Thursday, June 05, 2008

arranging poetry on your shelf

Robert Hillyer, known now (if at all) because he led the attack against Ezra Pound in 1949, was more generally an enemy of modernism. He wrote a regular column called "Speaking of Books." In the August 3, 1958 piece he noted the revival of interest in Alexander Pope in the 50s. From there he went on (for the nth time) to celebrate the timelessness of poetry. He observed--as if this were evidence rather than an effect of such a belief--that on his on bookshelves he arranges his poetry books in alphabetical rather than chronological order. All his other books are arranged chronologically. The alphabetical arrangement of poetry permits him to see and derive pleasure from the ahistorical juxtaposition of poets such as Matthew Arnold and Conrad Aiken, such as William Plomer and Ezra Pound. William Plomer and Ezra Pound!? Say what?

There it is again: the bright line separating poetry from everything else.

Yet there's a glint of arbitrariness in Hillyer's otherwise natural history of poetics. Plomer and Pound share in common nothing but a first initial. Now that's language, not meant as Hillyer would normally like, but there only on his shelf at home. In the hard-fought poetry wars (Hillyer was a battalion chief on the "we mean what we mean" and "great poetry is timeless" side), this is one of those moments of ideological crossing I cherish. The Plomer-Pound connection, made of a personal alphabetical fiction, is more something I imagine someone like Bern Porter would find on his shelves.