SIR: Frank Kermode’s review of my Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (LRB, 22 May) is a parody in which I recognise the elements but not the book. The question it leaves me with is whether Kermode didn’t have time to do more than skim some of the essential chapters, or whether he was simply piqued at what I have to say about his misreading of Yeats – something which, of course, he doesn’t mention.
It is not true that there is an assumption in my book that ‘the value of Modernism is not only aesthetic but moral’; I don’t think I said that Yeats was a snob; and I certainly didn’t argue that snobbery had anything to do with his unwillingness ‘to go all the way with his young mentor Ezra Pound’. What I did say is summed up as follows:
What I have attempted to show here is that there is a certain line of development (not necessarily to be seen as ‘progress’) in modern poetry; that Yeats seeks and receives Pound’s assistance in travelling a certain distance along that path; and that having gone as far as suits him, he publicly criticises Pound for going further. I have tried to show also that though Pound does not answer these criticisms it must be clear that from his point of view answers were not lacking.
The whole book, in fact, is an exercise in adopting a point of view (see pp. 325-6) – not insisting that it is the only possible, or proper, one.
That Yeats wrote prose versions of some of his poems and then worked them up into stanzas is not (as Kermode puts it) a ‘charge’ I make against the poet. But it is a fact that one may legitimately cite to explain the deficiencies that sometimes (not always) result.
It is true I said The Waste Land can’t be ‘taught’: but to this Kermode adds, as if catching me out, ‘(though Professor Stead has been teaching it for a quarter of a century)’ – and this is not true. I once only included it as a small part of a course of mine for a period of just two years – and how Kermode should suppose he knows such facts is beyond me.
Nor did I say of The Waste Land that it is ‘an inspired poem’ – something that would be meaningless of the poem as a whole, though it may be meaningful in relation to certain parts. Indeed what Kermode says I say about ‘inspiration’ is such a crude travesty I wonder whether his failure is one of understanding or of the will.
Paraphrasing me with that ironic and nudging tone which suggests his readers will of course know better, Kermode says Eliot became ‘an undoubted Fascist and supporter of Hitler’. But I did not say that; and on the subject of Eliot’s politics I offered nothing untrue, and probably nothing new. I made distinctions between the British, French and Italian forms of what in Britain and Italy was called Fascism; and I said Eliot supported the French form, Action Française. I quoted what I believe to have been a review by Eliot in the Criterion in which he poured scorn on the idea that people in Britain should fuss about what was happening to the Jews in Germany (the year was 1936); and I said Eliot was ‘with Hitler’ in his belief that ‘any number of free-thinking Jews’ was ‘undesirable’ (the words are Eliot’s), and in his idealisation of the notion of the strong leader. Does Kermode disagree on any of these points? If not, what is he complaining about?
I did not say that Pound’s broadcasts were ‘preferable to Eliot’s editorials’. What I did try to show was that Eliot and Pound held similar, and to me totally unacceptable, political and racial views. Pound’s were more frankly exposed and he was punished for that. Eliot’s were carefully hedged around and he earned post-war honours. But it is not merely opinions that get into poems. Personality gets in as well; and I find Pound’s personality, erratic and even dangerous thought it may have been, more appealing on the whole than Eliot’s because less cautious and self-serving. That is not preference I expect everyone to share.
Nor does Kermode’s review give any impression at all of the extent to which I distinguish, and find critical means to distinguish, between successful and unsuccessful Pound. He contrives to make it all sound like the work of one more undiscriminating Poundian. He writes:
There is even something admirable in Pound’s use of disparaging racist epithets. For example, the use of ‘chink’ for Chinese in Canto 61 is ‘in its way one of the bizarre splendours of the Cantos’.
What I wrote reads as follows:
The ambiguity (or is it better described as innocent energy?) of a work extolling Chinese example in which the adjective ‘chink’ is used to denote one of Chinese blood is better registered and marvelled at than analysed. It is in its way one of the bizarre splendours of the Cantos.
Is it that Kermode can’t read the tone of a passage like that? Or that he won’t? I, after all, am the person calling attention to the contradiction and the absurdity – and in a context entirely critical of the particular Cantos under discussion.
Contrary to the impression Kermode gives, I say almost nothing about Larkin’s poetry but only discuss in passing the historical implications of a statement Larkin makes about ‘form’ and ‘content’ – and the quotation-marks Kermode objects to are there because the words are Larkin’s not mine.
A good example of the spirit in which Kermode undertook his review is his statement, ‘Stead accuses Eliot of being “an indifferent speller",’ which is immediately followed by his triumphant revelation that I can’t spell Ashbery. I acknowledge the Ashbery error and thank him for the correction. But I did not ‘accuse’ Eliot. I simply quoted, in a footnote to an appendix, Helen Gardner’s information to me that this was the case, and her suggestion that it might explain why ‘Sesostris’ is spelled ‘Sosostris’ in The Waste Land. Being good at spelling has never seemed to me a virtue (Yeats was atrocious at it). But sometimes such a fact may help to explain something. Kermode’s review reads to me like a tantrum. I suppose I ought to be pleased to have so rocked his critical boat. I’m glad at least, when I read the part of his review that refers to books by Bernard Bergonzi and Roger Shattuck, not to have written something he found it possible to patronise.
University of Auckland, New Zealand
SIR: In the review of Domesday-related books (LRB, 22 May) by John Dodgson, the place-names expert, one place-name has, by the displacement of a single letter, been dislocated from the north Pacific to the south. The advertisement seen by Mr Dodgson in the preamble to Domesday: 900 Years of England’s Norman Heritage is not for ‘Fiji’ Film, but for Japan-based Fuji Film. No doubt the proximity of ‘I’ to ‘U’ on the typewriter caused the slip in your otherwise, as always, immaculately printed and proofread paper.
The ‘Rising Sun’
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.