This post is about the limits of the avant-garde, and the possibility that the formal possibilities within any art-form are finite.
But first: I recently learned that within the hopeless market for literature professors, the situation is even more dire for aspiring professors who specialize in Modernism — my favorite period in English literature, the period stretching from writers like Conrad, James, and Yeats through writers like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, and too many others to list: Williams, cummings, Moore, Faulkner…
Apparently there are few or no openings for teachers of Modernism in the entire United States in an average year. A search of the MLA Job Information List seems to confirm this picture, although there are a few positions that include Modernism within a broader job description.
I find this particularly sad, because I’ve always felt that Modernism was the last period in Anglophone literature that succeeded in doing something new and great — the last period that can plausibly claim to stand beside the accomplishments of earlier revolutionary literary moments like Romanticism. As the modernist scholar Marjorie Perloff mentioned in a conversation on Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions a few years ago, her students have been attracted to Ezra Pound’s work, despite his promotion of fascism, his embraces of historical, economic, and linguistic crankery, and his voluminously unsatisfying literary experiments, because he at least made a case for poetry mattering — and mattering greatly — and he wrote poetry that attempted to fulfill his grandiose demands.
Growing up in a period when poetry for the most part felt lifeless and faux-antiquarian, Pound rethought how poetry can work from the ground up — using the framework of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia — worked through countless formal innovations in his own poetry, played a role in launching the careers of other Modernists like Eliot and Joyce, and went on to attempt a monumental “poem containing history,” The Cantos, which, even if it inevitably failed to satisfy his impossible vision, contains some of the most beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking passages of poetry in the English language — for me at least. The failed ambition itself supplies some of the pathos, especially in the final fragments.
(It is probably no coincidence that the best and most thrilling and memorable work of literary criticism I have ever read, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, is also concerned with Modernism. It offers a survey of what made Modernism revolutionary, with Pound at the center of the vortex.)
When the literature of the intervening century is compared to the work of the Modernists, it is hard not to feel a sense of belatedness, of arriving after the main act has already ended. From the powerful, quasi-Biblical intensity of the images and music in, for example, The Waste Land, we pass to the mostly self-defeating, self-protecting ironies and light finger-exercises of mid-century poets like Auden and Larkin; the dated, small-worlded pleadings of the countless confessional poets from Lowell onward; the shoddily rambling half-experiments of those who came in Pound’s wake — even the best of them, like Olson and Zukovsky; the dead-end conceptual experiments of the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” school and the “unoriginal geniuses” like Kenneth Goldsmith whose work Perloff has heroically attempted to defend; the trivialities of countless New Yorker-style MFA-industrial poets attempting to capture what it feels like to drink a cup of coffee at an empty kitchen table while listening to NPR after getting divorced; and on and on.