini). In other words, restorers too must accept that artworks evolve in time and that, strictly speaking, complete restoration is neither possible nor perhaps desirable.

22On the other hand, restoration as recovery takes on a medical meaning which often implicitly resonates with (and reframes) the tragic histories of individual poets, especially within a feminist or postcolonial framework. The reissue of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee by City Lights Books in 2022 (exactly forty years after the first in 1982), also labeled as “restored,” is a case in point. The blurb that can be found on the bookstore’s website explicitly endorses the parallel between editorial recovery and art restoration, the book having been “produced in partnership with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)” (City Lights Books n. p.; see fig. 2). This, of course, made perfect sense since Cha had worked primarily as an artist and filmmaker, as emphasized by the bookstore’s webpage, where Dictee is introduced as “the best-known work of the multidisciplinary Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha” (see fig. 2). Her poetry collection therefore naturally lent itself to an embodied three-dimensional approach—literally, the book as volume—as readers were encouraged to experience “[t]his restored edition” as “reflect[ing] Cha’s original vision for the book as an art object in its authentic form, featuring: / The original cover; / High-quality reproductions of the interior layout” (see fig. 2).

23The reissue of Dictee is a fascinating case of editorial remediation understood both in the contemporary (media studies) sense of a change of medium (here, restoring the “[h]igh-quality reproductions of the interior layout”) and in the therapeutic sense of an effort to remedy (i.e., to mend or cure). When applied to minority poets, especially women poets or poets of color, the work of editorial restoration carries far-reaching critical as well as ethical implications. One of the new layers of critical “matter” deposited on the “restored” 2022 reissue of Dictee was its visibly updated critical framework: post-Covid, the book could finally be reintegrated into the corpus of Asian American literature (as repeatedly advertised on the bookstore’s webpage, e.g. “a classic of modern Asian American literature”) when originally the work had resisted any smooth affiliation with a newly emerging field which, at the time, rejected non-realist experimental writing (Stone-Richards 147-150). Sarah Howe has recently commented on the intense emotional labor involved in Asian American poets’ confrontation with the archive as a space of inclusion and exclusion, inscription and erasure, reminding us that “Asian American literature has its origins in the carceral, offshore, ambiguous space of the immigration detention centre, waiting in a limbo between admission and deportation” (2019 125).

Fig. 2. Screenshot of the City Lights Books Webpage presenting the 2020 reissue of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Accessed 31 March 2024.

24When accounting for women poets whose bodies were subjected to violent deaths (as was the case for both Plath and Cha), editorial attempts to recover their corpus must also be understood within a feminist critical framework where remediation involves not just the tracking of changes, but also the recording and remedying of the violence performed on textual/physical bodies. In this light, Cha’s collection (as reframed in 2022) offers a striking illustration of what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch have named “the three Rs,” namely a deliberate effort to “rescue, recover and (re)inscribe” the work of women in history that has formed the core of feminist criticism (Royster and Kirsch 123)—at least in its preliminary or historic stages. Editorial restoration therefore seems indissociable from an ethics of critical recovery and literary remediation.

25Dictee being placed under the sign of orthography (or “writing straight”), however, it also poignantly foregrounds the violence of second-language acquisition (in this case, French) on migrating bodies. Indeed, the text’s multiple languages record a collective migratory trajectory from Korea to the United States and France that, as can be found in the blurb, “Links the women’s stories to explore the trauma of dislocation and the fragmentation of memory it causes” [fig. 2]. In such context, the corrective purpose of restorative editions flashes many warnings since the finality of “correcting” is not without its own physical or moral violence. It is significant that the title’s anglicized spelling—without the acute accent that is required in the French noun “dictée,” meaning “spelling test”—should itself exhibit the generative polysemy of misspelling. Indeed, as Marie-Agnès Gay argues, the unaccented word “dictee” may thus be read multi-directionally as meaning at once “dictation,” “dictated,” and “dictatee” (1).

26However well-intentioned, editorial remediations that produce “restored” editions (as if restoration could be conducted definitively or perfectly) are not only misleading; they are also confining in that they seek to “arrest” or “bind” the fluid text. Because textual restoration presupposes the existence of a formerly able-bodied text in need of being re-enabled (made “whole” again), it perpetuates the myth of a perfect text/body. Textual fluidity might on the contrary activate a post-ableist poetics that moves beyond the normative binaries of able/disabled, perfect/inadequate. In other words, criticism as remediation must be unbound: as Royster and Kirsch themselves repeatedly underline, feminist criticism needs to “move beyond the core agenda of rescuing, recovering, and (re)inscribing women into the history of rhetoric (the three Rs)” (18) in order to devise other, more generative—more fluid—ways of making space for female, queer, and nonwhite artists’ contributions (see also Bryant, 2002 37; Hutchinson and Young 4).

Is There a Poetry Collection in This Class?

27While literary scholars have long integrated textual fluidity into their theories and practices, its practical consequences often seem to have fallen by the wayside of our day-to-day encounters with texts, especially in the classroom. Why, for instance, are teachers and students alike still startled that classroom copies of mandatory editions invariably vary? How can we turn those common “fluid-text moments” (as Bryant calls them) into generative methods that bring readers closer to the poems and their poetics (Bryant, 2002 64)?

28The title of this section is a nod toward Stanley Fish’s influential 1979 essay provocatively entitled “Is There a Text in This Class?” as well as an invitation to rethink the ways we engage with poetry across media, especially in class, now that reader-response and reception theory have gained much critical ground and left a durable mark on the history of literary criticism. As Fish makes clear in his preface to the book-version of the essay (a welcome reminder that critical texts, too, are fluid…), the answer to this overarching question is both that “there is and there isn’t,” because “[t]here isn’t a text [or a poetry book] in this or any other class if one means […] ‘an entity which always remains the same from one moment to the next’” (vii).

29The historical, material and technological conditions of textual production have long enriched the story of American poetry, as Meredith McGill has argued (293) and we can no longer open or scroll down poetry books unaware of how enmeshed they are in the evolution of pre- and post-print media. Poetry has of course been an extraordinary playground for transmedia experimentation. In the “Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” poets have played with the medium-specific affordances of the typewriter (e.g. E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams producing upside down as well as non-linear escapades across the page) just as, in the postprint age, they have responded to the malleability of digital production, seizing on the new creative opportunities offered by the home-owned printer and photocopier—think, for instance, of Susan Howe’s process for That This: “At home, I printed out transcriptions I had made in the library, then using multi-purpose copy paper, scissors, ‘invisible‘ scotch tape, and a Canon copier PC170, I collaged fragments […]” (2011 n. p.); or subverting the (misconstrued) rigidity of print through various kinds of bibliographic experimentation (Ann Carson rejecting the codex-form in favor of a collection that unfolds accordion-like out of a box in Nox, and Claudia Rankine changing the text in between successive printings of Citizen, an unobtrusive yet momentous act of editorial and political insubordination, as John K. Young demonstrates in what follows). Evidently there are thirteen ways and more to look at any “single” poetry book.

30While writing workshops and academic writing classes have long been predicated on the notion of textual fluidity understood as textual perfectibility (Sullivan 7), it seems only just beginning to inform and transform the ways literary texts are taught, as underlined by several authors in the present volume (in particular, Eeckhout, Alfandary, Blake and Thomas). How can the literature classroom absorb the fact that “the literary work might be said to exist not in any one version, but in all the versions put together” (Bornstein 6)? Despite Donald Reiman’s previously mentioned case against composite editions, Variorums (which capture and display some of the transformations that affect a text over time) have tried to respond to—if not quite solve—the “problem” of multiple versions, by making at least some of its multiplicity available in one place. Fish’s critical method actually grew out of his close contact with the first volumes of the Milton Variorum: the fact that John Milton’s poems came to him through this medium—surrounded by layer upon successive layer of commentary—was instrumental in turning him away from a formalist emphasis on the spatial and towards a reclaimed textual temporality (Fish 147).

  • 6 On the fundamental invisibility of revision, see Bryant’s observation that “to get a clearer sense (...)
  • 7 Cazé recently founded a translation collective at Université Paris Cité called “Variation” that is (...)

31Variorum editions indeed turn poetry collections into fascinating flipbooks that, like Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments, decompose the movement and process of transformation in time. James E. Miller’s collated versions of “Song of Myself” in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: Origin, Growth, Meaning (1964) and R. W. Franklin’s landmark publication of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (1998) have enabled readers to finally see what had thus far remained invisible, namely the work of revision as a dynamic flow and a series of “processes” which, John Bryant argues, “must be edited into visibility” (2022 109).6 But because variorum editions tend to come in several supersized volumes and at a dear price, they are seldom found outside the shelves of libraries (Cazé 4). In making this wealth of textual transformations newly accessible online, poets’ digital archives such as those devoted to Whitman (see Folsom and Price) and Dickinson (as analyzed by Antoine Cazé) offer both restorative and creative avenues for any reader with an Internet connection to experience their poems and poetics in multiple, complementary versions (see fig. 3).7

Fig. 3. Screenshot overview of “The U.S. Editions of Leaves of Grass.” The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price.

32Another edifying example (commented on by Diane Drouin in this volume) is the trailblazing work that Suzanne Churchill, Linda Kinnahan and Susan Rosenbaum have so brilliantly undertaken with Mina Loy’s archive in the wake of her newly digitized papers by the Beinecke. As they underline, archives are much more generative than is usually thought in the sense that they preserve and produce memory:

Yale’s digitisation of the Mina Loy Papers is not merely an act of preservation; it is an indication of cultural significance and institutional value, and a recognition of the changing meaning of the archive. As Judith Halberstam argues, an archive is not merely a repository of documents but ‘a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory, and a complex record.’ Digitisation makes this dynamic understanding of the archive tangible. (Churchill et al., 2019 65)

33Yet there is also a risk that centralized digital archives might misleadingly suggest to users that all of a poet’s writings and ephemera are stored in just one place while in fact, poets’ archives are an open-ended work, one that always exceeds the boundaries of any one collection. This claim precisely spurred the need “to develop a Baedeker for the archive—a scholarly travel guide that helps users navigate archival sights, attractions and artefacts” (Churchill et al., 2019 66-67)—which resulted in their collaborative website, Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde (2020a), whose online manifesto collapses avant-garde and digital formats to assert that “AUTHORSHIP is neither eliminated nor crowd-sourced but / EXPANDED I N F I N I T E L Y…” (Churchill et al., 2020b n. p.).

34As demonstrated by examples like Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, or the equally rich Marianne Moore Digital Archive co-edited by Heather Cass White (Miller et al.) and described in her contribution to this issue, poets’ digital archives evidently constitute a unique contribution to textual scholarship, book history, education and poetics. Situated at the confluence of pedagogical, critical, and editorial imperatives, they make it possible to rediscover poetry books as fluid objects subjected to an ongoing work of material and cultural revision. In unbinding the collection, they open new paths for poetry to be fully recognized and experienced as “vibrant matter” (Bennett 2010) attuned to an ever-changing cultural and natural environment.

“To the [L]iquid”: Textual Fluidity and the Blue Humanities

35Why summon textual fluidity rather than, say, textual instability or adaptability then? In the digital era, fluidity has become a buzz word for norm-bending experiences as well as a barometer for functionality, speed and efficiency. The term does, however, uniquely capture several of the features this issue seeks to underline about the textual condition of poetry collections. First, fluidity underlines their entanglement with materiality and historicity (poetry books, like everything else, are in flux); second, it recognizes the environmental pressure that shapes such materiality (poetry books adapt to their conditions of production, such as the scarcity of paper or water, power shortages or lapses in air-conditioning technologies). Most importantly, the term is a testament to the rise of wet ontologies, recognizing water’s pervasive critical presence across the humanities (Chen et al. 5).

36Textual fluidity can perhaps better be acknowledged today because of the current hydrological turn. The upsurge of interest in “water-thinking” in the humanities is definitely a response to the increasingly acute pressure on water resources and humidity variations and the collapse of our ecosystems. As Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis remind us in Thinking with Water (2013), “The act of reading this page” is made possible only due to a combination of factors and, specifically, “a necessary balance of waters” since, “As the reader draws in breath, the relative humidity of the air is neither too wet nor scorchingly dry” and presumably,

these words (this page or this screen) are dry enough to be legible. […] In all likelihood, both reader and book are sheltered from the extremes of inclement weather. An environmental and somatic balance of waters, this quiet background condition of healthy hydration and safety, is easy to forget. (Chen et al. 2)

37Oceanic metaphors have long infused American poetry in general, and Whitman’s work in particular—as recently foregrounded by Jeffrey Yang’s edition of Whitman’s selected “Sea Poems and Other Writings.” Entitled The Sea Is a Continual Miracle (2017), this was the second volume in a series called “Seafaring America,” whose aim was (in the words of Richard J. King in the Editor’s Preface) to “introduce, revive, and aggregate a wide range of exemplary and seminal stories and verse about the American maritime heritage: to trace the footprints on the beach, the stone lances in the blubber, and the pearls in the drawer” (Whitman, 2017 n. p.). Confluent with the rising tide of blue scholarship, this editorial program foregrounding “the American maritime heritage” interestingly compounds the fluid and the solid—sand, blubber, pearls, all of them products of the sea—like the manifold sea poems and novels the continent has yielded.

38Opening Yang’s foray into Whitman’s sea writings is a selection of his prose and poems that aptly reflects the main tenets of textual fluidity. Whitman’s dedicatory “To the liquid” reads as a tribute to poetry as fluid text, as embodied in the ebb and flow of his (partly revised) lines below:

Whitman described his poetry to Traubel as analogous to “the Ocean. Its verses are the liquid, billowy waves, ever rising and falling, perhaps sunny and smooth, perhaps wild with storm, always moving, always alike in their nature as rolling waves, but hardly any two exactly alike in size or measure (metre), never having the sense of something finished and fixed, always suggesting something beyond.”

Whitman wrote in a notebook:

To the liquid
To the
    As I sat
To the music of ebb-tide ripples softly
To the ripples flo
Floa Idly floating
Idly I float

(Whitman, 2017 xxvi-ii)

39Rippling through decades of American poetry to come, Whitman’s fluid verse together with the characteristic “influx & efflux” of his “process-oriented syntax” (Bennett, 2020 xv) would in time suffuse the poems of (among others) A. R. Ammons—see, for instance, his famous “Corsons Inlet” (1962):

                      I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my work:

(Ammons 92)

40Water too exists in multiple versions, as Steve Mentz reminds us—“not only in bays and basins but also smaller bodies of fresh water, as well as solid ice and water vapor” (5)—its quantity, shape, scale, texture changing in accordance with the pressures of its environment. The textual fluidity of American poetry books deserves to be acknowledged as part of this “poetics of planetary water” (Mentz 1-16) as it sings the body aquatic in all its shimmering textures—the salty and the fresh, the liquid, the vaporous and the icy, the replenished and the drying.

Spoon River Anthology: A Case Study of Textual Fluidity

“Spoon River is in flood”
—William Marion Reedy (Johnston 59)

41Before introducing the eight essays gathered in this issue, I would like to examine a collection of poems that has all but vanished from the canon of American poetry, Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, which strikingly encapsulates many of the issues encountered thus far in our navigation of textual fluidity. A prominent figure of the Chicago School and a ubiquitous influence for Anglo-American Modernist poets (who feature prominently in the present issue), Masters has often been pictured as a one-book poet—the popularity of the Anthology having overshadowed the rest—when in fact, he published no less than 53 volumes during his lifetime from A Book of Verses (1898) to Along the Illinois (1942). The reasons that might account for Spoon River Anthology’s erasure from the poetry scene in the twenty-first century do not fall within the scope of the present essay, but suffice it to remember that it was once hailed by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell as heralding a new age for American poetry (“AT LAST! At last America has discovered a poet!” Pound 11) and the one book of poems that everyone had read (“no book in the memory of the present generation has had such a general effect upon the reading community” Lowell 139). The influence exerted by Spoon River Anthology in the United States on the eve of World War I as “the most read and most talked-of volume of poetry that had ever been written in America” (Russell 2, emphasis added), simply cannot be overemphasized. But which Spoon River Anthology exactly are we talking about?

42In its first book version, published by The MacMillan Company in New York in 1915 (a signed and inscribed copy of which is held in the Edgar Lee Masters Collection of the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas at Austin), Spoon River Anthology comprised 213 free-verse epitaph-poems named after the dead villagers of a fictional Midwestern town called Spoon River. The book opened with an alphabetical index of characters’ names (a dramatis personae of sorts), followed by a poem entitled “The Hill” (functioning as a prologue) as if overlooking the graveyard from which the dead villagers speak (in a series of interconnected dramatic monologues); the book ended with a chaotic blank-verse polylogue called “The Spooniad” (a tribute to Alexander Pope’s satirical Dunciad and credited to an equally satirical “Jonathan Swift Somers”) which, like Pope’s mock-epic, was comically interrupted right in the middle of the action, in medias res. As this description makes clear, the book version unmistakably eroded the boundaries between poetry and play, borrowing from the conventions of drama to set the stage (so to speak) for this satire of American country life.

  • 8 See also an early draft of his autobiography, where Masters again described the poems as an outpour (...)

43But the book version was only secondary to Masters’ literary success: in fact, the poems had already received much attention as a series of twenty-six installments (or “garlands” of poems, as they were introduced) that had appeared under the pseudonym “Webster Ford” in an influential weekly magazine, Reedy’s Mirror, whose St. Louis-based editor was the flamboyant William Marion Reedy. According to his biographer, Masters sent the first poems out in jest but soon found his friend Reedy begging for more (Russell 68): putting on hold his work as a Chicago lawyer, he worked relentlessly for about eight months to provide the magazine almost weekly with new poems. As he himself recollected, “From May 29, 1914, until about January 5, 1915, I poured the epitaphs into the Mirror” (Masters, 1933 49, emphasis added).8

  • 9 I am extremely grateful to Renee Jones, Research Manager for Rare Books & Manuscripts at the St. Lo (...)

44In Reedy’s Mirror, the poems had appeared ensconced between vertical columns of text, squeezed between other news and essays (instead of one poem per page as in the first book versions)—as recently made available on The St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections website;9 they were preceded by the title “Spoon River Anthology” and the pseudonym “Webster Ford” in bold typeface (see fig. 4) even though by the end of November 1914, Masters’ real identity had been leaked.

Fig. 4. First installment of Spoon River Anthology. Reedy’s Mirror, vol. 23, no. 14, 29 May 1914, p. 6-7. St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections, Last accessed 31 March 2024. © Courtesy of St. Louis Public Library.

45The poems as they appeared in Reedy’s Mirror followed no particular order since Masters was sending them as they came, without much foresight or design: “The Hill,” for instance, was originally positioned at the close of the opening sequence, seemingly holding the ensemble together but not yet functioning as a prologue. Beginning with the second issue, the poems also bore in italics the subtitle “A Second Garland,” then “A Third Garland” and so forth, keeping track of their place within the overarching sequence (presumably boosting sales by reminding readers that more was to come). Ironically, the term “garland”—which disappeared in book form—pointed to a pastoral setting that the poems themselves methodically undermined. While all 213 poems eventually found their way into the first book, several titles underwent corrections—last names were added, nicknames dropped (see fig. 5)—and the poetic sequence was considerably reshuffled, as can be observed in the following table, which provides a comparative overview of the opening sequence in the first installment and the first book version.

Figure 5. From magazine to first book version: comparing the positions of the eight poems opening Spoon River Anthology.

46As the table (hopefully) makes clear, the opening cluster more or less retained the same poems (with six of the eight poems remaining in the opening sequence) but Masters chose to place the only anonymous grave (“The Unknown”) much further in the book (down from 3rd place to 121st) and “Fletcher McGee” much closer to the beginning (up from 138th to 4th place) to be paired with his wife “Ollie McGee,” thus tightening the sequence to make the interconnected lives of the characters more legible. By the time the last garland came out, it contained only one poem (which would remain in the closing position in subsequent versions, though “The Spooniad” followed and an “Epilogue” would eventually be added) sporting the name of his alter ego “Webster Ford” followed by “THE END” in capital letters (see fig. 6). This was Masters’ curtain call, after which he collapsed in a heap and remained tethered to his sickbed for several months: “In the January 15th number I epitaphed myself under the pseudonym ‘Webster Ford’ which I had used for the work. That was the last. […] I was exhausted” (Russell 77, emphasis added).

Fig. 6. Last installment of Spoon River Anthology. Reedy’s Mirror, vol. 23, no. 47, 15 January 1915, p. 5. St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections, Last accessed 31 March 2024. © Courtesy of St. Louis Public Library.

47The poems’ enormous success—national and international, popular and critical—meant that publishers would not leave Masters alone until he had signed a book contract. When the book did come out, it immediately went into several printings and, within a couple of years, had been translated into several languages (Masters, 1933 54) causing Reedy to comment, somewhat quizzically, that “Spoon River [was] in flood” (Johnston 59).

48The flood continued for several decades before receding at the turn of the twentieth century, despite Masters having exclaimed in the early stages that “Spoon River was just a dried up stream” (Russell 69). Indeed, in addition to the 1914 magazine issues and the 1915 book publication (with its several printings), an expanded version came out in 1916, which added thirty-one poems to the flow (bringing the total to 244, a number that would remain unchanged thereafter) and an epilogue that did not previously exist in either magazine or book form (but is now standardly reproduced). In 1924, a volume entitled The New Spoon River (published in New York by Boni & Liveright a decade after the serialized Spoon River Anthology) seemed to offer an expanded edition of the original; in fact, it brought together 322 previously unpublished poems, as well as an inscription to the author’s mother and two epigraphs (one quoting John Milton on tragedy, the other quoting Anatole France on irony, thus framing the tone of the poems and their reception). This was a sequel more than an update or, as Elisabeth S. Mann disparagingly wrote in her review of the “new” book, “simply a suburb of the old” (Mann 180).

49Evidently, Spoon River’s poetic overflow had long exceeded the watermark of the 1915 publication (often regarded as the “original”) and never ceased to deposit new “sediment” afterwards, even posthumously—as implied by the 1991 volume The Enduring River subtitled Edgar Lee Masters’ Uncollected Spoon River Poems (in fact, a selection of poems from all stages of his life misleadingly presented as a sequel). Of course, by naming his book an “anthology” (an inaccurate label by modern standards, since the poems all appear as the work of a single author), Masters gave himself some leeway for a complete reshuffle, suggesting that textual fluidity was ingrained from the start in his compositional method.

50Masters’ river metaphor extended over several volumes—including The Sangamon (1942) and Along the Illinois (1942), the last poetry books he published during his lifetime, both of which featured rivers in their titles—as if charting the fresh waters of his native Midwest actually oriented his entire poetic project (“running / like a stream through the geography of [his] work,” to paraphrase Ammons). According to his biographer, Masters “had contemplated a river book for some time”: “His initial plan had been to combine the histories of the Sangamon and Spoon Rivers and create a volume for Farrar and Rhinehart’s Rivers of America series […]” (Russell 343). In other words, Masters viewed his verse as part of a series of rivers and tributaries forming the heart of the nation’s hydrological system: by reclaiming the Midwest as fertile literary soil, he hoped to expand the poetic landscape of the United States away from coastal cities and deeper into the heartland.

51As a rising star of the Chicago poetic scene, Masters was soon befriended by Poetry’s editor Harriet Monroe who even helped put the final touches to the proofs of the first edition (Russell 78). Some time afterwards, he began to champion Chicago poets Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg, also prominent figures of the Chicago Renaissance. In the opening pages of his biography of Lindsay, which appeared in 1935 exactly two decades after the first edition of the Anthology, Masters makes much of his fellow poet’s Illinois birthplace being auspiciously named Springfield, not just because this was where Abraham Lincoln had been born (although that was decidedly an important part of the local mythology) but also because of the water metaphor that placed both their accomplishments (political and poetic) under the sign of abundance. Like Lincoln, it suggested, Lindsay would surely shift the power balance in favor of the hinterland: “History seemed to see to it that the man who after Lincoln became the most famous citizen of this spot of the earth” should be born in a town named Springfield: “For this Illinois country […] is replete with material for songs to the discerning genius,” he argued (Masters, 1935 1).

52Another Chicagoan (at least in his early years), Oliver Herford, happened to illustrate the augmented edition of Spoon River Anthology published by The MacMillan Company in 1916, now available online through The Internet Archive. In this version, all poem titles were set in Gothic lettering, thus imbuing the entire book with an archaic feel. Herford’s drawings—a headstone, an arabesque of roses, a skeleton and the like (see fig. 7)—added a Gothic flavor to the book, possibly a tribute to the other Edgar (Poe) whom Masters had revered.

Fig. 7. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, illustrated by Oliver Herford. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916, p. 8-9. The Internet Archive, Accessed 31 March 2024.

53Since Herford’s caricatures and comic verse had appeared in numerous periodicals, building his reputation as a humorist, the illustrated edition combining text and image would naturally have been received as doubly satirical—including Herford’s references to Christian sentimentality as exemplified by the pair “Doctor Meyers” and “Mrs. Meyers” (companion pieces only in name) which he turned into an ironic religious diptych with Christ on the Cross on the left-hand page (placed above “Doctor Meyers” as if weighing down on him) and a weeping woman on the right-hand page (underneath an extremely unsympathetic “Mrs. Meyers”) (see fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, illustrated by Oliver Herford. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916, p. 24-25. The Internet Archive, Accessed 31 March 2024.

54But despite being well-crafted (and fully authorized by the poet), this illustrated edition presumably meant to boost sales by pairing Masters with Herford may paradoxically have accelerated the book’s fall from grace. Indeed, by framing its textual content (albeit ironically) within the codes of sentimental verse and Gothic poetry (both of which the poems vigorously shunned), the illustrations may have reflected, perhaps even inflected, Spoon River Anthology’s increasing reception as a nostalgic collection looking back to an Arcadian (literary) past, instead of a caustic, genre-bending volume pointing forward to the poetic future—thus precipitating its critical “entombment.”

55In any case, with so many versions (co)existing in time (only a few of which are examined in this case study) and no digital archive making them all equally available to the reader, it seems reasonable to wonder exactly which of the many Spoon River Anthologies has remained in circulation, and which has actually sunk into oblivion. Unsurprisingly, the original sequence as published in the St. Louis weekly (an ephemeral medium) was soon submerged under the numerous bound versions that followed. But this may change yet: now that the relevant issues of Reedy’s Mirror have been digitized, this particular iteration of the poetic sequence may very well make a comeback in future critical and editorial discussions (as has been the case with other digitized little magazines from the Modernist era). Similarly, the “original” 1915 book version has rather typically been overshadowed by the augmented 1916 version (with 31 new poems and an epilogue)—until it too perhaps, in time, is rediscovered. As for the 1992 scholarly edition (with seventy-three pages of annotations and a lengthy introduction by John E. Hallwas), its failure to rekindle academic interest remains something of a puzzle. Unless, of course, its publication marked the book’s marginalization as regional literature (after all, it appeared in the “Prairie State Books” series of the University of Illinois Press): let us hope that, having “ebb’d with the ocean of life,” soon its “flow will return” (Whitman, 2002 212, 214).

56Eventually, I would argue that while Spoon River Anthology has mostly disappeared from academia as a poetry book, it has simultaneously overflowed its banks as a play book, spawning a multitude of stage versions in theater departments and performing arts centers, schools and, yes, churches, across the United States and beyond. In 1963, approximately a fourth of the original poems were arranged and adapted by Charles Aidman for a musical Broadway show in which he himself starred, with music by Naomi Caryl Hirshhorn. Of these, forty-one now feature on the Spoon River Anthology music album, a sound recording of the original cast from the Booth Theatre also produced in 1963 and recently reissued by Masterworks Broadway as part of their effort to revive recordings of Broadway masterpieces and make them available to the general public (see​music/​spoon-river-anthology-1963-original-broadway-cast-recording/​). As a result, Spoon River Anthology can now be streamed from most music platforms and its 28 tracks added at leisure to one’s flow—a decidedly fluid version entirely consistent with the theatrical framing (dramatis personae, prologue and epilogue) that was built into the collection from the first.

An Overview of the Authors’ Contributions

  • 10 Coincidentally, while immersed in the writing of his “river” poems in the summer of 1914, Edgar Lee (...)

57At the heart of this case study is the notion of seriality since, rather unusually for a poetry collection, Spoon River Anthology was first printed and circulated in serialized form. Seriality generally informs this special issue, as it seeks to navigate the multiple versions of American poetry books (see, in particular, Eeckhout and Drouin). Emulating serial art through a composition modeled on Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell Soup Cans, with its row upon row of (seemingly) identical objects, Valentin Fauque’s cover design brilliantly captures the fluidity of Whitman’s (r)evolutionary volume—whose shape has continued to shift for a hundred and seventy years—by foregrounding the minute, almost unregistered variations that complicate our perception of this book-turned-(pop)icon, all too often misconstrued as a straightforward poetic object. From afar, Warhol’s thirty-two cans are all the same neatly aligned, perfectly replicated, factory-made soup containers; yet on closer inspection, no two cans advertise the same flavor, each promising a distinct mix of ingredients for a unique culinary experience.10 Likewise, the (un)dated volumes and the shimmering green variations on the cover design for this special issue’s Leaves of Grass—reverberating the iconic green binding of the 1855 cloth-bound edition—are a welcome reminder that, like anthologies, poetry collections always offer a provisional, time-and-place-bound, selection (or garland) of leaves.

58The essays that follow are not strictly organized in chronological order. Neither are they grouped into watertight categories based on the accounts they give. Rather, they form clusters of emphasis, beginning with a focus on editorial interventions (White, Taylor and Drouin), moving on to classroom theories and practices (Eeckhout, Alfandary and Blake), and ending with a reappraisal of textual fluidity’s underlying institutional and political issues (Thomas and Young). Through their complementary perspectives, they chart the fluidity of poetry collections and invite us to surf the endless variations of American poetry rediscovered as fluid text.

59Opening this collection of essays is Heather Cass White’s account of the specific challenge posed by Marianne Moore’s poetry to her editors, and the daunting task she herself faced when she took up the challenge. While all poetry books are fluid, some seem to be more so than others. The extreme fluidity that characterizes Moore’s body of work—which the poet famously displayed in her epigraph to The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967) that “Omissions are not accidents”—makes it exemplary within this special issue: her poetry books are a fruitful field for thinking about a theory and practice of “poetry books in multiple versions.” Drawing on her experience as the editor of three of Moore’s collections—A-Quiver with Significance: Marianne Moore, 1932-1936 (2008), Adversity and Grace: Marianne Moore, 1936-1941 (2012) and New Collected Poems (2017)—, White emphasizes below “the suspicions and hesitations, provisional thoughts and uncertainties, that underlie the editorial decision-making process.” These, however, are envisioned as fundamentally generative in that they invite us to rethink our assumptions about poetry and poetics.

60Likewise, Michelle Alexis Taylor discerns much critical promise in the study of editorial variations. Contrasting the UK and US editions of T. S. Eliot’s second complete volume of poems (both of which came out in 1920), Taylor attends to the distinctive “bibliographical codes” (McGann 13) of the American volume as revealing of Eliot’s aesthetic project. Noting how its physical incarnation seems to deliberately “activate more archaic ways of interacting with text,” she goes on to demonstrate how the order determined by Eliot unaided by Ezra Pound produces something of a narrative sequence—if not within the entire volume, at least within the individual groupings and pairings within that volume—stressing internal echoes and correspondences and further “dramatiz[ing] the movement of dialectical thinking” (see her article published in this issue). Ultimately, Taylor argues that the competing editions were both necessary in that they served different functions and catered to (or imagined) different audiences—the smaller elite circle and the general public—touching upon one of Modernisms’ many enduring paradoxes.

61Diane Drouin’s essay similarly attends to the multiple versions of Mina Loy’s Lunar Baedecker as a constant reframing of her work, by publishers and critics alike. Tracking the book’s transformations from manuscript to print and screen, she offers a compelling account of Loy’s poetry collections as polymorphous and elusive, in keeping with Loy’s experimentations as a multidisciplinary artist working with mixed and often ephemeral media. These coexisting versions and variations eventually “ask the readers to constantly decompose, recompose and assemble her texts,” enabling them to experience textual fluidity first-hand (Drouin, see her article below).

62While the first three essays tend to grapple primarily with editorial issues and controversies, the next three reflect on the pedagogical consequences (and affordances) opened up by the many versions of poetry collections, an angle too often dismissed from academic debates. What do we do with the multiple versions of poetry books in the classroom?

63Bart Eeckhout addresses those questions and more in his essay on the “fluid incarnations of Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar.” Taking his cue from the poem’s musical metaphor, Eeckhout elaborates on the serial quality of the collection’s poetic reconfigurations—from manuscript to print, from magazine to book form, and from visual to sonic experimentation. Approaching the cantos through their successive remediations and adaptations (most enticingly perhaps through the 1977 version illustrated by David Hockney) potentially facilitates students’ encounter with Stevens’s processual syntax and improvisational poetics. Textual fluidity in the classroom is not necessarily an obstacle; in fact, it opens up a wide range of opportunities in the field of Modernist studies.

64Isabelle Alfandary’s exploration of E. E. Cummings’ No Thanks across editions is a welcome reminder of poems’ entanglement with the material reality of the poet’s writing tools. Cummings’ writing cannot fully be appreciated outside the specificities of the typewriter as his writing machine. To erase the “typescript” font is to dehistoricize the poems and uproot them from the material conditions that shaped their form and content. By returning students to the minute specificities of each new edition, we can help them engage with the paradigmatic changes induced by each writing technology and experience first-hand how the medium informs the writing.

65Drawing on her expertise at the intersection of literary studies and pedagogy, Julie Blake shifts the focus to poetry collections as remediated in school anthologies, an overlooked medium, which, she argues, is in dire need of critical acknowledgement, if only because of its durable impact on poetry’s public reception. What happens in the cultural and institutional negotiation of a poet’s corpus (here, Sylvia Plath’s) when it is adapted to the (changing) constraints of a national curriculum (in this case, the United Kingdom’s English Literature GCSE examinations)? How do these secondary-school remediations affect a poet’s critical reception beyond the specific use for which they were originally designed?

66Chloé Thomas’s case study is Lyn Hejninian’s My Life, whose successive iterations record the evolution of its author’s life as well as her work’s critical reception and gradual absorption into academia. Such a famously fluid text seems particularly well suited to a digital archive that gathers its editions in one place and makes them available with just a few clicks, ensuring the smooth navigation of readers (scholars, students, poets) between versions. Because Hejinian died on 24 February 2024 after the essay was completed and shortly before it was published, to contemplate My Life today raises fresh questions about its nature and future as a poetry book.

67Closing this issue is John Young’s essay on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a timely reminder that matters of race still tend to occupy a marginal position within editorial theory (Hutchinson and Young 6). Young’s case study draws on his previous work as coeditor with George Hutchinson of Publishing Blackness, which pointedly underlined the fraught history of African American literary production as “[a]lways haunted by the commodification of blackness and by forms of racial surveillance, from the era of slavery to the age of Obama” (4). Yet, because of that history, African American literary texts have also been particularly well attuned to reflecting and incorporating issues of textual fluidity rather than fixity (9). Rankine’s work of revision is an effort to reposition the vulnerability of black bodies into accounts of citizenship in the United States that ultimately allows history to resonate: as the list of victims from police brutality grows between printings, the updated page both acknowledges the devastating pace of such killings and their seemingly endless, ad nauseam iterability, and teaches readers how to constantly “revis[e] their understanding” of both poetry and “racial identity in the US” (Young, see article below).

  • 11 I would like to thank Thomas Constantinesco for his generous feedback on an earlier draft of this i (...)

68Perhaps the best token of this special issue’s wide-ranging ambition is its authors’ readiness to interrogate key concepts of literary studies. White’s question in the opening essay (“What is a poem?”) is echoed at the very end by Young’s reading of Citizen as asking what (and where) “a text” is. Likewise, Taylor, Drouin, Eeckhout, Alfandary, Blake, and Thomas all somehow ask “What is a poetry book?,” testifying to the fundamental elusiveness of an object still commonly viewed as self-evident. By challenging dominant notions of an ideal, stable, original, or final form that criticism would be tasked to reconstruct, fixate, and authorize once and for all, all eight essays eventually show that a reconsideration of American poetry through the lens of fluidity is critically generative and socially as well as politically relevant. From the poet’s private library to the bookstore, from the archive to the classroom, the poetry book in its multiplying versions becomes the flowing locus where textual materiality is at once reasserted and constantly altered, and where the many overlapping critical, editorial, and pedagogical frameworks for the circulation and examination of poetry may best be acknowledged. Textual fluidity thus envisaged touches upon urgent issues of poetry’s relation to history, materiality, education, disability, race, and gender.11


69Most of the essays that follow were selected on the basis of a double event organized by the Observatoire du recueil poétique entitled “Poetry Books in Multiple Versions: Editorial, Critical and Pedagogical Issues.” The first event took the form of a one-day symposium in Paris in October 2017, hosted by Sorbonne Université with funding from various institutions—Sorbonne University’s VALE and OBVIL, Université Paris Cité’s LARCA and Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis’s TransCrit. This was followed several months later by a panel held at the January 2018 MLA convention in New York City, a Special Session approved by the convention’s scientific committee through a month-long application process.

70Our utmost gratitude goes to Monica Manolescu and Cécile Roudeau who, as successive chief-editors for literature, encouraged this project through its evolving shapes: with their relentless efforts and fluid communication, they guided us expertly and generously every step of the way, from the project’s rocky beginnings to the finishing touches. My coeditors and I would also like to warmly thank each and every one of our contributors for the quality of their contributions as well as their patience and gracious replies to our requests for revisions. Lastly, we are extremely grateful to the anonymous reviewers whose suggestions helped make compelling essays even more compelling, and to our proofreaders for the care they took in preparing the issue for publication.

Haut de page


AMMONS, A. R. The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons. Volume 1: 1955-1977. Ed. Robert M. West. Introduction by Helen Vendler. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2017.

ANDERSON, Linda, Mark BYERS, and Ahren WARNER, eds. The Contemporary Poetry Archive. Essays and Interventions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

BENJAMIN, Walter. Unpacking My Library. A Talk About Collecting. 1968. Selected Writings. Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-1934. Translated by Rodney Livingstone et al. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 486-493.

BENNETT, Jane. Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

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1 This special issue forms a diptych with a special issue of Sillages critiques entitled The Poetry Book: An Obsolete Form in the Digital Age? edited by Gwen Le Cor and myself, whose aim was to reappraise poetry’s new place in the digital age. Contrary to the previous volume, this one focuses on North American poetry and examines textual “pluralism” from three complementary angles—the editorial, critical and pedagogical. I am extremely grateful to VALE (UR 4085), LARCA (UMR 8225) and Labex OBVIL for sponsoring the Observatoire du Recueil Poétique (ORPo), a two-year research program dedicated to the study of poetry collections across periods and languages, from which the present volume is partly derived.

2 To truly acknowledge such fluidity, the plural pronoun “they” might actually be more appropriate than the singular “it.” The grammar applicable to poetry collections would thus interestingly connect with that of “the United States” and of “poetics,” both of which command a singular whilst morphologically retaining the plural form.

3 American poetry abounds in examples of well-meaning yet disastrous “minor” corrections, such as what Susan Howe calls “the editorial apprehension and domestication of Emily Dickinson” (1993 1). Fortunately, editors today have learned to tread the fine line between accident and intent, as is the case with Robert M. West who, in his notes to the text of The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons (volume 1), warns that “[g]iven Ammons’s linguistic playfulness and fondness for earlier spellings, an editor should not assume that irregularities are errors” (Ammons 1034). Typically, he wanted the 3 r’s in “arrrive” (at the end of “The Wind Picks Up Slick” in The Snow Poems) and had to insist that the third r be not exfoliated when he received the proofs (Ammons 882).

4 Poetry is also the primary source for Jerome McGann and George Bornstein (to name but a few). In Material Modernism, for instance, Bornstein argues that “texts by such key poets as W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), Marianne Moore, and T. S. Eliot give a mistaken notion of permanence and completeness by being frozen and disseminated in only one of their multiple forms, and that recent version theory offers a richer account of them as processes rather than mere products of inscription. That ‘freezing’ derives in turn from a confluence of social and economic forces (chiefly copyright law and the conditions of material production in the twentieth century) with editorial and critical ones (chiefly a covert agreement of premises between then dominant New Criticism, which favored notions of text as a well-wrought urn, and the New Bibliography, associated with Greg and Bowers, which sought to construct idealized forms of literary works even if the works had never existed historically in that particular form)” (2).

5 An interesting countermodel here is, of course, the American long poem, whose textual flow runs from cover to cover (see, for instance, Kalck and Oudart).

6 On the fundamental invisibility of revision, see Bryant’s observation that “to get a clearer sense of the problems that confront editors who want to strategize how we navigate the changes evident in the fluid text, we need to recognize one fundamental: the phenomenon of revision is invisible. Granted, we can see revisions inscribed on a manuscript leaf or discern a textual change by comparing two variant print editions, but we cannot ‘see’ the processes by which a writer, editor, or adaptor makes these changes. Those processes must be edited into visibility” (2022 108-109, emphases added).

7 Cazé recently founded a translation collective at Université Paris Cité called “Variation” that is precisely meant to ponder the translation issues stemming from such variability, especially—though not solely—in Emily Dickinson’s poems.

8 See also an early draft of his autobiography, where Masters again described the poems as an outpouring: “Into it I poured all that I had thought, read, suffered, observed and experienced […]” (Russell 69, emphasis added).

9 I am extremely grateful to Renee Jones, Research Manager for Rare Books & Manuscripts at the St. Louis Public Library, for her generous help with locating and visualizing copies of the original installments. Thanks to her efforts, the twenty-six issues of Reedy’s Mirror in which Spoon River Anthology first appeared have now been made accessible online on the St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections website.

10 Coincidentally, while immersed in the writing of his “river” poems in the summer of 1914, Edgar Lee Masters confided to his friend and mentor Theodore Dreiser that he was excitedly “pouring divers philosophies” into the “Spoon River stuff,” “taking the emptied tomato cans of the rural dead to fill with the waters of the macrocosm” (Russell 67, emphasis added). Of course, Masters’ experimental soup mix wanted nothing to do with chowder—neither cod nor clam might have been his motto. Why tap into the salty waters of New England when there was no scarcity of local ingredients in the Midwest—a “land of provisions, grains, grasses, and all which proceed from them,” according to Abraham Lincoln (Lauck 1)—to fill his own “emptied tomato cans”?

11 I would like to thank Thomas Constantinesco for his generous feedback on an earlier draft of this introduction.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Cover design of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: The Restored Edition; A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement. London: Faber & Faber, 2004.
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Légende Fig. 2. Screenshot of the City Lights Books Webpage presenting the 2020 reissue of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Accessed 31 March 2024.
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Légende Fig. 3. Screenshot overview of “The U.S. Editions of Leaves of Grass.” The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price.
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Légende Fig. 4. First installment of Spoon River Anthology. Reedy’s Mirror, vol. 23, no. 14, 29 May 1914, p. 6-7. St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections, Last accessed 31 March 2024. © Courtesy of St. Louis Public Library.
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Légende Figure 5. From magazine to first book version: comparing the positions of the eight poems opening Spoon River Anthology.
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Légende Fig. 6. Last installment of Spoon River Anthology. Reedy’s Mirror, vol. 23, no. 47, 15 January 1915, p. 5. St. Louis Public Library Digital Collections, Last accessed 31 March 2024. © Courtesy of St. Louis Public Library.
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Légende Fig. 7. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, illustrated by Oliver Herford. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916, p. 8-9. The Internet Archive, Accessed 31 March 2024.
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Légende Fig. 8. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, illustrated by Oliver Herford. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916, p. 24-25. The Internet Archive, Accessed 31 March 2024.
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Juliette Utard, « Navigating the Fluidity of American Poetry Collections: Editorial, Critical, and Pedagogical Issues »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Juliette Utard

Sorbonne Université

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