Left of Poetry

Depression America and the Formation of Modern Poetics

By Sarah Ehlers

308 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5128-6
    Published: June 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5127-9
    Published: June 2019
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5129-3
    Published: April 2019
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5416-2
    Published: April 2019

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Awards & distinctions

Shortlisted, Modernist Studies Association First Book Prize

In this incisive study, Sarah Ehlers returns to the Depression-era United States in order to unsettle longstanding ideas about poetry and emerging approaches to poetics. By bringing to light a range of archival materials and theories about poetry that emerged on the 1930s left, Ehlers reimagines the historical formation of modern poetics. Offering new and challenging readings of prominent figures such as Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, and Jacques Roumain, and uncovering the contributions of lesser-known writers such as Genevieve Taggard and Martha Millet, Ehlers illuminates an aesthetically and geographically diverse matrix of schools and movements. Resisting the dismissal of thirties left writing as mere propaganda, the book reveals how communist-affiliated poets experimented with poetic modes—such as lyric and documentary—and genres, including songs, ballads, and nursery rhymes, in ways that challenged existing frameworks for understanding the relationships among poetic form, political commitment, and historical transformation. As Ehlers shows, Depression left movements and their international connections are crucial for understanding both the history of modern poetry and the role of poetic thought in conceptualizing historical change.

About the Author

Sarah Ehlers is assistant professor of English at the University of Houston.
For more information about Sarah Ehlers, visit the Author Page.


“Compelling. . . . Ehlers proposes a reconsideration of the way in which we understand the politics of poetic forms.” --American Literary History

"This impressive, meticulously researched book makes a substantial contribution to the study of the “literary left” in depression-era American literary history." --Journal of American History

"Guided by a historical methodology devoted to archival retrieval, Ehlers salvages a Communist contribution to the lyrical form that recovers conceptions of community, meter, and accessibility. This achievement reveals that what scholars today recognize as conventional writing and reading practices are actually informed by a deeply anti-communist trajectory." --Against the Current

"Ehlers’s archives come to life most vividly when the interpretive conclusions she infers from context — often the promised payoff of archival scholarship —  are not just explanatory but open-ended. Her attention to documentary is . . . the most revelatory part of Ehlers’s return to interwar American poetry." -Genre

“A fascinating study of left poetry during the Great Depression. A writer with an impressive sensitivity to concrete detail, Sarah Ehlers offers a much-needed reappraisal of radical literature in America during a pivotal era in our nation’s history.”—James Smethurst, author of The African American Roots of Modernism

“Carefully researched and full of highly valuable original archival study, Sarah Ehlers makes an important intervention in genre criticism and provides field-changing readings of poets such as Langston Hughes and his relation to Jacques Roumain, Genevieve Taggard, Muriel Rukeyser, and others. Sure to impact the field of modern American poetry studies, Left of Poetry is an outstanding book.”—Walter Kalaidjian, Emory University