Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Capacity & Limitation - Failure as a Creative Act

                                                     T.S. Eliot in his youth

                                                    Ezra Pound in his youth

One way of thinking about successful form in the Modernist Era is as a measure of the degree of failure by the writer to achieve what he/she may have originally envisioned. There is no better example of this than Eliot's The Waste Land. A careful analysis of the history of the poem's composition, and the "editing" which Ezra Pound did of it, with Eliot's blessing, reveals that its form underwent drastic revision over the period of its unfolding. Like others of his generation, Eliot emulated (imitated) the styles of a number of English poets, including Pope, Milton, Gray, Dante, Spenser, the Elizabethan Dramatists, etc. Much of the material which was eventually excised from The Waste Land (or as Eliot had once thought to title it He Do the Police in Different Voices), by Pound, or Eliot himself, consists of satiric colloquial ballad-style jingles, some scatological. 

Based on what Eliot published, critics have traditionally interpreted the poem's fragmentary structure as a deliberate attempt to summarize the modern age as a picturesque literary ruin, a sort of archeological site, decayed in time. The poem's separate parts are thus specimens of speech, unfinished sequences of longer works, dramatic remnants, sections of music or ceremony, etc.

Eliot's biggest difficulty as a poet was in conceiving of a form which would both express and transcend his skills as a writer. In his case, those skills lay in the realm of traditional verse composition. But one could hardly foist off an updated version of The Rape of the Lock, or Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, without seeming altogether antediluvian. Eliot realized that the presentation of his satiric versions of older styles of verse could throw his talent into sharp relief, if it could be seen against a background (or context) of a quasi-dramatic comedy. 

Pound had set upon the trick of expressing, for instance, among other things, sardonic irony (Villon) or pastoral erotic naivete (Cavalcanti), by employing "antique" mannerisms and forms. This awareness of the quality of burlesque inherent in adapting traditional patterns, either as updated rehearsals, or as amusing pastiche, is crucial to an understanding of the poem that Eliot and Pound jointly framed. 

Eliot's earlier verse--Prufrock and Other Observations & Poems (1920)--is a series of dramatic voice monologues. It's clear that Eliot feels most comfortable speaking through this technique, which allows him to employ traditional verse forms while mimicking the emotion and attitudes of other (earlier) times and conditions (Victorian, Medieval Britain, etc.), while distancing himself from the implication of direct personal utterance. This distancing is the key justification for his work; as Eliot's career progresses, he will play titillating games with the fictional alter-ego of his writerly persona ("Mr Eliot"--the mincing old prig of clerical cut). 

It is clear from the shape of Eliot's career between about 1910 and 1922 that the appropriation of his poetic skill to a dramatic framework is the primary determining factor in the construction of his reputation as an innovative Modernist writer. In the Thirties, this tendency would ultimately lead to experiments in verse drama. It will be seen, though, in retrospect, that it was his limitation as a poet that led him away from the sort of formal experiments that Pound, Moore, Stevens, and Williams would try. Eliot had no epic to write, because his talent as a writer was confined to the performance of closed forms. He would have been incapable--if indeed such an idea had ever occurred to him--of writing poems of a kind such as The Cantos, Moore's "Marriage," Williams's Paterson, or Stevens's "Sunday Morning," because formal innovation at that level was outside his interest and abilities.
None of this means that the value of Eliot's work is any the less, as a consequence of the fact that he would have been incapable of the kind of formal innovation which his contemporaries essayed. His ability would have been remarkable in any time, though perhaps better adapted to 14th Century Tuscany, or 18th Century London. In the case of both Pound and Eliot, there is an open rejection of the artistic conditions of the modern age, in preference to earlier models of civilized refinement. In Eliot's case, this meant writing poetry of a kind more suitable to another time and place, but offered up as stale routines against the backdrop of modern decadence and chaos. But Eliot's writing doesn't infer chaos and decadence--that's just the critical frame through which it is presented.
What strikes me is that one of the cornerstones of Modernist "innovation" is actually a patchwork mending of the disorganized fragments of a frustrated verse caricaturist into a loose scaffolding of "movements." Eliot was never an innovative writer, and as a critic, his tastes were almost wholly anti-Modern. How odd that he should continue to be viewed as one of the great Modernists, when his talents lay in an imagined past. Eliot's failure as a Modernist was salvaged by a device that was essentially a conceptual framing--and it was, to the degree that we can verify, partly accidental and largely the doing of another man (Pound).             


Conrad DiDiodato said...


you've got here in one post my favourite critic (not poet)T.S. Eliot and favourite poem Gray's "Elegy" (which I once knew by heart). I wish sometimes there were more discussion of English poetry/poets my mostly English profs in the 70s taught with skill and enthusiasm.

I agree that, on the whole, these Modernist giants were also colossal flops, especially Pound with whose "Cantos" I'm not in the least impressed. Though as translator of Villon, Cavalcanti, et al) and some Anglo Saxon verse, he was outstanding. But it's true: Eliot and Pound were great imitators.

Gray and Pope in the same blog article:a good day's work, Curtis!

J said...

What's good, or sounds good in The Wasteland probably derives from EP (what was it, il miglior fabbro.....yes), who had an ear; TSE's ear, assuming he had one, being the proverbial tin sort.

Both EP and TSE were I believe attempting a sort of royalist politics via literature (though of course not merely dilletantes, or phonies of the Kirby Olson sort). They detested all the romantics (even their intellectual superiors, like Coleridge, or Shelley), and any American writer who ever lived. TSE may have possessed a deep profound, critical mind, but not sure he was a deep and profound poet. And I wager during WWII Eliot was the one rooting for the golden boys of the Waffen SS...(Pound obviously not so innocent in regards to that, but did at one time diss Der Fuhrer as insane, more or less).

It all sounds anglo really but Pound of 30s rejects England as a whole. However crass his yawp barbaric of the Cantos sounds, he's returned to Aristotle, founding fathers, economics etc. He refuses to return to the Cross as well (at least ostensibly)....

We will find out, or not

Curtis Faville said...

Gosh, Conrad, I would never have thought of myself as a name-dropper.

I once did a longish paper on Gray's Elegy, many years ago, but I think now I'd think differently about it. It is, in its way, skillful, and I imagine that, for its time, it probably was rather innovative--but not to our ears, given the intervening centuries of dreck.

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Ed Baker said...

I discovered Fenollosa
via (his wife) sending Pound that manuscript.

and Pounds ABC s of Reading...

"elementary, my Dear Watson. Elementary!"

some "stuff" about 'kissing off' EP here:

Ed Baker said...

"he's returned to Aristotle"

well, hell: bypass Hairystotle
and go directumly to:


The Philosophy of Plato

via The Modern Library Books

meanwhile, watch

Logan's Run ( or read the book)

J said...

I've read a bit of Ari. (and Jowett's Plato), and EP's ABC of R....Lit. Essays, and the Cantos, and ....considering even basic obvious themes---like Usura----Pound does belong in the Aristotelian-humanist tradition (with a bit of Dante, and perhaps Aquinas), politically as well. EP was also a fairly skilled latinist (though I have read his hellenism was a bit exaggerated).

See Jefferson and/or Mussolini--not too PC, but Pound DID in fact reference Aristotle's politics, and general republicanism, which he says the 'Mericans--ie Jeff. Ham/Mad./JQ Adams--advanced, at least slightly.

Or this:

""""The usual frauds of book-keeping, monopoly, etc., have been known since the beginning of history, and it is precisely for this reason that the usurers are opposed to classical studies. Aristotle, in his POLITICS 1. 4/5, relates how Thales, wishing to show that a philosopher could easily “make money” if he had nothing better to do, foreseeing a bumper crop of olives, hired by paying a small deposit, all the olive presses on the islands of Miletus and Chios. When the abundant harvest arrived, everybody went to see Thales. Aristotle remarks that this is a common business practice. """

Whoop! Res Ipza L.

(I don't know the whole scoop on WW, but I don't think EP really enjoyed vers libre ala WW, but tolerated it).

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I didn't mean to suggest you were name-dropping in any pejorative sense but just that Gray and Eliot, in the same post, always make for interesting discussion.The "Elegy" is my favourite poem in the English language.

That you wrote your best papers on these guys is no accident: only the very best bring out the best in us. As I've been trying to argue for years (and more recently in my blog) we've seen a lot of dross because of this almost obsessive concern with the early- to midcentury avant-gardism of Pound, Stein and all their very bad imitators (especially in my beloved Canada)The only poets worth reading in that early experimentalist tradition (in my opinion)are Olson, Creeley, Duncan and Spicer.

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J said...

Pound had set upon the trick of expressing, for instance, among other things, sardonic irony (Villon) or pastoral erotic naivete (Cavalcanti).

Villon may be root of Pound's authentic poetic voice, really. Irony itself--and the images of death, gallows, low-lifes, whores, in Villon's writing--would counter any platonic interpretations (or possibly Aristotelian, but Ari. allowed for some comedy, did he not). I'm no medievalist (Je peux lire un peu français....)but.... that's Pound's soul-- (though with a bit of enlightenment republicanism ala Madison, Jeff.etc, and Robt. Browning). Rabelais was another influence on Pound (TS Eliot's writing doesn't seem as aware of those influences).

'Mericans usually consider any medieval nostalgia as variations on Camelot, or sword and sorcery BS, and generally don't get the "code" (again, Aristotelian, mainly)--courtly, virtu, etc. yet.....permeated with death, destruction, plague--as with Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. Some college narcissists might read that as comedy, when it's really akin to like a Bosch painting or something.

Hipsters who dismiss Pound's Cantos don't seem overly aware of that Villonesque, tragic-satirical voice (with Dantean aspects as well).

Curtis Faville said...

It's interesting to think of the "dis"-organization of Pound's thought in The Cantos. What DID he intend the poem to signify? Certainly not a narrative in any ordinary sense of the word, even of his own life.

Pound read from multiple sources, and (with cribs and translations) from many literatures. He understood that literature without a position was weak and trivial, so he undertook to construct a world view which would/could account for all the relevant factors. But he was an amateur at it--indeed, who among us is not?--and ended up with a hodge-podge of conflicting principles and theories and interests, which would never cohere into an integrated whole. But, then, he didn't live in an integrated age. Perhaps the chaotic tapestry of The Cantos mirrors the confusion of the 19th-20th Centuries. It's un-characteristic of its time in many ways--and a tribute to Pound's profound eccentricity.

Curtis Faville said...

My post is primarily about how/why Eliot is still regarded as the archetype Modernist, despite his retrograde poetics and critical positions. Pound is another matter entirely, thought their common traits and concerns is also an interesting area of interest.

J said...

I've read the Pisan cantos--haven't mastered the entire work, and I don't recognize all the allusions to italian politics, so forth. We could call it the fragmentation of European civilization, decay in a Spenglerian sense (though I doubt EP had read Spengler, the Cantos seems Spenglerian)--the sort of the typical lit-hack generalization. .

Maybe it's pompous and chaotic taken as a whole, but certain sections have a Villonesque quality which seem like, well, poetry (as do the actual condemnations-- ie the one with like Churchill speaking out of his a**hole, or something....).

I'm not so interested in the epic historical moments represented in verse, ie the great yankee noblemen John Adams, Jefferson, etc. seems a bit awkward and dated now ---. Yet the history is important, and hints at a type of continuity--though he's not Hegelian, per se. Like Joyce, EP was reading Vico wasn't he? I think it's a rather skeptical piece of writing as well (which also seems sort of Spenglerian)--ie western civ. crumbling, broken columns, turks in the cathedral, etc. Not sure I would call it ....a-theist....but manichean nearly....