7 Obscure Literary Movements
Writers are often bundled into groups. Sometimes they name themselves—like the Beats or Dada—but sometimes they’re branded by critics and scholars. Sometimes the name is coined in the present tense, while the writers are composing the work. Other times, the name and its meaning emerge long after the fact. Samuel Johnson formulated the term Metaphysical Poets a century after their work had been written. Some of these groups are long lasting, some short-lived. Sometimes their principles are vague and expansive; sometimes they’re quite narrowly defined. All of them have gripes with literary tradition, so they come up with new ways to write.
These literary movements, or schools, are necessary but they’re also necessarily ambiguous and flawed. We need names and labels, as arbitrary as they sometimes are, in order to make sense of the world and, in particular, to express ideas about it. Without categories, definitions and labels, we wouldn’t be able to communicate very well, very easily, or with much depth.
Sometimes shoehorning a particular writer into a movement, for convenience, causes friction within the literary community. Charles Bukowski, for example, is often locked in an airless room with the Postmodernists—though his work isn’t remotely postmodern—because he lived at such a time, in such a place. This is a case of lazy thinking. A literary movement represents more than geography or chronology. It embodies what a group of writers is trying to accomplish, in what style, and under what philosophical or aesthetic banner.
There are many well-known movements. Romanticism, the pre-Raphaelites, Symbolism, Modernism, the Lost Generation, the Lake Poets, the Black Mountain Poets, the Bloomsbury Group, the Gothics, the Harlem Renaissance, Naturalism, Transcendentalism, Existentialism. So many isms… The list is as long as there are pages in all the world’s English Lit dissertations and academic journals.
But what of lesser-known, short-lived and obscure groups? When did they form, and why? Who were the members? What were they responding to? Were they artistic, historical, political? What did they want to achieve? Let’s have a look:
This movement encompassed painting and poetry because Wyndham Lewis, its leader, pursued both of these arts. The first thing to note is that Vorticism enjoyed, or perhaps failed to enjoy, a very brief existence: two years. Vorticism equally had roots in Cubist painting, Futurism and industrialization. 19th-century art, members felt, was too sentimental and didn’t respond to the realities of modern life—speed, machinery, abstraction, and fragmentation. The movement was based in London but international in outlook. Members included Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, Malcolm Arbuthnot, Jessica Dismorr and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Pound named the movement in 1913, which marked its beginning. The Vorticists published their own journal, BLAST, which died after only two issues. The first volume contained their lengthy manifesto, which included items such as:
- We are primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World.
- Our Cause is NO-MAN’S.
- We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the Surface a laugh like a bomb.
Perhaps the movement would have endured longer if their objectives had been slightly more concrete. Another problem was that, three days after this debut, World War I was declared. Gaudier-Brzeska and other prominent Vorticists were killed in action. Others fell out with Lewis or lost faith in Modernism, art, humanity itself. It should also be noted that, aside from these obstacles, the public was largely uninterested in their work. After the second issue of BLAST, in 1915, Vorticism died. In 1920 Lewis tried to resuscitate the movement by rebranding it Group X. This was not a success.
The Hartford Wits
The Hartford Wits were a group of poets who convened in Hartford, Connecticut. It might have been more witty if they were from Philadelphia or didn’t actually refer to themselves as wits. The group formed in the 1760s when John Trumbull met Timothy Dwight at Yale. Both men were prodigies who began their university studies at age 13. Trumbull had passed the Yale entrance exam at seven, in fact, but his family wisely kept him away from beer pong and frat parties for another six years. After befriending classmates David Humphreys and Joel Barlow, the Hartford Wits were born. They were devoted to poetry, satire and fomenting a break from England. Typical 13-year-olds.
Like all serious movements, they needed a manifesto. Trumbull supplied their creed in two parts: “An Essay on the Use and Advantages of Fine Arts” and the lengthy, didactic poem “The Progress of Dulness.” The wits satirized education and called for a literary renaissance in America =that was equal to, and not unduly influenced by, the Old World. They also foresaw, years before the Revolution, that the colonies would form an independent nation. The Wits were surprisingly broad-minded, iconoclasts who railed against King George, the colonial administration, loyalists, elitism, slavery and gender inequality. They opposed the powerful, pompous and vain. Moreover, they lived by their words. At the onset of the Revolution, Humphreys, Barlow and Dwight all served in the Continental Army. After the war, the Wits settled in Hartford. Joined by Richard Alsop and Lemuel Hopkins, they began to write poems individually and as a group. “The Anarchiad,” an epic poem, is a collaborative effort and their most celebrated work.
A closer look at one of their poems, Trumbull’s “The Country Clown,” shows that the Wits weren’t always so high-minded:
Bred in distant woods, the clown
Brings all his country airs to town;
The stiffen’d gait, the drawling tone,
By which his native place is known;
Comedy doesn’t age well, so if you read the so-called Wits today, you might not be tempted to giggle. Trumbull is ridiculing a bumpkin for not being urbane and sophisticated.
As a footnote, Dwight, the young liberal renegade developed, perhaps inevitably, into an arch-conservative. He became president of Yale in 1795 and discovered that only 5% of the student body believed in god. He was also troubled by their exposure to the radical ideas of the French Revolution and progressive European philosophers such as Hobbes. As a result, Dwight wrote the decidedly non-witty “The Nature and Danger of Infidel Philosophy, Exhibited in Two Discourses, Addressed to the Candidates for the Baccalaureate, In Yale College.” This treatise touched off the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement characterized by backwoods camp meetings and evangelical fervor.
Spiralism was founded in the 1960s Haiti by René Philoctète, Jean-Claude Fignolé and the wonderfully-monomial Frankétienne. (Loosely translated, that’s Frankensteve in French.) The movement is quite obscure and was never clearly defined, but it’s best understood by reading Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst (1968), a novel “eerily similar to contemplating a wound that won’t heal.” One of the characters, Paulin, defines the movement:
Spiralism defines life at the level of relations (colors, odors, sounds, signs, words) and historical connections…Re-creating wholes from mere details and secondary materials, the practice of Spiralism reconciles Art and Life through literature, and necessarily breaks with the hypocrisy of the Word…
Manifesto, but not quite manifest. Ready to Burst wavers between first and third person. Scenes are often repeated or revisited. Set during the brutal Duvalier regime of the 1960s, it’s a patchwork of autobiography, poetry, fictional narrative, surrealistic dreamscapes and mission statement. The novel, like the author’s explication of the movement, perpetually twists on itself like a spiral.
Paulin, a struggling writer, wants to “liberate literature from the dictatorship of dictionaries and grammar books.” Spiralism is for everyone, a people’s movement. However, it seems unlikely that “the laboring classes” would be interested in works such as Ready to Burst, which is compelling and powerful but not an easy road for all. This is clearly a novel, and a movement, for a niche audience. Naturally, Spiralism never caught on beyond a small circle of admirers.
India became independent from Britain in 1947, but Partition, as the transitional period was called, was grueling and bloody. Afterward, poverty, hunger, displacement and death were ubiquitous, especially in Bengal. In 1961 a group of poets in Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, formed the Hungry Generation. The founders were the “Hungryalist Quartet” of Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. The term Hungryalism comes from Chaucer’s line “in the sowre hungry tyme,” a reference to privation during the Medieval era. The Hungryalists were also inspired by Spengler’s historical worldview that envisioned a failing culture feeding upon scraps from the first world. India is dying, the movement argued, and it deserves more than scraps. The Hungryalists called upon the government to step in and alleviate the suffering of its people. They also encouraged artists to create original work, liberated both from traditional Indian writing and colonial influences. They spoke for the common people and were critical of the economic and social elite. The group was seen as a radical element that endangered the power structure so, in 1964, 11 poets were arrested on charges of obscenity and sedition. The case was long and famous, drawing the attention of poets throughout the world, including Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz and Ernesto Cardenal, all of whom supported the Hungryalists. The movement imploded in 1965. Nonetheless, it led to a revival of Indian literature written in Tamil, Urdu and other South Asian languages and dialects, as opposed to English, and a focus on style and subject matter that was locally derived, not imported from abroad.
The Spasmodics were a British poetry movement of the 1840s. They typically wrote in the form of verse drama featuring a poet as the main character. Like early versions of Morrissey, these poets delivered longwinded soliloquies about their own tribulations and precious heartaches. The 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica states that “the productions of the school are marked by an excess of metaphor and a general extravagance of language.” Members included Sydney Dobell, Philip James Bailey, Gerald Massey, John Stanyan Bigg and George Gilfillan, who spent 30 years struggling with a single poem. Gilfillan’s obsession ended in failure, but he effectively promoted the younger Spasmodics with encouraging reviews under the pseudonym Apollodorus. The word “spasmodic” was often applied, by 19th century critics to poetry they didn’t like. William Edmondstoune Aytoun took this a step further. In 1854 he reviewed Firmilian, an upcoming book of poetry, in Blackwood’s Magazine. When the book came out—Firmilian; or, The student of Badajoz: A spasmodic tragedy by T. Percy Jones—it was a best-seller and the new poet was celebrated. But it was a hoax. Jones was actually Aytoun, and he was mocking the ostentatious language and style of the Spasmodics. He’s also the one who popularized the derogatory word itself. Shortly after Aytoun was unmasked as the author, and his work revealed to be a parody, the public began to ridicule the Spasmodics and the movement ended.
The Unanimists, led by Jules Romains early in the 20th century, were a mystical school of French poetry. They believed in the existence of a collective unconscious; that great poetry must tap into this transcendent reality. Romains encouraged poets to sit and think in unison before composing verse that would, theoretically, be shaped by this ethereal oneness. Despite some strong work, the group was unanimously unsuccessful in its primary objective: there may be a collective unconscious, but where is it, how do you get there, and how exactly does it stimulate poetry? However, the Unanimist’s preference for straightforward syntax and simple word choice, rather than elaborate images and symbols, was a distinct influence on modern poetry.
Like many important movements, Stridentism—Estridentismo in Spanish—began with a manifesto, embraced the avant-garde, and combined theory with action. It was started in 1921 by Manuel Maples Arce in Veracruz, Mexico. He wrote and distributed a tract that pushed for “an overthrow of outdated aesthetic forms comparable to the recent political overthrow of the old regime.” Arce was a poet, playwright, novelist and prankster who both revived and provoked Mexican culture. Stridentism was a movement that combined visual art, music, performance and writing. A passage from Arce’s book-length poem Urbe, translated by John Dos Passos, is representative of Stridentist verse:
Here is my poem
brutal and manifold
of the new city,
Oh city all tense
With cables and exertions
with motors and wings
Arce was obsessed with cars, industry and urban life. The people in his work are insignificant compared to skyscrapers, technology and modern machinery. Stridentists sought to free Mexican art from the yoke of Spanish influence. They were anti-elitist and believed in collective, popular action. They were iconoclastic yet also worked with the government to achieve their goals. The movement published the short-lived magazines Actual, Irradiador and Horizonte. They were keen on manifestos, issuing three more between 1923 and 1926. Stridentists regularly engaged in proto-performance art pieces such as marching down street waving pieces of green paper and shouting “Verde! Verde!” By 1927, feeling as if they’d adequately engaged the cultural establishment, Stridentism ended.
There are countless other movements. Oulipo. Factualism, Imagism, the Southern Agrarians, The New Novel, Paryogsheel Lehar, Magical Realism, ad infinitum. New ones are springing up right now. What they have in common are the words once inscribed on Ezra Pound’s scarf—Make It New. This was the unofficial mission statement of Modernism, but it could be the creed of any movement. They all try something new, which is inevitably both a failure and a success.