Despite their great impact on the European literary landscape, the works of John Gould Fletcher often go unnoticed.PHOTOGRAPHY BY HENRY BE WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

It is only natural for us to assume that the pieces of art which are remembered decades after their manifestation are the best ones. The pieces which achieve both commercial and critical success, winning award after award along the way. The pieces which resonate deeply speak words previously unspoken about the human condition, or, at least, say those words in a new way. The landscape of 20th-century poetry – at a cursory glance – appears to reflect this. Eliot, Pound and Doolittle are still lauded for their contributions to literature now, decades after their passing. And yet, the man who brought the now widely utilised polyphonic prose to European poetry, winning the Pulitzer Prize along the way, has largely been forgotten. So, then, why has American poet John Gould Fletcher faded into obscurity, while his contemporaries have been greeted with full inductions into the literary tradition?

“Poems were supposed to be objective, and poets were to be impersonal and detached”

Fletcher – born in Arkansas, educated at Harvard – is perhaps best remembered for his association with the short-lived Imagist poetic movement. Born from the ruminations of art critic T.E. Hulme, Imagism and its practitioners sought to “use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation” of a particular landscape; poems were supposed to be objective, and poets were to be impersonal and detached. But despite Fletcher’s close association with the Imagists – his verse was published in both editions of Amy Lowell’s Some Imagist Poets – his poetry is consumed by the influence of another literary movement altogether: that of 19th-century French Symbolism.

To Fletcher, the works of French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud bore the marks of “perfect craftmanship”, and thus they – as asserted by Fletcher – represented the ideal type of poem. Notably sensual and experimental, both Frenchmen dealt directly with the abstract and unreal; and during Fletcher’s 1913 stay in Paris – largely in response to his readings of the Symbolists - he became convinced that Hulme’s Imagist movement was incapable of manifesting the ‘Ideal Poem’ he was striving to produce. But this conclusion immediately placed him in contention with American poet Ezra Pound, whose support of Imagism – and influence over a number of literary magazines – repudiated the man from Arkansas; so much so, in fact, that in a letter to a contemporary – the editor of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe – he insisted that Pound’s attempts to ‘restructure’ his poetry were unwarranted and represented an affront to his writing.

“He was, more often than not, alone in his endeavours, even when he had people supporting him”

This pattern of behaviour – close alignment immediately followed by conflict and repudiation – was repeated throughout the course of Fletcher’s life. After replacing Ezra Pound with American heiress and poet Amy Lowell, he then abandoned their working relationship soon afterwards in 1917; Lowell’s attempts to convince Fletcher to return to America were misconstrued as overbearing, and her poetry soon became – to Fletcher, at least – part of the ‘old tradition’ of literature, and thus would soon be forgotten. He cut off contemporaries Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington, asserting their verse to be of poor quality, and routinely attacked literary magazine editors for refusing to publish his poetry. His long-standing affair with Englishwoman Daisy Arbuthnot was consumed by arguments over finances; he would later abandon Arbuthnot for an affair with American Charlie May Simon. Given this, it is of little wonder that one recollection of Fletcher’s life asserted him to be “a difficult individual to know and regard kindly”. He was, more often than not, alone in his endeavours, even when he had people supporting him. So, then, why is Fletcher – and his verse – even worth remembering at all?


Mountain View

Art in public: Interventions in the city centre

Perhaps the answer is to be found in Fletcher’s long-standing admiration of French Ballet and Opera. Igor Stravinsky’s now-famous The Rite of Spring represented – for Fletcher – the beauty of movement, coupled with a sense that the early 20th century was a time of transition for Europe and America. Much of the verse that Fletcher wrote shortly after attending a showing of Stravinsky’s production in 1913 maintains a unique musicality: its cadence is constructed to perfectly capture the movement of the world as it reveals itself to us as readers. Fletcher’s most highly regarded pieces of verse – the ‘Symphony’ series – are entitled after pieces of music; a noteworthy decision given the Imagist push to move away from subjectivity. And it is this which makes Fletcher – at least to me – stand out, even now, about a century after much of his verse was published. His work is not a product of its time; it is a perfect illustration of the ‘old’ literary tradition reconciling with the ‘new’ tradition of the Modern epoch.