Helen Carr, Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Jonathan Caper, 2009), 982 pp., ill., hardback, ISBN 9780224040303, £30.
Helen Carr’s Verse Revolutionaries is a brilliantly researched and detailed account of the lives of the American and British poets who formed the avant-garde group, the Imagists. It is a fully realised, comprehensive history of the development of Imagism, whose individual members, the early pioneers of Modernism, changed the concept of poetic form. As the title would suggest, Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (known as H.D.) are given the most detailed narrative account of their lives in Carr’s book, but other members of the group and characters on the periphery are as impressively researched and placed within the larger literary, social and political history of their time.
The text is separated into fourteen sections, each with several chapters, with two generous sections of illustrations including a mixture of photographic portraits of the individual Imagists. The text begins with the early years of Pound and H.D. They share a romance, a love of poetry and anti-bourgeois feelings against their somewhat privileged, but emotionally and artistically stifling suburban Philadelphia society. However, what lifts this text from pure historical reconstruction is Carr’s erudite use of theoretical secondary reading in gender, politics and class, which offers us a more complex and nuanced understanding of character. This is both a very readable biography and one that is very well informed. Thus, H.D.’s character is drawn away from the usual definitions placed upon her – mythical, dryad, unstable and with the usual over-eagerness to connect her with Freud – and towards the woman who had defined the poetry she would write by the age of nineteen. Throughout the years of Imagism, H.D. has to struggle against her nervousness about her work and feelings of inadequacy, especially when dealing with some of the powerful (often male) egos within the Imagist group, such as Pound himself. Carr brings H.D.’s courageous self-determination to the fore in her account, as well as the emotional vulnerabilities which make her an engaging figure. Similarly Pound’s often-difficult personality is given a balanced and realistic treatment. Misunderstood and ridiculed at school, Pound is an outsider who grows up with an aestheticism that has little to do with a philistine America (apart perhaps from Whistler), but that looks towards Europe for art and literature. Keen to leave for Europe, Pound is searching for artistic revolution, yet at this point, he is still paradoxically entrenched within Medievalism, fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and the Pre-Raphaelite reinvention of the past.
It is with Pound’s arrival in London that the book really comes into its own, as Pound becomes a part of the transition from the Edwardian period to Modernism. Here the scope and thoroughness of Carr’s primary research becomes particularly impressive, as she reconstructs a lost London society that is nevertheless a turning point in Anglo- American cultural history. Pound takes some convincing from the ‘two gangs’ of literary characters who are experimenting, looking for different ways to express their feelings of how poetry should change. Ford Maddox Hueffer (Ford), who is a part of a more established literary group, gives Pound the connections and the opportunity to meet one of his poetic heroes, W.B. Yeats. The other faction is that of the young poets Thomas Ernest Hulme and Frank Stock Flint, who between them arrange the first-ever meeting of the Imagist group. Both bring important strands of Modernism to the table at the Tour Eiffel restaurant, where they choose to discuss their poetry, Henri Bergson’s theories on intellect and intuition and the French poets’ vers libre. Carr explains succinctly: ‘Hulme had the theory; Flint had found the form’ (p. 194).
In fact Flint is responsible for many of the ideas surrounding Imagism. In August 1912 he publishes an article in Poetry Review outlining the many different French avant-garde groups and their poetry. He explains that each group has a journal and that the leader of the group is usually the editor. The model of Anglo-American Modernism is formed and it is a French one at that. Pound is deeply influenced by this article and reads all the French poets he can lay his hands on. He too wants to be a leader of an avant-garde group, so reinvents himself as the leader of the Imagists. With his skills of self-promotion now focused on the group, he brings in much-needed cash and acclaim from the publication of poetry in different journals, beginning what will be his subsequent career as the chief Impresario of Modernism. By October 1912, he has submitted three poems each by H.D. and Richard Aldington, H.D.’s husband, under the rubric Imagiste to Poetry magazine. That month Pound’s book Ripostes is published with an appendix called ‘The Complete Poetical Works of T.E. Hulme’, which carries a note that sees the first appearance of the word ‘imagiste’ in print. Aldington’s poems appear in the November issue of Poetry and H.D.’s in the issue of January 1913. Imagism as a movement is well and truly launched.
It takes Pound slightly longer to develop an impressionistic poetic form different from his versions of Provencal poetry, for which he draws on various influences, but when he does the results are perfection, even if they derive from a free translation from Chinese. ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Along with recognition, however, come disputes amongst the Imagists. This is mainly between Pound and newcomer Amy Lowell. Through her research, Carr fleshes out what tends to be one of the more forgotten stories of Imagism, doing justice to the range of what the principal actors at the time think and feel about Lowell’s takeover and reinvention of Modernism.
Lowell comes from an old, wealthy Boston family. She smokes cigars, sometimes a pipe, and Carr’s vivid description of her conjures up an image of Queen Victoria with good dress sense. Lowell is drawn to the Imagist movement by H.D.’s Sapphic poetry and comes to England, staying in a suite at the Berkeley Hotel in Piccadilly. Always on the look out for rich benefactors, Pound thinks Amy Lowell will provide money to finance a journal and as long as he publishes her poetry -– very beautiful poetry as it turns out -– that will be enough. But Lowell has other ideas. It becomes clear that Lowell is as savvy as Pound in promotion, coming up with the idea of Imagist anthologies and in particular seeing Imagism as speaking to the new spirit in American artistic life. Unlike Pound, she realises that Modernism’s future will lie in a new style for a new country, one that is rapidly changing due to turn-of-the-century immigration. Lowell’s instincts are democratic, giving no clear Imagist leadership, which infuriates the rather controlling Pound. He cruelly calls the rather plump Lowell ‘hippopoetess’.
Carr’s narrative at this point then includes a fascinating history of the short-lived Vorticist movement led by Wyndham Lewis, with whom Pound aligns himself and who produces the influential Blast magazine. The final two sections deal with World War I and the eventual dispersal of the Imagists. Hulme and the sculptor Henri Gauder-Brzeska die in action while Aldridge suffers from post-war trauma. H.D.’s first child is stillborn, something she feels the war has contributed to, and Pound leaves England. This final section of the book wonderfully encapsulates the wider literary and social history of this tumultuous period. The Imagist movement may have been short-lived, yet its work was to have a revolutionary impact on English-language writing for the rest of the 20th century.
The Anglo-American aspect of the book is impressive in the space and distance it covers: from the vast expanses of America to the relative compactness of London. The Imagist London walking, arguing and dining map is centred on Kensington and W11. When Pound writes to his parents that he is ‘going to make it good in this blooming village’, it must have really felt like one, as he does not move around as much as we might imagine. He briefly stays in Hammersmith, then moves to 10 Church Walk, by the graveyard behind St. Mary Abbots in Kensington; with all those Pre-Raphaelite associations Pound must have felt at home (so much so that he never really leaves the area, as he only moves a short distance to a flat when he marries). H.D. and Aldridge also live at the same addresses as Pound. The description of these places comes off Carr’s pages with great allure: Ford’s English Review offices in Holland Park Avenue, Kensington, Elkin Mathews’s bookshop and unofficial club for aspiring writers on Vigo Street, just off Regent Street, Pound’s place of work, The Regent Street Polytechnic, August Strindberg’s ex-wife’s bohemian café, The Golden Calf, situated in the basement in Heddon Street, off Regent Street, The Tour Eiffel restaurant in Percy Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. Flint lives a little further out in Islington, while the (literally) eccentric John Gould Fletcher, whose upbringing was in a large colonial style house in Little Rock, Arkansas, with a ‘Faulkneresque’ history, lives in Sydenham.
Flint said, ‘Imagism, like all other literary movements, was a general movement, a product and impulse of the time’ (p. 768). Carr explains that one of her reasons for writing Verse Revolutionarie is to show how right Flint was. She more than proves his point. The various characters’ parts in the movement are explained in minute detail: their poetry, what journals their poetry appeared in, private letters, friendships, affairs and marriages. This intricately woven web of relationships between characters shows how groups are not so easily definable, except by how they live, think and love and how readers can learn so much more by understanding this, rather than by relying merely on various definitions of the group’s work. Carr sets a scene or establishes a personality with great economy and lasting effect, which is the absolute joy of this book. I would liked to have known, though, how Pound’s long-suffering and devoted parents got on during their trip to London to meet him.
Verse Revolutionaries will appeal to a wide audience as it works on many levels. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Modernist poetry or in London and its literature, where Carr’s research is fundamental. It will be an invaluable resource for lecturers and is sure to be a defining text on Imagism for a new generation. Use it for the abundant historical detail, for the period atmosphere and for the humorous vignettes to make your students laugh. I cannot emphasise enough how important this text will be for researchers. Indeed, Carr even discusses areas for new research (see p. 116 for ideas). Keep an Imagist anthology close to you as you read because, in reading this account of the poets’ lives, you will be compelled to re-read their poems and that is one reason I enjoyed this book so much.
To Cite This Article:
Sue Nolan, ‘Review: Helen Carr, Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 2 (September 2009). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2009/nolan.html. Accessed on [date of access]