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Gross modernist poetry
                           The Pound Reaction                                 A History of Modernist Poetry







Andrew S. Gross. The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 2015.

review by Greg Barnhisel





It probably doesn’t matter whether the 1946 treason indictment or the 1948 Bollingen Prize controversy definitively marked the bottoming-out of Ezra Pound’s public reputation. The two events—one legal and one cultural, but both profoundly political and ultimately aesthetic—were intimately linked, the culmination of a complex of forces and dynamics that reshaped American cultural politics. And bouncing up from this bottom, Pound’s reputation rode these forces and dynamics to be recognized as perhaps the major American poet of the 20th century.

The Bollingen affair is familiar territory to anyone conversant with twentieth-century American literary history. But in his erudite new book The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature (Universitätsverlag Winter), Andrew Gross offers a highly original argument about the repercussions of the prize. For Gross, “the Pound award was the decisive moment in the crystallization of a liberal aesthetic that would play a brief but important role in postwar culture” (9). No, that’s not the original part; Gross is not referring here merely to the “new cultural consensus” between the leftist New York Intellectuals and the conservative New Critics in support of the prize that has been exhaustively and repeatedly documented by many scholars (including myself) over the years. Instead, Gross argues that the prize catalyzed a poetic response that drove the evolution of lyric poetry over the next several decades.

Gross is less interested in the obvious ethical problems the Bollingen Prize raised for poets—how can a society give a prize to a poet who waged war against it, and whose work endorsed the values of the enemy?—than in how they responded to the controversy’s resolution, which enshrined the principle that politics and aesthetics could and should be understood in isolation from each other. If this was true, then what did this mean for the lyric, which had long been seen as the paramount literary genre for expressing the individual subject’s thoughts and feelings? Where did that leave political commitment, if it were central to a lyric poet’s expression?

To answer this, Gross looks at the work of several high-profile postwar poets who wrestled with these questions. He begins with Karl Shapiro, one of only two Bollingen judges who voted against awarding Pound the prize, stating that he did so because “I am a Jew and I cannot honor anti-Semites.” But, Gross points out, this reasoning violated the now-dominant “liberal aesthetic” that not only insisted that we cannot evaluate art in the context of any politics it might contain, but also held that individuals should speak only as individuals, not as members of a group. So Shapiro, in Gross’ reading, had to return to a “more classically liberal definition of selfhood as a set of individual choices” (rather than as membership in a group, in Shapiro’s case Jews) in his postwar verse.

The remainder of the book moves away from the Pound controversy itself to trace how several other midcentury writers dealt with this unfolding problem: does selfhood come from our free choices, or are we shaped and constrained by the groups to which we belong? In chapters on W.H. Auden, Katherine Anne Porter, Leslie Fiedler, and John Berryman, Gross traces the evolving (and crumbling) “liberal aesthetic” through astute and welcome analyses of once-popular works that are no longer much read. And while Gross didn’t make me want to read, for instance, Auden’s verse drama The Age of Anxiety or Leslie Fiedler’s stories from Tear Down Vanity, he effectively uses them to illustrate his argument that the story of Cold War literature was an evolution “from individualism to identity.”  

The lyric, according to the “liberal aesthetic” that Gross identifies, should focus on the individual self; lyric poetry was then judged according to how well and personally and vividly it depicted the consciousness of the individual subject. (Hence the popularity of the “confessional verse” of poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath in the 1950s and 1960s.) But Gross is most interested in those poets who declined to take the confessional road, and who thus laid the groundwork for the “identity politics” that re-entered literature and lyric poetry in particular in the later 1960s. As it manifested itself in the U.S., identity politics was the tendency for individual members of marginalized groups (women, gays and lesbians, African Americans) to focus on the common oppression they experienced as members of those groups rather than on their individual consciousness. The personal, in other words, became political—which was precisely what the liberal aesthetic insisted that the personal not do.

I was particularly grateful that Gross dedicated an entire chapter to the largely forgotten poet Peter Viereck, who sought a conservative response to the “liberal aesthetic.” Unlike Robert Hillyer, the Harvard professor and poet who attacked the Bollingen Prize fueled by antimodernist fervor and a touch of xenophobia, Viereck rejected the populism that grew to characterize the conservative response to modernism as the once avant-garde movement started to dominate universities and literary criticism. Gross deftly shows how Viereck struggled, in his verse and political writing, to find a path between the “institutionalized rebellion” of modernism and the increasing anti-intellectual, nativist populism of the conservative movement—a populism that, Gross suggested, had some surprising aesthetic and spiritual commonalities with identity politics and confessional poetry.

In my previous two reviews for Make It New (of Matthew Feldman’s Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda 1935–1945 and Alec Marsh’s John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic) I’ve criticized the careless copyediting and sometimes haphazard production of those books, so fairness dictates that I should address this mundane matter with Gross’ book as well. I’m pleased to note that The Pound Reaction is in every way an outstanding product: carefully edited and proofread, very attractively designed and produced, and even a pleasure to hold. (Something about the texture of its binding just feels good.) It’s been distressing to see how much American and British scholarly presses are economizing in this area, so I’m pleased to see that German publishers still maintain high production standards.

Gross’ book is intellectually ambitious, to a fault at times. He’s attempting intellectual and aesthetic history, and so must bring in the ideas of quite a few disparate thinkers from different spheres—George Kennan to Bruno Bettelheim to Jean-Paul Sartre. Unfortunately, sometimes the building-blocks don’t quite fit together; or, perhaps more accurately, aren’t set forth clearly enough so that the reader can see how Gross is using them in conjunction and in sequence. Some of his summaries of thinkers can get a little rarified—a bit over-theorized and under-explained—and the architectonic of his argument can get a little fuzzy as a result. Particularly later in the book I was reminded of Mark Greif’s recent and much-lauded The Age of the Crisis of Man, which similarly tried to construct a Big Picture of the western mind in the 1950s and 1960s but failed at times to sufficiently explain the ideas of the many individual writers it touched upon.

This is ultimately a minor criticism of a book whose major contribution is a startlingly new way to think about how Pound—not Pound’s poetry itself, but the cultural crisis of the Bollingen Prize incident—might have affected the development of American poetry. Through his astute close readings, Gross identifies a third strain in postwar writing, part neither of the confessional school nor of institutional modernism, that these well-known writers were practicing without anyone noticing. 









modernist poetryI must confess that I took to the idea of a new history of modernist poetry at once. In my day, I had been educated by David Perkins’s monumental two volume History of Modern Poetry (1979-1989). Naturally, I was curious and eager for this essay collection. Histories of poetry used to be written by single authors in a gigantic achievement effort—Perkins’s book, for instance, has ca. 1350 pages, which probably took twenty years to write. While at 530 pages, the Davis and Jenkins collection is no puppy, I felt that a compact, concise volume may have been one of the objectives the editors had in mind.

Perkins’s book was entirely historical and author oriented: comparing tables of contents, we see that whole chapters dealing with second-tier American poetry (such as “American milieu, 1890—1912,” “The Beginnings of the Modern Movement in America,” “Poetry for a Democracy,” even “Robert Frost”) have fallen under the table. Similarly, a significant part of Perkins’s second volume, dealing with “Postmodernism” and with such poets as Bishop, Lowell, Roethke, Plath, and Merrill have considerably shrunk in Davis and Jenkins’s collection. These poets are mentioned in essays dealing with margins and dispersions of modernism. So what has happened? First, the transition from one literary historian to two editors, the dispersal of the single point of view and historical consciousness of an author to the management of the diverging perspectives of a group of specialized contributors; secondly, a transition from “modern” to “modernist” focusing on modernism proper, getting rid of padding; sifting of what was important and fruitful in modernism and concentrating on that.

When reading the table of contents and the preface, I was grateful for two things: first, that the chronological aspect had been constantly held in view and not thrown overboard, title or no title. I was grateful for the editors’ historical approach and their care to commission essays for the “early” and “late” phases of important poets like Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, whose careers had begun earlier and ended later than that of other poets. I was grateful for their care to extend the canon and cover as much ground as possible, without sacrificing quality. Finally, I saw that they were trying to reconcile a more traditional, historical, author-oriented approach with the innovations of new modernism studies, which were thematic and theory bound. The editors themselves pointed out in the preface that while in the new millennium the study of modernism has radically changed from author to theme, they felt that there are objective coordinates (like the existence and importance of Eliot, Pound, Stein and Stevens) that could not simply be ignored. So one of the first factors that we are faced with in picking up this volume is the theoretical tension underlying it, its effort to hold together two approaches that have divided scholars of modernism for the past sixteen years. The first one, historical and author-oriented, the second, sociological, thematic, theoretical. The effort of the editors to abstain from current ideological correctness, and not to replace a dispositive of exclusions with another, shows remarkable open-mindedness for which we have to be grateful as readers and scholars. The collection is thoroughly of its time, 2015, yet transcends its contemporary precepts by refusing to go with the flow without a sense of resistance.

The result is a division into a first, theoretical part, where the “new modernist studies” approach is most evident: essays devoted to politics, gender, race, and periodicals are recognizably sections resulting from the contemporary, now familiar practice of delimiting and defining modernism. A second, historically oriented part, deals with the emergence of modernist poetry from the “decadents” to Yeats, imagism, Edwardian poetry up to WWI; a third part takes a further step in dedicating articles to individual poets and groupings between the two world wars; and a fourth part or coda, deals with the dispersion of modernism into later American and British poetry, opening up into postcolonial studies.

A good part of these essays can be considered to build the foundation of a modernist poetry curriculum: I would single out here examples like Helen Carr’s comprehensive essay on imagism; Charles Bernstein’s piece on Gertrude Stein; and Bart Eeckout and Glen MacLeod’s view of the American 1910s and 1920s. These struck me as particularly useful for a tutor’s reading before class: they are texts to assign to students for seminars and exam preparation.


Having said that, I am not particularly happy with Pound’s fate in this collection of essays and am reminded of Padre José Elizondo’s words that our poet liked so much: “Hay aqui mucho catolicismo and muy poco religion.” By that smart remark I mean there is so much Pound criticism out there, forming an industry that would humble any faint-hearted beginner – and yet, we have not made much progress in actually knowing enough about his work to avoid simple hurdles and potholes. Like the Chronology for instance: we saunter along nicely, reviewing imagism, Propertius, Mauberley, A Draft of XVI, A Draft of XXX and then... well, nothing from 1930 to 1948, apart from The ABC of Reading and Jefferson and/or Mussolini. The whole middle cantos are missing and if a student were to use this chronology to follow the milestones of the poet’s oeuvre, he would get a Pound who for almost two decades did nothing but write two short pieces of prose. Or would have the Pisan Cantos start at number 31.

Proceeding further into the book, however, we might say that this omission is the least of our worries. Pound is present in many discussions along the volume: one of them is Michael Bell’s essay on modernism and myths, where Pound is allocated a page in a longer survey. What do we find in this page? Well, first that Pound was a fascist, which was to be expected, never mind that Pound included myths in The Cantos well before he had even heard of Mussolini. Then:

Pound’s greatest project, The Cantos, [...] despite the frequent subtlety and power of its parts, often depends structurally on the allusive presentation of historical figures and episodes who are meaningful only in a monolithic interpretation which reduces them in effect to an unarguable doctrine. (54, italics mine)

If we think of The Cantos as the intellectual journey of a thinking poet, what unarguable doctrine might the critic be referring to exactly? Which one of the myriad doctrines presented or alluded to in the poem may he be thinking of? An innocent reader might think that such a sentence accusing the poet of constant and unrelieved dogmatism requires at least a reference, but no, there is none to be found. And then further: “In the mind of a fascist, myth boosts rather than checks dogmatic confidence” (55). This canned judgement, probably taken from the dispersed fringes of deconstruction, the dismissal without even the slightest attempt at argument, and the condemnation from the start, cui prodest? Apart from opening the mind to cheap indoctrination, the student can make nothing of it. A scholar might look for information or argument, yet s/he finds neither. Maybe it would simply have been more useful to be silent and excise Pound from a discussion of modernism and myth, the way Michael Tratner excluded him from his essay on modernist politics, a few pages further. I don’t know what is fairer to the authors we discuss, or does us more honor as scholars.

Unlike Bell, Timothy Yu was more generous with space and attention in his essay on modernism and race. Yu’s reading was ideological as well, but he did not to dismiss Pound’s entire oeuvre in a page. By wanting to understand “how racial discourse shapes Pound’s work” (101), Yu went into some detail, focusing on passages in cantos 74 and 81 where Pound interacts with a black soldier, Edwards, who makes him a table out of a packing case. Yu is particularly interested in Pound’s singling out of Edwards against the “niggers scaling the obstacle fence/ in the middle distance/” and juxtaposes that with the poet's distinctions of value regarding Chinese culture, between the “whiteness” of Confucius and contemporary figures like Charlie Sung. Yu is bothered by these differences, by Pound’s dismissal of the “niggers” in the distance and his obvious contempt for Sung. The point of Yu’s argument is to see how race discourses operate in poetry. But in Pound’s case, the obvious race discourse is that of Frobenius. It is true that scholars have tended to overlook his importance – to this day we do not have a decent, detailed study of Pound’s interaction with the Institute in Frankfurt and cannot gauge exactly how much of the Erlebte Erdteile he actually read. But we know what Pound in Guide to Kulchur told us that he liked about Frobenius’s approach to anthropology. This approach rested on the view that every artifact is a synecdoche of its culture, its definite qualities being specific to it. Read from this point of view, Pound saw in Edwards’s generosity and wish to be anonymous about it two details that illuminated his race. He made Edwards an African god, on a par with the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guanyin. His “benignity” (“Benin,” not so much a place name as a pun) thus rhymed well with the compassion of the goddess and with Confucian humaneness (benevolence). Yu is quoting Michael North and Michael Coyle as scholars who have done significant work in the field of Pound and race. Yet, he misses the giant in the landscape, the author who should have been the backbone of his discussion. 

It is hard to do justice to The Cantos in a collection of essays dealing with so many poets. But I suggest it would have been fairer to dedicate more space to the poem – certainly how much more would have depended on the editors’ policies and scale of values. In Davis and Jenkins’s own article in the volume, the editors discuss Cantos 1-73 and The Waste Land, “fairly” – each discussion gets seven pages. If one cannot really discuss Eliot’s masterpiece in seven pages, the sheer mass and diversity of Cantos 1-73 makes it even less advisable.

But the noise of injustice gets really loud in Jason Harding’s essay on the later Eliot and Pound. Harding is a dedicated Eliot scholar, and strangely enough, he does not co-author his article with a Pound scholar. The mission of the article was to discuss Eliot’s later work, particularly the Four Quartets and Pound’s late cantos, from the Pisan to Drafts and Fragments. A tall order. The work was divided again “fairly” – eight pages for Eliot, seven pages for Pound.

Maybe it was to be expected that Harding adopted an Eliotian scale of values regarding Pound’s work. To Eliot’s comments and criticisms, which we all know, he added Donald Davie’s well-directed barbs at Pound’s poetic style. Bearing in mind that Davie died 22 years ago, one could have wished for a fresher perspective on Pound’s late work, one that is not marred by the complaint that the Cantos do not make sense. To read the tired chestnuts of Pound’s “willful syncretism”; juxtapositions “without discursive narrative connections,” “apparent chaos,” “turgid digest,” even, God help us, “free play of the signifier,” is really discouraging for 2015, when this essay was published.

No, it is not fair. It is not fair that we don’t seem to have moved anywhere from the Bollingen quarrel – even in the 1950s, scholars were willing to make more effort to understand a difficult writer and not dismiss his mature work by (very few) strokes of the pen. It is not fair that in an academic essay of 2015, Rock Drill and Thrones get a paragraph each. We should not forget that a student who is discombobulated by a scholar has the choice of going online and consulting Wikipedia. He or she would find there 21 paragraphs on Rock Drill, with at least an attempt to tell the beginner what the sequence is about. To the massive claim that Pound’s work is marred by his fascism and his incomprehensibility, a scholar of integrity can well retort that an ideological critique researches only the minimum necessary for an easy condemnation, if possible, pre-packaged.

How is this fair to our profession, to literature, to ourselves?