Friday, July 20, 2007

1920s Cage Matches!

This week I surveyed the first half of the 1920s. I was originally planning on cramming the whole decade, at least in its Anglophone manifestations, into one week and then doing French Surrealism next week for contrast, but I ended up feeling that the 20s are so important for Modernism that I might as well give them an extra week at the expense of something later on (the 40s or 50s, probably). I read two poets per day, which resulted in some interesting unexpected juxtapositions. And because I can't think of any overarching conceptual rubric in which to fit everything I read this week, I will do it in the form of completely subjective value judgments on arbitrarily paired authors. Enjoy!

Tuesday: T.S. Eliot vs. Ezra Pound
(I tried to pick the pictures where they look most like wrestlers.) This is a fairly obvious match-up, and I should state up front that I am basically an Eliot guy. But I think Pound actually won this round. It may have helped that I read a little less of him (basically just Hugh Selwyn Mauberley; I'll do A Draft of XVI Cantos next week), and that this is the third time I've been made to read The Waste Land in a calendar year. I still love Prufrock and Other Observations above all, but on this reading I've decided that Eliot's 1920 Poems (published as Ara Vos Prec in England) is, for me, one of the most thoroughgoingly unpleasant books of poetry ever written, what with its triple discovery of off-putting obscurantism, brittle quatrains, and off-hand, virulent anti-Semitism. I think this is the Eliot people hate when they hate Eliot (well, one of them). Pound's Mauberley's got the quatrains and the obscurantism (not the anti-Semitism yet; he was saving that up, apparently) but also a more accomplished technical sense and a goofier sense of humor (always Pound's trump card, to my mind), and it benefits greatly from even the limited background I now have in 1890s aestheticism (as Mauberley is essentially somebody like Ernest Dowson, if he had lived). It also marks the last (and, arguably, first) time Pound had a theme that wasn't objectionable and/or completely insane.

Winner: Pound … but this is far from over.

Wednesday: Claude McKay vs. Edith Sitwell
I must say that McKay, while interesting and talented and obviously hugely important, doesn't strike me as all that modern of a poet; he shares a lot more with the English Great War poets, still working through Keats and Shelley rather than wrestling with even the late nineteenth century, let alone the roaring twentieth. (A comparison with Langston Hughes, who I'm reading next week, is instructive.) One thing about this interests me: I note McKay's deep debt to British Romanticism, and his surprising silence (in his poetry, at least) on British colonial racism, as versus his outspoken condemnations of the American variety. Whenever Jamaica appears in his poetry it's always a pastoral paradise, set against the awfulness of New York City, and moreover it seems populated by nothing but black people. Anybody who knows more about McKay have any comment on this?

Anyway, McKay's stylistic tameness, which might have bored me on another day, was a welcome relief from wading through the once-fashionable train-wreck that is Edith Sitwell's Façade. Talk about imperialism: here we have an indiscriminate display of verbal and cultural wealth, swiped mostly from the French Symbolists (particularly Laforgue — lots of clowns — and Mallarmé — lots of jewels and negresses) and contemporaries who were more legitimately "on to something" like Eliot, Stein and Stravinsky. The poems are controlled by nothing but self-amused alliteration and allusion, toss around foreign phrases (often musical terms) ostentatiously and completely nonsensically, and are so indescribably annoying that I think I just have to quote from one of them and have done:

"The wind's bastinado
Whipt on the calico
Skin of the Macaroon
And the black Picaroon
Beneath the galloon
Of the midnight sky.
Came the great Soldan
In his sedan
Floating his fan —
Saw what the sly
Shadow's cocoon
In the baracoon
Held. Out they fly.
'This melon,
Sir Mammon,
Comes out of Babylon:
Buy for a patacoon —
Sir, you must buy!'
Said Il Magnifico
Pulling a fico —
With a stoccado
And a gambado,
Making a wry
Face: 'This corraceous
Round orchidaceous
Laceous porraceous
Fruit is a lie!' "

That's about enough of that.


Thursday: Mina Loy vs. D.H. Lawrence
Probably the most provocative juxtaposition, Loy being most ardent feminist among the Modernists, Lawrence the most chauvinist. This was my first experience with both, and basically I think Loy was right on the verge of being incredible before something went confusingly wrong; Lunar Baedeker, to me, gets steadily less compelling as it goes along. The early satires of Italian Futurism, co-opting the Futurists' (and Apollinaire's) own language in order to impale their pretensions and misogyny, are pretty extraordinary; and the fragmented, profane micro-lyrics of "Songs to Joannes" (which scandalized everybody when they appeared in 1915 in Others) are intriguing as well. She also has a great sense of the colloquial, combined with perhaps the weirdest vocabulary of any Modernist writer (she uses words like "infructuous" and "sialagogues"). But by the end of the 1920s she is doing terrible jazz/dialect poetry ("The Widow's Jazz," "Lady Laura in Bohemia") and "portraits" of the likes of Joyce, Stein and Nancy Cunard, which just makes you want to be reading them instead (well, maybe not Cunard). It's hard not to feel as if Loy lost her direction, which is a shame, because she could've been among the best of the Modernists, probably.

Contrast this with Lawrence's Birds, Beasts & Flowers, which is nothing if not single-minded: basically, in Lawrence's conception all God's creatures are tough, beautiful little bastards, who are more fun to hang out with than people, but end up reminding us anyway of human genitalia. I've got to say that I found this book convincing, and disturbing, in a way I've never felt of any of Lawrence's fiction (of which, admittedly, I've read very little): the way he lovingly renders naturalistic detail is often worthy of John Clare, and the gradual but determined way he pushes his observations into significance is something he legitimately got from Whitman. Granted the poems are completely ridiculous much (most?) of the time, but I don't think it's too perverse to say that's part of their charm.

Winner: As much as I want to like Loy better, I have to give it to D.H.L. Having said that, if I had to read much more of his poetry, I might revoke his title.

Friday: Wallace Stevens vs. William Carlos Williams
Apples and oranges.