What’s New?

The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America

edited by LeRoi Jones
Corinth, 351 pp., $5.95

An anthology called The Moderns had better, one thinks, be good. If it isn’t, it will be difficult for it to avoid appearing pretentious, which, I am afraid, is how Mr. Jones’s collection strikes me. His Introduction does not help me to feel otherwise. It has its perceptive moments, but on the whole it is too arcane for my understanding; and I wish he could have spelt out his assumptions and his principles of selection more simply and with expanded references.

What he means by “modern” seems clear enough:

The possibility of a “new American poetry” meant, of course, that there was equally to be sought out, a new or fresher American prose. The concerns that made the poetry seem so new were merely that the writers who were identified with this recent poetic renaissance were continuing the tradition of twentieth century modernism that had been initiated in the early part of this century. William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, The Imagists, the French symbolist poets were restored to importance as beginners of a still vital tradition of Western poetry. It was an attempt to restore American poetry to the mainstream of modern poetry after it had been cut off from that tradition by the Anglo-Eliotic domination of the academies.

The prose restoration was subtler, but it depended not a little for its impetus on the revived intellectual spirit that began to animate American poetry….

I said “clear enough;” but in discussing modernism, in historical terms, is it possible to reject Eliot and keep Pound in tact? And though I like the phrase, I’d be fascinated to know what constitutes the “Anglo” half of Mr. Jones’s “domination of the academies.” Then there’s this recent poetic renaissance in the United States; I’d like to have it more precisely described. I find it difficult to believe, from the work Mr. Jones has gathered together, that either Robert Lowell or John Berryman, for example, has contributed to it.

Mr. Jones has, however, another phrase that seems to throw light on his intentions: “Just let me say that the work in this collection does exist out of a continuing tradition of populist modernism that has characterized the best of twentieth-century American writing.” The sentence is ambiguous; but I assume that it means, not that the work in the collection exists outside a continuing tradition of populist modernism, but that it springs from it. My real interest in the sentence, though, is in the phrase “populist modernism.” Though I believe I can see how Mr. Jones comes to use it, I think, if the words are used in their normal senses, it is a contradiction in terms. Plainly enough, there have been in American writing during this century two traditions, one that can be called populist, stemming largely from Whitman, the other modernist and developing historically from French symbolism. At moments, they have converged—notably in the writings of William Carlos Williams; but generally, it seems to me, the convergences …

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