The 20s Generation at the End of the 60s
I enjoy reading old books of criticism. It’s illuminating to see the ways that poets were talked about then versus how they’re talked about now. Who gets mentioned when. How some are dismissed or lauded. That sort of thing.
This week I’ve been reading the Twentieth Century Views collection of critical essays on E.E. Cummings, edited by Norman Friedman. It’s fascinating reading to see how they’re dealing with the 20s generation by mid-century. Cummings is the poet under discussion, but the side comments on others of his generation and the general comments on his generation as a whole make for an interesting narrative of how the 20th Century was seeing itself as it was just past the midway point.
Here’s a bit from Barbara Watson’s essay (first published in 1956):
The post-war (WWI) artists accepted this liberation [of artistic means] without necessarily realizing that it was itself a part of the past to which, in its own language, they were saying good-bye. They spoke as though the Victorian and Georgian ways had been the last efforts of a moribund society to hamper the free development of each human being. I would argue that, in fact, they were the posthumous children of that era.
World War I, which rebellious men claimed as their cradle, was not the beginning of the upheaval, although it was the bloodiest and most destructive stage. The causes of the war, whether analyzed according to Marxist, patriotic, or more inclusive theories, had already been the causes of a revolution in the arts, long before cracks appeared in the surface world . . . to the sheltered children of these “good” families, as part of a pre-ordained scheme of the universe.
[. . . .]
Their response to the war and to France was probably heightened by the fact that these young intellectuals went to war conscious of their own ripeness for rebellion. These clever adolescents had by no means invented themselves. Already at hand was the whole machinery of modernism, so complete that, even for their exceptionally inventive work, they would never really have to retool. The new painting and the new music were no longer new. And every old literary convention had been mined, if not already blown sky-high.
Even the jazz age, which seems to be so tidily explained as a reaction to the war experience . . ., began before the war.
Then they had come through the war, with suffering that was real and disillusionment that was real, but neither of the most damaging kind, and none of it unselfconscious. Cowley has pointed out that what these writers called “disillusionment” was really a rebellion which “implies faith in one’s ability to do things better than those in power,” a quite different feeling from the disillusionment of the Fifties. Full of what now seems like optimism, and a characteristic product of the time called “pep,” they came home to protest against a world of hypocrisy and brutality. They set themselves up as a new kind of coroner’s jury, to declare the past dead and thus to kill it.
[. . . .]
Why is it not possible, at least in theory, to produce excellence by the conventions of the past? Perhaps it is that the writer is then paying tribute to literature, not to life, admitting an inability to be moved to creation without the aid of a printed go-between, and that initial dependence mars the performance in some mysterious but deadly fashion. . . . [T]hese same lyric emotions, having come . . . unsolicited on Eight Street, neither need nor could be cast from an antique mold.
If lyric impulses are found alive in the modern world, though naked, toothless, and illegitimate, it must be possible to render them by a new validity in modern forms.
[. . . .]
[I]f you are speaking, as William Carlos Williams suggested in the Harvard Wake issue, “a Christian language—addressing the private conscience of each of us in turn,” you do not try to be “readable,” because then you can say only those things which are already so well known they will be dead upon arrival. If you want to say something new or forgotten, you must demand attention.
[. . . .]
Kenneth Burke says, “An art may be of value purely through preventing society from becoming too hopelessly, too assertively, itself.”
[. . . .]
The more rigid the external order, the more complex and deep a resistance style must convey.
The most extreme form of such resistance will seem at first glance to have been Dada. This movement which desired not to make sense did make sense in one sense: it pointed to the meaninglessness of the meaningless. And Dada sanctions play, absurdity, and exuberant free association for their own sake. . . . One way to mock the meaningless is to be still more meaningless. Once done that is done.
[. . . .]
The individual must not demand for himself what seems like a manageable or systematic world. He must take his chances on the broad directions of flow, willing to endure the confusion of myriads of idiosyncratic beings and events, which are absolutely necessary if we are not to press toward conformity and sameness. “You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming.”
[. . . .]
If, that is, the criteria given us by Tate and Brooks are important ones, we must admit that Cummings has some of the attributes of greatness which best balance each other in the formation of a major talent. If he nevertheless falls short of that kind of achievement, it may mean that this time and this place do not permit it. Perhaps all such large accomplishments have sprung from a ripe society and a literary tradition matured in long and careful use. On this question, it may be wise to take refuge in Cummings’s formula for continuity with the unknown:
“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question”
Isn’t that lovely in its way? I’m glad to have stumbled back upon it.
A few things that crossed my mind while reading through the collection as a whole.
Wallace Stevens is almost completely absent from the conversation of the 20s generation, as is Robert Frost.
In making the case for Cummings, which is the goal of the collection, Cummings doesn’t come off all that well, in total, but is seen as an energetic humanistic force against the distance of Eliot and Pound, who are continually brought up as the poets with whom everyone has to deal. But they seem to be little more than an idea by this point. As well, the poet who seems to get the most air time is William Carlos Williams. He's all over the thinking of the time, it seems. There's a mention or two of other poets (Hart Crane, Marianne Moore).
At mid-century they were still very interested in who was the major poet of the age, and the Pound assertion of Make It New is still hard at work. They're starting to see cracks in Tate and Brooks, though.
The collection itself was published in 1972, which doesn’t feel all that long ago. And several of the questions raised in it about Cummings and the other poets of his generation seem to still be in the air now regarding poets of more recent generations. The sense of belatedness. The question of how to revolt against a strict order without folding into meaninglessness (“Once done that is done.” Indeed.). The problems of complexity and simplicity. The question of if our time allows for greatness or not. How no movement or spirit of the times ever seems to have an agreed upon point of origin. And the call of the past: how we are not new, but instead, how we’re always at the end of the old. The continual feeling each generation seems to have of the innocent past and the disillusions of the present . . . How every time we say the past is gone we seem to sentence ourselves to repeat it.