Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The modernist divide

Ben Friedlander thinks that Marianne Moore is the center of American poetry's modernist resurgence, not Eliot or the storied Ezra Pound. He has no problem ignoring the names text books , lecturers and earnest undergraduates insist as being embedded, in place, in order. He responds to what he likes, not brand names. Or so he seems to be saying; I think it a reasonable thing to do when one seeks what speaks beyond reputation and an theory that speaks louder than the work it's supposed to examine. This got Ron Silliman's attention, who argues for a need the relationships between the artists over the decades, one period to the next, one century to the next. The kinds of poems we prefer are not written in an historical vacuum. Both make their points.

The problem seems to be that modernism is a slippery thing to define so far as getting all the moving parts perfectly described and catalogued. It's a general style and approach, one could say, and that Friedlander's preference for Moore being at the center of this concentration of forces seems personal instead of subjective; he's chosen those that work for him and has banished those that intrigue him the least to the hinterland, a matter that doesn't bother me so long as we intend our declarations as subjective rather than historical.

Moore was a hit or miss proposition in my reading of her, lacking the set of masterpieces that fuse one to the gravity center of a period, and Eliot, though a conservative and unpleasant old coot even his younger days, did write a set of stanzas that still take my breath away; one can argue the point, of course, but Eliot's best work, in the Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, still pokes a sharp stick in the side of one's personal complacency.

Pound, I think, is indigestible, arrogant, and possessed of genius only with respect for being an idea man, a critic, a talent scout. As a poet he was more an overstuffed trashcan than a filter for the larger culture he was trying to effect. His work matters the less in our current time, but his life does provide us with an idea that we ought not trust the artist's political thinking solely because they're an artist. An imagination capable of taking the forms of the world apart and reconfiguring them in interesting ways may make for good art or not. We can always ignore bad art with no effect to the social good; bad politics are impossible to ignore.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Eliot as an "unpleasant old coot even in his younger days" is right on. I also agree that he wrote some lasting stuff. You couldn't be more right about Pound, too. I've been reading him very closely lately and have found his work wanting.

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