By Charles Matthews

Saturday, April 23, 2011

8. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 142-169

Symbolism: The Autonomy of Art; The Objective Artifact (F.S. Flint, Ezra Pound, Jean Dubuffet). Alogical Structure (Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Max Ernst, Sergei Eisenstein)

F.S. Flint and Ezra Pound: Imagism

F.S. Flint, date unknown
Less well-known today than Pound, Flint was also an Imagist poet. The two joined in an explanation of the Imagist credo in a 1913 issue of Poetry. Flint enumerates the three "rules" of Imagism:
  1. Direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective. 
  2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation. 
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. 
He also asserts that Imagists "consider that Art is all science, all religion, philosophy and metaphysic."

Ezra Pound in 1913
Pound picks up on the familiar idea that all arts aspire to the purity of music, and adds his own twist: You have to learn an instrument and practice to become a musician; similar development of knowledge and technique should be expected of poets. "Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music." The aspiring Imagist should also concentrate on rhythm, "fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement."

Despite the name, Imagism is not to be confused with mere description. Leave describing things to painters, who "can describe a language much better than you can" because they have "to know a deal more about it." The poet can go beyond the descriptive with metaphor: "When Shakespeare talks of the 'Dawn in russet mantle clad' he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents."

In contrast to Robert Frost's assertion that poetry is what's lost in translation, Pound says, "That part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginative eye of the reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the original." He exalts Dante as a model, because of his "definiteness," over Milton, who was rhetorical. "Read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem too unutterably dull," he advises, and sends the aspiring Imagist to "Sappho, Catullus, Villon, Heine when he is in the vein, Gautier when he is not too frigid; or, if you have not the tongues, seek out the leisurely Chaucer."

Ezra Pound: Vorticism

By 1916, Pound had joined up with Wyndham Lewis and was expanding his Imagist credo to other arts, particularly painting. And once again, the purity of music was held up as a norm. In his essay on Vorticism, Pound's attempts to connect Imagism to this larger movement, called Vorticism, and to distinguish it from futurism and all the other artistic -isms of the day, are a bit strained. He once again presents Dante as an exemplar of Imagism and dismisses Milton as "a wind-bag" because "The 'image' is the furthest remove from rhetoric," which he defines as "the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being." He also reiterates the three "tenets of the Imagiste faith" that Flint outlined above.

Ultimately, the success of a work under Pound's criteria depends on its full use of the medium in which it is created:
The Victory of Samothrace, c. 190 BCE
The work of art which is most "worth while" is the work which would need a hundred works of any other kind of art to explain it. A fine statue is the core of a hundred poems. A fine poem is a score of symphonies. There is music which would need a hundred paintings to express it. There is no synonym for the Victory of Samothrace or for Mr. Epstein's flenites. There is no painting of Villon's Frères Humains. Such works are what we call works of the "first intensity."
Jacob Epstein, Female Figure in Flenite, 1913
Pound attempts to define Imagism (or Imagisme, since he seems to have resorted to the French spelling by this time) by what it is not. It isn't, for example, "symbolism," by which he means allusive or allegorical: "One can be grossly 'symbolic,' for example, by using the term 'cross' to mean 'trial.'" But mostly he objects "because symbolism has usually been associated with mushy technique." And Imagism(e) isn't Impressionism, though he admits that "the impressionist method of presentation" (whatever that is) has influenced it.

But he admits that he is defining by negation, so he tries the direct approach: "The painters realise that what matters is form and colour.... The Image is the poet's pigment." And to keep art pure is the aim: "in writing poems, the author must use his image because he sees it and feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed or some system of ethics or economics. An image, in our sense, is real because we know it directly." And then he gives us the genesis of one of his most famous poems:
Three years ago in Paris, I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion.
He realized that if he had been a painter he might have been able to express that emotion in his art: "I might found a new school of painting, of 'non-representative' painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour." And that the emotion could also have been expressed in music or in sculpture. But it was the emotion, and not the particular details of his encounter in the Metro, that demanded expression. "All poetic language is the language of exploration. Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments. The point of Imagisme is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image itself is the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language."

So in his attempt to express the emotion in the simplest and purest form, he thought of the Japanese hokku (or as it's now usually spelled, haiku).
I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work "of second intensity." Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:--
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.
... In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.
(I have commented on this poem elsewhere.)

He now observes that there is a conflict between two schools that seem to the casual observer to be doing very similar things. Vorticism "is, roughly speaking, expressionism, neo-cubism, and imagism gathered into one camp and futurism in the other. Futurism is descended from impressionism. It is, in so far as it is an art movement, a kind of accelerated impressionism. It is a spreading, or surface art, as opposed to vorticism, which is intensive." The quarrel between Vorticists and Futurists now seems piffling in the larger context of modern art, however. More to the point is Pound's insistence that "Vorticism is an intensive art." So why is it called Vorticism?
The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing.... On the other hand, no artist can possibly get a vortex into every poem or picture he does. One would like to do so, but it is beyond one.

Jean Dubuffet: The Value of Materials

Jean Dubuffet, date unknown
Dubuffet, unlike most of the artists covered so far, was born in the twentieth century -- just barely, 1901 -- and lived until 1985, but his remarks on the materials of his painting and sculpture cohere with those of the older artists in the anthology. For him the materials are identical with the subject of of his art: "I see no great difference (metaphysically, that is) between the paste I spread and a cat, a trout or a bull." (By "paste" he means the impasto in which he frequently worked, a mixture of oil paint with thickeners such as sand or straw, which gave the surfaces of his works texture.) And there a connection not only between the materials and the subject, but also between the artist and his medium: "My connection with the material I use is like the bond of the dancer with his partner, the rider with his horse, the fortune teller with her cards.

With his materials, Dubuffet created a body of work that has been celebrated (and criticized) for its strangeness -- a word that he fully accepts:
I must say my feeling is -- always has been -- very strong that the key to things must not be as we imagine it, but that the world must be ruled by strange systems of which we have not the slightest inkling. This is why I rush toward strange things. I am quite convinced that truth is strange; it is at the far end of strangeness that one has a change to find the key to things.
Among his subjects, inevitably, is the female body, and his treatment of it, as in The Tree of Fluids, is characteristically shocking:
Jean Dubuffet, The Tree of Fluids, 1950
It is a protest against "a very specious notion of beauty (inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by the magazine covers).... Surely I aim for a beauty, but not that one. The idea that there are beautiful objects and ugly objects, people endowed with beauty and others who cannot claim it, has surely no other foundation than convention -- old poppycock -- and I declare that convention unhealthy.... The beauty of an object depends on how we look at it and not at all on its proper proportions."

As for his own reputation, "I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent celebration."

Rainer Maria Rilke: Language Within Language

The one thing about art in the twentieth century that troubles many today is that it became defiantly elitist, even to the extent of scorning the approval of all but the cognoscenti. It retreated into obscurity, putting up a wall of difficulty between art and audience. Which is not to say that the audience didn't eventually adapt, so that even some of the most cryptic works of the modernists now seem comfortable and even banal to the once-scorned bourgeoisie.

Some artists even claimed that their role as artists made them destructive to the ordinary means of communication, as Rilke seems to assert in this 1926 letter to the rather wonderfully named Countess Margot Sizzo-Norris-Crouy (whose relationship to Rilke I have yet to identify):
the material of the other arts is removed as a matter of course from daily use, while the poet's task is increased by the strange obligation to set apart his word from the words of everyday life and communication thoroughly and fundamentally. No word in the poem (I mean here every "and" or "the") is identical with the same-sounding word in common use and conversation; the purer conformity with the law, the great relationship, the constellation it occupies in verse or artistic prose, changes it to the core of its nature, renders it useless, unserviceable for mere everyday use, untouchable and permanent
No doubt Rilke is playing with an idea here, exaggerating the germ of truth that things are not said the same way in verse as they are in poetry, and expressing a bit of the frustration that writers have always felt with finding le mot juste.

James Joyce: Plastic Language

No one, of course, took greater liberties with language than Joyce in Finnegans Wake, an excerpt from which he sends to Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of The Egoist, and the courageous publisher of his work. He adds a glossary of the macaronic puns and thrice-buried allusions in the few sentences. And he signs the letter "Jeems Joker," which leaves one to ask if this is playful seriousness or serious play.

Dylan Thomas: A Battle of Images

Dylan Thomas, date unknown
Thomas's poems have always seemed to me more sound-driven than image-driven, but here, in a 1956 letter to the poet and critic Henry Treece, he concentrates on the images in his work: "A poem by myself needs a host of images, because its centre is a host of images." This center seeds the poem with other images, so that "the life in any poem of mine cannot move concentrically round a central image; the life must come out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions." As Thomas says, all this is "necessarily vague to me." And to me.

Hart Crane: The Dynamics of Metaphor

Hart Crane, photographed by Walker Evans in 1930
No poet took greater liberties with language than Crane, and Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, felt compelled to call him on some of his excesses. Their exchange of letters was published in Poetry in 1926. Monroe is frank about the difficulties she found in his poem "At Melville's Tomb":
Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death's bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else).

And so on. I find your image of frosted eyes lifting altars difficult to visualize. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe.

All this may seem impertinent, but is not so intended. Your ideas and rhythms interest me, and I am wondering by what process of reasoning you would justify this poem's succession of champion mixed metaphors, of which you must be conscious.
Crane's reply is surprisingly gracious, and his explanation of the images and mixed metaphors that so troubled Monroe is equally surprisingly cogent. He asserts that "as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations." Fair enough. He goes on to cite I.A. Richards's then-recently published essay about "pseudo-statements" in defense of his attempt at "other faculties of recognition than the pure rationalistic associations." Again, art is set against science: "emotional dynamics are not to be confused with any absolute order of rationalized definitions; ergo, in poetry the rationale of metaphor belongs to another order of experience than science."

And as for whether the poet writes for himself or for the audience, "as long as poetry is written, an audience, however small, is implied, and there remains the question of an active or an inactive imagination as its characteristic."

Monroe, however, as a member of that small audience for Crane's kind of poetry, gets the last word: "You find me testing metaphors, and poetic concept in general, too much by logic, whereas I find you pushing logic to the limit in a painfully intellectual search for emotion, for poetic motive. Your poem reeks with brains -- it is thought out, worked out, sweated out. And the beauty which it seems entitled to is tortured and lost."

Max Ernst: Multiple Vision

Max Ernst, date unknown
In Beyond Painting (1948), Ernst writes of his discovery in 1919 of "an illustrated catalogue showing objects designed for anthropologic, microscopic, psychologic, mineralogic, and paleontologic demonstration." The hardware of other professions fascinated him, and the images combined themselves in his mind "with the persistence and rapidity which are peculiar to love memories and visions of half-sleep."

He began to modify these images with additions from his own imagining, "a color, a pencil mark, a landscape foreign to the represented objects, the desert, a tempest, a geological cross-section, a floor, a single straight line signifying the horizon ... thus I obtained a faithful fixed image of my hallucination."

Max Ernst, Stratified Rocks, Nature's Gift of Gneiss Lava Iceland Moss..., 1920

Sergei Eisenstein: The Image in Process
Sergei Eisenstein, date unknown

The most modern of the modern arts is, of course, cinema. Its commercial origins, however, made artists in the traditional media, especially those arguing that art should exist for its own sake, uncomfortable with embracing it. But then the Russian director Eisenstein gave it intellectual underpinnings with The Film Sense in 1938, aligning film with the established arts. Here he focuses on montage, the ability to edit separate shots together in a way that the result "resembles not so much a simple sum of one shot plus another shot -- as it does a creation."

The individual shots, when juxtaposed, reveal "that general quality in which each detail has participated and ... binds together all the details into a whole, namely into that generalized image, wherein the creator, followed by the spectator, experiences the theme." He proceeds by making a distinction between "representation" and "image." He has us imagine a white circular disc, divided into sixty equal parts, with numbers from 1 through 12 arranged at equal distances around its circumference, and two rods, one equal to the radius and the other shorter, fixed at the center but free to rotate around the surface of the disc. It doesn't take long for the reader to realize that he's talking about a clock face, and that the disc "is now not simply a representation, it is an image of time."

He quotes from Anna Karenina a passage in which Vronsky looks at his watch but because he is so preoccupied he doesn't actually notice what time it is. In this case, the watch is "perceived as no more than a simple geometrical figure." It needs a participating viewer to become an image of time.
A given order of hands on the dial of a clock invokes a host of representations associated with the time that corresponds to the given order. Suppose, for example, the given figure be five. Our imagination is trained to respond to this figure by calling to mind pictures of all sorts of events that occur at that hour. Perhaps tea, the end of the day's work, the beginning of rush our on the subway, perhaps shops closing, or the peculiar late afternoon light.... In any case we will automatically recall a series of pictures (representations) of what happens at five o'clock.

The image of five o'clock is compounded of all these individual pictures.
Eisenstein then observes that the way such images are formed in actual life "turn out to be the prototype of the method of creating images in art." He found it hard to remember street names in New York City because they are for the most part numbers, whereas streets designated with names are easier to recall. But when he began to associate specific buildings, theaters, restaurants, and so on with a street the task became easier: Then, "at the mention of the street's 'number,' there still arose this whole host of its separate elements, but now not as a chain, but as something single -- as a whole characterization of the street, as its whole image."
A work of art, understood dynamically, is just this process of arranging images in the feelings and mind of the spectator. It is this that constitutes the peculiarity of a truly vital work of art and distinguishes it from a lifeless one, in which the spectator receives the represented result of a given consummated process of creation.
Eisenstein then invokes something like Eliot's "objective correlative": "the task that confronts [the artist] is to transform this image into a few basic partial representations which, in their combination and juxtaposition, shall evoke in the consciousness and feelings of the spectator, reader, or auditor, that same initial general image which originally hovered before the creative artist." This is also what Pound was aiming for in his haiku-like poem meant to evoke his feelings at the Métro station.

But film is different from poetry and painting. "The strength of montage resides in this, that it includes in the creative process the emotions and mind of the spectator." In fact, "the spectator is drawn into a creative act in which his individuality is not subordinated to the author's individuality, but is opened up through the process of fusion with the author's intention."

No comments:

Post a Comment