by Ron Hayes
I’m a big fan of Modernism. Have been since discovering Hemingway’s short stories as a Marine Biology major in my first failed attempt at college in the 80s. A decade later, in my successful second stint in college, I was overjoyed to discover that Hemingway had a bunch of cronies whose work made my conversion to an English major a smooth no-brainer. To this day, I find solace and discomfort, reassurance and terror in the beautiful dissonance of Eliot, Pound, Stein, Yeats, and the rest of the Lost Generation gang. Often when I’m stuck, I go traipsing through the ‘20s to de-congeal the creative juices.
But reading Modernism is hard. From difficult literary allusions to obscure cultural references to their unvarnished exploration of language, Modernists expect much of their readers. One must appreciate the vagaries of speech, expect innovative techniques and ideas, and know a good bit about Classic literature to fully enjoy the textures and wrinkles Modernism offers. And one notable consequence of reading Modernist literature is that one should be at least somewhat well-read to fully appreciate the many surprises and structural similarities modernist writers employ to compare and contrast twentieth-century life (and literature) with that of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. For contemporary readers this was less a problem than it is for us today in the age of the all-night diner in cities that never sleep.
The lofty expectations Pound and Eliot had of their readers are further manifested in such things as Pound’s use of Chinese pictograms and in Eliot’s use of Greek and Latin epigraphs to deepen meaning in poems like “The Waste Land.” Unfortunately, for readers unfamiliar with Pound’s personal life, the personal letters he transformed into poems hold little meaning, lacking context as they do, and readers unused to living in a multilingual setting have little or no accessibility to whole poems Eliot wrote in French, or telling epigrams like the one Eliot uses to dedicate “The Waste Land” to Ezra Pound.
Poets like Pound and Eliot toyed with the function of language in their work, but, being poets, they did so more as a matter of course than as something experimental or even revolutionary. It is in the nature of poets, I believe, to play with the conventions of language, to probe its boundaries, which accounts for both the extreme nature of experimentation as that seen in Pound, and of the minimal degree of experimentation that Eliot exhibited. Whereas Eliot was apparently satisfied to work within the constructs and relationships of words, Pound sought to widen the possibilities words afforded the poet; perhaps a reason he was inclined to forge trans-lingual relationships as in the cases of Chinese pictographs and musical notation.
Eliot’s innovations include an uncommon rendering of voice in “The Waste Land.” With one repeated line: “Hurry up please, it’s time” Eliot added a unique, disembodied feel to his speaker that clearly rebelled against the conventions of the day. And like his contemporary James Joyce, Eliot tweaked the nose of gentility with thinly-veiled sexual subject matter in his “Sweeney” poems. Pound’s innovation also involved social commentary, made notorious by his arrest and incarceration near the end of World War II. Known as “the Pisan Cantos” for the site of his incarceration, this set of poems deals directly with socio-political commentary, for much of which he was labeled as insane.
So why such a lengthy discourse on Modernism? What are we to make of it all? Sometimes revisiting some of the signposts that mark high points (or even low points) on our journeys as writers is just a maudlin exercise in nostalgia, like leafing through your old high school yearbooks. But when you instead look at these signposts through the lens of what you are now, a WRITER, a wordsmith with more experience on the page right now than you ever had when that signpost was fresh, it forces you to realize that you are now prepared to see things differently than you did before. You can read Pound and Eliot and Hemingway not with the wide-eyed wonder of a neophyte writer, but with a higher degree of sophistication than you’ve ever had before. You’ll see things differently. You’ll take things apart more thoroughly. You’ll make discoveries you didn’t make before. And you’ll be a better writer. Whether your signposts are Yeats and Eliot or Sidney and Blake or Wordsworth or Ginsberg or Lucille Clifton, your attention to craft will reveal what you weren’t able to see before. And like an unmistakable beacon in the night sky, it’ll get you back on your road to success.