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  • Camp, Modernism, and Charles Henri Ford
  • Alexander Howard (bio)

Charles Henri Ford was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1908 and died in New York City in 2002. Immortalized in paint by his lover Pavel Tchelitchew (fig. 2), the openly queer Ford was America’s first surrealist poet, as well as an important second-generation modernist writer and little magazine editor. Responding positively to camp’s promise of an alternative set of values detached from what Susan Sontag describes as “the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment,” Ford sought to rework, subvert, and expose the absurdities, prejudices, and limitations of dominant forms and norms throughout his career (“Notes on ‘Camp,’” 286). Ostentatiously stylish, Ford’s praxis engages with camp and prefigures the emergence of ostensibly postmodern—and equally camp—American cultural formations such as the New York School of poetry and pop art.

The alternative aesthetic standards underpinning camp cultural production appealed to Ford, much as they did to postwar New York School poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, because, to borrow Mark Silverberg’s recent formulation, they “put emphasis not on breaking with the past but on remaking it through stylization, exaggeration, and theatricality.”21 Stylization is a topic Ford discusses in his unpublished “From a Record of Myself” (1948). A series of typewritten pages embedded in a section of his journal, this critically neglected document proves important to camp modernism for a number of reasons. For one thing, it represents something approaching a consistent articulation of Ford’s literary and aesthetic position. (Typically Ford rather infuriatingly favors the fragmentary, the provisional, and the unfinished.) In addition, certain sections of Ford’s “Record” [End Page 9] both anticipate and bear out Jack Babuscio’s subsequent critical assertion that camp “emphasizes style as a means of self-projection, a conveyor of meaning, and an expression of emotional tone.”22 Such an emphasis is especially evident when Ford turns his back on the “mere accidental and impersonal thing called form” and instead argues for an expressive and stylized poetics of “personality” and “self-created laws,” one in which “the rules are not invented in advance but seem to be created as the poem forms itself.”23

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Fig 2.

Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Charles Henri Ford in Poppy Field (1933).

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Ford’s suggestions also read as ripostes to the contemporaneous brand of Eliotic impersonality that John Crowe Ransom and the formally conservative New Critics promoted. In The New Criticism (1941), Ransom contends that preexisting formal demands impact poetic creation. In his estimation, “the composition of a poem is an operation in which the argument fights to displace the meter, and the meter fights to displace the argument.”24 According to Ransom, it is the productive tension between meter and argument that ensures the success of a poem, and, in turn, the poet who wrote it. Ford’s conceptualization of poetic composition differs significantly from Ransom’s conflict-driven model. He argues that “form invents new ‘rules’—or better, [that] the rules are not invented in advance but seem to be created as the poem forms itself. In this sense ‘rules’ are not really rules but rather are self-created laws—created from—perhaps even identical with—the sense of form” (“From a Record of Myself,” 139). Ford’s organic conception of self-created form offers an alternative to New Criticism’s [End Page 10] impersonal poetics of paradox. Such a conception of self-created form could not in fact be further from Ransom’s idea of how poems are made.

Ford’s remark not only indicates the extent to which he parted company with the New Critics but also evokes the spirit of literary automatism privileged by André Breton and the surrealists. Ford was an early convert to the surrealist cause, and his interest in the movement is evident in his unpublished “Notes on Neo-Modernism” (ca. 1944). Couched in highly suggestive language, Ford’s fragmentary notes include a “Critique of Pure Surrealism.” In this critique, Ford takes it on himself to bring Breton’s movement “out from [the] underground,” and more fully into the view...


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