Monday, December 1, 2014

'Modernism from the Margins' Louis MacNeice and Modernism.

Louis MacNeice seems to be suffering, or enduring or benefitting from a re appraisal. But some of the re appraising seems dubious.

"Modernism from the Margins: the 1930s poetry of Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas" by Chris Wigginton. According to the blurb on Goodreads;

"This book is an important contribution to contemporary discussions of both of these writers, and of the general issues of modernism, postmodernism, literary identity, and cultural identity it raises".

Well, maybe.

But while I'm sure someone somewhere is excited by all those things, I wonder what happened to scholarship.

Reacting to other critics, especially Edna Longley and Peter MacDonald who according to Wigginton argue for MacNeice's "rejection of Modernism",  Wigginton extracts some quotes from MacNeice's critical writings to argue the opposite. The key is the verb 'extracts'.

He [MacNeice] observes Eliotically that:

'Pound takes the whole of history as stock for his soup and cuts backwards and forwards from one country or one century to another, adding plenty of the smell of cooking and the voice of the type writer to make it clear that all these elements combine for him in a living and contemporary whole.'

MacNeice's ventriloquizing of Eliot in order to endorse Pound is revealing of his complex, ambivalent critical attitude to Modernist aestheticism, and the critical work should not therefore be taken simply to endorse a recession of Modernist practise in his poetry of the 1930s. (p13)

Taken out of context, simply as words on the page, in what way does the quote endorse Pound? or his method? For someone as careful as MacNeice, that "for him' surely qualifies the statement.

But what's bothering me here is that there is some very selective cutting at work.

The paragraph Wigginton quotes is from a chapter in 'Modern Poetry' called 'Obscurity' and begins:

'The extreme example of this method is Ezra Pound's Cantos'.

[The 'Method" is the bringing together of apparently unrelated elements to make a whole: Eliot's 'cooking and Spinoza' which MacNeice has just quoted.]

The passage Wigginton quotes continues immediately: 'I doubt if they will so combine for many of his [Pound's] readers. In a poem on so large a scale the method palls and Pound's bits of history and culture are so diverse and so particular as to fail to arouse many echoes' "Modern Poetry (p.163-164).

I don't see this an endorsement. It sounds like failure. The discussion of Pound in this section ends:

'For the Eliot-Pound method allows of the bodily transference into a poem not only of tags from other poetry or prose but of bits of public records, washing-bills, statistics. Sometimes as in The Waste Land, such ingredients blend successfully, fused together by an intense lyrical theme, but on the whole I consider this method to be vicious. The poem tends to remain heterogeneous and therefore bad'.(p164-165)

So th method is "vicious" and leads to "bad" poems.

Cherry picking quotes is something everyone does: MacNeice was always happily ambivalent about most things, and I think Wigginton might be right to argue that he didn't "reject modernism", but selecting the bit that proves your preferred version of the world when it's embedded in text which flatly contradicts your preferred version doesn't seem like good critical practice.

In the rush to be political and theoretical, something got lost. And yet Wigginton is right, I think, to say that MacNeice's attitude toward an undefined Modernism was ambivalent. In his critical writings, on Yeats and in "Modern Poetry" MacNeice allowed his ambivalence to stay open, so that statements are always being questioned and reviewed from a different perspective. This openness to contradictions and willingness to explore more than one side of the argument  is a lesson most critics don't seem to have learnt.

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