ROBERT MCALMON'S POETRY
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:
I blend with subtle infinity.
The wing wires of my plane
Whistle a monotone
That lulls my earthy unrest
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:
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."
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:
he had been and continued to be praised
pleased his vanity at moments
but when drunk,
a drunk distinguished foreigner
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:
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.
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.
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."
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:"
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
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:
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."
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
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications