Monday, March 17, 2008

Modernist Anomalies

I can think of at least two. The first of these may not strike you as odd but the predilection for primitivismn in many modernist artists would seem to be on the face of it at least slightly paradoxical. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring comes to mind. D.H. Lawrence remarks (in Women in Love) on the modern fascination for African art. Think of Gaugin's paintings or those of Henri Rousseau--or for that matter, the work of Picasso.

The other anomaly is deeper and more unsettling. When the great modernist poets, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Frost and Stevens broke away from their romantic predecessors, the rupture was not only stylistic but political. Both Eliot and Yeats were politically conservative, to say the least, but while both found Fascism tempting, they did not--unlike Pound-- take the plunge. Some of Eliot's lesser poems, and much of Pound's, are uglified by anti-semitism. Frost had a low opinion of progressives and liberals. Stevens was a business man and, by all accounts a very good one. His poetry is apolitical. Since the poetry audience tends to be progressive and liberal, a certain tension began to characterize its attitudes toward some at least of these white men. This tension could not easily be resolved for a reason that is easy to say but hard to explain: these men are truly great poets; the poetry they write is beautiful and unforgettable. Here is single example of what I'm talking about, a poem by Yeats entitled "In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz"(1927):

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams--
Some vague utopia--and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.


  1. The primitivism of some modernist artists is indeed paradoxical. It reminds one of the parallels between aristocratic and underclass cultures, where honor and violence are linked and realized as machismo. These parallels were exploited by Leonard Bernstein when he wrote an operetta, WEST SIDE STORY, based on the plot of ROMEO AND JULIET.

  2. The Yeats poem was truly gorgeous. I've read a great deal of him, but I had never seen that one before. Do you care at all for his early period- up to, say, "The Wind Among the Reeds?" A lot of that material has been critically ignored for a long time, though I do believe Harold Bloom has tried to revive it.

    Very glad I found this blog,