- Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism by C. D. Blanton
In reviewing a book that carefully attunes itself to historical dates, I begin by marking a more recent dateline: the death of Derek Walcott on March 17, 2017. Examining Epic Negation in its wake inflects my account here. C. D. Blanton grounds his reading of modernism and late modernism in the UK through T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Reading the span of The Criterion (1922–39) as an index of modernism itself, Blanton overlays Eliot's signature journal onto the period between the Great War and the Blitz. Consequently, The Criterion, not The Waste Land, becomes Eliot's major epic. More audaciously, their mutually assured negation through the poet's "dialectical liquidation" of poetry yields a phenomenon that Blanton terms "Eliotic Marxism" (163).
Wait. Can Marxism be 'Eliotic'?Blanton's term is more vexed than quixotic.Tom liked pubs and the stage.(Marie Lloyd, all the rage!)Dialectics exceeds semiotics.
Blanton's retooled Eliot manages to bring forth documentary poetics through The Criterion, somehow scooping the media-minded Auden generation. Shuttling between lengthy glosses of individual allusions and pithier pronouncements about history and totality, Blanton's critical ruminations constitute an epic undertaking for writer and reader alike. Indeed, his book nearly reaches the page count of Walcott's Omeros.
Epic Negation also takes calculated risks with its unconventional form. I appreciate academic writing that bends inherited rules. Blanton begins in media res; there is no standalone introduction. There is no conclusion, either; the book briefly zooms out at the end of the H.D. chapter. This, too, is an epical trait. Franco Moretti finds that modern epics have "weak, indecisive endings, that neither conclude the text nor settle its meaning once and for all"—yet they are not "devoid of unity."1 Epic Negation may be asymmetrical, but it sets forth a clear and consistent argument. I find that the book reflects the form-problem it propounds, enacting a double reinscription of traditional literary histories in the wake of postmodern revisionism. Most critics are men, all roads lead back to Eliot, and modernism's ends lie in its beginning.
Fittingly for a book that invokes dialectics, Georg Lukács, and Fredric Jameson, there are two books warring within Epic Negation. One is about Eliot and Pound (but mostly about Eliot). The other (Part Two) reads W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and H.D. through Eliot. Blanton omits the younger writers' collaboration Letters from Iceland (1937), where we find Auden's rhyme royal wink at the Pound-Eliot brand of modernism:
All youth's intolerant certainty was mine as I faced life in a double-breasted suit;I bought and praised but did not read Aquinas, At the Criterion's verdict I was mute … 2
For Auden (and MacNeice), collegiate reverence for Eliot was more of a crush than a creed. At times the torque of reading these leftist poets through the author of The Idea of a Christian Society creates critical ruptures. The Auden chapter quotes heavily from poet-critics, leaning on Philip Larkin to gloss a decidedly more democratic civic voice (an odd choice). Despite the fact that "September 1, 1939" went viral after 9/11, Blanton claims that Auden's 1930s elegies and other "laureate poems suffer from a lack of constituency"—and even feeling, it seems (191). Auden wrote his transportable public lyrics for the future—however uncertain and afraid it might be. (By focusing on Another Time, a volume first published in the United States with several poems that debuted in American periodicals, Epic Negation nearly negates the English Auden.) MacNeice's Autumn Journal gets the cinematic treatment, even though it was Auden who worked with the British documentary film movement. And for Blanton, H.D.'s Trilogy ultimately returns to, rather than departs from, Freud—an interpretation that disregards two decades of feminist critical consensus. Epic Negation renders H.D. as a witchy woman whose cosmic "incantations" conjure "modernism's last conceptual turn against itself" in...