A Coherent Splendor

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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...

(The entire section is 2569 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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

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

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