Pictures of a poetic period


LITERARY CRITICISM: The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, HD and The ImagistsBy Helen Carr Jonathan Cape, 982pp. £30  -  Imagination was a key element of poetic Modernism and its adherents included poets Joseph Campbell and Desmond FitzGerald

‘WHAT IS wrong with you,” pronounced a young Ulster poet as we locked friendly antlers over the bourbon bottle, “is that you have saddled yourself with Modernism.”

“What is wrong with you” is always a good opening for a “flyting”, or bardic banter, but the larger question remains: who or what or why is “Modernism” – which was one of Austin Clarke’s favourite swear words in these very pages.

One of the earliest key elements of poetic Modernism was Imagism. Surprisingly, the story begins in Philadelphia, where Heaney and I were having our disputation, and where Hilda Doolittle (HD) met Ezra Pound at a Halloween party more than 100 years ago. In no other American city, according to Henry James, “does our historic past so enjoy the felicity of an ‘important’ concrete illustration . . .”, an observation perhaps embodied in the fact that HD’s father was a professor of astronomy, her mother a Moravian, while Pound’s father worked at the Mint.

Pound, who had already been to Europe with a rich aunt, had “Gozzoli bronze curls” and “an eye-catching green robe”. He was studying at the University of Pennsylvania where he had already met the young William Carlos Williams, while HD would meet a shy Marianne Moore when she attended Pennsylvania’s lofty women’s college, Bryn Mawr.

This confluence of youthful talents would take a long time to unfold. Indeed, though semi- engaged to her (and several other ladies), Pound only began to take HD seriously when she moved, like him, to London, where he was already launched on a literary life. “In a Kensington bun shop”, according to Richard Aldington, “Ezra was so worked up by these poems of HD’s that he removed his pince-nez and informed us that we were Imagists.”

Soon the bards were foregathering in the Tour Eiffel restaurant on the Tottenham Court Road, in secession from the Poets’ Club, itself a descendent of Yeats’s Rhymers’ Club. “The day of the lengthy poem is over,” announced FS Flint in New Age, a favourite intellectual weekly. The main influence on HD was Greek but there was also a vogue for the oriental. Pound was already interested in the East through Laurence Binyon, and his famous Metro haiku probably led to the widow of Ernest Fenollosa entrusting her husband’s oriental manuscripts to him: hence the vogue for Noh plays.

Helen Carr also has a soft spot for the Irish, such as the melancholic Belfast nationalist Joseph Campbell, best known for “improving” some fine Ulster songs. Influenced by Whitman, he was described by Austin Clarke as “the first poet in Ireland to use free verse”.

He might also have subscribed to the oriental influence in Imagism, since his “simplicity and brevity shows the Japanese influence, fused perhaps with that of Gaelic poetry”, illustrated, perhaps, by the lines: “Darkness./I stop to watch a star shine in a boghole – /A star no longer, but a silver ribbon of light . . . ”. I was glad to include this delicate poem in my Faber Book of Irish Verse.

Garret FitzGerald’s father, Desmond, gets honourable mention as a member of the Tour Eiffel group. He befriended FS Flint, who was an admirer of Nietzsche, and a translator of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence: Both Fitzgerald and Flint were civil service clerks in London, where they attended night classes, very much a vogue of the period. Carr does not quote FitzGerald’s poetry, but describes a play, The Passing, that outglooms Beckett. “There are only four characters, two of whom are ghosts of the just departed; the other two – an old woman and a widow – are dead by the end of the play.” But he had vers librelove poems in New Ageand, in 1925, a volume privately published in France, with a title from Jules Laforgue: La Vie Quotidienne.

Carr does not mention the perhaps apocryphal story that he invited his fiery friend, DH Lawrence, to visit Ireland, for which, like many people, he had a romantic weakness. What a strange mingling of myths might have resulted: Lady Chatterley meets Cucuhulain or, better still, Dagda the Well-Endowed! Or would Lawrence have discovered our lost civilisations in Celtic places, as he had found the vanished world of the Etruscan tombs?

The takeover of Imagism by what Pound called “Amy-gism” makes hilarious reading. With all the arrogance of her Boston Brahmin family and money, the stout, cigar-smoking Amy Lowell sailed into London, where she held court in the Berkeley Hotel. Pound liked her at first, until he discovered she was the “demon saleswoman of poetry”. Still, she had a certain bravery, with her love poem to her lady friend, In a Garden: “I wanted to see you in the swimming pool, / White and shining . . . ”.

The violent images of Vorticism and reviews such as Wyndham Lewis’s Blast seemed the next heave, but they were soon upstaged by the first World War. There is a poignance in the last pages of The Verse Revolutionaries, as the gifted young sculptor Gaudier-Breska is killed in battle, and, soon after him, TE Hulme, one of the earliest and best Imagists, whose sense of “humanity’s limitations” was as sternly anti-Romantic as Eliot’s. Pound sings their loss: “There died a myriad,/ And of the best, among them,/ For an old bitch gone in the teeth,/ For a botched civilization . . .”.

When I lugged this volume from my letter box, I must say my brain reeled, my heart quailed: another academic blockbuster, nearly 900 pages of text and 100 of notes and acknowledgements!

But while availing of the best literary scholarship of the period, Helen Carr also spins a lively narrative rather like an old-fashioned novel, with a dazzling list of characters; indeed, she compares Pound’s emotional tangles to those of Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Which is doing what, to who and whom? one wonders throughout. What did HD and Ezra get up to in that Philadelphian tree house, and what about HD’s lesbian lovers, such as the English writer Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman )? HD’s husband, Richard Aldington, and TE Hulme are both described as being “very fond of the ladies”, with Hulme complaining that “the steel staircase of the emergency exit at Piccadilly Circus . . . was the most uncomfortable place in which he had ever copulated”.

And it wasn’t just sex. We learn that Wyndham Lewis tried to strangle Hulme, who then “took Lewis out and hung him upside down by his trouser turn-ups on the railings of Soho Square”. Shades of a larger McDaids! Carr completes this anecdote with gentle irony: “Any friendship and co-operation came to an end.”

After reading this exhaustive almost-anniversary volume, one wonders where we stand now: are we post-postmodern? All ages are presumably “modern” to themselves, unless they decide to react, turning back the psychic clock. One hundred years on from Imagism, we are in the position towards the 20th century that the Imagists were towards the 19th. But centuries define themselves unpredictably. After we insisted on celebrating a meaningless Millennium, the present century actually began in 2001, on September 11th, and continues with technical advances such as budget travel, mobile phones and the global village of the internet. But its art is a different matter, although Matthew Arnold’s suggestion that poetry may replace religion is coming true, especially with creative writing and fine arts programmes: everyone his or her own creator, fashioning mud pies of experience in place of a Creator making the World.

John Montague is a poet and prose writer. His memoir, The Pear is Ripe, and his collected stories, A Ball of Fire, appeared recently from Liberties Press. Chosen Lights, homages for his 80th birthday, was published this year by the Gallery Press