A Coherent Splendor

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2569

One of the distinguishing strengths of great poetry is the singular voice of the individual poet. This daunting originality, however, often carries with it a sustaining conviction that only that poet’s approach to his work represents a valid vision of artistic excellence. To be sure, the poet frequently needs reassurance...

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One of the distinguishing strengths of great poetry is the singular voice of the individual poet. This daunting originality, however, often carries with it a sustaining conviction that only that poet’s approach to his work represents a valid vision of artistic excellence. To be sure, the poet frequently needs reassurance that his strategies for production are successful, yet when this understandably self-protective stance is combined with a critic’s instinctive tendency to establish patterns of consequence in any cultural era, a superficial depiction of literary history begins to develop in which differences are exaggerated and similarities are oversimplified.

In an exceptionally knowledgeable and wide-ranging study, Albert Gelpi has attempted to go beyond the limits of any previous grouping to include ten poets he regards as the creators of an “American poetic renaissance” in the years during and just after World War II, a time when the “great imaginative enterprise” (As Hugh Kenner describes Modernism) of the twentieth century was at its most energetic and vital. To include John Crowe Ransom and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) in the same angle of vision requires a kind of confidence that stems from an acute understanding and familiarity with a vast body of material—cultural, political, philosophical, and historical as well as literary. Gelpi has the requisite background in the main currents of Western thought to be able to see unexpected patterns of connection and reflection among ideas and developments in various disciplines. It is clear, too, that in addition to the poetry of his subjects he has also read most of the comments which the poets themselves have made about their own work, and one of his basic techniques is to arrange a poet’s words into an illustration of his or her intentions. This method casts Gelpi’s theoretical propositions in the form of discoveries of extant patterns that were previously not quite clear rather than impositions of order upon a mass of chaotic data.

To justify his inclusion of these ten writers—all white, educated, and bourgeois but radically different in more significant categories of measurement—within his survey, Gelpi offers in his introduction a compact presentation of his view of modern poetry. Gelpi sees Modernism as a product of the “twinned generative strains” of Symbolism and Imagism, and presents as the goal of Modernist art “the imaginative fashioning of the unruly and resistant materials of experience through the expressive resources of the medium—paint, stone, language—into an autotelic work of coherent splendor.” His basic proposition is that Modernism and Romanticism, two supposedly opposing ideologies, have a “subtler continuity” that is more interesting and deeper than their points of dissonance. Gelpi sees American poets—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound—making what he calls “Janus-faces, Romantic and Modernist, looking in opposite directions.” Then, however, in a pattern which operates throughout his work as the most fundamental aspect of his critical approach, he reverses directions, proclaiming that Modernists “longed for and adopted positions that are unmistakably, though sometimes covertly, Romantic.”

The concept of contradiction operates as one of Gelpi’s most basic aesthetic and philosophical instruments, and he uses it to define the Modernist stance and, by eventual extension, to define what he regards as the most crucial components of twentieth century American poetry. His title, A Coherent Splendor—taken from Pound’s translation of a passage from Sophocles in which Heracles exults, “what SPLENDOUR,/ IT ALL COHERES”—embodies all the implications of ultimate contradiction: Pound knew that coherence would always be an unreachable goal for the artist in the modern world, but that he must act as if it were attainable. The splendor is in the act, something akin to the action of Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, who also knew the futility of his efforts but continued them as the only way to create meaning. As Camus observes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Similarly, for Gelpi, the Modernist poets were “happy” within the action of their poetry, a Romantic notion, while acknowledging that their artistic vision was unlikely to disclose a “happy” state of existence beyond the art itself, a notably paradoxical Modernist inclination.

The opening chapter, on the “pre-Modernist” Ransom and Robert Frost, exhibits many of the characteristics of Gelpi’s general approach. Because Gelpi relies on a rigorous presentation of abstract ideas for much of his basic argument, he provides substantial biographical information as a humanizing balance, showing the relationships among the poets under discussion. Between Frost (the “woodsman”) and Ransom (the “chevalier”) there was not much direct contact, but they were aware of each other’s work and generally respectful of it (in contrast to the much more ambivalent relationship between William Carlos Williams and Stevens, which Gelpi examines next). This preliminary material is followed by a close reading of poems that Gelpi considers to be among the poet’s most representative. Gelpi is looking for the enduring in the work of writers overvalued by a blindly sentimental public and undervalued by hypercerebral post-Modernist critics, and his discussion is more restorative than revisionist, a consolidation of assumptions.

Gelpi stresses Ransom’s ideas more than his poetry because of Ransom’s meager output and also because he uses Ransom to relate the history of the New Critics. The concentration on ideas works much better in the chapter on Stevens, because Stevens’ poetry is so much more interesting than Ransom’s and because Steven’s theories are at the heart of the controversy concerning the two elemental modes of Modernism, the imagination and the object. By introducing Williams here (in anticipation of the chapter on Williams) and by reading Stevens and Williams against each other, Gelpi is able to consider the “crucial debates of the Modernist aesthetic,” including the origins of creativity, the function of the poet’s personality, the relationship of Romantic ideas to Modernist thought, and the role of subjective psychological states. He appropriately recognizes language as a dominant factor in Stevens’ poetics, observing that the problem of a particular poem is “resolved not at the level of argument but at the level of language” (citing “Sunday Morning”) and that Stevens transferred “sensed objects into a fictive linguistic world” which he called the “mundo of the imagination.” Connecting Stevens to the Symbolist poets (Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé) to account for the “essential gaudiness” that is an aspect of Stevens’ rhetorical spell, Gelpi states that one of the conflicts of Modernist art, the oscillation between imagination and reality in the process of creation, is brought toward resolution in Stevens’ poems through the use of metaphor. The concept of rhetorical devices is expanded to include metaphor as a manifestation of “the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.” In keeping with his plan to conclude each chapter with a summary phrase, he calls Stevens a “sceptical Platonist,” offering a variant on a word he had previously applied to Frost.

In the next three sections, the heart of the book, Gelpi’s consistently intelligent and logical discussion reaches another dimension as his passionate appreciation for T. S. Eliot, Pound, and H. D. further energizes his writing. The importance of his subject has never been in question, but here an extra inspirational factor works to draw him closer to the poems, so that his own fervor matches the “high energy construct” (as Charles Olson phrased it) of the poetry. The deployment of irony by Ransom, Frost, and Stevens may have controlled Gelpi’s position in discussing them, but while his later chapter headings continue to suggest contradiction and paradox, he has subtly shifted to the subjective side of the pole. In addition to the vivacity of his style, Gelpi unleashes a swarm of ideas that resonate beyond the ones he chooses for the coordinating points of his discussion. In regard to Eliot, especially, the density of insight proscribes summary, but the mixture of biographical information and poetic development underscores the emotional core of Eliot’s work that pressed against the shaping forces of his mind.

In conjunction with the 1988 publication of Eliot’s letters, Gelpi’s argument that there is “no Beatrice” in his poetry seems particularly apt. An obsession with the feminine in terms of “neurotic misogynist fears” is the starting point for Eliot’s poetry in Gelpi’s view; this obsession leads to a dialectic between mind and body, between Prufrock and Sweeney, who Gelpi finds “impossibly twinned” so that the famous objective correlative is seen as “a desire to engage and a fear of engaging the feminine aspects of the self and the world.” Tracing Eliot’s apprehension of the sensual from his Calvinist conviction of original sin through his inclination toward the unified sensibility of the seventeenth century with its holistic religious sense of the cosmos, Gelpi shows how the multivoiced arrangement of The Waste Land (1922) evolves toward the projection of the poet’s own voice in Four Quartets (1943). Through close readings of most of Eliot’s major poems, as well as his verse drama, Gelpi clarifies references, establishes connections, highlights Eliot’s skills as a craftsman of language, and moves toward an understanding of Eliot as a poet and critic who eventually arrived at a classical Christian position, discerning “the immanence of grace in flawed nature.”

The section on Pound is equally impressive. Starting with key incidents and decisions in Pound’s life, Gelpi then tackles the Cantos. For sixty-five pages, Gelpi moves through Pound’s life-epic in an exceptionally lucid, meticulously organized, and uncommonly perceptive investigation of a poem that has generally intimidated readers with its esoteric references, encyclopedic learning, multilingual composition, and apparent lack of structure. Gelpi functions here like Dante’s Vergil, providing guidance through a fascinating nether realm and removing the obstacles that have prevented a more widespread public reading of the poem. Mixing biographical material, personal recollections of Pound’s acquaintances, and excerpts from Pound’s extensive literary theorizing, Gelpi puts together a picture of the mind that made the poem, showing how Pound’s obsessions emerged and were organized into the Cantos. Gelpi then recapitulates the progress of Pound’s poetics, covering his pronouncements and experiments with Imagism, vorticism, and Futurism to show how Pound’s techniques developed. He notes the various literary traditions that interested Pound—Emerson and Whitman in American literature, the Chinese ideogram, and troubador songs, among others—to clarify the historical influences. As the cantos themselves are discussed, with Pound’s own uncertainties measured to account for areas of confusion, all Pound’s methods are examined through a close reading of their actions and effects, with crucial references explained and passages not in English either translated or explained. Gelpi’s handling of the first fifty cantos offers erudition with no self-consciousness, making the poem available by dispelling the arcane aura that has always loomed over it.

The second part of the discussion of the Cantos shows how Pound worked to reintegrate a shattered sense of the self after his periods of incarceration, first in Italy and then in St. Elizabeths Hospital in the United States. Here, Pound was forced to recognize his personal failures, reevaluate his actions, and tentatively begin to recover his mind so that he might try to write the promised “Paradiso” which was the goal of his life’s work. Gelpi shows how Pound dealt with his realization of his own mistakes, and then how he struggled toward a much less arrogant and ultimately Romantic vision in the Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII (1969) that concludes the Cantos. Gelpi’s view that Pound found paradise in nature, with the human mind able to perceive only the “inherent organic character of its process” recalls and supports his ongoing contention that Modernism and Romanticism are parts of a Janus-faced image. By illustrating the problems Pound faced trying to compensate for (if not atone for) his political and social barbarism, Gelpi enables even a reader who detests some of the things Pound did to see the loveliness of the last cantos, their evanescent, redemptive, modest beauty.

The section on H. D. is the most brilliantly original in the book. Known more by reputation and anecdote than for work, H. D. is presented from a psychobiographical perspective based on Gelpi’s familiarity with Sigmund Freud, H. D.’s own contact with Freud, and a typically thorough and illuminating reading of H. D.’s poetry. In a brief discussion of Marianne Moore and Amy Lowell, the concept of the woman writer as a “double-bearing” artist (bearing children, bearing poems) is developed in terms of Adrienne Rich’s distinction between the lesser “feminine” (illustrative or decorative) and the more significant “female” (constitutive of moral exploration) modes of expression. Gelpi then shows how autobiographical elements have been imaginatively transformed in H.D.’s work into a mythic vision of a continuously creative existence. Gelpi argues that the posthumous Trilogy (1973) ranks with Four Quartets and The Pisan Cantos (1948) as one of the major poems of World War II; furthermore, he concludes that Helen in Egypt (1961) is “the most ambitious and successful long poem by a woman in English.” He suggests that the Trilogy is distinctive as a transformation of “a man’s war epic into a woman’s love lyric” and that the “final illuminations” of Helen in Egypt are akin to the ancient wisdom proclaimed in Frost’s “Directive,” Williams’ “Sparrow,” and Eliot’s Four Quartets.

The last quarter of the book remains consistently interesting but not quite as exciting as the central part, since Gelpi’s sense of exploring great art is diminished by his attitude toward his subjects. His consideration of Williams’ long poem Paterson (1946-1958) is solid, as is his examination of that poet’s attitude toward the central issues of Modernism, and his relationships with various painters and other poets. The special urgency of the sections on Pound, Eliot, and H. D. is largely absent, though, and this lack makes the chapter merely excellent rather than extraordinary. Similarly, the chapter on Allen Tate and Hart Crane is something of a digression, since Tate is important as a critic much more than as a poet, and Crane is as much a case unto himself as any of the poets the book mentions. Gelpi uses Crane’s ties to Romanticism as an entry into his poetry and provides a powerful analysis of The Bridge (1930), Crane’s major accomplishment. In the last part of the book, correctly designated a “coda,” Gelpi reflects his thoughts on Modernism through a consideration of two poets, Ivor Winters and Robinson Jeffers, who saw themselves as aggressively anti-Modernist in approach. Gelpi may have been drawn to these men because of his own involvement with the psychic landscape of California, but his remarks on Winter’s maverick vehemence and Jeffers’ self-possessed aloofness operate as a “critique of the Modernist tradition” from a radical standpoint. Even though the last chapters are not quite as compelling as the central ones, they have enough solid material to make a book in themselves for a man of lesser ambition, and they are certainly connected to the primary concerns of Gelpi’s study.

A Coherent Splendor is a book which no student or teacher of American literature would want to overlook. Its richness and insight make each of the separate sections valuable, able to stand alone as an introduction to the poet covered. As John Dryden said of Geoffrey Chaucer in his oft-quoted remark, “Here is God’s plenty.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15

American Literature. LX, December, 1988, p. 688.

Choice. XXVI, September, 1988, p. 113.

The Christian Century. CV, August 17, 1988, p. 745.

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