PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
The Art of Language: Selected Essays by Kenneth Cox
(Flood Editions, Chicago, 2016)
At the age of fifty with his second marriage in the dumps and working a dull, second-tier job with the BBC Kenneth Cox published his first piece of literary criticism in 1966 with “The Aesthetic of Basil Bunting” appearing in Ezra Pound devotee William Cookson’s Agenda. The essay sparked a lasting acquaintanceship with Bunting himself as well as launched Cox's late-in-life deep dive into the ups and downs of freelance criticism. He never sought nor claimed academic or other professional credentials, “I haven’t got access to a university library so do a lot of my studying in bookshops” (xiii) he once noted, and his work was rarely deemed acceptable to academic journals, one editor's reply described how "every time you say something is vague and confusing, it seems to me perfectly clear." (xxi) Yet Cox continually persevered, standing his ground however unorthodox his argument, kowtowing to none. Eventually he rose to the forefront of critics publishing in independent small press poetry magazines of the era. Throughout The Art of Language: Selected Essays his opinions arrive couched within a rigorous prose style arrived at by way of refined severity owed to his intense adherence to personal standards. Cox knows what he wants to get said and goes about his business with utmost concision and accuracy.
In her thoroughly informative introduction situating Cox for the unfamiliar reader, the collection’s editor Jenny Penberthy describes how Cox successfully undertook to “tackle the works of difficult writers in unassuming but carefully measured and shaped language.” (xiv) Penberthy includes not only several pieces on Bunting, but essays by Cox on other “difficult” poets such as Pound, Louis Zukofsky and Hugh MacDiarmid. There are also significant discussions of Lorine Niedecker, one of Cox's favored subjects, as well as W.B. Yeats, Chaucer, and a healthy assortment on poets of later generations, from Robert Creeley and Tom Pickard to August Kleinzahler, among others. In addition, the book opens with a section of three essays devoted to fiction writers (James Joyce, Joseph Conrad and Wyndham Lewis) and includes Cox's sharply critical as well as rather contentious criticisms of Geoffrey Hill and Donald Davie. All the pieces are, in Penberthy’s words, “original, precise, unsparing.” (xv) Indeed, it is not too much when she states, “They are demanding of the reader: they insist on total attention.” (xiv) Cox himself certainly expected nothing less.
Cox’s dedication to his critical writing is admirable as the work was a task he set himself to with little or no hope of remunerative reward. The challenge was often two-fold, first there was the actual time spent composing the bit and then came the hassle of locating a home for its publication. As Penberthy relates, "The essay on Ezra Pound's Canto's took him two years to write and another year to place with a magazine." (xvii) Cox assumes as much an equal interest and share in the worth and value of the material he undertakes comment upon as the original authors. His writing is bounded by nothing less than a pure-as-it-comes commitment to setting down some knowable truths about the work at hand. The integrity of his approach is as much irreproachable as it is irredeemably direct in its biting deployment of the understated detail. As when in disagreement with Davie concerning an Ode by Bunting:
"Davie tries to show that Bunting's Ode 36 'is what it says', i.e. words are 'set side by side in the verse-lines,' like the mosaic described, 'with no connective, no "cement", beyond the monosyllabic preposition, "to".' That cool beyond should have given him pause, it adduces evidence to the contrary. It is verses that are 'laid / as mosaic', not words. Words constitute the verses but within each verse they are 'cemented' as required. Bunting is comparing a feature of Persian architecture with a feature of Persian prosody, where verses each of two half-lines can be self-contained and self-supporting, bearing no direct relation to those before or after, though kin to them in topic and direction. Elsewhere Bunting adapts the technique, here he describes it." (260)
Cox's line "That cool beyond should have given him pause" is in itself utterly cool. The denotative sense is immediately conveyed in the linguistic chill of its presentation. It's as if listening to Miles Davis drop down a note, holding the listener's ear in suspense for what's coming next. Cox similarly catches up the reader's attention, which he then holds through following the thread of his argument. The passage bares repeated reading and it is notable that Cox expects the reader has ready familiarity with the text of Bunting's Ode. A look at the Ode, with its opening lines "See! Their verses are laid / as mosaic gold to gold / gold to lapis lazuli / white marble to porphyry / stone shouldering stone" its middle lines "no cement seen and no gap / between stones" and closing "a glory neither of stone / nor metal, neither of words / nor verses, but of the light / shining upon no substance; / a glory not made / for which all else was made" makes it clear that Cox's dressing down of Davie simply states the obvious.
Poet August Kleinzahler serves as Cox's literary executor. The two struck up a friendship of sorts with Bunting playing a background role as a young Kleinzahler was a favored student of his in 1971. Over the years, Kleinzhler and Cox shared a significant correspondence as well as a handful of in person visits when Kleinzahler found himself in England. Kleinzahler supplies an enlightening afterword to this collection, balancing out Penberthy’s scholarly introduction with warmer tones of intimacy. He mentions a surprise encounter during one of his visits with Cox which fleshes out the image of the critic as bookish recluse.
"The last time I visited Kenneth at his Burlington Road flat, he greeted me at the top of the steep flight of steps that led from street level to his front door and said to me, sotto voce and with some gravity: "August, there's someone I'd like you to meet." On entering the hallway, I saw a marvelously striking-looking woman seated by a table across the living room, smoking her cigarette and taking me in with a kind, welcoming smile: "August Kleinzhaler," Kenneth said, with a formal flourish, "Lady Spender." And there she was, Natasha Spender, one of the great enchantresses of midcentury literary London.
It all seemed rather incongruous and unreal. What was she doing at Kenneth's book-laden, musty flat on Burlington road? It would have been a far cry from the world of St. John's Wood, where she and Stephen entertained for all those years, or the farmhouse in Provence, Mas St. Jerome. It occurred to me at the time, and since, that Kenneth would likely have despised Spender, the man and writer. Best as I could gather over the time I knew him, Kenneth had almost no visitors, or friends for that matter. A couple of neighbor ladies would peek in every so often to see that he was all right, that's it. Natasha and Kenneth were not only friendly for quite a long time, very friendly indeed, even a bit giggly together. Kenneth hardly spoke a word that afternoon but wore an exceedingly pleased look on his face, almost conspiratorial in nature." (287)
Cox’s essays are impassive and austere reflections of the subject matter discussed. He never grandstands yet his judgment is ever delivered with the looming finality of amassing clouds before a storm. His argument accrues point-by-point without pausing to worry over whether any reader might be stumbling to keep up. There is no skimming his sentences. As for the author himself, “Cox had no doubt about the quality of his essays.” (xxxii) There is evidence he tested poetry’s waters. A “sort of mini-opera about a hundred lines long, very personal” (xxxi) a poem titled “The Manor” remains unpublished. Cox mentioned it to Bunting and showed it to Niedecker only to receive her friendly encouragement to keep at his prose. Cid Corman looked at some Cox poems and offered him a shrugging “all the work suggests intelligence and possibility” (xxxi) while Eliot Weinberger unhelpfully found “The Manor” to be “either a conglomeration of a half-dozen or so very fine poems, or else it is the outline for a book-length poem.” (xxxi) Needless to say, Cox never found his own poems in print. But it hardly matters. His commentaries upon the works of others are from out an upper air of refined grandeur. He was not chasing after elusive phantoms of youth or settling any scores. His critical evaluations assess with admirable restraint. There are few other examples of such highly skilled independent criticism sustained across a broad array of subjects over so many years. Cox set the bar high for all those following after him.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. He is a graduate of the Poetics Program from the now-defunct New College of California, where he studied under Tom Clark, Adam Cornford, Gloria Frym, Joanne Kyger, George Mattingly, and David Meltzer. Alongside poets Marina Lazzara and Nicholas Whittington, he’s currently at work editing together an anthology of critical writings by Poetics Program alumni and faculty. His books include: GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling, 2013), from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books, 2015), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016), and THE DUNCAN ERA: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). He edited and wrote the introduction for Owen Hill’s A Walk Among the Bogus (Lavender Ink, 2014).
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