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A History of Modernist Poetry Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge University Press)

A History of Modernist Poetry  Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins  (Cambridge University Press)

I have rarely come across a readable, engaging and infectious introduction to the world of Modernist Poetry…until NOW.
The opening lines of this History set the scene:

“What, When, and Where was modernism? Is modernism a period or a paradigm, an era or a style? Is modernism solely the product of metropolitan modernity, or equally of local, even peripheral, spatialities? Is modernism an ‘international’ or even transnational phenomenon, or is it wedded to notions of cultural nationalism and regional identity?”

The questions are set out and the twenty-three chapters of this fine book attempt to answer them. A concern for placing modernism within an historical context leads the editors to wonder if it marked a moment of avant-garde rupture with its late nineteenth-century poetic antecedents or did it consist, instead, of “a reinflection and continuation of their preoccupations”.

“In what follows, modernist poetry is understood as having its roots in the fin de siècle even as it reflects and refracts the climate of the new century, as an affair of the city and imperial centre, and of what Scottish poet High MacDiarmid termed the ‘stony limits’ of the periphery; and as a variegated field of formal experiments, whether iconoclastic rejections of the past or embattled recuperations of it.”

There is an engaging directness of address in the editorial introduction and I found myself held by a contextual comment such as the difference between modernism and the broader “modern movement”:

“Both register the shock of the new in terms of content and push at the envelope of conventional form; nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between, for example, the Edwardian verse of John Masefield and the early poetry of Mina Loy.”

The point is made even clearer when one compares the representation of the First World War in David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) and the shell-shocked Georgianism of the lyric war poetry of Sassoon and Owen. Jones’s “mixed prose and verse narrative underpinned by the deep time of the mythical method common to many modernist works” is very different from the world addressed by J.H. Prynne in his unpublished lecture to the Edmund Blunden Society in 2009:

“In different ways each one of what we now can’t avoid calling war poets had to make do with traditional modes and genres of composition, as compellingly the default option. With so much of their cultural equipment at risk of destruction, they were deeply conservative in formal poetics, even as they experimented towards far limits in the expression of personal and ethical feeling…Pound, Eliot and Joyce defined major new initiatives, but the surviving war poets lapsed into survival. This stand-off stakes out the territory for literary antagonism and contest, between old-style cultural continuities and the progress of Modernism, both rooted in the modality of the English language but in the case of Eliot and Pound determined to break the mould of inherited practice, to fight free of suffocating influence from the past.”

It is little wonder that In Parenthesis was championed by Eliot sharing, as it did, a fragmentary presence heralded in different voices through whose tones of expression mythology provided a framework for contemporary analysis.
Rather than give a list of all 23 chapters in this new History I urge readers to look the details up on-line: this is probably the most important collection of essays on Modernism to appear for some time to come. What I can do is highlight two little delights, tasters as it were. Mark Scroggins wrote a biography of Zukofsky (Shoemaker Hoard, 2007) and it comes as little surprise that his chapter on ‘Objectivist Poets’ should be so clear in its purpose and details. Scroggins highlights the sense that whilst several writers saw their work published by The Objectivist Press (TO) “the poets now discussed as Objectivists never formed anything like a coherent movement”. He concludes his survey with the statement from Zukofsky who wrote that their interest resided “in the craft of poetry, NOT in a movement”. The final chapter of the History, this history, not where history ends(!), is written by Anthony Mellors whose Late Modernist Poetics, From Pound to Prynne (Manchester University Press, 2005) provides a major focus on Pound, Celan, Olson and Prynne. Mellors concludes his summing-up of A History of Modernist Poetry by quoting Allen Fisher who describes his own poetic strategy as a truth to materials which “involves slow decomposition, disruption of autobiographical voice through the use of many voices”. In response Mellors writes “The danger here is for multiplicity to become a new orthodoxy”. David Jones might well have been interested in this view of the future as well as the past when he opened his Preface to The Anathemata (1952) with the quotation from Nennius (or whoever composed the introductory matter to the Historia Brittonum):

“I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

Ian Brinton 4th April 2017

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