Call me a philistine: bad modernism and bugle poems

When I started this blog, I imagined myself drifting through 1918 on a cloud of superiority, watching appreciatively as modernism flowered in the small journals and rolling my eyes at the sentimental tripe in the popular press. (When I promised not to engage in moral superiority, I didn’t say anything about aesthetic superiority.)

That’s not what has happened. When I eagerly picked up the December 1917 issue of The Egoist, the British journal where T.S. Eliot was assistant editor, the first thing I saw was an article called “XIII. Notes of a Theory of Memory and Will,” by D. Marsden. It began like this: “(1) If one were required to name the most basic characteristic of experience, choice would have to fall upon that of progressive economy of effort in respect of activities which are repeated.” That’s hard to argue with; I’m getting much faster at uploading photos on WordPress. But D. goes on like this for four pages, and I wasn’t sure what the point was. (I found out later that the point was that D(ora) Marsden was the editor of The Egoist, and, while she deserves credit for recognizing the genius of Eliot and Pound, she significantly overestimated the genius of D. Marsden.)

The Egoist gets better after that. T.S. Eliot discusses the role of a critic in a review of a book on Turgenev, and Ezra Pound writes in an article about the Elizabethans that in each great age “a few poets have written a few beautiful lines…and ten thousand people have copied them.” An editorial note informs readers that the first edition of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (“which, it will be remembered, was printed in America owing to the refusal of British publishers and printers to handle it”) has sold out, but a British edition is on the way. So there are some fascinating historical nuggets, but if I had happened to put down Vanity Fair and pick this up in 1918, it wouldn’t have converted me instantly to modernism.

That’s for sure.

Undeterred, I dove in just as eagerly to the January 1918 edition of The Little Review, an American literary journal. It opens with a seven-page prose poem by William Carlos Williams called “Impressions.” Here’s a typical passage:

What can it mean to you that a child wears pretty clothes and speaks three languages or that its mother goes to the best shops? It means: July has good need of his blazing sun. But if you pick one berry from the ash tree I’d not know it again for the same no matter how the rain washed.

After two or three pages of this, I said to myself, “This is nothing like the plum/icebox poem that everyone’s putting on Facebook! Was WCW drunk?” It turns out that he was flirting with poetic Cubism—a style of deliberate disjointedness in imitation of the Cubist painters. Well, it was disjointed all right. After the Williams poem, there was a long essay about the sexes by Ford Madox Hueffer (later known as Ford Madox Ford) that was deliciously gossipy but didn’t have much of a point.

Meanwhile, St. Nicholas magazine was having a contest where children wrote poems about bugles. Genevra Parker, age 13, got a silver medal. Here’s the first verse of her poem:

Blow, blow, blow—
To the murm’ring streamlets blow!
To the sparkling dew, and the roses, too,
And the echoes long and low;
To the clover-tops and the early bees;
Blow through the quiet lanes—
Sing to me of the silver sea
And the horseman on the plains.

Okay, Genevra isn’t breaking any new ground here, poetry-wise. But it’s a cool poem! And she was thirteen years old! And I can tell what it’s about: a bugle!

There’s some beautiful imagery in Williams’ poem, and I admire the spirit of experimentation behind his effort to bring Cubism from painting to verse. But, as a reading experience, I enjoyed “The Bugle-Call” a lot more.

Okay, you can call me a philistine now.

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