Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Pound Era : Chapter 1 : Ghosts and Benedictions

Henry James by John Singer Sargent ( 1913 )

The Pound Era begins where another era ends.

Henry James, the old Literary Master, and his influence on Ezra Pound (and through him probably to many other future writers ) is the key subject in this chapter.

“Towards the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street…”

The chapter ( and book ) opens with a 50 year old anecdote, recollected by Dorothy Pound, of a chance meeting in a Chelsea street of her young husband Ezra Pound with Henry James. Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (30 October 1885 – 1 November 1972) was then a 29 year old expatriate American poet and critic, who would grow into the leading figure of the early modernist movement. Henry James, OM (15 April 1843 – 28 February 1916), then a 71 year old American author, who would soon acquire British citizenship, was regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism.

The casual encounter between James and Pound ( not the first though, they met a few times before that ) happens also at the end of a political and economic era. The first World War is going to be declared just a few weeks later. 

“Fifty years later under an Italian sky…”

The same anecdote neatly frames the Pound Era in time and space : from Chelsea London at the eve of the first World War to Venice and Rapallo in Italy in 1964, where Ezra, now 79 years old, would spend his last years.

“…The red waistcoat seemed half chimerical…”

The meeting is highly symbolic. The old Master of Realism meets the young soon-to-become Master of Modernisme. While Pound has nothing but respect and admiration for the older gentleman, Kenner still introduces a symbol of an artistic revolution when comparing James’ red weskit ( waistcoat ) with Théophile Gautier’ outfit at the première of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, “that formal declaration of art’s antipathy to the impercipient” that took place on 25 February 1830, when Romanticism effectively challenged Classicism as the new art form.

That is how the past exits….

Kenner has expanded the anecdote of the meeting to a full 3 pages. It is however merely based on a fragment, a quick jotting in Dorothy Pound’s journal.

A parenthesis is made in this interpretative musing of the anecdote, when Kenner refers to the Classical Poets Sappho, Alcaeus and Ibycus whose work we really only know through scraps of parchment texts discovered in old Egyptian graves. Kenner explains :” That is how the past exits….The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps”.

Fragmentary scraps of sentences, sometimes even unrelated stray words are often used by Pound in his poetry ( Lustra, Cantos ) and have probably been inspired by the fragments of poetry of the Classics and the gloss around it.

To continue. “Is she a compatriot?”…

The expanded narration of the meeting continues :

Europe is at the brink of a World War and will soon descend into a dark age. The end of the James era coincides with the end of the world as was known hitherto. Kenner quotes from Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August.

An example of this descend into the dark ages is the destruction of the incunabula-filled 15th century university of Leuven by the Germans. The World War will be an inspiration for many poets of destroyed worlds and ruins and battlegrounds.

Back to Henry James. Shortly before his death in 1916, he changes to British nationality because he is offended by America’s hesitation to intervene in WW1.

The Golden Bowl, his last major work, is not understood by the critical public.

“Not again, not again, the old men with beautiful manners”.

For a dazzled young Pound, Henry James would always stand for tradition. The tradition of effortless high civility, Henry James a synecdoche for “custom indicating high culture”. Pound respects for old Master shows that he is certainly not an iconoclast.

Pound and James have met but a few times. The young poet always surprised of James’ disregard of Latin and Greek. The old Master on the contrary, a joker using seamless mischievous hyperboles and trifles with aesthetic consecrations to slightly shock his young admirer.

Pre - War - London that is about the disappear is. For the affluent it was a world of entertainment and fun. The anecdote of the whirligig Princess Lydia Yavorska Bariatinsky buttonholing Henry James during a party in a garden in the Temple, finishes the subchapter. It will be a sanity - saving memory for Pound. He alludes to it with a scene of the Sirens accosting Odysseus in his Cantos 79 (NDE 488).

79 is a Cantos Pound, might have written in 1944 on toilet paper. In his cage.

It was to be hard eventually for Pound…

Kenner goes on remembering his conversations with Pound remembering James and Eliot. The meetings take place in the fifties in the building and gardens of St Elisabeth hospital ( the nut - house ) in Washington.

Most entertaining is Ezra Pound mimicking Henry James’ speech and manners, with its characteristic deferring and deferring of climax.

“A language functions in time, ideally in a vast leisure, disclosing sequentially its measured vistas, this was the convention Pound in turn most Cleary imposed…”

The discussions Kenner had with Pound could suddenly trigger sudden understandings of  arcane details in the Cantos or other works.

The Pause in time…

Kenner collects some speech or reasoning peculiarities, Pound had learned from James, like the so-called “Jamesian pause” in a discourse, where a sudden change of direction in a argument is to be compared to a disjunction, a lack of correspondence and consistency, in space. A line stops before its direction gets obvious and the intent eye is rerouted by a new direction, structure etc. Comparison with Frank Lloyd Wright are made

When James’s dies in January 1916, Pound would read the entire corpus of the old Master in one and half year.

They say, among the many things they say…

The chapter shortly diverts to the invention of writing by Cang - Jie and Chinese ideograms. The ideogram of sensibility is explained and the concept of sensibility is then linked back to Henry James and his influence on other Modernists.

“James knew much of spirits, James celebrated rituals, James’s great sensibility brought in a generation”


“But for that sensibility , Prufrock is unthinkable…”

Henry James too had known the Washington heat…

Kenner now connects the summer heat of Washington he experienced when visiting EP at St Elisabeths hospital, with James’ summer presence in Washington during his American reading tour in 1904 - 1905.

Henry James collected his travel impressions in American Scene, without question the most controversial and critically discussed of James' books. The American Scene is pervaded with money, with usura, sharply criticizing what James saw as the rampant greedy materialism and frayed social structure of turn-of-the-century America.

While James dwells in his book and letters on intelligences not in evidence ( “the muses have fled, an empty scene” ) and remembering ghosts of the past, most notably James Russell Lowell (1819 – 1891) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 –1882), two Fireside poets, Kenner would like to see in this last travel to America a ceremonious benediction of the new congregation of Poets by the old Master .

A benediction however in absentia of an invisible congregation as James missed, unaware, opportunities to meet the upcoming generation : W.C Williams, for instance, who was studying medicine at Penn, or Ezra Pound who had already travelled to Europe, Marianne Moore and Tom Eliot ( TS ). Neither could  James have been aware of Ernest Hemingway ( born 1899 ), Wallace Stevens ( born 1829 ) or Louis Zukovsky (born 1904 ), who they too, through the influence of Pound would be infused to some extent by the art of Henry James, long after he passed away.

The missed chance of Literary key people to meet ( even for an anecdotal moment ) and therefore failing to take notice of each other works, seems to be an unspoken recurring theme in Kenner’s book. Maybe to indicate that Pound was the connecting link between old and new.

Yet when we collect 1904’s memorabilia…

Henry James seems not only to have missed the new congregation, but he missed in general his appointment with the 20th century, as neither he nor the changing world took notice of each other anymore. James’s time was essentially over. It is was the old writer who would disappear, not, despite two awful World Wars, the next generation.

James spent nearly a year on his American tour from August 1904 to July 1905. He travelled the entire country and even made decent money from public lectures ( on Balzac ), usually to ladies' organizations that he made "pay me through the nose."

1904 was also the pinnacle of his art with his masterpiece The Golden Bowl in 1904. The book explores the tangle of interrelationships between a father and daughter and their respective spouses. It addresses James's essential theme, the meeting of two great cultures, English and American albeit with a menacing twist.

Kenner then sums up events in art, science and economy that happened in 1903 and 04, to show that the world was changing fast :

There was the foundation of the Ford Motor Company, Orville and Wright first flight,
Henri Poincaré dissertation “ a principle of relativity” and Pablo Picasso starting his blue period.

There was also Ivan Pavlov’s Nobel Prize, Igor Stravinsky choice of music above law on instigation of Rimski - Korsakov, the publication of Psychopathology of Every day Life by Freud.

There was the silent short Western : The Great Train Robbery ( 1903 ), considered a milestone in film making.The film used a number of then-unconventional techniques, including composite editing, on-location shooting, cross cutting editing, hand colored scenes and frequent camera movement.

Finally, and tongue in cheek, there was in 1904 and especially on June 16… The first Bloomsday, James Joyce ( another monument of Modernism ) set his epoch making novel Ulysses on that day, the day he met his wife Nora Barnacle. Joyce would leave Ireland for Paris - Trieste - Zurich on 8 October 1904.

Henri James however recorded other things in his letters: the absence of sensibility in New Hampshire ( immodesty, vulgarity ) for instance and in New York, the artless need of patrons getting themselves explained, especially when they were already explained by the ample possession of money.

Kenner brilliantly finishes his introductory chapter gently ushering the reader towards a last work written by James: The Jolly Corner.

The Jolly Corner ( 1908 ) is a short ghost story first published in The English Review, ( Ford Madox Ford’s magazine ) in December, 1908. It describes the feelings and emotions of an elder man as he prowls through the rooms of a large, but now-empty, New York mansion where he grew up as a kid. He encounters a ghost, a “sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity.” The ghost looks like a maimed ( missing fingers and ravaged face ) version of himself.

The ghost story can be understood as a man ( the author H. James ) meeting his alter-double who could have been him, if he had chosen to remain in America pursuing a career and money instead of becoming a writer exiled in England.

A writer cornering a ghost of himself in “The House of Fiction”is a neat symbolic trouvaille to announce the end of literary Realism, especially when one remembers the credo of the realistic school, the Flaubertian invisibility.  

“…il ne faut pas s'écrire. L'artiste doit être dans son oeuvre comme Dieu dans la création, invisible et tout-puissant ; qu'on le sente partout, mais qu'on ne le voie pas” Flaubert had said to Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie in a letter of March 1857.

A writer should not ( even as a ghost ) be visible in his own work.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Robert Trumbull : The Raft

I just finished reading a French translation of Robert Trumbull’s book The Raft.

It recounts the miraculous survival of an American aviator crew, who, during the Pacific war, lose their bearings in the sky and fail to return to their aircraft. Running out of petrol, the pilot Harold Dixon successfully ditches their plane in the Pacific just before nightfall. As he and his crew, radioman Gene Aldrich and gunner Tony Pastula, are preparing their life raft and scramble to collect the emergency necessities they can lay their hands on, the plane suddenly sinks away under them, leaving the three men in the water in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a ridiculous small, half inflated raft.

The book I read is a cheap 1953 edition with a foreword by the famous Alain Bombard, the adventurer who crossed the Atlantic on an inflatable raft in 1952.

Bombard had willingly put himself in an emergency situation in order to proof several of his survival theories. He did cross the Ocean and survived without water or food rations for at least 53 days.  While the general public embraced his sympathetic odyssey and his book “The voyage of the Hérétique” became an overnight bestseller, his crude theories, notably on drinking sea-water and his media exposure had turned the professional sea-people, the very people he wanted to reach, away from him.

It does not come as a surprise then, that he accepted to scribble a foreword for a book that was attempting to cash in on his own success. Bombard needed more real stories to confirm that what he had done was possible and that his conclusions could save people.

The story of the survival of the airplane crew was written ten year earlier, in 1942, during the War in the Pacific and is understandably heavily censored. There are practically no geographic or navigational details as to where the plane ditched and how the raft drifted during the 34 days at sea. The post-war French edition however mentions in a footnote that “it is now save to say that the wrecked crew landed on the Pukapuka atoll on the South seas, approximately 10 degrees south of the equator and 166 degrees west".

The writer Robert Trumbull was a young war correspondent covering the war in the Pacific. I suppose he interviewed the three men but he wrote the story solely from Harry Dixon’s (the officer) point of view. Without doubt commissioned by the Us Army, the 200 page story offered the troops an inspiring survival story with true heroics, a respect for military hierarchy and fear of God.

Struggling in the dark in the ocean, the three men succeed after half an hour of intense efforts to inflate, righten ( it opened upside-down ) and crawl into the tiny rubber boat of 1.2 by 2.4 m. With the plane sinking so fast, no food, water, navigational tools or anything that could have helped them, could be saved and embarked on board. The three men are virtually strangers of each other. The rotation of crews have put the forty year professional military sailor in the boat with two twenty year old boys.

Together, during 34 days they survive strong winds and heavy seas, they fight of sharks with their bare hands, they starve and are dehydrated, they are burned alive by the tropical sun, scorched by the salt and blinded by the piercing light.

Still they survive and are finally washed upon the shore of a tropical island. The story ends with a warship collecting the three men a few weeks later.

There is no reason to doubt the details described in the story and it is concern of how much these heroic men can take that keeps you reading about their ordeal.

Still, it is a pity that the story is censored. One can’t help wondering about the debriefing of the crew once they were back at their base. How did they lose their way ? Whose fault was it ? Did they discuss it in the raft ? Did they agree on a common story. Fact is that despite the loss of the plane, the three men were decorated and mentioned for their bravery.

The survival lessons from the ordeal were quick to be implemented.

The navigational issues, that is to say how to estimate your position with nothing but your senses was addressed already the next year with Harold Gatty’s groundbreaking work The Raft Book ( 1943 ), a collection of Polynesian techniques of non-instrument navigation. Gatty was an experienced Tasmanian mariner who had written down and used all kind’s of techniques still used by wayfarers in Polynesia. The Raft Book would turn out to be the kernel out of which the Polynesian cultural revival as masters of navigation would sprout.

I don’t know how fast improvements to the raft were made but inflatable rafts nowadays are fully equipped to avoid most of the issues described in The Raft : An inflatable canopy for protection against the weather elements, with an outside light for easy detection at night. There is a boarding ramp and grab handle for easy embarking, There are water and food canisters on board, flares, a knife, fishing kit, rain catching systems, first aid kit, signaling mirrors and even a torch.

Despite the book’s spare information, it remains an interesting read and a poignant story. It was recently retold in a motion picture under the apt title “Against The Sun”.

The truth however is that the three men survive by sheer luck. This is not to belittle their exploit, but without the regular shower of rain and the clemency of the weather they would not have made it. The fact that they are not ripped apart on the coral reef when finally reaching land and that they do so a few days before a cyclone batters the area where they drifted for so long time, are miracles on their own right.

The men's true heroism lies in their perseverance.

Maybe the sea is not that cruel after all…

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Pound Era : Introduction

When the French literary frontmen, Pierre Boncenne and Bernard Pivot shoved a collection of the 2500 most important literary works into their cleverly imagined Bibliotheque Idéale (1988), they reserved a full shelf for literary criticism. 

They tagged that shelf "Le livre comme miroir", the book as a mirror, or in other words books reflecting on themselves. Literary criticism they stated had earned its shelves in any ideal library for the works presented were of such interest and wit that these books should not be reserved only for a secluded Academic environment, but offered to the common reader too. 

Browsing through the tomes on that shelf, the interested reader would find Aristoteles’ Poetica and Auerbach’s Mimesis, Bakhtin of course and Barthes, Borges with his book of introductions, Broch, Calvino and Eco, Sartre, Nabokov and Musil. Not surprisingly French authors would fill the biggest part of the shelf, Proust for instance with his Contre Saint-Beuve, Alain with his Propos, Gourmont with his Promenades...

Still, Northrop Frye’s The Great Code received a spot but Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode were missing or had already tumbled from the shelves. For Bloom, who in 1988 hadn’t dropped his canonical bomb yet, fifteen minutes of evanescing fame should not have come as a surprise for he knew like no other that books on literary criticism had a very short shelf-life. 

The infernal academic cadence op publishing and the competitiveness of literary critics then as today were constantly jostling erudite works from the shelf and away from the reader’s attention. The tragedy being that for every new unproven masterpiece presented, a proven one was dumped. 

A book that is certainly missing in any ideal library of literary criticism is Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971).

It so happened that while reading Guy Davenport, another critic on the bank of the Lethe, I was made aware of Kenner's book. Davenport's appreciation of his friend’s work was so positive as to be nearly suspicious : “The Pound Era is a book to be read and reread and studied. For the student of modern letters it is a treasure, for the general reader it is one of the most interesting books he will ever pick-up in a lifetime of reading”. 

Hugh Kenner (1923 – 2003), a Canadian scholar, critic and professor and one of the great literary critics of the 20th century (now forgotten), wrote his masterpiece, a seminal text on the poet Ezra Pound in 1971 after numerous meetings and interviews with the Master himself and with the last witnesses of the Modernist era. 

As a literary text, The Pound Era is one of a kind. It is an extremely well written blend of  biography, intellectual history and literary analysis. Kenner succeeded with this work in raising Ezra Pound's profile among critics and readers of poetry. His work on the Modernists is so important that his archives are, exceptionally for a literary critic, kept at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin Texas.

Guy Davenport said that the Pound Era, more than just a book, was a library in which one, in the words of Bernard Bergonsi, could endlessly dip in…

I too was mesmerized by Kenner’s Pound Era, the kind of book that rather than passing information, recreates and opens a world. I took up the challenge of making this world my own. It was a feat that without the help of modern research possibilities would have been impossible, Kenner wrote his book in a world as far distanced from mine, as was Toronto of the sixties separated from the Londen of the interbellum. 

As I proceed, I’ll post reviews of each chapter as I understand them.

Expect this to be a long voyage…