Language as Code: Reading Kenneth Cox

Jacob Kiernan

The Art of Language: Selected Essays. Kenneth Cox. Chicago, IL: Flood Editions, 2016. 328 pages. $17.95.

Kenneth Cox’s The Art of Language (Flood Editions) is a complex collection of essays on modernist prose and poetry. The anthology collects monographs on leviathans like Joyce, Conrad, Yeats, and Pound, as well as on Cox’s contemporaries—such as Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley, Objectivist Lorine Niedecker, and Basil Bunting. Most profoundly, the collection is an exploration of the power and structure of poetic language.

Kenneth Cox is not a household name, but there is something familiar about his work. Graduating from University College London in 1935, Cox wrote Ezra Pound expressing his interest in a life of letters. He worked for the BBC for twenty-seven years, writing literary criticism in his spare time; before he became a journalist, Cox worked for the British Intelligence Corps in Cairo and Palestine doing decryption work. His obsession with understanding language as code and an academic sense of humor permeate his writing.

While the task of constructing literary criticism is not easy, Cox is most successful when he allows intimacy and immediacy to guide his writing. His early essays are written as epistles to his contemporaries, with whom he deeply empathizes and believes in. And at least a few of these essays precipitated lifelong friendships with their subjects: For years, Cox corresponded with Bunting, who would later turn Kleinzahler onto the former’s writing as some of the most “interesting” British literary criticism.

The essays on his contemporaries are personal and direct. In his 1966 essay on British Modernist Basil Bunting, Cox writes, “An outstanding feature of Bunting’s poetry is its condensation of meaning.” Cox uses Bunting’s poetry as an exemplar of “sparseness and purity,” in which “meaning is given in full and at one go.” He goes on to discuss the social and political context of Bunting’s work, the relationship of syntax to trope, and the limitations of education and medium. Cox asserts that Bunting’s concision allows him to take risks, which creates a rich economy of language.

Cox begins his 1969 essay on Robert Creeley: “A number of Robert Creeley’s early poems, certainly most of the best, are in form addresses to another being.” While other poets address “no-one in particular” or “the universe in general,” Creeley writes to someone specific. And one gets the sense that Cox is doing the same: composing a missive to Creeley. Cox concludes, “In seeking rather to define the male experience of loving, the poem presumes familiarity and adopts a persistent exploratory movement, which, imitating the act, becomes itself an act of love.” Voiced as self-description—and considering the size of British literary circles—Cox knew that Creeley would ultimately read the essay, as he did. Likewise, Cox explains what a third party can expect to get from such poems: Put in the position of “an eavesdropper or wiretapper” one can learn the art of address, which acts as a cypher for how Cox wants his own work to be taken.

Likewise, in his 1966 essay on Lorine Niedecker (published three years later), Cox writes about the “quiet confidence” of Niedecker’s poetry that “registers the feel of a place and the personality of a speaker before meaning.” While Cox frames her work largely within the sphere of domestic, tracing her verse back to its Japanese roots in haiku and tanka, there is a distinct tenderness to his writing. He writes, “The prevailing mood of the poems is alert calm. It conveys pathos, asperity or affectionate irony, rather as if one were in the presence of relative from whom little is hid and to whom little needs to be explained . . . Niedecker’s poems leave the reader in peace.” Certainly not the usual turn in literary criticism, but the sentiment lends clarity and structure to the essay and sparked a four-year correspondence with the poet herself.

Cox’s later essays on the high modernism, unfortunately, lose this urgency, and his writing becomes cryptic, kinky, and convoluted. His pathos is buried beneath a maze of words; his meaning irrecoverably hieroglyphic.

He makes bold, unsubstantiated claims throughout these later essays. In his 2001 essay on Joyce, Cox wanders through biographical, structural, and linguistic notes, before finally settling on a thesis in his last lines: Joyce’s writing is “Mozartian.” The essay only touches on musicality—only cryptically—here and there.

Cox also has a habit of undermining his own arguments. In “Ezra Pound: A Version of Mencius,” he gives a close reading of Pound’s Canto LXXIV, tracing it back to its third century Chinese reference, Mencius. While the revelation of the Canto’s origin is novel, the word-for-word comparison of the two verses quickly becomes belabored. Cox then mentions that he does not know Chinese and “doubts the use of learning” it: His analysis is based wholly on translators’ notes.

Assessing Yeats, Cox writes, “Yeats will have regarded his practice as uninhibited reproduction of natural elements of eloquent speech from any source, colloquial, forensic or theatrical.” While this quotation might seem recondite, his meaning is simple: Yeats employed a variety of sources from colloquial speech to theatrical language. We are left wondering why Cox chooses to encode his meaning so elaborately.

Cox recognizes that poetry communicates meaning, but this is where his own work often fails. His writings on the high Modernists are so cryptic—and even encrypted—that they lose the emotional impact that Joyce, Pound, and Yeats conveyed with such potency: His meaning becomes an unsolvable cryptogram. The early works, however, are enough to make Cox’s The Art of Language an engaging, albeit outré, exploration of language’s poignancy and plash.

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