Eli P. Mandel, *23

Department of English

Collecting Facts Between Poetry and the Literature of Fact, 1934–1941


In a time of crisis, does the world need poems or facts? Collecting Facts: Between Poetry and the Literature of Fact, 1934–1941 is a study of four poets, two British and two American, who turned in the 1930s from writing poetry to assembling archives of facts. During a tumultuous decade in which documentary film, photography, and writing flourished, these poets devoted themselves to testing the conceptual limits of facts. For three of these subjects, the ensuing projects were of such size and scope that their authors never completed them to their own satisfaction: Charles Madge’s collaboration with Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings, the organization Mass-Observation (established in 1936); Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1934,resumed in 1965); and James Agee’s collaboration with Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The fourth poet, W.H. Auden, instead renounced his experiments altogether and returned to a poetry firmly opposed to fact in Another Time (1940). Collecting Facts argues that all four poets tried to create new forms of factual literature that, amid the rise of fascism and the collapse of democratic norms, would represent the world more accurately than
existing poetic or documentary modes might be able to do. The first three case studies lead to incompleteness and endless proliferation. In the fourth case, the result is a retreat to conventional forms that, at least on the surface, mark a more narrow conception of what literature might do in the world. All four poets, in other words, are defeated by facts. But in defeat, they offer an account of the role of imaginative literature, and of poetry in particular, over and against factual representation.
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