Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Ezra Pound and the Career of Modern Criticism by Michael Coyle and Roxana Preda

Ezra Pound and the Career of Modern Criticism Cover
Ezra Pound and the Career of Modern Criticism. Michael Coyle and Roxana Preda. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018. 256 + xvi. $90.00 (cloth).

The year is 1949. It’s the moment of the culturally searing Bollingen controversy in the United States, which erupts when the prestigious prize for “the highest achievement of American poetry,” issued by the Library of Congress, is awarded in February to American modernist poet Ezra Pound for the “Pisan Cantos”: this is the recent lyrical segment of the Cantos, Pound’s Dantescan long poem in progress, composed while he is held at an American military detention center near Pisa, Italy, during World War II, in 1945, after indictment for treason by the US government. On the Bollingen selection committee sit leading literary figures such as W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. At this moment, Pound is known as the once leonine figure of American and modernist letters brought low by a charge of treason emerging from his support of the Italian Fascist government, in the form of speeches broadcast over Rome Radio. The topics of these vary: some denounce international finance; some signal support for fascist Italy and Mussolini (whose heroic strong-man persona Pound has venerated for years); some include anti-Semitic diatribes; many are garbled and even raving in ways suggesting instability of mind.[1]

By 1949, Pound is also known as the poet at St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC, which Pound called “the bughouse”: when on the verge of standing trial for treason, Pound has been declared of unsound mind and medically unfit to stand trial; then committed. Pound was kept—Poundians often say “incarcerated”—at “St. Liz” for 12 years, between 1946 and 1958. Even as he was a poet in disgrace for many, many traveled in to see the titan of twentieth century poetry, ruined, the poet once lauded by T. S. Eliot as “il miglior fabbro.” The space created by this influx came to be known as the “Ezuversity.” Pound’s old friends and associates (such as Eliot and Marianne Moore) made the pilgrimage, as did classicist scholar Edith Hamilton, as did right-wingers, anti-Semites, and white supremacists caught by Pound’s politics of the 1950s.[2] Also visiting in numbers were many younger poets: these included Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, Diane di Prima and Louis Dudek. Pound clearly came to mean many different things to different people. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Visits to St Elizabeths” (1950) captures the subtle horror of the hospital’s setting, the vision of “the poet, the man” in a “house of Bedlam”; and also features the greater horror suggested through the figure of “the Jew” in a “newspaper hat” (wearing the news of the day) in an adjacent frame. (Bishop’s title also suggests that she herself visited more than once.) What the poem’s conjured concentric circles and mutually unintelligible frames of reference imply is that the “poet,” walled off in his own perspective and “time” and dementia, cannot perceive “the Jew.” In Pound’s case, given mental instability, together with a form of naivete perhaps linked to autism, there was apparently a failure to register the adjacency between his causes and lines of invective and racist atrocities of this cultural moment.[3]

Among much else that it achieves with skill, Ezra Pound and the Career of Modern Criticism places a new frame around this familiar narrative, bringing out its significance for understanding both the history of Pound’s reception (“The energetic iconoclast became a professors’ poet,” 23) and the development of professional academic literary studies—both modernist studies and “English” more broadly. The book is, first, a survey of commentary on Pound over time—together with an authoritative, fine-grained history of Pound studies as it developed through years of growth, consolidation, and fluctuations. Yet as the subtitle suggests, beyond this, the book addresses “the career of modern criticism” from the mid-twentieth century onward, also tracing the arc of English as a field.

The Bollingen controversy (“a flash point where many and sundry forces converged,” 27), to which the study rightly devotes a whole chapter and an appendix, unleashed a paroxysm of discourse in the United States about how the work of writers, as well as writers themselves, should be evaluated. According to which standards? What role should the politics of the writer play in the evaluation of the art? It is striking that Auden was among the fellows on the Bollingen Committee. In 1939, upon the death of W. B. Yeats—at nearly the same moment as the composition of his famous elegy—Auden published in the Partisan Review a tongue-in-cheek “court case” assessing the question of how the “greatness” of a poet should be decided. In the course of the piece, the suave opening statement of the “prosecution” was put to the test:

A great poet. To deserve such an epithet, a poet is commonly required to convince us of three things: firstly a gift of a very high order for memorable language, secondly a profound understanding of the age in which he lives, and thirdly a working knowledge of and sympathetic attitude towards the most progressive thought of his time.[4]

In the course of this ludic “trial,” Auden complicates this initial position, anticipating the cultural debate that would escalate during the period of Bollingen fallout ten years hence.

1949–50 was thus a moment of reckoning for American letters, and the account of the Bollingen controversy in Michael Coyle’s and Roxana Preda’s study—one of the most detailed and reflective I have encountered—brings out its immense cultural reverberations: “l’affaire Pound arguably emerges as one of the defining issues of twentieth-century intellectual life” (27). This was not only because of the vexed question of the relationship between poetry and politics—but also because defenders of the award, at the time of the decision and afterward, often aligned themselves with what became known as a foundational assumption of the so-called “New Criticism,” the major school of criticism at mid-twentieth century: that art should be assessed independent of “other considerations,” of either a writer’s life choices or politics. As Coyle and Preda note, this Bollingen “prize fight,” carried out in periodicals 1949–50, reflected a middle-class American culture of resentment against not just Pound and modern poetry but also literary and academic elites who could make such judgments athwart common cultural values. One implication of the event was to set the terms for much Pound criticism that followed (Coyle and Preda call it “the treaty of Bollingen” [85]), as well as debates afterward “regarding the relation of poetry and politics.” It also proved central to the establishment of the “institutional authority” of the New Criticism and the disciplinary hegemony it enjoyed until the poststructuralist revolution of the 1970s and 1980s transformed the field (23).

Those associated with the New Criticism were not the only defenders of Pound, the award, and what was understood in debate of the time as the allegiance to “autonomy of aesthetic judgment” underwriting the decision (31; the phrase is Irving Howe’s). Coyle and Preda valuably feature the many voices, twists, and nuances of this complex cultural discussion. Yet afterward, the award was often assumed to have been made possible by the dominance of New Critical commitments. I would even suggest that the now fabled backlash, whereby the New Criticism and what it had come to stand for fell radically from grace, stemmed importantly from the New Criticism’s association with such “autonomy” perceived as exacting far too high a price, in the way of inattention to ideology, history, and politics. Cultural historians such as Gerald Graff have emphasized the sometimes inexplicably exaggerated vitriol of attacks against the New Criticism in the 1970s.[5] I would read such animus as stemming importantly, though not exclusively, from an imperfect cultural memory of the horror associated with awarding a major literary prize to a poem written by a poet who, at best, turned a blind eye to the contiguity between his thought and the Shoah. Fairly or not, approaches associated with the New Criticism were regarded as responsible for letting this award happen; Tate and Warren, together with Eliot, were prominent members of the Bollingen committee, reinforcing this sense of connection.

Recently, in Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017), Joseph North regrets that cultural analysis, and what he calls the “the historicist-contextualist paradigm” now dominant in literary studies, has occluded other lines of work that he advocates as ways forward for the discipline. North calls for a turn back to critical work focused on aesthetics, form, and affect in addition to scholarship on thematics, history, and cultural context. He seeks to account for a major turn away from aesthetics in our field—and away from criticism and “close reading”—by way of the influence in the 1960s and 1970s of figures such as Raymond Williams.[6] While often persuasive, North’s account isn’t as well attuned to the role in this narrative of what happened in the United States: he attends very little to the New Criticism and the major impact its reputation exerted on the field. As Coyle and Preda note, citing John Paul Russo, New Criticism “was ‘no monolith,’” but rather “an inconsistent and sometimes confused movement” (54).[7] This is welcome demystification; yet the New Criticism has often been read as monolithic. As I’d emphasize even more than do Coyle and Preda, the turns to poststructuralist ideology critique and then to socio-historically inflected work in the American academy emerged in part from a repudiation of what had come to be associated with the New Criticism—e.g. narrowness of focus, routinization, all the blind spots that Graff and others have adduced—and above all, “close reading.” Close reading came to be regarded as counting grains of sand by ostrich-like observers in ways that ignored areas of enormity demanding (and not receiving) responsible engagement.[8]  

To extrapolate from Coyle and Preda, it was in part the Bollingen controversy that came to make the “close reading” of New Criticism come across as not only blinkered and theoretically unreflective, but also ethically negligent, callous to political responsibility, even party to forms of totalitarianism. Without awareness of “l’affaire Pound” shadowing the likes of Cleanth Brooks, it is much harder to account for the ways that the New Critics and close reading have often been pilloried. This said, it should be emphasized that there is no necessary connection between Pound’s work and “close reading.” In fact, it was generally Eliot, not Pound, whose verse was featured in New Critical readings; and Coyle and Preda recognize that Pound scholars have often resisted the paradigm of “close reading” (112). Yet the events of 1949 created in public perception strong cultural ligatures among Pound, New Criticism, and focus on aesthetics at the expense of ethical responsibility—and these in turn cast a very long shadow. They form an important part of our partially repressed disciplinary heritage.

Other aspects of this book’s portrait of the rise of Pound studies will be of lesser interest to a wider academic audience—for instance, the crucial role of Hugh Kenner in establishing Pound studies in the academy, and the pioneering work of many Pound scholars whose names have often now been forgotten in other quarters. Coyle and Preda catalogue these meticulously and thread them into a surprisingly absorbing narrative: to name just a few, John Espey on Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1955), William Van O’Connor’s and Edward Stone’s A Casebook on Ezra Pound (1959), Noel Stock’s Poet in Exile (1964) and A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound (1967) before his well known, if not generally well received, biography of 1970, Donald Davie’s Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964), and Wai-lim Yip’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay (1969). These lead into what Coyle and Preda acknowledge as the “golden age of Pound Studies” following Kenner’s “masterful” The Pound Era in 1971 (88, 87). Coyle and Preda are impressively alive to the significance of Kenner’s landmark study, showing their informed Poundian grasp of the larger cultural picture, engaging misperceptions with subtlety:

The Pound Era was published at precisely the moment that poststructuralist criticism was beginning to shake the foundations of the Anglo-American academy, and though Kenner’s paratactic presentation at the time struck many as partaking in that disruption of New Critical hegemony, it had in fact nothing to do with it. For all his stylistic pyrotechnics, Kenner was decidedly old school, still adhering to formalist insistences on the hegemony of the author’s text. . . . Two decades into the next century Kenner’s books still remains the benchmark against which all others are measured. (95)

Coyle and Preda also convey a vivid sense that Pound studies as a whole has remained at a remove from the patterns and trends of other neighborhoods in academia—in its own zone, in dialogue with them, but neither swept up or away. Over the years, such autonomy has sometimes felt like resistance or a bolt-hole, but given the major efforts in scholarship and criticism this book showcases, it also feels like welcome independence, like the internal logic (made legible by this study) of a field with integrity continually returning responsibly on its own terms to the fundamental question of what scholarly and critical equipment Pound’s unsettlingly multifaceted oeuvre requires. In this context, the significance of Carroll Terrell’s magisterial Companion is richly drawn. It is also good to follow the guidance of commentators sufficiently well-versed in Pound criticism to provide, surefootedly, examples under the heading “The Classics of Scholarship of the 1970s”—certainly meriting recognition as pathfinders, though few are invoked now outside Pound circles. These include James Wilhelm’s Dante and Pound; Ron Bush’s The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1976), Wendy Flory’s Ezra Pound and the Cantos: A Record of Struggle (1980), Michael André Bernstein’s Tale of the Tribe (1980), and Massimo Baciagalupo’s The Formèd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound (1980) (102). Coyle and Preda are the best kind of docents: they know this material right down to the details. I especially enjoyed recognition of Christine Froula’s To Write Paradise: Style and Error in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1984): the work of women is still rare and seldom acknowledged in Pound studies. Likewise good to encounter was Coyle’s and Preda’s mention of the unfairness with which Christine Brooke-Rose’s A ZBC of Ezra Pound (1971), as non-academic guide, was received. Valuable books I was sorry to miss in this part of the account were Stuart Y. McDougal’s Ezra Pound and the Troubadours (1973) and Kevin Oderman’s Ezra Pound and the Erotic Medium (1987).

Thanks to Coyle’s and Preda’s carefully textured storytelling, also displayed with skill is how Pound studies responded to the sense in the 1980s and 1990s that Pound’s politics needed to be engaged responsibly, often in a spirit of exposé; and then how it evolved as guided by the “sociomaterial turn” (as it was called in the 1990s) in modernist studies. This episode of the book situated in a wider context the work of major commentators such as Robert Casillo (Genealogy of Demons), Tim Redman (Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism) and Lawrence Rainey (Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture), shedding valuable light on their signifcant achievements.

At the last, the tie Coyle and Preda highlight between Pound studies and the “new modernist studies” is both striking and illuminating. They note with welcome accuracy the New Historical bent of this period of renewal in modernist studies (inflected by Geertzian “thick description”). They also reveal what I’ve never seen acknowledged: that the first organizing committee of the Modernist Studies Association was composed largely of people whose work had engaged seriously with Pound—such that modernist studies as we know it today was importantly shaped by academics who came of age with Pound studies.

The late section on biographies of Pound is handled with tact and finesse typical of the book. Even after navigating so much biographical work on Pound over the years, I found fascinating an anecdote on which the book lingers, from Charles Norman: we meet a young Pound in college, at the University of Pennsylvania. He was perceived as gullible by the other students, who duped him into running a bogus errand to fetch a doctor in the snow (162). He responded graciously, following up, never letting on whether or not he was wise to their trick. This vein of response I link to what I read as one root Pound’s colossal “errors and wrecks”—a kind of invincible naivete about the way the world actually worked. This kind of radical self-enclosure fed the insistence with which Pound established the infrastructure of modernism, but later in life, it also translated into persistent weird idealism in the face of horrifying cultural realities, which he apparently could not process at deeper ethical levels. Pound remained the beamish boy in the sandbox, enraged about pollution in the park and people and forces he perceived as the bullies on the playground, unable to see that those he worshipped and with whom he collaborated to vanquish the forces of “evil” (and for Pound, “USURA”) were often themselves implicated in those very forces.

The last chapter, featuring the important role of  journals in consolidating Pound studies as it itself came of age (including recognition of the heroic achievements of people such as William Cookson, who on a shoe-string at a young age created Agenda, so formative for Pound studies) shows methodological intelligence reflective of what major Pound scholarship from Lawrence Rainey and other like-minded critics has revealed.[9] Indeed these ephemeral publications are the “institutions” that made Pound studies possible. There is due recognition of the transformative breakthrough of Ezra Pound’s Contributions to Periodicals (ed. A. Walton Litz, James Longenbach, Lea Baechler), now fortunately digitized. There might, perhaps, have been more mention of the pivotal role of New Directions—established by Pound acolyte James Laughlin—as a publisher keeping scholarship “in” Pound over all these years.[10] There might also have been greater recognition of the significance of editions of Pound’s letters over the years, constituting a major vein of Pound scholarship 1980–2012: these editions have formed a major genre, in my view as important as monographs, with which to bring to light sociohistorical conditions giving rise to Pound’s work, evoking in rich detail many of the “homely contexts” (to invoke Rainey’s memorable phrase) seminal for Pound’s work and many turns.[11]

Whither Pound studies from here? On the one hand, in view of the nod given here to Kenner’s still dazzling Pound Era, it might now be the moment to move back to a “formalist” mode of criticism, attentive again not only to Pound’s sources, politics, the relation between politics and poetry, and the sociohistorical conditions for the production of his work, but also again to the often wondrous luminous details of his verse. Again, the volcanic aftereffects of the Bollingen controversy guided scholarship away from the supposed negligence of close reading. Perhaps now the air is clear enough that we might move back in, with a direction like that suggested by Joseph North, in both modernist studies and literary studies more generally. Moreover, with the exception of Leah Culligan Flack’s Modernism and Homer (2015) and Demetres Tryphonopoulos’s important The Celestial Tradition (1992), there has also been a surprising dearth of major sustained scholarship on Pound’s Classical sources—perhaps because so few in modernist studies are well trained in classics. This reads as another opportunity for the future.

Reading Coyle and Preda on Pound studies, I remember vividly my first Pound conference in 1997—entering the courtyard of Brunnenberg, the castle in Northwest Italy where Pound’s daughter, Mary De Rachewiltz, actually resided, the stuff of legend, source of some of the weird mythologies surrounding Pound studies. I remember Mary’s gracious reception, and her larger-than-life announcement that implicitly acknowledged the controversy fueling much work on Pound, and cutting against the sense that only some views were acceptable at court—something to the effect of: “You all may say anything you like.” (Years later, I gather typically, she wrote a handwritten letter praising the research of my own book on Pound, One Must Not Go Altogether with the Tide.) Later we assembled in spaces that, in this German-speaking part of Italy, were called by such names as “the Rittersaal.” I felt then that we had entered a kind of alternative universe in which much was possible, and impossible, according to laws bearing only tenuous relation to the rest of the academy. A lanky Hugh Kenner drifted by with a shock of white hair and what I recall as a sky-blue suit, bypassing those assembled for a panel to climb a ladder in Pound’s library for a book.

As seasoned scholars with a mature capacity for untangling skeins of fact and weaving narrative, considering the big picture steadily and whole, Coyle and Preda have developed a magnificent achievement making sense of (and offering a very legible map of) this Poundian world and its major driving vortices. Above all, beyond the controversies and gossip, the cliques, the frequent masculinism, the eccentricity and sometime crankishness, they rightly feature the work of scholarship—the courageous and generous achievement of generations of Pound scholars who always moved to a different rhythm, stubborn against the grain of mainstream academia. These scholars and critics have often forged their own paths and even methodologies and paradigms, presenting hard-won claims from the atelier, largely unsupported by wider trends.

Now, we find through the major research of this book, Pound studies may well have significantly, if obliquely, affected both the direction of modernist studies and the work of “English” more generally. As the book closes, we find that although Paideuma, the journal that sustained Pound studies for many years, is now defunct, now rising from the ashes is Make it New, a born-digital periodical created by Preda, who has done much to rejuvenate Pound scholarship after a period in which its eccentricity threatened to make it moribund rather than new. Preda is also overseeing the new digital Cantos and collaborating with gifted Pound studies researcher Archie Henderson on bibliographic work to support the discipline. Thanks to Preda and those working with her, Pound studies, it is safe to say, is now entering a new era.


[1] See “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of World War II, ed. Leonard Doob (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978).

[2] For Pound’s ties to extreme right-wing politics in the 1950s, see Alec Marsh, John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[3] On the possibility of autism, see Timothy Campbell, who quotes Cornelio Fazio of the University of Genoa (Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005], 125–26). For careful and informed commentary on Pound’s anti-Semitism, see Wendy Flory, “Pound and Antisemitism,” The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound, ed. Ira B. Nadel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 284–300.

[4] W. H. Auden, The Public v. The Late Mr. William Butler Yeats,” The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume II, 1939–1948, ed. Edward Mendelsohn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 3.

[5] For vitriolic attacks on the New Criticism, see Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), chapter 5.

[6] See Joseph North, Literary Criticism: An Institutional History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), especially “The Scholarly Turn,” 56–80.

[7] John Paul Russo, “The Tranquilized Poem: The Crisis of New Criticism in the 1950s,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30, no. 2 (1988): 198–229.

[8] I adapt this metaphor from Graff, Literature Against Itself (130). He draws the figure from Bruce Franklin, “The Teaching of Literature in the Highest Academies of Empire,” College English 31 (1970): 548–57.

[9] Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.)

[10] Greg Barnhisel, James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.)

[11] Lawrence Rainey, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 3.