‘Terse as virulent hermaphrodites’: middlebrow representations of modernist poets in the 1920s.
A paper given at the conference on’The Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism’, at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, 15 September, 2011.
In P.G. Wodehouse’s 1925 story, ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’, the heroine is incapacitated after an accident, and the hero is expected to read to her:
James had to read to her — and poetry, at that ; and not the jolly, wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays, either — good, honest stuff about sin and gas works and decaying corpses — but the old-fashioned kind with rhymes in it, dealing almost exclusively with love.
Three years after the publication of ‛The Waste Land’, Wodehouse the popular author is assuming that his mass audience (in the Strand magazine in Britain, in the Saturday Evening Post in America) will get the joke, and realise that a new poetic style is flourishing in the post-war world, a style that is urban, grim, challenging, and ripe for mockery.
How did this general audience know about modernism? Sales figures of difficult modern texts were usually not high, and as I’ll show, their appearance in mainstream magazines could arouse resistance. The large general public mostly came across modernist ideas through the mediation of mainstream writers, through reviews, cultural commentary, and – most interestingly, I think – parodies. These were usually written from a hostile viewpoint – but often in a way that made the original sound interesting.
Sometimes parodies could be of individual authors, as in this spearing of Ezra Pound by J.B. Morton (later famous as ‛Beachcomber’, whose column of surreal humour appeared in the Daily Express):
Night drops tristfully
Over the nasturtia
In Manlius Silico’s garden.
The moon, wandering about
Fawns on th’adulterous stars.
Come, I will explain to you
The abstruse technicalities
Of the Greek and Roman systems
Quien Sabe? Those Spaniards
Were gay chaps –
A little impalpable, but, there!
I think they do this stuff much better
I think it’s time we fetched our bicycles
From the shed.
I’ll translate Propertius to you as we go.
During the Great War, J.B.Morton had enlisted as a private, later becoming an officer. In 1919 he had published a novel, The Barber of Putney, one of the best early attempts to encapsulate the ordinary soldier’s experience in fiction. One of the characters in that novel is a poet – O’Hanlon – an educated man fighting in the ranks, who tries hard to communicate with his fellow-soldiers, and to speak for them.
That poet is the opposite of the Ezra Pound presented in this poem. Morton has picked on the pretentiousness and self-admiration that are evident in Pound’s weaker poems, and presented the modernist as totally absorbed in his own concerns, which are a long way from those of the man in the street.
Is this just Philistine anti-intellectualism?
The British had probably always been suspicious of intellectuals, but in the twenties there seems a keener awareness of a new type of highbrow, whose nature is caught in this Punch cartoon.
In literature of the twenties, modern poetry is often presented as a crucial battleground between the intellectual elite and the average citizen. In Huntingtower (1922) John Buchan dramatises the clash between these in the meeting between Heritage the poet and Dickson McCunn, the retired grocer with a taste for traditional literature. McCunn is immensely puzzled by Heritage’s verse, of which Buchan gives some tantalising samples:
The moon’s pale leprosy sloughs the fields.
seems to hark back to nineties decadence, but there is also:
Sunflowers, tall Grenadiers, ogle the roses’ short-skirted ballet.
The painted gauze of the stars flutters in a fold of twilight crape
Those lines are presented as typical of the volume. Puzzling over it, Dickson McCunn discovers that:
The trick seemed to be to describe nature in metaphors mostly drawn from music-halls and haberdashers’ shops, and, when at a loss, to fall to cursing.
This disturbance of set ideas about the distinction between natural and unnatural seems to have been a frequent cause for concern among those upset by the new verse. Many years later, C.S.Lewis, the sophisticated literary scholar and intellectual, would put on his plain-man voice to comment on Eliot’s ‛Prufrock’:
I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening—any evening—would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
This poem grated on many readers, and correspondence about it dominated the magazine’s letters pages until February. “What guarantee have I that Miss Sitwell is not pulling my leg?” asked one reader. Another was more definite:
The defects of the neo-obscurantist poets may be attributed chiefly to conceit, laziness and the desire to pose.
Amabel Williams-Ellis, the magazine’s poetry editor, came to the poem’s defence, with a reading that made some sense of it. She also claimed that ‛Miss Sitwell never tries to pull anyone’s leg in a poem.’
Which is, of course, being economical with the truth. Edith Sitwell did not write spoofs, but the appeal of her poetry of the twenties is in its playfulness, its unexpected leaps, its teasing of the reader’s mind as he or she tries to make sense of it.
Hers was a distinctive and deliberately strange style which was easily guyed, because her typical stylistic features, also found in many other modernist poets, include abrupt shifts of tone, unexpected juxtapositions, and an eccentric vocabulary. In Victorian and Edwardian times these tricks of style had rarely been found in the mainstream of serious poems, but were very often found in comic verse – think Lear, or Gilbert, or Carroll. The modernists were parodists too – I read somewhere that there were pastiches or parodies of thirty-seven other poets in The Waste Land, though I haven’t tried to count these myself. Modernism could even incorporate self-parody. An incident I’d like to explore at some other time is the strange affair of Wyndham Lewis’s involvement with J.C.Squire and Eddie Marsh in a parody of his own art for a charity ball.
Since poems like ‛Promenade Sentimentale’ were so different from what had gone before, many decided they must be hoaxes. The New York Times, reporting on the Spectator controversy, was archly sceptical about Sitwell, and also about T.S.Eliot:
The richness and solemnity of the notes in “The Waste Land” show the variety of [Eliot’s] reading. To some critics they have the taste of pedantry; to others, more sceptical, they seem the marks of a hoax. (March 4, 1923)
Eliot was sensitive about such comments. When the playwright Ben Hecht was reported as having met Eliot and been told that The Waste Land was merely an elaborate hoax, the poet replied firmly: ‘I can only presume that Mr Hecht believes that my being 3000 miles away will protect him from any legal action, as it certainly protects him from any physical action on my part.’ (Letter to New York Globe, 6 April, 1923. Letters II, 105)
Such poems created uncertainty, to which some readers responded violently, like that Spectator reader who fumed about ‛conceit, laziness and the desire to pose’.
This aggression was, I think, in response to a perceived aggression from the poets. And this perception was not always discouraged by the modernist poets. T. S. Eliot wrote:
The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. (‘The Metaphysical Poets’, 1921)
‛Force’, ‛dislocate’ – these are aggressive words, and whose language was being forced and dislocated? Ours. The dominant tradition of serious poetry in the years leading up to the Great War had been the Georgian one; a tradition that used traditional forms and accessible language to speak directly and comprehensibly about serious matters. This style of poetry has often been denigrated by modernists, but Merryn Williams’s very good recent anthology, shows the strength of the school, and a development through from Thomas Hardy, by way of the Georgians, to the best of the war poets. For those whose taste had been formed by this tradition, to write otherwise was perceived as an affront to common sense – ‘common’ as in the shared sense of a language that expressed common values. And in the twenties, one finds many examples of modern poetry used aggressively – as by Harold Acton, shouting The Waste Land through a megaphone to shock an Oxford garden party.
Harold Acton (caricature by Evelyn Waugh)
Edith Sitwell also used a megaphone on occasion as an alienating device, distancing herself from standard methods of poetry-reading.
One way of dealing with such tactics was to dismiss them as childish, and parodists like E.V.Knox scolded the modernists: his ‘Spokes: or an Ode on Ebullitions of Eccentricity That
Ought to Have Been Overcome in Early Childhood’ first appeared in Punch, and then in his collection, Parodies Regained (1921).
(‘Spokes’, of course, is a reference, like Heritage’s ‛Whorls’, to the Sitwells’ magazine Wheels. The illustration is a reminder that cartoonists played a significant part in attuning the general public to some of the techniques of cubism.)
I have a mind where meadow, grove and stream
And common things like cats and bricks
To me do seem
Much as they might to lunatics,
The strange hallucinations of a dream,
Think whatso’er they may
I see and say
That is a pea-green monkey climbing up the door.
Knox appeals to standards set by Wordsworth in order to scold the modernists, whom he presents as infantile. After four pages of surreal nonsense, he finishes:
Thanks to the Vogue of Futuristic things
And constant tumult of a negroid band,
To me a chocolate eclair often brings
Thoughts that not even nurse can understand.
Wordsworth is appealed to, yet in this piece, Wordsworth is taken for granted; he has become part of the comfortably known, offering not the shock of the new but the comfort of familiarity. Isn’t Knox condescending to Wordsworth almost as much as to the modernists?
Something similar is happening in Buchan. The viewpoint he uses to criticise Heritage’s verse is that of Dickson McCann, with his comfy anthology of traditional poetry.
Parody is an odd thing. It’s very hard to write a parody of a work that you do not in part admire, or at least a part of you admires it; maybe the best parodies come when one writer has very mixed feelings about another, and uses the genre to try to sort them out.
Sometimes writing a parody can be liberating, as in the odd case of H.P.Lovecraft, an American best known as a writer of horror fiction, though he saw himself as a poet. This extract from his ‘Revelation’ shows his usual style:
Green and narrow was my valley,
Temper’d with a verdant shade;
Sun-deck’d brooklets musically
Sparkled thro’ each glorious glade…
Archaic language, clunky rhythms, forced rhymes.
In 1922, though, he read ‘The Waste Land’, which he dismissed as ‘a practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general’. He wrote a parody ‘Waste Paper: A Poem Of Profound Insignificance’.
This has its moments of sheer clowning, like the ending, a travesty of Eliot’s:
Good night, good night, the stars are bright
I saw the Leonard-Tendler fight
Farewell, farewell, O go to hell.
In the shantih.
Yet there are other parts of the poem where Lovecraft seems to be trying out the new techniques to explore his own life and experience:
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?
In the spring of the year, in the silver rain
When petal by petal the blossoms fall
And the mocking birds call
And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite.
The first cinema show in our town opened in 1906
At the old Olympic, which was then call’d Park,
And moving beams shot weirdly thro’ the dark
And spit tobacco seldom hit the mark.
Have you read Dickens’ American Notes?
My great-great-grandfather was born in a white house
Under green trees in the country
And he used to believe in religion and the weather.
I don’t know what you think of that as a poem, but it does seem far far better than Lovecraft’s non-parodic pieces, which are killed stone-dead by their archaic diction so very distant from ordinary speech.
Writing the parody seems to have liberated Lovecraft, and perhaps a similar thing happened to the final parodist I shall consider. Noel Coward devoted a great deal of time and effort to parodying Edith Sitwell, who was was often taken to be the representative modernist poet. She could easily be presented as elitist, wayward and socially exclusive; she also, I suspect, raised hackles by not conforming to the standard notion of a poetess – just emoting prettily. That Spectator reader accused her of ‛conceit, laziness and the desire to pose’ and, interestingly, it was not just middlebrow philistines that made such charges. These are very much the criticisms that would be made of the Sitwells by modernists of a different kind, such as Wyndham Lewis, Geoffrey Grigson and F. R. Leavis, who famously put down the Sitwells as belonging to ‛to the history of publicity rather than of poetry’. Edith Sitwell has been written out of many accounts of the history of modernist poetry.
In 1923, Noel Coward was beginning to make a name for himself as a writer of songs and light comedies, but he had other ambitions. He had already written a daring play – still unproduced – The Rat Trap, a study of marital disharmony with touches of Strindberg; he was also associated with the avant-garde theatrical experimentation of the Grand Guignol season at the Little Theatre. Soon he would write the even more daring The Vortex, with its theme of drug addiction and incestuous overtones. Coward would use an attack on the Sitwells to define what sort of modernist he was.
It was Osbert Sitwell, who suggested that Coward should come to a performance of Facade (some of Edith’s most playful verse set to experimental music by William Walton). Perhaps rather condescendingly, he said: ‛It might give you some ideas.’
It certainly did, and Coward soon began to turn his impressions of Facade into a sketch for his first big revue, London Calling. He was hardly original in criticising it. The press comment had been lethal; one article was headlined : ‛The drivel they paid to hear.’
In Coward’s version, the Sitwell family became the absurdly posturing Whittlebot family.
Maisie Gay played Hernia Whittlebot, an absurd travesty of Edith , with a similar taste for extravagant and eccentric dress: Coward’s stage direction insisted ‛she must be effectively and charmingly dressed in undraped dyed sacking’ with ‛a little clump of Bacchanalian fruit below each ear’.
Rain, rain, pebbles and pain,
Trickle and truckle and do it again.
The climactic poem is as nonsensical as the fragments that Buchan gave to Heritage:
War and life and the Albert Bridge
Fade into mists of Salacious obscurity….
After too much of this, the Stage Manager tells the orchestra to strike up and drown out the poetry, whereupon Hernia Whittlebot reaches for the Sitwells’ trademark megaphone, and continues reciting until pushed off stage.
It’s a sharp and effective revue sketch that turned the Sitwells into Coward’s enemies for many years. What is interesting, I think, is that Coward didn’t leave it at that.
In the next year, between plays and revues, he devoted a great deal of effort into producing a slim volume of pseudo-modernist parodies – Chelsea Buns – supposedly by Hernia Whittlebot. Why? There must have been an element of sheer fun, and the scandal of having antagonised the family by the revue sketch, but in addition I think the parodies served another purpose for Coward.
Here is one of them:
Round – oblong – like jam –
Terse as virulent hermaphrodites;
Calling across the sodden twisted ends of Time.
Edifices of importunity
Sway like Parmesan before the half-tones
Of Episcopalian Michaelmas;
Bodies are so impossible to see in retrospect –
And yet I know the well of truth
Is gutted like a pratchful Unicorn.
Sog, sog, sog – why is my mind ambitious?
That’s what it is.
I suggest that parodying Sitwell was useful to Coward as a way of defining himself. He too was a modernist of sorts. His daring play The Vortex with its incestuous overtones, was seen as very modern indeed in 1924. He lived an unconventional lifestyle and he was sexually unorthodox. Parodying the Sitwell’s kind of modernism was a way of declaring – to himself and to others – what sort of modernist he was, and what he was not. It was making links with an audience that distrusted artiness, and inviting them to trust him as an artist who would not go too far.
Yet parody maybe had other uses too. In his revue sketch, Coward had made Hernia Whittlebot prattle on about expressive rhythm – ‛Rhythm is everything. My brothers and I have been brought up on Rhythm as other children are brought up on Glaxo.’ Coward, of course, would develop a mastery of verbal rhythm in his stage dialogue, and this early poem uses verbal techniques that Coward would later employ for different purposes – the exactly phrased bathos of ‛jam’, for instance, which accentuates the pretentiousness of the polysyllables that follow. This kind of technique is also found in Facade, and for all his mockery, I suspect that Coward has learned from Sitwell.
The more I look at the parodies I have discussed, the less I feel confident in a neat dividing line between modernist poets and middlebrow parodists. The fact that the parodists laid into the poems with such relish must have made the new work sound interesting, and so in a way the parodists mediated between the modernists and the larger audience. Just as cartoonists were among the first to present a sort of Cubism to the masses, even while they expressed their disapproval, parodists played their part in familiarising the general public with new directions in writing.