THE DAY THE POETRY DIED: TOP TEN DOCUMENTS OF 20th CENTURY MODERNISM

John Ashbery, looking like a funny old Englishman—the last living heir of the Mad Hatter madness known as Modernism

1. Reflections on Verse Libre, 1916

This is where the camel got his nose in the tent.  Eliot’s questionable logic about what poetry is slips past the Gates.

2. Understanding Poetry, eds. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, 1938 (first edition)

The Great Consolidation: the textbook which greeted the GI Bill/Baby Boomer post-war university influx.   Modernist footsoldiers, the New Critics, praise Williams and Pound, bash Poe.

3. The Waste Land, 1922

Publishing scheme launched by Pound & Eliot’s crafty lawyer and Golden Dawn/Aleister Crowley associate & British Intelligence agent, John Quinn.

4. Criticism, Inc., 1938

Essay by John Crowe Ransom launched the idea that Critics in journalism are worthless and must be trained to understand the ‘new writing’ in the universities. It is the New Critcs—the ‘Rhodes Scholar’ American wing of European Modernism—who begin the Creative Writing Program Era in American universites where contemporary poets essentially teach (canonize) themselves.

5. From Poe to Valery by T.S. Eliot, 1949

T.S. Eliot, honoring the memory of his New England, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist grandfather, William Greenleaf, caps off the Long March of Crazy-ism through American Letters, as Eliot, fresh off Nobel Prize Win, delivers a withering attack on Poe, the old enemy of William Greenleaf Eliot’s associate, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

6. How To Read by Ezra Pound,  1929

Leading Crazy-ite Modernist suggests syllabus of Homer, Confucius, Dante, and 19th century French authors for the English-speaking undergraduate student.

7. Poets Without Laurels by John  Crowe Ransom, 1938

 In this brilliant essay, influential New Critic (mentor to Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell) introduces Wallace Stevens to the world, champions Allen Tate, and declares Byron hopelessly old-fashioned in Modernist mop-up operation.

8. North of Boston by Robert Frost, 1915

When Amy Lowell confronted Ezra Pound and cohort Ford Madox Ford (who later meets Allen Tate and teaches in America) in their famous Imagiste contretemps in London in 1914, Frost, also in town, stood aloof, his future success as the New England Wordsworth already in the bag. 

9. The (Pisan) Cantos by Ezra Pound,  1948

A mish-mash by a madman is lauded by New Critics on the award committees after the U.S. arrests the head Modernist honcho for treason.

10. Some Trees by John Ashbery, 1956

T.S. Eliot’s friend, W.H. Auden, part of the Isherwood/Huxley ‘British invasion,’ passes the American academic torch as Yale Younger Poet Prize judge to ‘poetry about nothing,’ in a culmination of a Modernist Take-over of American poetry by a select group of academically-connected friends.

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10 Comments

  1. Beauregard said,

    September 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    6. How To Read by Ezra Pound, 1929

    Leading Crazy-ite Modernist suggests syllabus of Homer, Confucius, Dante, and 19th century French authors for the English-speaking undergraduate student.

    Yes. Did literature start in Great Britain, TB?? Shouldn’t Biff and Bunny up at State read a bit of greek and/or latin history, literary classics such as Aristotle, or Dante, or a bit of Voltaire or Stendhal? Pound seems nearly PC in his insistence that authentic scribes know some latin, french, italian, so forth. That was academic tradition–certainly in belle-lettres– until recently–even yr hero Poe read French, probably other romance languages. Indeed Pound was not an anglo-phile like Eliot or most of the “modernists” you detest. He’s for…Aristotelian ideas, not Auden. You sound nearly …fundamentalist here.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm

      B,

      You keep applying these grandiose labels to Pound, who I grant, was very intelligent, but was, in reality, nothing but a swindling-carpet bagger copperhead opportunist con-man, who stole from rich, middle-aged women and carried great bags of opium in his coat, and was connected to a certain cagey anglo-aristocracy who enjoyed playing Americans; Pound’s airs of a great man of classical swagger and letters ought to be seen through at once, for this was clearly part of an act. Pound hated his country orgasmically—Pound hated the U.S. approaching the manner a naked confederate hated the yankees. Anyone can put together an eclectic, foreign ‘reading-list’ in order to appear classically astute and attack current institutions and professors as weak and scribble semi-comprehensible things with a bit of hammy alliteration in a great charade of ‘the new.’ It was a two-pronged attack: I’m writing the very new and most modern poetry under the sun, but I’m also intimately aquainted with Homer ! and…Confucius ! And Eliot, his right-hand, was essentially doing the same thing…don’t notice that I’m a swine because I’m keen on minor Elizabethans. Read what Pound actually wrote and compare it with what Poe actually wrote—it is the gnat vs. the lion. I dare you to peruse “How To Read’ from the first page to the last and tell me it has any actual literary merit. Pound has nothing to lose and everything to gain from vague comparisons, from snatches of quotes, from even being in a conversation where he’s discussed in the same breath with Poe. Pound’s empire is founded on sand and ignorance—and unfortunately, that’s a mighty empire indeed.

      Tom

      • Beauregard said,

        September 3, 2011 at 7:27 pm

        carried great bags of opium in his coat

        One of Pound’s charms! Then, so did EAP. Goes with the territory, TB. Poe’s ghost –like purgatorio–loves Pound too!
        You’re focusing on biography, and character don’t understand EP’s work. The treason, sedition and subversiveness, like the opium—why, that makes his writing fresh and innovative. Opium, humping anglo bimbos, writing classic literature with Eliot, then brunch with Mussolini, taking on capitalism, etc. Not bad for an Idaho boy

        • thomasbrady said,

          September 4, 2011 at 11:39 am

          B,

          If that wicked vibe floats yr boat, fine. Bio is important because it’s part of the wider context in terms of history, etc, that’s all, but as I said, read Pound and read Poe and there really is no comparison…. and also important because in Poe’s case the ‘bio’ we know is mostly slander that needs correction. The irony, of course, is that Poe’s fame grew because of that slander. If a little opium gets you through the nite…but in fact, Pound was part of a devious network…Poe was part of a nation-building network…Poe was still in the realm of ‘let’s see if this american experiment can work against the british (opium wars) empire’…however you feel about that ‘experiment,’ Poe was part of it, elevating american thought with his fiction and criticism…by comparison pound and eliot were bitter ex-pats with eccentric royalist/fascist dreams…Poe lived very cleanly for the most part…Eliot drank a great deal more than Poe, but once a ‘slander-tale’ makes it way into public consciousness it’s almost impossible to eradicate…so if Poe is sexy because of the slanderous lies, you can enjoy that Poe if you want, or you can enjoy the sober Poe which I know him to be…to each his own…but the question still remains…why did pound and eliot hate poe so much? pound, through omission, and eliot through ‘from Poe to Valery?’ which echoes the savage attacks of other anglos, Huxley and Henry James? I know it’s seems dated to posit this brit. v. american thing, ’cause the two countries have been friends for so long…but in Poe’s day and thru the Civil War period it wasn’t the case…Context, context….

          So there’s the flip: Emerson, in reality, was humorless/dark, Poe was satiric/bright, and Pound/Eliot were druggy, Poe was sober. The counter-reality is actually true.

          T.

          • Beauregard said,

            September 5, 2011 at 12:40 am

            Poe was opposed to the English—as were many southerners (Jeffersonian tradition really)–in that regard, he’s similar to Pound. Sober? Not always. He had problems at the Uni. of V. But biography aside, he wasn’t that great as a poet–his verse jangles–ie the Raven, the Bells, etc. For music maybe it works, but gets ….sing songy rather quickly, if not ugly. As a spinner of macabre stories (and a few non-macabre, but still…twisted and unique) I agree he is a great—but no WS Landor, or Coleridge, or Pound or Eliot. I don’t think you understand the …ideology of modernism if you will. Eliot’s not Pound for one. Pound doesn’t ignore his….American roots. He’s against Tory elitism, really–in terms of his politics, and …writing. That he was an ex-pat–doesn’t really matter–it doesn’t relate to his writing (ie the Cantos, and essays,–not his didactic writing ala How to Read). They aren’t quite french decadents either–maybe an influence–actually Pound’s earlier writing resembles Browning, if not Shakespeare (tho the Cantos as different)–yet …Pound has a ..Weltanschauung, if you will–not just writing ditties (similar for Eliot in a different sense). In the Cantos he’s taking on the war engine, and the financiers–con usura– the royalists,–and zionists, however unPC it sounds.–even writing epitaphs of a sort. You may not care for “poetry as a means”–but that’s part of it (sort of romantic in that sense). I don’t think you quite get him

            • thomasbrady said,

              September 6, 2011 at 12:55 pm

              B,

              Southerners begged to be recognized by Britain—they loved the English, and many English fought for the Confederacy, but the British Empire’s larger policy was driven by hatred of Irish, Germans, Poles who were now Americans fighting for the North; slavery was just a political football to get North and South to slaughter each other, to weaken the U.S. (which is why Britain and France remained ‘neutral’ even as Britain looked the other way as Confederate warships were built in Liverpool)—North and South both felt compelled to win a major victory in order to get total recognition from the Empire and that meant the bloodbath which the Civil War turned into in the late spring of 1862 with the “noble” Lee’s insane attacks around Richmond. Poe was one of those Irish whom the British despised—the Civil War in a strange twist was almost Poe’s revenge—Grant, with his ‘drinking problem’ became a hero and won the presidency against…yea, Horace Greeley, who published the Poe-libel in his New York Tribune, later ran for the presidency and carried Maryland—where Poe was killed—and also Greeley spent his own money getting Jefferson Davis out of jail after the war. (?!) Eliot was clearly an anti-Poe, anglophile and so was Pound, until he got fed up with England for not publishing him (Eliot copped the British glory but it escaped crazy Ezra) and so Pound took off for fascist Italy. OK, you think poems should be essays—Poe has the more sensible approach—if you have ‘things to say’ put them in an essay, not an obscure poem. A poem does music better.

              T.

  2. Bill said,

    September 6, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Great list and good discussion. I would only like to add two things: First, that you should give Pound credit for a very high level talent within his limited scope; and second, that you should recognize the influence of Joyce’s Ulysses not only on the Modernist novel but on Modernist poetry. Aren’t The Waste Land and the Cantos both based on it in important ways? By the way, Beauregard, David Jones’s In Parenthesis is a great book about fighting in the infantry in WWI, though it took me a couple of reads to appreciate it.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

      Bill,

      Giving “Pound credit” is not always easy, since it’s often impossible to tell whether any given text with Pound’s name on it was actually written by Pound. For instance, “The River Merchant’s Wife,” perhaps the most admired and anthologized ‘work of Pound’s,’ is often reproduced with only Pound’s name on it—but it’s actually an interpretation by Pound—of a English translation by Amy Lowell. Pound probably stole a good deal of his antique-sounding work. Back in his day, old libraries with old works were easy access if you happened to know the right person. Remember, Catullus comes to us because one of his books—one—was rescued from the Middle Ages. How many single editions of antique works might have been unearthed, used, and then destroyed forever by someone like Pound?

      Yes, give Pound “credit,” indeed!

      Even Beauregard concedes Pound’s “How To Read” is a fraud.

      Pound’s most famous Canto? It tells us that usury is bad.

      What, exactly, is one supposed to admire in Pound’s writings? I’ve never quite figured it out.

      Tom

  3. September 9, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    […] This particular posting, is more than normally riling (which is, I suppose the point). […]

  4. David said,

    February 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    7. Poets Without Laurels by John Crowe Ransom, 1938

    In this brilliant essay, …

    Tom,

    Why “brilliant”, if it is one of poetry’s grave markers?

    David


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