Friday, September 7, 2007


Let me take this opportunity to recommend to both of you Marjorie Perloff's "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?," the first piece in her 1985 collection The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (the subtitle of which sort of gives away her answer to the essay's question, but never mind). Among other things, it's a very helpful recapitulation of where things stood Modernism-wise in the academic critical establishment of the early 80s. Basically, the findings can be summarized as follows: Pound stands for anti-Symbolism, form as content, acknowledgment of other minds, making it new, and "constatation of fact"; Stevens stands for the Romantic tradition, matter over manner (!), withdrawal from reality, "desperately triumphant humanism," and having a paraphrasable meaning. You cannot like both, or at least can't consider them both truly Modern.

Funny, this critical obsession with "eras," and with dominant figures to embody those eras; I guess this is what those New Modernist Studies people with their emphasis on "modernisms" rather than "modernism" are trying to sweep away, and good for them (us?). What seems particularly "80s" about this question to me is the assumption that canonical considerations like quality, cultural exemplarity and historical importance can be neatly subsumed under the heading of metaphysical correctness: the poet with the best theory of poetry is therefore the greatest of the era, and ergo is the only one we should read. One only needs to step back from this idea a little way to see that it's just as unsatisfactory as the idea that it's only the writers with the best political views (the closest to "ours") that we should read, which I guess was very "70s." And speaking of politics: Perloff, interestingly, ends her essay by proposing and then quickly dismissing Eliot as an alternative poster-boy to Pound and Stevens: "no one today, whether we look to critics like Bloom or Kenner or Vendler or poets like John Ashbery or James Merrill or Adrienne Rich or Allen Ginsberg, seems eager to call the first half of the twentieth century the Eliot Era." Perloff goes on to speculate that this is "because Eliot's poetry does not fully pose the problem that came to obsess Modernism: whether poetry should be lyric or collage, meditation or encyclopedia, the still moment or the jagged fragment" (23). But would it be too contrarian or anti-formalist to claim instead that this reluctance to enshrine Eliot is because his poetic and philosophical world view, objectionable and conservative as it is, actually makes sense and was well-developed and thus difficult to either answer or caricature, making him a less attractive representative for combatants in a vicious culture war than the more eccentric and reactionary Pound and Stevens? Just asking.

I want to note one other thing which really stood out, to me, in Perloff's essay: the unlikely temporary alliance between what Perloff calls "Romantic visionary humanism" (Frank Kermode, Helen Vendler) and the first wave of American deconstruction (J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman) in the late 70s and early 80s, with Harold Bloom bridging the gap between these camps. A key part of the appeal of deconstruction to US English departments is that it let the recently discredited texts and tenets of Romanticism back into the game, under the cover of a concept to be, you know, problematized. I think in part this is a case of smuggling the poetry in with the philosophy: it's a short hop from Derrida's interest in Rousseau to Hartman's reappraisal of Wordsworth, for instance. Thus a "return of the repressed" could look like radical forward-thinking, and questions of canon formation could be shoved aside to make room for new methodological approaches to previously established texts. This is philosophically one of the meagerest, but structurally one of the most important, elements of the legacy of deconstruction in America.

On a related note, has there been any major, sustained criticism of Modernism from a deconstructionist perspective? (This is not totally a rhetorical question; there really might be some stuff I'm not thinking of.) I guess Derrida himself comes closest, having written on Kafka, Joyce, Ponge and Mallarmé, and Jonathan Culler has that book on Flaubert. Largely, though, it's remarkable how many of the big names connected with deconstruction past and present are Romanticists, or nineteenth-centuryists anyway (Miller, Hartman, de Man, Ronell, our buddy Eduardo). And given that deconstruction — it might be better just to say "Derrida" — emerged at roughly the historical point at which Modernism was shaped as a coherent canon of texts and concepts, it's particularly surprising that there hasn't been more overlap. (Marxism, on the other hand, which predates Modernism as an intellectual tradition, has had quite a lot to say about it over the years: Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, Williams, Jameson, etc.) I guess part of the problem is that so much of the Modernists' philosophy was, as Kenner kindly puts it, "homemade": it's hard to deconstruct "no ideas but in things" because it's, um, not an idea. And so much of the scholarly work involved with Modernism, and especially with figures like Pound and Williams, has been to bring their ideas up to a certain minimal level of intelligibility, or constructedness, without which deconstruction could not begin to take place.

Hmm, this is getting pretty rambly. Maybe I'd better cut it off here. Hi, guys! Looking forward to seeing you soon!

(Final observation: we could never have "the Ashbery Era," because it's too hard to say.)