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Sean Pryor. Poetry, Modernism, and an Imperfect World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.  ISBN 978-1-107-18440-4


review by Barry Ahearn



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Perusers of Make It New, eager for new light on Ezra Pound will be disappointed if they seek it here.  Ezra flits in and out of the narrative, seldom lingering.  Sometimes, though, he stays put long enough to serve as a channel marker or buoy.  Then he proves useful for gauging how five poets (Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, and Joseph Gordon Macleod) do or do not share his political and aesthetic preoccupations. 

Pryor examines representative works the quintet produced between 1914 and 1930.  He is particularly interested in how their poems respond to utopian visions.  He sees them as reacting against a widely held belief that poetry should point to a world of perfection, whether in terms of aesthetics, imagination, or politics.  That last category looms large.  Pryor insists that the creation of important modernist poems “would involve aesthetic work in politics” (6).  Thus there is no tower, whether at Carmel-by-the-Sea, Thoor Ballylee, or elsewhere to which the poet can safely retreat.  They and their poems are caught in the entangling mesh of other people’s needs and concerns.  As a result, their poetry reflects an anxiety about how they and their poems are mired in a flawed, fallen world.  In the course of rejecting the possibility of perfection, Pryor says, the poems reveal conflict on several fronts.  He comments, “the antagonism between individuals and society, between desire and repression, recurs as antagonism between individuals” (46).

As Pryor tells us at the end of his book, “These modernist poems say they had to be no better than they are, in their present.  They take upon themselves the contradictions of complicity and bliss” (197). The first poem under consideration, Ford’s “On Heaven,” demonstrates that “Modernity had fallen from the possibility of an ideal or transcendent heaven, and poetry seemed to have fallen with it” (24).  In the chapter on Ford, and in subsequent chapters, Pryor takes great pains to show how plans for perfection consistently disintegrate when such perfection remains elusive.  As he points out with respect to the title, “On Heaven,”  “the title’s preposition suggests an examination, an account of the need to imagine a heaven, rather that a representation, for which a simple ‘Heaven’ would have sufficed” (42).

The local attention to particular poems and particular lines is often exhilarating.  For example, the close attention to lines from The Waste Land and other Eliot poems are full of original insights.  His account of how conversation and lineation operate in the first half of “A Game of Chess” could not be bettered.  Pryor demonstrates that the way the lines of verse negate each other mirrors the conflict between the man and the woman.  “The drive of these lines depends as much on the fact of the line, a thing determined by external and internal difference, as on the scene to which the lines refer, a scene between a man and a woman.  The lines frequently refer to each other as lines; the verse turns on itself, self-consciously” (66). 

Pryor’s account of Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose contends, “the force of Loy’s phonemic play turns on poetry itself, because the very pleasure proves complicit in the state of things” (93).  He emphasizes how her manipulation of sound, or rather, as he puts it, “relatively senseless sounds” constitutes her “most radical rebellion” (117) against poetic tradition.  When Loy uses rhyme, she does not simply adopt a well-worn technical procedure, but parodies it.  And what sounds like an attempt to create mellifluous sounds is often “witless, earnest in its own isolation, or better, its indifference” (121).  Thus Loy is self-consciously pushing the sonic distinctions of poetry to excess.  Yet it does seem to be the case that Loy makes room in her poems for “real gold.”  The difficulty with this form of gold, however, is that it resides in a crystalline aesthetic sphere that stands apart from “the bliss of the world” (126).  Perfection is possible, but not in the world of everyday activity.

When Pryor turns to Stevens, he questions the proposition held by various other critics that Stevens created poems in which everything is carefully, deliberately, and necessarily intended.  Thus in his poetry we find little or nothing merely contingent, merely accidental. In Harmonium, however, Pryor finds this is not the case. Rather, “his imperatives reject the state of things, but they are also anxious about the possibility of change, and so about an alternative order of happening” (145). Where some critics see Stevens as constructing or at least pointing to an aesthetic realm where perfection may be attained, Pryor insists that the poems of Harmonium indicate in various ways that the poet ends up creating verbal artifacts that partake of the chaotic, lapsed, imperfect world around them.  As he remarks of “Banal Sojourn,” “poetry’s unfolding in time, the happening of the poem itself, participates in this general malady” (147).

In the study’s last chapter, which takes up Joseph Gordon Macleod’s The Ecliptic (1930), Pryor scrutinizes it in terms of “modernist poetry’s relation to the future, and in particular to a reconciled society” (160).  The very title of Macleod’s poem suggests a broad range of interest, since the signs of the zodiac serve as framing devices.  The real scope of the poem, however, is not so much astronomical as temporal. “Reading Macleod’s poetry, we need to consider its relation to the recent past, including the poetics of high modernism, in order to understand its relation to the future, especially a revolution or utopia to come” (165).  But, according to Pryor, Macleod is not satisfied to deal with just space and time, but extends his investigation to language itself.  And herein lies the most radical of Macleod’s propositions.  Since language is no one’s personal possession, but is a generally shared instrument, “No single sign, least of all the first-person singular pronoun, is adequate to be owned by a particular individual” (172).  As a consequence, “language forms our divided selves and divides us from others” (176).

Pryor acknowledges that other notable modernists do not seem troubled about imperfection to the same degree.  He advises that his thesis need not apply to “contemporary poems by Lawrence or Williams, Sitwell or Pound. . .” (197).  We are left to our own surmising about how Gertrude Stein, H. D., and Robert Frost would fit into the picture, since they are not mentioned.  Well then, how much importance should we attach to Pryor’s investigation?  He adds in his conclusion that his account of the poems he discusses does not amount to “a criterion for judging modernist poems anew” (197). If so, what profit to the reader?  Pryor winds up by claiming that the conflicted poems produced by Ford, Eliot, Loy, Stevens, and Macleod represent “one of modernism’s most significant aesthetic and political moves” (197).  One wonders how a narrow archipelago of artistic production, populated by so few poems, becomes “most significant.”  I use the word ‘narrow’ advisedly, since in Ford’s case the focus is on one poem (“On Heaven”).  With Eliot we are confined mostly to The Waste Land.  Pryor limits his analysis of Loy to her Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose. When he turns to Macleod, his early long poem, The Ecliptic is the proving ground.  So far as Stevens is concerned, we have more to consider, but the poems examined are from his first collection, Harmonium

Pryor’s contention that these poets were preoccupied with the question of perfection bears examination. He cites A. R. Orage, Max Eastman, Harold Monro, and James Oppenheim as editors whose magazines proclaimed that poets could in some way serve the cultural, social and political revolution that would perfect human institutions. One wonders, however, if Ford, Eliot, et al, paid much attention to these editors. Pryor seems to think his poets did not.  “The little magazines matter because they represent common preoccupations, not because they were decisive influences on or sympathetic forums for these poets” (15).  The little magazines, in short, reflected ideas that were in the air at the time, and it was these ideas to which the poets responded.   It would have been interesting had Pryor examined magazines with a mass circulation, which would have been arguably more representative of the times.  At any rate, Pryor argues that the poets he has selected were unanimously doubtful that perfection was just around the corner. Or at least that is the case with respect to the poems under examination.  One wonders, however, if rebutting pipe dreams about perfection was the primary concern in these poems.  Is it truly the case that Ford’s “On Heaven” “represents a crisis for modern poetry” (51)?  Or does Ford’s demonstration that heaven remains forever beyond our grasp simply place him in a long and extensive poetic tradition?  The belief that we live in an fallen world in which words are irredeemably compromised was not limited to the years between 1914 and 1930.  When Pryor claims that his is a “formalist argument about poems negating themselves” (17), has he neglected to mention earlier poetry of which the same might be said?  One might, for example, point to certain poems by Emily Dickinson whose form subverts their ostensible claims.  Or should we add “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to the list, since its rapt absorption in the perfect world of the urn (or, as William Empson once dubbed it, a “pot”) culminates in a bald platitude?  George Herbert seems to fit the bill, if, as Stanley Fish contended in Self-Consuming Artifacts, “the peculiar force of a Herbert poem . . . depends on our awareness that the terms in which we are being encouraged to formulate a concept are inadequate to it.” 

Perhaps it is inevitably the nature of some arguments on an elaborate scale that the excellent critic will advance along a line of specific exegeses whose sum will be far more enlightening than the thesis they are meant to support.  We do not read works such as The Pound Era in order to master the overall argument.  Whatever the merits of Pryor’s thesis about perfection and imperfection, his analyses of particular lines, passages and poems show him to be as perceptive a reader of poetry as anyone writing today.