Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The 20s Generation at the End of the 60s

Far and wee.

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.

Such were the joys.


At 12/14/2011 7:33 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, I want to ask -- did the collection you mentioned today make you want to read cummings again? What you wrote kind of did make me curious again, if only to understand how we ended up with the
influence of Williams instead.

In my case it was obvious -- high school teachers praised cummings,
the literary magazine advisor chuckled and said no no try Williams, Creeley and Olson, and then in college, Kenneth acknowledged that there were pleasures in both cummings and the Black Mountain gang, but that the most consistent and intense performance was WCW, 1917-1930 or so. But that was my case, far from universal, and I don't know of any prose exposition of WCW's qualities that overlaps much with Kenneth's view.

At 12/14/2011 7:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I picked up that collection on cummings after talking with a friend about “canonical” figures who have flaws in their writing, and those who, we felt in the end, did or didn’t overcome those flaws.

The first person I thought of was cummings, which then made me wonder why he was the first one I thought of. And so I picked up the only volume on him that wasn't packed up in a box already (we’re moving across town this month).

I did get curious in looking at his work again, but the only volume I have (again, not in a box) is the 100 Selected Poems.
My history with cummings’s poetry was similar to yours. He was one of my first great poetry loves when I was in high school. When I got to college, I was told to cut that out (and then directed to Robert Lowell!). But, you know, the heart never forgets.

Cummings is something of a mess, looking back at the work. But he wrote some really wonderful poems. Some simply glorious poems. I think my 2012 resolution is going to be to try to bring him back.

At 12/14/2011 8:11 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12/14/2011 8:12 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Cummings has always been one of those "safe" "experimental writers" to me. Underneath his ornament are poems that bend to what the past had demanded of poems. I don't mean to denigrate his work, because some of it really is charming.

However, when talking about concrete poetry, or typography, Apollinaire provides more than I could ever want.

I read WCWs Spring and All for the first time last Sunday. He's a figure I'm only vaguely familiar with from anthologies. It's quite clear why his work, at least this volume, has had such reverberation throughout the 20th century.

At 12/14/2011 8:14 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

That's true about Apollinaire -- and with GA I get the feeling he would have been agreeable to know. Whereas cummings... easy to picture him leaning out the window at Patchin Place and calling, "Djuna, are you dead yet?"

At 12/14/2011 8:19 AM, Blogger David said...

The more rigid the external order, the more complex and deep a resistance style must convey.

Could we say that Stevens conveyed such a resistance style? Can there be a more "rigid and external order" than reality itself?

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind ...

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

- "The Idea of Order at Key West"

At 12/14/2011 8:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

He was the safe one, I suppose, though I think of his problems more along the lines of his easy categories of LOVE=GOOD / GOVERNMENTS=BAD and his occasionally nearly toxic sentimentality and anti-intellectualism. He was so dismissed by the critics, and continues to be, that as safe as he might be seen to be, he’s been nearly effaced from the conversation of that generation (though not from the anthologies). Some of his short, anecdotal lyrics that I’m rereading this week are quite beautiful.

I think, at least in my mind, it’s Stevens who ended up getting written over the top of cummings more than WCW did, though that’s more a feeling than a thought-out argument.

But certainly in the 60s/70s, it was all WCW. It seems that then everyone from Lowell to Oppen to Levertov was looking to him.

At 12/14/2011 6:13 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Cummings is remembered not only for his original and innovative poetry but also because he, like Jeffers, was prescient. As evidenced below, he was clearly aware of contemporary events in Politics and Science. Also keep in mind that he was writing this poetry before most of us were even born. He died in 1962. He was writing at a time when there were only two…not seven…billion people on earth and long before OCW, but he had a keen insight into the world and where it was headed.

when serpents bargain

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage -
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age

when every thrush may sing no new moon in
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice
- and any wave signs on the dotted line
or else an ocean is compelled to close

when the oak begs permission of the birch
to make an acorn - valleys accuse their
mountains of having altitude - and march
denounces april as a saboteur

then we'll believe in that incredible
unanimal mankind (and not until)

E.E. Cummings

Space being (don't forget to remember) Curved
(and that reminds me who said o yes Frost

Something there is which isn't fond of walls)

an electromagnetic (now Ive lost
the) Einstein expanded Newton's law preserved
conTinuum (but we read that beFore)

of Course life being just a Reflex you
know since Everything is Relative or

to sum it All Up god being Dead (not to

mention inTerred

LONG LIVE that Upwardlooking
Serene Illustrious and Beatific
Lord of Creation, MAN:
at a least crooking
of Whose compassionate digit, earth's most terrific

quadruped swoons into billiardBalls!

E.E. Cummings

At 12/14/2011 7:08 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I said "OCW". I think I meant 'OWS'.

I get Occupy Wall Street and the Wobblies all mixed up.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

At 12/15/2011 1:55 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Wallace Stevens sounds like parody to me.

At 12/15/2011 7:37 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Two things.

1. A parody of what?

2. You've stated before that you admire Stevens's work. Is this not, or not longer, the case?

At 12/16/2011 12:17 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


If Stevens were consciously parodying something it would be easier to answer that question: a parody of what? Stevens feels like a very educated person writing nonsense poetry, but at the same time secretly determined to write Keats' "Grecian Urn" because once in an inspired moment as a teenager announced to himself, "I can do that!" So it isn't parody, exactly, but to my ears, especially after reading a lot of Stevens in one stretch, that's what it sounds like. I have a hunch the substance of Stevens is far less than what his admirers intimate what is there. I don't recall ever having made a great show of admiration for him; certainly, he's skilled to a certain degree.

At 12/16/2011 12:25 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I thought you liked him, because you listed one of his poems as one of the "Best Poems of the 20th Century":

At 12/16/2011 4:05 PM, Blogger David said...

These discussions have taught me to go with what I like and to hell with what anyone else thinks.

At 12/16/2011 6:37 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That's the healthiest and the sanest way to go.

At 12/16/2011 9:59 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

So what do you think of Cummings. David?

At 12/16/2011 10:39 PM, Blogger David said...


It's been decades since I've read cummings. I used to own a copy of the Complete Poems and wish that I still had it. I remember liking the poems from Tulips and Chimneys. I just finished reading "Spring is like a perhaps hand" -- mesmerizing.

At 12/17/2011 8:33 AM, Blogger David said...

Does anyone here think that Mark Doty is an overrated poet? Just curious. Would be interested to hear points of view.

At 12/17/2011 9:59 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Thanks for mentioning that list, John, which is certainly not definitive. Stevens is good in small doses. I think he's a very minor figure, though, despite the opinion of Ms. Vendler---who quotes Stevens in her review of Dove, to ill effect.

At 12/23/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Here's a book on Stevens I found wonderfully helpful at one time: Ronald Sukenick's Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure. It contains explications of many Stevens poems which might seem to be beautiful nonsense. It demonstrates how Stevens's oeuvre revolves around a central preoccupation: the relationship between a continually in-flux noumenon ("the thing itself") and the static mental projections we impose on it ("ideas about the thing").

At 12/24/2011 11:03 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


So Stevens has a kind of philosophy that stands Plato on its head, in a way. There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with writing endless poems on this, but it goes without saying that such a project will never turn one into a major poet, even if the one idea of Stevens does have merit. We'd still want to ask, 'why not put philosophy into philosophy? if it's that important, really, why stick it in rather obscure lyric poetry?' Just sayin'

At 12/24/2011 11:42 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"Count ideas incidental in a poem." Roethke. Having a lot of ideas or great ideas doesn't make a poet great; what matters is how he expresses them. Stevens is great not for his paraphrasable content, but for his form.

At 12/29/2011 8:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Musing the Obscure was of great value to me in talking about Stevens. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one.

At 12/30/2011 8:19 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

So am I, John. I'd like to get my grapnels on a copy of that again. I used to check an old copy out of my hometown library, feeling like a solitary loon. But I soon learned that many ostensibly normal people are covertly doing weird things.

word verification: ought


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