My title is “the Softness and the Hardness in British and American poetry,” and in other words, this is going to be “Gender and Modernism” or “Gender and Poetry.” Rather than to deliver the themes on poetic techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, and sound, I would like to concentrate on the topics on modernist poetry related to its important achievements. Dealing with the dynamics of gender in the poems by literary modernists, I examine the dynamics of the hard and the soft, the masculine and the feminine, and yang and yin: It can be rightly termed as “Gender and Literature.” We are already well familiar with such poets as Eliot and Pound, legendary male modernists. In a sense, these poets―especially, the Eliot study―have exclusively monopolized poetry studies written in English in Korea. Thus, it is no wonder that we are not familiar with Mina Loy, even while we usually classify her as one of minor poets. In fact, Loy was a significant figure when Eliot and Pound created the modernist tenets even though she was forgotten for some reasons.
My use of the terms, the hardness and softness in poetic writings were directly discussed in Pound’s “The Hard and the Soft in French Poetry” (1918). In Pound’s definition, there’s no clear distinction or hierarchy between the soft and the hard; rather he takes a midway between them. For him, the soft means personal, peculiar not universal. Somewhat contrary to these qualities, the hard indicates the virtue of poetry. Actually, Pound’s invention of the Image and Imagism is intended to get a poetic hardness, poetic inconvertibility, that is to say, the least convertible poetic words. The literary modernists’ pursuit is seeking the hardness opposed to the softness―or what we call this emotional excesses of Romanticism, sentimentalism―of Nineties, which is based on “softness,” “convertibility,” and fluidities. Even a certain critic says that the Imagism is the poetics of hardness, the most flow-resisting poetics. Specifically here what we really need to note is that for Pound his friend, Gourmont is soft; he is the only writer who seems good in French prose; Gourmont’s “soft” is a “peculiar and personal medium.” Pound cautiously says that he didn’t find the fault in the softness, but he could obtain the poetic virtue in the hardness. Though he seems to show preferences for the hardness, he is reluctant to give primacy to the hardness. This strange and unstable balance between the soft and the hard is oscillations between the masculine and the feminine.
Oscillations between the soft and the hard seem to be explicitly well expressed in the mechanics of gender in modern British and American poetry. Even though these oscillations sometimes seem to be stabilized on the firm ground, I argue that these contrary qualities seen in the gender dynamics could be noted in the specific poetry; and we can extend this binary to the general symptom of Modernism, in particular, literary modernism. Early modernism has a facet of the feminine, anarchistic, avant-garde, disorderly, and embryonic. Also the division of the early and late or high modernism is complete with the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and it registers the literary modernism’s successful entry into literary history and canon. In addition, this also marks the vanishing moment of early modernism’s qualities, which might belong to the softness.
The formation of literary modernism can be viewed as divided between the soft and the hard, and the softness of literary modernism, thus, can be seen in early modernism. Late modernism could indicate the hard facet of literary modernism. According to Natan Zach’s observation in his influential book Modernism, the hardness of modernism can be found in Pound’s Imagism, for this poetic movement is strongly against the softness of the Nineties, Decadents, and Romantics. Modernist resistance to the poetics of the softness and the feminine finds their hard and masculine models in the seventeenth century metaphysical poets. As Huyssen states, the division of mass culture and high culture comes from the modernist division of the high and low arts construed as the masculine hardness and feminine softness. Pound’s mocking term Amygism―a commercialized, popularized, and feminized form of Imagism by Amy Lowell―typically and most effectively expresses the feminized sphere of mass culture. As Amy Lowell―she usurps Pound’s Imagism safely and successfully―once says in her mocking poems on Eliot and Pound, Pound is far too “romantic” though he believes he is a “thinker.”
While Pound’s romantic softness takes him to the Orientalism of the Far East as a romantic quest for the exotic, Pound’s Imagism can be also taken as his early appropriation of the Orient. The story about Pound’s Metro poem is well known, and his appropriation of Japanese haiku is explicit in his “In a Station of the Metro” as well as some of H. D.’s poems. In the U. S. there have been haiku competitions, and many American poets have written haikus, and this is already a popular form of poems. In many ways, Pound’s soft romantic quest for the exotic forms, or masculine heroes from different time and space―for instance Confucius or François Villon―brings critics’ arguments on his appropriation of the feminine softness to get a masculine hardness.
In this case, Eliot is likely to be judged as another pursuer of the masculine hardness in that he adheres to insistence on the returning to the metaphysical poets to get the masculine hard poetics. The personae in their early poems, Eliot’s Prufrock and Pound’s Mauberley, tell us the modern male anxieties about the commercialized, materialized and then feminized culture. Literary modernism’s misogyny is quite overt and open, and this is now one of literary modernism’s negative features along with anti-Semitism and Fascism. So far I explored the dynamics of gender in Pound and some in Eliot, but this gender dynamics can be also observed in other poets, and a female poet―Marianne Moore―is defined as “a stabilized female,” while Pound himself is a male “who has attained the chaotic fluidities.” Pound once remarks that the two female poets, Marianne Moore and Mina Loy write poems exactly fit in his logopoeia―the dance of intellects. Though Moore was a poet of good reputation and order, Loy was not; she was one of central figures in the New York scene of Anglo-American modernism, and at some point she disappeared and was absolutely forgotten. There might be various reasons for that, the poet of otherness, and the poet of the softness―that can also be understood as whimsicalness and shiftiness not as a sort of stability based on the hardness―was excluded and perhaps erased from the dramatic scene of high modernism of Eliot and Pound, two male literary giants.
At the backstage scene of literary modernism, there might be some unknown or minor modernist poets who exerted influences on early modernism. And their modernism might be called female modernism―literary modernism’s soft side―though their modernism was incomplete and failed. What we have learned as modernism is rightly called male modernism, and it is important to know that Eliot’s Waste Land is a landmark for that division.
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