What became of Modernism?

C.K. Stead

  • Five American Poets by John Matthias, introduction by Michael Schmidt
    Carcanet, 160 pp, £3.25, November 1979, ISBN 0 85635 259 4
  • The New Australian Poetry edited by John Tranter
    Makar Press, 330 pp, £6.50, November 1979
  • Carpenters of Light by Neil Powell
    Carcanet, 154 pp, £6.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 85635 305 1
  • Mirabell: Books of Number by James Merrill
    Oxford, 182 pp, £3.25, June 1979, ISBN 0 19 211892 7
  • The Book of the Body by Frank Bidart
    Faber, 44 pp, £4.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 374 11549 4
  • Skull of Adam by Stanley Moss
    Anvil, 67 pp, £2.50, May 1979, ISBN 0 85646 041 9
  • Poems 1928-1978 by Stanley Kunitz
    Secker, 249 pp, £6.50, September 1979, ISBN 0 436 23932 9

What became of the Modernist movement? It was initiated by Pound and Eliot about the time of the First World War, and in America it set off a further wave of innovation (often referred to as ‘post-Modernism’) after the Second. Beats, Black Mountain Poets, the New York school of the Fifties – all these and others, though clearly different, are unimaginable without Pound, early Eliot, William Carlos Williams and perhaps Wallace Stevens as forerunners. This is the main stream of modern American poetry. In England the picture is very different. Pound is grudgingly acknowledged, distrusted, kept at a distance. Eliot holds his place, but not the revolutionary Eliot. Eliot didn’t convert England – England converted him; and Four Quartets is Modernism neutralised by good form. Who then won the poetic war in England?

It was, I think, the Georgians, because there were two strands in Georgianism: one sentimental and rural, the other urban and honest. Wilfred Owen passes the baton to the political poets of the Thirties. ‘Georgian’ becomes a term of abuse, but the baton passes nevertheless and it says ‘the true poets must be truthful’, and ‘the poetry is in the pity’ – Owen’s dicta. Truth, realism, ‘values’, common sense, worthy purpose – these are the glories and the limits of modern English writing (fiction too). They pass into the universities and are the predominant criteria of judgment in schools of English and in journals. The English poem is as useful and unstylish as the English car. It is a vehicle, and judged as such; and this is because there is in the British literary climate something of that ‘philistinism’ Donald Davie says was characteristic of the Movement: ‘We would not entertain for a moment the idea that poetry could be, in some degree, or from some points of view, a self-justifying activity.’

Why should it be that, insofar as it’s possible to abstract ‘the modern English poem’ and ‘the modern American poem’, the former seems to someone with no axe to grind (I mean myself) less spacious, less athletic, less inventive, less stylish, less magical than the latter? One reason might be that a tighter, more unified society determines more readily what the important subjects outside poetry are, which in turn (to put it very simply) puts too much emphasis on what is being said and not enough on the way of saying. A second might be that a European (and particularly French) sense of the mystique of language itself entered poetry in English through Modernism, and just as Modernism has thrived in America and been rejected in England, so does the language of the modern American poem tend to come to life of itself rather than live as a poor relation off its ‘subject’. A third might be that all modern poetry lives by extracting and refining the energies and the music of spoken language, and modern educated spoken English in England tends to be a stilted class-ridden affair by means of which speakers strive to assert or to conceal their origins. (Perhaps the hope for British poetry ought to lie in regional speech, and of course in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.) One might even hazard as a fourth reason that the university scene into which the practice and promotion of British poetry has been largely absorbed is a haven of reason and moderation, and that these are inimical to the best in poetry.

In all the arts, there are broad movements which are inexorable. You may choose to swim against the tide, and perhaps do it very well, but you can’t turn it back; and English poets for half a century have mostly chosen to swim against what my hunch as a literary historian tells me will prove to have been the major tide of poetry in this century. That broad tide is represented by the Modernist movement.

Open form, the aggregation of numinous fragments without logical or narrative structure, the movement of spoken rather than written language, incompleteness of statement so that the reader is invited into the poem and required to participate in the imaginative act – these are some of the features of the Modernist poem. They are common to the work of widely divergent inheritors of Modernism, and they are seldom found in the modern British poem, which is most often the short, well-made article, completing the statement, closing the account, shutting the gate on the reader who must stand outside the linguistic action, looking in.

The five American poets of the Carcanet anthology are not introduced as representing an avant-garde school. They are if anything somewhat conservative: but they are characteristically American in inheriting Modernism’s sense of openness, of possibility, and of an obligation to push forward the development of poetry in English. It is, if you want to see it negatively, an overtechnical, almost technological view, which carries with it the danger that the poet will strive beyond his means. (I feel this in some poems by all five, and particularly in those of Robert Hass.) But it produces also a sense of spaciousness and energy in and beyond the language of the poem. James McMichael has a fine delicate touch in brief evocative lyrics and can open out into longer forms. John Matthias at his best achieves a steady tone, a dense texture, a clear focus on complex material. And in some of Robert Pinsky’s poems (‘Sadness and Happiness’, for example) there is a momentum, a sense of invention and of language rushing forward, which I find exhilarating.

John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry is committed to Modernism. Its editor’s theoretical position is familiar to me and on the whole congenial. I find much to admire in the book, plenty of talent and good reading and only one poet whose inclusion seems incomprehensible. But I felt more and more troubled as I read on, and even slightly bored, by something that bothers me equally in the work of the younger New Zealand poets. It is not that one necessarily demands ‘Australianness’, explicit regionalism, of Australian poets. It is, rather, that one demands of poetry – any poetry – the real, the concrete, the particular, not on any theoretical grounds but simply because without it the language will seem underemployed, lacking in texture. The aspect of Modernism that seems to predominate in Australia and New Zealand at the moment (probably in America too) is the one drawing ultimately from French Symbolism, specifically from Mallarmé. ‘Poetry is not made with ideas, my dear Degas, it’s made with words.’ Mallarmé’s put-down is perfect and right when directed against the notion of the poem as vehicle for an ‘idea’. It is something English poets need to take to heart. It is the source of that magical quality Modernist poetry at its best possesses. But like all critical ideas it needs to stand against the background of its counterstatement to make safe sense. Removed, it becomes a doctrine of verbal abstraction.

What are some examples of the best Modernist texts? Let’s propose Pound’s Cantos II, XVII, XLVII and XLIX and Eliot’s The Waste Land. And if we add to those some of the best poems by W.C. Williams (an altogether slighter but historically important poet), we have something to go on. In each case, the poem is open, the language mostly informal, unliterary, there is a lack of finality about the writing, energy is more important than finish, logic and narrative need not apply, the reader feels himself to be in the atelier (and perhaps handed a brush), whereas reading Yeats, for example, one has entered the stillness and finality of the musée. But what the poems of Pound, early Eliot and Williams at their Modernist best force upon us remorselessly is things, scenes, sounds, voices, particulars – a real, teeming world. Mallarmé’s ‘Poetry is made with words’ is complemented by Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things.’ When modern poetry loses the sense of what John Crowe Ransom calls ‘things in their thinginess’, it slides away into verbal gesture, a mime of meaningful speech, and the result is always something narrowly personal and ultimately boring. This is quite different from the ‘personal’ as one finds it in late Lowell or late Berryman or in the Pisan Cantos, where the personality of the poet registers an intransigent world and confronts it, neither giving way. In The New Australian Poetry I was impressed, sometimes dazzled, by the way so many of these poets could sustain fantasy, invention, surrealism, a sort of meta-discourse without meaning or reference, like the game children play of going around the room without touching the floor. But how long can you watch even the cleverest juggler before you begin to say: ‘So what?’

In that confrontation of Mallarmé and Degas there are, in fact, two abstractions proposed. There is the abstraction of Degas’s ‘ideas’ (‘I have some wonderful ideas for poems’). But there is also the abstraction of Mallarmé’s ‘words’. A mystique of language for its own sake is the power source and the danger of Modernism. Michael Schmidt’s five American poets avoid (the best of their work avoids) both abstractions. The language has a life of its own and a life in relation to a recognisable real world, as in James McMichael’s ‘Compline’:

Gudique is the chastening.
She is not a fish.

She is not the rocks where she browses
nor the pools.

The river when it opens
is not Gudique.

When its forgetfulness
falls from it,

when a cold wind leaks
upward through the drifts and folds and

pours over the banks
and over the ferns

this is not Gudique.
Gudique is the chastening,

the river forgetting
Gudique is the river.

The best of the Australians achieve something like this conjunction, but there is too much in Tranter’s anthology that is no more than verbal gesture.

Neil Powell’s Carpenters of Light is probably a better book than I am prepared to admit. Its limits (academic prissiness apart) are the limits of his understanding of Modernism. He uses the term frequently but never in such a way as to make me feel he has fully entered into the experience of any Modernist poem. Consequently his attempts at tightrope walking between American and British elements in recent English poetry seem to me of limited value. He is so judicious in attempting to answer the question ‘What is traditional poetry?’ that I’m left unsure what his answer is, if one is given. I find his chapter on Donald Davie useful, but a better understanding of the American side of the debate is needed before that crucial case (Davie both as poet and as critic) gets the discusssion it calls for. He treats Larkin, if not with more respect than he deserves, at least with more than is good for the future of British poetry. He discusses Roy Fuller’s poetry but then doesn’t give it anything like the space it requires, and consequently seems to slight it. And where does Ted Hughes fit into his picture? Telling us that in a larger book he would give his judgment on this poet is another way of saying the book is incomplete. Finally, his argument that we must all be nice to one another, and tolerant, and not resort to ‘rhetoric’, is Jack Hornerish and a good death-recipe for the future discussion of English poetry.

Of the books by individual poets, James Merrill’s Mirabell: Books of Number is a maddening expenditure of manifest talent on a silly fiction. Two characters, David Jackson and the poet, conduct interminable séances at which spirits of the dead gradualluy unfold the Truth about the universe. It is at once a whimsical and grandiose scheme, combining myth, religion and science (God is Biology). There is some camp fun now and then when the spirit of Auden intrudes, speaking from the other side, and we learn that Chester Kallman is being prepared for reincarnation as a future black leader in South Africa.

Frank Bidart’s The Book of the Body elicits the voyeur in us. Such fascination as it has is that of the case-study in abnormality, and no one confident of his poetic style would find room for Jerome Kern words like ‘suddenly’ and ‘somehow’, nor sprinkle his text with words italicised for emphasis. Yet Bidart’s book makes a point and compels an acknowledgment when put alongside Stanley Moss’s Skull of Adam. Bidart’s, one has to concede, is interesting for the human material it contains. Moss’s book by comparison is bland, vacuous, sleek and slack – and the attempt to give it some gravel (poems called ‘Snot’, ‘Shit’ and ‘Vomit’) embarrassingly trumped up.

Stanley Kunitz is now in his middle seventies and his Poems 1928-1978 contains 150 short poems, an average of three per year over a period of half a century. Reading his work in reverse order, as one does here (the latest poems come first, then his collections of 1971, 1958, 1944 and 1930), one can see that although he has remained indifferent to the main thrust of Modernism, and in particular to the Modernist ambition to resurrect (by that aggregation of numinous fragments) the long poem, nonetheless his poetry has loosened up, becoming freer, more open, in recent years. Reading back through the book takes one just perceptibly through styles of past decades, while at every point Kunitz is pre-eminently himself and a master of his art. Often his style has a slight stiffness about it, an awkwardness that is as individual as a way of walking, and not at all a disability. It is there even when he rises to his most packed and forcefully eloquent:

In the zero of the night, in the lipping hour,
Skin-time, knocking-time, when the heart is pearled
And the moon squanders its uranian gold,
She taunted me ...

There is a strange rich charm about this poet, whose work I am glad to have read thoroughly for the first time. The book is beautifully designed, a rare pleasure to hold and to look at, matching the poems and suitably honouring Kunitz’s half-century of patient practice.