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.

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[*] Michael Joseph, 1977.