Saved for Jazz

David Trotter

  • Modernist Quartet by Frank Lentricchia
    Cambridge, 305 pp, £35.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 521 47004 8

There are some curious aspects to Frank Lentricchia’s study of four Modernist poets: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. For a start, it’s a book about poets which doesn’t seem much interested in poems. Lentricchia has written a lengthy chapter on each member of his quartet. Yet Eliot is represented by ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and The Waste Land only, Stevens primarily by ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘The World as Meditation’, Frost by a handful of short poems; while the chapter on Pound devotes almost as much attention to an early polemical essay, ‘Patria Mia’, as it does to the Cantos. Of course, these are much-discussed writers, and it would be suicidally churlish to spurn new emphases. In a previous book about Stevens, Lentricchia upbraided Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler for ‘proceeding as if they had never read the poet’s letters and journals, or as if, having read them, they had come to the conclusion that the worldly life they found portrayed therein pertained to somebody else.’ But he sometimes proceeds as though he had never read anything else, and I began to wonder, during his substantial analysis of the poet’s views on shopping and interior decoration, whether Bloom and Vendler weren’t right to stick to the supreme fictions.

Equally curious, in a historicist who places a high value on intellectual community, is Lentricchia’s apparent indifference to recent scholarship; since historicism involves the elucidation of a variety of social and cultural contexts, it is almost by definition a collective enterprise. In The Edge of Night (1994), an autobiographical essay written while he was completing his study of Modernism, Lentricchia says that he has not read any literary criticism since the early Eighties; and the swaggeringly exiguous bibliography to Modernist Quartet, not to mention the complete absence of footnotes, would seem to bear him out. Yet a number of the critical essays about Modernist poetry which appeared during his Rip Van Winkle years can be said to address the issues which most concern him: the influence on American poets of turn-of-the-century American philosophy; the marketing of Modernism; the effects of gender on and in poetic and critical discourse.

What exactly, then, is Lentricchia up to? It’s possible that he means to extend and revise Hugh Kenner’s magisterial survey, The Pound Era (1971), in the light of more recent theoretical and literary-historical preoccupations. Like Kenner, he clearly regards the Modernist enterprise, with its insistence on ‘radical disconnection’, as in some measure heroic; the final sentences of his book proclaim it an alternative to religious fundamentalism. ‘Fundamentalist Muslims would teach us a lesson in seriousness, and so would those who live in monasteries and convents. In the absence of religious commitment, the choice of my Modernists for radical disconnection seems right.’ And yet he remains profoundly sceptical about any idealisation of literary genius. Modernist Quartet, in short, is The Pound Era with added cultural materialism – and, of course, added Frost and Stevens (i.e. more heroes).

The inclusion of Frost involves a distinction between varieties of Modernism, which Lentricchia defines in terms of the conditions under which literature was produced and distributed. ‘In Modernism’s scene of emergence and triumph in America, “Frost” and “Pound” may turn out to be not so much names of authors who quarrelled over basic issues as they are signs of cultural forces in struggle, whose difference presented itself to Frost in 1913 as a choice between mass circulation and avant-garde little magazines.’ Lentricchia has some shrewd and entertaining pages on the way Frost made himself into a cultural force. But he also badly wants Frost to be the kind of Modernist who dealt in ‘radical disconnection’. This second claim requires him to argue that Frost wrote both for a popular audience and for those who understood his ‘game’: ‘some member, say, of a different audience, versed in the avant-garde little magazines and in the treacheries of irony and the impulse of the individual talent trying, as Pound urged, to “make it new” against the literary and social American grain.’

According to Lentricchia, the proof that Frost did indeed intend to address two distinct audiences lies in the much-anthologised ‘The Road Not Taken’. He argues that where the mainstream reader would have enjoyed an ultimately consoling drama of self-reliance – the story of a decision reached, for better or worse, and its consequences accepted – the avant-garde reader would have detected a far from consoling essay on the dissolution of subjectivity. ‘For a self to be reliant, decisive, nonconformist, there must already be an autonomous self out of which to propel decision. But what propelled choice on that fateful morning? Frost’s speaker does not choose out of some rational capacity; he prefers, in fact, not to choose at all.’ The problem is that the poem doesn’t quite say this. The speaker looks down one road, then takes the other, ‘just as fair, /And having perhaps the better claim’. At the moment when he makes his decision, one road appears to have a stronger claim than the other, and he bases his decision on that appearance. The choice may be the wrong one, but it is not necessarily irrational. Lentricchia has created an absolute difference within the poem which mirrors his understanding of the absolute difference between the audiences for modern poetry; in doing so, he flatters one audience, by crediting it with the exotic belief ‘that our life-shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control’, and patronises the other, by assuming that its investment in a myth of self-reliance precludes any recognition of the difficulties of self-reliance.

The tension evident here between a materialist explanation of cultural history and a curiosity about obliqueness and cuts against the grain can be traced back to the turn Lentricchia’s career appears to have taken during the second half of the Eighties. By that time, he had established himself as a theorist and polemicist in a series of thrillingly intent and widely influential books: After the New Criticism (1980), Criticism and Social Change (1983), Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens (1988). Modernist Quartet marks a return to the major American poets on whom he worked in the Sixties and Seventies (in the Preface, he confesses that his taste is ‘hopelessly canonical’). It carries existing preoccupations forward onto a new (or rediscovered) terrain: the road taken during the Sixties and Seventies merges with the road taken during the Eighties. The merging is eerily evident in the chapter on Stevens, which is a condensation and revision of the chapters on Stevens in Ariel and the Police. The second version omits altogether the first version’s belligerent critique of rival theories and theorists. It is as though the writer had dropped a neutron bomb on his own argument; the structures remain, but the interlocutors have melted away.

Ariel and the Police is an assault conducted in the names of Foucault, James and Stevens (‘Now, Ariel, rescue me from police and all that kind of thing’) against the homogenising and systematising tendencies of modern life, including literary theory. Contemporary theoretical ‘styles’ are defined as part of the problem rather than the solution: ‘expressions of system and discipline, not their critique’. Modernist Quartet might be said to renew the critique of system and discipline through the study of canonical writers. A small revision gives some idea of what Lentricchia hopes to find in Modernist poetry. In Ariel and the Police, he speaks of Stevens’s writing as ‘an improvisational action which gives us a sense of starting, stopping, changing direction, revising the phrase, refining the language’. In Modernist Quartet, the ‘improvisational action’ at work in the writing is further characterised as a form of ‘jazz poetry’. Lentricchia has at last found a name for theory’s opposite. Jazz will redeem us from system and discipline.

The main critical emphasis is consequently on moments of improvisation in Modernist poetry: an intriguing, if tallish, order. The chapter on Pound concludes with Pound’s incorporation into the Pisan Cantos of references to the table built for him by a fellow prisoner, a black man called Edwards. On the table Pound sets his typewriter. The continuation of a poem addressed to a Modernist audience, in which black men have previously appeared only as ‘coons’ and ‘niggers’, is thus made possible by the charitable act of a black man who will never read it. It is characteristically acute of Lentricchia to have understood and expounded the irony of the epic poem’s redemption by circumstance. I am grateful for Lentricchias account of this moment. But how Poundian a moment is it, how characteristic of a poet more committed than most to ABCs of reading and to social and economic theorising? The best Lentricchia can do is describe it as typical in its untypicality. He simply has not been able to produce enough of these moments for them to amount to a redefinition of Modernism. Eliot, for example, is saved for jazz only by the mandoline in ‘The Fire Sermon’.

The Cantos, we are told, is ‘a vision of the free individual gathering himself against history’s gloom of diseased economics; a vision contemplated and disseminated by those who must read Pound in a thickening contemporary cultural darkness that is almost complete’. So thick is the darkness, it seems, that the variations of light and shade introduced by reflection on a work of literature are no longer worth the effort. Why bother to vary the angle when very soon there won’t be any angles at all? The flipside of apocalyptic anxiety is a patient, rather dutiful raising of spirits which comes perilously close at times to a statement of the obvious. ‘The Cantos may be the clearest example we have,’ Lentricchia continues, ‘of the doubled character of Pound’s literary desire, to pursue aesthetic innovation for the purpose of instigating social change, a poem whose unparalleled formal sumptuousness – a cornucopia of literary texture – calls forth those mediators who would join Pound’s lifelong experiment in cultural hope to a world of possible readers.’ When a writer devotes most of his life to a particular project, one would expect that project to be the best evidence available of his literary ambitions.

This book contains a lot of thinking, but few thoughts, little that is thrown sufficiently clear of the rhetorical mill for one to be able to assess it on its own terms. In particular, there are none of those improvisations which occur when a critic is surprised by a text into exceeding his or her initial premise. The book may favour jazz, but it isn’t jazzy. Coming as it does from a critic I admire greatly, I found it troubling in its inconclusiveness. Actually, it’s not just the concluding which seems to be the problem, but the getting started, and the carrying on. I suspect that this book was too long in the writing. The idea behind it is a good one. But somewhere along the way the idea just sat down and refused to go any further.