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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of the mythical method common to many modernist works” is very different from the world addressed by J.H. Prynne in his unpublished lecture to the Edmund Blunden Society in 2009: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

Anthony Mellor’s The Lewknor Turn & Simon Perril’s Archilochus on the Moon

Anthony Mellor’s The Lewknor Turn & Simon Perril’s Archilochus on the Moon

The Lewknor Turn is a slim volume of poems divided up into five sections each with their own particular tone. Two of the sections are named after prominent public figures, Rod McKuen and Gordon Brown. The former is, of course, a poet of some considerable renown as an author of thirty volumes of poetry many of which can be picked up remarkably reasonably in charity shops. The latter is a former Prime Minister whose importance is highlighted in two lines from the eleventh sonnet in this section:

 

The best false sense you can lay your hands on

slides away in a fur of Brownian noise.

 

This last section of the book is accompanied by a series of notes and for those who are not in the know about Brownian noise ‘Results show that noise inlet spectra can be classified into two categories, pseudo-Brownian resonant noise and white or pink Large band noise, depending on the spectral density distribution’.

These are shrewd and bitter poems in which the tone moves from the outright comic to the moving sense of humanity trapped within concentric systems of media falsification and invention. The volume should be bought and read by all those who want a sharp dose of acerbic medicine which could provide ‘a sure cure for all diseases.’

 

Michael Schmidt’s blurb on the reverse cover of Simon Perril’s collection of 80 poems suggests that the lyrics to be found here are ‘themselves shells and fragments that constitute a haunted narrative’. This narrative elides the world of Archilochus, the first Greek lyric poet, and Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ where, as Perril tells us in the afterword, the poet tunes into ‘a frequency of lyric resistance’ resulting in the capture of ‘a viscosity of voice’. We need now to weigh our words carefully:

 

and what of  our words

when the weight

has come off them

 

and Earth’s a sapphire

set upon black;

this space

 

that comes between all

folk and things,

yet strings us along

 

beads at market

amongst the stars

and other gaseous bodies

 

These two volumes of poems are available from Shearsman at www.shearsman.com and are clear indications of Tony Frazer’s continued commitment to poetry that combines the political and lyrical, the individual and the challenging. It is comforting to know that volumes like these can reach the market-place which is exactly where they belong.

As well as being accomplished poets both Anthony Mellors and Simon Perril are important academics. Mellors published his Late Modernist Poetics from Pound to Prynne (Manchester University Press) in 2005 and Perril edited The Salt Companion to John James in 2010 as well as contributing an essay on Bands Around The Throat to the 2009 Shearsman collection of essays on the work of J.H. Prynne, A Manner of Utterance.

 

Ian Brinton 18th October 2013

Allen Fisher in Lambeth

Allen Fisher in Lambeth

Andrew Duncan’s comments on the back of this new book from Shearsman are inviting:

 

‘The first interview dates from 1973. I took the decision to collect old interviews rather than make an all-new book. I am fascinated by the idea of a very long base line, records of one person’s views over 30 years, change as part of the object recorded.

 

This is indeed a fascinating compilation of interviews and statements beginning with a conversation with Eric Mottram at the ICA in 1973 where the focus of the event was avant-garde magazines and self-publishing. There is an interview for Alembic (January 1976) conducted by Peter Barry and Ken Edwards and one for Angel Exhaust from 1987. Talking to Victoria Sheppard in 2003 Fisher refers to Spanner magazine that he had been running since 1974 as well as the Keith Tuma led UK poetry list run from Miami Ohio. Andrew Duncan’s own interviews with Allen Fisher form a significant part of this exciting volume and the more I read the more I came to realise how much of an informative background the whole book has to offer. If you want to know more about the fabric of contemporary poetry then settle down with these conversations.

 

‘A Note on Notes’: in conversation with Duncan in 2005 Allen Fisher says that he likes the ‘instance that Prynne put difficult notes in the back of Aristeas’. Andrew comments ‘Only that one time. And ‘A Note on Metals’’. The next response suggests an intriguing ouverture into Prynne’s work: ‘I never really got to a full conversation with him about that, but I have spoken to him about it. And I can see why. It’s a kind of almost like an alchemical reason for not saying what the resources are. So that someone can tease them out and get the pleasure of doing that, maybe.’

 

With that comment in mind I recalled Anthony Mellors telling me that a line from ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ [Wound Response, Street Editions 1974] was a quotation from Dickens’s Great Expectations where the character of the false ‘gentleman’ Compeyson is seen on the marshes and ‘upon his lips curious white flakes, like thin snow.’ And in Sub Songs [Barque Press 2010] the opening poem, ‘As Mouth Blindness’, takes us to the Lear who can say, of his daughter Cordelia, ‘her voice was ever low.’

 

The Marvels of Lambeth, Interviews & Statements by Allen Fisher can be purchased from Shearsman (www.shearsman.com)

 

Ian Brinton

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