Sermon on the Mont: Louis Dudek’s Post-Modernist Cantos (I-VI)

By John Harris | February 16, 2008

In 1967, poet and McGill English prof Louis Dudek proposed bringing Ezra Pound to the World Poetry Conference, planned as part of Expo. The proposal was unanimously approved by the organizing committee, which was chaired by Jean-Guy Sylvestre (poet and director of the National Library of Canada) and included Dudek, Jean Guy Pilon (lawyer-poet), George Whalley (prof, translator, critic and historian) and others. Dudek extended the invitation — in 1949, as a grad student at Columbia, he visited Pound at St. Elizabeths insane asylum, where the courts had incarcerated him after accepting a plea of insanity during his trial for treason. Dudek tried to help Pound by finding books for him and getting him released, and was still corresponding with him. Pound, released in 1958 primarily through the efforts of poets Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish, both of whom had political connections, and back to living in Italy, 82 years old and by near-universal consensus the greatest living poet in English, agreed to come. Just before he was to arrive, his companion Olga Rudge took sick and Pound cancelled.

Pound’s appearance at Expo has got to be one of the great non-events in Canadian history. It would be an ideal subject for a speculative novel that would feature high-level politicians like Pearson, Diefenbaker and Trudeau, Quebec neo-Nazis and fans of Lionel Groulx, and a host of authors. Pound was still notorious for his fascism and anti-Semitism. He’d been indicted for treason in 1943, around the time that Mussolini was forced to resign, the fascist party was outlawed, and Italy, half occupied by the Allies, left the war. Ignoring the indictment, of which he’d heard on BBC radio, Pound went on propagandizing for the Germans, vilifying Jews, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the Allied war effort, advocating that allied forces stop fighting. Pound’s rationale for continuing the broadcasts was that “if a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.” Pound’s broadcasts were heard by Allied soldiers and sailors involved in the landings and battles in North Africa in April-May 1943. Some of the speeches were printed and circulated during the war by Olga Rudge, also a fascist.

Pound was not a spokesman for Mussolini and the fascist party. In fact, fascist officials were for a time so confused by his broadcasts that they suspected Pound was sending coded information to the Allies. He was free to say what he wanted, and expressed himself extensively on the Constitution of the United States and on art and poetry. He read from his ongoing epic poem, the Cantos (1917-). He explained Social Credit as the ideal economic system. He praised fascism: “Every human being who is not a hopeless, idiotic worm should realize that fascism is superior in every way to Russian Jewocracy and that capitalism stinks.” As Pound explained it, Jewish bankers and industrialists were behind social evils through all history: “The kike . . . in London . . . got the Red Indians to murder the American settlers, has herded the Slavs, Mogols, and the Tartars openly against Germany and secretly against all that is decent in America.” He advocated that the top Jews should be killed or incarcerated: “Don’t start a pogrom . . . that is, an old-style killing of small Jews . . . start a pogrom up at the top. But on the whole legal measures are preferable. The 60 kikes who started the war might be sent to St. Helena.”

After his incarceration in St. Elizabeths, there were suspicions, more and more obviously justifiable as the years passed and Pound accumulated attention and awards for his poetry, that he was not insane but trying to avoid punishment and being aided in this by influential friends. The media questioned the psychiatric reports; one psychiatric journal said, “Surely the psychiatrists know the difference between a political conviction and a delusion . . . Ezra Pound has no delusions in any pathological sense. But we have let ourselves be deluded — into a belief that responsibility is not responsibility, guilt not guilt, and incitement to hate not incitement to violence.” In the asylum Pound attracted the obviously welcomed attentions of George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party and John Kasper, an anti-integrationist working with the Ku Klux Klan. Pound wrote propaganda for Kasper who ran a small press and bookstore. When released as harmless, in 1958, Pound returned to Italy and over the next few years was involved in neo-Nazi activities and propagandizing until old age silenced him.

Admittedly by 1967 it was quite likely that he would’ve said little or nothing at Expo. Admittedly his treason was by modern standards in the distant past. Admittedly it was no crime to advocate fascism; US foreign policy was inclined to prefer fascist to communist or even social democratic governments. After the war, Eisenhower had played golf with Franco, and Klaus Barbie, on the Merex payroll, was helping the CIA fight communism and vacationing with his family in Paris. Admittedly factions involved in contemporary causes like fighting the war in Vietnam and freeing Quebec could appreciate aspects of Pound’s war against democracy and the “military-industrial complex.” But still one has to wonder what possessed Dudek and the committee. Pound was trouble. He was not welcome in the US, as the young poet Donald Hall, editor of the Paris Review, discovered. Not even the university English Departments would have him for readings and lectures. He did go to New York in 1969 to get an award from the Academy of American Poets, but a subsequent move by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to give him an award was thwarted by Lewis Mumford and Daniel Bell who stated “it does not follow that one honors a man who advocates a way of life that would make the world hellish.”

The Expo committee’s deliberations are, so far as I know, unavailable. Dudek’s attitude to Pound has been put on record by Dudek himself in numerous books and articles. Basically, he worshipped the man and the Cantos. This was because Pound was a great artist and promoter of art. Dudek believed that Pound was a fascist only for the sake of art. In his 1965 teaching anthology Poetry of Our Time, he said: “Pound became a partisan of Mussolini’s Fascism, which he saw in the light of his Renaissance theories of the heroic leader and the economic doctrine of social control on behalf of art and culture.” Dudek himself had little attraction to fascism, acknowledging a firm faith in democracy and socialism and a loyalty to the memory of Pound’s arch-enemy, President Roosevelt. But he wanted to know from Pound what the history of the twenty years of Mussolini’s government, the Ventennio, might indicate about policies that could encourage art and control capitalism. He seems to have studied the material that Pound recommended — fascist theorists like Sylvio Gesell, Luigi Villari (Pound gave Dudek an address), Odon Por and Camillo Pellizzi (another address). He paraphrases Pellizzi in a letter to Karl Shapiro, but it’s doubtful he got too far in these studies since most of the texts, like Pellizzi’s, were in Italian.

There’s no evidence that he located any interesting policies, and he gave up these studies quickly. Basically, he was not interested in politics and economics, continuing in his research as long as he did mostly out of deference to Pound, and with obvious reluctance. Also, not long after engaging with Pound, Dudek became an English professor, committing himself to an enterprise that practiced “social control on behalf of art.” In the English Department he had his “fascista,” a like-minded elite empowered by liberal democracy to teach literacy and values through literature. He was critical, from a reactionary point of view, of the policies and methods of the Department, but committed to the basic mandate. He had to answer to Pound for his commitment; the Department for Pound was a sort of privileged cultural steamroller that flattened criticism and literature itself into homogeneous liberal pulp. His letters to Dudek are laced with references to “halfmasted profs” and “scholarsheep.” He spoke of “the new ACADEmics . . . the new cowardice of those who unfrankly would write what they think will NOT get them in bad/masses of documentation as defense.” Dudek in his replies to Pound was always careful to distance himself from the professors, but Pound was not to be put off: “You profs OUGHT to groan for the shame of decadence in American letters in all dimensions save glitter of surface technique . . . ABSOLUTE allergy to pivotal thought . . . .” Dudek humorously commented: “I refuse to accept blame for this, never having displayed much surface technique,” but still he was hurt that Pound thought of him as a professor more than a poet. The fact was that he had found in the Department an actual if imperfect manifestation of his overall faith in the social importance of art, stated most clearly in 1981: “I cannot imagine a great poem that goes against the social good; and I cannot imagine a good political or cultural order that denies the primacy of art.” The English Department lives in this faith.

Dudek might have added that he could not imagine a great poem written by an insane or evil person. The Cantos in Dudek’s opinion was a great poem and describes in some detail societies that, in Pound’s opinion, give art primacy. So Pound was a good man. His anti-Semitism was unfortunate but Dudek believed until near the end of his life that it was a result of “surface mania” resulting from his worries about the war, and was limited to Pound’s broadcasts and conversation and absent from the Cantos: “there is no specific anti-Semitism in the Cantos — a charge against Pound that has been raised — though there is a good deal of irritation against many creeds, nations, and individuals.” This is not quite true; it would be more accurate to say that there are very few anti-Semitic remarks in the Cantos. As for treason, Dudek always asserted that Pound was merely exercising his right to free speech in the American tradition “of radical self-criticism.” Again, there is something to this, and Pound and his supporters had considered building his defense against the charge of treason on freedom of speech. But can advocating surrender or the killing of top Jews be interpreted as “self criticism,” even of the “radical” sort?

Pound’s essential goodness, sincerity and intelligence were mainly confirmed for Dudek by the work Pound did for art. Dudek thought him to be the head architect of literary modernism and the only modernist who saw with full clarity the ugliness of western, liberal-democratic, capitalist civilization (“an old bitch gone in the teeth”), and was using his art to suggest an alternative. In Dudek’s view, Pound started and his friend William Carlos Williams finished the search for the most “organic” forms of verse, and Pound developed the most advanced literary critique of civilization and proposed the basic solution. As Dudek (and, one assumes, the Expo committee) interpreted it, that solution is not that everyone should opt for fascism, avoid taking interest and get rid of any Jews. Rather they should experience lots of great art, especially poetry. This would be Pound’s message, not an Expo version of the Nuremberg Rallies, but a Sermon on Mont Royal.


Dudek did admit at the time that he wasn’t totally sure about this. He mentions being relieved when Pound cancelled. Pound was a difficult mentor/prophet/messiah, mainly in that he didn’t think poetry could be apolitical, or exist as an isolated activity in a poet’s life. He seldom talked poetry with his acolytes or even his friends. If the message of a poem was important, that would be because it had been well thought-out. In this sense, economics, politics, philosophy etc are poetry. In March 1952 he said to Dudek, “another idiot thing is to study poetry apart from contemporary MENTAL activity.” Shortly after he expanded on this: Sophokles, Aristophanes, Dante, Shxpr/ALL aware of civic life/NOT trying to get a teaparty or suppress data . . . .” He wanted polemics from the small magazines — “sewing circle gazettes” — that Dudek and others brought to him, and he assigned readings that were entirely in history, politics and economics. He subjected even old friends like William Carlos Williams and e e cummings to this. For Dudek as for most English professors, whose role in the maintenance of standard English through literature was acknowledged and prescribed by liberal-democratic governments, Pound’s attitude was dangerous. Profs are supposed to be secular priests, not political leaders. It was not part of a prof’s job to lead students through the Cantos and out into the streets.

Another problem was that Pound’s conclusions were fixed, his researches aimed at cherry-picking supportive literary, historical and economic particulars for fascist attitudes and policies, passing over anything not supportive. Williams noticed that, over years of visits, Pound “has not budged a hair’s breadth from his basic position, he had recently entrenched himself more securely in it — recently finding precedents in the writings of a certain Controller of the Currency sixty or seventy-five years ago, who held similar views on our official perfidies.” Subject to these monomaniacal bouts of deductive reasoning, most admirers of Pound’s poetry backed off. Cummings said, “in everyone’s relationships with Mr. Pound there come . . . coolnesses.” Most of the young poets who visited him at St Elizabeths felt this. But Dudek never seems to have felt cool towards Pound, not until near the end of his life when he froze hard.

Charles Olson is a prominent example of the more measured response. A scholar, politician and would-be poet, he came to Washington immediately after the end of the war to cover Pound’s trial and, out of respect for Pound’s poetry, stayed to care for him. As it turned out he couldn’t stand the man or his politics. About anti-Semitism, Olson said, “No man can attack a race and remain useful to anyone as an artist.” Fascism was a different matter. The critiques of the great modernists, Pound, Yeats and Eliot, had led them to commitment to fascism or at least approval of some fascist policies. Olson said, “We have reached a situation in which several of our chief writers, in revolt against the cult of the common man, have come dangerously close to alliance with the cult of the elite. Pound went all the way over.” Olson was echoing his (and Pound’s) hero Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish them and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.”

Recognizing himself as Pound’s “constitutional” opposite, Olson seldom argued with Pound. He felt guilty about this, but discovered that when he argued he embarrassed Pound and depressed himself. Pound had fallen; Olson couldn’t kick him. And Pound, as Williams said, wouldn’t move from his position. Olson didn’t have Dudek’s idea that Pound, because he was a great poet, had to be a good man. Rather he thought that, because Pound’s search for a fascist polity was the subject of his poetry, which was great poetry, his poetry had to contain a convincing critique of democracy and defense of fascism. In the critique, in particular, he was interested.

So he listened to Pound spout about his studies, some of which are alluded to in the Pisan Cantos, and he provided him with comforts. “Olson saved my life,” Pound said later. After three years of visits, when Pound was clearly settled in, comfortable and productive, and when Olson had had enough, Olson left for good, to confront Pound in his notes and poetry. He stated the problem: “The job, given the obvious I am a writer, to be as decisive, careless, productive, and direct as I was a politician. How to do that! There it is, brother.” The notes and poems were published posthumously in 1974. Critics now say that this period of confrontation resulted in Olson’s emergence as a major poet. For Olson, Pound represented the problem of critiquing a democratic society in poetry. The great modernists, as well as the defenders of fascism, “know what they fight against. We do not know yet what we fight for.” Olson asked, “How then shall we try men who have examined us more than we have ourselves?” Poets had to answer for the drift of the greatest of their own kind towards fascism: “I can’t figure out — how the questions raised by the Pound case have gone unexamined.”

Dudek, with his state-backed mandate to preach poetry and values, was never concerned enough to examine Pound’s critique of liberal democracy and his search for substitutes: “The point was to discover how Pound saw Fascism — what it meant to him — not what it might mean to political theorists in some objective sense.” He did not want to contribute to Pound’s studies, which he considered marginal to the Cantos and irrelevant to his own poetry: “I was interested in doing a lot for poetry, but not for an economic or political idea. My correspondence with [Pound] was therefore at cross purposes; and I don’t think I ever tried to hide this from him. I simply ignored things that did not concern me, or that rubbed me the wrong way.”

But Dudek couldn’t actually ignore Pound’s intellectual projects. Unlike Olson, he wanted things from Pound. He wanted to show his poems, to talk about Pound’s dealings with other great writers, to collect Pound’s opinions on literature and art, to make contacts through Pound, and (not incidentally) to acquire notes, table-talk and letters (Dudek got from Pound permission to publish them) that would connect his name to Pound’s. To accomplish all this, Dudek, as Doug (now George) Fetherling put it in his review of Dk, had to “oblige the master, at least for a time, however distasteful the obligation was.” Generally he succeeded. He got some discussion of art and literature and some introductions. But it was at the cost of incriminating himself in fascism.

Near the end of his life Dudek snapped and suddenly and mysteriously repudiated the master, claiming to have realized the very things about him that everyone else had long taken for granted. Pound was a fascistic, anti-Semitic, nasty person. Olson would agree. But Dudek went further. Pound had betrayed those like Dudek who believed in him and was a terrible poet. Olson would disagree, saying that Pound was seldom unclear about what he wanted and was one of the century’s best poets. Dudek went from one extreme to the other, and called in question his critical acumen which for decades had caused him to confirm that the Cantos was a great poem and to imitate it in his own writing.

Dudek had no choice but to cut and run. He’d never subjected to serious inductive enquiry his faith in art, in Pound as his prophet, and in the Cantos as the testament of that faith. Certainly he’d been assailed by doubts over the years, in connection with constant revelations of the extent of Pound’s anti-Semitism, with the failure of his own search for alternatives in socialism and fascism, with the ongoing lack of interest in his own Poundian poetry, and with Northrop Frye’s incisive, colorful and witty demonstrations that literature was essentially entertainment, never read for the reasons Dudek read and wrote it — for social polemics. But he’d ignored or denied all the doubts. For fifty years, he couldn’t believe that the writer of an obviously great poem could be a fascist and an anti-Semite. Then he couldn’t believe that a man who was obviously a fascist and anti-Semite could write a great poem.

Also Dudek’s faith in poetry and his reputation and sense of himself as a decent man and believer in democracy were threatened by ongoing revelations about Pound. Post-modernism was applying its regime of conscience on the university and was particularly sensitive about fascism, of which it approves in theory. By the 1990’s, Departmental post-modernist critics like Michael Tremblay and poet-critics like Robin Blaser and Frank Davey were celebrating Dudek as a predecessor and influence. Dudek’s connection to Pound was an attraction because post-modernism agrees with the fascist critique of liberal democracy. Fascism is, like post-modernism, a rejection of liberal-democratic, capitalistic society and of scientific reductionism, and a social experiment aimed at unifying society around people’s highest communal aspirations instead of around the aspirations of individuals. Most of the fascist theory that Dudek read portrayed fascism as, as Dudek’s source Pellizzi put it, “overcoming liberalism in constituting itself precisely as the instrument necessary for the endless, ethically grounded collective remaking of the world in history.” Fascism promised high status for the arts as the expression of communal aspirations. It seemed that this status would be a less compromised pulpit than the universities, a position closer to the Leader.

Of course post-modernist theory is aware of where fascist theory led — to the cult of the charismatic leader, to totalitarian forms of governance, to colonization and war as expressions of cultural aspirations, and to the idea that emphasis on individualism and intellect were, as Joseph Goebbels put it, “Jewish traits of character” and that liberal-democratic/capitalistic society was, accordingly, a Jewish conspiracy. But post-modernism wants to try again, avoiding these errors. Dudek is seen, by Blaser and Tremblay, as showing how they can be avoided. They see him as, as Blaser puts it, “an important voice” in correcting Pound’s “move toward a totalitarian vision [which] is a characteristic of modernism.” In the end, though, it seems that Dudek, just as he wasn’t so sure about Pound coming to Expo in 1967, wasn’t so sure in 1994 about his contribution to modernism. He saw his own drift towards fascism. He saw “wreckage.”


Dudek was able to sustain this literalist faith in poetry and Pound because he was stubborn by nature and because that faith settled in early in his life and in a broader, more dependable, more socially acceptable and ultimately more influential manifestation than Ezra Pound. That manifestation was the English Department, which Dudek, in effect, entered in high school. Prof Wynne Francis, who had studied under Dudek, wrote an important account of him in Canadian Literature in 1964 — an account that was certified by Dudek as factually accurate if unfortunate in its conclusions about his writing. Francis says that Dudek was converted from his immigrant family’s Catholicism to poetry by high-school studies in the anthology Poets of the Romantic Revival. He was captivated by the theme-oriented poetry/poetics of the English Romantics and their sense of the social importance of poetry as a guide to life. The Romantics had cultivated the traditional tendency of lyric poetry to tell people what they should think and feel. Their poetics — those of Keats (that poetry is “axioms felt along the pulse”), of Wordsworth (that poetry illustrates “in the language really used by men” how “feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement”) of Shelley (that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”) and of Arnold (that poetry replaces religion as a fountain of comfort and insight) — explained and justified what they were doing.

Inspired with a mission to improve society through poetry, Dudek went on to do a bachelor’s degree in English at McGill, then to study history and journalism at Columbia — an ambition deriving from his work in the mid-1930’s on The McGill Daily, then Canada’s foremost student newspaper, and from his job in an advertising agency through the first years of the war. But Francis describes how, by the late 1940’s, he had decided on English professoring over journalism, a choice encouraged by the example of one of his profs, Lionel Trilling, the great proponent of liberal education: “So it was that, as he began work on his doctoral thesis toward the end of his New York sojourn, he became not a journalist but a teacher. He found the experience not as alien to his taste as he had thought. He had previously believed that to be a journalist was to be in close touch with actualities. But journalists, to be successful, must too often take on the color of their times. Dudek wanted very much to change the color of the times, to be in a position to criticize and evaluate contemporary life. It was becoming clearer to him that for this purpose there were at least two more fundamental means than journalism. One was certainly poetry; and it began to seem likely that teaching was another.”

In becoming an English prof, Dudek joined a society that was all about affirming “the primacy of art” and exercising “social control on behalf of art and culture.” In discussing his move to McGill, he emphasized his sense of mission: “It may be that the worst teachers, as well as the best, are teachers with a mission, but I came with the confidence that I had something very important to teach. The first was modern poetry and literature . . . the second was the massive movement of European literature and thought since the 18th century, with its profound practical implications, which students’ minds still had to experience, like buckets of cold water thrown at them from a high lectern.” In the Department, this attitude and approach would be described as Arnoldian. Arnold had added a new dimension to the Romantic’s theme-based poetics when he inspired their use by the state in rationalizing its increasing interest in controlling, standardizing and spreading written English by means of the school system. Literature, which had always been used to teach literacy in both Latin and English, would become the discipline of a huge bureaucracy.

Dudek’s commitment to this bureaucracy and its mandate is acknowledged by both traditional and post-modernist professor-critics. The traditionalists, Francis and Aileen Collins, Dudek’s wife and editor, describe Dudek as “Arnoldian.” Collins says, in her introduction to In Defense of Art (1988), a collection of Dudek’s newspaper reviews and articles, “As a critic of culture, Dudek continues in the tradition of distinguished writers . . . . Matthew Arnold in his war on the Philistines was concerned with the whole problem of culture and the role of the arts in a world where religion had yielded to science . . . . The relation between art and life is an important theme in these articles: where art is not a vital part of man’s life, man regresses to barbarism.” Francis says, “Poetry, for Dudek, has a moral function to perform — moral in the Arnoldian sense of “a criticism of life.” Davey, the post-modernist, points out Trilling’s influence on Dudek: “Trilling viewed the writer not only as an Arnoldian ‘critic of culture’ but as an inheritor of humanity’s spiritual concerns.”

The Department made one important adjustment to Arnold’s theory — one that was essential perhaps to the Department’s position in the university, which was organized according to specialist disciplines. Arnold viewed science and poetry as replacing religion; the Department omitted science from the equation, teaching literature alone as (as Dewey and the Progressive Education Movement put it) “equipment for living” and the major source of topics and models for composition. Literature was, in effect, secular scripture, the Department was its church, composition was liturgical prayer and the professors were (as Coleridge and Arnold put it) a “clerisy” that expounded on secular scripture for the benefit of the laity. Dudek reveled in this role, dousing his students with buckets of literature, cleansing and shocking them to intellectual life with the enlightened wisdom of the Romantics. He acknowledged that literature was at least partly, as Frye said, a toy, and that it could not always be taken literally, but he thought that theme was what inspired and structured a literary work and what readers took away from it. Therefore, the more important and the clearer the message, the better the literary work. In 1960, he told his newspaper readers what he told his students — “look for the central meaning of a book, a large meaning related to human issues, and then see how this meaning serves as an organizing principle in the smallest details.”

In other words, there is a theme in a good poem that can extracted as a generalization and applied to life. This is how Dudek appraised other poets, and this is the theory by which composition — including writing about literature — is taught in freshman English courses. Standard rhetorics like Sheridan Baker’s best-selling The Practical Stylist teach the formulation of a “thesis sentence” that expresses either a statement of intent or opinion that contains the structure of the entire essay/report. Induction enters through research which can modify the original generalization. The faith is that this sort of exercise teaches liberal thinking, and not simply a mechanized kind of rhetoric. Every composition would reflect the liberal remise that truth was open-ended, subject to refinement, the gift of method not conscience.

Dudek was by most accounts good at this, though he taught deductive more than inductive reasoning. He argued students away from any parochialism and towards enlightenment. Ruth R. Wisse, a student in the two-year “Great Writings of European Literature” class of 1954, has testified that Dudek “drove us through the modern classics like sheep before a storm. October 7: Candide; October 12: Zadig . . . . I stopped attending some of my other classes.” Wisse and her fellow students were mostly from immigrant families, and Dudek referred to his and their minority status, advising minority groups to follow his example, “to leave particularisms at the door, to experience as cosmopolitans our common Englightenment, Romanticism, Realism, Modernity.” Dudek worked too at establishing departmental policies. He fought hard in the sixties against New Left democratization of the department (the students eventually boycotted and shut down his “Great Writings” course as elitist and ethnocentric), against the teaching of creative writing, and for the teaching of Canadian literature (including French with English Canadian), and he participated in the establishment of what is now the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English, a body that concerns itself with defining and protecting the professional interests of English profs.

But Dudek’s strong sense of mission precluded any questioning of the religion of literature — precluded, in short, the full use of the method he was supposed to be teaching. In this reactionary approach, Dudek wasn’t unusual. He fitted into the more antideluvian or conservative wing of the department, the “Generalist” professors who dominated the department from after World War I to the advent of “New Criticism” in the mid-thirties. “Generalism” is the assertion of the Arnoldian cause against the philologists and literary historians, who concerned themselves with the accuracy and contexts of literary texts. But Generalism also denies Arnold’s humanistic view of science as a secularizing, liberalizing force. Arnold promoted scientific training as a part of liberal education — in his response to Thomas Henry Huxley, who accused him of applying a mere “tincture of belles letters” to the serious wounds of the world, Arnold argued the presence of the great scientific classics like Newton’s Optics and Darwin’s The Origin of the Species in the literary canon. The Generalists found these, along with the classics of philosophy, intimidating and of limited value. They wanted to emote on the social implications of literature, especially poetry. Also, they did not want to track sources, influences and word meanings or build aesthetic arguments for the canon. This involved inductive thinking and was for the Specialists and later too for the New Critics who ultimately took over the Department with what they claimed was a more scientific approach.

Generalists — unlike their post-modernist successors — take the canon, and the official interpretation of the canon, on faith. Through the first half of the twentieth century, scholars like Irving Babbitt and Lionel Trilling swung humanism and the Department away from science and its reductionist, relativistic attitude to values. Science, they felt, cut the secularizing hand that used it, promoted reason over imagination which led to nihilism, and served the “barbarizing plutocracy,” as an early Generalist James Russell Lowell put it. Lowell acquired Babbitt as his most important disciple, and Babbitt taught Trilling, who taught Dudek, Meanwhile the great modernists, while they had no axe to grind with science itself (Pound and Williams liked to think their poetics were based in science), were fighting against “ideas” in poetry and questioning liberalism. The Department entered the 20th century with its course set dead against the thinking of the great modernist poets that it would soon have to teach to its students.

Pound immediately became a problem. Eliot — because he produced, in addition to great poetry, a body of literary criticism that was superior to that of any professor, because he critiqued the most famous of the professors like Babbitt, Leavis, Richards and Lowes, and because he argued that poetry could not replace religion — was an ongoing embarrassment. Dudek’s commitment to Eliot and Pound was a problem for him within the Department, but the system guaranteed his security. And, about these poets, the Department simply had to believe that, if their poetry was great, their messages had to be liberal and beneficial to society. Dudek would, perhaps, prove this to be the case.


Dudek’s impassioned, thematic and generalizing poetics made him a good lecturer, as Wisse indicates. It also made him a good book reviewer. For decades he served as a sort of literary Jack Webster or Link Byfield in the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette. In his newspaper reviews and essays his vehement, faith-based, often contradictory opinions were actually an advantage. What he says in praise of Robert Graves as a critic is a good description of himself. “No matter how prejudiced and eccentric, forthright opinions always make good reading,” he begins, “perhaps because even the most preposterous contain a certain shadow of truth.” This truth, for Dudek, emerges in Grave’s epithets and adjectives: “Wordsworth assumed a righteousness proportionate to his sense of guilt,” “poetic prodigies [Dylan Thomas] are monstrous and ill-starred,” Milton is a “trichomaniac” and Eliot a “Lycophronic.” Blake was ruined because “poetry and prophesy make ill-assorted bedfellows” and “Dylan Thomas was rhetorical and insincere.” Like Graves, Dudek is iconoclastic and punchy in his journalism. Avison’s poetry, he says, is “God-intoxicated,” Gustafson’s poetry is stuffed with references to science, religion, art history, music history, journalistic lore and his own private life but “the blender is set at rough grind,” Newlove’s poetry is “the beginning of psychotherapy . . . and needs to find a theme, and Woodcock’s argument is “sentimental regionalism.” In each of these statements the over-exaggeration casts an obvious “shadow of truth,” a torpedo scores a direct hit.

As Collins points out, “There is a major irony at work throughout Dudek’s years as a newspaper critic and reviewer. In Literature and the Press . . . his position is clear . . . . Yet he persisted in believing that it was possible to use the media . . . with intelligence and integrity . . . . The tension between his overt distaste for mass media and his desire to speak to a public is what infuses these newspaper pieces with such driving energy . . . He is conscious of his divided emotions and the inherent danger in his position. As he notes: ‘Even writing for the newspapers would be a kind of betrayal — perhaps especially writing for the newspapers.’” In short, Dudek was turned on by an activity that he believed was illicit. His ideal medium turned out to be one he didn’t believe could work because it was profit-driven and aimed at selling the status quo. His own experience as a journalist proved either that newspaper editors and readers were not by a long shot all lotus eaters or that his own reviews were “naturally” dumbed down because his poetics were simplistic. But Dudek ignored all that, never seeming worried that the forces he had portrayed as destroying the geniuses of Dickens, Carlyle and Thackeray could touch him. Never seeing that he was dumbing anything down.

Dudek’s scholarly books and essays are less successful. Here, the appeal is supposed to be through inductive logic. The theory books, Literature and the Press (1960), The First Person in Literature (1967) and Technology and Culture (1979) are ignored or compared negatively to books with similar topics by McLuhan, George Grant and Frye. What Davey said about the first one applied to them all — they are “weakened by a confusion of coincidence and cause.” That is, Dudek never tries to straighten out what features of, say, a Dickens novel are products of the technical and economic demands of highly capitalized print technology and what originate in Dickens’ psyche. He fails to consider how attention to audience might have strengthened Dickens work as well as weakening it — or, in Carlyle’s case, how a materialistic society aroused and sharpened his analytical and satirical powers more than it limited them.

As to Dudek’s scholarly criticism, Desmond Pacey in Creative Writing in Canada (1961) called it “controversial and angry.” The Departmental ideal was scholarly detachment. For Dudek, this meant politeness, which the Department confused with objectivity. Dudek was never polite. Even fans like Blaser, who edited a selection of Dudek’s poetry Infinite Worlds (1988) and who celebrated Dudek’s post-modern “openmindedness,” admitted that he was often “polemical,” “opinionated” and “harsh.” Terry Goldie, in his summarizing account of Dudek in Canadian Writers and Their Works (1985) said, “Dudek has taken what amounts to a moral stance on the importance of the idea as presented by a committed individual. From this position, he has engaged in debate with opposing forces with a vigor which has at times approached verbal warfare.”

For Dudek as a poet and as a professor, it was important that socially relevant themes be conveyed clearly. The state of civilization was seriously degraded; decisive measures were needed. His sense of urgency is expressed in the preface to his poems in one of his earlier collections, Cerebus (1952): “People have always known, before the age of machines and mechanistic science, that it is imagination — as poetry, faith, ethics — which gives order and beauty to life. Modern man, become a tool of industrial, commercial, and political machinery, believes that this work of the imagination is false, trivial, or irrelevant: a belief that makes him the petty monster that he is . . . a Prufrock, a Babbitt, a Boob. The way to freedom and order in the future will lie through art and poetry. Only imagination, discovering man’s self and his relation to the world and to other men, can save him from complete enslavement to the state, to machinery, the base dehumanized life which is already spreading around us.”

Seeing himself as an aesthetic Jeremiah, Dudek attacked any critic or poet who downplayed message or who failed to present the right message or fudged in the direction of politeness. In Poetry of Our Time he ranges through the great modernists, praising (for the most part) their social criticism but discounting their approach to or attempts at solutions: “Yeats was a bitter critic of our age. But he never presented clearly or specifically what it was he objected to in middle-class life, or what virtues he admired in the peasantry and aristocracy. His attitudes remain personal and temperamental . . . . “Frost’s theme of nature . . . makes him perhaps too universal to be entirely relevant to the special problems of today. The problems of modern life and culture are urban.” “On the whole, the single-minded religious approach of T. S. Eliot to the complex problems of modern life does not seem to be objective enough.” Williams and Cummings fail in their criticism of society: “Unlike Eliot and Pound, they are willing to accept the twentieth-century universe, at least in its moments of rare delight, and refrain from too much thought.”

Only Pound is adequate: “Pound sees poetry as “having a mission, as being a relevant kind of communication about the great issues. . . . He is a great artistic craftsman, in fact a kind of literary forger who can reproduce at will the poetry and beauty of any past age: but his position is so uncompromising and critical that few readers dare to meet him on his own terms. His admirers are still a minority, but his influence in poetry is nevertheless very great. Perhaps no one so well as he epitomizes the predicament of modern poetry, the poet pitted against his age, and to all intents defeated by the immense pressures of actuality. And yet in the long run — who knows — the decision may be reversed in his favour.”

Of Dudek’s contemporary poets, three groups attracted his wrath. First, there was the disparate bag of poets who failed to engage in social criticism or followed Williams in making any criticism too personal, and/or who regarded poetry as entertainment or, as Al Purdy put it, “its own objective justification.” Most of these poets subsisted outside the Department, though there are few twentieth century poets who could be entirely independent. Purdy, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen in Canada and Robert Creeley in the US “lacked seriousness.” Layton, Dudek’s earliest literary friend and associate in assorted publishing ventures, was finally repudiated as “demented” for rejecting organic rhythms and falling into the rhetorical ones of the 17th Century. This rhetoric obscured his messages. Cohen, Dudek’s student, whose first book had been published by Dudek, forsook serious art in order to satisfy the demands of the mass audience. He became the Pied Piper of the spoiled legions of the New Left — the students who, in the Sixties, as Wisse notes in her memoir of student life at McGill, protested the elitism and conservatism of Dudek’s Great Writings course and forced him to shut it down. Purdy seems to have been admired by Dudek for his studies of the disappearance of rural life, “but this has not yet become a tragic idea, nor yet a metaphysic.” Also, Purdy writes surprisingly well about the disappearance of Indian cultures and the destruction of the environment. However, neither of these issues is “important to Canadian life and imagination.” In other words, Purdy approaches social criticism, but doesn’t get to the heart of it — portraying the evils of capitalism and scientific methodology.

The poet-profs who adhered to the New Criticism (which also provided the basic approach to creative writing) were too intellectual or studied. It was all technique, no original message that was applicable to modern circumstances: “Anything but well-aimed speech, anything but words that teach, anything but conviction, anything but a guide to action.” This was the poetry of John Crow Ransom and Alan Tate in the US and Ralph Gustafson and A.J.M. Smith in Canada. Gustafson’s poems, for example, “lack visceral drive, committed passion: his best are artificial poems, polished mantel-piece decorations . . . .” The criticism of these writers pretended to prove through analysis what was imaginative and what was not. Proof involved the cataloguing of metaphors, sound effects and ambiguities. According to Dudek, this confused analysis with response and failed to deal with overall meaning, which is “primary in all works of literature.” In an article on Cleanth Brooks, a famous textual critic, he says “I find no criticism so boring as the modern explication de texte, ‘the nadir of solemn and elaborate imbecility,’ as Ezra Pound once described it. No one can prove anything, in art.” As a prof, Dudek opposed the teaching of creative writing — introduced into Canada through the forties and fifties by Earle Birney — as a trivializing of literature into mere technique.

As well as attacking the adherents of New Criticism, Dudek attacked those of structuralism, especially the poets that he felt were influenced by Canada’s great structuralist critic, Frye: Daryl Hine, Phyllis Webb, Rames Reaney, Margaret Avison and Margaret Atwood. Other than complaining that these poets are too obsessed by allusions to myth, which they gleaned entirely from their reading, to look at life, Dudek declined to grant them the dignity of detailed response. He directed his attack at their master, Northrop Frye, who was himself the single biggest challenge, after T. S. Eliot, to the Department’s methodology and self-esteem.


As Davey and Blaser indicate, Dudek’s ongoing debate with Frye makes a good illustration, through opposition, of his poetics. Second to this is his attack on another illustrious colleague, media critic Marshall McLuhan. Dudek called Frye “the Kant of criticism” (an epithet meant as an insult but likely taken by Frye as the highest praise) and saw the works of McLuhan (and his social-science guru Harold Innis) as “typical products of modern scholarship, the hysterical accumulation of facts straining toward a generalization equal in vastness and expense to the footnotes and particulars.” McLuhan and Innis illustrated the “megalomania of Hegelian theorizing plus Newtonian atomizing.” Frye is the Antichrist in Dudek’s religion. Dudek found him satanically appealing in his wit and many of his judgments. He argued that he was a sort of poet, and believed that his theory, a structuralist (plot-based) elaboration of Aristotle’s classifications into Ptolemaic complexity, was really “dogmatism in behalf of a veiled Christianity.” Again, this is an interesting insight — Frye’s argument that the Bible was another literary work can also be seen as an argument that all literature is an extension of the Bible. Frye had been an itinerant preacher before he became a prof.

Frye irritated Dudek for two reasons. First, he pretended to the authority of science. The Anatomy proceeds deductively (Pound’s method) but with negative incidences included and the heavy use of qualifiers like “as a rule,” and “usually.” And Frye claims that the schematics of the Anatomy are based on “an inductive survey of literary texts.” Second, Frye’s so-called ‘science” projected a view of the poet as a mere medium for psychological forces — of the id or superego — originating outside of consciousness. The superego, fuelled by social tradition — a poet’s culture — was a body of myths that, rather than ideas as the Romantics thought, provided the structures of literary works. These myths are learned by reading literature. As Dudek puts it, “Frye holds that all advanced development in art comes out of preceding art.” The poet studies poetry, not his own times. The poet’s experience of poetry, not his experience of life, determines his poetry just as in Innis and McLuhan communications media determine how experience is received. All three thinkers model humans as automatons, throw free will and imagination out the window. Frye, seeing poets in this way, was the worst.

Frye actually mocked the idea that poets could think, especially about poetry. Their poetics was an enumeration of the superstitions that helped them write — what Eliot identified and recommended as “workshop criticism.” Wordsworth’s idea that he was writing the language of ordinary people was as relevant to any explanation of his poetry as his habit of writing while walking. Similarly attempts of Imagists and Pound, Williams and Eliot to say it in things and not in ideas merely generated another kind of rhetoric; rhyme and meter were as “natural” as free verse. Eliot’s idea that poetry peaked with Anglo-Catholicism (i.e. before Milton) was an expression of religious faith not of critical appraisal. All of these are examples of why only critics, thinking inductively, could speak for literature. This extended to any social opinions expressed by poets. Eliot had the ludicrous idea that a return to Anglo-Catholicism was necessary to save civilization. Pound that Mussolini would save it. This put them at the level of D. H. Lawrence, who believed that sexual and social problems would be eased if people flogged or were flogged by their servants, children and spouses to establish blood bonds. “Writers are often rather simple people,” Frye said. “You certainly wouldn’t turn to contemporary poets for guidance and leadership in the twentieth-century world.”

Frye says of literature, “you don’t relate it directly to life or reality,” “it is really a refuge or escape from life, a self-contained world . . . a world of play or make-believe.” Frye laughed at modern “realism” as just another myth; imagination doesn’t hold the mirror up to some fixed reality but “constructs possible models of human experience.” Frye would define Dudek’s literalist sense of the relationship of life to literature as “the horizontal perspective.” Drawing a direct connection between Pound’s poetry and his politics would be an example of this fallacy — it would be like praising or objecting to The Divine Comedy because it advocated Catholicism. No one reads literature for polemics or abstract truth. Frye would say that it’s the “vertical” meanings that are important, the “up” of wish-fulfillment, and the “down” of anxiety dreams, the “up” of vision and the “down” of nightmare.

According to Frye, Yeats, Pound and Eliot, for example, saw western civilization in terms of the “down” myth, of which there are assorted versions depending on which historical period attracts you the most. Old people and Romantic poets like Wordsworth see society peaking in the agrarian past when they were children. After that, it’s all downhill. Survivalists think everything after the Stone Age is down. Hippies bewail the move from agriculture to manufacturing, but see technology as leading us up from the pit of mass production to anarchist heaven, where primary production will not involve getting dirty. Classicists see the world entering the dark ages after the fall of Rome. Aesthetes like Pound select an age — in Pound’s case the Renaissance — that produced what they see as the greatest art. Mystics like Yeats favor millennial theories that have society going up or down in 1000-year oscillations. Catholics (or Anglo-Catholics like Eliot) see the Middle Ages as the highest point. About Eliot’s Catholic theory, Frye says in T. S. Eliot (1963): “According to this, the height of civilization was reached in the Middle Ages, when society, religion and the arts expressed a common set of standards and values. This does not mean that living conditions were better then — a point which could hardly matter less — but that the cultural synthesis of the Middle Ages symbolizes an ideal of European community. All history since represents a degeneration of this ideal. Christendom breaks down into nations, the Church into heresies and sects, knowledge into specializations. . . .”

Dudek was repulsed by Frye’s inductive relativism, saying, “Frye’s statements were contrary to everything I myself practice and believe.” For Frye, themes and messages were extrapolated from story, not delivered directly. This was the case even in lyric poetry, where the poet was taken to be a character rather than an authority. Dudek’s view of himself as a modernist poet presumed a desperate situation that was real, not just a matter of perspective, not the playing out of some pre-determined human fate that literature and art have described over and over in terms of changing historical contexts. The decline of western civilization, the degradation of the masses, and the rise of materialism, relativism and nihilism due to fascination with the triumphs of scientific methodology was recent and real, and it made no difference that some things had improved, that democracy had triumphed (at least temporarily) over fascism and allowed more freedom to the masses, devising legislation to give equal rights to the sexes and races, that science cured diseases that were previously inescapable and fatal. All of that, as Frye said, “could hardly matter less” to Dudek. Dudek was locked into his “story.”

Frye was telling Dudek that he should see himself in that story — as an educated simpleton attached to the “down” myth. He was, like Eliot and Pound, an aesthetic puritan who didn’t like anything about modern society or the masses and got a kick out of seeing himself as an embattled Jeremiah of taste. For Frye, the extreme language of the Preface to Cerebus would illustrate that Dudek’s complaints about society were not real. They were expressions of an “attitude” cultivated by Dudek, and that is how readers would take them. Frye would point out that, in anything else but a poetry book, Dudek’s preface would’ve attracted the attention of the commies, the RCMP or a psychiatrist. Dudek’s attitude arises out of his reading (note the references to the common man as a Prufrock and a Babbitt), not out of his experiences. Dudek’s job as a poet was to put himself into Jeremiah as Eliot put himself into Prufrock and Pound into Ulysses. His job was to tell his own story objectively, to contextualize his rants in myth. Similarly, as a professor, his job was to extract the structures, not just the themes, of literary works and establish their classification as and centrality to specific mythologies. He was not up there to expound on the social relevance of messages — that was for philosophers and social scientists, whose offices were just down the hall.


Anything that forced Dudek into self-examination might’ve been an improvement. If Dudek’s faith in poetry suffered from obvious flaws and the lack of inductive proof, it also failed to provide results where they mattered — in poetry. Dudek’s Jeremiads were never convincing as poetry. Dudek, who stated so forcefully and decisively what verse forms were “organic” and what messages were “relevant,” could not produce those forms and messages in poetry. As a result, most of his poetry had to be published in his own magazines and anthologies and by his own presses. Also, Dudek was ejected, years ago, from the major anthologies. The comprehensive four-volume New Canadian Library anthology, published in 1964, omits him. So does the Oxford series of teaching anthologies edited by Gary Geddes (Fifteen Canadian Poets — 1970 – 2001) and by Toronto professors Donna Bennett and Russell Brown (A New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English — 2002). Finally, there is relatively little criticism written about Dudek — as opposed say to his early and close associates Layton and Cohen.

Of course Dudek’s poetry received positive attention in one important way — it served as the basis for professional development and sabbatical support from the university. This was due largely to the New Critics who had connected the writing of poetry to the analysis of rhetoric. Not only could good poets of necessity write good literary criticism, but they could also effectively teach rhetoric and mark papers. Poets flooded into the universities, most of the surprised to find that they had skills valued by society, dismayed at the uses to which those skills were put. Most of the great New Critics — Ransom, Tate, Blackmur — were poets. Though Dudek opposed these developments, he benefited from them. Academic vitae could legitimately include creative as well as scholarly (Specialist) and critical (Generalist) writing. It didn’t matter who published Dudek’s books (even if it was Dudek himself) or what the critics said. The academic dean liked the books. Their titles could be listed in promotional materials and submitted in progress reports to the Board of Governors.

However, the main response from critics — most of them profs — to the bulk of Dudek’s oevre has always been polite silence, usually managed by deflecting attention from Dudek’s poetry to his qualities as a good citizen of the Canadian Parnassus. Dudek published books and published and edited magazines and anthologies, giving a whole new generation of poets a chance to be heard. Dudek doused a generation of students with the cold truths of the Enlightenment (laced with cautionary warnings about the Promethian, Faustian, Frygian, McLuhanesque, Innisian spell of science). He was praised for everything but poetic inspiration. Pacey says: “The strength of Dudek’s work lies in his strenuous attempt to give as purely as possible the experience which is pure and isolated in his own mind. The result is seldom brilliant or profound but it is always genuine.” This is to praise someone as a hard worker regardless of the results of that work. Munro Beatty in the Literary History of Canada II (1965) seems to be making the same point when he recommends the long poems over the short ones “to a reader who wishes to enjoy Louis Dudek’s gifts at their fullest stretch. In spite of some irksome echoes of Ezra Pound, the tone and temperament are unmistakably Dudek’s. This means that, although the language may sometimes be flat and the ideas banal, we are listening to the voice of a poet who can be depended upon to sound always like a decent and honest human being.” Both Pacey and Beatty, under the dithering flimflam of academic politeness, seem to be struggling to praise the poetic effusions of a retard.

From non-academic sources, criticism has been harsh. At least part of what seems to most readers as the obvious truth came very early from the American poet/publisher Cid Corman, one of the young American poets introduced to Dudek by Pound. Corman wrote Irving Layton saying of Europe: “I find it bad journalism, bad poetry, and bad thinking. The frequency with which he uses abstract adjectives . . . , especially ‘beautiful’ is frightening. And Louis is so often the naivest tourist imaginable. His ‘social’ bearing is so hollow, his perceptions so cliché, his responses so predictable. There are occasional idioms of strength, but can I say sweet nothings about scant phrases . . . ? To say this is the diffusest possible kind of Poundian writing would only be accurate.” Robert Creeley also wrote to Layton: “I cannot damn well stand what he is doing. It grates on my nerves like a file.” Pound himself responded to Dudek’s poetry with silence, as Dudek admitted: “I sent Pound, over the years, a tidy selection of my own poems, to give him a good idea of what kind of poet I was . . . . But his spout was tightly screwed in, so that it only shot out its own stuff, it was not open to anything like this coming from outside.”

Silence, in aesthetic matters, is rejection, and the silence continues, laced with periodic outbursts of noisy rejection. Journalist-poet Fraser Sutherland, in a review of Visible Worlds, a selection of Dudek’s poems edited by Blaser, says that Blaser in his introduction “loads on superlatives about Dudek’s work, calling such long poems as En Mexico ‘a marvel of detail, image and rhythm’ and the ongoing Continuation a ‘great meditative poem.’” Actually, says Sutherland, “the worth of a Dudek poem is inversely proportionate to its length.” Sutherland repeats Corman’s criticism, citing Dudek’s “unresting banality of thought,” “triviality of image,” “tin-eared colloquialisms” and “preachiness.” Gradually some of the professor-critics started to sing the same tune — Dudek was no danger after he retired in 1983. Prof-poet Carmine Starnino repeated Sutherland’s complaints in a review of Dudek’s last book of poems, The Surface of Time (2001): “Dudek’s poetry has always seemed to me to be of the sort that has ‘gone wrong.’ I’ve always been bothered by the platform quality of his voice. Dudek is an ideas man with strong opinions and an unsophisticated ear who writes line that bang with the tinniness of his assertions.”

Dudek’s only supporters are the post-modernist prof-poets-critics. With the exception of Davey, they tend to argue horizontally: the poetry is good because its messages are good. Prof-critic Michael Tremblay says, “Dudek was always more rational than Pound, even if more philosophical and abstract.” Blaser says that Dudek is (despite his polemics “which can certainly shake a reader up”) open-minded. He is also (despite charges of being elitist and reactionary) “persistently democratic.” And finally he is (despite the rarity of “lyric moments” in his prosaic poetry) a “major” poet. Blaser is shoveling hard here, as we shall see, in the interests of post-modernism, but at least he is mentioning the difficulties that most readers have with Dudek. Ultimately the post-modernists argue that Dudek’s obscurity as a poet is a sign of his greatness, an argument that Dudek would support as he believed that the modern poet must necessarily, like Jeremiah and Pound, be embattled. Were Dudek’s poetry admired by the masses, as Cohen’s is, that would be sure proof to the post-modernists that he was not a serious poet.

Only Davey, among the post-modernists, acknowledges that Dudek is authoritarian, anti-democratic, and moralistic: “Dudek, like Pound, Eliot, Trilling and Ortega, is thoroughly elitist in his concepts of literary value and talent. For Dudek, the principles of democracy and democratic taste are inimical to great art.” Only Davey tries to deal with the judgments of Corman, Sutherland and Starnino. He admits that Dudek’s early short lyrics and later long lyrical travelogues feature a moralizing tendency. The language is prosaic, eschewing metaphor and depending for effect on clear description. In the short lyrics, which “build from anecdote or observation to a punchline of humour or philosophy,” this works. But in the long poems “passages of description . . . seem more like the illustrations for a sermon than particulars from which the poem’s generalizations have proceeded.” Davey acknowledges that the long poems were influenced by Pound, but says that this is only superficial. Pound and Dudek had a major conflict over abstraction in poetry and life. Pound was an Imagist, a poet of particulars. In one of his letters, Pound says to Dudek, “get away from the shit of symbolism . . . leaf is a LEAF/that is enough/it has infinite implications./LOOK at it. look at the leaf/don’t try to make it into/a symbol of something ELSE.” Dudek couldn’t accept this: “This is Pound’s familiar stance, in relation to “the thing” or the image; a position useful as a counter-prod to symbolic over-importation of meanings. But linguistically it is nonsense, since word cannot simply be equated to thing; it carries much more . . . and the whole power of art derives from the fact that ‘things’ in a work of art become representative things, that is, general concepts.”

As Davey points out, if Pound’s problem is the obscurity of his particulars, Dudek’s is banality and repetition of his generalizations. But as Davey sees it Dudek is working towards a poetry that is likely to find an audience once people understand the important cultural criticism that rises from the particulars that Dudek does identify as problematic. Davey’s argument is tortured, but his point seems to be that audiences will understand because Dudek worked to make it impossible to isolate the style and structure of his poems from their meanings. This act of isolating form from content is what conventional critics do, so that the audience can “’respect’ the poems while continuing to practice the values the poems condemn.” Note that Davey assumes that such condemnation is the main business of poetry. That culture can step around this “reflects not on the weakness of the works but on the determination of the culture to neutralize literature as a force for social change.” Dudek’s “honesty,” alluded to by conventional critics more as a sign of failure, is in his attempt to write poetry that counteracts this cultural tendency by specifying its message. Eventually, this poetry will succeed.

Davey seems to be devising an argument that bad is good, that abstractions and moral judgments can be inspiring, but actually he remains ambivalent as to whether such poetry can really be good. If the Cantos and Waste Land are good, the possibility of separating their form from their content not reflecting on their weakness, then maybe Dudek’s poems can’t be good. Davey only “believes” that Dudek is on the right track, on the grounds that his ideas are politically correct, condemning values practiced by society. According to Davey, Dudek is to poetry what “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is to communism — a possibly lengthy and painful, but a necessary, transition to a new age when poetry will be “a force for social change.” Davey is one of the few post-modernists who believes that theory must prove itself in aesthetically satisfying literature and in social action. He has found no signs that this has happened yet — even the writings of favored compatriots like George Bowering and Daphne Marlatt ultimately fail to show the possibility of concerted social action for the general good. But Davey’s favorites at least try to avoid resolving their plots in terms of individual transcendence.

Meanwhile Blaser and Davey are plagued by Ken Norris, who claims to be part of that new age, dreaming of Dudek as his adoptive father and continuing the criticism of civilization in a long poem intended as a report on the second half of the twentieth century and an extension of The Waste Land. Norris, blessed by Dudek in 1980, continues his critique of civilization, but affirms the primacy of art by using his poetry to wage a kind of guerrilla war against “the system:” “Silence means assent/So I go on talking, try to filibuster the present policies, in doing so only cancel out my life’s actions, perhaps, in that way, do some good. Every day I don’t go off to work I undermine the system. I really believe that. Those days I not only say no, I do no.” Poetry affirms its social importance by obstructing communication; poets-profs by invoking the sick-leave clauses of their collective agreements to stay home and write filibusters.


February 16, 2008


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