[by Peter, Jared, Barrett, and Marco]
This week we tackled Modernism—high and low—and what a week it was! We discussed Pound’s “A Pact,” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land.” We looked at the section from Crane’s The Bridge entitled “Cape Hatteras” next to “The Waste Land,” comparing how each one deals with technology and modernization. We also looked at William Carlos Williams’s “To Elsie” and “Spring and All,” comparing them again to “The Waste Land,” and how they may (as well as The Bridge) work to recover very Whitmanian ideals in an attempt to combat Eliot’s brand of defeated and desiccated Modernism. During the second part of the week, we looked more politicized and radicalized poets such as Michael Gold, Carl Sandburg and—though we didn’t get a chance to discuss him—Stephen Vincent Benet. They viewed Eliotic modernism as an evasion, an aesthetics escape from the world and from politics. Their poems were not disillusioned but angry; not aloof, but engaged.
After discussing modernism and modernity (see “key concepts below), we asked, how we might view Whitman as modern or modernist poet. We noted the way in which he seemed plugged into his own time, his comparative lack of formal constraint, his interest in machines, workers, prostitutes, homosexual love, city life, and the like. It’s important to realize, however, that Whitman so often pursues what can seem an optimism and belief in democracy and progress—ideals that that Modernist poets such as Eliot seem to rip to shreds and before they to put the pieces back—to shore up the fragments, as Eliot might say—piecemeal, into a new, hesitant faith. In this sense, Whitman seems to represent a kind of lost hope, a vision that can only be glimpsed in bits and pieces, in flashes here and there.
We looked briefly at “A Pact”—long enough to assess Pound’s invocation of Whitman, how he approaches Whitman as an ancestor, but maintains an arm’s length at least between them. The implication from Pound is that Whitman set something to motion in American poetry, and it’s time now for Pound to make something with it. It’s an elitist position, in a way: it would seem that Pound is coming to terms with the rough, unrefined material Whitman has left him to work with.
Looking at “Prufrock,” it is interesting to note that the opening line, “Let us go then, you and I,” is an extremely Whitmanian way to begin a poem. But it doesn’t take long before we hit that “patient, etherized upon a table.” We came to the conclusion that Prufrock (and perhaps Eliot himself) wants to be a prophet as Whitman is, but his world has become impossibly small. The poem is full of observation similar to Whitman, but it is disconnected and disembodied in a way that is wholly un-Whitmanian. This has a sterilizing effect on the poem, leaving the speaker immobile and neutered. Prufrock is able to see the beautiful world, but he willfully unplugs himself from it, saying of epic mermaids, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” It is possible that Prufrock is an anti-Whitman persona, tolling the death of connection and optimism. All the profound questions that Whitman poses throughout his work find an ironic and shrunken echo in Eliot’s: “Do I dare to eat a peach.” Are these the stakes?
And so we find ourselves at “The Waste Land,” but be not afraid! (Okay, maybe a little.) This poem seems to owe a great deal (by way of the negative) both to Whitman’s ubiquitous lilacs (they appear in the second line) and to his vision of natural transcendence in “This Compost.” Where Whitman ritualized recovery, Eliot seems to ritualize crisis. The first line, “April is the cruelest month,” establishes an important upside-down dichotomy of the poem: that while Spring is cruel and false, “Winter kept us warm”—so, by extension, life is difficult, and death is easy. Whitman seems to have a similar message at one point in his Lincoln elegy—but after that, similarities are more difficult to divine. From that disorienting image, Eliot introduces fragments of conflicting voices, giving them little to no connection or context. This feeds into Eliot’s apparent project throughout the poem: establishing the modern reality of disconnection. The poem is at all times aware of the loss of a past, of real connection—to nature, to other people, to one’s self. Unlike Whitman, Eliot undermines the idea of inevitable progress and recovery. The past is present and the present, past. All is cyclical, recurring: think of it as spatial rather than temporal. Jen commented that, “As for progress things are always getting better. But in postwar modernity, there is no ultimate progress. We are building to decay. Just progress and decay, progress and decay.”
It is interesting also to note that Eliot uses the entire world as a (Whitmanian) catalogue to draw from. As the poem approaches the end, Eliot brings in more and more international traditions, from the classics to the Upanishads to Dante. It would seem that Eliot has some strange amount of faith in an interconnected Humanity, that he wants to find hope, but the poem ends just a moment before anything definitive is discovered. It may rain on the desiccated waste land—that seems to be, to paraphrase Eliot, what the thunder says—but we see no relief. We just hear a faint echo of its (perhaps false) promise.
To combat the irony and pessimism in Eliot’s work, Hart Crane attempts his own more earnestly optimistic vision of modernity by, (in Crane’s words) “creating a mystical synthesis of America in an abstract form that exists almost independently of the subject it addresses while maintaining our hopes and achievements.”
Professor VZ described the poem “Cape Hatteras” as having a density of language that is at once gripping and lyrical, and incredibly opaque and difficult. The mania and density of Crane’s language—which seems to rip itself apart, constantly self-interrogating—arrives in a flurry of images and allusions. Each line moves from a specific setting to another such that the poem fights to keep “flight,” to borrow its own thematic topic in the birth of human aviation. In his use of at-time incoherent, fragmented splendor, Crane attempts to encapsulate the dislocation of the Modern age without Eliot’s irony and despair.
Cali discussed the recovery of Crane in the final stanzas as being held in the possibility of hope and renewal. Specifically, when the poet pronounces, “To the Open Road–thy vision is reclaimed!”, the poem rises from the ruins of a crash to once again address and revive Walt Whitman and his romantic vision of America.
William Carlos Williams joined Crane in refuting the desolate image of “The Waste Land.” His poems “Spring and All” and “To Elsie” were both reviewed as having anti-Eliotic themes, largely implicit in the image in “Spring and All” of the new vegetation of spring taking root and gripping down and beginning to “awaken.” The moments of fertility in Williams’ poems could be seen as an attempt to combat the sterility of Eliot’s Wasteland.
In “To Elsie,” Williams also seems to offer a commentary on Crane and the attempt to find light in the landscape of America. Williams seems to say in this poem, as Jared pointed out, that the poet gives life through imagination to normally mundane events. And although these moments of brightness are few it is still the poet’s duty or office to show them. As Williams writes, it is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off.” This is the modernist epiphany speaking to some shrouded coherent splendor, just out of reach.
Michael Gold—his “Ode to Whitman”—surprised us by the energy and anger of his verse. He seems to be channeling Allen Ginsberg decades before Ginsberg wrote his “Howl.” We found out that Gold was a communist poet that shunned high-modernism empathically. “Poetry is the cruelest bunk,” Gold exclaims, calling out Eliot as if by name. In dealing with the crisis of Gold’s degraded America portrayed in “Ode to Walt Whitman” we talked about the process of recovery the speaker undergoes in order to come to some state of resolution. In part six of the poem, the Whitmanian vision is channeled into a socialist dream, thereby recovering the poem albeit, as many stated, not so successfully.
Taking a step back, its remarkable to gather all the pieces that unite the poems we read: they all seek in nature some sign of recovery or its increasing impossibility; many of the poems use images and scenes of degraded (and often female) sexuality to define the sterility and disjunction of modernity. All seem to have Whitman on their minds, either implicitly or explicitly. In class, we could barely scrape the surface of this rich and layered dialog.
Core Concepts: Modernity, Modernization, Modernism
Initially, we attempted to define Modernism along a continuum from the “Modern,’ to “Modernity,” to “Modernization,” and finally “Modernism.” Modern occupies a more simple semantic register, and merely marks the “just now” or the “new.” Modern English, in this sense, is distinct from Old or Middle English. Modernity, we found, embodies Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment progress in the sciences, psychology, philosophy, and other arenas. We discussed values of personal (and political) autonomy, and the recognition of inalienable rights. Secular Humanism and scientific rationality began to complicate and challenge traditional religious worldviews. We discussed the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), Darwin (evolution / degeneration), Heisenberg (uncertainty principle), Rutherford (splitting atoms), Curie (radioactivity), Einstein (relativity), Freud (unconscious, multiple ‘selves’), and the invention of the X-ray. In short, things were changing—and fast! We discussed Modernization, then, as the outcome or application or effect of Modernity: things like industrialization and urbanization and the many inventions and commodities that accompanied them. Modernism, finally, names the myriad ways in which artists responded to modernization and the consequences of modernity. If the Modernists are the players, modernity and modernization represent the game—a game that the modernists variously embraced or rejected in their work (and often, as in Crane, at the same time). Modernism, as a term, was applied in retrospect to try to capture the energies of numerous artistic movements all of which were innovative or experimental in their own way. These include Futurism, Vorticism, Imagism, Surrealism, Impressionism, Cubism, etc.
Quote and Tell—“Cape Hatteras”:
Afoot again, and without halt–
Not soon, nor suddenly,–no, never to let go
In the last stanza of “Cape Hatteras” not only are the line breaks powerful and disrupting but the final word “so.” “So” seems unsure and reserved, but also epic in a sense. So signals an epic beginning in medias res—and it’s interesting to note that Seamus Heaney uses this as the first word in his translation of the epic Beowulf.
Exemplifying Crane’s romantic vision, the speaker’s walk begins, or rather, continues with his mentor, his prophet, his guiding poetic father, Walt Whitman, even after the end of this section.
Next week, we’ll be talking a lot about what Whitman means to African American poets, and for African American poetry—how his legacy has been both enabling and, in some cases, disabling. The poems we’ll be reading from Jean Toomer on Tuesday appear in Cane, a hybrid book of poems and prose that he wrote in the mid-1920s. Think about how “Harvest” is Whitmanian in form; “Prayer,” in it’s problematization of Whitman’s often easy merger of “body” and “soul.”
The individual poems that we’re reading of Hughes have a very clear relationship to Whitman—his songs, his sea, his prostitutes (we didn’t read about W’s prostitutes, but he wrote poems to them as well). The long poem we read of Hughes’s—Montage of a Dream Deferred—has a much subtler Whitmanian resonance. I believe that it owes much to Whitman’s innovation with the long poem form, where difference voices and experiences and images merge in unexpected ways. It is an urban poem, a poem of New York, and a poem of human experience.
Hughes’s work also lines up in interesting ways with Eliot’s. One critic has written that “Eliot’s The Waste Land and Hughes’s Montage are both post-traumatic poems memorializing the losses entailed by modernity.” What other connections can you draw between Hughes’s work and Eliot’s? And how do the works we read of theirs—The Waste Land and Montage—clearly differ?
We’ll discuss “Theme for English B” in class as a crucial moment within Montage. But for Tuesday, I want to ask you to select a single poem from this work: ask yourself what it contributes to the whole of Montage, what voice it adds, what it questions or interrogates or celebrates. Be prepared to discuss your poem with the class. You might touch on a particular Whitmanian echo in content or form, or you might dig deeper and try to ask yourself which themes both poets engage.
One last note — I hope to return to Benet and Sandburg for at least a moment–so please bring them (along with your Whitman bible, as always).
Please use the comment box below to fill in any crucial missing details. What was most important and/or moving to you that was not addressed above? Also, anyone who points out typos made here will earn, well, much good will!