January 1931. In the "News Notes" at the back of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe announced that the February issue would be edited by one "Mr. Louis Zukofsky, who has been for several years a prominent member of a group of writers interested in experiment in poetic form and method. . . . Mr. Zukofsky is recommended on the high authority of Ezra Pound and others whose opinions we greatly respect." (1) But, having "abdicated [her editorial powers] temporarily," Monroe evidently felt betrayed. In the March issue, she wrote an angry response to the "Objectivist" number of Poetry called "The Arrogance of Youth." Zukofsky, she insisted, was wrong to "abandon" such big poetry names as E. A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as the "once-revolutionary imagists." And "what," asks Monroe, "are we offered in exchange? A few familiar names get by [she is evidently thinking of William Carlos Williams's "Botticellian Trees"] though often by severely wrenching Mr. Zukofsky's barbed-wire entanglements." (2)
What was the nature of the "Objectivist" experiment, as represented by Zukofsky's selection for Poetry, a selection that included, aside from the obvious names (Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Zukofsky himself), Robert McAlmon and Kenneth Rexroth, Whittaker Chambers and Henry Zolinsky, John Wheelright and Martha Champion? And in what sense was the work of these poets a departure from that of the "once-revolutionary imagists"? Williams, for one, seems to have been skeptical, even though Zukofsky's "Objectivists" Anthology of the following year contains a large selection of his own poems. "Your early poems," he told Zukofsky in a letter of 1928, "even when the thought has enough force or freshness, have not been objectivized in new or fresh observations. But if it is the music, even that is not inventive enough to make up for images which give an overwhelming effect of triteness. . . . The language is stilted 'poetic' except in the places I marked. Eyes have always stood first in the poet's equipment. If you are mostly ear--a newer rhythm must come in more strongly than has been the case so far." (3)
As examples of such "stilted 'poetic'" language, Williams singles out the phrases "all live processes," "orbit-trembling," "our consciousness," and "the sources of being" in what he calls Zukofsky's "Lenin poem," "Memory of V. I. Ulianov." (4)"It may be," he admits, "that I am too literal in my search for objective clarities of image. It may be that you are completely right in forcing abstract conceptions into the sound pattern. . . . it may be that when the force of the conception is sufficiently strong it can carry this sort of thing. . . . Perhaps by my picayune, imagistic mannerisms I hold together superficially what should by all means fall apart" (WCWL, 103).
The recognition that "imagistic mannerisms" may well have had their day is echoed by Ezra Pound. Having urged Harriet Monroe to put Zukofsky "at the wheel of the Spring cruise," as he put it in a letter, and having "refused to contribute to Aldington's Imagist mortology 1930," which he dismisses as "20 ans apres," Pound urges Zukofsky to make his special issue "a murkn number; excludin the so different English." Indeed, if Zukofsky does his job, Pound suggests, Poetry might once again be "what it was in 1912/13, the forum in which the Zeitideen WERE presented and discussed." (5)
But the "Zeitideen" of 1931 were, as Pound himself was the first to recognize ("Prob[lem] ain't now the same"), no longer those of 1913. For one thing, the relationship between tradition and the new had become vexed. "The number ought to be NEW line up," Pound repeatedly urges Zukofsky. "You can mention me and old Bill Walrus [Williams] in the historic section. . . . I do not think contributions from ANYone over 40 shd. be included; and preferably it shd. be confined to those under 30" (PZ, 51-52). And he notes acutely, "ONE notable difference between yr. position in 1930 and mine in 1910 is that you would LIKE to include several older american authors. Bill, Me and I suppose Possum Eliot, with Cummings an already known name" (PZ, 53).
Zukofsky responded defensively. "The only progress made since 1912," writes the twenty-six-year-old poet to his forty-six-year-old mentor, "is or are several good poems, i.e. the only progress possible -- & criteria are in your prose works" (PZ, 65). And again, "Think I'll have as good a 'movement' as that of the premiers imagistes-- point is Wm. C. W. of today is not what he was in 1913, neither are you if you're willing to contribute -- if I'm going to show what's going on today, you'll have to. The older generation is not the older generation if it's alive & up. . . . What's age to do with verbal manifestation, what's history to do with it?" (PZ, 67). Which Pound shrugs off laconically: "In 1913 les jeunes did not respect their papas. In 1930 there are a few middle-aged bokos that we can afford to let live" (PZ, 74). It was fine, in other words, for Zukofsky to reprint, in his preface to the "Objectivists" Anthology, Pound's own Imagist manifesto in "A Retrospect" (1912), along with his famous division of poetry into three "kinds" (melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia) articulated in "How to Read" (1928), and to quote the opening of the newly completed Canto XXX ("Compleynt, compleynt I hearde upon a day"). And the Anthology is dedicated to Pound, who "is still for the poets of our time / the / most important."
A certain sense of belatedness--the belatedness usually associated with our own postmodern ethos--thus haunts Zukofsky's production. But then "make it new!" could hardly be the watchword of a poetic generation that came of age in the Great Depression, a generation that understood that the "new" was by no means equivalent to the true, much less to the good and the beautiful. Just the same, despite Zukofsky's own evident inability to articulate the difference between Pound's aesthetic and that of the "Objectivists" Anthology that he had assembled, there really was something new going on in that anthology, as in the little magazines of the early thirties in general. Indeed, with the hindsight of the 1990s, the early 1930s were anni mirabiles for poetry, as the magazines that now replaced the Dial and Little Review (both ceased publication in 1929)--magazines like Blues, Morada, the New Review, Furioso, New Masses -- testify. The "Objectivists" Anthology, for that matter, far from being the anomaly Zukofsky and Oppen scholars have often taken it to be, was in fact representative of a larger aesthetic that has been insufficiently distinguished from its modernist past and its postmodernist future. The shift that takes place at the turn of the decade is one from the modernist preoccupation with form in the sense of imagistic or symbolist structure, dominated by a lyric "I," to the questioning of representation itself. Discourse now becomes increasingly referential, but reference does not go hand in hand with the expected mimesis. Rather, the boundaries between the "real" and the "fantastic" become oddly blurred. The taste for the "natural," as in Pound's insistence that "The natural object is always the adequate symbol," (6) gives way to artifice and a marked taste for abstraction and conceptualization. In the same vein irony, so central to modernist poetics, gives way to the parodic, but even parody is often not sustained, with abrupt tonal shifts and reversals in mood becoming quite usual. Indeed, this "time of tension," to borrow Eliot's phrase from his 1930 poem "Ash Wednesday," exhibits a mannerist style as distinct from its modernist antecedents as from the socialist realism to come.
In the discussion that follows, I take as my example a single "little magazine," Pagany, which ran for twelve issues between January 1930 and December 1932, thus coinciding with the darkest years of the Depression, from the October 1929 Wall Street crash to the election of Roosevelt and the coming of his New Deal in 1932. It was in Pagany, edited by an affluent young Boston litterateur named Richard Johns, (7) that Williams published the first ten chapters of White Mule and such famous short lyrics as "Flowers by the Sea" and "The Red Lily"; Stein, the first version of Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded; Pound, Cantos XXX-XXXII as well as critical commentary; and Zukofsky, "A"1. In his capacity as informal poetry advisor, (8) moreover, Zukofsky evidently persuaded Johns to publish poems by his "Objectivist" friends Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Basil Bunting, by Kenneth Rexroth and Yvor Winters, Mary Butts and Mina Loy. But Pagany also published such early "naturalist" fiction as Edward Dahlberg's Flushing to Calvary, Erskine Caldwell's American Earth stories, and John Dos Passos's Eveline from U.S.A.
Johns takes the title of his journal from a work he greatly admired, Williams's autobiographical novel Voyage to Pagany (1928). But whereas Williams's Pagany is of course Europe, the "pagan" Old World where American innocents come to be initiated into the complexities of a sophisticated culture, Johns's Pagany, as the journal's subtitle, "A Native Quarterly," makes clear, neatly reverses this Jamesian contrast between Old and New Worlds. In the Announcement on the opening page of the first issue (January-March1930), Johns explains:
Pagus is a broad term, meaning any sort of collection of peoples from the smallest district or village to the country as an inclusive whole. Taking America as the pagus, any one of us as the paganus, the inhabitant, and our conceptions, our agreements and disagreements, our ideas, ideals, whatever we have to articulate is pagany, our expression.
This Native Quarterly is representative of a diverse and ungrouped body of spokesmen, bound geographically. Wary of definite alliance with any formulated standard PAGANY (as an enclosure) includes individual expression of native thought and emotion. (9)
Here, by an odd sleight-of-hand, Pagany (Europe) becomes the "diverse and ungrouped body of spokesmen" that is America. From the exotic and corrupt European Other to the cultural diversity of the United States: it is an emblem of the shift from the expatriate 1920s to the American 1930s, a shift that the journal will trace. Interestingly, when foreign writers (the English Mary Butts, the French Georges Hugnet) or artists (the French Eugène Atget) are included, their work is mediated by a specific American sponsor: Butts by Ezra Pound, Hugnet by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson, Atget by Berenice Abbott. (10)The first issue of Pagany, for example, contains Mary Butts's short story "The House Party," which gives the Jamesian initiation-into-Europe motif a sardonic twist. The hero Paul is an American "joy-boy," "a cracked little specimen of a gigolo, after a year in prison for something he had not done," who is invited by a worldly Englishman named Vincent to a house party in a "sea-washed, fly-blown, scorched hotel along the coast":
Under Vincent's wing, a man could stand up a bit. Vincent was English, tender, serious, older than he was. Vincent wanted him to come. Was no doubt cajoling, hypnotizing certain objections. Objections that were always made about him, especially by his own countrymen, the Americans who made a cult of Europe, a cult and a career, not quite perfect in their transplanting and conscious of it."
Like the Zukofsky whom Williams criticized for "forcing abstract conceptions into the sound pattern," Butts produces a prose notable for its calculated imprecision, its verbal and syntactic oddities. "Under Vincent's wing, a man could stand up a bit": the sentence begins with a familiar cliché, only to deflate it with an absurd description: how does one stand up under someone's "wing"? Then, too, "a man could stand up a bit" alludes to Ford Madox Ford's 1926 A Man Could Stand Up (the third volume of the Parade's End tetralogy), a novel Butts surely knew. Is she saying that Paul's is, in its own way, a life in the trenches not wholly unlike that of Christopher Tietjens? It is hard to tell, Butts's mode being pastiche in Fredric Jameson's sense of "blank parody," parody "devoid . . . of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists." (11) Vincent, we read further was "no doubt cajoling, hypnotizing certain objections." Again the shift from a Victorian construction ("no doubt cajoling"), to the odd application of hypnosis to, not persons, but abstract nouns referring to mental states. In a similar vein, the energy of the European hosts is said to be "virgin" and Paul's "adventures" are characterized not by their kind but by their "directions." The simile "his adventures out-numbered theirs as the stars the dim electric light bulbs of the hotel" calls attention to the willed extravagance of Butts's style, her refusal of structural coherence in favor of disjunction and dislocation. As she puts it in the opening of "Brightness Falls," "There is no head or tail to this story, except that it happened. On the other hand, how does one know that anything happened? How does one know?" (12) Or take the opening of "The Warning": "This happened in the kind of house people live in who used not to live in that kind of house, who were taught to have very distinct opinions about the kind of people who lived in them. Yet, now that they have gone to live in them, they are rather different than when the other sort of person lived there" (MB 117).
The similarity to Stein should not be surprising; Butts knew Stein through her close friend Virgil Thomson and had frequented Stein's Paris salon. The first issue of Pagany, for that matter, contains Stein's "Five Words in a Line" (later incorporated into Stanzas in Meditation,1932), which begins:
Five words in a line.
Bay and pay make a lake.
Have to be held with what.
They have to be held with what they have to be held.
Dependent of dependent of why.
With a little cry. (13)
In his essay "The Work of Gertrude Stein," which follows "Five Words in a Line," Williams remarks, "Having taken the words to her choice . . . [Stein] has completely unlinked them from their former relationships in the sentence. . . . The words, in writing, she discloses, transcend everything" (PI, 1: 43-44). Most poets, Williams reminds the reader, take the easy way out: "Starting from scratch we get, possibly, thatch; just as they have always done in poetry. Then they would try to connect it up by something like -- The mice scratch, beneath the thatch. Miss Stein does away with all that. The free-versists on the contrary used nothing else. They saved -- The mice, under the . . . , (PI, 1: 42).
Reading Williams's essay, as one normally does, in A Novelette and Other Prose (1931) or, together with his "A 1 Pound Stein" (1934), in the Selected Essays, (14) one assumes that Stein's was a case wholly exceptional, that no one else at the time was so thoroughly "unlinking" words from their normal syntactic relationships. But reading Williams's essay in the context of Pagany suggests that Stein's "unlinkings," like the syntactic oddities, abstractions, and ungainly compoundings (e.g., "orbit-trembling") of Zukofsky, which Williams had called into question, were not all that exceptional in the writing of the early 1930s. Indeed, Stein's free adaptation of Georges Hugnet's surrealist poetic suite Enfances, which appeared in the January-March1931 issue of Pagany, provides an interesting index to the new poetics.
Between the Cracks
Stein's thirty-eight page text, which prints Hugnet's French poem and Stein's English version on facing pages, has a complicated history that needn't preoccupy us here; (15) suffice it to say that, according to the original plan, Enfances, together with Stein's "reflection," as she called her version, was to be published in Paris by Editions Jeanne Bucher, with illustrations by Picasso, Louis Marcoussis, and Pavel Tchelitcheff. But when Hugnet objected that Stein's version could not considered a translation of his poem, she responded by giving the text printed in Pagany the title "Poem Pritten on Pfances of Georges Hugnet." (16) When she brought out the book version later that year, Stein eliminated the French text altogether and called her own poem Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded.
Stein's "free translation" of Hugnet's Enfance has been roundly criticized. Richard Bridgman says it "suffers badly in the presence of the original which it purports to reflect. . . . Stein's liberties were so extreme that, did they not emanate from her, one might reasonably conclude that the translator knew too little French to do the job properly. . . . she carefully censored Hugnet's images of death, sex, nudity, and onanism. For a woman who offered lines of fearsomely coy sexual innuendo, Gertrude Stein remained, even in her middle fifties, prudish, or at least evasive." And even Marianne DeKoven, who celebrates Stein's experimental writing, remarks, "Unfortunately, she seems to equate the essence of poetry with the way many poems sound, and instead of illuminating abstraction she achieves only travesty. . . . Much of the painfully unassimilated 'poetic' diction in Stein's poem is the trace of the French original." (17)
Note how similar this charge against Stein is to Williams's complaint about Zukofsky's "stilted poetic" language and his "forcing of abstract conceptions into the sound pattern." It is a modernist-based critique of a new way of writing that came to be known by the curiously inappropriate label "Objectivist." Consider #12 of Hugnet's Enfances:
Ma faim est large, mon appétit démesuré.
Je peux parler longtemps sans médire
mais tout me blesse et je sais haïr,
Ce pays que je vois pour la première fois
à ma timidité confie les soins du voyage,
tout ce qu'une absence crée d'incertitude,
tout ce que la surprise a gagné sur l'amour,
et c'est si haut que je pense à mon orgueil
qu'aucun regret de mes humiliations subies pour toi
n'éxerce mon enfance à redouter la nuit,
la nuit et ces dons que tu m'as faits,
ces dons où se tatoua ton indifférence
sous la forme et le chant d'un regard particulier.
Enfance, je te nomme au centre du monde,
au centre de mon coeur tu te nommes toi-même,
tu te nommes la course à l'exemple de ma faim,
enfance homicide à l'exemple de ma faim. (PII, 1: 21-22)
My hunger is great, my appetite without bounds.
I can speak for a long time without voicing slander
but everything hurts me and I know how to hate,
This country which I see for the first time
entrusts to my timidity the preparations for the trip,
all that an absence can produce from uncertainty
all that surprise can do to replace love,
and it is so great that I think of my pride
that no regret for the humiliations suffered for you
can make my childhood fear the night,
the night and these gifts you have bestowed on me,
these gifts on which your indifference is tattooed
beneath the shape and the song of a particular look.
Childhood, I place you at the center of the world,
to the center of my heart, you place yourself
you choose the path commensurate with my hunger,
homicidal childhood commensurate with my hunger.
Hugnet's seventeen-line lyric celebrates, in rather melodramatic and strained terms, the secret pleasures of childhood masturbation. Its formal alexandrines, occasionally rhyming, give the poem a Baudelairean cast, even as its theme recalls the self-absorption of Hugnet's friend Jean Cocteau. Stein's "reflection" on Hugnet's "love" poem is wonderfully droll:
I am very hungry when I drink,
I need to leave it when I have it held.
They will be white with which they know they see, that darker
makes it be a color white for me, white is not shown when I am dark indeed with red despair who comes who has to care that they will let me a little lie like now I like to lie I like to live I like to die I like to lie and live and die and live and die and by and by I like to live and die and by and by the need to sew, the difference is that sewing makes it bleed and such with them in all the way of seed and seeding and repine and they will which is mine and not all mine who can be thought curious of this of all of that made it and come lead it and done weigh it and mourn and sit upon it know it for ripeness without deserting all of it of which without which it has been not been born. Oh no not to be thirsty with the thirst of hunger not alone to know that they plainly and ate or wishes. Any little one will kill himself for milk. (PII, 1: 21-22)
Contrary to Bridgman's supposition, Stein has obviously read her Hugnet carefully. Indeed, her witty pastiche of his masturbatory lyric takes all his references into account: extreme hunger and despair, the thirst for life punctuated by fear of death, the fidelity to one's ideals and refusal to betray them, the contrast between a virginal white and the red of penetration, the infantile regression to the nursing state. Then, too, Stein makes as much as Hugnet does of repetition and one-ups him at rhyming:
"They will be white with which they know they see, / that darker makes it be a color white for me," "when I am dark indeed with red despair /who comes who has to care," and so on. But Stein goes much further: her own poem modulates a complex series of monosyllables containing long and short i's ("I like to lie I like to live I like to die I like to lie and live and die and live and die and by and by."), creating a singsong nursery-rhyme rhythm that expresses "enfance" via sound rather than imagery. In this playful network, every phoneme counts: "lie" becomes "live" with the addition of one consonant, and the "it" of line 2 ("I need to leave it when I have it held") changes meaning with every new phrase. Finally, the hyperbole of "thirsty with the thirst of hunger" playfully acknowledges Hugnet's "à l'exemple de ma faim," even as parts of speech are unlinked from their normal position ("not alone to know that they plainly and ate or wishes"). And the poem concludes on a commonsense note that truly does characterize infancy: "Any little one will kill himself for milk."
One might object at this point that, whatever Stein's relation to Hugnet and his poetic sequence, her version of #12 should be understood as a characteristic Stein work, one text among many similar ones like Tender Buttons or A Long Gay Book, both written almost two decades earlier. But however familiar the repetition, the reduced vocabulary, and skewed grammar, the Stein of the 1910s and early 1920s was not as given to parody and allusive literary play as is the author of "Poem Pritten on Pfances of Georges Hugnet." The early portraits like "Picasso" and "Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia" manifest a care for consistency that we don't find here or in the great poem of this period, "Stanzas in Meditation." Abstraction, intertextuality, the dispersal of the subject, obsessive rhyming and related sound patterning -- these become Stein's signature. Blood, in her scheme of things, is associated, not with Hugnet's wound of love but with what are obliquely presented as her preferred domestic activities. Sewing ("the difference is that sewing makes it bleed") modulates slyly via the rhyme "bleed" / "seed" into the onanism Bridgman takes Stein to have ignored. "All the way to seed and seeding and repine and they will which is mine and not at all mine": these words constitute Stein's covert tribute to Alice Toklas and her witty exposure of Georges Hugnet's vaunted self-absorption. "Know it for ripeness," as she archly puts it, "without deserting all of it."
From the vantage point of high modernism, such writing was bound to appear deficient: no "direct treatment of the thing," no objective correlative, no clear visual images. Stein's "deliberate gracelessness" --the phrase is Peter Quartermain's with reference to Mina Loy (18) -- may also be linked to the new transgression of conventional gender roles, a transgression that goes hand in hand with the social uncertainties of the early Depression years. The July-September 1931 issue of Pagany, for example, contains Loy's "Lady Laura in Bohemia," which begins:
Trained in a circus of swans
Her eliminate flesh of fashion
inseparable from the genealogical tree
columns such towering reticence
of lifted chin
her hiccoughs seem
preparatory to bowing to the Queen
Her somersault descent
into the half-baked underworld
nor the inebriate regret
disturb her vertical caste
"They drove 'em from the cradle on the curb" (P2, 3: 125-26)
"Lady Laura in Bohemia" is perhaps best understood as a late modernist sendup of Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," of Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme," and section12 of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley ("The Lady Valentine"). The swans of Loy's poem are no longer Yeats's "brilliant creatures," drifting mysteriously on Coole lake but a "circus" of debutantes, "trained" to behave according to the norms of their "genealogical tree." "Trained," the opening word in the poem, places emphasis on social and cultural control, an emphasis underscored by the poem's rhythm, which is much closer to the "sequence of metronome" than to that of the "musical phrase" Pound advocated so strenuously. Take the lines:
Her eliminate flesh of fashion
inseparable from the genealogical tree
Here the rhymes "she" / "recedingly" / "tree" are intentionally silly, forcing the reader to stress the last syllable of "recedingly" and run "genealogical" and "tree" together. More important, Loy's structures of modification are characterized by repeated grammatical oddities: Laura "proceeds recedingly," her "flesh" is "eliminate" (rather than "eliminated") and it "columns" a "towering reticence / of lifted chin." In line 12, the abstract noun "regret" is described as "inebriate" or drunk. In line 13, "caste," Lady Laura's "caste" is defined as "vertical," and the quotation in line 14 is not attributed to anyone in particular. It could be Lady Laura's exclamation, but then again it could be that of a bystander in the "Bohemian" night club or even the words of the poet herself.
Once one accustoms oneself to the curious coupling of abstract and concrete words in Loy's poetry, her language begins to resonate. The opening describes the entrance of a well-brought up and aristocratic young woman ("Trained in a circus of swans") into a Montparnasse bar (a later couplet reads "her hell is / Zelli's," p. 126) -- an entrance made "recedingly," with mock unobtrusiveness and tiny, graceful steps. In keeping with the fashion and her "genealogical tree," her flesh is "eliminate"--she is properly sleek and slim. But she carries herself so upright that her "lifted chin" and demure demeanor give her an air of "towering reticence" as she "columns" her way into the room. Drunk though she may be, her hiccoughs are beautifully disguised as little bows: she might be curtseying to the queen. Her "descent / into the half-baked underworld" of Bohemia is not so much a fall as a "somersault," which is to say that women of Laura's "vertical caste" always bounce back, no matter how great their "inebriate regret." Her behavior, in other words, is dictated by birth and caste, in sharp contrast to those whose "cradle" has been the "curb."
What Loy has produced, then, is a sardonic cartoon of café society, the poetic equivalent of a George Grosz cabaret scene. Yet it is composed of the most minimal strokes; no visual picture of the characters or the setting ever fully emerges. People are defined by synecdoches: Laura is the eliminate flesh of fashion, the column of towering reticence, and so on. And when metaphor is used, it is invariably sardonic, as in the final line of the poem, "She is yet like a diamond on a heap of broken glass" (p. 126). There is nothing diamond-like about this "memorable divorcée," who was "christened by the archbishop of Canterbury." Only in a "heap of broken glass" can she sparkle momentarily. And even this reference has a double-entendre, Loy no doubt alluding playfully to the "heap of broken images" in The Waste Land. Eliot parodies, for that matter, were common in this period: in the same volume of Pagany, Mary Butts has a poem called "Thinking of Saints and of Petronius Arbiter" (the title comes directly from Yeats's elegy for Mabel Beardsley, "Upon a Dying Lady") that contains this parody of "The Hollow Men":
Between the cocktail and the crucifix
Between the prayer and the fear
Lies the sword.
Between the toy and the cigarette
Between the spite and the joke
Lies the imagination.... (PII, 2: 89) (19)
Logopoeia: brittle, hard-edged, tough-minded, slightly nasty. For both Loy and Butts, extravagant verbal play is more important than the Poundian demand for accuracy and precision. But what is especially odd is that even the so-called realistic fiction, most of it by men, found in the pages of Pagany -- a fiction I now turn to -- displays a taste for the grotesquerie and self-parody we find in the work of Stein, Loy, and Butts.
From Imagism to Super-Realism
The January-March1931 issue of Pagany, for example, opens with a short story, more properly a prose poem, bearing the portentous title "Hours Before Eternity." It has fifty-three short sections, each assigned a roman numeral. Here are the first two:
In the chill frost of winter I left Memphis and rode on the outside of freight cars all the way to the Atlantic. The nights were so cold that my fingers froze around the iron bars and at daybreak each morning I had to bite them away with my teeth. The joints of my fingers broke sometimes when I bit them from the iron and the flesh cracked to the bone like the deep cut of a sharp knife. When I got to Charleston I worked all night in a dairy and drank the warm foam of the new white milk and all day I sat in my room at the boarding house and waited for the coming of the first blossoms of the magnolia trees.
Men who worked with their hands and backs were proud of their male strength when they ran shouting in naked strides to their women but those with soft damp fingers were so ashamed of themselves that they whispered in halting negatives and tried to cover their vulgarity with towels. (P2, 1: 1)
Realistic autobiographical narrative in the vein of Sherwood Anderson or Ring Lardner? A naturalistic picture of the seamy side of life in the poverty-stricken rural South? It begins that way, with the references to Memphis and Charleston, the hopping of freight trains and fingers frozen to the iron window bars. But the second section, with its distinction between the "Men who worked with their hands and backs," (note the erotic double entendre in the apparently blunt statement) and "those with soft damp fingers" seems oddly gratuitous in the context. The strong and the weak? The studs and the pansies? What, one wonders, does this seemingly homophobic dismissal have to do with the narrator's quest, which leads him to pursue "the quick beauty of of a girl's face" seen in a crowd and stunning enough to be blinding. "As soon as I could see again I looked and saw a scar on my eyes. The scar was an etching of the beauty I had seen and when tears had tried but could not wash its lines away I saw it framed in colors like the rainbow"? (II, 1: 2).
The image of the scar across the eyes has a surrealistic cast (one thinks of Max Ernst's 1929 La femme 100 têtes) at odds with the hard-boiled narrative of passages like "I walked into the country again and worked among negroes on a farm. The white man made us sweat from sun-up till dark and he would not let us stop for a drink of water" (XII). A similar equivocation between surrealism and naturalism occurs later:
The negro girl that he told me to bring him would not come to his house and I went back and told him so. He told me to harness a mule and follow him. We went down to the cabin where the girl was and he brought her outside and dropped her in the yard. While he put a trace chain around her waist I backed the mule and hooked the chain to the single-tree. When we were ready to go he kicked the mule in the belly and broke off a hunk of chewing tobacco. The negro girl was dragged behind the mule to the house and when we got there I helped him take her inside. He forged the chain around her and spiked it to the floor. When I went to sleep I could hear the rattling of the chain and when I woke up it was rattling again. The girl cried all the time but he would not let her go home.
Once that winter one of the negroes said he was too sick to work so we killed him with a shotgun and buried him in the manure pile.
The man brought another negro girl to the house but she had greased her body with lard and when he took off her clothes he could not hold her. (II, 1: 3)
Such writing has usually been classified as the "literature of social protest," with the horrific narrative providing, in flat, objective manner, a graphic image of white oppression and black victimization. Short declarative sentences, reductive vocabulary, lack of involvement of the speaking subject: these are what one might expect from the author of "Hours Before Eternity" who happens to be Erskine Caldwell, the best-selling Southern "naturalist" author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933), the young Communist who went on to visit Russia with his then-wife Margaret Bourke-White and wrote the text for her book of documentary photographs You have Seen Their Faces (1937), later becoming increasingly conservative, a "sell-out" to Hollywood, relegated today to the company of forgotten white male writers of the period. Even James E. Devlin, who wrote the 1984 Twayne book on Caldwell, concludes:
He is without any question a minor writer, and further, a limited one. Philosophically he is of few ideas and those often inconsistent. He has never decided whether it is the heart or the head to which he owes the greater allegiance. His belief in feeling, intuition, and emotion as God-directed often falters when opposed by the strong pressure of a naturalistic determinism that also guides his thought. About sexual passion he is simultaneously knowedgeable and as innocent as Steve Henderson, the wooden sixteen-year-old of Summertime Island (1968). (20)
What, then, is this "minor" "naturalist" writer doing in Pagany, alongside Pound, Williams, Butts, Stein, Loy, and Zukofsky, alongside the photographs of Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbott, the Charles Demuth illustrations for Henry James's Turn of the Screw? Is it just one of those mistaken links that hindsight can correct? (21) Or can we read the much castigated stylistic inconsistecies somewhat differently?
In a 1935 essay for The New Republic, reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form, Kenneth Burke singles out for comment Caldwell's "Hours Before Eternity," and the two related stories that comprise "The Sacrilege of Alan Kent," published in the collection American Earth. (1931).
They contain a kind of aphoristic rhetoric, except that the aphorisms are less ideas than tiny plots. . . . The swift segments shunt us back and forth between brutality and wistfulness. Perhaps the grandiose, the violent, and the gentle qualities of the piece are all fused in this bit of purest poetry: "Once the sun was so hot a bird came down and walked beside me in my shadow." A section in Pagany containing this item was the first thing by Caldwell I ever saw. For days I was noisy in my enthusiasm--but I could not understand how it went with some of his other work. (22)
In trying to understand his own reaction, Burke suggests that Caldwell's "cult of incongruity" (KB 352) results from a "balked religiosity," channelled into "political exhortation," the resulting perspective being not so much complex in the modernist sense, as wilfully contradictory. His "particular aptitude has been in scrambling or garbling properties," a "deft way of putting the wrong things together" (KB 351-52). For Devlin, such inconsistency is ipso facto a fault, but for Burke, proto-postmodernist that he is, irresolution has a positive side. What he likes about "Hours Before Eternity," is that the text "muddl[es] our judgments instead of stabilizing them" (KB 353). Such withholding on the author's part, he posits, "is the subtlest feature of Caldwell's method. Where the author leaves out so much, the reader begins making up the difference for himself. Precisely by omitting humaneness where humaneness is most called for, he may stimulate the reader to supply it" (KB, 355). And he concludes, "I have denied that Caldwell is a realist. In his tomfoolery he comes closer to the Dadaists; when his grotesqueness is serious, he is a Superrealist," a poet of "nonrational linkages" and "fantastic simplifications" (KB, 356-57).
"Fantastic simplification" is a good term, not only for Caldwell's fiction but also for much of the work published in Pagany and in such related journals as Blues and Contact. "Dada" and "Superrealist" (surrealist) may not be quite the defining terms for "Hours Before Eternity," for the dadaists would never have produced sentences so sober and realistic as "He handed me a cup of flour and a piece of fat meat and a few potatoes and gave me permission to use his cooking stove" (PII, 1: 3), and the surrealists were much more programmatic and Freudian. Rather, Caldwell's "deft way of putting the wrong things together" depends upon a curious undercutting of the authority of the subject. The tone is so uncertain, shifting as it does from caricature to pathos, from a racy humor to a grim earnestness, that, in Burke's words, "it muddl[es] our judgments rather than stabilizing them." In a paragraph like section XV above, for example, the curious and confusing use of personal pronouns (thirty-one in nine sentences) distances the reader from the terrible events, "him" and "her" becoming, in one sense, so many counters on a chessboard.
Such distancing "superrealism" would seem to be a homegrown product, quite appropriate for the pages of a "Native Quarterly." Indeed, the "non-rational linkages" and "fantastic abstractions" Burke speaks of, the predilection for parody, play, contradiction, and the undercutting of mimesis despite referential overload, can be seen as a kind of signature of literary discourse in Depression America. Take Edward Dahlberg's autobiographical narrative "Graphophone Nickelodeon Days," which immediately follows Gertrude Stein's "Poem Pritten on Pfances" in the January-March1931 issue of Pagany.
Like Erskine Caldwell, Edward Dahlberg is now a largely forgotten writer; his name is not even listed in the 1988 Columbia Literary History of the United States. If he is remembered at all, it is largely for the role he played as mentor to the young Charles Olson. (23) But again like Caldwell, when read against texts by Stein and Williams in the pages of Pagany, Dahlberg emerges as by no means just another documentary realist with socialist convictions. "And yet it all came back, the taste of it, the tang and brine of it, like the windy crispy newspaper afternoon air over the san francisco wharves," the Pagany story begins, conventionally enough, its focus on the recording, remembering "I," detached from the "tastes" and "tang" of his childhood. But detachment gives way to penny-arcade jingles, whose rhythms recall Stein's Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded:
call me up some rainy afternoon
and we'll have a quiet little spoon
and we'll talk about the weather
i'll see that my mother takes a walk
mum's the word, baby dear (PII, 1: 39)
And these Tinpan Alley tunes are juxtaposed with manic catalogues in which image is piled on image to create a space at once "real" and yet wholly fantastic in its contours:
dago bread, cheney watermelon hucksters, lyric moving picture house, open air tents, lawdie lawdie tabernacle sermons, halley's comet, the end of the world, bad rodent dreams in the 8th street flat, bohunk nightmares, blackhand barky trees, pimpish gaslight joints, the midnight ride of a can of beer, ach du lieber augustin
the kansas city west bottoms, a wiry and rusty rat trap, the bluffs stale, gone-looking boxcar smoke in the back of his throat, red caboose bonfires, corn-stalk smoking, m.k.t., chicago & alton blakean alfalfa field midnights, casy jones got another papa, roundhouse cindery toe-stubbing noons, adobe main street 11 o'clock mornings, armour & swift packinghouse summers, dusty hoofbeaten heifer clouds. . . . hoss swopping piddling saturdays, pony boy, pony boy, won't you be my tony boy. . . . (39-40)
Such cataloguing is closer to Ginsberg than to Whitman, evident if we lineate Dahlberg's passage using as model the strophes of "Howl!" or "America": :
gone-looking boxcar smoke in the back of his throat, red caboose bonfires, corn-stalk smoking, m. k. t., chicago & alton blakean alfalfa field midnights, casy jones got another papa, roundhouse cindery toe-stubbing noons. . . .
As later in "Howl," such passages are melopoeic rather than phanopoeic, with the clustering, heavy stresses, marked marked alliteration and assonance producing a heightened, surreal rhythm, as in:
alton blakean alfalfa field midnights
where "blakean" is a self-conscious intervention into the otherwise mimetic base, as is the subsequent interjection of the song lyric "casy jones got another papa." Williamsian images like "a wiry and rusty rat trap," and "red caboose bonfires" alternate with documentary reference ("armour & swift packing house") and surreal phrasing ("the midnight ride of a can of beer"). The text never quite makes up its mind where it wants to go, but this may be precisely its appeal, the very language calling into question the forward linear movement we expect of narrative.
Is the publication in Pagany of Dahlberg's prose an anomaly? I think that on the contrary this text, like Caldwell's "Hours before Eternity," provides a matrix for Zukofsky's early "Objectivist" poetry that may well be more telling than the usual placement of that poetry in the Pound-Williams tradition. Take, for example, Zukofsky's "Four Poems" ("Buoy," "Awake," "Blue light is the night harbor-slip," and "Passing tall"), published alongside Dahlberg's "Graphophone Nickelodeon Days," Stein's "Poem Pritten on Pfances," and Butts's "Thinking of Saints." With the exception of "Awake," these poems, written between 1925 and 1931, were included in "29 Poems." (24) Here is "Buoy":
Buoy -- no, how
It is not a question: what
Is this freighter carrying? --
Did smoke blow? -- That whistle? --
Of course, commerce will not complete
Anything, yet the harbor traffic is busy,
there shall be a complete fragment
Nothing, look! that gull
Streak the water!
Getting nearer are we,
Hear? count the dissonances,
Cost accounting." (CSP 23-24)
Williams was surely right in telling Zukofsky that his early poems had not early poems have not been "objectivized in new or fresh observations." Zukofsky's break with what Burton Hatlen has called a "late Imagist" "poetics of presence," a poetics in which "words remain absolutely faithful to 'things' in their sensory immediacy," is incontrovertible, but I am not sure it follows that "if the seeable is by definition unsayable, then language, rather than giving us Being in its fullness, must reconcile itself to the more difficult task of enacting our endless and endlessly frustrated struggle toward Being." (25) For like the Stein of "Poems Pritten on Pfances" or the Loy of "Lady Laura of Bohemia," the Zukofsky of "Buoy" foregrounds the play of the signifier, especially paragram and pun. "Buoy -- no, how": the first line puns on "Boy -- know how," "know how" being the great trait in thirties technological America. "Boy, what know how!": like George Oppen's frigidaire poem ("Thus / Hides the /Parts. . ."), published in the "Objectivist" number of Poetry (January 1931), Zukofsky is examining a world in which coherent natural images -- a buoy at sea as a point de repère for incoming freighters -- have been replaced by floating signifiers. "It is not a question" (line 2) of asking what "this freighter [is] carrying," or even where the smoke is coming from or who blew the whistle. Since "commerce will not complete / Anything," there are no meaningful images, only a "complete fragment" --but "Of" what? Evidently "Of--/ Nothing."
The second stanza urges us to "look" at "that gull / Streak the water!" But this is not the world of Hart Crane's "Bridge," composed in these same years, where the "seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him, / Over the chained bay water Liberty." No "apparitional" white gulls as emblems of transcendence. "Getting nearer are we," asks the poet. "Hear?" (again with a pun on "here"). And then, in what is a statement of poetics, we read, "count the dissonances." And dissonances are what we live with. The following question "Shoal?"suggests that there is no coherent picture to be composed of this harbor scene, no line of demarcation between shore or shoal and water can be shown. Images "accost" us, but "accost" contains within it the word "cost," and this in turn suggests the "Cost accounting" of the final line. "Commerce" is what it's really all about; money is the "buoy or marker around which the "busy" harbor traffic revolves. But -- and I think this is important--the poem is not at all polemical about this state of affairs; its focus is on the ironic potential of words to "mean" differently when they are "unlinked" from their usual contexts. No pretty harbor scene with freighters in the distance sailing between the buoys. "Count--cost-accost-account": the cost of accounting, the accosting (accounting) of costs: the play is Steinian in its wit.
Then, too, the lineation of "Buoy" obliquely pokes fun at the imagist free-verse lyric. Much has been made of Zukofsky's musical virtuosity, (26) but it is useful to remember that his soundscapes exist at the micro-- rather than the macro level of lyric form, a poem like "Buoy" modulating long o's ("no," "smoke," "blow") and iy diphthongs ("Streak," "nearer," "we," "hear") with great ingenuity, even as its individual lines are purposely flat-footed. "Buoy--no, how": three stresses on monosyllables, separated by punctuation: hardly an attractive line. The next two are similar:
It is nót a quéstion: // whát
Is this fréighter cárryíng?--
To call these lines "prosaic" would still not convey the oppositional, anti-poetic stance of the young Zukofsky, his aggressive challenge to the reader to "count the dissonances." Surely "Objectivist," with its connotations of materiality, is a curious label for a lyric so uncompromising and so self-destructive.
AMERICA FIRST AND LAST
I have been arguing that the poetics of the early 1930s produced an adversarial literature that called into question the pieties of an earlier, more innocent modernism by means of powerful wit, complex parody, contradiction of formal and emotional registers, and especially the dissolution of the coherent "lyric voice" as controlling presence in the poetic text. The sentimental slides into the cynical and back again. Reference, moreover, does not insure mimetic representation. Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is quite what it seems to be.
This can be seen even in the photographs of the period. In the January-March1931 issue of Pagany, we find, side by side with Dahlberg's fiction and Zukofsky's poetry, four reproductions of Eugène Atget photographs, evidently transmitted to the editor by Berenice Abbott, of whom more in a moment. Atget's astonishing images of shop windows, arcades, doorways, and street corners, most of them curiously empty of people, are at once documentary and surrealistic, their lighting and angle shots endowing the most ordinary scenes -- a dressmaker's dummy in a shop window, a display of stuffed animals, a puppet-theatre curtain, or monkey house in the park -- with a dreamlike presence, rather as Zukofsky's "buoy" or Williams's "back wings of the hospital" become part of a language game. Furthermore, the fabled breakdown of the divide between "high" and "low" art attributed to postmodernism is taken for granted in these prints, where the mundane is inseparable from the emphasis on formal composition.
Thousands of the negatives Atget had made prior to his death in 1927, at a time when his work was virtually unknown, were rescued and printed by Berenice Abbott, four of whose own photographs appear in the next issue of Pagany. Having returned to America as part of the expatriate exodus from Paris in 1929, Abbott wanted to do for New York what Atget had done for Paris. In particular, she wanted to provide a documentary record of urban transformation: the demolition of old buildings to make way for the new skyscrapers, the surviving neighborhood shops, the relation of technology to nature, stone and steel to sky. Like Atget's, her images are only superficially instances of documentary realism, their strange placement and surprising juxtapositions of materials creating a landscape as surreal as Caldwell's mysterious Southern sites.
The 1931 volume, which featured these photographs as well as Charles Demuth's similarly stylized watercolor illustrations for Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, side-by-side with the poetry of Williams and the fiction of Dahlberg and Dos Passos, was thus a triumph for Pagany. But the following year, things began to unravel. True, Richard Johns was still discovering new (or new for him) authors: the January-March1932 issue had a long poem ("Brown River, Smile") by Jean Toomer, whose Cane Johns had long admired, as well as a first appearance ("Electra-Orestes") by H. D. But the journal's financial situation had become precarious. (27) Often, Johns couldn't afford to pay his authors, much less the print shop, and the quality of production went down. To make things worse, a number of accidents (including a fire) caused manuscripts to be destroyed. The October-December 1932 issue was thus delayed and didn't come out until February 1933. And this was Pagany's final issue.
The usual explanation for such endings is that the modernist avant-garde could not survive the Depression, that it gave way to a more socially conscious, more politicized "writing on the Left," as it came to be called. In his moving Introduction to Stephen Halpert's Return to PAGANY (1969), for example, Kenneth Rexroth, whose own poetry was featured in the pages of Zukofsky's"Objectivists" Anthology and Charles Henri Ford's Blues, as well as in the first issue of Pagany, put it this way:
Pagany's lifetime spanned the breakdown of the international avant garde as the world economic crisis shut down and a quite different kind of literature emerged. . . . Under the pressure of catastrophe, writers and artists all over the world began to turn to attack the specific social evils from which they had thought they had escaped by concentrating on the underlying, fundamental Lie. Richard Johns was especially sensitive to this great turn, and published some of the earliest and finest writing of the kind that was eventually to be debauched and destroyed by the slogans of falsification--Proletcult and Socialist Realism. (ARP xiii, xv).
But this is not quite the way it happened. For one thing, the poetry of the Objectivists, as of Mina Loy and Mary Butts, and of the Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams of the 1930s, was already quite different in mood and rhetoric from the more utopian work of the early modernists. Picasso's Ma Jolie (1913), for example, was, for all its cubist fragmentation and complexity, still a highly painterly work, a portrait, after all, of a lady, whereas it isn't clear that Abbott's "documentary" studies of barbershop storefronts, sandwiched between newer steel and concrete structures, are "art" at all. A similar contrast can be found between Ulysses and Dos Passos's U.S.A., whose "Eveline" sequence appeared in the summer and autumn 1931 issues of Pagany.
Secondly, the umbrella term "social protest literature" obscures some important distinctions. Like Rexroth himself, the Objectivist poets were certainly "writers on the Left" (George Oppen is perhaps the most striking example of the poet who, as onetime Communist party member, had to go underground during the McCarthy years), but the Left was itself curiously divided when it came to questions of aesthetic. Consider the July-September 1932 issue of Pagany, which features the "First Movement" (to become book I) of Zukofsky's monumental poem "A". The well-known opening, which provides us with the title of the poem, its first word, and the note musicians tune by, all the while using the separation of the indefinite article ("A") from the noun ("round") it modifies to create a pun on the preposition "around," immediately calls into question the authority of the lyric speaker:
A Round of fiddles playing Bach -- The double chorus. "Come ye daughters, share my anguish --" Bare arms, black dresses "See Him! Whom?--" Bediamond the passion of our Lord "See Him! How?--" (PIII, 3: 9)
The scene (we learn further along) is Carnegie Hall, the occasion an Easter Sunday performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, with phrases from the oratorio punctuating the narrator's account. And even these phrases, become the subject of the poet's play, with "See Him! Whom?, "See Him! How?" referring to the audience's alienation from the Christian ethos of the Passion. "First Movement" now submits these motifs to a complex "musical" development, that partly echoes, partly ironizes Bach's own music, and it ends with bits of conversation overheard on the street after the concert:
"We ran 'em in chain gangs, down in the Argentine,
Executive's not the word, use engineer,
Single-handed, ran 'em like soldiers,
Seventy-four yesterday, and could run 'em today. . ." (PIII, 3: 13)
This voice (evidently of a wealthy industrialist) is punctuated by the words of the Passion ("Ye lightnings, ye thunders / In clouds are ye vanished?"), which in their turn modulate into a concluding line --"Open, O fierce flaming pit!" -- that refers, not only to the oratorio from which it comes, but also to the poet's own sense of hell inherent in the contrast between the musical discourse of Bach and the discourse of the city in which his Passion is heard, or rather goes unheard.
It is instructive to compare "A" to a poem which appears later in the same issue of Pagany:
ENTREATY AT DELPHI
We again have come
through muted lanes where shadows were aflame
with lowered voices, and where wings were lame
and wide limbs dumb;
we again have seen
the terror muffled with an earthly tread
of inner footbeats travelling where led
into a desert scene
and we have glanced
upon the muffled image of the flower
opening, petal on petal, every hour
and were entranced
to a deep sleep
made up of cast-off visages and days
recalled, and many unenacted plays
where actors weep
and know not why.
O, must the evening find us still unborn
unknowing while our foliage is torn
cruelly from us, here, before we die? (PIII, 3: 88-89)
Coming upon this after reading Butts and Loy, Stein and Zukofsky, the reader may well be confused. Is this a late poem by Arthur Symons? Ernest Dowson? John Davidson? The voice that speaks in neatly rhyming abba quatrains is in total control, able to speak for a larger "we," a "we" who are somehow (how?) "unborn" and "unknowing," waiting for the miracle at Delphi to occur. Predictably the lanes are "muted," their shadows "aflame," their "terror muffled." Everything is vague, shadowy, disembodied, melancholy. But why and how?
The author of this poem, Edwin Rolfe, was a Communist activist poet as well as a iction writer-journalist, who appeared frequently in New Masses and The Daily Worker, and was to serve, in 1937, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and write a volume of poems about the Spanish Civil War. "Rolfe," writes Cary Nelson, "is one of the politically committed poets whose work largely meets New Critical standards for producing formally coherent, metaphorically inventive, fully realized, and self-sufficient poems. That he is almost wholly excluded from our cultural memory demonstrates that political--not merely purportedly disinterested aesthetic--criteria have helped determine what poets we honor in our texts and literary histories." (28)
But it is not clear what Nelson means by terms like "formally coherent," "self-sufficient," or "aesthetic." In point of fact, Rolfe's latter-day Yellow Nineties mode (29) would certainly not meet "New Critical standards," and not because of the poet's political stance; rather, a critic like Cleanth Brooks or Allen Tate would have complained of the laxity of the poem's diction and the self-indulgence of its tone. Indeed, it is time we stopped pitting the ostensible "radicalism" of poets like Rolfe against "New Critical" "conservatism" and compare it instead to the very different Left radicalism of the Objectivists, whose work was at least as neglected by, say, Brooks and Warren as was Rolfe's.
The case of James T. Farrell, whose first appearance in Pagany was in the same issue, is similar. Here is the opening of "Twenty-Five Bucks":
Fifteen years is a hell of a long time to live in grease. Fifteen years is a hell of a long time to keep getting your jaw socked. Fifteen years is a hell of a long time for a broken-down, never-was of a palooka named Kid Tucker. Fifteen years stretched back through a reeking line of stale fight clubs, of jeers and clammy dressing rooms, and lousy gyms, and cheap can houses where every bed sheet is filthy with the countless foot marks of nameless customers, of ratty saloons with sawdust floors. . . . (P3, no. 3: 97)
"Use no word," Pound had cautioned in a statement Zukofsky, for one, took very seriously, "that does not contribute to the presentation." But in Farrell's tale of the prize-fighter's demise -- the opening paragraph above is a kind of recycling of Eliot's "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells," but without Eliot's irony. Farrell's words, especially his adjectives, are nothing if not predictable: fight-clubs are "stale," dressing-rooms "clammy," gyms "lousy," saloons "ratty," and bed-sheets "filthy." And the passage's heavy repetition (the anaphora of "Fifteen years. . .") does not exactly make for a dynamic rhythm.
Oddly enough, then, this vein of "proletarian" writing bypassed modernism, returning to the genteel tradition of a previous generation. The split between the aesthetic and the political, a split that had threatened the life of the avant-garde from the time of its inception in the later nineteenth century, had now widened to a large fissure. The "radical political" wing associated with Edwin Rolfe and James Farrell was quickly co-opted by the Establishment. In the winter of 1934, exactly one year after the last issue of Pagany was published, the Partisan Review put out its first issue. Subtitled "A Bi-Monthly of Revolutionary Literature," Partisan Review was the official organ of the John Reed Club of New York (a cell of the American Communist Party) until 1937 when, in response to the Moscow Show Trials, the magazine severed its Party connections. The editorial in the first issue states:
We propose to concentrate on creative and critical literature, but we shall maintain a definite viewpoint -- that of the revolutionary working class. Through our specific literary medium we shall participate in the struggle of the workers and sincere intellectuals against imperialist war, fascism, national and racial oppresison, and for the abolition of the system which breeds these evils. The defense of the Soviet Union is one of our principal tasks. (Partisan Review 1, no. 1 [Feb.-March 1934]: 2)
The issue opens with two short short stories about social injustice by Grace Lumpkin, but otherwise, its contributors (all of them white male) resort to the Poetic Diction I described above. Here again are Farrell (an extract from Studs Lonigan) and Rolfe, whose "Poem for May First" is a clarion call urging the comrades to create a brave new world in the image of the new Soviet Union. Here is an excerpt"
The brain will not deny
the days that come with verdure nor the eye
ignore the splendor of the changing year
invested with surprise: bells clanging in the ear
with sound that drowns the singing of the birds
and voices rich with prophecy--the words
fraught with great deeds. (30) (PR 1, no. 1: 32)
The language of the people? Or an echo of Longfellow? If, as Henri Meschonnic and Anthony Easthope (both, incidentally, marxist critics) have argued, the choice of meter is itself an ideological choice, (31) then Rolfe's smooth iambic-pentameter couplets have an interesting subtext.
And indeed by 1937 the Partisan Review had not only dissociated itself from the John Reed Club, but was publishing mainstreammodernist and neo-modernist works: the December 1937 issue featured Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," Wallace Stevens's "The Dwarf," an essay by William Troy called "The Symbolism of Zola," and reviews by Lionel Trilling, Arthur Mizener, Sidney Hook, and Philip Rahv. Within a few years, Partisan Review poetry, fiction, and criticism were all but indistiguishable from the poetry, fiction, and criticism of the "conservative" Kenyon Review, founded in 1939. The first issue of the Kenyon, for that matter, included Delmore Schwartz's essay "The Two Audens" and Philip Rahv's "Franz Kafka: The Hero as Lonely Man."
So began the rapprochement between the Left and its supposed enemy, the New Criticism. Meanwhile, the "other" or "aesthetic" radical wing had a harder time of it. "Poor ol White Mule," wrote Williams sadly to Richard Johns in late 1933, "I wish I could go on with it. Not a word have I written on it since Pagany busted" (ARP 511). Not until1937, when a young publisher named James Laughlin came into the picture, did Williams have the heart to finish his novel, which Laughlin offered to bring out.
The Objectivists and related Pagany poets had a harder time of it. Never published in mainstream little magazines like Partisan Review, they more or less went underground, not revived until the 1960s and 1970s, when first the Black Mountain / San Francisco poets and then the Language group took them up. At the Poets of the Thirties conference held at the University of Maine in June 1993, there were five sessions on Zukofsky alone and three apiece on Reznikoff, Loy, and Lorine Niedecker, whose Objectivist poetry began to appear shortly after the Pagany period. The keynote poetry reading, moreover, was given before a large and reverential audience, by the now ninety-year-old Carl Rakosi. The poetic of the 1930s, distinct as that poetic is from the modernism that immediately preceded it, seems finally to be getting its due. At the same time -- and perhaps this is why the early 1930s are so fascinating for us-- the split that haunts that American decade similarly haunts our own. The argument for "radical" subject-matter (never mind its mode of production or materiality) is once again being made, this time no longer for writers identified with a particular political party or movement, but for members of "marginalized" ethnic, racial, and gender groups. Now as then, identity politics often goes hand in hand with what turns out to be the most mainstream and conventional of aesthetics-- the minority group, its teeth unfanged, turned commodity on the Bill Moyers Journal and similar TV programs. A real Revolution of the Word, we learn from such publications as the "Obectivists"Anthology or Pagany, cannot be packaged; it inevitably involves the "barbed-wire entanglements" that made Harriet Monroe extremely nervous, even as she had the courage to give them a hearing.