As the revolution business goes, being a ‘verse revolutionary’ would seem one of the less risky career paths. Nobody gets hurt, and the principal actions called for are strenuous journalism and the pushing out of books and poems. In the years before the First World War, when revolutionary forces were building in the politics of Europe and beyond, a revolution in the writing of English poetry was a comparatively unpressing matter; and, if such a revolution did in fact take place, it was not widely noticed (and not, arguably, all that easy to spot). After the War, anyone taking an interest in English poetry might have seen that things were changing, but few would have considered themselves witnesses to out-and-out cataclysm, however puzzling they might find the verses of the young Mr Eliot or his outlandish compatriot, Ezra Pound.
Literary history calls the change in writing between roughly 1910 and the mid-1920s modernism. In some respects – but only in some – this was a revolution; but, like other revolutions, it had relatively little staying power and, at least as an ‘ism’, not much lasting influence. One reason for this (as T S Eliot himself pointed out at the time) was that literary tradition isn’t really susceptible to revolution, and its apparently abrupt turns are always, in fact, returns to something lost or neglected in its own past. Nevertheless, it has been claimed that with poetry in particular, one self-proclaimed school of writing – Imagism – exercised a decisive influence on modernism. Interestingly, Eliot was not part of the school; but Pound was, along with many other writers: Richard Aldington, H D (Hilda Doolittle), F S Flint, T E Hulme, Amy Lowell, and John Gould Fletcher. With the possible exception of H D, the works of these poets are now known only to academics; and there is a good reason for that.
Helen Carr’s mammoth work embraces all these poets and many more, in an exhaustive biographical survey of this particular gathering or cross-existence of talents. But by any standards, the book is much too long, and only its biographical emphasis can have kept its publishers from doing their editorial duty. In her 880 pages of text, Carr finds only half a page to make a case for the significance of the people she has been studying so closely. For any reader devoted enough to make it to the last page, the cautious nature of Carr’s claims must surely be rather disappointing: ‘Was Imagism a poetic school? An advertising stunt? A name plucked from the air to promote a group of varied and disparate talents? … It was all of these.’ We have the ‘revolutionaries’, then, but we aren’t sure whether there was a revolution. So, what do we have? Carr concludes like this:
Yet Imagism, a product of the pre-war libertarian years, was as subversive of the cultural power structure as the heterogeneous radicals who published alongside this group of poets. Its aim, after all, was the epiphanic ‘sense of sudden liberation which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art’, and if some of those who formed the movement might later harden their views, and if the war had darkened all their hopes, it had been, for a while at least, personally and artistically liberating for the Imagists, and for many of their readers.
As a conclusion, this is lamed by its bland canvassing of generalities too broad to mean very much. But it is accurate too, in so far as it accounts for the focus of the whole book, which is on writers’ lives: ‘artistically liberating’ begs questions about the art in question which The Verse Revolutionaries (wisely perhaps) never approaches.
This is not to deny the value of what Carr’s book does achieve. Until now, it has been difficult to assemble the mass of biographical information about the major and minor players in Imagist poetry without recourse to a large number of specialised scholarly works: Carr synthesises these, so that she effectively runs a number of biographies alongside one another. Inevitably, this produces many interesting moments where one life and career lights up what is going on in another. The most compelling impression is of the influx of writers dissatisfied with their lives in America who landed in London and Paris, eager for change – personal change, effected by and in its turn causing artistic change. The culture clashes with English writers are sometimes fascinating: whether with D H Lawrence and his wary, attentive and aggressive perceptiveness, or with the likes of Ford Madox Hueffer (not yet Madox Ford), conducting personal and literary revolutions of his own. Carr is good at highlighting the ironies of money and class (in F S Flint’s desperate predicament, for example, when contrasted with the visiting Americans), which seem often to have been lost on the protagonists themselves. She is also very good on the American background itself, and the pressures of social respectability from which the poets were so often trying to escape (albeit sometimes with the help of a trust fund).
Inevitably, Ezra Pound is the star of the show, even though Carr’s approach puts him back in the midst of the gang of poets and literary men about town from which he endeavoured with such consistency to stand out. In a way, it is the very inauthenticity of so much of Pound’s poetic output in the early years that makes him – in retrospect – so attractive a figure. If Pound was a one-man revolution, he was also a specialist in bluff and sheer cheek, all the time learning from his own quasi-deliberate mistakes. The more dedicated thinkers, like Flint and Hulme, have of course receded, while Pound’s various intellectual sales pitches have been greeted with all the solemnity of academic attention. Carr doesn’t remedy this situation (for the good reason that it can’t be remedied), but her narrative is a useful reminder of how seriousness of intention can be lost in the course of literary events.
Carr’s biographical focus is consistent, but it is problematic in a wider sense. It ought not to matter whether the individuals she studies here were personally liberated by their experiences as writers in these years. But biography is a genre which, as a substitute for criticism, at present knows its own strength in the marketplace; and perhaps readers find biographical interest a very satisfactory way around the difficulties of getting to grips with real literary experience. Certainly, The Verse Revolutionaries offers lots of fraught and exciting personal interaction, and larger-than-life characters: it might well make a film. At the same time, Carr’s attention to detail – even when no detail survives to be attended to – is tiring. When H D gets married, Carr finds time and space to wonder which of her Italian-made dresses she might have been wearing. We shall never know.
But there is a larger question. How good is the poetry that this enormous book uses as the excuse for its existence? Any technical revolution was modest indeed; and doing away with rhyme and regular metre was hardly an invention of this particular time. Much Imagist poetry is of a kind that cannot in any case be rescued by any technique, however innovative: it is revealing that some recurrent words, especially words like ‘beauty’, come with all the unselfconscious preciousness of the nineteenth century at its Swinburnian worst. Against classic snippets like Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ one has to set other Imagist gems, such as Aldington’s ‘I am tormented,/Obsessed,/Among all this beauty,/With a vision of ruins’ (lines fatally vulnerable to the retort ‘Who cares?’) or Amy Lowell’s memorably dreadful ‘I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool’. Helen Carr’s encyclopaedic reach produces what might be called an indispensable guide to some very dispensable poets.