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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 17-30

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Hypertext and the Teaching of Modernist Difficulty

Gail McDonald

T. S. Eliot (1963: 112), who famously declared in 1921 that "poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult," made difficulty a badge of modernist honor. The attitudes of academic criticism since then might be categorized according to their degree of acceptance or rejection of this premise. New Criticism, by and large, made a virtue of difficulty, measuring poetic achievement in terms of the poet's management of tension and paradox. Conversely, recent criticism has often looked askance at difficulty, suspecting that it may be a form of mystificatory elitism or an instance of dishonestly evasive impersonality. However one chooses to view the matter theoretically, difficulty is an inescapable dimension of modernist texts, especially those that exemplify high-modernist experimentation--Eliot's The Waste Land, Pound's Cantos, Joyce's Ulysses, Barnes's Nightwood, Stein's Tender Buttons, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Toomer's Cane, Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy--in short, many of the most frequently taught works in the curriculum of twentieth-century literature. This essay proposes that hypertext is a practical, though partial, solution to the nearly insuperable problems associated with reading and teaching the difficult modernist text. Because my students and I have created and studied with a hypertext of Pound's Canto 81, my examples are drawn primarily from that poem. The hypertextual version of this Canto provides access not only to the poem's "information" but to Pound's working methods, his aims in writing this "poem including history," and his presentation of the poem as covert and overt pedagogy. [End Page 17]

Pound's difficulties are hypertrophic symptoms of the difficulties of high modernism generally, and thus the argument I make is applicable to the teaching of similarly demanding texts and to the assessment of experimental modernism's epistemological agendas. The difficulty of modernist difficulty is of two kinds: one that is primarily a difficulty of surface and one that is more profound. Both have implications for pedagogical theory and praxis because both raise fundamental questions about how we acquire and evaluate knowledge. What makes a text opaque? What claims may an artist legitimately make on a reader's energies? Such issues make modernism rebarbative and forbidding to readers, but they can also make the study of modernism compelling. Hypertext study, I suggest, reduces surface difficulty without robbing us of the deep educative value of being confused.

The causes of surface difficulty, while not simple, are apparent. The linguist Wallace Chafe (1991) outlines the primary obstacles to understanding a text: differences of language and culture, interruptions of information flow, problems of reference (i.e., ambiguity), and degrees of reader involvement or detachment. The first of these is obviously applicable to the polyglot, allusive nature of much high-modernist writing, which at a Poundian extreme may offer a stew of Greek, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, French, English (modern and Middle), Chinese, Provençal, and African American dialect. Few readers have ever commanded this range of languages. As for ferreting out allusions, few know what one needs to know to read Canto 81: the histories of 1920s London, 1930s Italy, and 1700s America, not to mention William Lawes's and John Jenkins's music, Paquin's fashion designs, and Basil Bunting's opinion of the Canary Islands. Indulging in multifarious cultural comparisons and cryptic personal references, Pound strains the distance between the poetic speaker and his reader to the breaking point. The fragmentary surface of the Cantos is, however, only a more dramatic version of other modernist "interruptions of information flow." The absence of coherent, sequential narrative is in fact standard in much modernist writing. Faulkner, for instance, interrupts the narrative not only from section to section in his novels but also at the level of individual sentences, which break off unfinished. Poetry of this period is no less disjointed. One student of mine compared reading The Waste Land concurrently with its footnotes to stopping and starting in heavy traffic. Flow is not a word...


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