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The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists by Helen Carr (review)

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 98-103 | 10.1353/wcw.2014.0007

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Reviewed by
The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists. Helen Carr. London: Jonathan Cape; 2009. 982 pp. £30.00 (hardback).

If you are a scholar of Anglo-American literary modernism and an American, this is the most important work in your field that you have never read. Though handsomely printed by Jonathan Cape, now a division of Random House, rather than some obscure University Press, compellingly written, praised by The Guardian, The Independent, The Irish Times, this “group biography” has gone unnoticed in the United States. The reason is twofold. First, it has not been distributed here, and, second, its title proclaims its central concern with two American literary giants. A century on, Pound’s complaint that we live “in a half-savage country, out of date” remains relevant: Q: where is this book? A: it can be ordered on line, from Amazon.co.uk. for example. Just be prepared for a two or three month wait for the tome to pass through customs.

The Verse Revolutionaries is without doubt the definitive account of the confluence of people, ideas and events that led to the creation of Imagism and its break up; it is surely the most complete we are ever likely to have. To give you an idea of how exhaustive this study is, consider that Pound’s famous warning, “A Few Don’ts” for would-be imagists does not appear until page 539. Imagism’s model poem, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” comes a few pages later. Imagism [End Page 98] may seem to have appeared all at once in August 1912, named by Pound, but its gestation took years and spanned continents, while more or less French in inspiration, its sources are as far flung as the British empire and as old as China. Carr wants to account for the whole process and she has a lot to say.

Verse Revolutionaries is exhaustive, but it is by no means exhausting. Carr is a fine, lively writer and once you pluck up the courage to open this Cantos-sized volume, you will find it impossible to put down. It is written with the verve, insight, sensitivity and wit of the very best biographies you have read. As a biographer, as well as a critic, Carr has situated herself to follow where curiosity leads, into the human hearts of the Imagists as well as the movement’s intellectual roots and branches, and literary and political implications. Great scholarship, great writing: anything but an “academic” book. As Carr herself, says: “The story of the imagists themselves is full of rich drama, involving passion, betrayal, sexual jealousy, literary envy, bereavement, shell-shock, class antagonisms, friendship, adultery, cruelty, bullying and pique” (2). It was also a political story. It was Richard Aldington who called the imagists, “verse revolutionaries” and it is no coincidence that the Imagist Anthologies are contemporary with the Easter Rising, the Russian Revolution and the Great War. The imagists were part of all that, storm crows as it were, hinting at big changes with the briefest of lyrics.

No doubt it is Carr’s authorial position as a woman and a writer that allows her to understand and sympathize especially with the many remarkable women without whom imagism is unthinkable; not only H.D. and Amy Lowell, but others who have hovered about on the fringes of modernist scholarship like moths beating at the window: Margaret Cravens, Frances Gregg, Bridget Patmore, Dora Mardsen, Violet Hunt, to name some of them. Few male critics would have the nerve to correlate the loosening of women’s fashions with the loosening of poetic conventions—a linkage made at the time by those appalled by such ‘free’ innovations, but celebrated by Carr a century later. Indeed Carr makes me see why H.D. was so shattered by Margaret Cravens’ sudden suicide—it represented a route she too must have contemplated taking. Pound was saddened by Cravens’ sudden decision not just because he’d lost a kindred spirit and benefactor, but because the most faithful underwriter of his talent (aside from his own father) had abandoned him. Carr is exceptionally good at portraying the insecurities of...



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