Ezra Pound: Did a fatal error cripple the Modernist revolution?
Poetry today is in the worst state imaginable: 1) not popular, 2) not respected, and 3) not understood.
“Not popular” would not hurt so much if poetry were respected, and “not respected” would not hurt so much if poetry were understood—by even a few! But, alas…
If something is neither popular, respected, or understood, the game is up. It’s time to walk away.
But hold on. Poetry does exist and everyone knows it when they experience it, like a cool breeze on a hot summer day. But poetry now is like an act of nature: it’s a nice thing, a useful thing, it exists, but, amazingly, it eludes institutional or human knowledge.
There are two issues:
1) isolating poetry from what resembles it (prose, fragments, ordinary speech) and
2) creating poetry from what it should resemble (beauty, intelligence, inspiration, song).
Now, what happens when 1) and 2) are reversed?
What happens when poetry is created from prose and isolated from beauty?
The Modernist revolution, of course.
As Pound complained of “beauties” of the “deceased” in his revolutionary 1929 New York Herald Tribune article:
Literary instruction in our “institutions of learning” was, at the beginning of this century, cumbrous and inefficient. I dare say it still is. Certain more or less mildly exceptional professors were affected by the “beauties” of various authors (usually deceased), but the system, as a whole, lacked sense and co-ordination. I dare say it still does.
One can see the Modernist advantage: poetry does resemble prose, and prose is readily available to us. But Beauty? That’s harder to define. One can see superficially how the Modernist revolution would, without much effort, succeed.
But what does one notice about this revolution? Two things. The great reversal was 1) radical (thus it was called a revolution) and 2) practical: poetry is now closer to prose
The advocates and beneficiaries (there are a few) of the Modernist revolution, and probably everyone else, would agree this is what essentially occured as the 20th century unfolded: the reversal of 1) and 2).
Against all odds, Ezra Pound took on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury—and won.
The Modernist revolution apparently did something good. Or did it?
It did not. And why? Because the reversal of 1) and 2) was not beneficial. The reason is simple—so obvious that we’ve all missed it.
Formal poetry has as much prose as free verse.
Prose is not really the issue at all.
By assuming otherwise, we “see” a “revolution” where there is really none.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
Here are two examples. The first is from ”The Raven” (1845) by Edgar Poe, the second is the entirety of “The Red Wheel Barrow” (1923) by William Carlos Williams.
Poe was an astute grammarian—and the correct use of commas helps his passage surge forward as a creative piece of prose.
Is the Williams more interesting as prose? Does it seem more like real speech?
When we compare Poe’s iconic 19th century poem—supposedly the fussy verse the Vers Libre Modernists were rebelling against—to an iconic piece of Modernism, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” we find something odd: the Williams poem is not moving towards ease of prose or speech; compared to the Poe, the Williams poem evinces neither interesting verse nor interesting prose.
Williams presents his tiny poem (in the spread-out way we usually see it) as if it were a billboard looming over Times Square, or as if he didn’t understand how to use commas and therefore subsituted white space.
The Poe is a far better example of good prose writing, and of good writing, period. The singular feature of the revolutionary Modernist poem is a kind of lame ekphrasis or a lame version of Pound’s phanopoeia—jokey, superficial, childish. Are Pound’s “institutions of learning” meant to teach good prose—or unorthodox word-arrangement?
So where is this “reversal” between Romantic poems of verse/beauty and Modernist poems of speech/prose?
It didn’t really happen at all.
But what happens if we all go on thinking it did?
The current train wreck of contemporary poetry?
Wordsworth’s advocacy of plain speech always rang hollow; the Modernists have been guilty of the same thing.
The problem isn’t that there really wasn’t a Modernist revolution—the problem is that we believe and act as if there were a Modernist revolution. We somehow believe that Shakespeare and Shelley and Milton and Poe wrote poetry burdened by the fact that it wasn’t prose and that the Modernist revolution freed us from this burden by putting prose into poetry.
But prose was always in poetry.
If we ask which era best turned prose into poetry, we would probably point to the “Shakespeare through Tennyson” era, but then we’d point out that the Modernists were better at turning poetry into prose. But from our Poe/Williams example above, we see this isn’t true: the great formalists, it could be said, not only turned prose into poetry, they also turned poetry into prose—since their poems triumph as great works of prose. In fact, there is no difference: the good poet will always do both. The Modernists did not lead a revolution of making poetry more like prose—because the finest prose always inhabits successful formalist poetry.
And as far as “speech,” goes, Byron, the Romantic, wrote poetry closer to speech than Williams, the Modernist, and good actors can make the elevated language of Shakespeare sound like speech. A mixture of high and low will generally prevail in dramatic poetry, in any age, whether for the stage, or not.
This is surely why there was a sudden frenzy on the part of the Modernists, mid-way through their (failed) revolution to emphasize “difficulty.” The Modernists must have felt (if not known) the error of their vers libre ways, and looked about for something else to fuel the revolution that was dying a slow Imagiste death. The institutionally-connected New Critics arose, rescuing the revolution of Pound and Williams with the New Critical smokescreen of “ironies” and “close-reading ” and ”tension between prose and verse,” an attempt to win by surrendering, or hitting a target by missing it. This distraction worked. “Understanding Poetry,” authored by two New Critics, got into all the high schools and GI Bill colleges. The revolution was saved.