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  • “Barbed-Wire Entanglements”: The “New American Poetry,” 1930–1932
  • Marjorie Perloff (bio)

January 1931. In the “News Notes” at the back of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe announced that the February issue would be edited by one “Mr. Louis Zukofsky, who has been for several years a prominent member of a group of writers interested in experiment in poetic form and method . . . . Mr. Zukofsky is recommended on the high authority of Ezra Pound and others whose opinions we greatly respect.” 1 But, having “abdicated [her editorial powers] temporarily,” Monroe evidently felt betrayed. In the March issue, she wrote an angry response to the “Objectivist” number of Poetry called “The Arrogance of Youth.” Zukofsky, she insisted, was wrong to “abandon” such big poetry names as E. A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as the “once-revolutionary imagists.” And “what,” asks Monroe, “are we offered in exchange? A few familiar names get by [she is evidently thinking of William Carlos Williams’s “Botticellian Trees”] though often by severely wrenching Mr. Zukofsky’s barbed-wire entanglements.” 2

What was the nature of the “Objectivist” experiment, as represented by Zukofsky’s selection for Poetry, a selection that included, aside from the obvious names (Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Zukofsky himself), Robert McAlmon and Kenneth Rexroth, Whittaker Chambers and Henry Zolinsky, John Wheelright and Martha Champion? And in what sense was the work of these poets a departure from that of the “once-revolutionary imagists”? [End Page 145] Williams, for one, seems to have been skeptical, even though Zukofsky’s “Objectivists” Anthology of the following year contains a large selection of his own poems. In a letter of 1928, he told Zukofsky:

Your early poems, even when the thought has enough force or freshness, have not been objectivized in new or fresh observations. But if it is the music, even that is not inventive enough to make up for images which give an overwhelming effect of triteness . . . . The language is stilted “poetic” except in the places I marked. Eyes have always stood first in the poet’s equipment. If you are mostly ear — a newer rhythm must come in more strongly than has been the case so far. 3

As examples of such “stilted ‘poetic’” language, Williams singles out the phrases “all live processes,” “orbit-trembling,” “our consciousness,” and “the sources of being” in what he calls Zukofsky’s “Lenin poem,” “Memory of V. I. Ulianov.” 4 “[I]t may be,” he admits, “that I am too literal in my search for objective clarities of image. It may be that you are completely right in forcing abstract conceptions into the sound pattern . . . . It may be that when the force of the conception is sufficiently strong it can carry this sort of thing . . . . Perhaps by my picayune, imagistic mannerisms I hold together superficially what should by all means fall apart.” 5

The recognition that “imagistic mannerisms” may well have had their day is echoed by Ezra Pound. Having urged Harriet Monroe to put Zukofsky “at the wheel of the Spring cruise,” as he put it in a letter, and having “refused to contribute to Aldington’s Imagist mortology 1930,” which he dismisses as “20 ans apres,” Pound urges Zukofsky to make his special issue “a murkn number; exludin the so different English.” Indeed, if Zukofsky does his job, Pound suggests, Poetry might once again be “what it was in 1912/13, the forum in which the Zeitideen WERE presented and discussed.” 6

But the “Zeitideen” of 1931 were, as Pound himself was the first to recognize (“Prob[lem] ain’t now the same”), no longer those of 1913. For one thing, the relationship between tradition and the new had become vexed. “The number ought to be NEW line up,” Pound repeatedly urges Zukofsky. “You can mention me and old Bill Walrus [Williams] in the historic section . . . . I do not think contributions from ANYone over 40 shd. be included; and preferably it shd. be confined to those under 30” (PZ, 51–52). And he notes acutely, “ONE notable difference between yr. position in 1930 and mine in 1910 is that you would LIKE to include several older...

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pp. 145-175
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