Jonathan Cape £30 (932pp) £27 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Verse Revolutionaries, By Helen Carr

Lines of fire in a Soho rebellion

"It is not until poetry lives again 'close to the thing' that it will be a vital part of contemporary life." Among the many pronouncements by Ezra Pound quoted in Helen Carr's vast and detailed history of the Imagist movement, this is typical. There is the categorical Poundian tone, the insistence on the modern (echoes of his dictum "make it new"), the equal insistence that to be contemporary means returning to a lost ideal, and in the middle a small instance of self-quotation in case readers should doubt who is the ultimate arbiter of poetic rectitude at the present time. The Verse Revolutionaries is an admirably thorough survey of a complex movement, but inevitably the facts cluster around the hectoring figure of Pound.

Or rather, "Ezra Pound" seems to name an extraordinary nexus of energy and activity: a writer who was assuredly a monster of egotism and ambition, but without whom the whole pattern of literary modernism would have been vague, if not indiscernible. At first, the "Pound effect" seems to have consisted in a rapid condensing of influences at work in literary London on his arrival in 1908. The decadence of the 1890s, the bracing effect of Nietzsche, the exoticism of the Irish literary revival: these and other elements clung to Pound as if by static while he rubbed up against the established poetic scene. These included the remnants of WB Yeats's Rhymers' Club, the denizens of the Tour Eiffel restaurant in Soho, and Ford Madox Ford's regular gatherings.

It's this sense of milieu that justifies Carr's 900 pages of intimate narrative. Pound attached himself – first as acolyte outsider, then as gatekeeper and guru – to most of the first wave of modernism in English. He maintained admiring, though slightly bored, relations with Yeats, supported Joyce and Lawrence, became a wary collaborator of the equally egomaniacal Wyndham Lewis. But it's the lesser-known figures in the Imagist orbit who really come alive: those, such as the working-class poet FS Flint (with whom Pound would clash) and the tiresomely macho TE Hulme, who were his intellectual equals at the time. Carr conjures well the wheedling and braggadocio between such characters.

This is only half the Imagist story, however. The original myth of the movement has it that Pound invented the term over tea with "H.D." at the British Museum, imperiously scrawling "HD Imagiste" at the bottom of one of her poems. In fact, Hilda Doolittle, long-suffering friend and not-quite lover of the indecisive Ezra, had long been nurturing many ideas inscribed in the new poetic school, including a consciously archaic primitivism and a keen eye for the significant instant. The Verse Revolutionaries treats at length Pound's attitudes – by turns heedless, imploring, emancipated and cruel – to H.D. and other women, but also their centrality to the enterprise of imagism. Whether as editors, proprietors, benefactors or – in the case of Amy Lowell – potential rivals, Pound could not ignore them, even as he complained that poetry was in danger of becoming "a sort of embroidery for dilettantes and women".

For all its sedulous research and Carr's nimble way with intellectual history, The Verse Revolutionaries is not an authoritative study of the poetry itself. Individual poems tend to stand for thematic or formal choices. Nor does Carr really worry at what Pound meant by a term like "image"; too often, one has the sense she thinks the intervening decades of scholarship have been wasted on such matters. And though she is rarely less than assiduous about socio-political context, some of her assertions seem strained: "Pound, in fact, had in some ways a similar mindset to the contemporary Russian revolutionaries."

These are minor caveats in the face of a work of such scope and energy. Carr's considerable achievement is to have taken a movement that has sometimes looked like a mere precursor to modernism proper – the fully-achieved revolution of Eliot, Woolf, Joyce and the later Pound – and shown us that its first spasms were just as violent.

Brian Dillon's 'Tormented Hope: Nine hypochondriac lives' is published by Penguin in September

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