There is No Vulgarity in Revolt Part 5: The Satirical, Robotic, Disruptive Poetics of Vorticism

Cover of the second and final issue of BLAST

In the past two blog posts, I examined a selection of Vorticist paintings, woodcuts, and sculptures, tracing the presence of various conflicts highlighted within the aesthetic philosophy of Vorticism.  Moving away from visual arts and into the literary arts, I will continue to trace similar conflicts.  In this post, I will analyze the poetry of two signers of the Vorticist Manifesto—Jessica Dismorr and Ezra Pound—whose poems appeared in one or both issues of BLAST. The Vorticist poetry of Dismorr and Pound, through its lambasting of contemporary art, inclusion of painterly and energetic language, and equation of humans and artistic concepts, attacks Victorian ideals and underscores the conflicts between man and machine, life and art, and energy and complacency outlined in the Vorticist Manifesto.  

From left to right: William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound

The Vortex Statements of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams both outline the necessary characteristics of Vorticist poetry.  Pound’s statement, which appeared in the first issue of BLAST, begins with his definition of Vortex: “the point of maximum energy” (153).  He continues his heavy emphasis on energy with his explanation of “THE PRIMARY PIGMENT” which “the vorticist relies on […] alone” (153).  He describes this pigment in poetry as “the most highly energized statement” which can charge “the PLACID, NON-ENERGIZED FUTURE,” reinforcing the necessity of energetic language in Vorticist poetry (153).  Additionally, he uses this concept of the primary pigment to extend his the previous artistic philosophy of Imagism, stating that “the primary pigment of poetry is the IMAGE” (154).  He even goes so far as to quote his own statement from the Imagist manifesto under the “ANCESTRY” section of the Vortex Statement; “An Image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (154).  Thus, for Pound, an ideal Vorticist poem is one which presents an Image and does so in highly energetic language.  William Carlos Williams’ posthumously published 1915 “Vortex” further specifies the idea of the Image in his localist take on Vorticist poetry.  He explains that the expression of an emotional complex should come from the “arrangement of appearances (of planes)” which include “surfaces, sounds, smells, touch of the place in which I happen to be” (Williams and Dijkstra 57, 58).  Through both poets’ views on the Vortex, a poem exemplifying Vorticist aesthetics is one which presents an Image and does so using energetic language to describe the senses and movements of a precise moment in time.

Interestingly, many of Pound’s original poems in the first issue of BLAST fail to exhibit both the Image and energetic language.  William Wees explains that these poems were “not Imagism” but rather “the sort of ‘ithyphallic satiric verse,’ as he [Pound] called in a letter to Joyce” (129).  Despite their lack of pure Vorticist structure and content, Pound’s poems within the first issue of BLAST still manage to lambast and attack complacent, regressive, and Romantic artistic values within contemporary art through their use of violent, graphic language.  “Fratres Minores” decries contemporary poets “here [England] and France” who, instead of exploring avant-garde subjects such as mechanization and industrialization, “still sigh over established and natural fact” of older, Victorian times (Pound 48).  The poem further attacks Romantic tendencies in contemporary poetry by satirically remarking that the targeted poets “complain in delicate and exhausted meters” that their poetry “is incapable of producing a lasting Nirvana,” a statement which both promotes the Vorticist and Imagist use of free-verse as well as the movement’s celebration of non-western philosophy and art (48).  In addition to attacking Romanticism and promoting Vorticism, the poem opens with the line “With minds still hovering above their testicles,” a use of shocking language which recalls the similar use of shock in the Blast/Bless manifesto (48).  Ironically, John Lane had this line along with the final two lines of the poem censored, likely for being too explicit, creating a reminder of the internal conflict between avant-garde art and the publisher’s sensibilities within BLAST.  “Salutation the Third” similarly criticizes the complacency of the contemporary intellectual community, this time using much more explicit language to level its aim at “the social forces that obstruct artistic innovations” (Wees 129).  The poem names its target in the first line, calling for public derision of “the smugness of ‘The Times’” and the “gagged reviewers” who “objected to newness” (45).  Additionally, using (against these reviewers) violent verbal phrases—such as “SPIT upon,” “defiling,” and “drive them mad”—and equally explicit images—like “worms are wriggling in their vitals,” “slut-bellied obstructionist,” and “HERE is the taste of my BOOT/CARESS it, lick off the BLACKING”—the poem employs the energetic language championed by Pound and Williams to combat the complacency of its target and assert the true avant-garde as superior (45).  So, while Pound’s poems in the first issue of BLAST may not reach the Vorticist standard described by him and Williams, they still employ aspects of Vorticism while also advancing the ideals and combatting the opponents of the movement.

“Jiu-Jitsu” (1913) by David Bomberg: the conflict between the the rigid grid of squares and the energetic fighting figures provide an excellent visual representation of Pound’s poem.

Within the second issue of BLAST, however, Pound’s poetry follows the guidelines of the two Vortex Statements.  “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess” presents a set of images and uses energetic and painterly language in order to underscore the Vorticist conflicts between energy and complacency as well as a rebellion against those in positions of power.  The subtitle explains that the poem is a “theme for a series of pictures,” tying it to the body of Vorticist paintings and thus reinforcing its relationship to an Image (Pound 19).  The poem further underscores its allusion to Vorticist painting by presenting an image of “red knights, brown bishops, bright queens” who are “falling in strong ‘L’s’ of colour” and “striking in angles,” creating contrasting colors and violent diagonal lines much like a painting by Lewis or Bomberg (19).  These bright colors and the violent lines they create “break and reform the pattern” of the orderly, two-tone chessboard, creating an internal conflict within the game of chess itself between the energetic pieces and the complacent board (19).  The focus on a single game of chess illustrates the Vorticist’s celebration of conflict against the Victorian artistic bourgeoisie.  The game of chess itself pits a multitude of working figures, such as pawns and knights, against a singular, fragile king.  So, when the poem describes a checkmate as “King down in the vortex,” it suggests that the powerful force of the artistic avant-garde is capable of toppling a monolithic source of institutional power, such as the “Britannic Aesthete,” which the first Vorticist manifesto curses “WITH EXPLETIVE OF WHIRLWIND” (Pound 19, Lewis 15).  Finally, the poem ends after the checkmate of the king with a resetting of the board and a “renewing of contest” (Pound 19).  Patricia Rae notes that this final line “lends an ironic edge to Pound’s subtitle: the resolution here is no ‘Dogmatic Statement,’ but a statement immediately again to be challenged,” creating another internal conflict between traditional, expected “Dogmatic Statements” and avant-garde actions of self-renewal (690).  The poems of Pound throughout both issues of BLAST additionally illustrate this self-renewal, advancing from works which exhibit the Vortex largely in content only, to one which embodies Vorticist form, topic, and language.

Jessica Dismorr, a Voriticst painter and signer of the manifesto, additionally had a number of poems published in the second issue of BLAST.  These poems, through their blending of human figures with mechanical and artistic concepts, highlight the Vorticist conflicts between man and machine, life and art, and Romanticism and avant-garde art.  Her poem “Monologue” opens with the image of the “creation of a new human species, the kind of robot that Lewis had imagined,” emphasizing the internal struggle between a figure who is both human and machine (Cork 417).  The mechanical narrator admires his own “arrogant spiked tresses” and “the new machinery that wields the chains of muscles fitted beneath my close coat of skin,” elements which mirror the sharp angles and robotic features of Vorticist art (Dismorr 65).  Additionally, the narrator’s mechanization enables him to better observe the energy in the world around him, resulting in his movement away from complacency; he explains that his mechanical eyes which “refuse to blink” also “press against the cut edges of rocks and pricking pinnacles,” another parallel to the energetic, sharp lines of Vorticist painting (65).  This increased awareness of the energy around him illustrates his transition from bourgeois tastes into a conflict-heavy lifestyle as a result of his mechanization; the narrator’s “Pampered appetites and curiosities become blood-drops, their hot mouths yell war” (65).  The heightened senses of the narrator also resemble the Vorticist poet from Williams’ “Vortex” who writes about the surrounding “surfaces, sounds, smells,” further cementing this poem within the Vorticist conception of poetry (Williams and Dijkstra 58).  Finally, every verb in the poem is an action verb, a final reinforcement of the action within the life of the robotic figure.  Dismorr’s prose-poem “June Night” similarly creates a hybridized human—in this case a cross between a human figure and an artistic period—to highlight the conflict between art and life and to depict a transition from stagnant to energetic art.  Richard Cork argues that this piece depicts the “conversion from Fauvism to Vorticism” (417).  Rodengo, the main love interest of the story, embodies Fauvism; his soft “pink cheeks, black beard, and look half of mannequin” resembles the colorful human portraits of the Fauvist movement (e.g. “Portrait of a Woman” by Henri Matisse, pictured left) (Dismorr 67).  Furthermore, the main character of the story leaves Rodengo for reasons which reflect the Vorticist’s frustrations towards contemporary art: “I can no longer distinguish you from the rest of the world,” “I have had enough of romantics,” and (most explicitly referring to artistic movements) “I have lost my taste for your period” (67, 68).  The narrator’s admiration of her surroundings following her departure reflects her transition to a Vorticist aesthetic.  She admires the “great and rectangular personalities” of large houses along with the way in which “moonlight carves them in purity” (68).  These carved, monolithic structures resemble the angular and primitive sculptures of Gaudier-Brzeska and Epstein, indicating her movement into Vorticism.  By combining human figures with artistic movements, the prose-poem underscores the conflict between life and art; the narrator left Rodengo and the enjoyable life of “opera and profound muttering” in order to pursue the solitude of Vorticist art, mirroring the statement in the Vorticist manifesto that England must cease to be “busy with this LIFE-EFFORT” in order to “become conscious of the Art” (Dismorr 68, Lewis 39).  

Through the innovations in form, language, and subject matter within their writing, the Vorticist poets were able to refer to the visual art of the movement as well as use the artistic elements unique to writing to depict their vision of the Vortex and the conflicts within it, while simultaneously disrupting the previous century’s poetry which, in their view, had grown stagnant.  I am moving on now to the prose of the Vorticist movement, looking to see how longer-form works can more deeply explore the conflicts and motifs within the rest of the movement’s art.

 

Works Cited

Cork, Richard. Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age. University of California, 1976.

Dismorr, Jessica. “Blast.” Blast, Black Sparrow, 1981, pp. 65–69.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. Black Sparrow Press, 1981.

Pound, Ezra, and Wyndham Lewis. “Vortex.” Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, Black Sparrow Press, 1981, pp. 153–154.

Pound, Ezra. “Poems.” Blast, edited by Wyndham Lewis, Black Sparrow, 1981, pp. 19–22.

Pound, Ezra. “Poems.” Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, edited by Wyndham Lewis, Black Sparrow Press, 1981, pp. 45–50.

Rae, Patricia. “From Mystical Gaze to Pragmatic Game: Representations of Truth in Vorticist Art.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 56, no. 3, 1989, pp. 689–720. JSTOR [JSTOR], humanities.wisc.edu/assets/misc/Chess_Game_and_Logic.pdf.

Wees, William C. Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Williams, William Carlos. A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists. Edited by Bram Dijksta,  New Directions, 1978.

 

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