Wednesday, May 20, 2009



The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis
(Cambridge University Press, 2007)

The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry, edited by Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins
(Cambridge University Press, 2007)

The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, edited by Steven Connor
(Cambridge University Press, 2004)

In Randall Jarrell’s 1942 essay, “The End of the Line” (included in Garrick Davis’s Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism), Jarrell denies the existence – at least as it relates to poetry -- of modernism as separate from romanticism stating “Modernist poetry -- the poetry of Pound, Eliot, Crane, Tate, Stevens, Cummings, MacLeish, et cetera – appears to be and is generally considered to be a violent break with romanticism; it is actually, I believe, an extension of romanticism, an end product in which most of the tendencies of romanticism have been carried to their limits”(214) -- an interesting concept and one that he well supports. If we accept Foucault’s concept of ‘rupture’ as the announcement of a new epoch (this concept derived from George Bataille), a concept which has definite plausibility, then we must ask ourselves “Was there a rupture that gave birth to a concept called ‘modernism’ and, if so, what was it?” If there wasn’t, then we must accept Jarrell’s assertion that this was merely an extension of romanticism. As there is a definite rupture giving rise to postmodernism (the Vietnam War, the atomic bomb, Simone de Beauvoir’s publication of The Second Sex, the chance music and poetry of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, the musique concrète of Stockhausen, ethnopoetics, Abstract Expressionism, quantum mechanics, fractals and the mathematics of uncertainty, Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism, Jacques Lacan’s language-driven theory of psychoanalysis, et cetera et cetera), and if there is none with respect to modernism, then we must look at the term ‘postmodernism’ as a misnomer which should actually be ‘post-romanticism’.

It is interesting that what is referred to in the introduction to The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism is not a rupture but a crisis -- the recognition of various crises towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth:
I believe that multiple causes, some internal to the arts and others deriving from broader historical forces, interacted in the development of modernism. I hope to show how developments in literary form emerge out of a background of social, political, intellectual, and existential ferment. The relationship between literary or artistic innovations and changing historical circumstances is complex, and it is mediated by the history of ideas. The nineteenth century experienced simultaneous crises that contributed in a variety of ways to the development of modernism in the early twentieth-century. These transformations can be grouped into three major categories: the literary and artistic (crisis of representation), the socio-political (crisis of liberalism), and the philosophical and scientific (crisis of reason). (3)

In discussing the crisis of representation, Lewis pins the blame on Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) -- his life roughly coinciding with the rise of romanticism, and his opposition to Plato’s Theory of Forms. As Lewis, at p. 6, states “This dualism [between reality and appearance leading Plato to consider art in a demeaning manner as reality twice removed] came under attack in the work of Kant, who argued that we can never have direct, unmediated access to reality. Since all our perceptions come to us through our senses and our thoughts, we can never know the ‘thing in itself,’ the underlying form at which Plato aimed, but only its appearance, what Kant called ‘phenomena’.” Edmund Husserl will take this ‘phenomena’ and turn it into the philosophy of Phenomenalism upon which Martin Heidegger will build leading to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism. It was within this philosophical break with Plato that led “modern artists and writers [to turn] away from the mimetic or representational function of art” leaving them with “two obvious alternatives: the rhetorical and the expressive functions” and it was the latter, “the expressive function, the ability of art or literature to express the thoughts or feelings of the artist, [that would] become central to justifications of art in the romantic period, beginning in the later eighteenth century.” As a result, “[t]he romantics prefigured many aspects of modernism”(7). The reason why they ‘prefigured’ was because the moderns were romantics still striving to come to grips with that ‘crisis of representation’. Yet, despite this, Lewis continues to contend that modernism is separate from romanticism: “Modernism involves a much more wholesale challenge than romanticism to such systems of representation as pictorial perspective and to the ideal of transparent or mimetic language.”(8) Lewis goes on to list a variety of historical and cultural events by which he hopes to prop up his assertion that modernism was a separate and distinct era from romanticism.

The crisis of reason is approached through Paul Ricoeur’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, “in which the apparent, or manifest, meaning of an idea or a text is thought to need decoding in order to discover another hidden, or latent, meaning, generally unknown to the original thinker or author.”(18) From this basis, he goes on to discuss the three “masters of suspicion” -- Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud -- who “taught the twentieth century to look for hidden meanings behind the apparent surface of a text, especially a literary text”.(24) Lewis then extends this to science: “the great scientific revolution of the early twentieth century [Einstein] taught people to look for hidden suspicions of the appearances of the physical world.”

Opening with the trials in the mid-1800s of Flaubert and Baudelaire, which “offer a starting point for a history of modernism because they raise the problem of official and public incomprehension in the face of new literary techniques”(38), Lewis, in the first part of the book, explores the origins of modernism. In the first chapter -- “Trials of Modernity”, he explores “the legacy of Baudelaire and Flaubert for six movements [Realism, Naturalism, Impressionism, Decadence, Symbolism and Aestheticism] in the late nineteenth-century arts, which together demonstrate the variety of possible responses to the crisis of representation.”(38) Baudelaire and Flaubert were joined because they “shared an aesthetic sensibility in so far as both were interested in the banal, the ugly, the evil, and the stupid -- everything detestable in modern life.”(41) “Realism rejected the idealizing tendency of earlier classicism, which had sought to represent only the beautiful and the good.”(ibid) and the term, initially applied in a derogatory fashion, “subsequently became the name for a literary style that present[ed] a wide range of social phenomena from an apparently objective point of view (the perspective of the ‘omniscient narrator…).”(ibid) Lewis contends that Realism was a precursor of such modernist techniques as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ as it “tended over the course of the century to become increasingly psychological, concerned with the accurate representation of thoughts and emotions rather than of external things.”(42) Lewis distinguishes Baudelaire from Flaubert and Emile Zola, one of Flaubert’s followers and one of the key developers of Naturalism, saying that “Baudelaire had none of the political ambitions of a naturalist like Emile Zola. Nor did he attempt the detachment typical of Flaubert. Rather, he wallows in evil in order to snatch away the veil of polite manners that turns too much poetry into cliché and high sentiment. This aspect of Baudelaire’s work announces a new mood typical of some later nineteenth-century and modernist writing that Baudelaire himself celebrated as ‘decadence.’”(46) Decadence would reach its apex in the novel –Á Rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Of this movement, Lewis says that “decadence is best understood as a predominant mood near the end of the nineteenth century and a shared theme of competing literary tendencies, such as naturalism and symbolism.”(47) It was back to Baudelaire that the Symbolists looked, rather than to Flaubert. “Realism and naturalism, while fascinated with the objective world, tended to focus on what could be seen or described: the state of medical science in a given era, women’s fashions, political events. Symbolism, by contrast, concerned itself with the invisible, and with those hermetic meanings available only to the poet or the skilled reader.”(ibid) Baudelaire also inspired painters through his friendship with Edouard Manet who rebelled against the classicists of his day (Courbet and Delacroix -- never mentioned by Lewis) by determining to paint in a manner that captured the moment in which the artist lived attempting “to catch the subjective impressions of reality experienced at a particular moment.”(50)

In “Primitivists and modernizers”, Lewis explores the first decade of the twentieth-century citing Virginia Woolf’s distinction of the modern as ‘not Edwardians’. Lewis fails to provide a clear definition of who the Edwardians were. About the only thing we have to go by is in terms of novels where the modern novelist eschewed the omniscient narrator. The best we get is “The first decade of the twentieth century, then, witnessed Edwardian continuity, primitivist rejection of modernity, and futurist celebration of the modern. Although primitivism and futurism might appear to face in opposite directions, both drew on an ideological image of another time (past or future) to criticize the narrowness of the present or recent past; both also challenged the primacy of reason in human affairs, drawing inspiration in particular from Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the will to power.”(87-8) The Fauvist and Cubist movements are discussed as examples of primitivism, as is the music of Stravinsky and Schonberg. The chapter ends with a discussion of the rise of the trade movement, the Suffragettes, Irish Home Rule and, as well, the Bloomsbury group as a bastion of modernity. The lingering question is “Has there been a rupture as yet?” and the answer must be “No!”. The primitive elements which informed some of the movements were treated as an exoticism. Society would have to wait until the rise of ethnopoetics before the non-western world stood alongside the western on an equal footing. The Suffragettes continued to view themselves as not quite equal to men. This would await de Beauvoir and her concept of “the other” from which was created the idea of androgyny. All else was a continuation, although a modified continuation, of romanticism.

Lewis, early into ‘The avant-garde and high modernism’, makes the important remark that “today, when literary critics write of ‘high’ modernism, they are usually attempting to distinguish what they see as the relatively mainstream works of the 1920s from the more radical experiments of the prewar avant-garde or of such later avant-gardes as dada and surrealism.”(96) Lewis is correct in stating that “the crucial steps towards nonrepresentational art preceded the [First World] war”(97) but it was in the aftermath of the war and its devastation that led to “many writers and artists recogniz[ing] the need for a new means of representation, one that would indeed serve the purposes of mimesis, but in a form adequate to modern reality. The development of ‘high’ literary modernism resulted largely from the attempt to apply the new art forms that had been explored by the prewar avant-gardes to the unprecedented historical experience of the war.”(ibid) Lewis recognizes the attempts and the difficulties of nonrepresentation in literature: “There is no direct equivalent in literature of the leap to ‘nonobjective’ art in painting or the rejection of tonality in music, but there were many near-equivalents. Poets sought a variety of ways to avoid the referentiality of language, its tendency to represent reality, but they could not escape the fact that words, even when arranged in abstract patterns, have meanings, and therefore inevitably refer to the world outside the poem.”(103) Often, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce are held up as the apogee of modernism but, “while sharing some of Pound’s rhetoric concerning the rejection of romanticism, these two writers also showed a greater continuity with the nineteenth-century legacy.”(116)

‘Genre’, part two of the text, consists of three chapters: ‘Poetry’, ‘Prose Fiction’ and ‘Drama.’ ‘Poetry’ is dominated by a discussion of Eliot’s poetry. For similar reasons, ‘Prose Fiction’ is dominated by a discussion of James Joyce. Both discussions are excellent. The chapter that earns the price of admission is ‘Drama.’ As there was no one playwright that dominated playwriting, the discussion begins with Pirandello, moves on to Chekov and the Russian playwrights, over to France for a slew of French playwrights, over to Ireland for a discussion of the Abbey Theatre, Yeats, Synge, et al and then back to France to conclude with a discussion of the Irish playwright writing in French, Samuel Beckett. There is a stop along the way in Germany so that the innovations of Wagner and Bertolt Brecht can be discussed. Theatrical innovations are well and entertainingly explained.

Introduction to Modernism ends with ‘Fate’, the section that concerns the political follies of the era. It is, quite frankly, an interesting read but a waste of trees nonetheless. Should we really be concerned with how misguided Eliot was, and Yeats was, and Auden was? Does this really add to the enjoyment of, or merely distract from, their poetry? This type of sentiment is what has given rise or, better yet, given excuse, to the creation of Political Correctness -- that right-wing, fundamentalist excuse for inducing self-censorship in the writer when, or so was thought, society wasn’t doing a proper job of instilling the proper moral and ethical sentiments in our elite. Let’s stick to a discussion of poetry and not politics.

Which brings us to our second book under review: The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. It is divided into three parts: ‘Contents’, ‘Authors and Alliances’, and ‘Receptions’. The bulk of the material is found within the middle part. The last part consists of only one chapter.

‘Contents’ consists of four chapters. ‘Modernist poetry in history’, by David Ayers, begins with a discussion of continental philosophers’ influence on such as Joyce, Yeats, Eliot and Pound beginning with Giambattista Vico’s Principi dij scienza nuova (1725) but dealing primarily with Hegel and Marx although “the thought of Karl Marx on modernist poetry in English lay more in its eventual outcomes than in its intellectual content.”(16) Of particular interest are the discussions of Aestheticism and Decadence in poetry with Decadence being “the form of Aestheticism under which sexual pleasure and ‘perversity’ become available to the modernist not only as a content for art but as a lifestyle in which art and life exist in a complementary state”(22) resulting in “at the turn of the twentieth century, the legitimacy of poetry...becom[ing] limited and tangential, fostered in coteries that stood at the end of a set of traditions which only with some difficulty could maintain the claims of the artistic sensibility against the realities of commerce, history and science.”(23) Why poetry had to “maintain” any claims “against” anything is poorly explained but perhaps that’s why “the poetry and essays of Ezra Pound define practices of writing poetry and being a poet which are highly conscious of the historical claims of a progress guided by commerce and science.”(24) This prepares the way for ‘Schools, movements, manifestoes’ of the early twentieth century which Paul Peppis opens with an interesting discussion of the concepts of schools and movements as defined in Renato Poggioli’s The Theory of the Avant Garde (1962). Beginning with a discussion of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurism manifesto and the English response to its widespread acceptance such as “within a month, Pound christen[ing] Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington ’Imagistes’, initiating the first ‘ism’ of modernist poetry in English.’(32) However, “despite assertions of difference from the Futurists...the Imagists could neither deny nor avoid the economic, institutional and technological changes Marinetti and the Futurists had exposed and embraced.”(33) Shortly after its formation, Pound leaves Imagism, dubbing it Amyism as a slight against Amy Lowell who took over leadership of that group, and, along with Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, created Vorticism. Leaving the machinations of Pound behind at this point, Poggioli turns to the poetries of Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy who, “though they pursue distinct paths... make defining contributions to the invention of poetic abstraction and montage poetics. Stein and Loy derive these verse modes in response to close encounters with leading European avant-garde movements -- Cubism in Stein’s case, Futurism in Loy’s.”(37) The chapter ends with a much-needed discussion of the development and poetics of the Harlem Renaissance. All of this takes us to Peter Nicholls’ ‘The poetics of modernism.’ Here, “the idea of ceding authority to ‘the words themselves’ [as Stéphane Mallarmé asserted], which would then meet not in purposeful sequence but in some kind of unexpected ’collision’, would constitute one of the deepest unifying strands of modernist poetics.”(55) This sets up the paradox of Eliot where “Eliot’s formulation assumes that the otherness that shadows poetic expression is at once the force of the new, of something that has not been thought or said before, and the voice of tradition itself which is heard again in the poet’s words.”(55) Discussion then turns to the internationalization of English and Wallace Steven’s concept of ‘hybridisation’: “The hybridity of the modern idiom and its mobility between different vocabularies and registers thus underwrite the principal structuring devices adopted by modernist poets. If their work seems difficult it is because it is paratactic and elliptical in its deepest impulse, responding to the speed and discontinuity of contemporary experience.”(56) “Mystical indeterminacies...propel us toward the larger matter of discontinuity as a founding principle of modernist poetics, for it is in this that the new decisively announces itself.”(58) This chapter concludes with a discussion of the line of American poets that extends from Marianne Moore to William Carlos Williams through to George Oppen and the Objectivists. The final chapter of this section, by Cristanne Miller, delves more deeply into the female modernist poets: Moore, Stein, Loy, H.D. as well as the masculine response to these strong female voices.

More than half of the material contained in this Companion is to be found in ‘Authors and Alliances.’ The eight chapters that make up this section develop more fully the poets merely touched upon in the preceding section. Lawrence Rainey, in ‘Pound or Eliot: Whose Era?’, creates an extremely fine piece of scholarly research and writing shattering several myths which have survived for decades regarding Pound and Eliot and the meaning of their poetry. Rachel Blau DuPlessis provides an interesting analysis of H.D.’s classicist oeuvre in ‘H.D. and revisionary myth-making’ where she states that “the word ‘revisionary’, applied to mythopoetic writing and operating as a particular ‘mythical method’, gained its currency from a feminist scholarship animated by a 1971/1979 essay by Adrienne Rich that named a cultural imperative form women as writers and critics -- to investigate, undermine, critique and destabilize ‘myths’”(116) after which she applies this concept to H.D. stating:
H.D.’s simultaneous assumption of mythological responsibility and her rupture and critique raised cultural stakes considerably, even grandly. The retelling of mythological stories, the application of such stories to contemporaneous life is hardly a new impulse in literature, but the torquing of myth had particular value as a mark of critique, not affirmation,, during an era in which discussion of gender institutions was lively and in which social location and its nuanced insights made serious claims on literary and cultural study. Propelled by the questions raised by gender analysis, the mythopoetic long poems Trilogy and Helen in Egypt were ‘rediscovered’ and analyzed with scholarly rigour, poetic empathy and cultural fortitude.(117)

Anne Fogarty’s ‘Yeats, Ireland and modernism’ considers Yeats’ uneasy alliance with modernism – something which, in his later poetry, he appears to have refuted. In supporting her claim that Yeats belongs in the modernist camp, she states, at p. 128:
W, B. Yeats fits such newly tooled, revisionist accounts of literary modernity precisely because of the unwieldy, multifaceted nature of his artistic and political career, his involvement in several different cultural spheres in Ireland, Britain and the USA and the successive phases of his poetic oeuvre. Moreover, his the outcome of his engagement with the Irish literary revival, on the one hand, and with aspects of international and regional poetic communities, on the other hand, as mediated by his relationship with Pound in particular but also with the Rhymers’ Club and the Symbolists.

In ‘Modernist poetry in the British Isles’, Drew Milne, in his examination of Mina Loy’s obscure position in the modernist canon, writes:
While modernism was evidently a movement in which women writers were central, critical models often excluded women writers from any but social or biographical accounts. Writers of the centrality of Stein are often not even recognized as poets. The texture of Loy’s work, with its controversial sexual and social politics, resists philological commentary or any easy location within the academic study of poetry. Her Futurist feminism also resists feminist critical paradigms developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most paradoxical barrier to recognition of Loy’s work, however, is the extent to which her work resists nationalist or regional categories. This helps to illustrate difficulties central to any account of modernist poetry in the British Isles.(I49)

This indifference to Loy leads to an analysis of British modernism and anti-modernism resulting in the statement that “The battle between modernists and anti-modernists is continuously reworked while remaining within surprising levels of mutual indifference and ignorance. Despite being the metropolitan centre of an English-speaking ‘commonwealth’, the economic capital of the nineteenth century and a home of sorts for modernists like Karl Marx, London appears never quite to have generated the avant-garde cultures associated with Berlin, Paris or New York.”(152) Milne then proceeds on a revisionist agenda to elevate the overlooked. Near the opening to her essay ‘US modernism I: Moore, Stevens and the modernist lyric’, Bonnie Costello writes:
Moore recognized in herself the same danger she recognized in Stevens: the danger of baroque excess and romantic solipsism which would turn on itself to produce an equally inadequate bareness, a craving for the primitive or the reductive. Behind this mutual admiration was a common project, to forge each his or her own ‘individual reality’ but one ‘adequate to the profound necessities of life’ and thus cleaving to the real. Both were attempting to become, in their own distinct ways, what Moore called ‘literalists of the imagination’ who sought to create ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’”(164)

Costello explores the nature of the image as it has been transformed by Moore and Stevens. In referring to ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, she describes it as “a composition in black and white exploring a range of problems in space and perspective.”(171) She was close to being correct but didn’t go far enough: the “problems in space and perspective” which Stevens explored resulted in a Cubist panorama. Mark Scroggins explores that other lineage in ‘US modernism II: the other tradition – Williams, Zukofsky and Olson’ where he traces the development through these poets’ long poems -- Williams with Paterson, Zukofsky with A and Olson with The Maximus Poems. Sharon Lynette Jones concludes this work with ‘The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance’ where she says:
Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance represents diversity in perspectives and aesthetics. The complex connection of social, political and economic forces that created this movement left a legacy of poetry that continues to influence contemporary African-American writers. The relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and modernism is complex, illustrating the attempt by African-American writers and intellectuals to reflect an African American cultural perspective through the use of African-American vernacular (black English), jazz/blues, the oral storytelling tradition and/or Afrocentric themes. Consequently, the Harlem Renaissance symbolizes the collective voice of African-Americans (sic) authors in the era of modernism.(204-5)

She fails to include, in her summary, her earlier statement, in considering the poetry of Helene Johnson, regarding “the tendency of Harlem writers to employ traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet, and to appropriate these forms to meditate on black life”(204)

The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism provides a broad panorama of postmodernist influence. Although having a chapter on literature and postmodernism, poetry is not considered. If the reader is after an overview of the effects of postmodernist thought, this book could be considered a good introduction. However, if after an overview and introduction to postmodernist thought itself, this book is lacking and there are several others that will provide that much better. Furthermore, even in the subjects considered, much has been missed as a result of the extolling of British chauvinism.

All told, the books on modernism provide excellent introductions to their subject matter, the one on postmodernism not so much. Perhaps a guide to postmodernism is in order.


John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.

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