Peter Brooker and Simon Perril

Writing in The New Age in 1911, Allen Upward claimed that 'It is a sign of the times that so many of us should be busy in studying the signs of the times' (Upward, 1911, p. 297). A lifetime and more later the newness which captivated Upward's contemporaries is a thing of the past, though it is by name 'modern' and 'modernist' still. One of the paradoxical signs of our own times is that we are 'after' the modern and view from this perspective. But in a sense modernism has never synchronized with its times. It has always been a retrospective formation, both in its internal history, as Stan Smith (1994) has shown, and in its later construction as an orthodoxy valued by criticism. The modernist movement can only be understood then as this discursive and cultural construction; a combined aesthetic and idea of civilization in the making rather than a point of undisputed identity. If follows that there was no queue of precursors leading up one by one to the modernist moment. Certainly, its history includes a number of acknowledged influences and can be read quite feasibly, at a distance anyway, as a narrative of before and after. There was a time in the 1920s when the first move — 'to break the iamb' as Pound had put it — had been made, when a new poetry, modern in its materials and idiom, had been decisively introduced. But then this seems more true if Eliot rather than Pound or some others is the example. And if Eliot is taken to be the exemplary modernist we might remember William Carlos Williams's reaction to The Waste Land — 'a catastrophe to our letters' which 'gave the poem back to the academics' (Williams, 1951, p. 146). One man's modernism was one culture's preferred modernism and another modernist's or other culture's retrograde traditionalism. There is therefore no avoiding the now common understanding of 'modernism' as entailing a network of 'modernisms'; less a united revolution or homogeneous orthodoxy than a heterodox weave of anticipations, traces, tensions and contested positions. In this sense modernism is a script, written over, revised and above all 'edited': in the re-making of tradition as in the composition of individual poems and in the promotion, publication and reception of poets, poems and lines of verse - a process involving obstruction and suppression as much as a coming into print and into view.

Most of the discussion below concerns T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, primarily because of their immersion in this process and their pivotal role as conduits and instigators in the making of modern verse. It is not our intention in this way to endorse the Anglo-American modernist canon (which has anyway never received both poets equally). Our concern is rather to return these poets to the transitional and symbiotic histories of verse and modernity. The effect of such an examination, introductory though it is, is rather to undermine than shore up their monumentalism, to unravel rather than fix the text of modernism and to disperse rather than determine any supposed point of origin.

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