Nearly ten years have passed since Donald Davie, reviewing Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, concluded his assessment of that magisterial work with the following prescription for Pound scholarship: “From now on, there ought to be fewer books about Pound; and those few, if they are to justify themselves, will have to be very good.” Since 1972, the shelf-space occupied by Pound studies has doubled; neither in quantity nor in quality has Davie’s prescription been heeded. From this shelf full of new books, Timothy Materer’s Vortex is one of a few works—among them are James Wilhelm’s The Later Cantos of Ezra Pound and Ronald Bush’s The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s Cantos—which will probably be used for some time. Unlike Wilhelm’s and Bush’s studies, Vortex is not exclusively about Pound, nor does it, as their work does, offer substantial new research. Subtitled “Pound, Eliot, and Lewis,” Vortex includes chapters on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and on James Joyce, both of which are crucial to Materer’s argument. Although his task is primarily historical, Materer arrives at his own judgments of the artists he treats. These judgments are superficial, and it must he said that for all its virtues, Vortex is in many ways a disappointing book.
The chief virtue of Vortex is the admirable thoroughness with which Materer documents the complex, shifting relationships between Pound, Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis, from their hopeful beginnings as artistic allies in prewar London to their mutual support in old age. Hugh Kenner has told the story of these “Men of 1914” in The Pound Era, with incomparable authority and brilliance. With the exception of his chapter on Gaudier-Brzeska, Materer adds nothing significant to this account—even his anecdotes are all too familiar—but his study, which maintains a clear, steady focus within its limited range, provides a solid, concise, well-documented introduction to the subject. Although it is not fresh and original, this is a book free of cant and free of jargon, a careful scholarly work which pays tribute to no critical fads.
The “Vortex” of Materer’s title refers, first, to Pound, Eliot, and Lewis as members of an artistic movement, “Vorticism,” a term coined by Pound in 1914. As Materer explains, Pound derived the term from his reading of John K. Burnet’s translations of the Presocratics in his Early Greek Philosophy, where the word “vortex” frequently appears. Thus if the “Vortex” is first a group of artists, it is also a concept which defines their common aims. This is Kenner’s great theme in The Pound Era: a study of the century’s “preoccupation with persistent patterns manifested in ceaseless change.” Materer shows how artists as diverse as Pound, Eliot, Lewis, and Gaudier-Brzeska were united by the conviction that art should penetrate the surface of “realism” to perceive underlying patterns, analogous to the “world of moving energies” which modern physics was revealing. Finally, the “Vortex” of the title is the vortex of history, in which the “artistic crosscurrents” of Pound, Eliot, and Lewis took forms they could hardly have anticipated in 1914.
Materer begins with Pound’s conception of the Vortex, an aesthetic of “patterned energy.” He does not attempt to account for Pound’s radical transformation from the lyrics of A Lume Spento to the Vorticist credo. Quoting frequently from Blast, the short-lived Vorticist journal which was killed by the war, Materer explains that Pound’s imagistic poems and Lewis’ abstract paintings sought “primary form,” an artistic perception of order which Materer compares to the discovery of the helical structure of the DNA model. With some irony, he notes that Eliot—who was not temperamentally a Vorticist, and did not particularly admire levers, gears, or pistons—contributed “the finest pieces of verbal art Blast offered”: “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.”
Pound and Lewis shared, with artists in Paris and even in St. Petersburg, a belief that a new renaissance was in the making. This belief was fostered by stunning scientific discoveries and technological advances as much as it was by the international ferment in the arts. As late as February, 1915, Pound wrote: “New masses of unexplored arts and fact are pouring into the vortex of London. They cannot help bringing about changes as great as the Renaissance changes.” The war crushed these expectations. In his second chapter, “The Vortex as a Pattern of Hope,” Materer follows Pound, Eliot, and Lewis to the end of their...
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