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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions