HOME  UP 

 

ROBERT MCALMON'S POETRY

Jim Burns

 

Few people today read Robert McAlmon's poetry. He's remembered mostly as a member of the expatriate circle in Paris in the Twenties, the publisher of Hemingway, Stein, and others, drinking companion of James Joyce, friend of Kay Boyle, and a memoirist whose Being Geniuses Together offers a lively view of life among the writers who congregated in the French capital. But there was more to McAlmon than the gregarious, hard-drinking, sardonic image suggests. He wrote several short novels and collections of short-stories, the best of which are still worth reading. And he produced a fair amount of poetry, though little of it has seen print since it was first published in the Twenties and Thirties. In its day his work was considered interesting enough to he printed in magazines like Poetry, The Little Review, Transition, and the Objectivists Anthology. And it was praised by Louis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Zukofsky even went so far as to suggest that McAlmon's long poem, North America: Continent of Conjecture, was an essential text of modern poetry, along with The Waste Land, The Cantos, and Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Time may well have shown that the flaws in McAlmon's poems lessened their chances of survival but I'm not sure that these flaws represent sufficient reasons for the poems to be totally forgotten.

I've written about McAlmon elsewhere so don't think it's necessary to repeat too many of the biographical details. He was born in 1896 and, after a brief spell in Chicago just after the First World War, arrived in Greenwich Village in 1920. His early poems appeared in Harriet Monroe's Poetry, the Chicago-based magazine, and show him to be competent with a routine kind of free verse. The following lines are from a series of short pieces referring to experiences McAlmon had in the Air Corps and they show how he was perhaps trying too hard to be sensitive and write in what he imagined to be a kind of poetic language:

In pale spaciousness
I blend with subtle infinity.
The wing wires of my plane
Whistle a monotone
That lulls my earthy unrest
To sleep.
The faint blur before me
Of whirring propellers
Soothes my eyes.

A longer poem, "The Via Dolorosa of Art," also published in Poetry about this time, was more interesting and pointed to McAlmon's desire to deal with ideas in his poems. It reads as being somewhat overwrought on the whole, though there are passages which are nicely realistic and have a flat kind of rhythm:

But there was breakfast to have
The day was never his without his coffee.
So he thought of coffee:
In his mind the universe - thinking
Alone of coffee - sieved his self-perceptions.
Coffee - with not too much cream and sugar.

I don't want to spend too much time with these early McAlmon poems, though they are not without interest, and in 1921, when he was in London, a small collection of prose and poetry was published by the Egoist Press. McAlmon's own later comment on it was that, "as nobody paid it any attention I need not apologise and can dare to say that much worse has been done before and is being done yet by others."

By the mid-Twenties, when McAlmon was firmly established with the expatriates in Paris, he was involved with writing long poems. He had met and talked with Eliot in London and was familiar with The Waste Land. McAlmon's longer poems follow the pattern of Eliot's masterpiece, in so far as they often utilise different voices, but it would be unwise to daim that they match Eliot in terms of conciseness and overall completion. But then, McAlmon didn't have Ezra Pound handy to prompt him into making cuts and changes, nor was he patient enough to self-edit his work to any great degree. It isn't true to say that he didn't re-write but it would seem that he too often let things stand if they appeared to be sufficiently successful in saying what he had in mind. But he often lacked an overall sense of what he was aiming for so that the poems tend to work haphazardly, with successful passages alongside others which are pedestrian and only partially realised. McAlmon's The Revolving Mirror was an attempt to describe the age he lived in, with various figures from his own life appearing in the different sections. Among them were Sir John Ellerman, the British shipping-magnate and McAlmon's father-in-law, some of McAlmon's cafe friends from Paris, and James Joyce:

That he had been and continued to be praised
pleased his vanity at moments
but when drunk,
a drunk distinguished foreigner
distinguishably drunken
drinking
he wept.

That passage is done as a character study, elsewhere dramatic monologues are used, and some fragments comment on Mussolini or pick up pieces from overheard conversations:

Of course Mary had French in her
and she was gay. She needed it in those days.
Darnley, you know, was a homosexual.
Yes.....O didn't you know ?
Page boys and all that sort of thing.

McAlmon's intentions were clearly ambitious, whatever the outcome, and not without parallels in other American writing. Think of John Dos Passes' U.S.A , for example, and, though it may seem flippant to make the suggestion, the 'lost' pages of Joe Gould's Oral History of the World, a work which may never have existed other than in a few fragments and the imagination of its creator. But Gould's plan to portray his society through the overheard and the everyday, through bits and pieces culled from any source available, and with anything that came to hand, was not without some similarities to what McAlmon wanted to do in a more systematic way.

The Revolving Mirror was flawed but interesting and has been described as "rhythmic prose............saved from flat failure by its humour and topicality." But it has also been said of it that it was " a kind of response to Eliot, often almost a parody of his verse. There is no nostalgic yearning for a glorious past here, no longing for a Golden Age now lost. McAlmon accepts what is, without sugar coating or regrets."

In the late-Twenties, McAlmon published another long poem, North America: Continent of Conjecture, which again attempted a wide-ranging overview of its subject, this time American history. By using certain historical facts as a kind of loose linking narrative and interspersing them with anecdotes often told by different voices and accompanying these with lyrical passages described as "blues"( "Bootleg town blues," "Cult Religion Blues" and so on), McAlmon hoped to capture the essence of America rather than record its history completely. There is a critical evaluation, by Yvor Winters, of Hart Crane's The Bridge, which can equally be applied to McAlmon's poem: The book cannot be called an epic, in spite of its endeavour to create and embody a national myth, because it has no narrative framework and so lacks the formal unity of an epic. It is not didactic, because there is no logical exposition of ideas; neither Homer or Dante will supply a standard of comparison. The structure we shall find is lyrical; but the poem is not a single lyric, it is rather a collection of lyrics on themes more or less related and loosely following out each other." This is true enough in relation to McAlmon and his casual attempt to provide some sort of narrative framework simply hadn't worked. But individual passages in the poem do read well and the whole thing, if uneven and often written in what has been described as "dressed up prose," never fails to be of interest. It's hard not to be attracted to an excerpt like the following from a section headed "Society and Advertising Blues:"

One success leads, to another,
in business and society.
Use soothing toilet paper,
you just know who's its maker.
Inferior goods make scabs
that turn the best people to crabs.
In this age we' re living in
it's nothing less than a sin
not to demand Sap's labelled tin.

It has to be admitted that McAlmon's choice of subjects to write about in this poem often appears arbitrary and without a general purpose. And maybe Robert E. Knoll's summing up is accurate: "But as usual McAlmon's initial conception is worthier than his execution. His was not a failure of imagination or of intellect; his failure, here and generally, was a failure of the will. He did not imagine more generously than his talent could execute; too easily bored, he failed to develop the possibility of his ideas." And yet, within his failed promise, he still produced something worth considering because it at least had ambition and was interesting, a factor that so many poems, past and present fail to take into account.

One of McAlmon's most succesful longer poems was New England Victorian Episodes: Pennythinker, published in Pagany in 1930 and satirising the refined kind of artist and intellectual who prefers to sit on the sidelines observing the world rather than participating in its activities. Pennythinker, an artist, considers how the world is there to accompany his moods:

Spring brightened the village campus
while students strolled on grassy lawns midst trees.
Elders and weeping willows cast string shadows
on bright frocks that young girls wore.
Boys played rampantly with boisterous glee on sidestreets.
Pennythinker strolled, and thought the scene
"So young, fresh and exquisite.
Just too much the last word in young and carefree beauty."

But, several scenes later and with Pennythinker frustrated in his designs on a boy he fancies, the mood has changed:

Pennythinker, slumping back into his chair,
glares with vulturish eyes of life-hate
into the abyss of time.of maddening, detail-filled
space,
of people passing and of incidents unemphasised.
Only after two days of austere intellectualisation
to freeze his sensibilities to disdain of human pastimes
could he comment, "Christ, how I detest personal relationships."

There is a consistency about this poem, both in its rhythms and its tone, which helps it work, and it may have been that the narrower aim (McAlmon wasn't trying to handle a wide-ranging idea) allowed it to succeed. It isn't a major poem but it does have a capacity to entertain.

The long monologue, Fortune Carraccioli, which appeared in Poetry in 1931, was cast in the voice of an Italian immigrant, walking the streets of Chicago, describing the sights he sees and the people he encounters, and looking back to his boyhood in Firenze. It sustains its mood and its rhythm, though would have probably worked just as well as prose:

The wife doesn't see the joke of red underwear
dancing on clothes-lines against smoke-stacks.
She thinks I jeer at people,
feeling myself a precious superior man.
I tell her I love these people.
They have what I havenít
strong bodies to do hard work,
and they don't bother thinking things
that get none of us anywhere.

McAlmon doesnít seem to have written any more long poems after the early-Thirties, or if he did he certainly didnít publish them, but his short poems continued to appear in magazines and, in 1937, New Directions published a collection, Not Alone Lost, it has to be said that James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions books, was against taking on McAlmon's book and was only persuaded to do so by William Carlos Williams. Laughlin's reluctance was justified as Not Alone Lost failed to attract a wide readership and was said to have been the worst selling title in the history of the press. It's not a strong collection but does have a few good poems, among them several which referred back to McAlmon's boyhood in the Mid-West, and one, The Crow Becomes Discursive which has always struck me as the most successful of his shorter pieces, its language and dry tone neatly matching the scenes described:

Autumn has ruffled my feathers.
If my voice is not hoarser than it was
something gone from the air makes it seem so.
The beginning chill of autumn disturbs me.
I must sit on the fence with my head turned sidewise and think.
I watch other birds departing.
I wonder. Why do we crows always linger?

The final two poems in the book refer to the Spanish Civil War and show that McAlmon, never an overtly political writer, was sympathetic to the Republican cause and deplored the "arrogance of priest, landowner, bankers, arms-men," and noted the "everlasting explanations of non-intervention/becoming an international convention," a clear reference to the way countries like Britain and the United States kept up a pretence of not getting involved in Spain while turning a blind eye to the support that Germany and Italy provided for Franco.

The political angle was continued in a handful of poems which came out in 1941, just after McAlmon had returned to America. He had remained in Europe long beyond the dates that most of the expatriates had gone home, and was, in fact, still in France when the Germans occupied Paris. He did manage to eventually escape via Lisbon towards the end of 1940. His poems hit out at Fascism, though without suggesting that other political persuasions were to be trusted. McAlmon was, if anything, an anarchist, with a healthy mistrust of all governments and institutions. In Birds for Extinction published in The Clipper, a magazine produced by members of the Hollywood Left, he reflected on his experiences in France as the war started. He watches a flight of swans pass overhead and compares it to some young French pilots he'd seen:

Their flight no doubt was more secure
than that of pilot lads not yet quite sure
that training or their planes were worthy,
nor aware that governments and leaders can be scurvy.
But then they could not know the way all
schemes of Empire politics wrought their betrayal.

The Clipper isnít listed in bibliographies of McAlmon's work, and it's usually suggested that his final poems in print appeared in 1942. But some years ago I managed to obtain a copy of The Old Line, a magazine published by the University of Maryland. The April, 1943 issue was designed as "a literary challenge to Hitler's threat to wipe out culture in the modern world," and was effectively guest-edited by Norman Macleod, a left-wing novelist, poet, and academic, who got contributions from a wide range of authors, among them Pablo Neruda, Hugh McDiarmid, Langston Hughes, Kenneth Patchen, and Robert McAlmon. His Autumn after the Fall covered some of his time in France after the Germans had arrived, with an officer saying to him, "I hope America wont be foolish and get into the war," and the local people, who had initially fled when the enemy advanced, returning to find their houses and shops looted, it's not a particularly good poem, the rhythm and general structure coming across more like prose, but it is vivid in its portrayal of how the war affected life in the French countryside. Little details bring out the changes. A local drunk, once tolerated in his dissipation by the villagers, now has a face "no longer red with alcohol./Too few of the villagers had wine or the money to pamper him." And the horses have been taken from the fields, weeds are pushing up in places where flowers and vegetables once grew, and even the stray dogs have disappeared and cats are rare.

This probably was the last poem McAlmon published and, with the exception of a short prose piece about William Carlos Williams, the last example of his work to appear in print in his lifetime. He had gone to the South-West when he returned to America and had a job in a surgical goods store owned by his brothers, but the years of drifting and drinking in Europe had taken their toll and ill-health finally forced him into retirement. A forgotten man, he died in 1956.

It may be that the problems I've referred to - the flaws, the unfulfilled promise, the untidiness, the failure to develop ideas-will cause readers of this piece to think that McAlmon's work deserves to be forgotten. He was never a "good" writer, in the sense of his prose or poetry being polished, well-written, and capably achieved. He moved too quickly for that, his wandering life-style matching his movements in writing from one piece to the next. When he got bored he moved on. And yet I doubt that he ever wrote anything that lacked interest. McAlmon may be irritating with his writing but he's never boring He didn't write poems complaining about the problems of being a writer-in-residence and the drawbacks of having to teach creative writing. There was a much bigger world out there that McAlmon wanted to get to know and to deal with in his poetry. That he failed as a poet (and he's not alone in that) doesn't lessen his efforts to write something of imagination and intelligence rather than just take the easy way out with fashionable complaints and bright comments. I'd sooner read a flawed McAlmon poem than any amount of supposedly "good" contemporary verse.

 

NOTES:

Some of McAlmon's prose has been reprinted in recent years and for information on this see my "Talking of Geniuses: Robert McAlmon" in Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals (Trent Books, 2000). Most of the poetry remains buried in the small press books and little magazines of the Twenties and Thirties, the only exception that I know of being a reprint of North America: Continent of Conjecture (Dark Child Press, Pocatello, Idaho, I983), and even this is not an easy item to track down.

New England Utopian Episodes:Pennythinker was reprinted in A Return to Pagany, 1929-1932 (Beacon Press, Boston, 1969), an anthology from the magazine, but it would seem that this book was withdrawn from circulation shortly after publication due to copyright problems, so copies are not easy to find. It is a wonderful collection and brilliantly captures the period and places McAlmon in context.

Robert E. Knoll's Robert McAlmon: Expatriate Publisher and Writer (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1959) is still worth looking at and does have some critical evaluations of the poetry. So does Sanford J Smoller's Adrift Among Geniuses: Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties (Pennsylvania State University Press.University Park, 1975).

This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications