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1. Hard and Soft Modernism: Politics as “Theory”

Peter Nicholls

Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780470658734.2013.00002.x


In an age of “Theory,” can we still think of literary modernism in terms of exclusionary dualisms? One invitation to do so is the fact that modernism was itself deeply rooted in dualistic and oppositional modes of thinking—the “figure of a defiant speech in excess of the norm is salient in modernism,” declares one critic ( Al-Kassim 2010 , 12). Yet even Ezra Pound (1968a) , originator of many of the pithy antitheses that continue to be ritually invoked in accounts of modernist writing, broached his distinction between “hard” and “soft” forms of writing with uncharacteristic hesitation: “I apologize for using the semetaphorical [sic] terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ in this essay, but after puzzling over the matter for some time I can see no other way of setting about it” (285). Then follows the elaboration of the terminology that would be so influential in subsequent readings of modernism (“the word ‘hard,’” notes Hugh Kenner (1988) , “was coming into vogue” [131]): By “hardness” [writes Pound] I mean a quality which is in poetry nearly always a virtue—I can think of no case where it is not. By softness I mean an opposite quality which is not always a fault. Anyone who dislikes these textural terms may lay the blame on Théophile Gautier, who certainly suggests them in Emaux et Camées ; it is his hardness that I had first in mind. He exhorts us to cut in hard substance, the shell and the ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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