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There are certain writers who live long and write little, whose every line reflects long rumination and endless revision, and who achieve an almost mineral hard perfection. Kenneth Cox was one of those, but, perhaps uniquely, he was neither a poet nor a writer of short fictions, but a literary critic.
He published his first, and only, book of essays at age 85. Its title carried understatement to austerity: Collected studies in the use of English. (Cox always insisted on the Romance language lower-case style for titles.) With equal allure, an earlier version of the manuscript was called Preliminary expositions of the work of some 20th century writers. Collected studies consisted of essays, many of them previously unpublished, on seventeen writers: nine modern masters (Pound, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Yeats, Conrad, Zukofsky, Niedecker, MacDiarmid, Bunting); three contemporary poets (Creeley, Turnbull, Alan Jenkins); the 19th century novelist George Gissing; an obscure novelist named R. C. Hutchinson; the modernist polymath Allen Upward; and a close look at a stanza by Chaucer. It is unclear how much else he wrote. He translated a novel, Eyes Shut, by the early Italian modernist Federigo Tozzi, which I’ve never seen. There are some scattered short book reviews, and in his letters to me he mentions a translation of a long poem by Leopardi, an essay on Céline, and a poem of his own, "The Manor." I don’t know if these were ever published, or if there are other writings.
I never met him, and know nothing about his life. I think he held some midlevel position in the BBC. He corresponded with some of the writers he wrote about, most notably Niedecker, but said he had no literary friends. In the early 1980s he wrote me that I was his only active supporter; in the 1960s he had appeared in Agenda and later would be a semi-regular in the Australian magazine Scripsi. I assumed he lived alone. His letters had the cranky obsession with detail of the isolated. In the 1970s, I published whatever he sent me in a magazine I edited called Montemora, and for years I would periodically try to find a publisher for a book of his essays. Our correspondence was friendly enough, but somewhere around the 20th letter, I made the mistake of addressing him "Dear Kenneth." I was sharply rebuked, and he remained "Mr. Cox" until the letters petered out in the mid-1980s. I regret now that I didn’t stay in touch, but our letters were exclusively about publishing his work, and there was nothing to say. I still tried to find a publisher, and hoped someday I would surprise him.
What Cox wrote were incredibly precise descriptions. I used to say that he reminded me of a 19th century British naturalist whose flora and fauna were writers, but he corrected me, saying his style pertained to the 18th; he didn’t explain further. As a critic, he advanced no theories or ideology, and was uninterested in the ideologies of his subjects: MacDiarmid’s Marxism or Pound’s fascism. He was an advocate only insofar as he chose certain writers to study. His erudition was immense, but only occasionally visible in a modest aside; he was never dazzling like Kenner or Davenport. He may be the only critic with whom one never disagrees; his descriptions and analyses of technique had a kind of scientific accuracy. And he may be the only critic to describe, with equal precision, what it is like to read a given writer.
In his writing, he clearly belonged to the Bunting and Niedecker school of condensation. (In 1969, Niedecker asks Cid Corman if he would be interested in Cox’s 30-page poem, "The manor" for Origin; in 1978, Cox writes me that the poem is 100 lines long.) The manuscript I have of Preliminary investigations looks like an FBI file obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, with many words and sentences blacked out and almost nothing added. Like Walter Benjamin, he wanted every sentence to contain a thought. He notoriously disliked commas, particularly serial commas. Eliminating the pauses had the opposite effect of slowing down the reading.
Discussing Allen Upward, he described himself:
Hardly a page of Upward passes without some such observation immediately acceptable yet in context so illuminating, the reader is brought up short. The constant recurrence of the feature in passages dealing with matter of great difficulty creates an almost continuous sense of intellectual elation hard to match in modern English. It is further enhanced by a device cultivated in ancient China and found in a few European writers of superior intelligence like Machiavelli Montesquieu and Lichtenberg. These, having made some remark briefly clearly and distinctly formulated, do not stay to amplify but leave the reader to draw from it what conclusions he can at his own peril.
He wrote by far the best essays on Bunting, MacDiarmid, Niedecker, Upward, and Zukofsky, and the best short overview of the
Cantos. Lorine Niedecker said her poem "Paean to Place" was "set going" by a letter from Cox. She wrote to Cid Corman that "Kenneth Cox says he is not a critic– rather an essayist. I saw the LN essay but nothing else he’s written. I think the English are silent, hiding-away people– they’ve been to the silence of the moon already, I guess. Maybe because of the money situation." (In another letter, she mentions that Cox is learning Dutch.) Jenny Penberthy’s great edition of Niedecker’s
Collected Works is dedicated to him. A few years ago, Jenny asked for a blurb in an unsuccessful attempt to drum up some interest in
Collected studies. I wrote: Kenneth Cox is the model for how criticism would be written if there were anyone other than Cox who could write it.
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