Friday, August 7, 2009


In class, I sometimes introduce the modernist era in literature with a pair of books that communicate poetic information through embedded portraits. The first portrait, richly filling the front cover of Lyndall Gordon's biography of T. S. Eliot (Norton, 1998), shows Eliot as a senior man of letters. His hair is sleeked, his little smile is suave, modest, and self-controlled, and his tie is white, with a wing collar. What all this couture communicated to the camera was a physical representation of a moment in transit from literary history to state history. The camera freeze-framed that moment on the day Eliot received the 1948 Nobel Prize for literature.

The second portrait records a different sort of transit. It is not a stand-alone image, like the picture of Eliot. We see it as part of the design of a book, where it occupies a central but small zone of the back cover, just above a big bar code. The portrait's subject, another modernist poet, is tieless in denim. Scowling, he glares at the camera. Eliot's portrait is an image of a man whose apparently solid knowability seems to illustrate the phrase "It goes without saying," but this other poet isn't dressed for such an occasion. His dishabille requires a caption. EZRA LOOMIS POUND says the caption provided, identifying the poet accordingly. Then come a date and a pair of abbreviations: MTO DTC. If we open the book in search of definition, an editor will step between the poet and us and explain that the letters stand for "Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Disciplinary Training Center." The Disciplinary Training Center was an American military prison, and the photograph records the moment when Ezra Pound made his transit there to the cage where he would be held until he could be tried for the capital offense of treason. The editor's explanation serves both the image's place in its book about poetry and its place in the archive of the state.

In his caption-bearing photograph, then, the poet's uttering mouth is closed. On the back of the book about poetry, that image is an island of significance surrounded by a no-word zone. When the shutter clicked at it on a day in 1945, the poet's mind was in the process of delivering the words of the Pisan Cantos into life. But the moment the poet's face became a mugshot in archival space, our ways of reading his poetry came under the control of the archive's state prose. Wordy token of infamy, Pound's signboard is a barred and blacked-out prose window between poetry and us, preventing us from seeing the poems as they might have been if Mussolini had won the war and Lyndall Gordon, Jewish biographer of the poet whose central poem Pound delivered, were dead.

Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity 1956-1946,
ed. Omar Pound and Robert Spoo. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999. Click to enlarge.

In the undergraduate classroom, the difference between the two photographs becomes educationally useful. What I don't tell undergraduates, though, is that every other portrait is a mugshot too, and there are always bars before it. Gordon's T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, for instance, isn't just a revision but a complete rewrite of her two earlier volumes, Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life -- a rewrite forced on her by the letting down of bars. Looking anew at the manuscripts of Eliot's obscene poems, for example, Gordon explains:
Long ago, when I came across lines here and there, I assumed these were puerile aberrations, but seeing how the full poems incite the common impulse to sexual violence, and finding recently from an unpublished letter that Eliot continued to circulate these loathsome things as late as his forties, I have to recognise that this was part of a larger problem: disgust with the flesh in conflict with repressed desire. So, I now look more closely at what Eliot's Early Years called 'vitriolic' jibes, expanding my initial focus on Eliot's misogyny to his anti-Semitism -- a prejudice common, almost automatic, in his time, but having in Eliot a special character determined by a lofty 'hatred of life' that he called 'a mystical experience.' (xi-xii)
And of course, as Eliot knew, the letting down of one bar can only reveal more bars.
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
There even exists a special class of images which confirm that thought in complete and rigorous wordlessness. These images are the mugshots as such. Taken behind bars, they communicate the poem of bars., July 8, 2009

Conceptual art from an archive, this celled array of mugshots was transmitted to readers in honor of the American national holiday, Independence Day. The human subject of each image was a captive recaptured in the course of being processed into a prisoner. And -- pedagogically useful irony -- the flag in the middle cell of the bottom tier is an early state of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the one that yet waves o'er the land of the free.

Is there a difference between these prisoners and Ezra Pound? Yes: the imprisoned poet is further imprisoned by his captors' words.

But is there a difference between the uncaptioned prisoners and uncaptioned T. S. Eliot? Yes, too. The prisoners have been self-captioned not with words but with a crude literary irony. Little did they know, as we say in the undergraduate classroom; little did they know, that morning when they put on their flag shirts in honor of the Fourth of July, that later in the day. . . . But we can't say "Little did he know" about the image of a poet who dressed up in white tie because he knew he was about to shake hands with the King of Sweden. After all, the impending royal gesture was meant to certify that there and then, at last, the contingency that once made T. S. Eliot's words into poems was over. At the king's sign (says the sign), words enter the canon of state. In the canon (says the sign), they can never again signify, "Little do we know." From now on, they will officially mean. They will have become Happily Ever After.

But even as they enter the canon, the words carry bars and signboards and cameras to present to wardens from a future state and a future poetry. Still celled in the archive of the human, what forms will the mugshots of future poets take?