By Julia Landrum & Rory McGraw
Recently Pleiades Press interns had the opportunity to chat with Ben Johnson, contributor to the most recent volume of the Unsung Masters Series, Francis Jammes: On the Life & Work of a Modern Master.
Q. Like a good literary historian, you stayed objective in your essay “Francis Jammes and Anglo-American Modernism.” We are curious, however, about what your favorite Jammes poems were?
A. I tend to like the earlier Jammes poems, and in particular the ones where he presents himself as laid back, jaunty, and roaming through the countryside. The speaker of these poems might be a rake or libertine if he were more urban or urbane, but instead he presents himself as a sort of casual, pastoral sensualist. “The House Would Be Full of Roses”, which Janine Canan translates in the book, is one example of this. I’m also a big fan of “Ecoute, dans le Jardin” (roughly, “Listen, in the Garden”), where Jammes repeatedly refers to himself in the third person in joking contrast to (and in a romantic rivalry with) some member of the Rothschild banking family. There’s something that reminds me of Frank O’Hara in the tone of the poem, which is not what you expect from a poet who was known as rural and Catholic.
Q.In your essay, you focus on the how Jammes inspired American Modernist writers in 1910-1920. In your professional opinion, what happened to Jammes’ reputation after that time period?
A.In a nutshell, in the middle of the twentieth century, avant-garde modernism got defined in anthologies, histories, and syllabi as the core aesthetic of American twentieth century poetry, and that modernism came to be defined by a few key concepts. Specifically in this view, modern poetry was difficult, despairing, urban, fragmented, and experimental. The Waste Land, of course, comes to be seen as the poem that most completely embodies these categories, and for the most part modernism, especially as studied in America, does not have room for a poet like Jammes. Only Frost becomes an immediately canonical American poet from this period in spite of not really fitting the script. Tellingly, when Pound was writing about French poetry in the 1910’s, Frost was the American poet to whom he compared Jammes.
Q.What kind of research was involved in creating your essay?
A.The key source was the Modern Journals Project (modjourn.org), a website run jointly by Brown University and the University of Tulsa, which is a tremendously important new scholarly resource. The website makes pdfs of the complete runs of a significant number of rare early-twentieth century literary and cultural magazines available, free of charge. Anyone who cares about modernism or the history of literary magazines needs to know about this website–it is a marvelous resource for teaching and research. If I had written this article in 2005, it would have been quite an undertaking for a scholar based in Missouri–probably only three libraries in the whole country have the full runs of all the journals I cite in the article, and I would have had to spend four to six weeks in a rare book room somewhere to make it happen. While rare book rooms are delightfully cloistered places, living in, say, Boston for a summer isn’t cheap. Instead, I was able to trace the unfolding of the American conversation about Jammes in article after article across a wide array of rare magazines and newspapers, all while sitting in my office at home eating cornflakes. Don’t get me wrong–archival work is still an important part of the work of any scholar–but it is nice that these particular texts have been made so much more widely available. I also read around in old books, and many thanks go out to the inter-library loan staff here at UCM–they have always been great at finding ways to help me get my hands on the books I need to do research.
Q.You are a Professor of American Modernist Literature, and you write about the topic passionately. Why did you choose to focus your career on Modernist writers?
A.When I was in high school I discovered on the shelves of my mom’s bookcase her old copy of Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and I started reading it, and while I mostly had no idea what in the hell he was talking about, I knew that I liked the way that it sounded, and that its general moodiness spoke to me in the way that moodiness tends to speak to teenagers. Then when I was in college, a professor assigned me a Marianne Moore poem early in my freshman year, and even though I did not know what in the hell she was talking about either, I knew that I liked how it sounded, and that Moore’s arch sense of humor and intellectual playfulness embodied a sensibility I was trying, with decidedly mixed results, to embrace as my own. So part of my interest in modernism is just to try to figure out what in the hell these poets are talking about.
Q. What current projects are you working on?
A. My big project is editing an upcoming volume of the Unsung Masters series, which will focus on Beatrice Hastings. Hastings was born in South Africa but spent most of her career in England, where she was an editor and writer for The New Age, an important early-twentieth century magazine of politics and literature. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, which can make her work a bit tricky to find, and she had a string of bad luck with her attempts to publish her books. And so her work was confined mostly to magazines, and has mostly been forgotten. So I’m very excited to help bring some of her work back into print, and I’m grateful to everyone involved with the series for making the book possible. I’m also busy tweaking a manuscript of a piece on the poet Sterling Brown, which I’ll submit somewhere early this summer.