Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1209
It is fitting that Some Americans should end with the work of Ezra Pound, as it begins with Tomlinson’s precocious interest in Pound, his purchase of a book of Pound’s poetry while still in grammar school, and his amazement that American poetry was disregarded in his university assignments. As he says at the outset, “A boy from the provinces, going up to read English at Cambridge in 1945, as I did, will have learned little of American poetry from his university teachers. None of them seemed to mention it.” That opening establishes several of Tomlinson’s themes: his youth and his outsider status (the “boy from the provinces” at Cambridge), his enthusiasm for American verse and his hunger for guidance in his reading of it, and his self-possession, even pride, because he knows more than his peers and supposed superiors (the Cambridge professors’ failure to “mention” contemporary American poetry rather strongly implies their ignorance of the matter).
These themes, suggested at the outset of this slim volume, are woven throughout the whole, where they serve the interests of the larger theme: Tomlinson’s great regard for, and conscious debt to, American poetry. The book fits comfortably into the category of study that elucidates what William Wordsworth famously called the growth of a poet’s mind, and it is valuable precisely because it provides insight into the ways in which Tomlinson adapted what he saw as the best features of American writing (and painting) to his own artistic purposes. In so doing, it also explains why he has seemed to his fellow poets in Great Britain to be rather outside their tradition: It is highly unusual for British poets to adjust their voice to American tonalities, but that is precisely what Tomlinson has done.
From his first shocked delight at the freedom and vigor of Ezra Pound’s lines, what impressed Tomlinson the most was the verbal clarity, simplicity, and immediacy with which American poetry conveyed reality, what he calls “a regard for [the] minute particulars of language.” He recalls his delight in the opening chapter, which also describes the depth and breadth of his exposure to such writers as Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Yvor Winters, and William Carlos Williams. From each he learned another refined technique; Tomlinson was drawn to resonant simplicity of statement, to arresting precision of language. He is careful to point out in detail exactly where American influence can be found in a particular poem of his own, where the evidence of his reading and his personal contacts with American writers can be seen at work in his own lines, both as originally conceived and as finally revised.
Once past the initial discussion of his indebtedness to the work of American poets, Tomlinson tells a series of pointed personal anecdotes about his contacts with living American legends. He seems never to have been content merely to read and to appreciate the work of those he admired; he seems always to have hungered for something more, some sort of reciprocal affirmation. As he recounts it here, he achieved this either by writing poems dedicated to a particular poet—a natural sort of compliment that would eventually catch the poet’s eye—or by direct correspondence, often over an extended period and usually leading to a personal visit as well.
Tomlinson put to good use a year he spent teaching at the University of New Mexico, taking the opportunity to conduct a sort of pilgrimage to the Americans he most admired: writers Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Marianne Moore, and painter Georgia O’Keeffe. All of them welcomed him, some more than others. The degree to which they welcomed him or did not is carefully made clear. Tomlinson’s recollection of events is acute; he seems always to be aware of exactly how much time he spent with each person, the precise circumstances of their encounter, and virtually all of their conversation. All of this detailed information is provided at length, with significant quotation from letters and painstakingly reconstructed conversations. He does not hesitate to give the genesis of whole poems, including other writers’ share in shaping and revising them, and this description is in itself an edifying study of the creative process at work.
Tomlinson is a master of nuance as well as of recall, and an attentive reader can glean from this memoir not only a string of interrelated anecdotes about some of the most luminous names in twentieth century art and letters but also a psychological portrait of the artist. He is sensitive, for example, to every word and gesture of praise or criticism, and he does not shrink from recounting both. Moreover, when he recalls instances of imperfection in his idols, he gives as good as he gets, subtly undercutting these famous poets with tremendous skill, not out of malice but rather from a desire to maintain proportion, giving their portraits a more human dimension. He is convincingly grieved by the split between Zukofsky and Oppen, for example, not only because it ruined his plans for an anthology of objectivist poetry but also because he sensed a fundamental misunderstanding at the root of the quarrel and tried unsuccessfully to mediate the breach. The second essay of the collection seems to be all that he was able to salvage from the effort.
Although the chapters are uneven in their orientation and purposes, each has its strengths. The first, “Beginnings,” successfully portrays the author as a bright and aggressive student, writer, and entrepreneur of his own poetry. The scope is broad, pulling together all the significant influences on Tomlinson’s developing style as a writer. The second chapter chronicles Tomlinson’s experience of the Zukofsky-Oppen split from a concerned outsider’s view. It is filled with fondly remembered detail of the happy time in Tomlinson’s life when his family lived in New York City and he could visit with the celebrated objectivist writers, but it also conveys vividly his sense of frustration and of wasted time. The third chapter, infused with a quiet tension, briefly recounts the Tomlinsons’ uneasy dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe. The most satisfying of all, however, is clearly the last chapter, with its nostalgic glimpses of the elderly Ezra Pound counterpointed by the vividly rendered direct experience of the various places in Italy mentioned in poems that Tomlinson had long been reading. This part of the book succeeds in making the reader share his sense of wonder and delight in finding in the objective reality a perfect analogue to the words of poems that he has already internalized.
The overall impression that Tomlinson creates in the volume is not so much one of a student among tutors—by the end of the book he is remembering himself as a well-established poet—but rather of a fine and capable artist among his peers, someone not in the least outclassed by those he reveres. Moreover, the continual exposure to poetry-in-the-making that this memoir offers is valuable itself. Tomlinson is not only a good writer, but also a good reader of the works of others. In this volume, he offers his readers precisely the sort of guidance in reading that he wished someone had given him during his undergraduate years.