ALLEN FISHER and ANTHONY MELLORS: A Glasfryn Seminar: Two Angles on Modernism

On March 28th 2015 a seminar was held at Glasfryn in Llangattock, Powys, on the subject of modernism. There were two presenters: Allen Fisher and Anthony Mellors. Fisher discussed developments in art dating from around 1850 with reference to the evolution of a recognisably modernist aesthetic, whilst Mellors concentrated in particular on questions of the nature of the image in modernist poetry, both in terms of theory and practice, referencing Marjorie Perloff’s critique, and looking particularly at poems by William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen. The documents gathered here include, on Fisher’s part a prose extract and a kind of diagrammatical schedule from which he developed his presentation on the day. Mellors’ essay represents a step beyond the material he based his presentation on, but should be considered as a work in progress.

 

To Read Modernism in Three Parts (For the Glasfryn Seminar), by Allen Fisher:  Click Here

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Allen Fisher: Extract from Collage and Simultaneity.

The following is an extract, taken from the third part of a talk given at the Glasfryn Seminars, 28 March 2015. The extract uses a painting by George Braque titled Soda (Click Here), a work factured in 1911 and now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The painting is oil on canvas and is a tondo (circular) with a 36cm (14”) diameter.

George Braque’s painting Soda is a collage of shapes derived from the perception of drinking glasses, cups, smokers’ pipes, letters, music-scores and an advertisement for soda. In short, perception that could have been made in Braque’s studio or in a café. The painting plane presents these shapes as a variety of intersecting and overlapping planes without any overt suggestion of a counterfeit spacetime. Whilst all the elements could be inferred by the viewer to be fragments from reports of perceptions of objects on a round table, a table with a glass top. Braque has not made any attempt to persuade the viewer that this may be so. On the contrary, his presentation as much implies a verticality as if the perception report was of objects fixed to a wall and prepared to provide a trompe l’oeil by a painter such as John F. Peto. (The example given was of Peto’s Fish House Door, 1905, in the Dallas Museum o f Art.)

To the right of the centre the bowl of a smoker’s pipe is suggested and a use of colour contrast implies the bowl’s depth. The remainder of the picture plane consists of lines and curves which balance and counter-balance the pattern of the smoker’s pipe bowl.

In many places on the plane a music-score is signified using Braque’s characteristic bar lines (usually less than five, but nevertheless signifying musical scores) which become ambiguous with the suggestion that perhaps the strings of a musical instrument are implied. The part circles sometimes appear as marks left by drinking-cups or glasses and sometimes appear as fragments from perception reports of those vessels. This pattern is shifted by the repeated inclusion of Bas Clefs. Other lines on the plane suggest parts of smokers’ pipes, edges of planes and, particularly the more vertical and wavy lines, strips of wallpaper in Braque’s now recognisable faux-bois (imitation wood). On some parts of the plane a depth perspective is hinted at through the use of angled cornered lines with shading. At one place, on the lower right, the word SODA has been painted and part of the “S” has been intersected and cut off by a white line which implies an overlapping plane. The overall picture plane is full and some of the lines approach the plane edges (particularly at the top and bottom and left hand side) which has the effect of controlling the array of shapes, of containing them into a pattern of connectedness. It is a pattern that connects intrinsically shape against shape and referent against referent; and because of the report of commonplace objects implied and particularly the “SODA” advertisement, connect extrinsically to everyday life in the society Braque participates in.

Through these relationships, both intrinsically and extrinsically, Braque presents an æsthetic complex that moves and delights the viewer and in addition signifies the manners of the society he appears to be in contemplation of: drinking and smoking his pipe in the presence of music. The mode of facture, however, adds to these considerations. All of the patterns of connectedness so far described might, hypothetically at least, have been derived from a variety of painting practices such as Realist, or naturalistic, Still-life, or even from Idealist trompe l’oeil. Braque’s decision to facture in the mode of image-collage therefore ramifies the manners first extrapolated from the patterning.

The image-college, that this painting exemplifies, derives its patterning, the shapes made by Braque’s facture with oil paint on canvas, from perceptions made in Braque’s daily life. The depiction of these perceptions have been deliberately fractured and fragmented. Such fragmentation can partly be understood as an activity of pattern-selection, in which Braque partly insists on his referents (for example the parts of the smoking-pipe) and partly insists only on the shapes necessary to carry out the overall pattern of his chosen circular canvas. But a much broader concern must now be considered. Braque’s facture offers the implied depictions of many planes and also presents these implications as overlapping and intersecting, adding to the fragmentation already apparent from the selected parts of depicted objects. This intersecting and overlapping has the effect of fracturing the spacetime into many spacetimes, offering hints of counterfeit spacetime and immediately breaking any expectation from the hinting. It is an expectancy, perhaps, a viewer may have from having encountered other paintings, but it can never be naturalised. The frequent tendency in viewers to give anecdotal referentiality to picture planes as if they depicted natural spacetimes is prevented here by Braque’s facture. The realism of the painting is the painting itself. The frequency of breakage, of broken expectations, of ambiguities in spacetimes, also leads to comprehending the work as part of an explicit programme of discovery. At the same time the presentation is not about discovery, but what has been found. It becomes an appraisal, and even in part a homage to, earlier paintings in that its innovation relies on the paradigmatic constellation of earlier art in order to break part of those paradigms and innovate into the production of a new paradigm. This innovation is in fact concomitant with parallel phase shifts in western humankind’s comprehension of the world.

Image-collage of the kind described above is not George Braque’s only mode of painting practice. If it was the above description would not alter. Because it is only one mode among others it may be worth considering the ramifications of this here. Many commentators view Braque’s work of this period (which they usually label Cubist) as part of a progression such that each innovation presents a step towards a linear expansion. What works like Braque’s Soda presents, however, need not be so considered. Soda is one of very many works in which Braque and Picasso are in conversation. Daily they exchange viewings and views in the period up until October 1914. Each new work presented what Braque or Picasso had found. In this sense they were innovating continually, but, as any viewer comparing the works of the period will soon comprehend, many of their innovations are lateral, or double-back on work already factured in order to comment again, but anew, on innovations previously made. In short, their work of the period can be considered as contributions to a discourse on æsthetics which both painters continue, differently and divergently to some extent, after their collaborations together, in the larger studio of the world. Their works from this collaborative period are intense exchanges, sometimes in contemplation and sometimes in exuberance, between two sensitive thinkers aware of their presence in a unique phase of European understanding that has shifted the subsequent attentions so radically that no one (presumably) would dare suggest whether humankind will ever recover. Viewing works by these collaborators from this period can be continual pleasure, but as importantly, a learning process that appears to be without exhaustion.

 

ALLEN FISHER is a poet, painter and art historian, website: www.allenfisher.co.uk. He has authored many publications of poetry, graphic work and commentary; recently: SPUTTOR, a book of the poetry, commentary and visual work (Veer Books 2014); The Marvels of Lambeth. Interviews & Statements, 1973-2005, edited by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books 2013); a collection of essays is forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press (2015). His visual work is in many collections in America, Britain and the UAE. In autumn 2014, Spanner Editions published TIP REGARD, a set of extracts from poetry in four projects. Allen is currently Emeritus Professor of Poetry & Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, one of Key poets at Voiceworks, Birkbeck College, University of London and Visiting Fellow at Northumbria University.

 

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Anthony Mellors: The Image.

I gave my first poetry reading at the age of eighteen with Gael Turnbull in a folk club in Great Malvern. I must have the poems somewhere, but I daren’t look at them. All I can remember is that a sequence of three were subsequently rejected by The London Magazine, which was not surprising since I misspelled the title and the pieces were full of wistful gestures and words like ‘chiaroscuro’. After the reading, a member of the audience came up and told me that she ‘really liked my imagery’. This pleased me, even though I was sceptical about the quality of my imagery, because I had read that imagery and the image were the essence of poetry itself. The notion of the ‘image’ has become so definitive of twentieth century poetry and beyond that we hardly question it. But what does it mean exactly? A trawl through dictionaries, encyclopedias, and internet poetry sites is as confusing as it is helpful: the image is a verbal representation of objects; it is literal and/or figurative language, the transfer of experience into sensual representation, ‘a compromise for a language of intuition which would hand over sensations bodily’ (T. E. Hulme), the transformation of real things into imaginative ones, the ‘res itself’ (Wallace Stevens); it is a kind of ekphrasis, it aspires to the condition of music; it is subjective, it is objective; it is direct and precise, or indirect and imprecise; it is things; it is ideas. Where does it come from? A frequent answer is ‘Nobody knows’. Yet, for all this conceptual vagueness, literary critic Frank Kermode argued in the 1950s that the ‘doctrine of the image’ is the single most pernicious influence on poetry since the Romantic period. And, more recently, Marjorie Perloff can argue that the Modernist image is redundant in an age of mass media. I will come back to these points. But to begin with I’m going to look at a specifically modernist approach to the problem.

According to Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting’s great contribution to poetics is his neat formulation

DICHTEN = CONDENSARE

‘That did NOT mean’, says Pound in his ABC of Reading, it was something more wafty and imbecile than prose, but something charged to a higher potential.’ In less condensed terms, this means that poetic saying is fundamentally a matter of compressing or packing words and concepts closely together. But Bunting, like Pound, means words and concepts when they take on the attributes of what he calls the ‘image’. While neither poet was particularly interested in the work of Freud, the choice of the term condensare inevitably connects with the discussion of condensation and displacement in The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud’s term for what Strachey translates as ‘condensation’ is Verdichtung, which means to compact. In the dream-work, Freud argues, repression takes two forms: displacement (Verschiebung, to shift, move), which means that new aims and objects are substituted for unpleasant ideas and feelings, and condensation, which means that the impulses behind a dream become translated into a jumble of images forcing together different impressions of the dream-thought at the level of similitude. The coincidental nature of these images is best described as symbolic. In linguistic terms, displacement corresponds with metonymy and condensation with metaphor. following this, we might observe that Pound and Bunting break their own rule. If poetic discipline is to avoid tautology, it fails here: since the word Verdichtung contains both ‘poetry’ and ‘compression’ in one, that is all we need to write. Except, as Pound says of this formulation, ‘Dichten’ is the German verb corresponding to the noun “Dichtung” meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian verb meaning “to condense”.’ (ABC of Reading, 36) Verbal force is better than a noun: to poetize is to condense.

It looks as if Pound’s definition celebrates the symbolic, metaphoric axis of language as being the stuff of poetry, just as T. E. Hulme opposes poetry’s ‘fresh epithets and fresh metaphors’ to prose, which he describes as a ‘museum where the dead images of verse are preserved.’ (‘Romanticism and Classicism’, c. 1912) In fact this is the case only in the most general understanding of symbol and metaphor, and it’s clear from Pound’s remarks that he means a ‘tightness’ of expression, something more like the contiguity of prose but without all the filler, therefore something more metonymic than metaphorical. This means that the image would have more in common with Freud’s ‘displacement’ than with ‘condensation’, and in the Cantos Pound’s image-making tends to be based more on pastiche, allusion, citation, and translation than on ‘a single clarified impression’ (see Peter Nicholls, Modernisms, 175), so that what is condensed is also displaced, moving and temporal rather than static and spatial.

‘To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation’ is the second of Pound’s Imagist tenets, and the horizon here would appear to be writing which presents ‘facts’ in as condensed form as possible. We can see this, too, in Pound’s claim that ‘the natural object is the adequate symbol’. In other words, the ‘image complex’ – ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’ (‘A Retrospect’, in Literary Essays, 4) – is anything but the kind of humanized correlative to be found in, say, the work of Ted Hughes. While an Imagist poem or a hokku might set up an interpretative relationship between individual images, there’s no resolution of sense impressions into a symbolic scheme: a fox does not imitate the movement of the writer’s mind as in Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’; it is merely a fox, at least to the extent that a fox can ever remain separate from the human perception of it. (Consider how Lorine Niedecker’s ‘A Monster Owl’ differs from the Hughes perspective:

 A monster owl

out on the fence

flew away. What

is it the sign

of? The sign of

an owl.

Niedecker, Collected Works, 103 )

Let’s look at a typically minimalist example of the image, ‘Lines’ (1921) by William Carlos Williams, a poet whose photographic eye seems more focused on Pound’s first Imagist rule (‘Direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective’) than on his revised theory of the image as a ‘radiant node or cluster’, with which he was struggling towards image complexes as collage and palimpsest:

Leaves are graygreen

the glass broken, bright green

(The Collected Poems 1909-1939, 159)

There’s a nature/culture opposition going on here: Williams seems to want to overturn the familiar hierarchy of nature poetry by making the glass more vivid than the neutral tones of the leaves. There’s also some ambiguity, a kind of paronomasia; is the glass reflecting segments of bright green, broken, or is it bright green broken glass? In spite of these connotative difficulties, the two images are presented immediately, and the emphasis is first on perception, then on the rhetorical.

To complicate matters a little, consider lines from Williams’s 1928 renku ‘The Source’:

the profound detail of the woods,

restless, distressed

soft underfoot

the low ferns

Mounting a rusty root

the pungent mould

globular fungi

water in an old

hoof print

Cow dung and in

the uneven aisles of

the trees

rock strewn a stone

half-green

(The Collected Poems 1909-1939, 287)

The more the bare presentation of images becomes discursive, the more potentially metaphorical it becomes. The metaphors here are not the images themselves but the adjectives and verbs: ‘restless, distressed’, ‘mounting’. Lines such as ‘water in an old / hoof print’ appear to be emblematic of something. But what? When I say that the woods are restless and distressed, I’m anthropomorphizing; already the woods can’t be the adequate symbol because they are no longer what they are in the Zen distance from human projection. Since metaphor is embedded in our traditions and patterns of thought, objects of perception are never truly resistant to being transferred into conception. And this is Williams’s aim: to ‘lift’ to the imagination ‘those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses’ by magnetizing their ‘particles of dissimilarity’ (see Nicholls, Modernisms, 212-13). Yet Williams’s poem approaches the non-human world very differently from the nature poet Alice Oswald, who writes

Once in, you hardly notice as you move,

the wood keeps lifting up its hope….

the rain, thinking I’ve gone, crackles the air

and calls by name the leaves that aren’t there yet.

(‘Wood Not Yet Out’, Woods etc.)

Oswald means that getting back to the wood makes her feel more positive about life, and she makes this into a form of animism: the wood lifts up its hope, the rain thinks she’s gone and calls by name the leaves. Etc. Williams might use expressive terms derived from human feelings, but he doesn’t project himself onto the objects he describes. The human attributes remain something of a puzzle and serve the hermeneutic function of preserving a gap between the natural world and world of human projection. In a sense, the nature of nature remains problematic and provisional, but with Oswald we are left in little doubt that we are celebrating nature as a human appropriation of nature.

The modern image, by which I mean the conception of the image from the Romantics onward, is empirical, characterized by what Rosamund Tuve calls ‘the accurate conveying of the sensuous qualities of experience’ (Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery, 3), which she contrasts with seventeenth century imagery, which might include sensuous experience but has as its cause not the particularities of individual perception but the general, abstract, rhetorical conventions of the poetics of imitation. Eliot misunderstood Donne’s artifice when he talked of a ‘direct sensuous apprehension of thought’, and we have to say also that Pound’s early insistence on the ‘direct treatment of the thing itself’ is not only meaningless for Renaissance poets but naive in terms of empiricist and post-empiricist theories of language and perception. Yet something radical is achieved by the modernist image in spite of all the misguided talk about directness and precision and perceptual objectivity. ‘No ideas but in things’, says Williams, repeating the error (‘Paterson’ (1927), TCP 1939-1962, 263). Except that the poem itself is the object, ‘a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words’ (The Wedge, 1944; TCP 1939-1962, 54): while it might sometimes include similar statements of subjective intent as in Hughes and Oswald, it brackets experience by refusing to guarantee the meaning of the things – words as objects – it arranges on the page. Condensare. ‘Water in an old / hoof print’ is not quite literal, and not quite metaphorical, emblematic, symbolic either. In a sense, it retains its ‘thinginess’ in language precisely because it is not designated as figuratively inflected. It is both more artificial than what I’m calling -   with some reservation – the romantic strain in modern poetry, in its semiotically open representation, and more realistic in the sense that it preserves the stuff of perception from subjective identification. And this is the case even in poems which convey supposedly immediate impressions:

Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red

firetruck

moving

tense

unheeded

to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city.

(The Collected Poems 1909-1939, 174)

Images can also be strong without conveying perceptual coherence at all, as in this passage from Songs to Joannes by Mina Loy:

Spawn     of     fantasies

silting the appraisable

Pig cupid   his rosy snout

rooting erotic garbage

‘once upon a time’

pulls a weed     white star-topped

among wild oats     sown in mucous-membrane…

I’m not primarily concerned whether we dismiss these lines as free-association nonsense or psychologize it along in the manner of Freud’s condensation or champion it as pre-post-modern bricolage. Suffice to say that there’s a lot happening here to dilute the image, so that it becomes difficult to say what exactly impinges as imagery in the first place. ‘Wild oats’, for instance, is clearly not like ‘globular fungi’, and the notion of sowing wild oats in mucous membrane with white star-topped weeds growing among what is not in the first place a plant but a homiletic reference can hardly be described as the accurate conveying of the sense qualities of experience. Yet the rosy snout of the porcine cherub grubbing erotic garbage is ‘rooted’ in visual as well as conceptual condensare, and the whole text proceeds by positing a succession of image-based moments. Again, it’s easy to make sense of the poem in terms of what Veronica Forrest-Thomson calls the ‘rational image-complex’ by picking up on the word ‘fantasies’ in the first line. To fantasize is to imagine something improbable, and ‘erotic garbage’ brings this into the Freudian sphere. To some extent, then, the modern image returns to the link between imagery and the imagination, yet The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says that in the twentieth century we hear little about imagination but a great deal about the image:

The dominance of the image is a principle, and its investigation a method, common to groups holding divergent views on the nature of poetry: the Freudians who regard poetry as wish fulfilment and analogous to dreams; cultural anthropologists who see it as reducible to archetypal myths and patterns, and those critics who regard the poem as a self-contained entity without significant external relations, whose meaning and effect reside in a pattern of interdependent images. (376)

This is overly schematic. Loy’s poem doesn’t conform to any of these versions of the image: if the poem has a Freudian slant, it’s certainly not wish fulfilment, and it only becomes dreamlike through bad naturalization; archetypal patterns would have to be imposed by abstraction; the images are too random to be called interdependent. Nevertheless, the last point is crucial to understanding the concept of the image in modern poetry. Even when the poem does not conform to the New Critical ‘well-wrought urn’ theory of the text, it tends to be a discrete artefact: a machine made of words, even if the machinery is dysfunctional.

So, it seems virtually unthinkable not to regard image-making as fundamental to poetry. One way or another, one looks for powerful, surprising images that will form the building blocks of the poem. Whether the poem turns into a lyric – objectivist, anecdotal, confessional – or develops as a sequence or into a modern epic like Pound’s Cantos, Louis Zukofsky’s A, Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems, the anchoring point is always the image. However discursive it becomes, its vividness, its concreteness, resides in its imagery, and that tends to be where the critic looks for evidence of the poetic ‘argument’ rather than in any direct statements it may contain.

However, as long ago as 1957, Frank Kermode rejected this way of thinking. Kermode regards the whole of modernist poetics as a form of disavowed romanticism and not, as Hulme, Eliot, and other modernists presume, a critique of romantic individualism. Like Rosamund Tuve before him, he argues that Eliot’s theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, which supposedly set in after Donne, who felt his ‘thought as immediately as the odour of a rose’, ignores the rhetorical basis of metaphysical verse and reads it through a Symbolist poetics which was

in search of some golden age when the prevalent mode of knowing was not positivist and anti-imaginative; when the Image, the intuitive, creative reality was habitually respected; when art was not permanently on the defensive against mechanical and systematic modes of enquiry.’ (Romantic Image, 143)

Modern poetry, therefore, remains romantic, filtered through its later incarnation as Symbolism, by which is meant subjectivist, nostalgic, anti-intellectual, and autonomous: ‘Any alternative,’ writes Kermode, ‘is likely to be treated as heretical – dubbed, for instance, “ornamentalist”, as degrading the status of the Image, and leading to another “dissociation”, another over-evaluation of ideas in poetry…’ (157) In spite of the claims of Eliot, Pound, and Hulme to hardness, concreteness, classicism, and impersonality, the modernist poets subscribe unwittingly to C. Day Lewis’s dictum

The poetic myths are dead; and the poetic image, which is the myth of the individual, reigns in their stead. (138)

How is this the case? According to Kermode, it is because ‘Pound, like Hulme, like Mallarme and many others, wanted a theory of poetry based on the non-discursive concetto. In varying degrees they all wish that poetry could be written with something other than words, but since it can’t, that words may be made to have the same sort of presence “as a piece of string”.’ (136) In Hulme, especially, the sensuous image is reduced to the visual: ‘ “a compromise for a language of intuition – to make you continuously see a physical thing”; the poet strictly as voyant.’ (132) What Kermode means by this last point is that the poet’s plea for a non-intellectual grasping of truth in the image makes him the conduit of a special, mystical kind of knowledge unavailable to the ‘ordinary man’, who, Eliot writes, experiences only the dissociated world, ‘falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking’, whereas ‘in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.’ (quoted, 139) Poets as ‘seers’ makes them heir to Blake and Yeats, who retreated from the world of utility and action into an occult realm of the imagination. As a poet who fought a lifelong battle over whether to perfect the life or the art, Yeats is key to Kermode’s thesis. Yeats’s position as both fin de siecle Symbolist and early modernist makes him the perfect example of a poet ‘whose devotion to the Image developed at the same time as the modern industrial state and the modern middle class’ (4), a bourgeois bohemian whose sense of alienation from the capitalist lifeworld is registered by his retreat into an obscure aesthetic stripped of utility and the economic:

The Image is the reward for that agonizing difference; isolated in the city, the poet is a ‘seer’. The Image, for all its concretion, precision, and oneness, is desperately difficult to communicate, and has for that reason alone as much to do with the alienation of the seer as the necessity of his existing in the midst of a hostile society. (5)

The image, then, becomes ‘autotelic’ or driven by its own internal associations without necessary reference to the everyday world. This means that it becomes ‘estranged from specifically human considerations (and particularly from discursive intellect)’ (88), and in

‘Yeats’s work, the notion of human sacrifice as the price of the symbolic dance is deeply and curiously embedded.’ (74) For Kermode, the autotelic work is ‘liberated from discourse’ (110) in a fantasy of literature aspiring to the condition of painting or music, that is to say, made up of images without the need for words. Ultimately, the Image is based on a conception of poetry at odds with its own medium: language.

If this is true, our contemporary preoccupation with the image as the centre of the poem remains locked in a romantic-symbolist ideology which artificially separates the artistic life from the practical life, the poet’s navel-gazing from active engagement in society, and the childish world of ‘play’ from the real world of ‘work’. But there are a number of problems here, not the least of which is Kermode’s identification of poetic theory – or perhaps belief would be a better word – with poetic practice. As I have already suggested, Pound’s ideas about the image are theoretically incoherent, but that doesn’t mean his poems necessarily conform to those ideas. And not even his ideas conform to his ideas. His enthusiasm for Fenollosa’s organic theory of the Chinese ideogram is a good example of Kermode’s thesis in that a picture-based theory of meaning is preferred to a linguistic one. Words, Pound explains in ABC of Reading, represent sounds, but the ideogram presents things themselves in ‘a given position or relation, or of a combination of things. It means the thing or the action or situation, or quality germane to the several things that it pictures.’ (21) The process is somehow ‘relational’, and is therefore based on the ability of the reader to fuse these relations into meaning. Yet at the same time it is based on a natural connection between the thing and its sign, ‘a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature’, as Fenollosa defines it (The Chinese Written Character, 8). Pound seems to have been aware of the error; in a 1940 letter to George Santayana he confesses

 Chinese by putting together concrete objects as in F’s example

red      iron rust

cherry      flamingo

Am not sure the lexicographers back him up.

(The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941, 333)

but in any case, the real nature of the ideogram in Pound’s poetics has less to do with its accuracy in depicting objects than with the way a knowing individual factors and underwrites imagistic connections made from the materials at his disposal: ‘Chinese saying “a man’s character apparent in every one of his brush strokes.” ‘ (333) This why the Image ‘is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.’ (‘Affirmations’ (1915) in Selected Prose 1909-1965, 375) This energy, in the plenitude of the knowing subject, confirms Kermode’s portrait of the modernist poet as occult visionary. However, I would argue that even if the obscurity of Pound’s highly paratactic verse owes a great deal to the fantasy of the poet as artifex informing it, its potential for textual collage freed from a guiding subjectivity is immense.

In order to seal his argument, Kermode tends also to elide differences in poetic practice, as for example when he notes that Yeats objects to ‘the flux of the Cantos of Ezra Pound’ because this poetry of ‘objects without contour’ leaves out the pain of the ‘private soul’. Kermode dismisses this as an ‘heretical deviation’ within the same tradition. (63) Yet if it is a deviation, it’s a pretty big one; while modernism retains traces of the romantic individualism it seeks to transcend – in the reactionary guise of a phallic defense against lack of cultural power, but also by breaking free of the stranglehold of the ego -   its polyphonic approach to voice and emphasis on the material signifier is quite different in terms of the experience of reading. To complicate matters, Kermode insists that Yeats, like Pound and Hulme, does seek transcendence of the human, for that is the purpose of the image. Fascination with antique forms of art such as the Byzantine, and with the occult ‘gave him that sense of an image totally estranged from specifically human considerations (and particularly from discursive intellect)’ (88). What I think he means here is that Yeats’s desire to hold on to individualism is merely the other side of the coin from wanting to be free of it; both are signs of the rarefied poetic sensibility that keeps the artist from engaging with the life of ordinary men and women or, at least, what Kermode defines vaguely as ‘the ordinary syntax of the daily life of action.’ (161) Whatever this means in terms of the aesthetic, and I suspect not much other than a plea for the kind of Little Englandism evinced by John Carey in The Intellectuals and the Masses, it is hardly borne out by Kermode’s critical ambition: the return to a poetics of ‘reason’ and ‘rhetoric’. The example given is Milton, whose reputation continued to suffer from the drubbing it received at the hands of Eliot and Leavis until Christopher Ricks’s 1963 reassessment Milton’s Grand Style. (‘His true poetry is created out of ancient materials, as in a foundry – not spun out of his own entrails as by a spider.’ (57) ) Whatever we think of Milton, he hardly stands out as a beacon of accessibility in a world of elitism. But in any case, Kermode’s real target is what he calls the ‘anti-intellectualism’ of the image. This again seems to me a peculiar charge, because Eliot’s project in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ essay and beyond, was to reunite emotion and intellect, and Pound’s emphasis on the Renaissance values of intellectus and virtu are well-known, to the extent that historians of modernism frequently make the mistake of reading the modernists’ aspirations to connect poetry with the sciences as evidence of their rationalist bias. An ‘intellectual and emotional complex’, remember. This leads Kermode to make an unworkable distinction between image and rhetoric in practice. As I suggested earlier, when image-centred poems do without the anchoring effect of a guiding subject, they register perceptions as a kind of phenomenological epoche or bracketing of sense. This becomes syntactically adventurous, and by extension rhetorical, though not of course in the high rhetorical voice we associate with Milton. Here’s one of the best-known examples from Williams:

 so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens

(from Spring and All, 1923 (TCP, 224) )

John Hollander writes of this ‘still life’ that ‘Instead of Milton’s shifting back and forth from original to derived meanings of words, Williams “etymologizes” his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one.’ (Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form ) By this he means the way the stepped lines separate ‘wheel’ from ‘barrow’ and ‘rain’ from ‘water’, so that the constituents of the objects themselves are isolated and have to be pieced together perceptually and syntactically. The opening of the poem is nothing if not rhetorically inclined. Why does so much ‘depend upon’ the following image? Because the first clause has no antecedent, readers are left at first in abstraction. I might depend upon you to look after me, but how is this little tableau contingent on something needed? The Latin origin pendeo (not dependere, as Hugh Kenner presumes, which means to ‘bestow’ or ‘pay’) means literally ‘to hang’ as well as ‘to be uncertain’. As Ricks says of Milton, ‘Everything depends…on the particular case; on whether there is anything gained, in terms of meaning as well as sound, by his choosing to be Latinate.’ (63) It’s tempting to argue that, since the wheelbarrow is glazed with rain, raindrops literally depend upon it. Except that they wouldn’t depend ‘upon’ but ‘from’. (The only example I can find of this literal usage is in Gray’s Anatomy, and I’m too lacking in medical knowledge to tell whether it is being used etymologically: ‘…the epidermal ridges are very distinct, and are disposed in curves; they depend upon the large size and peculiar arrangements of the papillae upon which the epidermis is placed.’ (‘The Common Integument’, Anatomy of the Human Body, 1918) ) Failing resolution of this ambiguity, we are led to reflect on the rhetorical conditions of the image-making, so that what depends is the form of the poem, the progression of its hanging lines and compounds. This is ‘autotelic’, but hardly in the private sense Kermode uses, and it reminds us of ‘the poet’s realizing that language, unlike the pictorial arts, operates through time’ (42) as well as space. Wallace Stevens called the poem a ‘mobile-like arrangement’, and this perfectly expresses the suspended nature of its image in space, though not in time. Like the condensation in Freud’s dreamwork, which appears to be visual but usually turns on linguistic slippage or parapraxis, the recursive nature of the poem depends upon being actualized in, rather than ‘seeing through’, language.* We can see this when Milton uses the word ‘transport’ in its emotional as well as physical sense, as in

Thoughts, whither have ye led me, with what sweet

Compulsion thus transported to forget

What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hope

Of Paradise for Hell…                  (PL, IX, 473-6)

Williams’s poem hangs on the concrete as well an the abstract sense of his key verb. Clearly, the literal sense is the one that is least familiar. This is the case in Milton, too, according to Ricks, though in an age when we are used to transporter lorries and Star Trek it is now the emotional sense (as in ‘transports of delight’) that is less familiar. Certainly, the last time I saw Jason Statham in Transporter 3 it didn’t occur to me that the hero’s job was to inspire heightened emotional states. But maybe I was wrong.

Just as imagery and rhetoric are fused in poetic diction, art and life are complements. The two are in opposition only when our sense of reality is undialectical. Another old-school critical work, C. K. Stead’s The New Poetic (1961), reminds us that for all their troubling oppositions and dodgy politics, the Symbolists and Modernists were responding to a dominant discourse which equated ‘life’ with jingoism, racial purity, the cult of masculinity, and Little Englandism, and regarded ‘art’ as largely the product of idle homosexual foreigners. Today, we are far too liberal and enlightened to allow such prejudices, yet is seems to me that the increasing emphasis on something called ‘the real world’, which values non-utilitarian activity only insofar as it serves utilitarian ends, reifies the lifeworld in a similar way to the imperialists.

However, if we want to contest this kind of instrumentalism by asserting art as a serious form of play, we risk falling into a trap set by utilitarianism, which always wanted to consign literature to private meditation at best and entertainment at worst. There’s nothing new in this; since Plato, theories of knowledge as imitation have tended to treat art as ‘non-serious and parasitic upon reality’ (see Mark Robson, ‘Defending Poetry, or, is there an early modern aesthetic?’ in The New Aestheticism, 124), and what’s sometimes called the ‘crisis’ of modern aesthetic autonomy is a complex and often contradictory project to introduce negativity into the myth of a cognitive plenum. I don’t think it is too contentious to say that the main challenge to the humanities today is the reduction of all disciplines lacking immediately quantifiable outcomes to the status of entertainment, as capricious activities inhabiting the fuzzier corners of the ‘creative industries’. Play, however, is something quite different from entertainment, in that it requires active engagement with materials. Just as children long for inert toys, which, through the medium of advertising, promise to fill a lack in being they cannot achieve (how active was Action Man?), but take more delight in mud pies, so play derives from a relative poverty of resources. That is to say, it maintains a gap between the material and the imaginative realization, even at the risk of being boring or meaningless in itself. Learning to play is discovering that you can make things instead of merely consuming what other people make for you.

The image, then, is fundamentally rhetorical. To state the obvious, it is a linguistic image realized entirely within the conceptual realm, and not words approximating to some ideal state of presentation in the visual world. The dreamworld does not think, says Freud, and by this he means that, while images might precede conceptualization in the subconscious mind, they come to have meaning only in the process of retelling he calls secondary revision.

Te be continued….

*‘For language has a whole number of words at its command which originally had a pictorial and concrete significance, but are used to-day in a colourless and abstract sense. All that the dream need do is to give these words their former, full meaning or to go back a little way to an earlier phase in their development. A man had a dream, for instance, of his brother being in a Kasten [“box”]. In the course of interpretation the Kasten was replaced by a Schrank [“cupboard” - also used abstractly for “barrier”, “restriction”]. The dream-thought had been to the effect that his brother ought to restrict himself [sich einschranken] – instead of the dreamer doing so.’ (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 532)

 

 

Biblio

 

Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber, 1992.

Clark, T. J., Farewell to an Idea. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999.

de Man, Paul, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd edn. London: Methuen, 1983.

Eco, Umberto, On Literature, trans. Martin McLaughlin. London: Vintage, 2005.

Forrest-Thomson, Veronica, Poetic Artifice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

Hollander, John, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Joughin, John J., and Malpas, Simon, eds, The New Aestheticism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Kermode, Frank, Romantic Image. London: Routledge, 1966.

Loy, Mina, Songs to Joannes (I), in Anon, ed., Pig Cupid: a homage to Mina Loy. Cambridge: Parataxis Editions, 2000.

The Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire. 2 vols; vol 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Olson, Charles, Collected Prose, ed., Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Oswald, Alice, Woods etc. London: Faber, 2005.

Parker, M. Pauline, The Allegory of the Faerie Queene. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Pound, Ezra, ABC of Reading. London: Faber, 1973.

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed., T. S. Eliot. London: Faber, 1968.

The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, ed., D. D. Paige. London: Faber, 1950.

Selected Prose 1909-1965, ed. William Cookson. New York: New Directions, 1973.

Ricks, Christopher, Milton’s Grand Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Stead, C. K., The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot. London: Longman, 1962.

Tuve, Rosamund, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Williams, William Carlos, The Collected Poems 1909-1939. Manchester: Carcanet, 1987.

The Collected Poems 1939-196

ANTHONY MELLORS’s poetry has appeared in various anthologies, fugitive chapbooks, and journals such as Grille, Exact Change Yearbook, Great Works, Angel Exhaust, Angelaki, and Poetry Wales. Recent poems and sequences are included in The Lewknor Turn, published in September 2013 by Shearsman. With Andrew Lawson, he edited fragmente: a magazine of contemporary poetics. Critical work includes Late Modernist Poetics from Pound to Prynne (Manchester University Press, 2005), ‘Autopsia: Olson, Themis, Pausanias’ (Modernism / Modernity, 2012), ‘Aesthetic Economy and Given Time’ (SubStance, 2013), and ‘Disabled Poetry’, forthcoming in Textual Practice.

 

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