Dogmatic Gossip:
Defining Modernism (Recent Assays)

by Mark Scroggins

Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)

Bob Perelman, The Trouble With Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Bruce Comens, Apocalypse and After: Modern Strategy and Postmodern Tactics in Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995)

      In 1975, some years before he would embark upon his Jeremian/Promethean task of formalizing the Western Canon, Yale's Harold Bloom remarked (in A Map of Misreading) that "Modernism in literature has not passed; rather, it has been exposed as never having been there. Gossip grows old and becomes myth; myth grows older and becomes dogma. Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, and Pound gossiped with one another; the New Criticism aged them into a myth of Modernism; now the antiquarian Hugh Kenner has dogmatized the myth into the Pound Era, a canon of accepted titans." On its face, this is an astonishing statement, and the fact that it marks only one episode in a well-documented critical squabble between Bloom and his nemesis Kenner makes it no less so. Kenner, of course, made the first shove in his massive The Pound Era (1971), which dismissed the work of Wallace Stevens, Bloom's most cherished American poet, as "an Edward Lear poetic, pushed to all limits." But each critic in his own way works to obscure the historical contours of what nothing better than rough and ready consensus has agreed to call "modernism"—Bloom by denying its existence, Kenner by casting the whole enterprise of English-language modernism as an epic of heroic artistic individuality, of such writers as Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Williams breaking with literary orthodoxy and boldly forging new artistic modes in the face of being misunderstood, ridiculed, and—worst of all—simply overlooked.

     As compelling and richly detailed as Kenner's Pound Era is (and later, his trilogy of volumes on American, Irish, and English modernists), it nonetheless seems at times merely to play variations on Bloom's scheme of the "strong" writer doing battle with ghostly precursors, "misreading" them most perversely at his own moment of greatest strength. Not that Kenner would at all agree with Bloom's construction of literary agonistics—on the contrary, Bloom's scheme is based above all on his readings of the Romantic poets, whom Kenner is as swift to dismiss as is his own culture-hero Pound (who once referred to Wordsworth as a "bleating sheep"). But Kenner's own version of the history of modernism relies, like Bloom's of Romanticism, on a tale of individual will and creativity—on the ruminative thinking back on the days when artistic giants walked the earth. While I wouldn't want to argue for a wholesale historical determinism in the narratives we tell about literature—poems, after all, are inarguably written by poets, not by the Zeitgeist—I hanker for some unified field theory of modernism, a narrative that can explain the individual innovations, not merely of Pound, Joyce, and Eliot (as Kenner has done) or of Stevens and Hart Crane (as Bloom has done), but of a whole range of distinctive movements, from a similarly broad range of countries and a like spectrum of tongues, and that can explain those achievements within a historical/cultural context. This is what Peter Nicholls' Modernisms: A Literary Guide seems to promise.

     My initial response to Nicholls' almost numbingly comprehensive survey of the avant-garde—from Baudelaire to Breton—was to reflect that, after all, what a long, strange trip it has been. Nicholls' modernisms are far more multifarious than the cultural archaeology of Poundian/Eliotian "high" modernism with which most American readers are familiar. They include the airy structures of Mallarmé's disengaged Symbolisme, the somatic wordplay of Stein's Tender Buttons, the technologically obsessed, headlong movement of Italian Futurism, the radical linguistic remakings of Russian Futurism's zaum, the terrifying Oedipal struggles staged on the German Expressionist stage, and Dada's near-nihilistic assault on the very category of the aesthetic. On his winding tour from the Parisian Prowler to the Marx-inflected Freudianism of Breton's Surrealism, Nicholls offers, in addition to surveys of the above-mentioned movements, fascinating and incisive close readings of the articulation of Symbolisme with Decadence, of the inimical modernism of Wyndham Lewis, and of how such figures as William Carlos Williams and Virginia Woolf situated themselves on the periphery of modernist movements that, having begun as gestures of rebellion and alienation, threatened to become hegemonic cultural institutions in their own turn.

     Nicholls is especially useful in articulating the conceptual continuities and discontinuities between the various European modernisms arising in the first part of this century, showing how Decadence, for example, made use of the ideas and methods pioneered by the Symbolistes, or how the French Surrealists both built upon and politically inflected the innovations of Swiss/multinational Dada. In this, he goes well beyond the, at times, ahistorical psychologism of the one earlier study that bears comparison with Modernisms, Renato Poggioli's indispensable Theory of the Avant-Garde (1962). Even so, Nicholls' overall theoretical framework, which reads the various writers and movements in terms of figurations of gender and power relations, relies on an overly monolithic conception of the economic bases that underlie the superstructures of "high" culture. His notion of the increasing reach of industrial capitalism and the encroachment of bourgeois culture, it seems to me, fails to take enough account of differing economic and social conditions, not merely between the United States and Europe, but among various European countries. As Kenner among many others has argued, Joyce's Irishness and Pound's Americanness are surely crucial factors in their respective constructions of modernist writing. Perhaps even more strikingly, Nicholls pays scant attention to the relationship between the two Futurisms and the respective cultural and economic backwardnesses of Italy and Czarist/Revolutionary Russia.

     Despite such shortcomings—and I think that a project of this ambition must inevitably manifest conceptual and interpretive inconsistencies—Modernisms is a terrifically impressive book, perhaps most impressive in its rejection of a monolithic, singular account of the artistic ruptures prior to the emergence of the Third Reich. While we know Pound and Eliot well enough, and Surrealism in both its verbal and visual forms has impressed itself on our consciousness (if only in its MTV incarnation), American writers and readers (embarrassingly, too often two separate groups) have simply paid too little attention to the Italian and Russian Futurisms and to German Expressionism. Nicholls' primary aim is to return the range of modernist writing to us as plethora rather than as phalanx, to show modernism as a series of crises, movements, and countermovements rather than a single event: he offers us a series of establishments, from greasy spoon to Chez Panisse, rather than one prix fixe menu.

     One group of Americans who have read and learned from the Russian Futurists has been the Language Poets. Bob Perelman, aside from his relatively recent accession to the Ivy League—he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania—has been one of the Language movement's most appealing poets and most lucid theorists (and, one might add, along with Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, one of the very few who can write consistently readable prose). In The Trouble With Genius, Perelman addresses the problem of artist and audience in modernism as it is played out in Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Louis Zukofsky. An initial problem of such a study, of course, is that most of these writers have already given rise to appallingly ponderous critical industries. No-one knows how serious Joyce was when he proposed that his interpreters devote lifetimes to his works but that has certainly become the case with the authors of Finnegans Wake and The Cantos. (The Stein critical industry is hot on their heels, and I confess to having contributed probably too many pages to what promises to be a hot growth industry, Zukofsky studies.) On more than one occasion, I have lifted a glass with a scholar of Olson, or Zukofsky, or of twentieth-century poetry in general, only to find a shared thought rising to our lips: "I'd love to write on Pound, but who's got the time to go through the secondary literature?"

     I don't care to go into the argument over whether literary criticism isn't an inherently parasitical activity—it clearly is (but then again, so is book reviewing)—but would only observe that, as any biologist will tell you, some parasites are more benign than others. The trouble with writing about Pound (to take only the most egregious example) is that the prospective Poundian has only three available entries into the Pound industry: to edit some formerly unpublished corpus of letters or prose (a wholly useful endeavor, on which I confer my official blessings); to analyze and painstakingly annotate some tiny crux in the Cantos or the other works (and such five- or ten-page squibs bulge the covers of Paideuma, the Pound journal); or somehow to reconceptualize some aspect—or the whole field—of Pound studies, of how Pound is read in the academy. The latter is Perelman's course, not merely for Pound, but for Joyce and Stein as well.

     Perelman is concerned with a paradox at the heart of these modernists' thought, the idea of the "genius," the profound artifex who both creates the innovative, incomparable work of art, and simultaneously makes a real intervention in the world, appeals to a reading public. The paradox manifests itself most strikingly in the critical situation I have just outlined, that rather than acting as broadly received instruments of cultural tuition (as we like to imagine Homer's works acted), the works of these self-proclaimed or self-implied geniuses have instead become the centers of deplorably scholastic academic industries. Perelman clearly disapproves of such commentary, which takes as its apparent model the German philology that Pound so detested: his analyses are not ballasted with copious citations and footnotes to earlier scholars; his writing is for the most part admirably transparent, even enjoyable; and his book is studded with observations of remarkable keenness, many of which a more timorous scholar might have suppressed. The idyllic moments of the Cantos, for instance, "are not all that different in tone and force from a Maxfield Parrish painting: pillars and Nature, god-heroes and nymphs, ‘light as after a sun-set.'" "There are thousands of pages of [Stein's] work where she is not innovating, or apparently trying to accomplish anything; notions of craft and inspiration do not seem to apply." Perelman's reading of Pound pursues a hardly-arrived-at position that several recent critics have taken, that Pound's rank anti-Semitism and totalitarian ideology are ultimately inseparable from the poetics of the Cantos: "I want the full dynamics of Poundian light to be acknowledged; what it illuminates is always accompanied by a phobic shadow." His reading of Ulysses pursues a similar crux, that the increasing stylistic dislocations of the later chapters of the novel reflect, not merely a desire to make the novel new, but Joyce's own "dramatic reaction to the plot," his realization that the Odyssey, his chosen model for Leopold Bloom's own wanderings, enforces "a narrative conclusion that, in structural terms, would be hard to differentiate from a sentimental ending." These arguments are gracefully and economically made, and Perelman leaves plenty of room for reasoned dissent.

     His final chapter on Zukofsky I find both admirable and troublesome. It is a strikingly comprehensive assessment of Zukofsky's entire career, from his 1927 "Poem beginning ‘The,'" a Jewish American response to The Waste Land, to the end of Zukofsky's Cantos-length poem "A" in 1974. Perelman reads Zukofsky's career as an "allegory" of the modernist writer as both technocrat, formal innovator, and as "genius," public culture-hero. Zukofsky's half-century movement from proactively Marxist verse to the immensely intricate and private language-games of his later work, is emblematic for Perelman of how the English-language modernist project, which began as an Arnoldian attempt to influence and educate a public sphere far broader than that of the merely literary, would eventually end up precisely in the realm of the literary—and worse, the academic. The trouble with Perelman's reading of Zukofsky (and I keep returning to his own phrase) on a purely utilitarian level is that he expects far too much of an audience—academic or otherwise—that is liable to be both ignorant of and indifferent to the details and broader contours of Zukofsky's work. His reading of Zukofsky is predicated upon precisely the sort of detailed annotation and overall introductory assessment Zukofsky's writing has yet to receive, the sort of scholarship his reading of Pound or Joyce absolutely relies upon. (Such studies of Zukofsky are underway—would it be impertinent to mention my own volumes, Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997 and Louis Zukofsky and the poetry of knowledge Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, 1998?)

     One matter that Perelman broaches, and that is at the heart of the Kenner/Bloom contretemps, is the issue of the continuing usefulness of modernism for contemporary writers. "Can it be said," Perelman asks, "that "A", The Cantos, Tender Buttons, or Ulysses give evidence of mastery of any craft other than that of their own production? Writing, for all four, was an inimitable practice." This is clearly true, but it also does not foreclose the possibility of each of these modernists' work proving an instigation for further explorations on the part of contemporary writers: Gilbert Sorrentino's use of Joyce comes to mind; Harryette Mullen's of Stein; Olson's and Zukofsky's of Pound; and Ronald Johnson's—and the whole Language community's—of Zukofsky. But even a work as innovative and congenial as Perelman's own most recent volume of poetry, Virtual Reality, serves to remind us of the unbridged gulf between the writing of those pursuing modernist writing strategies and the broader reading public that the modernists sought to attract through their assertions of their own cultural "genius."

     Bruce Comens' Apocalypse and After, the narrowest and probably most recognizably "academic" of these three books, scarcely addresses the question of a reading audience, concerning itself instead with issues of poetic form, structure, and cultural mediation, issues with which Nicholls dealt in a far broader manner. In the works of Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky, Comens frames a movement (which he somewhat loosely correlates with the historical events of the atomic bomb and the emergence of the so-called Cold War) from "strategies," larger ideological and formal structuring devices like the overarching cultural-economic argument of the first seventy-three Cantos, to "tactics," localized poetic structures like the hermetic compositional devices of the later movements of "A". In Comens' account, the downfall of fascist Italy derailed the strategic movement of the Cantos and forced Pound back upon the tactical mode of the Pisan Cantos, with its organization, not of the totalitarian ideogram, but of the moment-by-moment stream of consciousness and memory of the imprisoned poet. Pound would again subsume tactics in larger ideological strategy in the later Cantos, continually striving to make his project "cohere" in an attempt that history would render ultimately unachievable.

     Comens uses the term "apocalypse" for Pound's ultimate goal of a poetics that would itself present the economic and ethical earthly paradise that he believed Mussolini's Italy was working towards. In contrast to Pound, however, William Carlos Williams is in Comens' account a poet whose principal aim is to be "post-apocalyptic," to find a way to forego strategy in favor of moment-by-moment, ad hoc tactics. Comens presents us with a Williams far different from the Williams of Pictures from Brueghel, the personal lyricist apotheosized in creative writing workshops across the Republic. He concentrates instead on the cross-generic, ground-breaking, and difficult works of Williams' middle period, Kora in Hell and Spring and All, and on the necessarily unfinished Paterson—necessarily incomplete because it was based on a tactical poetics that foreclosed the possibility of the poet's imposing some strategic closure on the work as a whole. The poem, therefore, must thereby remain coeval with the poet's life. Comens particularly values the "fragmentation, distortion, or multiplication of voices" in Williams' most adventurous works. His Williams is—thank heavens—a far cry from the homespun imagist of "The Red Wheelbarrow" or (the poem) "Spring and All."

     Comens' readings of Zukofsky are among the very best that have been published on this notoriously "difficult" poet, providing both an interpretive graph on which to plot Zukofsky's achievements and detailed interpretations of such thorny texts as "Poem beginning ‘The,'" Bottom: On Shakespeare, and "A"-22 and -23. Zukofsky arrives as the necessary hero of Comens' study, a poet who from the very beginning of his career sought to eschew large system-building in favor of localized explorations of the interpenetrations of language, consciousness, and ideology. Zukofsky's career begins (in "Poem beginning ‘The'") in the mode of satire, of ad hoc resistance, and culminates in the later movements of "A", a poem equal in length to Pound's masterpiece, but built not on an "Aquinas-map" of the interplay of totalitarian reason, the "luminous details" of cultural achievement and the corrosive effects of economic and moral "usury," but as a series of increasingly complex formal experiments that ultimately result in what is very nearly a Barthesian "writerly" text, a poem in which the reader is invited to participate as an equal partner in the production of meaning, meaning that is in no way predetermined. As Stein says somewhere, "The public is invited to dance."

     In considering Comens, Perelman, and Nicholls, I have tried sedulously to avoid using the p-word—postmodernism. It is of course unavoidable. Comens' argument, in fact, turns upon the distinction between modernism, which he associates with strategic poetics, and postmodernism, which he associates with tactical writing. His final conclusion, I think, gives the lie to the teleological thinking that sees our own era of textual freeplay as a repudiation of modernism itself: "the tactical improvisation by which I have characterized the postmodern moment can never succeed modernism; the two necessarily coexist. Indeed, this postmodern movement has always been present within modernism, and only became more apparent, more widespread, after World War II." This is a welcome admission, for I am not at all sure that Comens' sharp distinction between strategy and tactics is finally tenable; they seem to me moments on a continuum of compositional practice, that is, rather than opposed tendencies. By claiming that the postmodern has always already been present with modernist writing and has only emerged into prominence since the war, Comens seems to be saying something ultimately very useful in describing the progress of twentieth-century writing.

     Comens' implied valorization of postmodernist "tactical improvisation," however, can unfortunately be read as a repudiation, not merely of the sort of totalitarian project that Pound pursued, but of the very project of writing poetry with an ideological end in mind. There are those who reject both Pound and, say, Carolyn Forché, in order to claim for poetry a personalistic, ideology-free sphere which it never had. Whatever else modernism might have been—or as Nicholls would have it, modernisms might have been—it stands as a repudiation of writing that seeks wholly to retreat from the public space, to deny the social and economic responsibilities of the writer as human being. There is far more of the ivory tower in the disengaged workshop poet than there is in the most esoteric experimentalist: while the former strives to replicate in a thoroughly commodified language moments of ordinary existence, the latter tries to wrench language back around to its truth-telling, truth-constituting functions. This is where modernism's legacies lie. The Language Poets, for instance, have for a quarter of a century been trying to write an emphatically political poetry that makes use of the "postmodernist" writing practices pioneered by such "modernists" as Stein, Zukofsky, and Williams. And even the "strategic" modes of such high modernists as Pound or David Jones are still valid, as writers as varied as Peter Dale Scott, Anne Carson, Paul Metcalf, Guy Davenport, and John Matthias continue to show us. We may in some sense have emerged from Kenner's Pound Era—I suppose—but Harold Bloom, for all his world-weary erudition, is surely wrong: modernism, in both its "high" and its "post-" manifestations, is still very much with us—indeed, it is our cultural moment.