book cover imageGnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature
by Hugh Kenner.
Dalkey Archive Press, 2016
(Originally McDowell, Oblensky: 1958).
Paper, 302 pages, $18.

Remember the literature anthology? A brick of onion-thin pages so immense it could ballast a book bag for a day’s worth of classes. Within its covers the reader travels without special disruption from Chaucer to Dryden, from Dickinson to Ammons, from Larkin to Gawain. Each author has been selected (by someone), and representative snippets have been lopped off every corpus (by someone). And every entry is headed with a summary, a tombstone of their works and days.

Does any author survive this surgery? And what’s been left behind on the operating table? What’s the shape of a book, anyway?

Hugh Kenner’s first collection of essays, Gnomon, attempts to answer this question. Published in 1958, and long out of print, Gnomon has been newly reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. By his death in 2003, Kenner had written twenty-five books. He worked as an English professor, but his books might discuss morphology, the history of dictionaries, or computer programming. He showed how curiosity worked, its guesses, confusions, and leaps, earning himself regular bylines in a slew of publications. His masterwork, The Pound Era, redefined the study of poetry by placing Ezra Pound—fascist, translator, and poetic genius—at the center of the Modernist aesthetic. It was an unpopular position in English departments, not the least for political reasons.

In 1958, this career was still ahead of him, but he was already casting a colder eye on the ivy-draped professoriate. Gnomon collects almost ten years of writing: nineteen essays, made an even twenty by a foreword. He reviews poetry anthologies, literary theorists, the biographies of Freud and Whitman, Ezra Pound’s later Cantos, William Carlos Williams’s prose and poetry, Ford Madox Ford’s war novels, and Alexander Pope’s satires, among others.

A bald summary of the topics might sound like odds and ends glued into a book. But the miscellany is designed to shake up the study of literature—“a bureaucracy that has lately been supposing all the major criticism of the present time to be well known and sifted, the orthodoxies established, the hammocks slung, the returns in, and nothing to do but execute philosophical doodles—pointless as freshman themes—while the grad students work at tabulations.”

Kenner handles his style like a scalpel, so razor-sharp that the movement of the blade barely registers until the cut is complete. He can undo a library’s worth of dissertations by mentioning that people mistake “Kafka for a physician rather than a symptom.” William Empson’s fascination with teasingout the ambiguities of individual words is “a little like discussing an automobile solely in terms of the weight borne by its ball-bearings.” And whenever literature is discussed, there’s always those people who imagine that writing “reached an apex in Keats.” These discriminations are so lethal precisely because they’re so compressed. As he writes later about the epigrams of the French Enlightenment, “their principle is the ability of reason to see through facts to their essential dynamics.”

Academia has always had its well-read contrarians like Harold Bloom, who can pile up speaking engagements and publishing contracts. Meanwhile, Kenner has gone out of print. By studying the Modernist poets, Kenner dedicated himself to writers who had slipped into ridicule, disregard, shame. Pound had been a radio broadcaster for Mussolini, then a prisoner of war, then a mental patient. William Carlos Williams’s poems were somehow “indiscussable”—because they weren’t “‘about’ something else (Europe—the past).” Kenner was drawn to these lonely volcanoes, exiled by their own talent. When the literary culture celebrated only youth and sensation, it should be no surprise that artists transformed into raging pits.

With such outsized personalities, it’s tempting to organize the history of literature into a procession of eccentric bohemians. This one thrived on the stink of sour apples; that one wore a velvet jacket with pearl buttons. For Kenner, probably the best example of this poetic personality is Whitman, who “wasn’t a technician but a sort of mouthpiece.” And Whitman’s poems come to us in hulking collected editions. Likewise, the Collected Poems of Wordsworth and Shelley, Byron and Keats are “arranged in the order of composition,” collected like the secretion of the exotic Homo poeticus.

To explain these extravagant emissions, professors resort to “a smattering about Schools and Personalities.” Students are taught that Ideas and Theories and Cultures produce literature, as a river produces silt: books are an especially colorful instance of Freud, or a fascinating exposition of Victorian pop culture. The result has been “a student population so illiterate that it cannot read poetry at all, being herded through a succession of huge anthologies scientifically designed to teach it how.”

And why read one author over another? Academia provides no reason for preferring Alexander Pope to Colley Cibber, or why Susan Warner might possibly deserve less attention than Herman Melville. If anything could be valuable, it’s safer to include everything. So anthologies become endless chronological grab-bags, twins of the shapeless Collected Poems. But imagine the lineage of “English” literature. Where does Beowulf, unread for nearly a thousand years, belong? Where are Pope and Dryden, without also reading Latin? What sense can be made of Modernist poems without French prose?

Kenner answers this profusion of books with a Book. He sets out his image for artistic accomplishment, “The Sacred Book of the Arts,” in the first essay in Gnomon. The phrase comes from Yeats. Yeats was a new kind of poet, a counter-Romantic, who used the book, not scattered poems, as the unit of composition. Each volume of Yeats is “a large-scale work, like a book of the Bible.” Instead of a Romantic “bloated descant on some epic idea,” Yeats offers “a unity by architecture out of separate and ascertainable components.” Over the course of a career, these works form a greater whole.

Although Kenner would not use the word for several decades, he means that a book achieves self-similarity, an idea borrowed from mathematics. The artist’s pattern infuses everything, from the smallest phrase to the organization of chapters and books. Kenner shows his own reading method with a dialogue between student and teacher, about Yeats’s The Tower. Every teacher has heard the little confusions that pop up: what’s a ‘Ledaean body’? Who’s this Colonus? Rather than consult a “mythological dictionary,” Kenner the teacher pushes the student towards careful reading in The Tower, as each part of the book answers another. Details are not mere stage-dressing; they are the mortar of a tremendous order, solid as a Roman wall.

Kenner finds this quality in books as various as Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, in Alexander Pope’s satirical poem The Dunciad, and in Pound’s Guide to Kulchur. What ties these diverse books together is precise observation gathered in careful writing—the ability to “concentrate the meaning rather than decorate it.” This is a matter of civilization. There is a “body of knowledge uniquely available in poetry.” When Kenner claims that “there are certain poems every civilized American should be familiar with,” he means that poetry is not merely a miasma of rhyming fancies and obscurities. Poetry, and the attention it demands and fosters, are the substance of civilization.

“Books have their durations,” however, and most don’t last. Kenner writes that the “critic who thinks he is writing literature is very unlikely to write anything useful … insofar as his work achieves its function it ought to render itself unnecessary.” How can criticism ever last? Is reprinting his book the ultimate proof that no one listened?

A gnomon is the indicator on a sundial, and Kenner introduces his Gnomon as “a report on ten years’ watching of shadows.” His critical method doesn’t involve texts in thickets of literary theories; he asks for ingenuity. The sun moving across the sky is the most natural, obvious thing in the world. But stick a wedge on a tree stump or a rock, and you’ve made a clock. Something as slight as a shadow measures the duration of a human age.

Gnomon has not reached the limits of its duration; his estimates stand, and his jibes at fraud and faddishness only require updated names. If the shadow cast by his gnomon still hits roughly the same numbers on the sundial’s face, it’s not the book that disappoints us—it’s our own shortcomings. When the classes have ended and the hundred-dollar anthology sits on unread on the shelf, Kenner’s book will go on teaching those “things one must know to be fully human.”  

Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He is working on a novel and a book about Ovid. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.