- The Practical Muse: Pragmatist Poetics in Hulme, Pound, and Stevens
Time was when modernist studies seemed split among various camps, each contending for the supremacy of a particular writer or poet. Nowhere was this factiousness more evident than in the critical rivalry over Pound and Stevens, which for nearly a decade effectually divided students of modernist poetry on all things save the passing of Eliot. It was Marjorie Perloff who first observed that the argument could tell us something about the forces at work in poststructuralist critical models, since most of the eminent New Critics wrote respectfully, if critically, about both Pound and Stevens. Much of the complex critical history unfolding in the seventeen years since Perloff’s essay is implicit in this fine new book from Patricia Rae. Rae works to distinguish (or as Pound would say, disassociate) Jamesian pragmatism from its poststructuralist appropriation by Richard Rorty, and thereafter to deploy it toward a critical reappraisal of Stevens (easy), Pound (tougher), and T. E. Hulme (surprise). With regard to Hulme, and challenging Michael Levenson and Karen Csengeri’s perception of distinct stages in Hulme’s career, Rae uses James’s “reflex-action” model to propose that the disjunction between Hulme’s Bergsonian nominalism and his moral absolutism is only an apparent one. Indeed, Rae affirms, within a pragmatist outlook these “positions are legitimate, even essential partners.” Showing a broad familiarity with philosophical and critical discourses, Rae tends to work in oppositional terms, counterpunching with recent critics in order to clear space for her readings. But such engagements rarely feel like niggling, and they usually suggest her larger project. The Practical Muse endeavors to relate modernist theories of creation to poetic practice, and Rae’s notion of a “practical” muse ultimately leads her to a vivid sense of the function of poetry in both the modernist era and our own. Her confidence that pragmatism can settle the critical uncertainties of our time will not be shared by all of her readers, but it can, at the very least, remind us of the discursive contingency of many of our most stubborn problems. If, following James (and perhaps contra Rorty and deconstruction), we see the muse as [End Page 591] practical and not divine, it does not necessarily follow that such a bracketing of poetic origins requires a discounting of poetic value. In this regard, Pound and James were obviously in accord: both conceived of a poem as a thing to be “acted upon.” Their divergence came later, since that same conviction is in large part what continues to damn Pound for so many readers. Rae herself does not address such political questions—her muse is practical without being inevitably political—but her book should nonetheless contribute to the ongoing reconception of the modernist legacy and our relation to it.