Monday, October 27, 2014

T.S. Eliot Louis MacNeice and the jellyfish school of poetry

Louis MacNeice in ‘The Poetry of W.B.Yeats’.
         Eliot…had maintained that the poet must adapt himself to his world; if his world is difficult and complex, his poetry must be difficult and complex…Poets like Auden and Spender abandoned this feminine conception of poetry and returned to the old arrogant principle-which was Yeats’s too-that it is the poet’s job to make sense of the world, to simplify it, to put shape on it. The fact that these younger poets proposed to stylize their world in accordance with communist doctrine or psycho-analytical [sic] theory (both things repugnant to Yeats) is comparatively irrelevant. Whatever their system was, they stood with Yeats for system against chaos, for a positive art against a passive impressionism. Where Eliot had seen misery, frustration and ruins, they saw heroic struggle-or, sometimes, heroic defeat-and they saw ruins rebuilding. (p.191)

The identification of passivity as feminine dates this unpleasantly, but I think the point is a good one. Eliot’s ‘passive impressionism’ is the jellyfish approach to poetry. 

This time of year, if the wind holds from the northeast, the high tide line is marked by stranded blue jellyfish…they drift along, and when the wind goes the wrong way they get stranded and die.

Perhaps this might have made some sense in the aftermath of the First world war, though it's interesting that Eliot didn't serve, and writers like David Jones and Robert Graves, who did, in their very different ways, went looking for pattern. But I don’t understand why it’s still such a popular attitude a hundred years later. There’s a dominant thread in modern poetry which tries to make impersonating a wind blown jellyfish some sort of exemplary activity and looks down its nose at anything which reaches for pattern and purpose:

Oh woe is me, didn’t some dead guru say words are arbitrary acoustic signs, there is no transcendental signifier, life doesn’t make sense, the subject is liable to be scattered, the individual is battered from all sides…it’s as though all the jellyfish drifting inevitably towards the beach were theorizing and conceptualizing their own indolence so that they could feel superior about being stranded.

MacNeice argues here and elsewhere for art in general and poetry specifically as an act of making which is inherently positive. This explains his initially strange statement that a poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life, and it lies behind the magnificent:

Self-assertion more often than not is vulgar, but a live and vulgar dog who keeps on barking is better than a dead lion, however dignified. (SP p. 48)


There is nothing dignified about a stranded Jellyfish.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Ageing English teacher reflects:


The Ageing English Teacher Reflects:

When I started as a student
Close reading was the rage
And we didn’t study context
Just “the words upon the page”.
With a technical vocabulary
(I admit its learning hurt)
We debated what the poem
Or the poet might be worth.

Now the field has changed forever
Since the ideologues moved in
And leaving out the context
Has become a mortal sin.
We don’t debate the poem
Or discuss its qualities
We just look down our noses
At its ideology.

The Marxist and the Feminist
The Freudian and Queer
With hyphenated post- brigades
Bringing up the rear
Dead French men playing guru
In a prose that still appalls
While the poet and the poem
Are forgotten by them all.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Was Ezra Pound a Great Poet. A. David Moody's Ezra Pound, Poet vol 2 #3


This really is the last post about this book. Review to follow.

Was Ezra Pound a Great Poet?

Moody’s new book assumes the answer is yes.  While tracking the failure of Pound’s political agenda and his increasing lack of understanding of the world he was living in, Moody holds to the belief that Pound was a Great Poet. 

Someone reading this book with little knowledge of Pound, his poetry, or the history or its reception, could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Cantos are relatively straight forward and criticism of them is either self-interested, misguided, or evidence of a lack of intelligence. Above all, their highly contested value is slid over and avoided

The last is the strangest of all. There is a literature of dissenting voices, some of which would deny any value to Pound and his poems. Reading Moody you’d be forgiven for thinking that there has been very little discussion of either.  When he does acknowledge the dissent, the way he deals with criticisms of his hero’s poetry is deeply unsettling and seems to question the validity of the case he doesn’t make but takes for granted.

At one end of the spectrum there is the outright denial of any value. An extreme version can be found in Robert Graves’ comments in “These Be your God’s Oh Israel”.
( Mr. Graves on the Cantos here )

But I wouldn’t expect Moody to deal with this kind of criticism. It can’t be argued with, so there’s no point.  

On the other hand, simply deciding that Pound is great and dismissing all criticism as simply reflecting an inadequate appreciation of Pound’s greatness, or inadequate intelligence seems equally useless.  Unless a work can be considered, unless the flaws can be admitted, and weighed against its strengths, and those strengths explained then a claim of greatness has no more value than Graves’ gleeful trashing. 

There are measured criticisms of the Cantos by people who admired them. But Moody dismisses these as well and his dismissal becomes unconvincing and ultimately inconsistent.  

Two examples will suffice.

Having dismissed Eliot’s criticisms in After Strange Gods (see previous post)  by labeling them infamous and curious he goes on to note that Eliot, discussing Pound in 1928, wrote, “‘I am seldom interested in what he is saying,” he wrote in his best putting down manner, ‘but only in the way he says it’. Eliot knew perfectly well that this form/content dichotomy was untenable; that form, to be at all interesting, had to the form of something of interest…”

This may seem a small point, but it’s the little details in this book which make me doubt the bigger picture. Firstly, in this quotation, Eliot doesn’t use the word form, he says “the way he says it”. This is much more, for Eliot and Pound, than “form”.  I’ve already suggested Moody’s potted history of the epic is suspect. He must know, being an expert on Eliot as well as Pound, that the two of them have been justifiably accused of fetishizing poetic technique as part of what has been described as the “professionalizing of poetry”.  For Eliot, praising “how” over “what” is to recognize art, which is what the real poet works hard to master. Pound had praised Joyce’s poetry by singling out Joyce’s control of rhythm and metre: there was no content to praise.

The distinction, for poetry, between style and content, between How and What, is not untenable and famous and not so famous poets have held to it. Many defences of the Cantos rely on it so they can dismiss What  (banal, tedious, repetitious and repulsive) to focus on How.

Moody's  tendency to dismiss criticism can also be seen later, discussing the Chinese Cantos.  These have to be a test of critical honesty,  as there is very little to love in them.  In what appears to be  a balanced paragraph,  Moody offers two examples of praise and two of criticism. He summarises 2 objections (p283): Randall Jarrell called them “almost unreadable” and  “monotonous didacticism”, Donald Davie wrote, “there is no alternative to writing off this whole section of Pound’s Poem as pathological and sterile.”  (both quoted By Moody p283).

Yet the criticisms are framed in such a way as to make them seem like minority objections.  The paragraph starts: “This fairly elementary lesson in the fundamental principle of Western Democracy has been well taken by some but by no means all” 283. [There's no pause to consider that if this is a fairly fundamental lesson,  why does it need to be expressed in such a turgid manner.]

Moody simply chooses two representatives for the case against, Jarrell, Davie, and then dismisses them by going aslant to deal with their objections. Having castigated Eliot earlier for distinguishing between style and content, Moody defends Pound against Davie by writing: “Part of Davie’s problem was that he could not follow Pound’s method of making music of history”. (To believe the Chinese Cantos are melodious requires a redefinition of Musical). 

Moody dismisses Jarrell by writing: “unreadable’ is of course a common way of saying “I  can’t read them”.  But this wasn't a pimply adolescent undergraduate who had been brought up on a diet of Ted Hughes and War poets and who thought Paradise Lost is written in a foreign language.  The full sentence which Moody doesn't quote from, reads ’ Mr. Pound is obviously one of the most talented poets of our time: yet these Cantos are almost unreadable”. 

There is a great deal more in Jarrell’s article: He wrote: ”The versification of these cantos is interesting: there is none. The prose is an extremely eccentric, slangy, illogical, sentence fragment note-taking sort of prose-but prose; the constant quotations from letters or documents or diaries are no different form the verse that frames them. The technical skill that went into some of the earlier Cantos has almost disappeared.” 

Like the rest of his article, this levels criticisms at the poem that anyone who wants to make the argument that this is great Poetry should be dealing with. But Moody simply dismisses or avoids and some of the tactics are disturbing.  

Earlier,  Moody dismisses both Yeats and Eliot’s reservations with the words….’The true revolutionary finds confirmation of his project in the resistance it provokes.” (P93) This is horribly circular and the statement implies a judgment that is actually devoid of discrimination. ‘Resistance’ to the project says nothing about the value of the project. “Revolutionary” is no longer a neutral noun: it has become a term of unqualified approval,  though how one distinguishes between the revolutionary and the true revolutionary is another question that goes begging.   

It is obvious that I could provoke resistance by agitating in a revolutionary manner for any number of horrible or pointless ideas. Resistance would not validate them or me. ”Only those who have vital interest in changing the existing social and intellectual order are likely to respond positively to a radically new way of thinking.” (op cit) We are always, with Pound and his followers, heading towards this: only the elect will understand.

Linked to this is the other move that became a characteristic of twentieth century critical discourse.

Once there was an observation: X is a genius, and few people can understand him.

This was inverted and became a characteristic of 20th century literary thinking:  

Few people understand X therefore he must be a genius.

Obscurity became a positive value and a host of famous writers rode the gravy train to guru status on the back of it.  At the same time “innovation” and “originality” slipped from neutral terms to positive ones. The key critical question became ‘Has it been done before?’ and the wannabes queued up to applaud when the answer was No.


There has been a shortage of dissenting voices asking, “Was it worth doing?”

Whether you want to privilege How or What, or it you think that greatness is perhaps excelling at both, the question the Cantos raise, is the one Pound asked indirectly of Joyce's work in progress:

15th November 1926: 
'I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clapp [sic] can possible be worth all the circumambeint periperhization’.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Pound, Confucius and Slither. A.David Moody's Ezra Pound Poet, Volume II the epic years.#2

In the late 1930s Pound was promoting Confucius as the remedy for all political ills. The fundamental principle was ‘to call people and things by their correct names…to see that the terminology [is] exact’(qtd Moody 247).   Pound failed to practice this  in his prose but then neither does Moody.  

If the cantos are a ‘poem which includes history’ or ‘the history of the tribe’ the accuracy of that history HAS to be an issue if it is History. Moody recognizes this but slips around the question.

Pointing out that Pound credits Van Buren with actions that his sources credited to Andrew Jackson (p.173): There is more going on here than an alternative version of who did what. Pound was privileging the moral force over the mere fact, in order to create another Jeffersonian hero, an ethical hero, consistently committed to the just ordering of society.  This seems minor to his later claim on page 180:

It has to be recognized, if we are to get on, that Mussolini is as much an invented or mythical figure in these Cantos as Jefferson or Van Buren or indeed as Odysseus. He is just as much transfigured out of history into the poem Pound is making up and he plays his part there in an ethical drama which may be not at all an accurate fit with the political drama of the era.  Pound is not writing Mussolini’s story, nor Jefferson’s nor Van Buren’s. He is writing, as it turns out, the epic of the capitalist era, in which the will to social justice, as embodied in some few heroic individuals, must contend against the greed of the wealthy and powerful and the abuleia of the many. It is a story based on real persons and real practices and its credibility does depend to some degree on its truth to what is commonly known of those persons and practices. Beyond this believability, though, there is another order of reality, that of meaning and values, it is with these that the epic poet is most engaged, and in creating images of what is to be admired or hated, he will bend history to his ends.  But then the nearer a reader is to the history in question, the more problematic this can be. There is a problem, and there will be so long as the actual Mussolini is remembered, in accepting the Mussolini of the cantos as a hero of the struggle for universal social justice. It is a problem that anyone who wants to read the work must learn to live with. History may instruct us that the myth has grievously simplified the facts; and the myth may reveal things facts alone can never tell. We need both history and myth, but should take care not to confuse either with the other.

First note the  attempts to position the reader in the use of the words: 'drama', 'transfiguring', 'epic', at phrases like 'few heroic individuals', 'depends on some degree', 'bend history', 'another order of reality' 'may instruct us' and then those last three sentences.  

First the vocabulary: the real world in which people were dying is a “political drama”. ‘Drama’ is something fictional, staged, not entirely real or to be taken entirely seriously.  To see the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, or Mussolini’s increasing rapport with Hitler, or the move towards attempted genocide as a ‘drama’ is to trivialize suffering and empty the words of their meanings.

To suggest that ‘political drama’ is distinct to ‘ethical drama’ is to attempt a spurious distinction.  It was not possible, in the twentieth century, to write the kind of epic Homer or Virgil or Lawman or Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about their distant past, without slipping into the world of historical fiction.  And it is not possible to use real people with all the baggage of their real activities, beliefs, speeches, actions, and just “bend history” to suit your purposes without moving out of writing history into fiction.  So either Pound is writing bad history, which invalidates his attempt to “write the history of the tribe” or he’s writing one of the most boring examples of 20th century historical fiction.

I’ve already commented on Moody’s use (or abuse) of the term Epic in the previous post. The Cantos are not ‘a myth’, they are one man’s idiosyncratic version of history serving an increasingly strident personal political agenda.

If 'we', (and how I do hate the smug positioning behind that first person plural) want to read the work, if we ‘want to get on’, [what does that mean?] 'we' have to live with factual inaccuracy and an author who could not tell the difference between facts and his own private fantasy.   

Which begs the question: why is the work worth reading? There is no insight on offer, no evidence of intelligence, knowledge or perception beyond the ordinary. 

The strangest claim of all is that if we wait long enough until historians somehow no longer provide accurate factual histories, Pound's inaccuracies will be acceptable.

The ethical question I would suggest is not related to Pound but to his supporters, and by extension to a whole trend in literary criticism and theory. Where does the verbal slither stop?  At what point do the endless pseudo-clever excuses and the carefully pseudo-clever redefinitions of familiar words stop being an acceptable practice? 

Why does “He was wrong” need to be qualified?

‘Does depend on some degree’….’there is another order of reality’, this is not calling things by their correct names.