June 13, 2015

Difficult Modernist Literature

I am used to the idea that literary modernism was too elitist or obscure, or too difficult: but I ran across startling statistic yesterday in Richard Sieburth's 2010 edition of Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. T. S. Eliot's poems published in a 1948 edition sold 50,000 copies. I had heard long ago that around the same time Eliot gave a lecture in a football stadium somewhere in the NYC area and filled it, but have never confirmed that factoid. 50,000 copies of a poetry book in the year of its publication is astonishing for a poet of any kind. He had an enormous popularity at midcentury. I'm talking about the author of The Wasteland here. (Maybe I shouldn't be surprised; after all, there's a Wasteland App for the iPad.) But what the number really tells me is that the standard publishing distinction between popular taste and literary taste is entirely mistaken. If there's an audience of 50,000 or more readers for the most difficult of modernist works, then the fact that literary fiction is at the Do Not Resuscitate stage of life support should be blamed not on readers but on publishers. Maybe it's just Eliot, who is as famous a poet as ever lived, other than Shakespeare. What what astonishes me even more than his 50,000 is to learn that in 1967 Faber and Faber issed a paperback of Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos in a run of 34,000 copies. (The Cantos--not the more accessible, shorter lyric poetry that he wrote before he started his epic. The Cantos, impossibly difficult to read because full of Greek and Latin and Chinese.) It would be tempting to believe that the 34,000 copies never quite sold out, but I took out my copy, and on the copyright page I found that it was reset in a new edition in 1987, and that there had been second and third editions (I don't know how big the press runs were) in 1969 and 1974. So just between 1967 and 1969--while I was in graduate school getting my MFA in writing--this edition sold 34000 copies (and there is also a separate American edition of the same book from New Directions) and it continues to sell. This suggests to me that we are entirely misinformed about the popularity and success of literary modernism. This kind of poetry is supposed to be of interest only to elites who have seen their day and who were snobs to boot. It's supposed to be too inaccessible for the ordinary reader. These are numbers, for the poet generally considered the most difficult and obscure of the 20th Century, that any poet alive would be startled and delighted to sell. One can't estimate the size of the current audience for this literature, but I'm guessing it's much larger than we believe. So no requiem for serious writing in the English language. It ain't over till it's over.

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