Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Writing in the captain's tower

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine, that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet).

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. The problem with his criticism was that it was less a system of thought than it was a nice articulation of resentments or one liners that weren't further developed. Eliot, the Royalist, the Anglo-Catholic, the anti-modern Modernist, thought himself too busy to explain himself, and reveals the conservative impatience for inclusiveness; things simply have gotten worse in our culture once alien hordes began infiltrating our borders. It seemed to him so obvious a matter of cause and effect that the relative succinctness of his views, articulated in aesthetics, needn't dwell on what everyone already knows. The criticism would be the equivalent of how he described "The Waste Land", a species of rhythmic grumbling.

It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the post modern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has having any sort of definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works. There is despair in the works, behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually--and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot , though, turns the despair into a series of ideas, and makes the poetry an argument with the presence day.

There is pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of some one who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.

Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection brilliantly, a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some of the Scripture surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for a redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism with regards of the world being an clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but post modernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world can be changed for the better. Modernists , as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their the angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early kind of modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to deign the design of the world, and in turn change its shape by use of his imagination .

Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough with out his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might other wise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he were trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your thoughts on Pound's failures as a poet, though I don't know his Cantos very well. Certainly the early poetry is written to assert a poetic perspective that he has a difficult time accomplishing in the words on the page.

    I also see what you're saying about why Eliot's poetry works (i.e. estrangement and shimmering surfaces). But to me, Eliot's work has a more complex relationship with Romanticism. I don't think he has a final faith in the individual, as you've described Romanticism. He would never write the first five lines of Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, for instance, because he doesn't grant to poetry the right to express the poet's unified emotion. As he says in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion."


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