An Heir to Both Stevens & Pound

Are you Team Pound or Team Stevens? It’s a question that readers of modern poetry often end up asking themselves. All would agree that both Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens are important to the history of modern poetry; that, without The Cantos and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” without “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Plain Sense of Things,” modern poetry would be a fundamentally different thing. But agreeing on a poet’s importance doesn’t mean agreeing on a poet’s value, and, as Marjorie Perloff and other critics have noted, lovers of Pound tend not to be lovers of Stevens and vice versa.

Moreover, choosing sides here seems to express something more than mere personal preference. Do you believe that poetry is about subjectivity and the imagination? That it speaks not so much to the world as to “the delicatest ear of the mind,” as Stevens put it? That, in other words, poetry is the self speaking to the self about the self? Then you’re probably on Team Stevens, along with Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and others. Or do you believe that poetry is about hard surfaces and sharp angles, about particulars rather than essences or types? And that it should—indeed, must—include not just the self but also history and politics and economics? Then you’re probably on Team Pound—and a venerable team it is, counting Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie among its members. To love both Pound and Stevens is akin to loving both the Yankees and the Red Sox: it’s possible, but not particularly likely.*

Lawrence Joseph, whose “In Parentheses” appears in the current issue of Commonweal, is one of the rare poets—really the only one I can think of—whose work belongs to the traditions of both Pound and Stevens. Joseph has been hailed as one of the great poets of post-9/11 America, and rightly so. His most recent collection, Into It (2005), charted the serious damage done by America’s endless wars—damage done to those we’ve invaded and to ourselves. In “Rubaiyat,” for instance, we see soldiers, aided by digital cameras and the Pentagon’s Military Diaries Project, turning horror into home movies: “soldiers starring in their own / war movies, training digital cameras // on themselves—a child is put / in a wheelbarrow after stepping on a mine. / Politics? Personified.” Joseph trains our eyes to see politics personified—to remember the particular, real, and mangled bodies that are elided beneath the abstract label of the War on Terror. The child’s body is mangled, and so too is America’s politics and its soul. War begets war, violence begets violence, and our war footing now seems permanent: “Cyberwar and permanent / war, Third Wave War, neocortical war, / Sixth Generation War, Fourth Epoch / War …”

Yet what I want to focus on isn’t Joseph’s strength as a poet of war and its aftermaths, although his strength as such is considerable. Rather, I want to talk about how Joseph’s work bridges the gap between two very different conceptions of modern poetry: the meditative, self-interrogating poetry of Stevens and the fractured, history-interrogating poetry of Pound.

 

JOSEPH HAS MADE PUBLIC his many and deep affinities with Stevens: Into It uses a passage of Stevens’s prose as an epigraph, and Joseph’s prose collection The Game Changed opens with a piece entitled “The Poet and the Lawyer: The Example of Wallace Stevens.” This title indicates the most obvious connection between the two. Like Stevens, Joseph is a poet-lawyer. (Stevens graduated from NYU Law School in 1903 and worked at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company for many years, rising to the position of vice-president; Joseph teaches law at St. John’s University.) Where the law makes itself felt obliquely in Stevens, though, it is readily apparent Joseph’s work. “In Parentheses,” for example, opens with the declaration, “As I said, I’m a lawyer,” and it closes like this: “I am speaking of a law, now, understand, / that point at which bodies locked in cages / turn into ontology, the point at which / structures of cruelty, force, war, / turn into ontology.” Law is never just law for Joseph; it’s a way for a society to codify its particular conception of being. Codes and precepts reveal ontology.

But the connections with Stevens go far beyond legal training. Like Stevens, Joseph regularly uses unrhymed couplets, a stripped-down form existing in productive tension with the vast speculations that are embodied within it. Take these lines from “Once Again,” where Joseph examines matters of ultimate significance in spare, stark couplets:

it's what I said—
the poem is the dream, a dream technique;

the primary soul-substance
on which our attention is fixed—

supernal, metaphysical—in other words,
a representation,

as we have seen,
of mythical origins.

Stevens has often been described as a Romantic, in part because he saw the poet not just as a technician of language but, as he said, “a priest of the invisible.” Joseph too sees the poet, or at least poetry, in such Romantic terms, as something “supernal, metaphysical.” As he writes in “On Nature,” also published in Commonweal, “I, too, see God adumbrations, I, too, write / a book on love.”

Finally and perhaps most importantly, both Stevens and Joseph obsessively trace the relation between subject and object, between the imagination and the world it tries to grab hold of, between representation and reality. This is the fundamental problem of both epistemology and aesthetics, and it’s the fundamental philosophical and aesthetic problem for both poets. How can we get to “Not the Idea About the Thing but the Thing Itself,” as one of Stevens’s great poems is titled? How can we do this when the idea—call it the imagination or subjectivity or the self—always intervenes first; when even, as Stevens writes elsewhere, “the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined?”

Joseph’s poems likewise investigate what he calls in “In Parentheses” “the phenomenology of perception”—what it’s like to perceive the world and how poetry might re-enact the feeling of perception, the way we move from image to idea. His poems express the desire to press through abstraction toward the thing or experience itself. They make us feel, as he puts it in “Who Talks Like That?”, “in the present, a presence.”

Joseph is possessed of a sacramental imagination and, like a good sacramental poet, he wants not so much to represent experience as to re-present it, to make it present and active once again. As he writes in “The Game Changed,” the poet desires “Immanence— / Immanence and a happiness.” Yet Joseph’s poems also everywhere recognize that abstraction is necessary; that language and the imagination aren’t a distraction from reality but are the means by which we perceive it: “The bronze-green gold-green foreground: / what can only be said in that language, / / opaque, though clear, painted language.”

 

AND WHERE IS POUND in all of this? He is in the allusive polyphony of Joseph’s verse, its sense that many voices and many texts inhabit the seemingly singular voice and text. “In Parentheses,” for example, alludes in its title to In Parenthesis, David Jones’s great 1937 poem/novel about World War I. The poem’s opening line, “As I said, I’m a lawyer,” seems to refer back to an earlier poem, “The Game Changed,” where Joseph writes, “I believe I told you I’m a lawyer”; the second numbered section refers to the work of Lucretius; the phrase “phenomenology of perception” is also the title of a work of philosophy by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A recently published poem, “Visions of Labour,” opens like this: “I will have writings written all over it / in human words: wrote Blake. A running / form, Pound’s Blake.” The first line and a half comes from Blake’s Milton, while the “running form” is a quotation from Pound’s Canto XVI. Joseph’s work exhibits a high intertextual density. Pound’s poetry has kept the source-hunters busy for decades; Joseph’s could as well.

Like Pound, Joseph’s poetry often proceeds less as an argument than as a series of rapidly shifting, concrete images held in juxtaposition with one another, as in “Rubaiyat”:

Zoom in close enough—the shadows
of statues, the swimming pools of palaces …
closer—a garden of palm trees,
oranges and lemons, chickens, sheep;

a map being sketched on a scrap
of paper; a fist coming down firmly
on the table; a tray with a dish
of lamb, and a bowl of rice and pine nuts.

Like Pound, Joseph performs dizzying temporal shifts—now compressing time down to an instant, now dilating out to the cosmic scale, as in “On Nature,” which shifts between the time of the cosmos (“spacetime exploded into existence”) and the time of the seasons (“One week buds, then / the temperature’s up and the landscape turns yellow”) and the time of a single instant in a single day (“the Hudson River, black and still, / the day about to open at the Narrows’ edge”).

Joseph’s poetry is complexly embedded in time and in history, and it regularly makes its historical freight felt. Like Pound, Joseph doesn’t shy away from speaking of his particular moment, even if this means that the poetry can sometimes read like political economy. (I mean that as a compliment.) For example, a 2013 poem published in The New Yorker, In a Post-Bubble Credit-Collapse Environment,” examines how, after the recent market collapse, “Things changed / and unchanged, and not only in abstract ways.” Joseph is fascinated by, often disgusted by, the abstractions of the modern economy—the way that wealth is increasingly alienated from actual labor, obscene riches high-volume traded by computers and kept in off-shore accounts. As he writes in “In Parentheses,” to have power in the present economy means having “the absolute freedom / to recombine the production of raw materials / into virtual information / in spaces of time, info-time.” Capitalism is a perpetual abstraction machine, and its functioning churns out illusory wealth and, as he writes in “Visions of Labour,” does away with the human:

… That’s what we’re looking at, labour cheap,
replaceable, self-replicating, marginal, contracted out
   into smaller and smaller units. Them? Hordes
of them, of depleted economic, social value,
   who don’t count, in any situation, in anyone’s eyes,
and won’t count, ever, no matter what happens,
   the truth that, sooner than later, they will simply be
eliminated. …

This idea—that banking creates wealth out of nothing—was an obsession of Pound’s later poetry, as we can see in Canto XLV. There, Pound elaborates upon the deleterious cultural effects of usury: “Usura rusteth the chisel / It rusteth the craft and the craftsman / It gnaweth the thread in the loom / None learneth to weave gold in her pattern.” Pound’s thinking on finance has rightly been criticized for its deep anti-Semitism. But if we can filter the hate out and look not at what Pound thinks about “Jewish bankers” but at what he intuits about modern banking more generally (not an easy task), then we might see how Joseph and Pound are engaged in a similar project: to portray what Joseph describes as the market’s “logic of exploitation. / A logic of submission. The word alienation.”

This idea—that the poet might speak from history to history—is one that Stevens himself advanced in “Of Modern Poetry.” There, he writes that modern poetry

… has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.

Stevens describes the poet’s need for timely speech, for verse that addresses its particular historical moment. Stevens’s own self-reflexive poetry didn’t always meet this challenge. Pound’s did, and so too does Joseph’s. Especially in his most recent work, Joseph echoes back to us how we talk: in “In Parentheses,” we hear of “value accumulation” and “virtual information” and “info-time”; in “Visions of Labour,” of “alternate contract environments” and “equilibrium characterisation.” And he demonstrates how this language reflects and affects the way we live in the world. In doing this, Joseph helps us to find what will suffice, and that is his great gift to us. 

_________________________________

* This division between Stevens and Pound is, like many such divisions, more than a bit reductive. After all, Stevens’s poetry could be angular and sharp, too: see “The Snow Man,” for instance. And, while Pound might emphasize the determining nature of form, Stevens would agree that form shapes thought; what poet wouldn’t? Still, what’s most interesting to me isn’t whether the difference between Stevens and Pound is really this stark. What’s interesting is that so many critics have acted as if it were. 

 

 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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