Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
In a one-paragraph introduction to this brief volume, British poet Charles Tomlinson attributes its origin to the American literary critic Hugh Kenner, “who suggested the making of this book” out of essays that Tomlinson wrote between 1976 and 1979. Most of the essays the poet had already published in Contemporary Literature, Paideuma, and The Hudson Review. Gathered loosely around the theme of American influence on his work, the essays make a “Quantum Book” in the series of that name—the physicists’ term for a unit of emitted energy—published by the University of California Press at Berkeley, as a “short study distinctive for the author’s ability to offer a richness of detail and insight within about one hundred pages of print.”
Some Americans consists of four essays of varying length, each one recounting how Tomlinson came to meet one or more American luminaries—poets or painters—and giving his retrospective impressions in acute detail. When a first meeting is preceded by an exchange of letters, these are described and frequently quoted. When acquaintances thus initiated flower into friendship, the progress of the friendship is memorably recounted. The book is peppered with references to contemporary writers and their books: Twelve columns of names in the index attest the sheer number of Americans with whom the young Tomlinson made contact in the course of his pilgrimage through the United States and through his dedicated and devoted reading.
The first and longest chapter (43 of the book’s 134 pages), written in 1976 and 1977, chronicles Tomlinson’s discovery of American poetry—despite its near invisibility in the England of his youth—and his first attempts to write poetry in an English idiom that was not distinctly British. He discusses the poets whose work he was reading, alludes frequently and happily to the positive reception publicly and privately accorded his own poetry, and describes his successful efforts to establish personal contact with the American poets William Carlos Williams, Yvor Winters, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and others.
Chapter 2, eighteen pages long, focuses closely on the objectivist poets Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, with mention of Tomlinson’s indebtedness to American poet Robert Creeley for guidance and consultation about their work. The essay, written in 1978 and published that year in Paideuma, describes the summer of 1963, during which Tomlinson and his wife lived in Brooklyn, near both Zukofsky and Oppen. It recounts the conversations the three poets had and the breaking of the friendship between the two American poets. The narrative also serves to explain why Tomlinson’s projected edition of an anthology to be called “Seven Significant Poets” never appeared: Zukofsky refused to be included, allegedly because of his resentment of Oppen, who was also one of the seven.
Chapter 3, at sixteen pages the shortest in the book and written in the same year as chapter 2, describes Tomlinson’s one meeting with the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. In it, he discusses her influence on his own painting, for Tomlinson is both poet and painter. The encounter with O’Keeffe is the least comfortable one described, because his intrusion into O’Keeffe’s personal life was clearly resented. Tomlinson shows some courage in revealing this resentment, because it points up an undercurrent running through the book as a whole, his deliberate—sometimes almost relentless—pursuit of the people whom he reveres. (He visits more than a few of these artists in the midst of serious illnesses.) Tomlinson admits that he gained entrance to O’Keeffe’s house under dubious pretenses and that she reprimanded him for this, but he also makes it clear that he might well be excused because he is her diligent admirer. In fact, Tomlinson even reviewed slides of O’Keeffe’s work the night before he and his wife lunched with her. He mentions that O’Keeffe was so impressed by an acute observation about one of her paintings that she relented enough in her displeasure to bid him a gracious farewell.
Unlike the previous three, the final chapter, written in 1978 and 1979, finds Tomlinson and his wife not in the United States but in Italy, although still primarily in the company of Americans. Here he remembers his meetings with the aging American poet Ezra Pound and Pound’s daughter Mary and her family. Tomlinson also recalls other Italian adventures, including his being fired by the editor and critic Percy Lubbock, an insult which he counters with a very unflattering portrayal of the man, in life and death (Lubbock’s embalming is the closing scene of the book). Apart from its anecdotal significance, the main feature of this chapter is the detailed and informative description of the ways in which direct experience of the sights and landscapes of Italy improved Tomlinson’s readings of the poems of Ezra Pound.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68
Beaver, Harold. “Crossing Rebel Lines,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review. X (Spring/Summer, 1982), pp. 117-124.
Hall, Donald. “Poet’s Progress,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (March 1, 1981), pp. 12, 16-17.
Hennessy, Michael. “Discovering America,” in Contemporary Literature. XXIII (Spring, 1982), pp. 254-258.
Pettingell, Phoebe. “Outer and Inner Landscapes,” in The New Leader. LXIV (June 1, 1981), pp. 14-15.
Wilmer, Clive. “Masters in Modernism,” in The Times Literary Supplement. February 5, 1982, p. 141.
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