Michael Golston, Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science

Michael Golston, Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 272. £38.00. ISBN 978-0-231-14276-2.

Different climates and different bloods have different needs, different spontaneities, different reluctances, different ratios between different groups of impulses and unwillingness, different constrictions of throat, and all these leave trace in the language, and leave it more ready and more unready for certain communications and registrations.

So, Pound, in the ABC of Reading (35) in 1934, providing an index to what I take to be a principal thrust of the Modernist enterprise – the urge to negotiate the material world without reducing it to the merely materialistic or, for Yeats, the opposition between Bastien-Lepage’s peasant’s ‘great boots’ (Autobiographies, 125; for Golston, ‘gross products of the real world’, 177) and the ‘little snow-white feet’ of the girl “Down by the Salley Gardens” (Selected Poems, 22). Golston’s splendid intervention in this debate, drawing purposively upon contemporary accounts of human physiology between 1890 and 1940, is to identify the relationship between understandings of rhythm and poetic practice (what Remy de Gourmont might have called a ‘physics of  thought’) at the most intimate of body systems – pulse, nerves, heartbeat, rates of respiration, etc. Furthermore, these understandings are shown to be profoundly implicated in notions of class, racial, and national identity. Thus, while the source of poetic rhythm ‘is deeply insinuated in the arterial system of the speaking body’ where ‘the iambus works in locked synchronicity with the pounding of the heart’ (50), it ‘remained inextricably bound to issues of body, nation, and race and never drifted far from its  political subtexts’ (10) – those subtexts, in the case of Pound and Yeats (who attract the bulk of Golston’s attention) are, of course, those of authoritarianism (of which, more later).

Within Golston’s astute handling, Pound & Yeats make happy bed-fellows:

For Yeats, as for Pound, the unconscious is always racially inflected, and the rhythms that stimulate it are generated by bodies grounded in an ancestral landscape. Rhythm is related to pulse, heartbeat and nerves and is manifested in the rhythms of national and ethnic music, language, and poetry. Like Pound, Yeats holds that history has a rhythmical shape; that the position of a culture in its historical cycle can be determined through analysis of its aesthetic rhythms; and that its subsequent history can be predicted using that knowledge. Cultural and even genetic “decay” can be monitored in the “decay” of the rhythms in art and music (147).

In short, here is the physiological foundation for Pound’s Kulturmorphology, and while Yeats associated rhythm with ‘magic, hypnosis, and trance’ at the behest of ‘the symbolist glimmer of the ghost’, Pound’s resources tend to the scientific and the technological, ‘the machinic lines of the Vorticist yacht’ (148). This is an apt discrimination between the two, but should not disguise the fact that, in both cases, their anti-materialist materialism has never, to date, received the sophisticated analysis conducted by Golston’s agile scholarship, a scholarship that supplements the resources of, in general , fairly abstractive science, with the intimacies of breath, nerves, and cardiovascular movements.

However, for all the brilliance of Golston’s conceptual forays, underwritten by finely nuanced readings of individual poems, there seem to me to be two issues that should be noted here. The first is not so much an issue as an oddity, in the choice of William Carlos Williams to form the brief concluding chapter – odd in that Williams’s replacement of ‘rhythm’ with ‘measure’ marks what is effectively the next stage in the story told here. Williams is seen as a precursor of postmodernity as ‘measure’ takes ‘rhythm’ out of ‘the nexus of the body and into the trope of the sign’ (209), thereby releasing it from metabolism to replace it with ‘formal arrangements of language’ that can ‘act as analogies for ideas, sets of circumstances, objects, and processes’. Here, the variable foot acts as a measure for Einsteinian physics where ‘“variability” in prosody equals “relativity” in the spacetime continuum’ (211), and it is not incidental that such a move indicates also a reversal of the authoritarianism found in Pound and Yeats.

I have no substantial quarrel here, save to suggest, as Golston himself confesses, ‘that is a matter for an entirely different study’ (which I hope he will pursue with the same acuity he demonstrates in the present volume), but surely Eliot (who is given no weight here) would have played a more apposite role. I have in mind not only Eliot’s place in the network of ideas sketched so purposively by Golston, but, as I remember, Terry Eagleton’s metabolic reading where he writes of the insidiousness of the poetry’s invisible effect upon the nerves. Such invisibility provides an important cue to the nature of authoritarian politics, a politics acknowledge by Golston but asserted only, without offering a specific diagnosis. Certainly the invisibility of rhythm is registered (variously, as ‘hidden’, ‘ghostly’, ‘inaudible’ at 63, 100, 127, 146, 148, 203, for example), culminating in a summary of both Pound and Yeats:

As the new poetry’s formal ground, inaudible rhythms were designed to affect audiences at a subliminal level by operating as analogous to the human heart-beat. Pound and Yeats meant their poetry to register a culture’s collective pulse as it structures its sense of reality in verse. As the inaudible gear in the machinery of conviction that makes of a poem a potent rhetorical tool, poetry’s rhythms most forcefully carry its politics (210).

It is largely such invisibility itself that codifies political intolerance, its unacknowledgeable effect upon the nervous system, its unavailability for the grittiness of engaged discussion, its refusal, in effect, for interrogation; and it is to this complex that Golston pays insufficient attention.

These caveats should not detract from what is overall a significant achievement, bringing a notably fresh angle to not only the history of modernist poetic but to a neglected area of the relations between literature and science. It should be read on both counts.

Ian F. A. Bell, Keele University