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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 70-94

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The Fate of the Imaginary in Twentieth-century American Poetry

I want to bring together much of the major twentieth-century poetry by telling a story of how different epochs dealt with what Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser allow me to speak about as the pressures of the imaginary. I am not sure how different this is from dealing with the century in terms of different ideas of the imagination, a much more familiar topic. But I hope stressing the imaginary keeps attention focused on the poets as facing quite oppressive social problems on a level of psychological life where poetry can actually hope to make a difference in our behavior.

Two obvious reasons motivate my project. First, an overview allows us to see the poets as engaged in a shared social enterprise, and it provides a framework for talking about significant differences among them: each poet takes the stage by refusing, adapting, or modifying ways that other poets take up the need to negotiate what can count as satisfying versions of fundamental imaginary investments. Second, the overview I propose helps provide a sense of both modernist poetry and what succeeds it as intensely resisting basic strands of the culture it inherits. And that, in turn, means we have grounds for rejecting the kinds of criticism that impose cultural contexts on the writers rather than elaborating how they project negotiating those contexts.


I can best bring out how the modernist poets shared a social enterprise by drawing contrasts between my views and Douglas Mao's essay "How to do Things with Modernism."

Mao sets himself the task of identifying problematic assumptions that attach Marjorie Perloff to Ezra Pound's work, shape her sense of his heritage, and make her less than fully sympathetic to [End Page 70] Wallace Stevens. For he thinks that what attracts her to Pound reveals the continuing presence of a basic, serious mistake fundamental to modernist constructivist aesthetics. Perloff shares with Pound a tendency to set the value of "doing"against the highly mediated processes of analytic thought, and hence to separate poetry entirely from the modes of valuation that have a hearing within the public domain in Enlightenment societies. Mao begins by showing how Perloff's own contrast, setting Pound the maker of forms against Stevens the purveyor of Romantic contents, essentially repeats Pound's preference for what can be enacted over what has to be argued for. And that preference, in turn, seduces Perloff into sharing Pound's more general commitment that rationalism "has proved to be increasingly unable to cope with the upheavals of the twentieth century":

It is not only that the method of the Cantos is associated with a change in Form (a more visible doing in poetic texts themselves) and a change toward form (a transformation of critical standards under which visible doing attained an unprecedented importance). It is also that insofar as Poundian poetics refused the syntax of logically ordered propositions identified with reason and logical argument, it seemed willing to confront the irrational modern age on its own terms, willing to choose as its weapon something closer to the age's own extra- or anti-rational modes than the confidently syllogistic strategies inherited from eighteenth and nineteenth century discourse.

Mao then gets quite canny. He tells us that he has disdain for critical shortcuts that use "Pound's fascist allegiances to discredit his poetics tout court"(169). But having set up the issue in terms of oppositions between the irrational and the rational, he has almost no alternative but to connect Pound's concerns with form and with intuition to authoritarian threats to democratic stability. Even contemporary efforts to separate Pound's authoritarian montage from the collage principles that cultivate open form then are exposed as dangerously antirational and threats to an effective democratic literary polity.1 Perhaps more important, this Poundian line of thinking betrays a fear that "one may never be able to do because one knows how to think"(173). Being the...


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