EZRA POUND AMONG THE POETS
Flack, Leah Culligan. Modernism and Homer: The Odysseys of H.D., James Joyce, Osip Mandelstam, and Ezra Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.
review by Claudio Sansone
Flack’s comparative study of the import of Homer on H.D, Joyce, Mandelstam, and Pound is not only an effective guide into the intricacies of these specific authors, but is also grounded in a robust appreciation of reception theory and thorough political engagement with literary production. Her introduction presents both a nuanced version of what Homer meant to the modernist authors and rejects practices of interpretation that do violence to the poets’ often quite explicit aims. Acknowledging that “these readings [of Homer] were inseparable from their changing politics,” and that New Critics and the compilers of handbooks and guides to difficult modernist works attempted, through their “subtextual criticism,” to white-wash any and all political content from their works, preferring the less committed puzzle of “aesthetic” and enigmatic obscurity.
In tracing the study of classics around the time of World War I, Flack is careful to point out the “usefully precarious position in the sociocultural shift” that was occupied by the four poets (13). They were neither raised on the imperialist assumption that the value of the classics is inherent, but nor were they in their view able to engage seriously with tradition without engaging in their own classics-related pursuits. This often meant these writers accessed classical languages in unusual ways at a time when the formal requirement of reading Greek to be an academic was flagging, and that their syllabi of reading were self-directed. This notwithstanding, Homer became for them the “imaginative framework that helped them to conceptualize the transnational, transhistorical ambitions of their art” (13). They were in fact most appreciative of the (romanticizing) developments in anthropology and archaeology precisely because they offered an alternative route of access with respect to the more conventional values ensconced in the thought of Matthew Arnold and classicists like W. G. Hale.
The study is organized into two intelligently internally portioned stages, the first tracing the importance of Homer to these authors around the time of World War I, and the second examining their later reflections on both Homer and their earlier reading of Homer. For this review I will be emphasizing the analysis of Pound—but the study is well-balanced in its approach and choice of authors. In a Chapter entitled ““To have gathered from the air a live tradition”: Pound, Homer, modernism,” Flack uses Pound’s life-long commitment to the Homeric epics to trace the developments of his literary sensibility, showing how he gradually abandoned a view of Homer as “stable” moral foundation and began to reconceive Homer and his reception as a much more dynamic and indicative measure of social world-views. Flack’s turn to the late Homer-Pound interactions as a way for him to protest “against the imaginative and cultural conditions that perpetuated modern warfare” is especially telling of this chapter’s broad range and compelling insights (26). The poems become “a critical apparatus to explain or judge twentieth-century art and personalities,” and Pound’s departures from Homeric models are therefore as important as his more direct translations and imitations (26ff.).
A special mention ought to be made of Flack’s commitment to beginning her chronological analysis of Pound’s development with fragments of Pound’s early efforts to compose an epic (and reconceive of the term ‘epic’) when he was just nineteen years old, in 1904. Her reading of “ORBI CANTUM PRIMUM COSMOPOLITI E TOLERENTIAE CANO” [in Pound’s own words: “The First Great Song of All the World Cosmopolite of Tolerance I sing”] brings out the inherent weakness of Pound’s position as an American trying to understand the epic’s role in the twentieth century through Homer, whilst also touching on the broader ways in which Pound understood parts of the literary tradition to be in relatively more or less temporally remote contact with his creative efforts (31-4).1
In her readings of the work that culminated in Three Cantos (1917), Flack convincingly rehearses the more well-known arguments on these texts whilst also focussing the discussion freshly on Pound’s interest in the Homeric nekuia. Of course, Pound and the nekuia have been much-discussed—but Flack’s emphasis falls on precisely how Pound constructs his ‘translation’ in such a way as to pre-emptively attack readings of his poems through Homer and Divus that claim to use either as “interpretive key[s],” instead creating new resonances and networks of meaning that cannot be reduced to their ‘sources’ (38). The reading of Elpenor is a particularly well-executed example of how Flack tackles the more traditional issues with the heightened responsibility of her more up-to-date theoretical approach (38ff.). In a further novel and exciting turn of events, by introducing text boxes into her essay, Flack uses two examples from lines from the nekuia in Ur-Canto III in order to underline the kind of condensation that Pound performs on Divus’ Latin (40-1). The latter example is especially telling as the lines are condensed even further between 1917 and 1925, when Pound had redrafted the section as Canto I of today’s standard editions. These examples are not only highly illustrative of her argument, but also extremely useful teaching tools that she has produced for her readership—and I recommend them highly.
Her next section covering the years 1919-1925 is an excellent summation of the material, and provides some good access to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (46-7). In general, this section is too detailed to summarize effectively, but it was particularly helpful to see a discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses and Pound’s evolving interest in Homer’s alleged blindness preface the concluding statement that “Pound’s turn away from the epic muses of the past towards history constitutes a major ideological and structural decision or a poem including…history” (48-49). The chapter concludes with a series of further close-readings from the Cantos that I cannot make attempts to condense in this review—but I want to highlight that Flack’s energy in unpacking the ambiguities in Pound’s simultaneous conception of Odysseus as ‘hero’ and ‘idiot’ are worth reading in full, if anything because they allow us to perceive the new personal significance of the poems for Pound, and his “faltering belief in static, unanalysed forms of knowledge” (56).
In returning to Pound in her fourth chapter ““ACTUALITY gets in front of Olympus”: Pound’s late visions and revisions of Homer,” Flack picks up from the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses and the intellectual difficulties that this text caused for Pound, namely his ambiguous response to the text as the beginning and end of an era. The shift from this topic to the question of the aesthetic and political role in Pound’s later life (and in the reading of Pound’s work) is somewhat brusque, albeit well-intentioned. Flack goes on to critique the way a reading of Homer as a fixed point in literary tradition was used by critics to circumvent discussions of Pound’s lamentable and pronounced anti-Semitism (among other political positions that go unmentioned in Flack and other critics). Her reading of Pound’s courting of Mussolini through Odysseus is extremely compelling and nuanced, reading the Greek hero as the ‘ideal man’ (130-1). Indeed, while Flack argues carefully that “for [Pound], Adams, Jefferson, Confucius, and Mussolini were different historical expressions of the Odyssean hero in history,” she is careful to clarify that “the fact that Pound came to see Odysseus as a prototype of intelligent power he saw realized in Mussolini does not foreclose his other readings of Homer” (131). Flack ends this section with a rather beautiful metaphor that compares the Cantos itself as a project to Odysseus, dispersing and fragmenting as if shipwrecked, and never reaching the goals of Ithaca, or Paradise (131).
In unpacking Pound’s correspondence with Rouse about producing an accessible prose translation of Homer, Flack carefully shows just how at odds their minds were, underlining Rouse’s own biography (and his contingent position as a champion of classical education at a time when the study of classics was in sharp decline) and his distaste for the broader poetic goals of the modernist projects he encountered. Flack also reads Pound’s own feelings of inadequacy with respect to Homer’s Greek as a tool for understanding the way he engaged with the poem (134ff.). The upshot of this relatively lengthy but much needed analysis of the correspondence is to profitably underline a discrepancy between the published and unpublished sections of their exchanges—the unpublished materials more clearly showing Pound’s “animosity towards Rouse’s England,” and specifically Pound’s injunctions that the Homeric texts need to be understood in as ‘live’ and ‘real’ a speech as possible (131-40).
Flack opens her next section with a much-needed attack on Paige’s editing of the Selected Letters 1907-1941, arguing that “many of Pound’s political and anti-Semitic statements were expunged, likely as part of the campaign to recuperate the then hospitalized Pound’s legacy” (140). She argues that it is irresponsible to attempt separating Pound’s readings of Homer from his culpably blind fascist ideals and that Odysseus is transformed in this period into a “proto-fascist ruler” through the model of Confucian individual as Pound then understood it (140-2). Pound was also building Odysseus’ role as Weltmensch through a self-evidently fascist strategy of hero cult-worship, and Flack relies heavily on Guide to Kulchur to show how Pound is reading the present through Homer and using the present to reflect on Homer in turn. Flack weaves this discussion into the publication of Rouse’s translation of the Odyssey and a little-known letter that Rouse sent to Pound on 10 November 1937, “where [Rouse] diplomatically abandoned his reticence and stated what has since become obvious […] that Pound’s vantage point in Italy distorted his vision” both of politics, and of literary culture—or, better, how words are received (147). Next, Pound’s move to a more open, and evaluative reading of Homer as a “record of struggle” marks what is perhaps the most important transformation in Pound’s creative development—and the final stage of Flack’s reading of Pound focuses on the effect this had on the later Cantos, beginning from the Pisan Cantos.
Flack is refreshing in giving equal emphasis to the fact that “Pound’s late Homeric allusions are notable for their emotional range and for their insistence on intimacy” (154). The revision of Odysseus, from “an impersonal high modernist persona” through “familial sentiment” is but one line of analysis that had previously gone under-stressed—and Flack’s analysis of Leucothea as a figure that works in opposition to the chthonic themes of the early Cantos is particularly well-executed (154-7). In a closing section on Pound, Flack considers Pound’s after-life and the wide range of responses he has triggered. She correctly laments that in attempting to shield readers from the political side of Pound, early editors and scholars have made it more difficult to evaluate Pound’s Homer.
Because this study’s attention to detail is its main strength, occasional lapses in nuance are disappointing—especially when these occur in the often strongly worded reformulations that conclude her sub-sections. However, throughout the study, Flack’s phrasing and re-phrasing of well-known problems is a testament to her rigorous methodological approach, and I think the lapses are more than excused by her unwavering struggle against cheap-n-easy, totalizing views of the modernist tradition, especially those that would pitch scholarship back into a navel-gazing, source-hunting stage that does not move on to more developed arguments. One of the starkest examples of how she moves discussions forward can be found in her claim that “the mythologizing, archaic qualities of Homer provided the basis for conceptualizing poetry as a communal ritual for the twentieth century” (11). Not only does she link this claim to the Cambridge anthropologists (Jane Ellen Harrison, James Frazer)—emphasizing a lamentably under-studied feature of modernist poetics—but she also brings out the strangeness of the fact that scholars have imputed that ‘obscurity’ ought not to be read as an invitation to reading, but as a requirement that the reader bring more knowledge than even the poets cared for to their reading (10). As such, this reviewer believes Flack’s book to be also a palliative for this decade, when the study of modernism, at least in the departments of English Literature, is constantly at risk of becoming an elitist discipline where accumulation of facts is quickly outpacing the value of nuanced critical thought.
In brief, Flack’s study is not only worth examining closely, but it should also be taken seriously as a challenge to years of previous scholarship. It presents a principled reformulation of some of the basic principles of modernist scholarship, and it is fair in its critiques often to the point of acknowledging (but rejecting) the nostalgia for romanticised or positivist approaches to Pound taken in the past. As a reviewer, I regret that I cannot give a fuller picture of this study’s ambitious and well-developed scope.
1. The text of this draft can be found in Moody, “Some Early Drafts and Fragments” Agenda 34, no. 3-4 (1997): 65-88.