“Learned Poetry,” Modernist Juxtaposition, and the Classics: Three Case Studies
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), David Jones (1895-1974), and Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978), born roughly a decade after the great modernist triumvirate of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot, each wrote poems in which classical learning imposes a significant presence. Of their further common attributes, most obvious is a hybridized ethnocultural identity that productively discomfited each poet’s relationship to the English language. The poetic project of each included developing a special language for poetry, lexically polyglot and spatiotemporally cosmopolitan. Each wrote at times in what might be called a literary creole, but also, to use MacDiarmid’s (“Towards a Synthetic Scots,” in Contemporary Scottish Studies [Manchester 1995] ed. Alan Riach 368-73) term, a “synthetic,” one, instancing language itself as an artifact of poetic making. Their poetic theories as well as their poems are informed by thoroughgoing if fraught aesthetic commitment to a modernism of difficulty and complexity in the Joycean-Poundian mode. At the level of form, we find this commitment manifested through the common presence of juxtaposition, a modernist technique used in practice by each to produce epiphanic flashes of simultaneity, and underwritten in theory by an idiosyncratic allegiance to a set of ideas related to Joyce’s (R. Ellman, James Joyce [Oxford 1983] 557) dictum that “in the particular is contained the universal.” Juxtaposition turns out to be, for each of these three late modernist poets, a major, highly productive, and often surprising mode of classical reception.
As poets of classical learning—a learning largely autodidactic in source and resolutely poetic in its modes of knowledge production—MacDiarmid, Jones, and Zukofsky exemplify a relation to Greco-Roman antiquity in which sustained attention to detailed particularity amounts to something richer than mere antiquarianism. They share the belief that some verbal artifacts, from classical sources and elsewhere in the history of the human species, contain a portable, reactivatable power to represent shared human experience and thereby actualize a human community across time and space. What grounds this belief is no version of the familiar high modern talk of transcendent civilizational norms but rather a set of convictions about the significances activated through the process of human making.
This paper studies a characteristic passage from each of the three modernist poets exemplifying juxtaposition as a poetically enlivening mode of classical reception. MacDiarmid’s late poem “Direadh III” (Complete Poems vol. 2 [Manchester 2017] 1186-93), recounting its speaker’s mountaintop experience on the Isle of Skye where he reviews and recapitulates his life’s work as Scotland’s modern poet, features an moment where his attention is captured by the particular motion of a bird in flight. This perception gives the speaker an inexplicably powerful sense of knowing and sharing the bird’s experience of liberation, and only after the speaker has identified this sense as originating in the distant memory of some lines from a chorus in Euripides’ Hippolytus does the juxtaposition of the two impressions produce an epiphanic effect that radiates through the rest of the poem. David Jones’ 1937 long prose poem In Parenthesis (New York 1961) a war narrative written in a stream of consciousness roaming across Celtic as well as Roman and Christian symbology, begins and ends with a set of illustrations juxtaposing elements of Jones’ own traumatic lived experience of combat in the first world war alongside Latin verses from the Vulgate Bible depicting ecstatic visions of apocalypse. And in Louis Zukofsky’s poem “A”-12 (“A” [Baltimore 1978] 126-261) composed in the 1950s after the death of the poet’s father, the line “P.Z. still remembers the day ‘Aristotle’ died” (164) juxtaposes a set of experiences (the poet’s son Paul, his grandfather’s namesake, giving the nicknames “Plato” and “Aristotle” to a pair of balloons) and affiliations (Zukofsky’s lifelong passion for Aristotle’s philosophy) to a set of convictions about poetry’s power to activate the kind of epiphanic simultaneity that the verse itself enacts.