Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry

Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry

by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

View All Available Formats & Editions

At once passionate and dispassionate, Rachel Blau DuPlessis meticulously outlines key moments of choice and debate about masculinity among writers as disparate as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg, choices that construct consequential models for institutions of poetic practice.

See more details below


At once passionate and dispassionate, Rachel Blau DuPlessis meticulously outlines key moments of choice and debate about masculinity among writers as disparate as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg, choices that construct consequential models for institutions of poetic practice.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In Purple Passages, Rachel Blau DuPlessis again brings her considerable critical skills to bear on the implications of gender in poetry. Here, her focus is on contemporary poetry by men, but it is equally a book about the impact of nascent feminism on a generation of poets who forged homosocial bonds to reinforce beset masculinity or, perhaps more subtly, ward off moral panic. Purple Passages will be welcomed by longtime fans of DuPlessis’s other books and by new scholars of modernist poetry anxious to explore the gender politics of modern poets. It will also serve as a model of how feminist scholarship can—must—be adapted to the study of masculinity.”—Michael Davidson, author, Guys Like Us and Concerto for the Left Hand

“In writing that nods to various ways her analyses mean and might mean, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Purple Passages is situated within a discussion current in U.S. poetry criticism—that is, it is a conversation among friends, some of whom are also poet-critics. Nevertheless, DuPlessis also writes within a more generalized U.S. critical language of literary and cultural studies. I appreciate that situatedness, just as I admire her assiduousness in mentioning, crediting, including, and writing in relation to recent relevant U.S. and U.K. critical work.”—Lisa Samuels, author, Mama Mortality Corridos and Anti M

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Contemporary North American Poetry Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Purple Passages

Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-084-7

Chapter One

Manifesting Literary Feminism

"Masculinity" [...] is best understood as transcending the personal, as a heterogeneous set of ideas, constructed around assumptions of social power, which are lived out and reinforced, or perhaps denied and challenged, in multiple and diverse ways within a whole social system in which relations of authority, work, and domestic life are organized, in the main, along hierarchical gender lines. LYNNE SEGAL, Slow Motion

Patriarchal poetry a choice. GERTRUDE STEIN, "PATRIARCHAL POETRY"

1. Dear Reader: An Epistle

There are no genderless subjects in any relationship structuring literary culture: not in production, dissemination, or reception; not in objects, discourses, or practices; not in reading experiences or in interpretations. This book—analytic, invested, affectual—discusses masculinity and maleness in poetry as marked and constructed social subject positions framed within a cultural poetics of gender. It investigates male poetic power and how it constitutes and sustains itself in richly emotion-laden interactions. Indeed, these poets' ideas and actions—about masculinity, the feminine, the effeminate, the erotic—were continuously articulated and loomed large in their self-creation as writers, in literary bonding, and in its deployment. Contentious male-male dyads, one characteristic formation of this period, and the sex-gender regimes in which male poets acted and self-presented have recently come under scrutiny by significant critical work rejecting the notion that aspects of the male poetic career were natural manifestations of masculine subjectivity. Assumptions about maleness and varieties of masculinity help construct consequential models for institutions of poetic practice. Purple Passages asks, among other questions, how particular twentieth-century male poets—those with allegiances to the Pound tradition—faced challenges posed both by modernist feminisms and by male-male eroticism. The short answer? Unevenly. The dynamism of "virile thought" intercepted the trajectories both of female cultural coequality and co-temporality and of gay civic and erotic claims (Hulme 1955, 69). That is a loosely social statement and is one track within this book. Another track involves the question that Judith Butler asks in Undoing Gender: is the patriarchal order of sexual difference and power relations so imbedded in the "symbolic" that it is ineligible "for social intervention" (Butler 2004, 213)? Rejecting the postulate of fixed hierarchic genders means that one should "trace the moments where the binary system of gender is disputed and challenged, where the coherence of the categories are [sic] put into question, and where the very social life of gender turns out to be malleable and transformable" (Butler 2004, 216). This book traces some of these debates and contradictions by discussing male poets who are strongly invested in the patriarchal order.

In The World, the Text, and the Critic, Edward Said proposes both a "situated" text and a critic; in that spirit, this critic and book try to be "skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its [her/his] own failings" but not "value-free" (Said 1983, 26). The book also takes up the gap that Said sketches in modernism between "filiation" and "affiliation"—their interchange, their tensions, the passages between them (Said 1983, 23–24). Filiation is organic, hierarchic, and paternal, a "quasi-religious authority" or covenant; affiliation is that "new form of relationship," perpetually yearned for in all evocations of "newness"—"collegiality, professional respect, post-familial," worldly (and possibly idealized by Said) (Said 1983, 16, 20). The propulsions for the shift, the motor of any changes from and in filiative and affiliative relationships in modernism, are, in my view, hard-won, hard-fought alterations in the civic, political, and sexual status of women and sexual nonconformists. In these poets' male-male relationships and in their relationships with female colleagues (somewhat less discussed here), the strains, incompleteness, and tensions of this fraught passage back and forth between these formations are explored. It becomes clearer that there is no one-way passage as Said perhaps had hoped; we will all have to negotiate repeated ways of making passages that struggle with the binary system of gender and with the ideologies that support its practices.

Both Michael Davidson and Libbie Rifkin have examined the "structural function of exclusion" of women and of the feminine "at the core of both [male] authorial identity formation and avant-garde institution building" (Rifkin 2000, 7); Andrew Mossin has signaled the importance of "male subjectivity" to the careers of these poets (Mossin 2010). While one can summarize the mechanisms through which maleness and its cultural resistances are generated—"overdetermination of male bonding" and at times "exaggerated masculine [personae]"—the exact cultural acts, practices, and choices that constructed this outcome need specifying (Watten 1999, 154, 151). These emerge in apparently affiliative poetic institutions of self-and cultural production, like editing, mentoring / protégé bonds, declaring allegiance and continuing allegiance (in manifestos and works), muse/user relations, and acts of leading, cooperating, grouping, and following. My chapters discuss these mechanisms and institutions, emphasizing the moments of choice and articulation when all this (or some of it) was visibly in flux and might have had different outcomes. For example, one might have cultural omnivorousness but without sexism. Some of these specific, individuated cultural choices had a defining general impact in the struggles between filiation and affiliation. I want this book, then, to deliver a sense of contingency. "Patriarchal poetry a choice" is the leitmotiv (Stein [1927] 1980, 143).

Purple Passages places "gender, the apparatus of poesis, and power-oriented production and reception centrally in play" by examining "ideologies and social situations of poetry as a mode of practice" (DuPlessis 2006, 136). The book claims Gayle Rubin's focal concept "sex/gender system" for the cultural realm and calls upon the related definition offered by Teresa de Lauretis: "The sex-gender system ... is both a sociocultural construct and a semiotic apparatus, a system of representation"; it is also historical, imbedded in personal subjectivity and general ideology, and the site of multiple contradictions (Rubin 1975, 159; de Lauretis 1987, 5). To extend the critical analysis of gender to males may seem (to some critics) to lose the sociocultural rectification of the status of women possible with a relatively monogendered feminism. Without such analysis, however, masculinity remains unmarked, unchangeable, and apparently "neutral."

Many styles and modes of maleness are available in any given historical period, and these are often exaggerated and framed by representation. Perhaps as fallout from the "affective revolutions" of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, poetry as an idea in long modernity manifests a liberatory, sublime, erotic, transgressive, and pan-gendered aura (Craciun 2008, 155–156). Yet sometimes this liberatory narrative includes a rappel à l'ordre, symptomatically in the sex-gender realm. Thereupon rigid masculinist claims compensate for the sense, out of romanticism and the decadent, that poetry and the poetic career are feminized or queered in some way. These responses from "virile thought" are contradictory. Are these zones dangerous and to be avoided or perhaps so tempting that they must be warded off? May they be cured/answered with the (physical, mystical, political?) energies of maleness reaffirmed? Is the vitalist life force so dear to early modernists the property only of males? No surprise, then, that in Anglo-American and international twentieth-century poetries (modernist and just after), metaphors and opinions about gender and sexuality intermingled dramatically with questions of poetics and then got remixed with major social changes within modernity.

Consistent from romanticisms through modernisms (as one historical "unit" of modes of maleness) is a male-imperial potential for ranging across and deploying a variety of sex-gender stances: liberated sexuality, machine masculinity, homosociality, heterosexuality, hypermasculinity, feminine-poeticalness, queerness of one sort or another, antibourgeois transgressive maleness, dandyish indifference—freely ranging among and appropriating from these conflicting stances but not always interrogating them. One sees this vividly in Ezra Pound's chameleon spectrum of early personae: from an adherent of muscular Christianity ("Ballad of the Goody Fere") to hypermasculine bombastic leader ("Sestina: Altaforte"), sexy red-blooded male ("The Condolence"), troubadour with sensibilities ("Dance Figure"; "The House of Splendour"; "Apparuit"), modern satirist ("Tenzone"; "Salutation the Second"), decadent sympathizer ("Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"), feminist male ("Commission"), and urbane nonfeminist male ("Portrait d'une Femme"). Using Gertrude Stein's cheerful if vague term, I call this catholic and contradictory imperium of possibilities by the name "patriarchal poetry." Staking claims to this imperial range is central to experimental poetry by men.

As Barbara Johnson reminds us about Charles Baudelaire, the poetic career is constructed of "male privilege"—of which one part is "the right to play femininity," separating the feminine from women, who may, of course, not particularly want it (Johnson 1998, 127; see also Huyssen 1986, 45). This privilege extends to male claims on any and all possible sex-gender positions in poetry. This does not mean that men necessarily support females in their literary careers or view females as having an equal possibility of deploying such multiple subject positions—sometimes quite the opposite. This literary stance can go hand in hand with misogynist attitudes as well as with male-affirmative frankness: the imperative to "dance the dance of the phallus" not only is joyously self-assertive but can also be a naturalizing claim of political hegemony (Pound [1926] 1950, 86).

At the heart of modernist maleness and poetic practices are multiple contradictions and imperial urgencies, gender ideas both progressive and defensive. Gender relations are, as Cary Nelson proposed, "both symptom and subject"; the sex-gender system is a topic of debate and multiple representations on its own and "a stand in for other anxieties about cultural" and political life (Nelson 1996, 325). The eros of poesis—the ruthless and desirous bonds involved in poetry as a social and cultural practice—is a powerful obliterator of fixed and normative gender ideas; yet, at the same time, conventional sex-gender ideas and practices are hegemonic and emphatically policed. Deviance and errancy were (and are) legally, socially, economically, and politically punished, if also central to tempting subcultures. Many male strategies in the artistic world result from this contradiction—aggressive macho behaviors, homosocial bonding in artistic groups, the claiming and hoarding of cultural power, problematic sexual exploitation, seductive behaviors in the aura of poetic groups, and insistence on women as culturally weak, as static ideals or static degradations (both being historically immobile roles). All these positions have implications for the nature of poetry and its practices; the claim that "real authentic [poetic] culture" remains the "prerogative of men" was a still-active if contested position in modernism (Huyssen 1986, 47).

This book examines some modernist, objectivist, and projectivist poets in the eros-laden dyads that have been vital (if sometimes temporary) bonding in their poetic careers, with their intense fluctuations between filiation and affiliation (Said 1983, 16–20). I take "dyad" from the formative, mirroring, generative, powerful (and language-bearing) relationship of the mother-child dyad and apply that suggestive term to adult friendship, colleagueship, and comradeship as affiliations invested with aesthetic and emotional nurturance but also with familial (filiative) tensions. To write of even a two-person relationship in the making of literary texts, careers, and projects weans criticism away from a "genius" model (yet preserves the affect, arousals, and sublimity of that model) and moves to the study of cultural interactions and their outcomes. This book assumes that the growth of a poet's mind is social and continual, formed in yearning, in desires for mastery and power, in exposures of vulnerability and ruthlessness—that is, in eros. All this motivates my title color; purple is an imperial or regal color, the color of power, as well as a passionate, suffusing color, related to the erotic.

In early modernist Anglophone writing an impresario emerged: Ezra Pound (1885–1972), who proposed stylistic and formal experimentalisms, embodied a vitalist pro-sex stance, and finally wagered his career and the outcome of his major poem of cultural analysis and critique on a real-world dictatorship, supposed to embody ethical and economic "paradise" (Bush 1991, 71–80). Pound's charisma, grasp, and problematic were at issue straight through the century, first with his own modernist peers, William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), Mina Loy (1882–1966), and T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), and later with two writers directly and thoroughly touched by his example, Louis Zukofsky (1908–1978) and Charles Olson (1910–1970). Both of these wrote long poems whose ambition was precisely Poundian—or, more precisely, both wanted to remake Pound politically yet remain within his aesthetic tradition of critique, a particularly fraught problem for claims of gender mastery, for genealogical mindsets, and for the implicit patrilineal metaphors of lines of descent that are commonplace in artistic circles. Moreover, both Olson and Zukofsky were constantly compared to Pound as underlings, junior versions, and epigones. Both had to deal with the impact of that assumption, not the least in a continual annoyance, self-scrutiny, and resistance. Both handled this situation with their own gender metaphors, their own gender regimes; these, particularly their constructions of manhood, are studied here. So are Robert Creeley (1926–2005), John Wieners (1934–2002), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and others who sometimes registered their situation as being in a "company." These poets invented poetic and relational strategies to negotiate their positions within the magnetic and tempting system of patriarchal gender relations. So this book is not about "men in feminism" but about men faced with feminism and with shifting gender relations, a situation that, in this period, often produced its own antibody but also its own omnivorous claims.

Structures of patriarch/epigone, major/minor, synoptic/sycophantic, strong/weak, and other such cultural binaries are (or can imply) gender-inflected structures of feeling. These binaries may map women as lesser, men as greater in the cultural realm, but they also structure male-male relations. This is despite the affirmation of a lateral, homosocial, affiliative "company." That is Creeley's often (yet not necessarily) male-oriented term, one curiously evoking corporate business terminology, both to appropriate it and to torque it but also to gain its hegemonic evocation. One of those binaries is male gender-neutrality and universality, female gender-specificity and particularity. Hence it is difficult to see maleness constantly constructed, reaffirmed, and (possibly) self-different. The ideologies of masculinity have diverse manifestations and representations, diverse narratives. These are always historically in motion or have multiple dynamic elements. One may have degrees of adhesion to ideas/ideals of masculinity; a person's ideas and actions and texts might change over the course of a life or even within different relationships at the same time.


Excerpted from Purple Passages by RACHEL BLAU DUPLESSIS Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >