BOOKS IN FOCUS
Newsfrom Afar. Ezra Pound and Some Contemporary British Poetries.
Ed. Richard Parker. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2014.
review by Roxana Preda
AGAINST CONVOLUTING THE OCCULT
The collective volume edited by Richard Parker, News from Afar, brings a welcome and necessary contribution to the mapping of Pound’s British reception in the last fifty years. While Pound’s influence on American poetry has been often discussed in monographs and articles, his reception in the UK is a very unsettled terrain and a topic for debate. The possible players are still a matter of doubt and possible controversy: while various names such as Charles Tomlinson, David Jones, H. J. Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Lopez have been more or less formally mentioned in connection with such influence, the lines are not clear or undisputed.
The same situation seems to reign over the key mediators of influence. Does Basil Bunting play a similar role in the UK as Olson and Duncan did in the US? Was the reigning point of view established by T. S. Eliot at Faber challenged in any way? Were the mainstream or rather, the radically experimental poets more affected by the invisible lines of influence? The more one thinks about Pound’s reception in the UK as a general phenomenon, the more one comes to appreciate the overall conception of News from Afar. Unlike a previous attempt in 1995 (M. Alexander and J. McGonigal, eds. Sons of Ezra: British Poets and Ezra Pound) which collected essays on Tomlinson, Morgan, Dunn, Graves, etc., Parker showcases influence in a performative way, not limiting himself to collecting essays, but interspersing them with poems and translations. In this way, Pound’s influence is shown, not merely discussed. I think this departure from general practice is a huge bonus of the volume that brings a great deal of clarity into this murky subject. Sons of Ezra had not been able to “prove” influence: most essays had just discussed various British poets in connection with Pound (the Robert Graves essay is a textbook example of this – there is no way in which we can think of Graves as a “son” to Pound). By contrast, Parker’s volume, though it does not thematize influence in its title, is much more successful in showcasing concrete instances where an awareness of Pound’s work proves productive for contemporary poets. Awareness does not mean imitation, or even acceptance: it is rather knowledge, mediated through education that is ready to be used for original work.
It is seems to me that this is the justification of Parker’s choice of Eric Mottram as key mediator of Pound’s influence over other possibilities, such as Basil Bunting or William Cookson. Mottram was both an experimental poet in his own right and professor at King’s College London for thirty years (1960-1990). His knowledge of Pound was mediated through his interest in Olson’s poetry and his correspondence with Robert Duncan – both his teaching and writing practice diffused knowledge of Pound’s work through the 1960s and 1970s to a younger generation of students and readers. The volume includes two essays on Mottram, one by Amy Evans and one by Robert Hampson, detailing his insertion into the poetry wars of the 1970s, his correspondence with Duncan, and his teaching and writing practice. The volume also includes an essay by Mottram, “Pound, Olson and The Secret of the Golden Flower.”
Parker tells us in his Introduction that choosing Mottram as key mediator for contemporary British poets was a way to depart from the Eliotian orthodoxy which had separated Pound’s poetry from the politics and turned Pound into a technician of verse, rather than an all-around experimental, politically-committed poet. Mottram offered a channel in which contemporary poets might become aware of how political engagement might flow into poetry. This is not to say that anyone stomached Anti-Semitism and Fascism – quite the contrary, British poets have been even more left-oriented than the liberal consensus who had damned Pound even before WWII. Yet these poets are aware of the way Pound framed his political views in poetic terms as a possible model for poetic-political writing. One model offered is rage and invective. Here Parker foregrounds the poet who seems to me essential to his collection: Keston Sutherland. Parker places Sutherland’s piece, “In Memory of Your Occult Convolutions,” first in his collection and with good reason, as the piece is a masterful tour de force which old Ez would have probably enjoyed and admired. Here a small sample:
Low-brow reader, it shall be you; those who try to make a bog, a marasmus, a great putridity in place of a sane and active ebullience, from sheer simian and pig-like stupidity; half-knowing and half-thinking critics with one barrel of sawdust to each half-bunch of grapes; out-weariers of Apollo continuing in Martian generalities, it shall be you; all those with minds still hovering above their testicles; less determinate sorts of people who comprise the periphery; the diluters whose produce is of low intensity, some flabbier variant, some diffuseness in the wake of the valid; those who add but some slight personal flavour, some minor variant of a mode, without affecting the main course of the story; those who at their faintest do not exist, it shall be you; (Sutherland 21)
The unremitting progress of Sutherland’s rant goes on for a three-page paragraph and is remarkably erudite, miraculously energized and delightfully rhetorical, picking up shades of indignation from various sources in Pound’s poetry and criticism.1 The collection further emphasizes Sutherland’s work by two more articles on the poet: Sean Pryor’s “Some Thoughts on Refrigeration” compares Pound’s techniques in Propertius with Sutherland’s The Stats on Infinity (2010) and Danny Hayward, while meditating on the impotence of letters to change the world, compares the violence of Blast with Sutherland’s Ira Quid (2004), a collection of five poems responding to images of torture in Abu Ghraib in Sutherland's magazine Quid, no.13 2004. Hayward sees them “as the closest thing ‘contemporary UK poetry’ has or had to a poetic project against the war” (291).
A second field that News From Afar showcases concretely is Pound’s understanding of poetry as a “knowledge-making process” (Dobran 142). Poets like J. H. Prynne and Tony Lopez have been sensitive to a poetics which relies on sources and produces knowledge in its turn. According to Ryan Dobran’s essay on Prynne, the documentary method of Prynne’s Aristeas (1967) was used to contextualize mythological thinking by drawing on historical, anthropological, philological, and archaeological sources and thus rooting myth into a definite material culture. But whereas Prynne has already been integrated into literary history as a late-modernist in the tradition of Pound and Olson, Lopez presents his latest project as a hybrid result of Pound’s documentary method grafted onto a style derived from Gertrude Stein and the LANGUAGE poets, particularly Ron Silliman and Lyn Heijinian. Lopez presents his current project Only More So as a large-scale non-narrative prose work relying on “research-led composition” as exemplified in the Malatesta and the American History Cantos. Relying on a diversity of non-literary sources, Lopez devotes a sentence to each topic and edits the progression of sentences to achieve a polished finish where the reader might produce coherence on his own terms. As he himself notes, the sentence-led progression is derived from Stein, but the documentary impulse, the collage method and the implicit education of the reader are Poundian.
News from Afar also gives great importance to Pound’s role in contemporary experiments with translation. In this respect, Harry Gilonis and Robert Sheppard stand out. They use Pound’s Cathay as a point of departure, but their translations from the Chinese showcase post-Poundian poetical agendas. For Gilonis, it is the lattice-like structure of meaning in Chinese ideograms that provides the framework of his literalist project in North Hills. For Sheppard, it is the visual disposition of ideograms on the page that prove fascinating and fruitful, in an approach mediated by concrete poetry and Zukofsky. Here an example out of his collection The Li Shang-Yin Suite:
now shadows lean across the marble frieze
& morning stars crouch beneath the slanting
Milky Way are you sorry to stare
long long nights drugged above purple seas?
(Sheppard, White Beauty 268)
Zukofsky’s translation practice, in his Catullus especially, is the mediator of Reitha Pattison and Michael Kindellan’s translations from Bertran de Born, published in the collection Word Is Born (analysed by Alex Pestell). Here the key is to be faithful to the sound and syntax of the original in ways Pound did not think advisable, convinced as he was that melopoeia does not translate. Adopting a Zukofskian approach to a poet whom Pound translated leads directly to original work, as Pestell’s examples show.
This review has just touched on the main lines in which Pound is important to contemporary British writing: the creative use of a possible model in which political engagement might be cast into poetry; the uses of a knowledge-driven poetics; and developments on the road of new experiments in translation. This is of course reductive, since the volume offers much more, both in terms of criticism and in concrete samples of poems, whether is verse or prose: essays on Geoffrey Hill, Allen Fisher, Veronica Forrest Thomson, Andrew Crozier, Gavin Selerie are just a few examples. I think that this volume, while telling a great part of the story of Pound’s reception in the UK does not tell the whole of it. Parker’s determination to refer only to what he considers experimental poets in a tradition inaugurated by Eric Mottram leaves out the group around William Cookson’s Agenda as well as a rather recalcitrant questioning of Pound’s influence on established poets like Ted Hughes, whose Tales from Ovid uncannily follow Pound’s way through the Metamorphoses. This is not to diminish the value of the volume, but rather to intimate what could conceivably be the rational follow-up: a single-author monograph dedicated to Pound’s influence in the UK historically conceived, within the configuration of Anglo-American poetic relations. Just dropping the ‘some’ from the title would have immense merit.
1. For further clarification of Sutherland's piece in connection to its sources, see Richard Parker's aticle "On In Memory of Your Occult Convolutions" in Glossator 8 (2013). Pdf.
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