Kenneth Cox and friends
The literary essays of the Londoner Kenneth Cox are among the finest essays written by anyone, on any subject, in English. As pure writing — literature, if you will — these essays deserve to be read and reread as one would attend to the essays of Hazlitt or Joseph Mitchell. At their best they are masterpieces of the genre. They refresh and delight. They are a tonic for the mind and are best approached in the morning hours. One’s entire day will be the better for it. As proposition, explication and argument of any given text they are without equal. Models of clarity, concision and insight, they make a mockery of almost all contemporaneous academic criticism, which by comparison will strike the reader as fuzzy, ham-fisted, self-aggrandizing, tendentious and dim. So it should come as no surprise that Cox’s book of essays, published in 2001,
Collected Studies In The Use Of English, has been completely ignored in academic circles, where it would be of most use.
Cox (b. 1916) was not an academic. He came from modest circumstances and remained a Londoner, excepting travel and the war, throughout a long life. His father was a manager at a Cullen grocery. His mother was part Gypsy. Perhaps because of his background, at least in part, Cox would remain Marxist in sympathies, if not strictly doctrinaire, throughout his life. If his politics are in evidence at all in his writings it would be in their intellectual rigor. Through the offices of a sympathetic teacher or two, along with his uncommon intelligence, Cox was allowed to attend LCC (London County Council) schools in West Hampstead and the University College School on Kingsgate Road. He briefly attended the University of London but his temperament and very individual cast of mind would have made him unsuited for further study in an institutional setting.
During the Second World War his particular gifts were made good use of in breaking enemy ciphers, and he worked as a cryptographer in Cairo and Palestine. His success at solving codes, one very important and difficult one in particular, resulted in him being made an MBE. He was proud of this achievement and it was one of the very few things he would allow to be made note of with regard to his own life. Otherwise, he sought and achieved almost complete invisibility outside of his writings, which, though they remain available, are nearly invisible.
After the war he tried his hand at bookselling for a time but met with little success. Cox wound up working for the BBC, a career employee, in their Near Eastern Department where his task was to sift through that region’s press and news broadcasts for bits that might be relevant for BBC transmission. This employment lasted almost the entirety of his adult working life. He retired and, as I understand it, received a pension on which he lived modestly in a flat near the Gunnersbury tube station in southwest London. He had a wife who predeceased him, along with a son, a newspaper editor in Newcastle, who also predeceased him. His family life appears to have been difficult, if not almost entirely miserable.
Cox began publishing his essays in the late ‘60s in Agenda and the Cambridge Quarterly. The earliest dated essay in the Collected Studies is from 1966 and concerns the poetry of Basil Bunting, which would make Cox 50 years old at the time. The thirty essays that make up the book, printed under the imprint of Agenda Editions but paid for by Cox himself, are, but for two writers, Chaucer and Gissing, concerned with 20th century writers, chiefly but not exclusively, Modernist in approach. The presiding intellectual spirit behind the essays, and Cox’s hero, was Ezra Pound, whom Cox came to physically resemble in his own old age. He had particular feeling for the work of Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky, although he became somewhat disillusioned over time with the work of the latter. He seems not to have cared personally very much for either man, though that is not at all evident in his writing about Bunting. But outside of Pound his most powerful feelings — which included real tenderness — were reserved for Lorine Niedecker and her poetry.
In the preface to his Collected Studies in the Use of English, an unusual but revealing title, Cox writes of his selections and method as follows:
Choice has been determined by personal inclination from among the materials available, chance discoveries and occasional recommendations. The outcome of search carried out by these means is emphasis on literature as the art of language. Attention is directed toward tone and movement and significance is drawn from these features as well as from overt meaning. Rigour of treatment tends to increase with the daring and ingenuity of the writing discussed.
Cox was a serious amateur philologist and had reading knowledge of the Romance languages along with Hungarian, Polish, Greek and German. I suspect there were others. He rendered into English a masterful version of Federigo Tozzi’s novel
Con gli occhi chiusi (Eyes Shut), published by Carcanet Press in 1990. He translated from the Gaelic, as well. The critic as philologist is very much in evidence throughout Cox’s writings.
I enjoyed a long correspondence with Kenneth Cox. His letters have all the austere brilliance of style and acuity of observation as the critical prose. They could also be very funny, or at least generously sprinkled with oblique and telling asperities. They would make an interesting collection. I learned a great deal from his letters, and not only from the art of them:
I didn’t give a toss about the writer’s state of mind, all I cared for was the play of words. I would go round savouring a phrase to test it, taste it, till I could decide if it was ‘good’ or had to be spat out. That word taste is not a metaphor. People talk about the sound of language but the real thing is its taste, in the mouth, harsh crisp sweet pungent, produced by the movement of sound.
(The omission of commas in this passage occurs throughout Cox’s writing and along with his diction, astringent tonalities, and syntactical structures is worth considering with more than fleeting attention. It is not idiosyncrasy for its own sake.) This is how Cox approached a piece of writing, and I, for one, would recommend that this is how literature
should be approached in order for it to be properly enjoyed.
I visited Cox in his Burlington Road flat when I passed through London in the later ‘90s and the first few years of this century. He was a famously difficult and irascible man, some might even have characterized as mad, but was unfailingly courteous, warm and
hospitable towards me. After his son died in 1997 Cox surprised me by asking me to be his literary executor. I’d at that point only spent one or two afternoons with him. The man himself was a complicated proposition but my regard for his essays encouraged my
acceptance. I had only the vaguest sense of what was involved. I suppose Kenneth, at some point, had decided I was reliable, or at least reasonably so. There weren’t a great many souls out there in the world who might have been interested in his project that he hadn’t already terminally alienated.
Cox was a formidable presence to be alone in a room with, discussing literature and the life of the mind. He tolerated my observations. I doubt they were of any real interest to him. At one point I decided to brave the observation that the closest model for the method and style of his essays seemed to be the 19th century British naturalists. This speculation evinced no little temerity on my part. Cox regarded me closely for a few moments and in a manner I had not experienced previously. It made me uneasy. Fortunately, I was correct and Cox later sent me this passage from Alfred Russel Wallace’s autobiography My Life:
About three-quarters of a mile from the centre of the town, going along West Street, was a mill called Horn’s Mill, which was a great attraction to me. It was an old-fashioned mill for grinding linseed, expressing the oil, and making oil-cake. The mill stood close by the roadside, and there were small low windows always open, through which we could look in at the fascinating processes as long as we liked. First, there were two great vertical millstones of very smooth red granite, which shone beautifully from the oil of the ground seeds. These were fixed on each side of a massive vertical wooden axis on a central iron axle, revolving slowly and silently, and crushing the linseed into a fine oily meal. A curved fender or scoop continually swept the meal back under the rollers with an excentric motion, which was itself altogether new to us, and very fascinating; and, combined with the two-fold motion of the huge revolving stones, and their beautiful glossy surfaces, had an irresistible attraction for us which never palled. But this was only one part of this delightful kind of peepshow. A little way off an equally novel and still more complex operation was always going on, accompanied by strange noises always dear to the young. Looking in at other windows we saw numbers of workmen engaged in strange operation amid strange machinery, with its hum and whirl and reverberating noises. Close before us were long erections like shop counters, but not quite so high. Immediately above these, at a height of perhaps ten or twelve feet, a long cylindrical beam was revolving with fixed beams on each side of it, both higher up and lower down. At regular intervals along the counter were great upright wooden stampers shod with iron at the bottom. When not in action these were supported so that they were about two feet above the counter, and just below them was a square hole. As we looked on a man would take a small canvas sack about two feet long, fill it quite full of linseed meal from a large box by his side, place this bag in a strong cover of a kind of floorcloth with flaps going over the top and down each side. The sack of meal thus prepared would be then dropped into the hole, which it entered easily. The thin board of hard wood, tapered to the lower edge, was pushed down on one side of it, and outside this again another wedge-shaped piece was inserted. The top of this was now just under the iron cap of the heavy pile or rammer, and on pulling a rope, this was freed and dropped on the top of the wedge, which it forced halfway down. In a few seconds it was raised up again, and fell upon the wedge, driving it in a good deal further, and the third blow would send it down level with the top of the counter. Then when the rammer rose up, another rope was pulled, and it remained suspended; a turn of a handle enabled the first wedge to be drawn out and a much thicker one inserted, when, after two or three blows, this became so hard to drive that the rammer falling upon it made a dull sound and rebounded a little; and as the process went on the blows became sharper, and the pile would rebound two or three times like a billiard ball rebounding again and again from a stone floor, but in more rapid succession. This went on for hours, and when the process was finished, the meal in the sack had become so highly compressed that when taken out it was found to be converted into a compact oilcake. In this mill there were, I think, three or four counters parallel to each other, and on each, perhaps six or eight stamps, and when all these were at work together, but rebounding at different rates and with different intensities of sound, the whole effect was very strange, and the din and reverberation almost deafening, but still at times somewhat musical. During this squeezing process the oil ran off below through suitable apertures, but was never seen by us. I believe these old stamping-mills are now all replaced by hydraulic presses, which get more oil out and leave the cake harder, but the process would be silent and far less picturesque.
Cox never discussed with me what in particular he found so pleasing about the passage. Certainly Wallace’s handling of such concentrated detail so elegantly and without congestion is remarkable. But I suspect Kenneth liked best how the language of the passage tasted and the scene that Wallace managed to paint with words.
I’d like to provide a few samples from Cox’s book of essays to give the reader a proper taste of the man’s writing.
He disdained the illusion of spontaneity and other tricks to wow groundlings. He kept separate the constituents of consonantal clusters, relishing sibilants and fricatives as much as plosives and liquids, and studied the duration of pauses as carefully as the duration of syllables. He had a way of pronouncing sweet that recalled sipping a liquid through a lump of sugar . . . Always intense and personal his response to any writing was determined by the pleasure and interest it afford him.
The absence of this factor makes the academic study of literature a hollow sham, its presence a test of character and truthfulness. It is not true that Bunting’s work lacks message but it is the message of art. Older than religion and not openly moralistic its practice instils certain patterns of behaviour and inhibits others. Bunting’s ethos was skaldic and feudal with a Sufi glaze.
The Jesuits were his blacking factory. They formed him but made him unable to do anything without a model. He turned the disability into a source of strength so copious it might almost seem to contain the whole art. Ulysses is a suite of rhetorical exercises, several of them masterpieces. Finnegan’s Wake, constructed on a scheme devised by Joyce to serve him as a substitute for the void, is not at all like a dream really. It uses some of the devises of dream, like multiple personality and tiers of meaning, but its procedures are hyperconscious. Of necessity verbal it is built on the rhythms of Irish speech and popular song and on the traditional forms of European syntax; only the upper tier of the vocabulary is to any extent polyglot. The state of mind is generally represents is more like that (not always due to alcohol) where remote references can be made with ease but simple messages get garbled, trivialities assume enormous proportions and everything appears at once significant and unaccountably comic.
One of the few to have possessed the secret of melodious English Joyce is of all writers the most Mozartian. He made the life that originally filled him with horror appear in verbal recollection lovely and such fun. The difficulty with his writing is simply the limit set by human nature to the accumulation of aesthetic pleasure.
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 a relative from whom little is hid and to whom little need to be explained. The poems acknowledge semi-articulate intimacies, their interrupted cadence, a shrewd tenderness, a tang.
(From an unpublished Niedecker essay)
At length her versification came to consist of nothing but syllables places one under another at different angles and different distances.
Pound’s manner of utterance is typically brief, clear, emotionally charged and limited in signification. Its nuclear unit is the phrase. Enjoined by theory and stimulated by impatience the brevity intensifies the writing, moment by moment precluding any conceivable exception or qualification but stopping short of linguistic fetish: no particular element of language is being counted or measured. It normally looks sufficient if a phrase is enunciable in a single breath, better still if it can terminate abruptly; as Wyndham Lewis observed, Pound continually ‘breaks off’. Abrupt termination enforces immediate check, retrieval and revaluation, producing the shock of sudden clarity. Phrases considered familiar, and some become familiar as the work goes on, can be left hanging. The method is extended from phrases used previously to others remembered from life or reading. At the end the utterance may be reduced to single words alluding to contexts they once occurred in. In such cases a gloss in insufficient explanation.
On Wyndham Lewis
The doctrine of modernism, that an artist can as well make work out of what he abhors as of what he prizes, and not merely in the way of satire or for the pleasure of excretion but organizing both in patterns to take stress or complicating the play between them for pure devilment, that is ‘secret’ doctrine. It does not commend itself to the masses, which say they like plain speaking, and it cannot be translated into action, which may be good or evil or neither but cannot be both. In the same way the chief weakness of modernism has been its lack of social and political theory. It is not an unfortunate omission due to the men or the times but a necessary consequence of the artist’s concentration on his art: unconcern for les autres. Theories of ‘order’ or of ‘revolution’ were entertained if compatible and adopted if conceivable extentions of the work, but his attention was elsewhere. Hard as it is to take, both the structure of ideas and the history of individuals show an undeniable line joining Mallarme’s Tuesday’s rue de Rome with Belsen and Auschwitz. We harm ourselves if we ignore what was fascist in Lewis though he grew away from it ...
The idea of form as a simple outflow of natural content was not a possibility Yeats was disposed to consider. Form was for him the achievement of an effort to free intractable matter by means of words expressing immoderate power through themselves subjected to authorial restraint. Outside his dramatic and narrative compositions the resulting strains show mostly in lyrical poems constructed of successive stanzas. Each of these works it ways towards an endline ensured, provisionally at least, to settle the matter and clinch it. In the outcome some of them moan, some emit an imposing boom, others clip into place with an authoritarian clang.
What is lacking is afflatus, the breath of life that sends a thrill down the spine and gets engraved in the memory. Assiduous industry and cautious calculation do not replace creative energy, they point up its absence. The difficulties that ensue prove insurmountable since they demand the unthinkable measures great writers take. The strain of arduous execution also consorts uneasily with the ingenuous simplicity of Zukofsky’s treatment of sensitive matter: it leaves a disagreeable aftertaste of innocence exploited. Versification is another sore point. In youth Zukofsky submitted to magazines lines of verse with only one or two words each, poetry being paid at so much a line. His eventual recourse to a standard of five argues indifference or insensibility.
The music question remains a stumbling block. In his satirical novel Little it is applied to his little son, whether he learned to speak words: it should be applied to himself. He appears to aspire to a state in which word can join word as tone joins tone, that is to say, not loosely or carelessly but with just as much freedom and limitation of freedom and with similar or at least comparable effect. Since both music and language consist of sound they correspond in the expression of emotion but in respect of tone or rhythmic movement only to some extent and in that of significant organisation not at all.
it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be
stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose
This material is copyright © August Kleinzahler and Jacket magazine 2005
The Internet address of this page is