Modernist power couple

John Rodker, Mary Butts

I'm listening to a 2-hour recording made of Kenneth Irby reading at the Ear Inn in New York, in Ma'm listening to a 2-hour recording made of Kenneth Irby reading at the Ear Inn in New York, in May of 1984. At the time he was obsessed with the relatively unknown poetry of Mary Butts. And he began his reading by talking about Butts' writing career, and life, and by reading several of her poems.

Along the way Irby mentions that Butts was married to John Rodker. I hadn't known that. I've long been fascinated by Rodker. In the 80s, when I first started visiting archives and collecting odd bits of modernist literary history, I ran into Rodker's legacy. I believe I read his papers at the University of Maryland, but I could be wrong about that. Or maybe at the Ransom Center at UT Austen, which is where a smallish archive of his papers is housed today. Rodker was a correspondent of many modernist poets, including Wallace Stevens; he published some early Stevens. But no Rodker-Stevens letters are at Texas. I do see correspondences with Theodore Draper and Jessica (Decca) Mitford, which makes me think, on a hunch, that he had a radical/leftist phase, perhaps in the 40s. He was a good friend of Doris Lessing.

In 1919 he started the Ovid Press. It lasted about a year. In the 20s he was in Paris helping Joyce with a second edition of Ulysses. He got into occult publishing and, much later, into publishing pornography. A Collected Poems was published in 1930.

John Rodker and Stevens shared the pages of the October 1919 issue of Poetry. Rodker's poem "The Searchlight" is there, along with a dozen or so of Stevens' famous Harmonium poems.

For a while Rodker was a go-between for Stevens and painting. At one point Rodker, in Paris, was trying to get Stevens to buy a painting by Wyndham Lewis. Stevens never bought a Lewis, but did say this in a letter: "Fancy the swank of Wyndham Lewis."

Ken Irby's interest in the unknown poems of Mary Butts seems warranted - judging from the few poems I've read and, now, thanks to Irby, have heard read aloud. If I ever get the time I'd like to explore the aesthetic cross-influence of Butts and Rodker. This was the time of the formation of Anglo-American modernism in poetry and these two people were important but now almost indiscernible influences.

I haven't read the biography of Butts written by Nathalie Blondel, but that would certainly be a good next step.

Later, Danny Snelson affirms my interest in Rodker, thus: "I've also had a long-time fascination for the man. He was also the center piece, really the only recurring character, in Pound's short-lived Exile journal, wch published an incredible Rodker novel in pieces. Really fascinated by his work I was just reading the Ovid edition of Mauberley, wch is just fabulous. It wld be great to get hands on some of the occult / pornographic publications. Also the Imago editions of Freud. Totally wonderful trajectory!"