Pioneers

Christopher Reid

  • Some Americans: A Personal Record by Charles Tomlinson
    California, 134 pp, £6.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 520 04037 6

‘It is strange,’ Charles Tomlinson writes, ‘to have met the innovators of one’s time only when age had overtaken them.’ The innovators to whom he refers are those American poets – Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and others – whose work and moral example have been of importance to his own growth as a writer.

The sentence quoted above, with its tinge of elegy and irony, occurs in the fourth and final chapter of Tomlinson’s new, brief book of memoirs, Some Americans, and it follows an account of the author’s first meeting and handshake (‘cold to the touch’) with Ezra Pound. A mood of elegy pervades this work, as well it might. Pound, for instance, while still a numinous presence, had retired into taciturnity by the time our author gained his introduction – through Mary de Rachewiltz, the great man’s daughter. Formerly prodigal with words, he now responded in general company only to a ‘Yes or no, Ezra?’ from his companion, Olga Rudge – and then with ‘a single syllable ... of decided weight and clarity. But that was all.’

Dr Williams and Miss Moore, by contrast, proved amenable, even generous, when Tomlinson paid them visits on his first trip to the United States. Both, however, were old and ailing. Recovering from a series of strokes, Williams gave his young British acolyte as boisterous a welcome as he could, evidently glad to meet a poet from our benighted land who was ready to take account of his radical ideas about versification. Marianne Moore received her guest courteously and solicitously. The conversation on these occasions does not appear to have been momentous, but it is interesting to learn that Miss Moore spoke fervently about Ruskin, of whom she declared: ‘He knew everything, didn’t he!’ Perhaps this confirms Hugh Kenner’s view, put forward in A Homemade World, that the theories of the Victorian critic lay directly behind her own aesthetic of scrupulous watchfulness.

Such insights may indeed be valuable, but what Tomlinson’s recollections most touchingly convey is the elegiac mood already referred to. Miss Moore’s anxiety that her visitor should approve of New York (‘I was afraid you wouldn’t like it – it’s gotten so ugly’), and the sadness shared by both Williams and Yvor Winters for the bygone rusticity of their respective home towns, come across poignantly.

There are reasons for this, in that Tomlinson’s book has its pious purpose. In the opening pages, the author explains how he first chanced upon the work of these American trail-blazers at a time when they were virtually unknown in this country. Discovered at random, long and clandestinely puzzled over, the few pieces by Pound, Stevens, Moore, Crane and others that came to his attention gradually revealed that there were other ways of writing verse than those prescribed either by the Dylan Thomas school of apocalyptic word-chimers, or by the Movement, in whose manifestos he detected – rightly, I think – a fatal ‘whiff of little Englandism’. So, after beginning unsteadily, with early poems that had not quite assimilated the influences of Stevens and Moore, Tomlinson was at last to find a confident manner, partly derived from Williams, that suited, and continues to suit, his purpose.

He was lucky to achieve this, for few people he knew in those days of discovery, whether teachers or colleagues, encouraged him in his researches. ‘Rum stuff,’ was the comment of one fellow to whom he rashly showed a passage from Marianne Moore’s ‘The Jerboa’:

        it stops its gleaning
on little wheel castors, and makes fern-seed
foot-prints with kangaroo speed.

So much for British tolerance – active, it seems, when an underdog may be patronised, but withheld in the likelihood of that underdog’s getting above his or her proper station. Tomlinson had, therefore, to teach himself, and he retains in consequence all the autodidact’s customary enthusiasm for his privately chosen mentors. He also, it appears, feels strongly for those who have been neglected or spurned in the cause of their unfashionable art. Two such individuals are Louis Zukovsky and George Oppen, both American Jews, one-time associates of Williams and so-called ‘Objectivists’. The chapter concerning them is, I think, the least satisfactory in Tomlinson’s book. Not because it is ill-written – far from it. Zukovsky’s agile, touchy, playful, domineering habits of conversation are vividly presented; and the feud – waged by Zukovsky, regretted by the stoic Oppen – that ended their alliance comes across as a matter of real sorrow to the author, their common friend. Unfortunately, however, the British reader gets little idea of their quality as poets and is barely able to judge from the few extracts that are offered. What I glimpsed suggested that they had won Tomlinson’s heart less through their writing than by the grace and fortitude with which they endured years of neglect. They are now big news in their own country, if not yet in ours.

This little book, representing as it does Tomlinson’s salute and thanks to those pioneers from whom he has learned his craft, is entirely humble in its pretensions. The author does not seem to have got to know any of his subjects intimately, although an extravagantly warm-hearted correspondence developed in Williams’s case. There is a certain amount of finicky, Pooterish comedy in some episodes – where, for example, the young Englishman arrives at Yvor Winters’s house an hour too early; or is invited by the painter Georgia O’Keeffe to Sunday lunch and is then told: ‘You got in under false pretences. I am not friendly.’ The meeting with Pound is bathetic. And even when Tomlinson establishes a link with the greatest of all American exemplars, Henry James, it is through the master’s editor, Percy Lubbock, now a faded and pitiable old man, who hires the young poet as his secretary, only to sack him soon afterwards because of his Midlands accent. At all such times the author remains modest, cautious, unsure even how he ought to present himself to our view. We should, I dare say, be grateful for a book that so determinedly eschews self-promotion.

If, nonetheless, one were to attempt to infer what Tomlinson himself has learned from these now-classic figures, perhaps the best summary would be a certain perceptual rigour, that brings both eye and mind to bear with tenacity on the subject at hand. Visual alertness was part of the programme – if not always the achievement – of both Williams and Moore. A number of passages, too, from the Cantos are quoted in Some Americans, to show the clarity with which Pound was able to record things seen. This virtue is overlooked by many commentators, who are either more eager to tangle with the intellectual complexities of that work or have never checked Pound’s descriptions against physical fact. Tomlinson knows and loves Italy well, and he has done such practical research. It is pleasing to read here instances of Pound’s dependability as a reporter of mere phenomena, in the lines about ‘Galla’s rest’, for example, or in these from the Pisan Cantos:

Lithe turning of water,
       sinews of Poseidon,
Black azure and hyaline,
       glass wave over Tyro ...