Little Philadelphias

Ange Mlinko

  • The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists by Helen Carr
    Cape, 982 pp, £30.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 04030 3

On 2 July 1914, violent thunderstorms heralded the publication in London of the first Vorticist magazine, Blast. Since January that year, there had been the threat of insurrection from the Ulster rebels; 937 strikes; 107 arson attacks by suffragettes (who also slashed Velásquez and Sargent paintings in the National Gallery); only four days earlier the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated. The world was gearing up for the Great War, but Blast was evidence that a major campaign was already underway, and it advertised its confrontational style with a puce-and-black colour scheme and parallel columns of hates and loves, ‘blasted’ and ‘blessed’. The bombastic birth of Vorticism occurs more than 600 pages into Helen Carr’s Verse Revolutionaries, a ‘group biography’ which chiefly follows Ezra Pound and the Imagists during the period that inspired Virginia Woolf’s famous aperçu, ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed.’ But by the time we get to Vorticism, with which Pound was hoping to render Imagism – now led by his arch-enemy Amy Lowell – passé, a question irresistibly presents itself. When a poet has made it his life’s work to change a period’s style, and pursues his aim by means of confrontation and relentless promotion of his own work and that of his coterie, does style really mean much more than self-advancement?

In one way, no. With its emphasis on the men and women who populated the scene in London between 1908 and 1917, Verse Revolutionaries is decidedly about the pursuit of what Pound called ‘the white stag, Fame’. He had a knack for it. As a friendless arriviste in London in 1908, he self-published a pamphlet at Christmas cannily called A Quinzaine for This Yule and then used the fact that it had sold out to convince Elkin Mathews to republish it under his respectable imprint, thus launching himself onto the public stage. He was the impresario who galvanised and drew support from the other players in this drama: the Imagists – H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Richard Aldington, T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell – as well as scores more who had a stake in the continuing vitality of literature, including Yeats, Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The writers, clustered in clubs or ‘gangs’, wanted to redraw the cultural map. The Victorians were moribund, their prosody stalled at the level of Felicia Hemans’s ‘Casabianca’, a paean to obedience that filled the modernists with revulsion:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but him had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

So there were principles at stake. And the writers – most of them astoundingly young – had, well, a blast. Carr follows her subjects from the beginning of their association until the third and final Imagist anthology in 1917 (a retrospective anthology came out in 1930, giving Carr her dénouement). Much emotional drama is purloined from the various memoirs and romans-à-clef that the original members wrote later in life. Woven into the story are the multitudes of friends, girlfriends, wives, patrons, editors, publishers, printers and artists who facilitated introductions, started magazines, donated money, fell in love, and otherwise argued, backstabbed and moved on. Aldington later wrote about those ‘magical early years in London’. H.D.’s ‘closest friends were all in one way or another linked with her Imagist years’. Pound would write that it had been the ‘happiest period’ of his life. It was a time that changed poetry for good. Imagism’s most famous poems include Pound’s ‘In a Station at the Metro’ and ‘The Return’, and H.D.’s ‘Sea Poppies’. There was also her poem ‘Oread’:

Whirl up sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

The sea poem had come a long way from ‘Casabianca’. As a historian, Carr is ecumenical: William Brooke Smith, a student who died of tuberculosis in 1908, is given as much consideration as Pound’s other early friend William Carlos Williams; Marianne Moore, who matriculated at Bryn Mawr in the same year as H.D., is barely mentioned. Snippets of truly mediocre poetry by Lowell, Flint, Fletcher et al sit cheek by jowl with the masterly experiments of Pound and H.D. For all the joie de vivre of these motley young littérateurs, one begins to wonder if the fascination with their lives hasn’t crowded out the quieter successes of the poems. In Carr’s account and elsewhere, noisy Pound is always centre-stage; reticent H.D., who preferred to ‘drift’, remains a bit elusive. While it is true that modernism was a revolution whose effects are all around us it is difficult now to find a copy of H.D.’s poems in an American bookshop, much less any of her lesser colleagues circa 1912. It is as if modernist poems had to die to give birth to modernist history; or, in a depressingly common reversal of priorities, the poems are relics with which to reconstruct lives.

To me, an ex-Philadelphian, it seems that one inaugural strand of modernism owes its provenance to that city. Ezra Pound and H.D. met there as teenagers in 1901 at a Halloween party. As a teenager myself, I found one little room in the Museum of Art that provided a peephole into that secret history of Philadelphia: it contained Duchamp’s Etant Donnés, as well as his Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The Arensberg Collection of modern art, of which the Duchamps were part, was a legacy that, though I didn’t know it at the time, belonged firmly to the place from which Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore (and, slightly earlier, Gertrude Stein) rose up, angry and ready to do battle with mediocrity.

Carr describes a pretty mediocre Philadelphia a hundred years ago, ‘pink and drab’ and hidebound. H.D. found it disconcerting after a bucolic childhood in the Moravian town of Bethlehem, further north (her family moved when her father, an astronomer, became the head of the University of Pennsylvania’s Flower Observatory). Pound was a pariah from early on – extroverted and flamboyant and intellectually arrogant. He was related on his mother’s side to the Wadsworths (as in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow); his father, from a more colourful background, was a government employee at the Mint. Philadelphia was a financial centre, with thriving exchanges and a bourse; it had not produced great writers. It was only after meeting William Brooke Smith, an art student, that Pound discovered that his city was significant in the arts and crafts movement. From there it was a short leap to the writings of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Pater and Wilde. He had found aestheticism, ‘“the sublime” in the old sense’, as he would put it later in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. It was a fitting choice for the boy who, at 16, greeted H.D. in ‘an extravagant, eye-catching green robe, bought for him, in Tunis she thought, by his Aunt Frank on his first transatlantic trip’.

Elective affinity was everything. As Williams said of Pound: ‘It took just one look and I knew it was it.’ Their relationship had a note of comedy in it: ‘He was impressed with his own poetry,’ Williams wrote, ‘but then, I was impressed with my own poetry, too, so we got on pretty well.’ Pound’s indifference to H.D.’s poetry affected her more. ‘Ezra would have destroyed me,’ she wrote, later in life, ‘and the centre they call “Air and Crystal” of my poetry.’ Despite this, it would be H.D. who inspired Pound’s Imagism. Fifty years later Norman Holmes Pearson wrote to her: ‘If there is a single person to whom Ezra has been constant (don’t laugh, my dear) it is you.’

After a series of academic debacles – and a broken engagement to H.D. – Pound set out for London in 1908, at the age of 23. He returned to the US briefly but triumphantly in 1910. In that time he had managed to get his work published and noticed, had penetrated the circles around Ford Madox Ford’s salon in Kensington and T.E. Hulme’s School of Images at the Tour Eiffel in Soho, and through them become friendly with Yeats, in his opinion the greatest living poet. H.D., by this time embroiled in her first lesbian affair (with another writer, Frances Gregg) and deep in her study of the Greeks, decided to follow him in 1911. She, too, had suffered some academic setbacks and needed to find herself as a poet. In London she would meet her husband, Richard Aldington; Bryher, her life partner; and find fame as the author of Imagism’s best book, Sea Garden.

Between 1908 and 1912, Pound vacillated between Ford’s exhortations to be ‘modern’ and Yeats’s advocacy of the occult and revivalism. Pound realised early on that most of the magazines in America and England were backwaters of bland, stale work: little Philadelphias. The question was what to do about it. He maintained a busy social calendar while waiting for inspiration to hit: ‘Victor Plarr of the old Rhymers’ Club … is in on Sunday supper-&-evenings, Yeats, Monday evenings, a set from the Irish Lit. Soc eats together on Wednesdays – & a sort of new Rhymers gang on Thursdays.’ In the late spring of 1912 he embarked on a walking tour in south-west France, a land ‘thick with ghosts’. He thought a poet should live imaginatively in as many ages as possible. But when the news of the suicide of his close friend Margaret Cravens interrupted his trip, he may have realised abruptly that we live one irreplaceable life, and ghosts are no substitute for one’s companions.

It was a turning point. Cravens was an aspiring pianist, dear to a number of people in Pound’s circle. An heiress, she had struggled with depression. What almost nobody knew was that she had been providing Pound with two-thirds of his income. Without her patronage, he was thrown back on himself. He snapped out of his antiquarianism and in short order decided the only way to change literature was to wrest power from the doyens of ‘the field of cultural production’, as Carr puts it, quoting Pierre Bourdieu. Setting himself up as arbiter, Pound would have a hand in the editorship of countless magazines, including Poetry, the New Freewoman (later known as the Egoist), the Little Review and the Dial. His protégés, T.S. Eliot and James Laughlin, would bear the impress of his tastes when they edited the Criterion and the New Directions publishing house, respectively. But first Pound had to make a splash, along the lines of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibition or Marinetti’s Futurism. That would be the formation of Imagism.

Carr painstakingly tracks the intellectual strands that converged in Imagism. There was Pound’s early engagement with Pater, for whom aesthetic pleasure gives ‘the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake’. He learned from the troubadours how much one could do with imagery alone. Ford Madox Ford’s love of the Impressionists and his ‘exhortation to eliminate’ made a mark. He drew from F.S. Flint’s engagement with haiku (‘Use no superfluous word’) and vers libre (Mallarmé: ‘Each time there is effort at style there is versification’). He took Hulme’s study of Henri Bergson and primitive intuition and developed a theory of the anti-didactic ‘luminous detail’. And he was inspired by another Tour Eiffel member, Joseph Campbell, whose Celtic revivalism also energetically subverted the Victorian status quo.

Thus Imagism was not merely a new style, superficial and ornamental. It was meant to convey a new worldview, justified by the changes its practitioners felt they saw all around them. The ‘image’ was designed to elicit emotion not because it was simple; on the contrary, it ‘is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’, Pound wrote, citing the psychologist Bernard Hart’s work on the subconscious. This statement was elaborated in ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, published in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, several months after Harriet Monroe, its founding editor, had signed Pound up as a ‘foreign correspondent’. In the heat of excitement he had met up with H.D. in the British Museum tea room and marked up the manuscript copy of her poem ‘Hermes of the Ways’. To her bewilderment, he had scrawled ‘H.D. Imagiste!’ at the bottom of the page. H.D.’s biographer, the poet Barbara Guest, wrote: ‘Would that today the excised poem with its corrections might rest in the Berg Collection in New York, alongside Pound’s similar selective corrections and deletions to The Waste Land of Eliot.’ Later, no one could actually agree on Imagism’s originary moment, but the tableau in the British Museum tea room does what Imagism was meant to do: fold a complex of history and emotion into a single luminous detail.

Of course they wanted to revolutionise literature, we think: the entire self-conception of humanity was changing. Things get far less interesting when the power struggles set in. (That’s when we start to wonder if Carr’s book isn’t about a heroic age of poetry after all, but about a pecking order of near infinitesimal significance.) It was perhaps not wise of Pound, editing the anthology Des Imagistes, to belittle the poems of the poets whose ideas he borrowed; but he never thought the others were as good as he was or even as good as H.D., and so was squeezed out of the editorship of subsequent anthologies in a coup by Amy Lowell, the Boston heiress, who promised to make Imagism more ‘democratic’. Vorticism followed, and the war came, sending some of the men to the front (Aldington served, ruining his nerves and his marriage; Gaudier-Brzeska died). Society temporarily lost its taste for iconoclasm, and the movement fell apart.

The Verse Revolutionaries, with all the complicated stories it tells, should have come with a timeline and a list of dramatis personae. Pound’s friendship with Yeats is covered in detail – as are his associations with everyone from Olivia Shakespear to Rabindranath Tagore to Harriet Monroe. Capsule biographies of everyone and their lover (and their literary rag) are provided at each turn. It seems that in Carr, modernism has found its recording angel.

By leaving nothing out, Carr ensures two things. First, we see that Imagism encompassed far more than the London it began in. This was a movement founded by an expat and bolstered by the dissatisfactions of a heterogeneous group that included working-class orphans and immigrants. Influences from France, China, Japan, India and Ireland played an enormous part. The second thing we learn is how large the role of women was. The inner circle of the Imagists may have included only one or two of them, but surely modernism wouldn’t have existed as it did without Olivia Shakespear, Harriet Monroe, May Sinclair, Brigit Patmore, Dora Marsden, Alice Corbin Henderson and Margaret Cravens. Pound surrounded himself with supportive, smart women – and married one, Olivia’s daughter Dorothy. He was cavalier toward the suffragettes, but it was no coincidence that while they were agitating on the front line other women were infiltrating the ranks of the cultural arbiters.

There’s a final instructive irony in The Verse Revolutionaries for a contemporary poet, or anyone with an interest in how poems are written. It’s that the acute dissatisfaction Pound, Hulme, Flint et al felt towards the little Philadelphias of poetry magazines is repeated with every generation – though social conditions are hardly ever as well aligned with this discontent as they were at the time of the Imagists. When Monroe solicited Pound for contributions to her new magazine, he was full of questions: ‘But? Can you teach the American poet that poetry is an art, an art with a technique, with media, an art that must be in constant flux, a constant change of manner, if it is to live?’ Twenty years ago, these were my sentiments exactly. And even today, in some quarters, Poetry magazine is criticised along similar lines. Pound and the Imagists may have helped usher in a 20th-century freshness to poetry, but a hundred years later they have not eclipsed, say, Yeats, who wrote in his Autobiography that he wanted ‘metrical forms that seemed old enough to have been sung by men half-asleep or riding upon a journey’. Verse revolutionaries still have their work cut out trying to overthrow that.