Modernism Now


Marjorie Perloff

The great revolution of the early twentieth century designated by the term Modernism—a term that refers not only to a period (roughly 1900-1930) but to an ethos—remains, at the beginning of our own century, incomplete and open to the future: modernism, it is now widely understood, is not yet finished, its momentum having been deferred by two world wars and the Cold War so that many of its principles are only now being brought to fruition.   But the recognition that we are still modernists has been slow in coming, for in the decades following World War II, the common wisdom was that the Modernism of the early century was tainted by its racism, sexism, and elitism–its retrograde politics, and «purist» aestheticism.   Modernist «genius theory» was mocked by critics of both Left and Right, as was the purported faith in Modernist autonomy and the primacy of poetic form.

But from the vantage point of the new century, the rejection of Modernism no longer makes much sense.  True, as many of the authors in this collection demonstrate, Modernist poems, novels, plays, and films reflect attitudes toward race, class, and gender that now strike us as unacceptable.   As  Frank Kermode argued, in his early critique The Sense of an Ending (1967),  the system-building and use of explanatory myth, characteristic of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis, led to «totalitarian theories of form [that were] matched or reflected by totalitarian politics.»  Indeed, Eliot’s celebrated cult of «tradition» could be seen, in this context, as a longing for «the continuity of imperial deposits,» a «persistent nostalgia for closed, immobile hierarchical societies.»

Kermode himself was not writing as a Marxist critic, but Marxist theory quickly picked up the thread, as critic after critic came to uncover what Robert Casillo called, vis-à-vis Pound, the «genealogy of demons.»  Pound’s Fascism and overt anti-Semitism, as expressed in his Rome broadcasts during World War II, which led to the poet’s decade-long incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., were excoriated as somehow inherently Modernist.  Eliot, after all, also made overtly racist and anti-Semitic statements in his poetry, as when in «Gerontion,» we read:

My house is a decayed house,

And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,

Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,

Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London. . . .

And although most Modernist poets did not go as far as Eliot or Pound, they were given, like Hart Crane, to talk of the «nigger-brass percussions» heard in nightclubs, or to refer, like William Carlos Williams in Paterson,  to a poor slum girl as «Beautiful Thing.»  Even Gertrude Stein, who, as a female, lesbian, and Jewish writer, seemed exempt from the prejudices of her day, recycled the racist concepts of her day in her «negro story» Melanctha,  and we now know that Stein translated—quite willingly– the speeches of the collaborationist Vichy government’s leader Maréchal Petain during World War II.   And—even more surprising—Bertrand Russell, known for his championship of radical causes, was given, in letters to friends and lovers, to racist and anti-Semitic slurs that make Eliot’s lines in Gerontion look almost tame.

But as the early twentieth century recedes in time, we are beginning to understand that  Modernist values cannot be understood outside their historical context.  The Modernist era was one in which a remarkable Utopian vision, of which more in a moment, culminated in two deadly World Wars (or, more properly, one long world war), and two even more deadily ideologies —Fascism and Communism.   In the course of the upheaval that resulted,  the Enlightenment faith in rationality and progress was destroyed once and for all.  Principles that had been taken for granted for centuries now came in for total transvaluation.

The literature that records this transvaluation is by no means «pretty»–it is merely fascinating and fabulous.  For one thing—and this is important to remember—there is no necessary connection between «good» literature and «good» politics.  On the contrary, great literature has more often than not been born of  struggle, opposition, and the need to rethink current pieties and accepted values.  Secondly, as Theodor Adorno argued  persuasively in his Aesthetic Theory (1970),  the Modernist emphasis on form is by no means retrograde, for poetic form functions to resist the ideological pressure it represses.   Indeed, resistance is the key to the successful artwork, which is thus of necessity dialectical: «the concrete historical situation, art’s other, is [its] condition.»  And it is the poetics of such resistance that continues to dazzle readers coming to Modernist works a century later.

From Rimbaud’s insistence in 1873, that «Il faut étre absolument moderne,» to Pound’s 1918 declaration that «no good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old» and his later declaration that «Poetry is news that STAYS news,» to D. H. Lawrence’s demand, in a 1923 manifesto by that name, for «Surgery for the Novel—or a Bomb,» to Williams’s account of the ways in which Marianne Moore’s «wiping soiled words  or cutting them clean out, removing the aureoles that have been pasted about them or taking them bodily from greasy contexts,» modernism perceived its own mission as a call for necessary rupture.  Even W. B. Yeats, that self-styled «last romantic,» declared in his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935:

The revolt against Victorianism meant to the young poet a revolt against irrelevant description of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness of In Memoriam . . . the political eloquence of Swinburne, the psycholoigcal curiosity o Browning, and the poetical diction of everybody.

The radicalism of Modernist publication, moreover, is attested by its public reception.  In 1916, Lawrence’s great experimental novel The Rainbow was banned under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, thus setting the stage for Lawrence’s lifelong battle against censorship.  Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) could not be published in the United States until the landmark decision of Judge Woolsey in December 1933 cleared the novel of obscenity charges.  Poetry was less likely to be judged obscene than the fiction or drama of the period, but again, it helps to remember that Eliot’s «Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,» now a classroom and anthology classic, was dismissed, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, as the senseless rambling of a confused mind, even as Williams’s Spring and All (1923), published in an edition of three-hundred copies in Dijon, France, was almost entirely overlooked.  «Nobody,» Williams later recalled, «ever saw it—it had no circulation at all.»  And Gertrude Stein’s «writing» was alternately lampooned and dismissed as «mere» automatic writing—which is to say, pure nonsense.

What was it that made the Modernist period, especially  in its early Utopian stages, so revolutionary?   The transformation of an agrarian world into an urbanized one, which went hand in hand with the astonishing inventions of the period—the internal combustion engine, diesel engine and steam turbine, the automobile, motor bus, tractor, and soon the airplane, the telegraph, telephone, and typewriter, the dissemination of electricity, and the creation of synthetic dyes, fibres, and plastics—all these contributed to what Modris Ecksteins in his Rites of Spring (1989) has characterized as the Flucht nach vorne—the flight forward.  The Einsteinian revolution, the «new» non-Euclidean geometries, the invention of the Roentgen X-Ray:  these heavily influenced the arts and poetries of the early century:  witness Marcel Duchamp’s found objects known as readymades, his non-semantic poetry, his use of chance and  «playful physics» in The Large Glass ( The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even). Consider, too, how the population of the capitals of Europe and New York multiplied.  To give just one example: in 1870 Germany, not yet a unified nation, had a population that was two-thirds rural; by 1914 that relationship had been reversed, and two thirds of all Germans lived in cities.  In New York, as in Paris, the advertising industry, mass entertainment, and popular journalism came to the fore and changed the dynamic of art reception.  So successful and wide-spread were the new networks of communication that contact between individual nations became, at once, much easier and yet fraught with the proximity and hence competition that led to World War I. The first flight across the English Channel, for example, which took place in July 1909, and was celebrated by Robert Delaunay in his painting Homage à Blériot, was followed, no more than six years later, by airplanes dropping bombs over Paris in World War I.

Indeed, the «Renaissance of 1910,» as Guy Davenport calls the pre-war period, came to an abrupt end with the onset of what was the most pointless of wars:

By 1916 this springtime was blighted by the World War, the tragic effects of which cannot be overestimated [and which extinguished European culture.  (Students reading Pound’s ‘eye deep in hell» automatically think it is an allusion to Dante until you tell them about trenches.)  Accuracy in such matters being impossible, we can say nevertheless that the brilliant experimental period in twentieth-century art was stopped short in 1916.  Charles Ives had written his best music by then; Picasso had become Picasso; Pound, Pound; Joyce, Joyce.  Except for individual talents, already in development beore 1916, moving on to full maturity, the century was over in its sixteenth year.  (The Geography of Imagination 314)

This is a radical view of a radical period but one which is actually quite plausible.   Davenport adds that the «collapse» of 1916 was less endgame than «interruption.»  Obviously there was to be important literature after the Great War, but what Davenport means is that the  revolutionary modes and techniques we associate with Modernism—and which have everything to do with the revolutionary changes in the culture itself– were all in place by 1916.

What were these modes?  First and foremost, the demise of mimesis, of representation, as the accepted purpose of the literary construct.  For the Modernists, the role of poetry is not to represent the world outside language, but to create a linguistic field that has its own mode of being.  «Reality,» by this token, cannot, in any case, be known directly; it can be revealed only by the mediation of the Symbol:  one thinks of Hart Crane’s long epic poem The Bridge, which presents its myth of spanning the American continent by means of the symbolism of Brooklyn Bridge and related circular forms.  The projected autonomy of art and its divorce from truth or morality puts heavy weight on the poet himself (herself)– the heroic Modernist poet is the genius who can and must «Make it New.»  In this regard, Gertrude Stein is very much like the T. S. Eliot who was supposedly her enemy: she was a firm believer in genius and in art as the very center (and the opposite) of life.  Aesthetic work, for Stein, was the only «work» that really mattered, that made living worthwhile.  And although Marcel Duchamp pretended to total «aesthetic indifference» and claimed to prefer playing chess to art-making, there is no doubt that he too did everything in his power—including the avoidance of all military service and inconvenience in both World Wars and of marriage as tying the artist down to bourgeois living habits and the need to earn money—to be free to make his readymades, boxes, and the installation of the Large Glass.

The corollary of the anti-mimetic contract of Modernism is that the art work is autonomous, that it has a life of its own, independent of its possible «reflection» of reality or personal feeling.  «Poetry,» Eliot announced in «Tradition and the Individual Talent,» «is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,» although, he added somewhat coyly, «But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.».  The new autonomous poem, moreover, avoided the linearity of its Romantic and Victorian predecessors, exhibiting the  alogical form Joseph Frank dubbed «spatial form,» its parts relating less by causality or sequence than by the metonymic structure of juxtapositions that came to be known as collage.   Indeed, collage—literally a «pasting together,» originally applied to lovers—and the key art form for Picasso and Braque after1912, became one of the dominant forms of modernist poetry.  The Waste Land, Pound’sCantos, Williams’s  Spring and All and later Paterson, Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, Louis Zukofsky’s «A»–these are collage-texts in which unlikely materials are juxtaposed so as to create a dense semantic structure.

That language, Modernist poetics held, had to be concrete.  From Eliot’s objective correlative to Marianne Moore’s «imaginary gardens with real toads in them,» to Ezra Pound’s Imagist manifesto in «A Retrospect,» with its demand to «Go in fear of abstractions,» and his definition of the Image as «an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,» to Williams’s «No ideas but in things,»  precision and what Pound called «constatation of fact» were the order of the day.  Yet precision did not necessarily mean «clear, visual images»–the term Eliot used to describe Dante’s poetry in The Divine Comedy.  The term could also refer to precision of syntax—a syntax commensurate to the articulation of a complex set of ideas—as in Gertrude Stein or in Wallace Stevens, or, for that matter, to precision of sound, to the finding of the perfectly appropriate rhyme or rhythm, as in Langston Hughes or Jean Toomer.  In all these instances, poetry is regarded as an art of “verbivocovisual” (Joyce’s term) complexity and difficulty.  Whereas Victorian poetry and its American counterpart in the poetry, say, of Longfellow, was aimed at the larger reading public, Modernists demanded that the public would meet them more than halfway, would take the trouble to unravel what had taken the poets themselves so long to do.  One thinks of Joyce declaring that if it took him eight years to write Ulysses, readers ought to be willing to take the necessary time  to read it.

Other Modernist continuities are more thematic than formal.  Modernism attached much importance to the newly discovered Freudian unconscious, to dream work, and to the use of myth and archetypal narratives as organizing structures.  Thus The Waste Land takes its structural motive from the vegetation myths discussed in J. M. Frazer’s Golden Bough and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, even as Pound’s Cantos fuse Confucian historiography with Greek myth and the Homeric paradigm of the Odyssey.  Indeed, Guy Davenport has argued that the “renaissance” of the twentieth century “has been a renaissance of the archaic,” that the age defined itself by such discoveries as that of the prehistoric Lascaux caves and their amazing drawings, of the Kouroi or Archaic Greece, and the revival of the pre-Socratic philosophers, for whom “science and poetry are still the same thing.”  “[Buckminster] Fuller,” writes Davenport, “is our Pythagoras, Niels Bohr is our Democritus, Ludwig Wittgenstein is our Heraclitus.”

The appeal of the archaic goes hand in hand with the Modernist obsession with the meaning of exile: indeed, the diaspora literature of our own time begins in the early twentieth-century.  Most nineteenth-century poets and novelists, after all, lived all their lives in the country of their birth: think of Austen and Trollope, Wordsworth and Tennyson, Dickinson and Whitman.  But the 1910s and 20s witnessed the expatriation of Gertrude Stein, who lived in Paris most of her adult life, T. S. Eliot (London), Ezra Pound (first London, then Paris, then Rapallo, Italy), and H.D. (London, Switzerland).  British writers – Lawrence, Ford, Joyce similarly went into exile.  Those Americans who stayed home like Williams. Moore, and Stevens, lived in exotic places in their imagination and introduced foreign words and phrases (mostly French) into their poems.  Again, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff were both born in the U.S. to immigrant Jewish parents, fleeing the Russian pogroms; Zukofsky’s first language was Yiddish.  Other poets, for example Langston Hughes, traveled widely—to Cuba and South America, to Russia and Japan.  Poetry thus became a more cosmopolitan, nomadic pursuit than it had been in the nineteenth century.  “Questions of travel,” to borrow Elizabeth Bishop’s title, were on everyone’s mind.

What, then, of Modernism’s later trajectory? .  “From the Modernism that you want,” the poet David Antin once quipped, “you get the Postmodernism you deserve.” In The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1982), Ihab Hassan drew up a chart, admittedly schematic, of the difference between the two.  Here, with some omissions, is Hassan’s schema:

Modernism                                                                                 Postmodernism

Romanticsm/Symbolism                                                     Pataphysics/Dadaism

Form (conjunctive, closed)                                                Antiform (disjunctive, open)

Purpose                                                                                       Play

Design                                                                                          Chance

Hierarchy                                                                                   Anarchy

Art Object/Finished Work                                      Process/Performance/Happening

Distance                                                                                      Participation

Presence                                                                                    Absence

Centering                                                                                  Dispersal

Metaphor                                                                                  Metonym

Lisible (readerly)                                                                  Scriptible (writerly)

Origin/Cause                                                                          Differance/Trace

Determinacy                                                                          Indeterminacy

Transcendence                                                                     Immanence

The difficulty with this chart—a difficulty not fully understood when Hassan first put forward this blueprint—is that, as the distance between the first appearance of “postmodernism” and the present has increased, we can see that most of the attributes in the right-hand column were already present in Modernism.  Can, we for example, talk of “Gerontion” as a “readerly” rather than “writerly” text?  Of determinacy in Crane’s Bridge or Williams’s Kora in Hell?  Of hierarchy in Stevens’sAuroras of Autumn?  Of “transcendence” in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons?  At every turn, the neat dichotomy between Modernism and Postmodernism is called into question.

But Antin’s reference to the “modernism that you want” raises further complications.  The first item in Hassan’s right-hand column is “Pataphysics/Dadaism.”   No doubt, what Hassan meant is that sixties’ poets and artists revived these earlier movements and produced such “neo-Dada” works as John’s Cage silent piano piece 4’33” or Jackson Mac Low’s The Pronouns.  But after all, Dada was chronologically a Modernist movement, and surely Duchamp, perhaps the most quintessential Modernist of all, was the purveyor par excellence of play, chance, anarchy, audience participation, and especially “Process/Performance/Happening.”  The Readymades, let’s remember, date from the mid-1910s, the Large Glass from 1922, and nothing produced in the “Postmodern” era has quite surpassed these works with respect to “Making It New.”

It may be countered, of course, that I am a blurring the well-known distinctions between the terms Modernist and Avant-Garde.   But if the past decade has taught us anything, it is that the opposition between the “established,” “conservative” Modernist artist and the “radical” avant-gardist no longer has much meaning.  Duchamp, in later life,paid homage to Eliot’s  “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Allen Ginsberg’s Howl!, presents itself overtly as an heir to Paterson and the Cantos, even as John Ashbery’s Litany harks back to Eliot’s Four Quartets.   As for the recent experiments of Language Poetry, such poets as Charles Bernstein and Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejnian and Susan Howe can now be seen to come squarely out of the Modernist tradition, even as they carry play and indeterminacy, chance and dispersal much further.

To recapitulate: it was in the Modernist era, especially in its first utopian, radical, optimistic phase, that the great literary  inventions of our time—collage, simultaneity, free verse and verse-prose combinations, genre-mixing, indeterminacy of image and syntax—were born.   When, in the period entre deux guerres, Modernism was refigured, it became, of course, more socially and politically conscious, giving us the ethical concerns of the Objectivists, the poetics of Négritude of Aimé Cesaire and Leopold Senghor abroad as well as of the Harlem Renaissance at home.  After World War II, the landscape turned increasingly darker, even for a seemingly light-hearted and jaunty poet like Frank O’Hara, who declares, in a moment of despair recorded in “Ode (To Joseph LeSueur) on the Arrow that Flieth by Day” (1958):

for God’s sake fly the other way

leave me standing alone crumbling in the new sky of the Wide World

without passage, without breath

a spatial representative of emptiness

Yet even for a late Modernist like O’Hara, it is art that supplies redemption: “A Step Away from Them,” which mourns the death of such artist friends as Bunny Lang and John Latouche, as well as of Jackson Pollock, ends with the lines:

A glass of papaya juice

and back to work.  My heart is in my

pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

A tribute to a great Modernist precursor: perhaps this is still the poetic condition.