Make It New! The Uncle Remus Inspired Letters of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound
Weirdly enough, they corresponded via letters written in African-American dialect inspired by the Uncle Remus stories. Eliot (below, left) was given the nickname “Old Possum” by Pound, who referred to himself as “Brer Rabbit.”
The nicknames were no mistake — Pound viewed himself as a brash risk-taker, while he considered Eliot’s reserve to be quietly subversive. True to form, Eliot even signed one of his letters “Tar Baby” (as in the story where the “Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nothin'”).
Both had grown up when the Uncle Remus stories were ubiquitous and ridiculously popular, and both relished in the rebellious language that defied the Queen’s English. For example, here’s a poem within a letter from Pound —
Sez the Maltese dawg to the Siam cat
‘Whaaar’z ole Parson Possum at?’
Sez the Siam cat to the Maltese dawg
‘Dahr he sets lak a bump-onna-log.’
Their correspondence eventually became an intricate inside joke that signaled their collaboration against the London literary establishment. Here’s another poem-within-a-letter from Pound —
Pound’s famous slogan — “Make it new!” — couldn’t be more apt here. By appropriating the old language from the literature of their youth, Eliot and Pound considered themselves to be at the forefront of poetic ingenuity.
Eliot’s “Old Possum” nickname became common knowledge in literary circles, and he even published Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in 1939. Yes, it’s the very same book that Andrew Lloyd Webber would adapt into the musical theatre atrocity, Cats.
I love how Eliot and Pound wrote from the context of the literature of their youth. The old vernacular inspired their experimentation with language (not unlike Joel Chandler Harris recording the stories of the plantation!), and also allowed them to mock the old fuddy-duddies creating bland poetry.
For more on the dialect of Eliot and Pound, check out Michael North’s book The Dialect of Modernism.