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The master critic

The late Hugh Kenner's theory of everything

WHEN HUGH KENNER died on Nov. 24, a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday, the first problem for writers of obituaries and tributes was how to categorize him. Most took the safe way out: "literary critic," "scholar of modernist prose and poetry," and so on.

 

While factually accurate so far as they go -- he did write influential studies of Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett -- those labels are misleading. Certainly Kenner was a brilliant close reader. Born in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1923, he came of age in the heyday of the New Critics and he could explicate a poem with the best of them. But where the New Criticism tended to focus its energies exclusively on literary texts, growing narrower and narrower and increasingly elaborate until it finally imploded, Kenner turned outward. The "rich, chaotic world" of painter Romare Bearden's collages, the surprising efficiency of a messy desk, the design of mazes: wherever he looked, Kenner found meaning, held in an intricate system of stresses like a sonnet or a geodesic dome.

He was himself a "pattern recognizer," as he described inventor Raymond Kurzweil in the December 1990 issue of the pioneering personal computer magazine Byte. (Kenner was surely the only writer ever to serve at the same time as a columnist both for Byte and Art & Antiques.) "A 'Kurzweil,' " he wrote, "that would be a pattern recognizer. Examples: a machine that can read books aloud to the blind; another machine that can type to human dictation; yet another that combines acoustic patterns so accurately that professional musicians have thought they were hearing a $400,000 concert grand."

In his masterpiece, "The Pound Era," published in 1971, Kenner had given another example: the "patterned energy" of a poem, transferable from Greek, say, to English or Chinese. As a rope makes a knot visible, Kenner wrote, so the Greek text "makes Homer's imagined realities apprehensible." But "the poem is not its language. Hence Pound's reiterated advice to translators, to convey the energized pattern and let go the words. To tie the knot you need not simulate the original fibers."

"The Pound Era," Kenner said, was a book he'd been trying to get started for years. What enabled him finally to pull it together was the insight that the great writers of the early 20th century and their kindred spirits in the arts and sciences shared a common awareness of "patterned integrities" -- the knot that exists apart from the rope; the gist of Homer -- that make up "a universe of ordered dynamisms." For Kenner, the Oxford English Dictionary's sequences of citations, T.S. Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and the revolutionary cinematic montage of the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein were all aspects of the same great enterprise that gathered the energies of the era.

For the organizing recognition of "patterned integrities" Kenner credited the visionary architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller (it was he who stood on the platform of college auditoriums, explaining "the first principles of the universe" to dazzled undergraduates by tying and untying an invisible knot). To repay the favor, Kenner followed "The Pound Era" with the 1973 guidebook "Bucky," still the best introduction to Fuller's work, as well as a 1976 manual for do-it-yourselfers, "Geodesic Math and How to Use It." (The book was recently reissued by the University of California Press, which noted it had been its most-requested out-of-print title.)

* * * *

As a teacher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and later at Johns Hopkins and the University of Georgia, Kenner sought to impart his way of seeing to students. Chain smoking, spreading his long fingers to illustrate a point, with his hair seemingly electrified by sheer brainpower and his odd, synthesized-sounding voice (the result of childhood influenza that left him almost completely deaf), he could appear as a slightly alien if benign presence, member of a species closely related to humans yet clearly superior in intelligence. In the classroom he quoted from memory whatever he needed to cite.

Like all gifts, Kenner's virtuosity at pattern recognition came with certain liabilities. While it's simply not true, as some have said, that he was an apologist for Pound's fascism or anti-Semitism, he could seem uncharacteristically obtuse when he took up such questions, impatient to get on to what really mattered in the "Cantos." His books on Beckett are refreshingly attentive to Beckett's comedy and to what might be called his combinatorial delight. (The Beckett trilogy comprising "Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable," Kenner writes, "is, among other things, a compendious abstract of all the novels that have ever been written, reduced to their most general terms." Pattern again.) Yet while this offered a much-needed corrective to the heavy-breathing, self-consciously "dark" tone of many early interpretations (we're in the abyss together -- aren't we sophisticated!), there was something in those readings -- something that almost every reader of Beckett feels -- that Kenner, disdainful of cant and clich, missed.

But such failures do not diminish the usable example he has left, of an alert, curious engagement with the inexhaustible world. Kenner moved without strain from Joyce's "Ulysses" to Chuck Jones's classic Warner Brothers cartoons (to which he devoted a book, one of his best); "high art" and popular art, literature and technology were all part of the same conversation. "In no other country" but America, Kenner observed in "A Homemade World," his 1975 study of American modernist writers, "would it have been plausible for the telephone to be invented, which allows one to enter another's house without the ceremonies of entrance or introduction, and moreover without actually going there."

This openness to experience, this confidence that the patterns he saw derived from some ultimate coherence, must have been owing in part to Kenner's faith, a subject about which he was reticent in his writing. As he recalled in an essay commissioned for the 1996 volume "Communion," Kenner was raised as a Canadian Presbyterian/Methodist in a "Bible-fearing family," converting to a devout Catholicism as an adult. ("I've had no need to return to the Bible," Kenner wrote, "because I've not been parted from it, ever.") Like his erstwhile mentor, Marshall McLuhan (also an adult convert), and their mutual friend, the great Jesuit scholar Walter Ong (a cradle Catholic, who died just this August), Kenner rejected any notion that faith entailed a retreat into the past.

Indeed, while some of his coreligionists were wringing their hands about the implications of artificial intelligence -- and while MIT's Marvin Minsky was proclaiming that human beings are machines made out of meat -- Kenner was busy devising, with Joseph O'Rourke, a computer program called TRAVESTY, which manipulates a text to create odd effects of language. Later, with Charles Hartman, Kenner published a volume of computer-generated poetry, "Sentences."

How fitting, then, that on Nov. 24, the day Kenner died, the "Patents" column of The New York Times reported, under the heading "The Muse Is in the Software," that Raymond Kurzweil and a collaborator, engineer John Keklak, had been granted a patent for "a cybernetic poet" -- "software that allows a computer to create poetry by imitating but not plagiarizing the styles and vocabularies of human poets." The article went on to note that, like many of Kurzweil's inventions, the cybernetic poet is "based on pattern recognition."

Somewhere under the larches of Paradise -- strolling perhaps with Bucky Fuller -- Hugh Kenner is smiling.

John Wilson is the editor of "Books & Culture," a bimonthly review.

(Photo / John Hopkins University Press)
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