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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 have been more apparent than real. Despite his early poem, Pound never has made his pact with Whitman, and many writers who look like populist-modernists do so only because of the nature of their content. Henry Miller is the conspicuous example. A populist writer descending from Whitman, he published his books in Paris, because of censorship in the United States and Britain. So did Joyce, for the same reason. It is about the one thing they have in common; the enormous differences between their works, in imagination, power over language, scope, sensitivity, control, are glaring.

Modernism, the quality in a work of art that, to follow Stephen Spender’s useful distinction, makes it modern and not simply contemporary, is much too complex a phenomenon to be defined in a sentence or a paragraph. But it can be recognized in specific works, and in any event complexity is of its essence; which is one reason why the word “populism” pairs off with it so badly. Two sides of modernism petered out in the Thirties: the attempt to write—or create—directly from the unconscious, and the preoccupation with the word. Finnegans Wake has proved a mule of a book: it has had no progeny. As for the populist side of modernism, Henry Miller is the granddaddy of the Beats.

Which is where one comes back to Mr. Jones’s anthology. What one finds, when one gets there, is not anything resembling so much the masters of modernism as their forgotten disciples. One is back in the little magazines of the Twenties and Thirties, back in transition and This Quarter, the one largely following Joyce’s experiments with language and publicizing surrealism, which seemed to have something to do with Joyce, though a more highly conscious work than Finnegans Wake was never written; the other, as one recalls it, much more concerned with naturalism. The contents of The Moderns do indeed fall very largely into these categories, preoccupation with the word, as with William Burroughs, what Jack Kerouac calls “spontaneous prose,” which is very close to surrealism, and naturalism. The naturalists here seem to me much the more successful, perhaps for self-evident reasons. In one way, they are attempting less. But Hubert Selby, Jr. presents in “Another Day Another Dollar” a horribly effective story in horribly vivid terms of “meaningless” big-city gang violence. Michael Rumaker, who strikes me as the most interesting talent here, has a story of insanity, “The Teddy Bear,” which beautifully renders—beautifully because one is aware all the time of the author’s control over his material—the locked-in isolation of madness and also hints at the possibility of its being broken. And Edward Dorn, writing most obviously in what I take to be the populist tradition, in “C. B. & Q.” successfully catches moments in the lives of inarticulate itinerant workers in the west.

These stories belong to one of the most strongly marked traditions of American writing: it is impossible to read them without thinking of Dahlberg and Farrell and the early Algren, even of Anderson. They don’t extend the tradition: they show it is still alive and potent. But what of the rest of the book? There is phantasmagoria—Kerouac watching a burlesque show in Seattle and street-scenes in Manhattan, LeRoi Jones himself recreating Harlem scenes of his childhood. There are visions of a regimented science-fiction future by Kerouac and Douglas Woolf. John Rechy excerpts three pieces from City of Night. Diane di Prima stutters, monosyllabically for the most part, in what I take to be a simpliste neo-Imagist way:

You gotta love he said. The world is full of children of sorrow and I am always sad.

He was watching this cat beat up his chick in the street.

Sure man I said. The children of sorrow.

The chick had nothing on but her bra and pants and she was kneeling on the sidewalk.

All over the world he said the children are weeping. I weep with all the children in the world.

Great I said.

The cat kept saying get up you fucking whore but the chick just knelt on the sidewalk….

There are brief, portentously significant stories by Robert Creeley. William Burroughs goes on being himself.

It’s ironical to read the date and place of composition at the end of one of his pieces: “Nov. 14, 1962, Paris.” The sub-title of the collection is “an anthology of new writing in America.” O.K. But where’s the novelty? Reading The Moderns, I was haunted by memories of writers who were doing better, thirty years ago, what is attempted here: Céline, Auden in The Orators, Algren, a number of almost forgotten novelists of the Depression period. If what’s wanted is the new in American writing, the new in the sense of an extension of modernity, much better go back to Bellow, Ellison, and Malamud.

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