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Introduction. Tailor-Made Traditions? “Pound-H.D.-Williams” and a Century’s Worth of US Experimental Verse

Clément Oudart
p. 5-21

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  • 1 Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (1997), 1 (italics mine).

Thought draws the imaginary of the past: a knowledge becoming.1

  • 2 Gaudier was doubtlessly inspired by the stone statue Hoa-Haka-Nana-Ia, the great totemic Easter Isl (...)

1This Anglophonia/Caliban special issue focusing on U.S. modernist and contemporary experimental poetry revolves around an unnamed fulcrum. The barely visible node making up the paradoxical crossing point and blind spot of this collection of essays is the silently yet endlessly whirling vortex of Ezra Pound. In modernism’s image, he is “what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing”, to take up Pound’s own definition of the image in his “Vorticism” essay of 1914, reproduced in his heartfelt tribute to French genius draftsman, sculptor and fellow Vorticist Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (Pound 1970, 92). Incidentally, 1914 is also the year Gaudier sculpted his Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (see cover), commissioned by the poet and directly carved in a large marble block bought by Pound a year before the sculptor’s tragic death in the trenches. If Pound is nowhere to be seen in the essay titles, his fingerprints, or rather his cat-like “footsteps” left “upon the snow” of a long poetic history (89), however, are all over the pages of this volume gathering studies of twentieth and “twenty-first-century modernism” (Perloff 2002). The energy-fraught, proto-geometrical sculpture also reflects the Paris art scene and the London-based modernists’ fascination for Bergson’s élan vital, primitivism and “the tradition of the barbaric peoples of the earth (for whom we have sympathy and admiration)”, as Gaudier puts it in a letter to the founder of The Egoist, Dora Marsden, in March 1914 (Pound 1970, 37).2 The time-induced fissures in this sharp-edged, “virile” marble bust (in keeping with Pound’s only instruction) also obliquely foreshadow the later crumbling of a split mind, as recorded in the fragmentary, unfinished Cantos and in the increasingly erratic, anti-Semitic and totalitarian discourse of a poet whose revolutionary poetic endeavors would nonetheless set an awe-inspiring example for generations to come.

If Pound is really, as Olson intelligently put it, the “Tragic Double of our day” and “the demonstration of our duality”, it is not primarily because he enacts the division between “reactionary politics”, “as retrogressive as a Czar”, and a revolutionary language. The division is constitutive of his language and his politics, and it appears idle now to minimise the potential rifts and inconsistencies in both; in this creative fissiparity, his writings tend to disrupt the monologist features of our dominant metaphysical discourse while attempting to regain the lost paradise of an utterance that would be able to tell the full truth. In this movement, Pound presents a mirror to our division, a duplication of our duplication, a division of our division, symptomatically living through the tragedy of writing as duplication and division and founding his poetics on it. (Rabaté 1986, 28)

  • 3 Robert Creeley “Notes on Ezra Pound (1965), The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley (1989), 25. Cree (...)
  • 4 Duncan, letter to Charles Olson (unsent), 1949, Robert Duncan Archive, The Poetry Collection, Unive (...)

2The foundational rift upon which the Poundian tradition is in turn predicated manifests itself through the composite following of figures as diverse as Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and countless others. In “Beyond The Cantos: Ezra Pound, and Recent American Poetry”, Peter Nicholls delineates this contradiction in enlightening terms: “My own sense of the impact of The Cantos on subsequent writing is rather that the poem has acted very much as a kind of force-field or matrix, presenting a textual world which other poets have inhabited in their own different ways” (139). For Creeley, “the fact of Ezra Pound and his work is inescapable, no matter what the particular reaction may be”,3 while Duncan asserts in a letter he never mailed to Olson: “It may be the authority of the Cantos that compels some but it’s the imagination of the Cantos that persuades me—and so I am at best a heretic Poundite.”4 Thus the Poundian tradition starting to take shape seems to harbor “the defects inherent in a record of struggle”, in the poet’s own praiseful terms from Guide to Kulchur (135).

“It was then, 1913” (William Carlos Williams)

  • 5 Curator of The University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection Michael Basinski has recently summed up th (...)

3Ever since its inception amidst the thriving of short-lived yet forceful avant-garde movements in the art(s) world of London and Paris (with the succeeding aesthetic outbursts of Cubism, Futurism, Imagism and Vorticism, among others, between 1907 and 1914 alone), the modernist wave would soon spread to and across the U.S. In January 1913, Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry Magazine, which had just been founded (and is still running), launched the Imagist movement thanks to its foreign editor, Ezra Pound, by publishing H.D. and a few other Imagists’ condensed poems. In February and March of that same year, the revolutionary surge would flood Manhattan’s multifarious artistic scene through the impact of the controversial 1913 “Armory Show”, which would overflow the circles of Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Conrad Arensberg or Marcel Duchamp and forever transform the American landscape of Williams Carlos Williams’ neighboring New Jersey. In his Autobiography, Williams famously recollects his visit to the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the first Armory Show. Upon encountering Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Williams quips, “I laughed out loud when I first saw it, happily, with relief” (134). He proceeds with the following comment, somewhat stressing the key role of transatlantic airmail in the rise of modernism: “It was then, 1913, that Ezra, in London, got my small book.” It was The Tempers (1913), his second collection, published with Pound’s help in London by a mutual acquaintance from the University of Pennsylvania. What Williams rightly perceived as a watershed in American art history had nonetheless been received with scornful abuse and condescending puns by the cultural establishment on both sides of the pond. This ranged from “Parisian wits” dubbing Stravinsky’s pagan masterpiece “Le Massacre du printemps” to Duchamp’s “futuro-cubist” painting singled out as “an explosion in a shingle factory” (Rabaté 2007, 23, 42, 40). In addition, Duchamp’s Nude was reportedly renamed “A Staircase Descending a Nude”, “The Rude Descending a Staircase”, etc., which thus quickly became the butt of countless jokes and the source of urban legend. Going down memory lane some thirty-five years later in the “Painters and Parties” chapter from his Autobiography (1951), Williams himself admittedly seems to confuse the first and the second Armory Show (1917), the year the now self-dubbed R. Mutt’s Fountain was all the rage and where “both Mina Loy and I appeared” for readings at art events. “That afternoon”, writes Williams, “I read two poems, ‘Overture to a Dance of Locomotives’ and ‘Portrait of a Woman in Bed’. As I started to read this latter a tall, well-dressed woman got up, turned her back on me and walked out” (Williams 1967, 136). In a nutshell, to paraphrase poet and curator Michael Basinski’s recent tongue-in-cheek statement: “this [was[ not your grandmother’s poetry [reading[”.5

4Instead, this was the true birthplace or “cradle” of American poetic modernism: a pattern emerging on the Utopian ground of American letters, a triangular relation or relational triangle between Pound, H.D. and Williams. From the grounds of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1900s to an international web of correspondences, influences, rivalries, antagonisms, criticisms and more or less distant relations in the subsequent decades, this oddly (in)consistent nexus of American poetic figures nevertheless shaped much of the poetry of the next 100 years.

1913-2013: A Century’s Worth of Writing

  • 6 Guy Davenport, “Kelly in Time” (1974), qtd in Furlani “Postmodern and After: Guy Davenport”, Contem (...)

Tribe of Ezra, sons of Olson, shaggy nephews of Doc Williams
they have been like the Mongol hordes camping in the ruins.

  • 7 Among the initial key studies of poetry in the so-called Pound tradition, see Charles Altieri, Enla (...)

5Their tradition is the “Pound-H.D.-Williams” tradition of modernist verse, the threefold configuration expanding the single-minded formation of a solely Poundian tradition.7 Fraught with tensions and inadequacies, this gathering of label-sounding (and in some ways mutually-exclusive) names largely adumbrates the gender-based and little-magazine-oriented canon revisionism of the 1980s and after. The notion of “revisionism” (which might sound odd to French ears) is widely used in the critical field analyzing canon formation. An index of this rising trend, Marjorie Perloff’s chief goal in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (1990) was self-confessedly to offer “a revisionist history of twentieth-century poetics” (2). Further, in his path-breaking study entitled From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (1995), Alan Golding outlines in the following terms his concern for the (unseen) workings of literary history and for the forces (silently) shaping the postwar poetic canon, notably anthologies and little magazines: “The impulses I have described in this chapter—preservation, nationalism and historicizing, the belief in transhistorical excellence, revisionism as a reaction to an established canon—chart accurately how the American poetry canon developed” (29). Golding identifies various kinds of anthologies accounting for and acknowledging developments in postwar experimental poetry:

Two main kinds of anthology have emerged both as part of and in response to the developing pluralism of recent decades. One is the teaching anthology […[. The other continues the tradition of the revisionist anthology designed to increase awareness of particular noncanonical poetry. In it tone this anthology may recall the polemics of The New American Poetry or Pound’s Des Imagistes. (30)

  • 8 Cf. Charles Bernstein, The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990). On the conflic (...)

6These two examples provide two milestones in the century’s worth of poetry under our scrutiny, as the latter was published in London in 1914 and the former in New York by Grove Press in 1960. Each of these anthologies had a resounding impact on the poetic scenes where they emerged, and far beyond. They served the double purpose of taking stock of achievements, and in the process performed a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy as the major figures promoted in their pages largely shaped and influenced the ensuing half-century. This sums up the double bind in which anthologists, who are often poets and/or hold academic positions, find themselves. It is also the critic’s conundrum when attempting to disentangle the enmeshed poetic threads of noein, poein and krinein and thereby make out the genuine forays into poetics as such, consequently distinct from the socius and the polis of the poem. More generally, the focus ought to remain on the poetic shreds surviving poetry or anthology wars and the more euphemistic “politics of poetic forms”.8 Californian poet Robert Duncan wrote the following letter to Donald Allen, who was then starting research on his project as editor of the seminal anthology of 1945-1960 poetry, The New American Poetry. Duncan explains why he is resigning from San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center, where he taught a seminar and curated a reading series:

  • 9 Robert Duncan, lettre à Donald Allen, 23 avril 1957, Donald Allen papers, UCSD, MSS 3 bx 63 (my emp (...)

The enclosed will explain in part why I am not participating in the record Kenneth Rexroth is doing for Evergreen. But there is a larger consideration. I find I lose “tone”—well, all or a great deal of the charm that poetry gives to living, the writing of poetry and hearing friends read poems: the intensity remains but the charm goes—in the context of the promotion and exploitation that follows after. From my own point of view, all my sallies out into the fields of reputation as a poet, being printed, reading in public; all the very present world in which poetry is a commodity or a qualification for status sickens me in myself. It’s just not for me. Poetry is not my stock in trade, it is my life. […[ Hence my resigning from the Poetry Center—it ruins poetry for me.9

  • 10 Cf. Albert Gelpi, A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance 1910-1950 (1987).
  • 11 Cf. Clément Oudart, Les Métamorphoses du modernisme, de H.D. à Robert Duncan (2010) and André Furla (...)

7Significantly, then, the “[in[coherent splendor”10 of the Pound-H.D.-Williams cluster was first powerfully laid out by post-World War II “New American” poet Robert Duncan in the chapters of what would eventually become The H.D. Book. A groundbreaking work of serial (auto)biographical, experimental/experiential, underground/occult, literary/cultural criticism, this proto-revisionist (meta)modernist project started in the 1960s and published in literary journals caught the eye of the scant readership of a few barely accessible avant-garde magazines and was ultimately left uncompleted in notebooks.11 This (re)reading of early and high modernism was in itself fatefully kept out of sight by the endless deferral of its publication in book form by a major publisher (its underground status thereby arousing interest, allowing for myth-making and spurring the circulation of a pirate online edition), until University of California Press finally succeeded in this publishing endeavor (2011).

  • 12 Cf. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain (eds.), The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural P (...)
  • 13 Pound wrote in “Date Line” in 1912, published in his Make It New essay collection of 1935: “It is i (...)

8In the wake of Duncan’s scattered journal publications in the sixties and seventies, however, such a view of the foundational “modernist nexus” (to paraphrase Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain12) gained momentum and became somewhat institutionalized by the critical journal Sagetrieb’s self-declared line of enquiry. Indeed, launched by the National Poetry Foundation­­, which began in 1972 as a publisher of scholarly work on Ezra Pound and the emerging “Pound tradition” with the first issue of Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship, Sagetrieb can be seen as a touchstone of canon formation and tailor-made tradition. Like Paideuma (Pound’s idiosyncratic term for culture, borrowed from anthropologist Leo Frobenius’s vocabulary), the journal’s name was lifted directly from Pound’s Cantos, where it refers to the “drive” of telling the “tale of the tribe”, in other words the need for the (oral) transmission of tradition13. It is worth noting that, like Paideuma, which eventually broadened its focus and changed its subtitle to Studies in American and British Modernism, Sagetrieb’s self-imposed field of study has also evolved over time, as reveal its original subtitle (A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Pound-Williams Tradition) and its subsequent versions (A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Pound‑H.D.‑Williams Tradition; A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Imagist/Objectivist Tradition; and more recently Poetry and Poetics After Modernism). What is most striking is that the gradual opening of the Poundian tradition ends up subsuming modernism altogether, thus ultimately equating the Pound tradition and Modernism. Still, the shift from Sagetrieb’s editorial projection of an American-style triumvirate (“Pound-H.D.-Williams”) to the “Imagist-Objectivist Tradition” is revealing of an effort to account for the sheer pluralism encapsulated under the modernist umbrella, with the new labels each implicitly comprising a bicephalous or multiple leadership (Pound-H.D./Williams-Zukofsky). The more recent “After Modernism” denomination mirrors the shattering of the logic of embodiment and cult figures previously governing the writing of literary history, with the addition of Gertrude Stein and myriad essential counterweights to the originally recognized modernist heavyweights.

9As Michael André Bernstein ingeniously pointed out in the 1985 Robert Duncan special issue of Sagetrieb (where else?), the nature of this key journal’s shift in focus (initially with the single addition of H.D., first female entering the Poundian Pantheon) is noteworthy, for it entailed a substantial redefinition of the modernist tradition itself:

  • 14 Michael A. Bernstein, “Robert Duncan: Talent and the Individual Tradition”, Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (1985), (...)

Perhaps the strength of any literary movement is most apparent, not in the dutiful exempla of its acolytes, but in the articulations of its principal heresiarchs. Certainly in American writing today, there is no poet whose work more rightfully belongs within what this journal [Sagetrieb[ has called the “Pound-H.D.-Williams Tradition” than Robert Duncan. Indeed, if one takes seriously all three of the figures thus designated as fundamental, as, in a sense, constituting a certain canon, central to what we still call poetic “modernism”, it is difficult to think of any major poet except Duncan who has located his writing as so deliberate a continuation of the same enterprise. And yet there is also no poet whose work more seriously challenges the premises and boundaries of that very tradition, whose writing has been more responsive to all the impulses modernism sought either to repress entirely or to relegate to the margins of serious writing. Part of this dilemma is, perhaps, purely local in nature, since the very existence of a distinctive “Pound-H.D.-Williams tradition” remains, after all, a largely untested hypothesis. Sagetrieb, the publication which now proposes itself as “A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Pound-H.D.-Williams Tradition”, may well be not only the originator, but also the sole proponent, of this particular configuration of authorities. Revealingly enough, however, H.D. was included on the title page only in the third issue, and this decision was not accompanied by any serious reflection upon what changes the pressure of her work might exert upon the enlarged definition of the tradition in question.14

10The journal’s sudden broadening critical scope seems to expand in true imperial fashion, as though H.D. were some kind of overseas territory added on to complete the (gendered) mapping of the full U.S. modernist continent. H.D.’s position in Sagetrieb and indeed the history of patriarchal Anglo-American modernism (comprising T.S. Eliot, Lawrence, Joyce, Lewis, Hulme, etc.) would accurately fit the image of a remote island, a speck of land in a U.S.-owned archipelago somewhere off a European shore, in Cornwall’s Scilly Isles or in Greece’s Ionian Sea. Of the three most essential proponents of modernism, judging by Sagetrieb’s onetime yardstick, nonetheless, H.D. remains by far the least recognized and studied author.

From H.D. to Michael Heller: the “Imagist-Objectivist Tradition” Revisited

11This poetry special issue of Anglophonia/Caliban, therefore, aims at picking up Michael Bernstein’s implicit challenge and at following up on his invitation to reflect “upon what changes the pressure of [H.D.’s[ work might exert upon the enlarged definition of the tradition in question” (op. cit.). The three articles purely devoted to H.D.’s work (Augustine, Cazé, Robinson), along with another two tackling her poetics in relation with other key writers like Djuna Barnes and Laura Riding Jackson (Conilleau) or Rae Armantrout (Carbajosa), testify to the shift in emphasis. Of course, initially spearheaded by such path-breaking critics as Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, H.D. studies have been gaining critical impetus for around three decades. But there has indeed been a sustained spate of critical editions, translations and book-length studies in the past few years (Cazé), a phenomenon that bears witness to the advent of an international H.D. critical “industry”.

12The papers gathered in this volume seek to explore the ways in which experimental poets fashion the poetic tradition in which they (wish to) inscribe themselves, through the complex intermingling of their critical and theoretical readings and writings, their works of poetry and prose, as well as their epistolary and social relationships.

13By exploring the multifaceted “translation paradigm” in H.D.’s works, Antoine Cazé makes a strong case for the practice of translation as an essential strategy in canon building and tradition self-fashioning. Starting from H.D.’s unfortunately underrated status and relative invisibility within the French world of letters, Cazé shows how her very subversiveness is all but lost in the spatial and linguistic process of translation. H.D.’s transgressive poetics dwells in the “unique combination” of “her Hellenism, her occultism, [and[ her lesbianism”. Her gender-neutral initials provide a persona “in which the bilingual becomes a textual incarnation of the bisexual”. In this view, the relation between “H.D.’s (reinvented) Sapphics” and “her spiritualism” is best exemplified in her Notes on Thought and Vision (followed by The Wise Sappho), a fairly marginal and appositely “liminal” theoretical text, which, interestingly, also receives critical attention from Jane Augustine in her study of “H.D.’s Poetics of Magic and Psychoanalysis in World War Two”. Augustine stresses the significance of Pound’s influence, and the seeming contradiction between his fascination for “the troubadour lyric” (namely depicted in his early The Spirit of Romance) and the spirit of “innovation” conveyed in his call to “make it new”. A poet and editor key H.D. texts, Augustine emphasizes that H.D. “was possessed both by the personal erotic desire for sexual fulfillment and by the supra-personal spiritual desire for transcendence”, as made manifest by works such as Hymen, Heliodora and Trilogy. Matte Robinson also focuses on H.D.’s post-imagist (prose and poetic) writings, where he identifies French occultist Robert Ambelain’s strong intertextual and spiritual presence. The thrust of Robinson’s article is that H.D. not only shared with Yeats and Pound a thirst for spiritual matters, but was unique in her ability to “radically [rewrite[ the received occult tradition”.

14In her comparative study of Djuna Barnes, Laura (Riding) Jackson and H.D., Claire Conilleau explores the complex ties between these authors and spirituality. Despite their common rejection of establishments and institutions, their poetic language is imbued with biblical intra- and intertexts that are used in their crafting a poetics of self-revelation and self-(pro)creation. Conilleau shows that the three women writers evolve a poetics able to “refract the religious”—absorbing and slanting the value of the spiritual and textual sources—in order “to question the origins of the poem and their poetic originality”. Tackling both H.D. and Rae Armantrout as “Extremes of the Avant-Garde”, Natalia Carbajosa is also concerned with female canon revisionism. Despite the historical leap and the controversial shift from modernist to postmodernist aesthetics, Carbajosa shows that for these writers “avant-gardism is not simply an aesthetic response to the artistic impulses and demands available in their time, but a conscious search for the poetic language that can address the fundamental quests of life without sounding worn-out or deceitful”.

15Zachary Finch’s article provides a high point of self-reflexiveness for this journal as his enquiry into Williams’ experimental prose writings outlines what he subtly calls “Caliban’s Gait” and the “Caliban-esque”. His study stands squarely at the juncture of experimental poetry and prose, a difference transcended by the concept of writing practice (borrowed from Michel de Certeau’s “tactics of practice”). It takes as its starting point the year 1923, the year D.H. Lawrence’s seminal Studies in Classic American Literature were published “on the cusp of a rising wave of critical interest about the United States and its foundational literary traditions”, and also the year Williams’ Spring and All and The Great American Novel were published in Dijon on the same small press as James Joyce’s Ulysses a year before. Finch forcefully argues that “Williams’ still under-examined Great American Novel waged an attack on the very principle of discursive mastery”, substituting for it “the difficulty of work, a poetics of effort”. Venturing into the Objectivist tradition, Xavier Kalck’s article seeks to disentangle the threads of mysticism and formalism in his meticulous reading of Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff in relation with Jewish culture and Judaism. In his study of “second-wave American modernists”, Kalck posits that “re-reading the objectivists may turn out to be a crucial step in debunking the underlying mysticism in formalist critical readings of 20th century American poetry”. Reznikoff is also discussed in François Hugonnier’s study of “mystical aspiration and negativity” in Paul Auster’s poetic texts. In keeping with his acute awareness of using language after Babel, Auster’s concern for nothingness, blank pages and silence produces what Hugonnier depicts as a poetics of “unsaying” foregrounding the inherent paradox in language: its power to create and its profound inadequacy, an essential duality summed up in “death” and “breath”. Auster’s drive to “speak the unspeakable” intersects “Edmond Jabès and Paul Celan’s struggle with language”.

16In “Thick As Trees: Kinship and Place in Transatlantic Small Press Poetry Networks”, Ross Hair explores the crucial function fulfilled by literary magazines and independent publishers in the postwar wave of international modernism. Starting from Jerome Rothenberg’s definition of an avant-garde little magazine as “a vortex: a place of cultural intersections and fusions”, Hair examines “the role that small press poetry publishing plays in the work of several poets and/or publishers situated outside of the major urban centres: Lorine Niedecker, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Roy Fisher, and Stuart Mills”. The relational locus for this scattered tradition of experimental writing was provided by Jonathan Williams’ crucial Jargon Society. Will Montgomery focuses on Robert Creeley’s minimalist aesthetic, which bears the imprint of Williams’ densest lyrics, and is usually associated with the confines of the domestic sphere. Yet Montgomery seeks to debunk “the corollary that his work is ultimately of less substance than such long-form public-discourse monuments of American poetic modernism as Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, Olson’s Maximus, or Zukofsky’s ‘A’.” Indeed, the tailor-made poetic canon emerging from his critical writing repeatedly features the “Pound-Williams-Zukofsky” modernist cluster. Yet “Creeley’s renovation of Poundian poetics cuts across private and public in a language that is characterised by refusal, negation and hesitancy”, the “effects of spatial contraction”, and, in the end, “a refusal of communicative plenitude” that is reminiscent of Zachary Finch’s analysis of Williams’ prose.

17The last three chapters are focused on the ongoing investigation and renewed questioning of the modernist tradition and its vicissitudes in the contemporary experimental movements. Hélène Aji’s “If You Know What They Mean,/Things Make Sense” (Bob Perelman): Language Poetry v. Conceptualisms” tackles the latest example of generational agon in innovative writing. In a similar way to the tension-ridden transition (and partial overlap) between the Language Poets and their predecessors, the “Black Mountain” and more generally the “New American” poets, the question of modernist legacy, “as both [the Language poets and the Conceptual poets[ claim a common tradition made of High Modernists such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams or Gertrude Stein, of Objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen or Charles Reznikoff, and of experimental Minimalists such as Jackson Mac Low, is also the source of strong antagonism”. As Aji points out, in this debate over lineage, identity and claims, we may wonder “how much is to be seen as the cosmetic rephrasing of similar issues in order to secure the advent of a ‘new’ poetics”: “To what extent would the younger poets’ effort, in the end, amount to tailoring the already very self-tailored tradition of the American poetic avant-garde?”

  • 15 The articles by Hélène Aji, Jane Augustine, Antoine Cazé, Ross Hair, Michael Heller, Will Montgomer (...)

18Like a number of the articles assembled here15, Michael Heller’s “Now-Time Poetics: Under the Sign of Benjamin” was presented at the “Tailor-Made Traditions: The Poetics of U.S. Experimental Verse” international conference held at the University of Toulouse in January 2013. Michael Heller’s presence as a keynote speaker and invited poet provided an opportunity for him to retrace his steps in the modernist, primarily Objectivist, tradition, by way of a critical study excerpted from a longer essay on Walter Benjamin’s thought as laying the groundwork for contemporary poetics, along with an in-depth analysis of his own poetic works laid out in an interview with Fiona McMahon. In “Now-Time Poetics”, Heller forcefully claims that “[i[f errancy can be a ground, then this is Benjamin’s”. As a modern poet, Heller thinks “one is no longer able to tell the tale of the tribe but rather must instead relate the tale of the tribe’s uncertainty.” Returning to Pound, Heller stresses that “the contemporary poet has lost his ‘Aquinas map’ (Pound’s term for the socio-religious and political ordering of culture to which a poet like Dante, for example, could continually refer).” Heller’s Benjamin creates “the condition or possibility of openness, the opposite of securing a position”. Part-Romantic wanderer, part-modern urban flâneur, Heller shows how “mak[ing[ a kind of home in homelessness”, his “ever dynamic refusals” (which now recall Creeley’s in Montgomery’s analysis), “his peculiar realism-idealism” led to process of thinking that fed on “an almost willed impracticability”. Fiona McMahon’s “A Conversation with Michael Heller: This Constellation is a Name” offers an opportunity for the exploration of the weave between tradition and experimentation in Michael Heller’s writing. For McMahon, Michael Heller’s recently published volume of collected poems, This Constellation is a Name (2012), exposes the poet as a figure constantly involved in the act of renaming, revisiting words, journeying among the signs of language that past and present writers have inscribed before him. Reading through such a substantial collection, the reader might eventually gain a sense of Michael Heller’s itinerary in and among words.

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Allen, Donald, ed., The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, New York: Grove Press, 1960.

Altieri, Charles, Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the Sixties, Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1979.

Basinski, Michael, “This is not your grandmother’s poetry collection”, UB Reporter interview:

Bernstein, Charles, ed., The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, New York: Roof Books, 1990.

Bernstein, Michael A., “Bringing It All Back Home: Derivations and Quotations in Robert Duncan and the Pound Tradition”, Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Pound-H.D.-Williams Tradition 1.2 (Fall 1982), 176-189.

-----, “Robert Duncan: Talent and the Individual Tradition”, Sagetrieb: A Journal Devoted to Poets in the Pound-H.D.-Williams Tradition 4.2-3 (Fall-Winter 1985), 177-190.

Creeley, Robert, The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Duncan, Robert, unpublished correspondence, Donald Allen Papers, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

-----, unpublished correspondence, Robert Duncan Archive, The Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

-----, The H.D Book, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Furlani, André, “Postmodern and After: Guy Davenport”, Contemporary Literature 43.4 (2002), 709-735.

Géfin, Laszlo, Ideogram: History of a Poetic Method, Austin: Texas UP, 1982

Gelpi, Albert, A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance 1910-1950, Cambridge & New York: Harvard UP, 1987.

Golding, Alan, From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry, Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1995.

Hatlen, Burton, “Carroll Terrell and the Great American Poetry Wars”, Explorations (1986), 3-15.

Nesme, Axel, “Canonical Agon in Post-World War II American Poetry Anthologies”, RFEA 110 (December 2006), 42-60.

Oudart, Clément, Les Métamorphoses du modernisme, de H.D. à Robert Duncan, Paris : Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010.

Perloff, Marjorie, The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

-----, Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1990.

-----, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Pound, Ezra, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir [1916], New York: New Directions, 1970.

-----, Guide to Kulchur [1935]. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel, Language, Sexuality and Ideology in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Albany, NY: SUNY-Albany, 1986.

-----, 1913: The Cradle of Modernism, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Nicholls, Peter, “Beyond The Cantos: Ezra Pound and Recent American Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, I. B. Nadel, ed., Cambridge: CUP, 1999, 139-160.

Williams, William Carlos, Autobiography [1951], New York: New Directions, 1967.

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1 Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (1997), 1 (italics mine).

2 Gaudier was doubtlessly inspired by the stone statue Hoa-Haka-Nana-Ia, the great totemic Easter Island figure that used to stand at the entrance to the British Museum.

3 Robert Creeley “Notes on Ezra Pound (1965), The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley (1989), 25. Creeley continues in these pragmatic terms: “[Pound] brought us to the context of how to write; how the line goes, how the word is, in its context, what has been done, in the practice of verse, and what now seems possible to do” (26).

4 Duncan, letter to Charles Olson (unsent), 1949, Robert Duncan Archive, The Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.

5 Curator of The University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection Michael Basinski has recently summed up the university’s rare archival holdings (ranging from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake notebooks to a comprehensive collection of avant-garde literary magazines) in an online interview published in “UB Reporter”: “This is not your grandmother’s poetry collection” []

6 Guy Davenport, “Kelly in Time” (1974), qtd in Furlani “Postmodern and After: Guy Davenport”, Contemporary Literature 43.4 (2002), 710.

7 Among the initial key studies of poetry in the so-called Pound tradition, see Charles Altieri, Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the Sixties (1979), Laszlo Géfin, Ideogram: History of a Poetic Method (1982), Marjorie Perloff, The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985). See also Michael A. Bernstein, “Bringing It All Back Home: Derivations and Quotations in Robert Duncan and the Pound Tradition”, Sagetrieb 1.2 (1982) and “Robert Duncan: Talent and the Individual Tradition”, Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (1985).

8 Cf. Charles Bernstein, The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990). On the conflicting traditions, see, “Pound: Whose Era?” (1982), Burton Hatlen, “Carroll and the Great American Poetry Wars” (1986), and Axel Nesme, “Canonical Agon in Post-World War II American Poetry Anthologies” (2006).

9 Robert Duncan, lettre à Donald Allen, 23 avril 1957, Donald Allen papers, UCSD, MSS 3 bx 63 (my emphasis).

10 Cf. Albert Gelpi, A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance 1910-1950 (1987).

11 Cf. Clément Oudart, Les Métamorphoses du modernisme, de H.D. à Robert Duncan (2010) and André Furlani, Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After (2007).

12 Cf. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain (eds.), The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999).

13 Pound wrote in “Date Line” in 1912, published in his Make It New essay collection of 1935: “It is impossible to deal with the whole question of education, “culture”, paideuma, in one volume of literary criticism.” (5)

14 Michael A. Bernstein, “Robert Duncan: Talent and the Individual Tradition”, Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (1985), 177-178 (my emphasis).

15 The articles by Hélène Aji, Jane Augustine, Antoine Cazé, Ross Hair, Michael Heller, Will Montgomery and Fiona McMahon’s interview of Michael Heller originated at the “Tailor-Made Traditions” conference. Those by Claire Conilleau, François Hugonnier and Xavier Kalck were papers delivered at the French Association of American Studies Annual Convention (AFEA 2013), in a panel on “Transcendence Without God: Poetry and Mystical Aspiration” (co-organized with Hélène Aji). I wish to thank Nathalie Cochoy for her invaluable help in organizing “Tailor-Made Traditions” at Université Toulouse II-Le Mirail, Sylvie Toux for her generous support and hosting of the Poetry Reading featuring Jane Augustine, David Herd and Michael Heller at Dickinson College in France on January 25, 2013, and Françoise Besson for her precious guidance in the editing process. Special thanks to Hélène and Fiona.

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Bibliographical reference

Clément Oudart, « Introduction. Tailor-Made Traditions? “Pound-H.D.-Williams” and a Century’s Worth of US Experimental Verse », Caliban, 35 | 2014, 5-21.

Electronic reference

Clément Oudart, « Introduction. Tailor-Made Traditions? “Pound-H.D.-Williams” and a Century’s Worth of US Experimental Verse », Caliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 13 December 2013, connection on 19 June 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/caliban.218

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About the author

Clément Oudart

Université Toulouse II-Le Mirail.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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