Hugh Kenner and the Invention of Modernism
â€œArt,â€ quips Hugh Kenner in A Homemade World (1975) â€œlifts the saying out of the zone of things said.â€1Â The reference is to William Carlos Williamsâ€™s poems, such as â€œThe Red Wheelbarrow,â€ that donâ€™t seem to â€œsayâ€ anything profound and yet are brilliantly articulated.Â It is a notion close to Wittgensteinâ€™s adage â€œthat a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.â€2Â Kennerâ€™s emphasis on the how rather than the what has sometimes led critics to confuse him with the New Critics.Â But Kenner, who studied at Yale under Cleanth Brooks, had little truck with New Critical doctrine, which was, for his taste, excessively thematic and figural.Â Â The New Critic tracked a given poemâ€™s unifying metaphor or paradoxâ€”for example, the comparison of lovers to saints in Donneâ€™s â€œCanonization.â€ Kenner, by contrast, never focused on what Reuben Brower called the â€œkey designâ€ or â€œthe aura around a bright clear centreâ€;3 he looked, not for centeredness but for difference.Â What makes Beckettâ€™s syntax unique and different from Joyceâ€™s?Â Â How did Poundâ€™s annotation of Eliotâ€™s Waste Land transform that particular poem?Â How did the language of the turn of the century popular magazine Tit-Bits differ from the representation of Gerty McDowellâ€™s seemingly similar maudlin kitsch language in Ulysses?
The ethos that animates such questions is hard to characterize.Â You will not find Kennerâ€™s name in the endless handbooks of literary theory and criticism that have sections on Formalism, Post-Structuralism, Feminism, Postcolonialism, and so on.Â To be included, a given critic must be representative and must provide a model that students can follow. But one cannot, I think, perform a Kennerian reading of anything, for Kenner is himself a kind of poet-critic, whose books and essays place him among writers rather than among academic commentators.Â Indeed, his eclectic methodology and firm emphasis on values places him closer to Samuel Johnson or Coleridge or T. S. Eliot than to such systematic theorists as Adorno or Foucault. Hence the unusual status of The Pound Era, which, despite its immense learning and esoteric subject matter, has remained popular with general readers for over thirty years.
The Pound Era, along with Kennerâ€™s studies of Joyce and Eliot, Williams and Beckett, represents what has often been called â€œthe invention of modernism.â€Â Â Not everyoneâ€™s modernism:Â highly selective in his enthusiasms, Kenner slighted women poets (especially Gertrude Stein) and minority writers.Â Eclectic as is his methodologyâ€”a mix of philology, etymology, close attention to syntax, coupled with literary history, cultural study, and biographical information â€”his value system is as firm as Poundâ€™s or Johnsonâ€™sâ€”and often just as irritating.Â But it is a good question for our time whether criticism can be as tolerant and value-free as we now want it to be.Â In the age of cultural studies, when the literary text is regarded as primarily a symptom of its culture rather than as an individual success or failure, critics are reluctant to pronounce one work or group of works â€œbetterâ€ than another.Â Kennerâ€™s, on the other hand, is advocacy criticism:Â as the author of â€œfirstsâ€â€”the first importantÂ book on Pound, on Wyndham Lewis, on Joyce, on Beckettâ€”and, for that matter, on Buckminster Fullerâ€”his aim was to bring the reader round to his understanding of and appreciation for the author in question.
What, then, are the values that govern Kennerâ€™s choices?Â HisÂ detractors stress what they take to be his conservative politics and accuse him of possibly sharing the Fascist values of Pound and Lewis.Â But Joyce was hardly a Fascist, and Beckett, as an implacable enemy of the Nazis, actually risked his life in the Resistance. And what about Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, poets both Jewish and on the far Left, whom Kenner promoted, almost single-handedly, when they were barely known, just as he was a great supporter of their mentor William Carlos Williams and of Marianne Moore?
What do these Modernist poets have in common?Â Kenner never spelled it out, but he demanded two things from Modernist literature.Â One was accuracy of presentationâ€”what Pound called â€œconstatation of factâ€–which was by no means mere facticity.Â The other was a conjunction of literary innovation with that of the other arts, sciences, and technologies.Â No Modernist writer, Kenner felt, could be impervious to Einsteinian physics or to such technological inventions as the X-Ray, the Marconi wireless, the airplane, and the typewriter.Â In The Mechanical Muse (1987), Kenner studies the role the typewriter played in the invention of a new poetry with regard to lineation, stanza form, and page design.Â Thus Yeats, Kenner shows, was still a poet of the handwritten page, Pound of the typed one.Â And it was Kenner who established the chronology of the separate Waste Land manuscripts by studying the typewriters on which they were composed.
But perhaps the most important demand Kenner placed on the twentieth-century text–and this has not always been understoodâ€”is that it be International.Â To write only for or about oneâ€™s countrymen was no longer enough.Â Here the key Kenner text is A Sinking Island (1988), a book whose dismissive treatment of twentieth-century British writing caused consternation, especially in London but also in New York, where Bruce Bawer responded with â€œHugh Kenner: A Sinking Oeuvre.â€4Â A Sinking Island argues that, unlike Continental Europe or the United States, Britain never underwent an avant-garde phase and hence its post-World War II writing was largely tame and regressive.Â One can refute this argument readily; indeed, in recent years, British poetry and fiction have often been more adventurous than our own.Â Still, Kenner is on to something important: that the rigid class structure of England, which lasted well into the â€˜60s, was inimical to avant-garde innovation.
One key to understanding Kenner the critic is that he considered himself an outsider.Â A Canadian of Scottish-Irish descent who lost most of his hearing in childhood as a result of influenza, a Catholic convert among Protestant Anglo-Canadians, Kenner was never at home at Yale, where his Toronto mentor Marshall McLuhan sent him for his Ph.D, and even less at home in England, whose residual Imperialism and Oxbridge snobbery he found irritatingly oppressive.Â Not surprisingly, then, Kenner early on determined that the â€œrealâ€ British modernists were, with rare exceptions like D. H. Lawrence, who was working class, not English, but foreigners: James, Pound and Eliot (American), Conrad (Polis), Ford (German), and especially the Irish: Yeats (when not engaged in theosophical mumbo jumbo), Joyce, and Beckett.
Those who know their Pound, will recognize that Kennerâ€™s Modernism was essentially Poundâ€™s own:Â â€œPoetry is news that STAYS news,â€ â€œMake it New!â€, â€œGo in fear of abstractions,â€ â€œDo not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose,â€ â€œUse no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something. . .â€–these Poundian axioms were absorbed into Kennerâ€™s vocabulary.Â Like Pound, Kenner had an almost allergic reaction to what Wordsworth called Poetic Dictionâ€”to vagueness, muzziness, circumlocution, and stock phraseology.Â Even more than Pound, he related modernist writing to new developments in the visual arts, especially Cubism, Futurism, and the technologies that gave us the readymades of Duchamp or the abstract corner-reliefs of Tatlin.
In this scheme of things, Kennerâ€™s bÃªte noire was, not surprisingly,Â Bloomsbury.Â For him, the Bloomsburies were not Modernists but late or post-Victorians whose innovationsâ€”including the rejection of conventional plot and characterizationâ€”masked perfectly traditional English values.Â Bloomsbury, Kenner quips, was once defined as â€œa congeries of men and women all of whom were in love with Duncan Grantâ€5.Â Theirs was the ultimate in-group, a state of affairs that irritated their Cambridge contemporary Wittgenstein, himself homosexual, as much as it did Kenner, the point being that, from the outsiderâ€™s perspective, the Bloomsburies were defined by their â€œacute class-consciousnessâ€ (163).Â Privilege was all, and, as Woolfâ€™s journals, letters, and even novels make clear, one didnâ€™t consort with those who were not â€œone of us.â€Â Â Joyce is referred to in Woolfâ€™s Diaries as â€œilliterateâ€ and â€œunderbred,â€ and when Harriet Weaver brought Joyceâ€™s typescript to the Woolfsâ€™ Hogarth Press, Virginia wondered, â€œWhy does [Joyceâ€™s] filth seek exit from [Weaverâ€™s] mouth?â€ (170).Â Weaver, moreover, was said to have the table manners of â€œa well bred henâ€ (170).
Kenner has something more serious than gossip in mind.Â Himself a materialist, if not a dialectical materalist critic, he wonders if the Arnold Bennett of Hilda Lessways, an Edwardian whom Woolf mocks for his emphasis on material goods and property as defining a given characterâ€™s consciousness, isnâ€™t perhaps closer to Modernism than is Woolf herself, with her emphasis on fine shades of individual consciousness.Â Kenner takes exception to Woolfâ€™s remarks in both â€œModern Fictionâ€ (1919) and â€œMr. Bennett and Mrs. Brownâ€ (1924) 6.Â In the class-conscious England of 1924, the important thing was that the educated, well-bred, and â€œcleverâ€ reader should have something to say over which fellow readers could chuckle as they read the anonymous (but stylistically identifiable) reviews in their TLS.Â â€œTo an Arnold Bennett,â€ remarks Kenner, â€œ[Woolf] could condescend from her safe perch in the upper middle class, but innovation tormented her with jealousyâ€ (176).Â Indeed, in a 1922 Diary entry, Joyce is dismissed asÂ â€œa queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,â€ and Ulysses is â€œan illiterate, underbred book, . . . the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseatingâ€ (176).
What does being a working-man have to do with it, not that Joyce, educated at a private Jesuit boarding school and then University College, Dublin, was one?Â Here again, snobbery is coupled with inaccuracy, prompted, most likely, by the displacement onto class of Joyceâ€™s status as Irish (and hence inherently dÃ©classÃ©) Catholic.Â Modernism, in Kennerâ€™s scheme of things, was precisely a revolt against these values of class, nationality, and ethnicity.Â From Stein and Eliot, to the Futurist and Dada manifestos, to Pound and Williams, Kafka and Brecht, Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, and beyond them to the Sam Beckett whom Kenner wrote about so brilliantly, the genteel English liberal agnosticism of Woolf and her circle was no match for the purposely ungainly, untidy writing in The Waste Land or The Cantos.Â Whatever else Modernism was about, Kenner argues, revolution, or at least the myth of revolution– was at its center.
In what he calls Woolfâ€™s best novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), a novel that elegizes the â€œidyllicâ€ world before the Great War, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (versions of Woolfâ€™s father and mother) retain the clichÃ© characteristics of Victorian males and females:Â he is rational, she is intuitive, he compartmentalizes, she regards matter as fluid.Â Thus Mrs. Ramsay recalls something her husband said at dinner, â€œabout the square root of one thousand two hundred and fifty-three.Â That was the number, it seemed, on his watch.â€Â Â â€œWhat did it all mean?â€Â Mrs. Ramsay wonders.Â â€œTo this day she had no notion.Â A square root?Â What was that?â€ (181).Â To assume that such â€œthoughtâ€ is a sign of â€œmasculine intelligence,â€ as does Mrs. Ramsay (and perhaps her creator as well), that women donâ€™t think about such cold mathematical trivia as square roots (and, to be accurate, does anyone really think about specific square roots?) is, Kenner argues, â€œa radical defect of imagination,â€œ an â€œunwillingness to conjure real plausibilityâ€ (182).Â It is a harsh judgment.Â But my point here is not whether Kenner is â€œrightâ€ or â€œwrong,â€ or whether his pantheon is excessively narrow and prejudicial.Â Rather, I want to suggest that Kennerâ€™s ostensibly quirky, eccentric criticism has a self-consistency we find only in the great criticsâ€”in, for example, Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes.
The issue is not, as Kennerâ€™s critics sometimes claim, merely aesthetic.Â For Kenner, as for Wittgenstein, ethics and aesthetics are one.Â Â This means that the persistent differentiation between â€œLeftâ€ and â€œRightâ€ modernism needs to be rethought.Â Â Take the case of Ezra Pound.Â The late great Brazilian Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos, himself active in Left politics, once told me that he thought Pound was a very â€œethicalâ€ person.Â Haroldo meant that, despite Poundâ€™s reprehensible politics and offensive anti-Semitism, his poetry is â€œethicalâ€ in its fidelity to its own principles.Â It does not have a â€œpalpable designâ€ on the reader, as does, perhaps, To the Lighthouse, which purports not to make value judgments about its characters, but then sets up Mr. Ramsay as representative of â€œmasculineâ€ traits at odds with his wifeâ€™s â€œfeminineâ€ sensibility.Â The solution, Hugh Kenner, like Haroldo, would have argued, is not to substitute â€œbetterâ€ values but to make sure that, as Beckett says of Finnegans Wake, form is inseparable from content.Â Value cannot be detached from language itself.
Thus, even as Kenner belonged to no â€œschoolâ€ of criticism and adopted, in his writing, whatever methodology–whether biography, etymology, or digression about a particular cultural featureâ€”might elucidate a particular textual conundrumâ€”his insistence that there is no â€œcontentâ€ separable from a poetâ€™s language itself is as applicable today as it was fifty years ago when Kenner published The Poetry of Ezra Pound.Â Louis Zukofsky comes to mind as an example in the wake of the recent Centenary conference.
Kenner greatly admired Zukofsky, but the current rather facile consensus that Zukofskyâ€™s politics are ipso facto more admirable than Poundâ€™s would no doubt have given him pause. A Lower East Side Jew, Zukofsky was a man of the Left who stood overtly for social change.Â But Pound may have been the more ethical of the two.Â For Poundâ€™s absorption of the troubadours, of Dante and Cavalcanti, as of Confucius, the Noh theatre, or Propertius, was all of a piece with his sense of himself as a poet.Â He became, in other words, his precursors.Â We cannot say the same for Zukofsky, whose writing is littered with references to Courtly love codes, Chaucer and Spenser, to Bach and the early fugue, and yet places these allusions within the frame of a bourgeois family romance, wherein the poet and his wife Celia, his helpmeet and amanuensis, are dedicated to the ostensible genius of their only son, Paul.Â What does it mean to juxtapose, as does â€œAâ€-12, this fixation on family with a set of allusions and esoteric images based on the Vita Nuova?Â Where does the extreme artifice of Eighty Flowers stand vis-Ã -vis the more robust Modernism of Zukofskyâ€™s other master, James Joyce?Â Â When these questions are finally asked, it will be understood that Hugh Kenner, far from being the â€œconservativeâ€ formalist he is now often taken to be, was the great radical among Modernist critics.