Sunday, 3 January 2016


My favourite book of 2015 was Kevin Jackson's Constellation Of Genius, which was published in 2012 but being me I only caught up to it this summer. It's subtitled 1922: Modernism And All That Jazz and it is basically a diary of a year which Jackson says was the start of a new age. Or rather, Ezra Pound said it, calling it year one 'post scriptum Ulixi' or after the writing of Ulysses. Of course, Pound's new epoch soon was subsumed in his enthusiasm for Mussolini, but that's a different constellation. In his introduction Jackson acknowledges that what we think of as modernism actually arises over a period of time that begins nearly two decades earlier, but his view is predominantly literary, and predominantly Anglo-centric, and 1922 therefore makes sense, bracketed as it were by James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's Waste Land. 1922 was also the year William Carlos Williams published Spring And All, revolutionary in its own way, but it passes without notice here.  

But the book is not designed as an argument; it is an unfolding of a year presented as an outflowing of ideas, and as such becomes a joy to follow. It created a dilemma for me as a reader: did I keep it handy to simply dip into bit by bit, entranced by its surprises and welcoming its invitations to make connections and consider our perceptions of art, or should I just surrender to the momentum of the calendar, and read along in a flurry of excitement? How many books do you read these days that create excitement? The same sort that reading Ulysses for the first time did, or Hemingway's In Our Time, which remains to me his finest work (along with some of the other early stories).

Not that these were being read widely in 1922. Having grown up studying them, seen them as if displayed behind perspex, we forget the nature of the world they started to overturn. That is why I said Anglo-centric, even though Joyce is Irish and Eliot and Pound are American. Here's a home-grown English modernist, Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Jackson, about Ulysses

and Tom [Eliot} great Tom, thinks it on a par with War And Peace! An illiterate, underbred book, it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is a glory in blood”

This puts the problems of literary modernism into a nutshell. Growing up in the Sixties, in America, my perception of Eliot was coloured by his bastard offspring, the 'New Critics', and the coded interpretations of modern reference that entailed, their clinging on to the elitism of a sort of upper-middle class experimentation. I mentioned William Carlos Williams' 1922 book going unmentioned here; Williams himself noted, when he read The Waste Land it 'set me back twenty years'.

In my upbringing, the world of Elliott and Woolf was being overturned by the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets (though Charles Olson's personal mythology needed as many footnotes as Eliot's) and a new freedom of language and, yes, raw expression. Eliot seemed a Yank who had gone 'over there' and not come back, as Frost or Hemingway or Cummings had; moreover he had adapted the protective colouration of the old world, a reversal of classic American 'going native'. Yet to those whose colouration he adopted, the raw savages were 'self-taught working men'. But it was amazing to me, when I moved to Britain in the late Seventies, to discover how important Eliot was still to the older generation of artists, how liberating his work, which I considered constricted, actually had been, and still was to them, and I revisited it through a new perspective as a result.

In light of this, Ezra Pound, whose influence wound up being far greater in America, and who is in many ways the central figure in Jackson's book, gets short shift. He was the mover and shaker in the literary world of London and Paris, but more important, and what doesn't receive notice here, is the way Pound absolutely transformed The Waste Land. His editing on it was immense and made it something it would not have been otherwise, a challenge to both language and formal constraint. The line from Eliot through the Imagists to the poets I mentioned earlier, proceeds directly through Pound, and I would argue only because of him.

But as I said, this is not a book of argument, it is one of connection. And as I followed its progress through the year, I thought of the photos of the great artistic experimenters of that era, the bohemians, the surrealists, the modernists, and how they are always posed formally, in their suits and collars, or at least neckties; how this was a world whose boundaries they were knocking down while still remaining at least on the surface tied to them. I wish Jackson might have included more about actual jazz, though I'm not convinced 1922 is a crucial year. I reviewed once, for the Spectator, Philip Larkin's writings on jazz; it occurred to me that his adulation of the early twenties and Louis Armstrong, and his ultimate disdain for almost everything that followed, was a form of fetishism for the liberating sense that music brought him in his youth, a freedom from the strictures of his upbringing.

And that was what I kept coming back to, how revealing this book is about the world that was being changed or at least challenged by modernism. Again, I call on Woolf, commenting on the death of Kitty Maxse, thought of as the model for Mrs. Dalloway, who fell down a flight of stairs. 'Still it seems a pity Kitty did kill herself: but of course she was an awful snob'. Ms. Pot does not seem very modernist at all. I may have connected with Constellation Of Genius because it took me back, as much to the England which I encountered in 1977 as it did to 1922, an England that was in many ways far closer to the world 50 years earlier than it is to a world only 40 years later. The book sits by my bedside still, and I still dip into it. The best of both worlds. Again, how many books rate such a position?

Constellation Of Genius by Kevin Jackson
Windmill Books, £9.99, ISBN 9780099559023

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