Category Archives: Selection from Poetry Nation Review

Three books on American poetry

Critical Quarterly 27, 4 (December 1985), pp 88-90


A. Robert Lee (ed.), Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (Barnes & Noble)

R. W. Butterfield, Modern American Poetry (Barnes & Noble)

Alan Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Harvard University Press)



The first two of these volumes belong to the ‘Critical Studies’ series of symposia on American literature. The general aim seems to be an admixture of summa¬tion and stimulus; here the contributors, many of whom teach at the Univer¬sities of Essex and Kent, have opted chiefly for the latter. Their critical judgements have the air of intervening in a discourse of received opinion.

The hard-pressed undergraduate need not be too anxious, however. Each editor offers a brief opening perspective on the period and the poetry about to be reinterpreted. Of the two introductions it is Butterfield’s which says more in less space. In essence, he tells us, the history of modern American poetry may be explained as a triadic tension: that between ‘America’, ‘the poem’ and ‘the self’. If he is tentative about referring each of these to a particular formative figure, it is because he wants to encourage the student to discover how subtly the elements have ‘conjoined’ over the years. He strongly hints, though, at Whitman, Poe and Dickinson respectively.

Lee, while less comprehensive, is more encouraging about tracing origins and lines. Excluding Butterfield’s middle term, poetry per se, he takes as his matrix a binary opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘American identity’ and ‘singular identity’ — thus enabling him to speak of a continuity between Whitman and Olson and between Dickinson and Plath. But again, the reader is warned: American literary inheritance is, we must never forget, a ‘complex fate’.

Lee’s volume thus offers two varying readings of Whitman: one (by Eric Mottram) as ‘public’ prophet and another (by Mark Kinkead-Weekes) as ‘private’ lyricist. Within one essay on Dickinson, Jim Philip attends both to the New England and Puritan context and to the personal courage implicit in the power of the verse. Of the remaining contributions, Robert von Hallberg’s account of Poe invites attention, precisely because it might be expected to evade the editor’s paradigm; yet here again, if ‘American identity’ and ‘singular identity’ are briefly overshadowed by a theory of pure poetry, this in itself is soon explained as Poe’s own challenge to English cultural hegemony.

The main link between the two ‘Critical Studies’ volumes is provided by Graham Clarke. Concluding Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, he demonstrates how Whitman and others, parallel to East Coast landscape painting and in keeping with Emerson’s philosophy of Transcendentalism, worked towards an ‘ideal realism’: that is, a formal achievement whereby the self was able to ‘read’ America as God’s ‘text’, as ‘a literal prospect which signified an implicit mythical dimension’. To regain ‘this “true” meaning, this original image’, it was necessary to ‘establish an aesthetic freed from entrapping conventions and traditions which stood between the eye and its divine object’. Then, in the middle of Modern American Poetry, Clarke tells us that Olson’s ‘insistence on origins’, his search for ‘the original moment of naming’ (the spoken act, taken to precede the word as written form) is a way of reasserting and revivifying the initial Emersonian impulse. This, it seems, is how to make sense also of Williams, and even Crane (as demonstrated by Jim Philip and Jeremy Reed). But it proves an uncongenial context for Wallace Stevens: we find Richard Gray referring him back almost apologetically to English Romanticism rather than American Transcendentalism.

English Romanticism is just where Alan Williamson unreservedly begins. Indeed, in the introduction to Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, a study of the American scene of the past twenty-five years, he quotes an English Romantic — ‘we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live’ — to such effect that it makes one wonder why Lee and Butterfield did not go to more pains to explain where exactly the Emersonian self and nature depart from the Coleridgean. There is a danger that even the diligent student might come away from their volumes thinking that the main difference is America itself, where self and nature evidently come in bigger sizes.

Leaving the peculiar advantages of his country aside, then, Williamson, Professor of English at the University of California, attends rather to the way certain of its recent poets have related to the Romantic faith. He devotes much of his time to work which, though attributed to a tradition by Lee, is virtually neglected by Butterfield: the ‘confessional’ poetry of Lowell and Plath. True, Gabriel Pearson does discuss the former in Modern American Poetry but, con¬fining himself to For Lizzie and Harriet, deems Lowell guilty of exhibitionism; Plath is not mentioned once throughout the whole volume. Williamson himself, however, is by no means interested in straightforward self-expression. ‘Confessionalism’, he assures us, is only valid where it involves a ‘reflexive mode’, a constant turning round upon the self, an insistence on its responsibility to common humanity and the world. Lowell’s The Dolphin and Plath’s Ariel would seem to fulfil this requirement.

But the poet central to Williamson’s argument — that the best poetry of the last twenty-five years is about ‘the sense of being or having a self, a knowable personal identity’– is not ‘confessional’ at all. Ashbery is one of those who have reacted against the rhetorical excesses of his introspective predecessors, but he is not finally to be identified with the impersonal surrealism of his peers, Merwin and Strand. Admitting that our experience of the world is arbitrary and largely superficial, and that the self cannot be disengaged from that experience for purposes of diagnosis, he yet indicates (to Williamson at least) that meaning may exist in the very capacity of the self to embrace its chaos.

Thus we are brought back to Romanticism: if not Coleridge’s then Keats’s certainly. ‘Negative capability’ is not, one suspects, what Butterfield would have wanted any contributor of his to find in Ashbery. But Williamson makes a good case, and his book (difficult going as it sometimes is) may be recommended as an extension of, and a partial corrective to, both these usefully provocative ‘Critical Studies’ volumes.


Laurence Coupe

The Beat Vision

Poetry Nation Review

Jan/Feb 2007

Lynn M. Zott (ed.), The Beat Generation: A Gale Critical Companion (London: Gale-Thompson, 2006), 3 vols.

Admitting a taste for the Beats can still be something of a faux pas in certain academic circles, to be greeted by a look of pained incredulity. After all, Jack Kerouac wrote rambling novels, attempting to present his own tedious travels as a sustained act of rebellion. Allen Ginsberg was a shallow self-publicist, whose meagre poetic talent was squandered in pursuit of the role of guru of the hippies. Gary Snyder may be impressive for his devotion to the ecological cause, but his poetry is flat, prosaic and dull. Such opinions represent a significant consensus, I suspect.

So established is the assumption that ‘Beat’ means ‘bad’ that the fact that for half a century the common reader has felt otherwise, and been ‘turned on’ to literature by discovering this or that Beat writer, cannot prevail against it. Nor can the fact that, more recently, students have opted for courses on the Beat movement in large numbers – and not always as a soft option. For Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder are not really an easy read: common readers and students alike find that this body of work makes demands, opens minds, changes worldviews. Indeed, at their best, they merit inclusion in that great visionary tradition which stretches back, not only to Whitman and American Transcendentalism, but also to Blake and English Romanticism: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’

That may be a controversial claim: mine, I mean, not Blake’s – which at least has the advantage of longevity. But it would seem to be sustained by this ambitious, three-volume celebration of a literary movement which, in its own way, has had as big an impact on Western culture as has modernism. Significantly, both the modernists and the Beats have suffered from stereotyping: the former being regarded as elitist and esoteric; the latter being regarded as ill-disciplined and self-indulgent. Interestingly, more than one article reproduced in this critical companion suggests that a poem such as ‘Howl’ is more indebted to Eliot’s The Waste Land than at first appears. After all, it presents us with the demonic metropolis, the descent into darkness, the journey into the wilderness, and the promise of salvation: for ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ read ‘Holy holy holy’. However, it is only in a Romantic context that we can fully understand Ginsberg’s ‘Footnote to Howl’, reaffirming as it does the bardic affirmation of Blake: ‘Everything that lives is holy’. The essays gathered here largely support this approach: allusions to Romanticism are as frequent as those to bebop music and to post-war bohemianism. Though all of them have been published before, seeing them together – one volume on ‘Topics’, the other two on ‘Authors’ – makes one realise how important it is to come to terms with the way the Beats revised and extended the visionary tradition.

True, it is a pleasure to re-read Kenneth Rexroth’s early commendation of their experiments, which for him aligned them with Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollock, but we find other commentators and reviewers soon beginning to adopt a longer perspective. Again and again, Ginsberg is praised for his Blakean manner, even while doubts are expressed about whether he manages the Blakean balance between poet and seer. More generally, the debt is recognised to be as much spiritual as literary, with most summations of the Beat movement honouring the equipoise achieved in the best of the writing. One of the more recent pieces, Robert C. Fuller’s comprehensive account of the ‘psychedelic’ dimension of Beat spirituality, is probably one of the best, informed as it is by a half-century of speculation. Summation is not easy, however, and it is noteworthy that he feels it appropriate to invoke another commentator, Robert Ellwood, when it comes to stating the case as unequivocally as possible. Thus, the Beats effected ‘(1) a shift from mainline to nonconformist religion, (2) a rediscovery of natural rather than revealed religion, (3) a new appreciation for Eastern religious thought, and (4) a new Romanticism that accords spiritual importance to certain nonrational modes of thought and perception.’ That seems to me to get the picture clear: a spiritual revolution that is made possible through a literary achievement – and which could not have been made any other way. The Beats may have got their basic philosophy at the outset from the Buddha, but it was Blake who showed them that it was possible to give poetic life to such ideas.

In this context, it is worth recalling (as do many of the contributors to this companion) that Kerouac regarded himself as a religious writer. He it was who used the word ‘Beat’ to mean ‘beatific’. The introductory essay on him (in volume 3) points out that the tension between the inner world of spirituality and the outer world of bohemian hedonism is the very subject of his most famous novel, On the Road. Other contributors follow on from here, reading such novels as The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels as meditations on the nature of religious belief. According to Omar Swartz, Kerouac sponsored ‘the cult of high experience’: this may have encouraged the excesses of ‘flower power’, but he himself was always conscious that vision is not possible without constraint. Though he was responsible for introducing his fellow-writers to Zen Buddhism, it was the discipline he was interested in rather than the supposed licence to act the holy fool. Finally, disillusioned with the follies of the counterculture, he returned to the strict Catholic faith of his childhood.

As for Snyder, he has stayed true to Zen: the real thing, that is: a spiritual practice dedicated to attaining harmony with nature, not the phoney, bohemian Zen of the ‘beatniks’ (the hangers-on of the Beats). Though we have to acknowledge his own unease about the label of ‘Beat’, the material reproduced here comprises a good case for his work as a necessary corrective from within the movement to the excesses of Ginsberg. Beat poetry, that is, does not just mean a long, rambling line and an indeterminate apocalypse; it also means a sharp, clear image of nature and a laconic indictment of its enemies. Snyder, we might say, is a neo-Romantic ecologist who has had a neo-classical training – if we allow the Japanese haiku to be an appropriate model. He represents the Beat vision in its purest form.

Alan Watts once declared that ‘a universe which has manifested Gary Snyder could never be called a failure’. If that rather overstates the case, let us limit ourselves to the hypothesis that any literary movement that produces poems such as ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ or ‘Front Lines’ could never be called a failure. See them as expressive of a genuine shift in sensibility, and the publication of this companion is justified. Every writer associated with the Beat movement is included – though it is especially revealing on the three I have mentioned. It should find a place on the shelves of all public and academic libraries; as for common readers and students, they could do worse than club together – in true Beat spirit – to buy these three volumes between them and circulate them in perpetuity.

Laurence Coupe

The Story So Far

Poetry Nation Review

March/April 2003

Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
Jeanette Winterson, Weight
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
(Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005)

It was with some relief that I picked up these three volumes in Canongate’s new series, The Myths. For too long the field of mythology has been aggressively ploughed by the more rigorous followers of Roland Barthes. When he himself began, half a century ago, to read certain artefacts of popular culture as ‘myths’, and to ponder their hidden bourgeois agenda in a series of elegant articles, it must have seemed very exciting. Who would have thought that a magazine cover or a wrestling match or an advert for washing powder could merit so much political speculation? But in the intervening years, with the institutionalisation of his insights, a speculative method has been reduced to a mechanical exercise. First, catch your artefact. Next, search out its secret. Now call it a ‘myth’. The order is variable, in practice; but as long as one succeeds in demonstrating that the ‘myth’ suppresses history and discourages radical cultural change, the job is done. ‘Mythology’, in short, is synonymous with ‘ideology’, in its pejorative sense. It is a realm of delusion.

Such an approach may properly be assigned to what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Insofar as it has triumphed, mythology as traditionally understood has tended to be overlooked. The approach works best with Hello rather than Homer, with Diehard rather than Dionysus – which rather narrows its potential. Just as importantly, the idea that mythology is valuable precisely because it can provide opportunities to revise our view of ourselves and our world – as propounded by Ricoeur and by writers as diverse as Ernst Bloch and Marina Warner – has been regarded as eccentric. The Canongate series, based on the idea that traditional stories still matter, and that they can be told and retold indefinitely, always throwing up new kinds of significance, is therefore especially welcome. It reminds us of a pleasing paradox: mythology is both universal and cultural, both timeless and historical. It is a realm of perpetual possibility.

This world is opened up for us by Karen Armstrong in the introductory volume, A Short History of Myth. The very title is another reminder of the fact that myths are told in time; what she does is demonstrate how they acquire new significance as history unfolds. She knows the value of keeping the past alive in the present for the future. Deities of sky and earth, seasonal sacrifices, rites of passage: they all begin to resonate once more, thanks to the considerable weight of her learning, which Armstrong wears very lightly indeed. Similarly, she manages to survey religions which are at ease with myths (Hinduism, Buddhism) and ones which pretend to do without them but actually rewrite them radically (Judaism, Christianity), with such an eye for relevance that we can only wonder why we ever thought we could get away with neglecting them.

Of course, anyone who sets out to trace the development of mythology from 20,000 BCE to 2005CE in one short volume must be aware of the risks. Someone is bound to fault one’s scholarship on specific points, even if one is the author of some of the most important studies in religion and cultural history written over the past twenty years. Did the ‘Sky God’ really precede the ‘Great Goddess’? There are plenty of scholars willing to argue the reverse. Do ‘hero’ myths really date back as far as the Paleolithic era? The more widespread assumption is that mythology does not feature human protagonists until the rise of a patriarchal warrior class.

I am sure that Armstrong could respond coherently and cogently to such challenges. But a more general concern is likely to be expressed, not by fellow scholars of myth but by proponents of the dreaded ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Has not mythology been replaced by science, which saved us once and for all from irrationality? Here Armstrong has to draw on an ancient lesson, exploring the distinction in Greek thought between mythos (story) and logos (reason): philosophers began to mistrust the one and overvalue the other, but they found they couldn’t do without either. Plato realised that the best way of explaining his new ideas was to revise the old stories. Moreover, Plato – along with Buddha, Lao-Tse and others – exemplifies Karl Jaspers’ ‘Axial Age’ (c. 800-200 BCE), the era in which the meaning of mythology became more and more internalised and spiritualised. We who belong to what Armstrong calls ‘The Great Western Transformation’ (c. 1500-2000CE) need to learn that Axial lesson anew. We need to keep making finer and finer sense of myths if we are not to act them out disastrously in the historical world (think of Auschwitz, think of Stalin’s gulags, think of Bosnia).

In short, according to Armstrong, we suppress one or other of these dimensions – mythos or logos – at our peril. Myth without reason, or reason without myth: either way, we fail to live as fully spiritual, fully ethical, fully human beings. It is in our interests to keep mythology alive and well, not to surrender to the fallacy of ‘demythologisation’. Her case is unanswerable, it seems to me, and not only because it chimes in with my own modest researches. It certainly creates high expectations for the retelling of myths which the rest of the series is about. We are not disappointed.

In Weight, Jeanette Winterson reworks the ancient Greek story of Atlas, the Titan condemned to hold up the heavens on his shoulders, as a punishment for leading a rebellion against the new order of Olympian deities, ruled by Zeus. This story overlaps with that of Heracles, one of the many offspring resulting from sexual liaisons between Zeus and mortal women. We may recall the ‘twelve labours’ he undertook in his attempt to evade the animosity of Zeus’s wife, Hera, and to earn the right to live forever. One of these tasks was to pick the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas and Hespiris. Heracles offered to take over Atlas’s wearisome work briefly, provided Atlas would go and gather the fruit; Atlas thought he might use this opportunity to escape from his burden once and for all, but Heracles tricked him into resuming his position.

Knowing this material inside out, Winterson offers us an audacious and intriguing exploration of what it means to want freedom, while knowing that there must always be a boundary to one’s desires (as for Atlas), and of what it is like to be constantly preoccupied with both love and death, divinity and humanity, immortality and fate (as for Heracles). Making all this seem relevant today without descending into bathos cannot be easy, but Winterson manages to incorporate colloquial exchanges between the characters (‘You see, Atlas, my old mountain, my old mate…’) without marring the lapidary style which proves so effective in the refashioning of the myth (‘Time was my Medusa. Time was turning me to stone…’). Nor should we overlook her ability to fuse ancient Greek cosmology (‘I am the Kosmos…’) and contemporary physics (‘Atlas was in a black hole…’). What carries her through is her faith in the supremacy of storytelling, which is well rewarded here.

It is a faith shared by Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad is her retelling of the story of Penelope and Odysseus, chiefly from the point of view of the former (though not exclusively). This treating of background as foreground permits us illuminating glimpses of an alternative world, in which male heroics appear less impressive than we had thought. Further destabilisation is achieved by letting the female protagonist speak from the perspective of the underworld, Penelope being dead by the time she tells her side of the story. In Hades she is free to comment on the vain, incurably flirtatious Helen, the Greek beauty who ran away with Paris to Troy, thus causing the Trojan War, which is the subject of Homer’s Iliad. But her main focus is on the clumsy but crafty Odysseus, the Greek hero whose long journey back from the war is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Penelope takes the part of the patient wife besieged by suitors. Death distances us from what used to be the main events; the female voice allows another sense of humanity to be heard.

Odysseus’ innumerable adventures and sexual intrigues with goddesses, his final return in disguise to Ithaca, his recognition by his old nurse, his slaying of the suitors and of those maids of Penelope whom he thinks to have betrayed the household’s honour, his reunion with his wife: we are used to thinking of these as impressive achievements. But Atwood allows us to think otherwise, and to question the cult of the male hero. This is done subtly, without denying Odysseus’ capacity for charm and intrigue as well as brute force, so that we do not feel ourselves to be reading a feminist tract. Indeed, the feminist tract features as part of a general medley of voices heard throughout the novel (which includes poems, songs, dramatic scenes, court transcripts, etc). The murdered maids give a lively, if posthumous, lecture on anthropology, focussing on the suppression of matriarchal goddess-worship by patriarchal hero-worship. But when, at the end of Odysseus’ trial, they summon up the Furies to ensure his eternal punishment, they inadvertently allow for a shift of sympathy. The more he keeps having to be reborn (‘He’s been a film star, an inventor, an advertising man….’), the more Penelope sees his side of the story again. Perhaps she realises that as the wayward warrior he was a lot less tedious than more recent occupants of Hades (‘Adolf’, for example).

Both Winterson’s and Atwood’s novels, nicely situated by Armstrong’s exposition, reveal the power of myth, when retold well, to challenge our preconceptions and to help us imagine otherness. ‘Mythology’ means so much more than ‘ideology’. The tale that can always be retold promises a new way of seeing, as this timely series has clearly begun to demonstrate.

Laurence Coupe

The Moronic Inferno

Poetry Nation Review

Jan/Feb 2001

Ivo Mosley ed., Dumbing Down: Culture, politics and the mass media (Thorverton: Imprint Academic, 2000)

T.S.Eliot was a devotee of the music hall, and wrote appreciatively about the performances of Marie Lloyd. He advocated a poetry of primitive depth that would reach down into the roots of the collective psyche. He famously defined culture as a ‘whole way of life’ that included ‘a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar’. So far so good for those who nowadays speak the rhetoric of populism, who frequently invoke ‘the people’ in a vague gesture of generosity. However, Eliot also argued that the social ‘organism’ needed defending against the claims of commerce and bureaucracy, and against a naïve faith in technology. Though his list of representative artefacts stretched humorously yet approvingly across a broad cultural spectrum, it is hard to imagine him constructing one today that would include, for instance, the national lottery, muzak, TV ‘makeover’ programmes, McDonald’s beefburgers, karaoke, the Dome and the latest recipient of the Turner Prize. He might have some doubts about a globalized civilisation (he would withhold the word ‘culture’) which fosters greed and envy, which equates vitality with sensationalism, and which relies on indifference to the environment which sustains it.

Ivo Mosley’s anthology is not compiled with Eliot in mind. Nor, surprisingly, is there any mention of F. R. Leavis or John Ruskin. After all, these three represent a most important tradition of resistance to the adulteration of human experience effected by industrial modernity – a tradition which we might do well to recall in this era of post-industrial postmodernity, when experience is so hard to assess, merging as it does with ubiquitous entertainment. However, in today’s academy, their names are frequently used with defensive flippancy, their moral stance having become something of an embarrassment. Thus, it is perhaps the very fact that any appeal to a canon of critique is so difficult today that makes Dumbing Down pertinent. One can only admire the courage of the editor’s convictions, evident in the very challenge of the title, and express one’s gratitude that at last we have a map of the ‘moronic inferno’ foretold by Wyndham Lewis and apprehended by Saul Bellow. In this ersatz realm, consumerism counts as democracy, choice of commodity as pluralism, publicity as sincerity, and the catchphrase as considered opinion. The result, in the editor’s own understatement, is that ‘a kind of numbness has taken over’.

But Dumbing Down does not counter this numbness with its own nostrum. What it offers is a diversity of objections to ‘dumbocracy’, that is, ‘the rule of cleverness without wisdom’. ‘Dumbocracy’, if unchecked, could spell the demise of democracy. Mosley declares that the sentence ‘Give us your vote and we’ll take care of everything’ has been taken literally, so that responsibility for defence spending, transport policy and the administration of the arts, for example, as well as ‘the safeguarding of basic freedoms’ have been abandoned for trivial satisfactions. Several contributors offer variations on this theme. Redmond Mullen sees ‘the executive machine’ as gradually swallowing up the right to dissent, and proposes that voluntary bodies, notably non-funded charities, might offer a model of ‘constructive disorder’, restoring a sense of initiative and risk. Again, as far as government itself is concerned, Tam Dalyell objects to the replacement of Bagehot’s ‘government by conversation’ by the ‘party machine’, the ‘spin doctor’ and the self-serving servility of members of parliament.

As for the ‘culture’ of Mosley’s subtitle, the consensus here seems to be that trivialisation is the norm. Philip Rieff disapproves of the current cult of Oscar Wilde, in that it honours his capacity for scandal and subversion rather than his concern for social justice and aesthetic standards – the result being a pervasive infantilism. This observation complements Claire Fox’s objection to the impoverishment of higher education, which she sees as surrendering to the ethos of the service economy: with lecturers being obliged to put consumer interests above content, courses that challenge or stretch the minds of students are replaced by a syallabus based on what they already know.

Mention should also be made of a surprising but welcome contributor, Ravi Shankar, who expresses his hopes for cultural diversity and the mutual influence of musical traditions, but voices also his fears that multinational commercialism is foisting an indifferent noise on the young in the name of entertainment. Shankar was, of course, one of the inspirations behind the Beatles’ reinvigoration of popular song, so his misgivings about the quality of today’s youth culture certainly carry weight. But his presence should also remind us that ‘pop’ does not necessarily mean ‘pap’. In recent years there may have been the Spice Girls, but there have also been the Smiths. However, while such discriminations need making, this volume may not be the place for them, as it is not merely another symposium on ‘high’ v ‘low’ culture.

Indeed, the editorial vision would seem to extend, finally, through and beyond the cultural, to address the plight of the planet itself. It is worth noting that Mosley has previously edited the Green Book of Poetry (Frontier, 1994), a pioneering selection of verse which opened up possibilities for the teaching and appreciation of literature from an environmental perspective. Certainly, the organisation of Dumbing Down makes sense in that perspective, culminating as it does in two essays sketching the damage human culture has done to nature, the more so as it claims to be independent of it. Thus, ‘dumbing down’ is not just a matter of hailing the worst of the ‘mass media’ as the norm but involves a willed blankness towards the natural world, a sterile detachment from what Eliot called ‘the life of significant soil’. We may agree that we inhabit a ‘moronic inferno’, but the point of this collection would seem to be that ultimately the reduction of human possibility is inseparable from the degradation of the earth. Perhaps, then, this volume may take its place in the canon of critique. In the middle of the last century, Leavis tried to resist the insane logic of the ‘technologico-Benthamite age’. A century before that, Ruskin declared that, there being ‘no wealth but life’, the destruction of the environment was an impoverishment of the human soul. That logic, that destruction, has almost won the day, as Mosley’s volume reminds us.

Laurence Coupe

The Voice of Ariel

Poetry Nation Review

Sept/Oct 2000

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000)

You can tell a lot about a critic by the way he or she reads The Tempest. It is a play which seems to encourage formulaic pronouncements. At one extreme, there is the serene, archetypal approach: identifying the motif of death by water and the pattern of esoteric initiation. On the other hand, there is the outraged, political perspective: asserting the rights of Caliban, as the dispossessed inhabitant of the island. Perhaps what unites the extremes is the heavy-handedness with which they treat a text of such delicacy and diversity.

Above all, neither has much to say about Ariel. In effect, they leave him confined to the limits of Prospero’s plan, whether we situate it in mystical or in post-colonial terms. Ariel, that is, becomes a mere dramatic device. Jonathan Bate’s remarkable reading of the play, in the third chapter of an epoch-defining book, demonstrates his extraordinary flair as an interpreter of Shakespeare by in effect liberating Ariel from the condescension of conventional criticism. Now we can see that the play, and indeed a good deal of other literature, is about him. For the voice of Ariel is ‘the song of the earth’.

Bate has already written at length on Shakespeare, in two previous books; but his reputation is mainly that of an advocate of ecological literary criticism. He prefers the term ‘ecopoetics’ to the more generally accepted ‘ecocriticism’. If ‘ecology’ may be translated as ‘language about our earthly dwelling place’, and if our understanding is that we have absented ourselves from this primary home, then poetry is that language which returns us to it. Thus a ‘poetics’ is more appropriate than a ‘criticism’, since what we have to do is stop evaluating words and world from the standpoint of the opportunistic subject, and to begin to learn to dwell humbly within poem and ecosystem alike. Hearing Ariel’s voice, we rediscover the enchantment of the island, of any island, and by extension of the earth itself.

Bate’s previous exploration of the ‘green’ dimension of literature was Romantic Ecology (Routledge, 1991). If we wanted to gauge the distance he has travelled since then, we might note the subtitle of that earlier work: ‘Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition’. In The Song of the Earth, the word ‘environment’ is queried, in so far as it implies that the natural world is a surrounding, standing reserve which is worth protecting mainly because of its benefits to human beings. Bate is anxious to make clear that nature must not become the object of a political programme, the item on an agenda, the occasion for a strategy, no matter how ‘green’ the cause. In spirit, he now seems closer to ‘deep ecology’, which demands not so much external reform as a complete transformation of our way of regarding ourselves in the context of the biosphere. There again, he is careful to explain that, while putting the earth first may involve radical action, the concern of ‘ecopoetics’ is with phenomenology rather than politics. This in itself could be seen as marking a shift of emphasis from Romantic Ecology, where he celebrated the republican Wordsworth, whose ‘love of nature’ was matched by his ‘love of mankind’, and demonstrated how influential was his radicalism (on Ruskin and so on Morris, for example).

If The Song of the Earth has a hero, it is not Wordsworth but Clare: ideologically and aesthetically naïve he may have seemed to academic ‘experts’ on romanticism, but for Bate no poet conveys more acutely the experience of the natural world, as memory, as need and as loss. Indeed, the phrase which Bate translates from the philosopher of science, Michel Serres, ‘to think fragility’, which he applies initially to the Keats of the ode ‘To Autumn’, turns out to apply equally, if not more so, to Clare. If ‘men can do everything except make a bird’s nest’, as the old proverb has it, Bate shows us that each of his best poems is an analogue of that achievement. ‘Clare is above all a poet of the experience of miniature inhabited environments,’ we are told. Knowing and loving all that is small, vulnerable and unassuming, he reveals what it might be like ‘to live fully without profligacy upon our crowded earth’.

Meanwhile, Wordsworth has not totally been abandoned: the present volume has an impressive rereading of The River Duddon, which demonstrates the critic’s considerable gift for recovering unjustly neglected texts – just as in Romantic Ecology, we were invited to look again without defensive irony at The Excursion. But Wordsworth’s function here seems to be to dispose the argument towards a bioregional vision which favours diversity and subtle interrelatedness, thus leading on to considerations of Basil Bunting and Les Murray. Not that one should complain of this: admirers of Romantic Ecology will not want to see Bate confined to its parameters for evermore.

Indeed, The Song of the Earth takes us into a whole new world, philosophically speaking. Taking his bearings from Kate Soper’s invaluable work, What is Nature?, he engages with the ‘dilemma of environmentalism’, the paradox that, once you invent the category of the human, you have to make nature its ‘other’. Having done so, you need a sense of nature as an ‘aesthetic’ phenomenon, which is worthy of reverence, in order to remind us of what has been lost in the process of estrangement. Hence the principle of ‘ecopoetics’ – that the very capacity which ensured our triumph over the non-human world, namely language, is our only hope of finding atonement. Language both excludes and restores.

The guiding light here is Martin Heidegger, who sought to replace conventional, dualistic philosophy with ecocentric thinking. Unfortunately – or, rather, disastrously – he had in his early years made the mistake of subscribing to a disastrous political faith, one of the attractions of which was that it offered to save both the soil and the soul of the German nation. In his later years, having put politics behind him, his special form of thought arose from his reflections on poetry; and it is those essays on poetic dwelling that have inspired Bate. Indeed, the closing forty pages of his book constitute a tactful and frequently moving attempt to redeem Heidegger from the stain of fascism and to allow him to illumine our darkening world. A particularly effective touchstone is a poem by Paul Celan, whose parents died in a Nazi internment camp, yet who acknowledged his debt to Heidegger’s ability to reveal the miracle of earthly existence.

In the light of that final chapter, it seems inappropriate to complain about the deliberate absence of a political agenda from this book. Bate’s insistence that we only learn to love the earth once we have started listening for Ariel’s voice, and that our first duty is to follow the poets in their attempt ‘to think fragility’, may not please those who assumed ‘green’ theory would take its place alongside Marxism, new historicism and all the other ‘isms’. But Bate is so fine a reader of poetry, so alert to the ecological potential of language, that the responsive reader of this book will surely begin to hear the song which is its subject.

Laurence Coupe

The Scandal of Form

Poetry Nation Review

June 1986

Donald Wesling, The New Poetries: Poetic Form since Coleridge and Wordsworth (New York: Associated University Presses, 1986)

This is ‘the second of three volumes on prosody’. When the first appeared, The Chances of Rhyme, it was attacked in this magazine by Nicolas Tredell (PNR 24). To equate `rhyme’ with device’, then to define the poetic modern in terms of the denial of rhyme: that seemed bad enough. But to suggest that it all suddenly happened in or about 1795, Tredell found absurdly reductive. Elsewhere, C. H. Sisson questioned the very enterprise of defining modernity (TLS, 12 September 1980). Every poet worth the name at every age had sought to liberate language from ‘the shadow of what has become too familiar’, without abandoning the responsibility to be at some level intelligible. Further objecting to Wesling’s virtual identification of modernity with the invention of `sincer­ity’, Sisson felt prompted to return to essentials, and offered his own memorable definition of poetry: ‘a receptacle for sense which cannot be put into prose, and which burdens the speaker until it is said’. In this light, he reminded the author of The Chances of Rhyme that one could not talk glibly of poets looking around for an alternative ‘device’ with which to unload the meaning: form and sense were always inseparable.

Professor Wesling (University of California) has noted these rebukes, but does not want to dwell on them. True, his introduction to The New Poetries incorporates part of the article in which he replied to Tredell and Sisson, whom he believed to represent a critical conspiracy against him (PNR 40); but all personal controversy, indeed all names, have been removed. Here he settles down, with exemplary disinterestedness, to articulate the ‘materialist poetics’ which that article only announced.

His avowed concern now is more with the plurality of techniques which emerged from Romanticism — hence the ‘Poetries’ of his title — than with one dramatic moment of prosodic rupture. And far from ignoring the tension between restraint and novelty, the ‘New’ for Wesling turns out to revolve around an old problem, here summarized as ‘the scandal of form’. None of the poets, Romantic and post-Romantic, whom he commends would deny that ‘poetic form is what constitutes the very literariness of literature’. Indeed, if ‘scandal’ means ‘a grossly discreditable circumstance, a cause of stumbling, a snare’, he only uses the word provocatively as ‘a convention of mock-horror and hyperbole’. There is no final escape of measure and rule. That said, the Romantics did liberate language, did elude the scandal, to an extent hitherto unknown.

Thus, though Wesling wants to emphasize the diversity of modern poetry, his dating of its inception is the same. By 1795 ‘shape as superinduced’ was, in Coleridge’s termin­ology, giving way to ‘form as proceeding’. The restraint of rhyme began to be questioned in favour of a poetry of utterance. The conventional reflection of a given world by a politely subordinate individual was outmoded: what mat­tered now was the self-expressive creation of alternative worlds. Where Johnson had defined (and reduced?) prosody as an aspect of grammar, grammar itself became a medium manipulated by the poet for higher, visionary ends. Innovation, instead of Augustan ‘correction’, meant ‘the wish to be or seem unprecedented’. In short, sincerity replaced style as the priority.

So major was the advance that Wesling sees everything since as its logical progression. What we call ‘modernism’ is rather a perpetuation and extension of the initial impulses of 1795. Here he ignores — wisely, since it would muddle his argument — the fact that most writers associated with the later movement denied the premises of Romanticism (while incidentally benefiting from its formal innovations, of course). If we are to reduce literary history to formulae, and assert that Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to subordinate style to sincerity, then we might just as easily reply that Hulme and Eliot sought to do the exact opposite.

Perhaps part of the problem — in which we may include the hostilities between Wesling, Tredell and Sisson — is the difference between the aesthetic preoccupations of two countries. John Bayley has recently argued that in America, unlike England, Romanticism never became ‘socially and poetically correct, the done thing’. There being no Parnassian or Tennysonian succession, the original impetus never seemed to settle, or congeal, into a poetic diction. ‘In America Romanticism was a grand spiritual and metaphy­sical bequest, a gift generously received and returned threefold by Emerson, by Whitman, by Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. In England Romanticism became the letter that kills; in America it was always the spirit that giveth life’ (Poetry CXLVI, 4). Apart from serving as a reminder of why Eliot was so keen to get away to England, it does explain the obsession of American critics such as Wesling with Romanticism: why they keep coming back to it, testing its powers of regeneration. They do not want to believe that it might only have been an awkward and dim prefigurement of elitist modernism. They want to believe that it facilitated, at a stroke, a genuine meritocracy of expression. English critics (Frank Kermode, Bayley him­self), though they have long since acknowledged the various Romantic continuities, are far from associating a momen­tary revolt against style with an extant revolutionary impetus. They are not to be beguiled.

The thesis Donald Wesling finds particularly beguiling is that the spirit of 1795 has informed three main events in prosody. These are sprung rhythm, prose poetry and free verse.

As for the last of these, it would be impertinent to challenge the account offered in The New Poetries. Wesling convincingly demonstrates that the shift of emphasis from rhyme and metre to the phrase, the line, the unit of meaning, had been rehearsed by the Romantics, whatever else they were about.

Prose poetry is a less accessible category, which might have benefited from a more thoroughly historical — more ‘materialist’, one might say — treatment. Instead we get coffee-table linguistics: ‘It seems pretty obvious that ordin­ary language is prose but that prose (literary) is not ordinary language; that is, the proposition is not reversible. So we have first ordinary language, then literary language, then literary language can be either in prose or verse — two different relations to ordinary language, and to each other.’ Despite the attempt at cheery colloquialism, this is not immediately enlightening. Nor are we aided to under­standing by being provided with an indigestible assortment of quotations from figures as variously placed as Stephane Mallarme, Gertrude Stein and Geoffrey Hill – all under the optimistically inclusive title of ‘prose poetry’. Hill’s Mercian Hymns is slighted most by such a conjuncture, since one of its most striking achievements is to repudiate that symbolist or late-Romantic word-headiness which Mallarme fostered and which Stein took to excess.

But it is sprung rhythm on which Wesling’s thesis chiefly rests. For he cannot allow that Romanticism really did congeal, not even in England. So there has to be someone who kept the spirit alive beneath the deadly literary surface represented by Tennyson. That someone is of course Gerard Manley Hopkins. But the solution turns out to be another problem; and the critic knows it. ‘Within the period from 1855 to 1910,’ he too desperately affirms, ‘there is a special relation of poetic practice to theory, which may be described as an array of competing possibilities.’ In insisting that Parnassianism cannot be the whole story, he invests far too much in one technically subversive figure; and the investment will not sustain the thesis. He describes Hopkins initially as ‘the proprietor of a new type of form as proceeding’. But after an (admittedly skilful and persuasive) analysis of ‘Carrion Comfort’, he tries to make a most inconvenient projection sound like an irrefutable case: ‘To my mind Hopkins’s major follower in sprung rhythm is John Berry­man, who also combines heavy lurching stress with distortion of normal grammar and syntax.’ From Hopkins to Berryman is in itself quite a heavy, lurching stress in terms of literary history.

Thus ‘nonmetrical prosody’ turns out to be a limiting principle. For English readers these limits will perhaps appear most distinctly when they see how an obsession with Hopkins blinds Wesling to the significance of Thomas Hardy. More or less excluded from the argument, he is only mentioned briefly, and then merely used to illustrate the quandary of all late-nineteenth century versification apart from Hopkins’: ‘Intensely dissatisfied with the received system, Thomas Hardy could not see his way to breaking the molds and had to content himself with writing virtually every poem in homemade metrical and stanzaic forms.’ Wesling, though familiar enough with Donald Davie on Pound, could do worse than to reread Thomas Hardy and British Poetry; might ponder too Pound’s own recognition of the advances made in `clarity’ by a revered ex-novelist. He might thereby be better equipped to avoid such an inappropriately patronizing tone.

The New Poetries, then, though interesting on Roman­ticism and useful on free verse, is a book whose beginning is largely betrayed by its middle and its end. Having encourag­ingly proclaimed a ‘Plurality of Styles in an Avant-Garde Era’, Wesling proceeds to describe a solemnly exclusive two-century subversion of ‘the scandal of form’.

Laurence Coupe

Authorial Life

Poetry Nation Review

January 1986

Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle,
translated by Wlad Codzich (Manchester University Press)

What we knew as ‘the Bakhtin school’ or ‘Bakhtin and his circle’ has turned out to be one man. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) wrote as Voloshinov on linguistics, as Medvedev on literary scholarship and as himself on specific authors such as Rabelais and Dostoevskv. Tzvetan Todorov is not much concerned with Medvedev, so refers throughout his study to `Voloshinov/Bakhtin’. Whatever the nomenclature, the signi­ficance of the work studied is this: the extension of the Russian formalists’ interest in how texts work to comprehend the Marxists’ interest in how history works.

Todorov might at first seem ill-suited to honouring this endeavour, since his own reputation has been that of a thorough-going structuralist: hence one who shares the purr formalist’s distaste for temporal process. As recently as 1975, in The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, he still worked defiantly within the synchronic dimension. That is, lie was treating language and literature as timeless, given systems to be explained by abstract theories of signification and syntax. How far has he tailored such measurements to suit Bakhtin?

For the trouble with Bakhtin is that it is he who seems to suit everybody else. He has proved especially convenient, however, not to structuralists but to some of their inheritors. For example, a neat affinity has been assumed between Bakhtin’s principle of ‘carnival’ and Derrida’s deconstruction. Bakhtin related Rabelais’ comic subversion of the categories of medieval ideology back to the folk festivities of the medieval period itself. He also related it forward to the ‘polyphonic’ modern novel, initiated by Dostoevsky, in which voices are set free to speak scandalously without the author’s intervening in the interest of dignified, epic coherence. It would seem but a short step from Bakhtin’s double-account of subversion to the endless play of signification which Derrida’s followers call ‘textuality’’.

The Dialogical Principle is virtually silent on carnival and polyphony. Todorov is much more interested in investigating the philosophical and anthropological basis of dialogue itself. Where he does forget the limits of structuralism, it is to admit into his exposition heresies such as author, history and meaning: anathema also to deconstruction, which insists on play as remorselessly as its parent insisted on system. Thus what we would seem to be witnessing here is a shift from synchrony to diachrony, structure to process, which parallels Bakhtin’s own venture beyond the dead-end of that formalism favoured by some of his peers. We may for a moment put off deciding just how far Todorov has moved. What we can say emphatically now is that a (more predictable) shift to deconstruction has simply not occurred.

Before further considering Todorov’s position, it may be as well to provide a brief paraphrase of Bakhtin’s work, conscious that brevity runs the risk of appearing as facile appropriation.

Bakhtin (as Voloshinov) rejects Saussure’s account of lan­guage, by which individual speech-acts merely exemplify an objective and (for purposes of analysis) static structure. For him the ‘utterance’ comes first, with its implicit context or ‘scena­rio’. A speaker, a topic and a listener have to be recognized; a continuous ideological exchange — what Bakhtin calls `dis­course’ — acknowledged. Language, in short, is material social consciousness, a process of production and reproduction made possible only by human interaction. For linguistics Bakhtin substitutes ‘translinguistics’.

He (writing under his own name) approaches literature with the same ‘dialogical’ interest. Just as speaker and listener are engaged in a present dialogue which is inseparable from the historical struggle for meaning, so do past author and present reader themselves belong to a continuing dialogue, that of inter­pretation. Bakhtin refuses the temptation of premature unity in understanding: the difference between the two texts, author’s and reader’s, must be preserved, not because there is no end to signification but because the struggle for meaning goes on.

If this sounds like leftish humanism, then so be it. Certainly it makes more general sense of Bakhtin than does a fixation upon that one notion of ‘carnivalization’. But does this give us Todorov’s position? I think it does. Distinguishing between natural and human sciences, he says that the former has an object but the latter has a subject, ‘man as producer of texts’ (the emphasis being on ‘producer’). Similarly, summarizing Bakhtin’s theory of meaning, as opposed to signification, he concurs: ‘It is meaning that relates the utterance to the world of values, unknown to language.’ Or again, he is at pains to emphasize that if we say the meaning we identify in a text is never final, it is because understanding is always historical, ‘a relation between two cultures’, not a game played in timeless isolation.

A certain tentativeness is appropriate here, since the author’s announced intention is simply ‘to have Bakhtin’s voice be heard again: so that the dialogue can finally begin’. What the book consists of mostly is summation not commendation. But what is implicit there has become explicit enough in Todorov’s recent review of a Bakhtin biography (TLS, 14 June 1985). Deeming the biographers to have got their subject wrong theoretically, he insists and enthuses that Bakhtin aspired to ‘truth’: ‘the truth of the world and not of books’. Thus:

He did not believe in a pre-established truth, in certainty or dogma; he was for dialogue and against monologue, for variety and against unity. This battle has obvious political overtones: Bakhtin attacks the official culture and ideology for being monolithic and argues for tolerance and plurality. But we mustn’t stop there: he is neither a relativist nor a nihilist. There is no absolute truth but this does not mean that we can each have our own truth; each of us lives in society, in the midst of others and ultimately of all mankind … If each of us is our own master, what would be the point of our coming together?

In seeking to avoid relativism and nihilism, we would do well to choose our exponents of Bakhtin carefully. Julia Kristeva, though she may properly call the literary aspect of the dialogical principle ‘intertextuality’, too glibly assumes that Bakhtin is also anticipating Barthes’ report of the death of the author: a report which the Russian theorist would have laughed at (perhaps did) as greatly exaggerated. We cannot each have our own truth; authorial life was and remains a factor in the text.

If we wish to relate Bakhtin and dialogue to another critic and another principle, we might do worse than to consider T. S. Eliot and impersonality. The man who sought meaning in and between the texts which successive individual talents add to tradition, and who himself wished many voices, past and present, to be heard within his own poetic utterance: he would seem a fitting participant in any conceivable discourse in­volving Bakhtin. Having fully registered the subtle similarities as well as the grosser differences between the two, we would at least be able to engage seriously in that more extensive dialogue which Todorov sees his book as facilitating.

Laurence Coupe


Poetry Nation Review

June 1985

Peter Makin, Pound’s Cantos (London: George Allen & Unwin)

A short cut to a feeling of mastery over the Cantos might be deconstruction. The text seems to cry out for it. Antony Easthope tells us in Poetry as Discourse (Methuen, 1983) that with Canto 84, for example, the reader is ‘confronted with a typeface that is graphematic, an instance of writing’; the poem ‘does not set up a consistent narrator or represented speaker’. There is a ‘disruptive effect’ whereby ‘the shifting “I” … becomes available as a position in the text for the reader producing the text in the present.’ In other words, the reader, reception and the written word subsume author, intention and the world.

All such talk is alien to Peter Makin. He tells us that Pound’s verse is written precisely so that we may ‘read into things’ only those ‘powers that favour human well-being’. The student of the Cantos needs to be properly primed if the reading is going to have the right effect. Thus themes need expounding; and, where appropriate, the relation of theme to form. At the same time he is aware that the terms of his contract do not forbid controversy. An introduction may say new things, may revise scholarly opinion.

The author of the Cantos once declared that they were merely footnotes to the Divine Comedy. Peter Makin has taken the hint; and this volume of the Unwin Critical Library is appropriately authoritative on Dante. However, looking up references to the Comedy is apparently a lot less helpful than it is when reading T. S. Eliot — another writer of footnotes. Makin insists repeatedly that there is no literary ‘system or symmetry’ to the Cantos; but there is a semantic ‘order’, and it is this which derives from Dante. The spiritual intuition of the author of the Comedy, ‘in contradiction of his theology’, was that ‘the world is charged with God’: ‘God is its cohering, structuring principle. (This is not an argument from design; God is not the designer, but the Design.)’ Pound felt that the main achievement of Dante was to show ‘differentiated values in the universe. This leads to larger relations, and grand Structure; and also to microcosmic structure.’

We may take Makin to mean that Pound rejects God but embraces the ‘charge’. This then is a way of explaining the ‘open-ended’ Cantos. Pound assumed that ‘while no one here will get a God’s-eye view of a neat and mappable Creation, yet there is a shape in what-there-is, and that not merely the shape that the human Creative Eye happens to lend it. There is an order (not a symmetry).’ It is only by recognizing this overall vision that we can appreciate Pound’s enthusiasm for the linguistic particularity of his master (‘the single phrase, indi­vidual simile, sharply seen detail’): a skill which he sought to recreate throughout the Cantos.

One can see that Makin does not set out to provide superficial mastery over an officially problematical text. But while some of his re-readings might unnerve those who are already satisfied with their notes and sources, they will certainly come as a relief to anxious Pound beginners.

Thus he is against the tyrranical formal ‘blueprint’ of Homer’s Odyssey. He suggests that, though Odysseus may be the heroic type of the Cantos, the shape of the journey is more likely to be that of Hanno the Carthaginian, whose periplous (‘account of a coasting voyage’) is the origin of Canto 40. For as ‘a model for a cosmos-poem’ an Odyssean map ‘falsely suggests that a final overall view is possible, indeed normal’. By contrast a periplous poem ‘will give the trace of a concrete series of actions, from which one will be able to intuit all the information that such actions can validly afford.’ Makin is not talking about an endless play of signification, for again an ‘order’ is assumed; but over-insistence on a literary model inhibits a full response to Pound’s ‘values’. The truth rests with ‘things’, with concrete actions.

Initiation into Pound’s values will not even come by way of the mysteries of Eleusis. A ritual basis must be understood, but it is more accessible than previous scholars have suggested. We have to read Frazer’s The Golden Bough again, without thinking of the uses to which it was put by Eliot. A natural cycle of ascent and descent, life and death, partly represented and partly facilitated by rites of sexuality and sacrifice: that is what Pound took to be the frame of culture, the source of metaphor and the referent of all values.

Of course it might be argued that Makin in his book is really calling attention not to things but to texts. Pound’s relation to Homer, Dante or Frazer is another example of ‘inter-textuality’ (or what used to be called ‘tradition’). But I think Makin would insist that what Pound took from his sources was never simply a literary stimulus: they offered him themes, perspectives on a history which he inherited and in which he sought (albeit wrong-headedly) to intervene. It may be that finally we only master the Cantos by an appropriation of present words; but prior to this must come the understanding of Pound’s past and future worlds.

Laurence Coupe