Hugh Kenner: How to Write
May 5th, 2023, Nanterre

Organized by Charlotte Estrade ( and Chloé Thomas (

With the support of CREA (Nanterre), LARCA (CNRS / Paris-Cité) and SEM (Société d’études modernistes).


The times indicated are all CET (Nanterre time).

Nanterre, amphithéâtre, bâtiment Weber, and online:

Please note that all afternoon papers will be given online, but the general public is welcome at Nanterre where coffee and conversation will be had.


10:45 – Welcome coffee

11:00 – Sean Mark (U. catholique de Lille): “Toward the evening of a gone world”: on forgetting Hugh Kenner

11:30  Hélène Lesbros (Nanterre): “Energized units”: Hugh Kenner’s intermedial approach to Buckminster Fuller’s writings and designs

12:30 Lunch Break

14:30 Conversation: Hugh Kenner and (non) – academic writing.

15:30 Jean-Michel Rabaté (U. Penn) – On (not) meeting Kenner in Copenhagen

16:00 Barry Ahearn (Tulane) – Hugh Kenner at Johns Hopkins

16:30 coffee break

17:00 Barry Cole (U. of Alabama) – The Intersection of Marginalized Thinkers and Shunned Spaces in the Critiques of Hugh Kenner

17:30 Joseph Staten (U. Chicago) – Syntax in Santa Barbara

18:00 coffee break

18:30 Marjorie Perloff (USC) – Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era.



Abstracts and bios


Sean Mark – “Toward the evening of a gone world”: On Forgetting Hugh Kenner




To consider the fiftieth anniversary of Kenner’s The Pound Era is to be struck by its somewhat muted nature—an occurrence greeted, if considered beside other modernist landmarks, with a whimper rather than a bang. This year’s centennial celebrations seem likely to follow suit. Though agreeing with her premise, my paper will query Marjorie Perloff’s claim that the ‘forgetting’ that has marked Kenner’s legacy is predicated, primarily, on methodological or theoretical grounds. Despite the turn away from the formalist, new critical mode with which Kenner is often associated, and the ascendancy of a new historicist, ‘cultural’ turn, the tenacity of the traces of Kenner’s contribution attests that his impact remains relevant and vital, if now largely unavowed. In some sense, the critical attention to ‘homologies, sympathies, and identities’, for which Kenner had such a rigorous and exacting eye, embodies our interdisciplinary moment and helped articulate and consolidate a modernist comparative methodology. It is difficult, too, to conceive the so-called ‘creative-critical’ turn without Kenner’s contribution, even if practitioners themselves might hesitate to do so. We might even argue that a fundamental Marxian materialism is coterminous with the underpinnings of Kenner’s approach, as shared with Pound’s tenet that a work of art bespeaks the economic conditions of its age. Rather than on metrics of ‘method’ and ‘theory’, I will argue, the onus should instead be placed on the role of the political in Kenner’s untimeliness. It is an irony worth noting that the author of a transformational profile of Pound which, by all accounts, largely depoliticises the poet should, in turn, be caught up in the politics of Pound, a guilt by association that has weighed heavily, in the last thirty years, as a keener light has been shone upon those politics. Perhaps, rather like the “invisible” translator, Kenner was to be forgotten once the work was done, once his “translation” of Pound was complete, his place in the canon secured. But does this not risk detracting from Kenner’s own idiosyncratic authoriality? And what of Kenner’s own views, a conservative politics that would lead him to the glowing endorsement of Barry Goldwater? Reflecting on the role that Kenner played in the development of my own writing, and surveying the obituaries and the appraisals of his legacy, my paper will probe this difficult decoupling of regressive politics from aesthetics, particularly in relation to contemporary discourse around so-called “cancel culture” and “identity politics”.


Dr Sean Mark is Maître de conférences (Associate Professor) in English at the Université Catholique de Lille, where he teaches American literature and translation. After graduating from University College London, he completed a PhD in comparative literature at the universities of Tübingen, Bergamo and Brown, on a fellowship from the European Commission in the Cultural Studies in Literary Interzones doctoral programme, and in 2018–19 was British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the British School at Rome. He has published in The Edinburgh Companion to Ezra Pound and the Arts, Modernism and Food Studies, The Ezra Pound Studies Biennial, Sillages Critiques and Modernism/modernity. His first monograph, Pound and Pasolini: Poetics of Crisis, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.


Hélène Lesbros – “Energized units”: Hugh Kenner’s intermedial approach to Buckminster Fuller’s writings and designs


Among the many biographies written by Hugh Kenner, his 1973 Bucky, A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller stands out as the only book dedicated to a non-exclusively literary artist. Buckminster Fuller’s (1895-1983) multimedial work is indeed generally more widely known through landmark realizations such as the Dymaxion house or the geodesic dome in Montreal, which have become iconic references of American modern architecture. However, Fuller’s practice also extensively included writings, and, most importantly, poetry.

Concerned with the gradual “technological extension” of human capacities, Fuller’s poems depict the ever-increasing integration of industrial processes to the everyday life of the common man. Conceived of as modern epic poems, the poetic works of Fuller put the emphasis on the ever-growing capacity of human beings to channelize and create energy in previously unseen proportions. Doing so, they resonate both with the angst spawned by the atomic age and with an ardent faith in the interconnexion of technological and social improvements. 

Hugh Kenner is the first in a series of commentators to have written about Fuller as a poet in his own right, and to have exposed the intertextual relations linking his poetry to other modernist writers’ such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. As he coined the term energizing units to describe Fuller’s condensed, epic verses, he opened a new path for readers wanting to explore the intermedial aspect of the architect’s work, in word or steel. My contribution will focus on Hugh Kenner’s particular relationship with Buckminster Fuller as evoked throughout the book, the importance of his biography in the study of the artist’s work and on his insistence to emphasize the role of poetics in the understanding of Fuller’s complex writings and architecture.


Hélène Lesbros has been a teaching fellow and a PhD student at Université Paris X – Université Paris Ouest Nanterre since 2019. She is currently writing a thesis in American Literature, under the supervision of Hélène Aji (Professor in American Literature at the Ecole Normale Supérieur in Paris). Provisional title of the thesis: “Architexts: poetic organicism in Frank Lloyd Wright, Claude Fayette Bragdon and Richard Buckminster Fuller’s works”.

Jean-Michel Rabaté – On (not) meeting Kenner in Copenhagen


Jean-Michel Rabaté is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.  One of the founders and curators of Slought Foundation in Philadelphia (, he is one of the managing editors of the Journal of Modern Literature. Since 2008, he has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Rabaté has authored or edited more than 40 books on modernism, psychoanalysis, contemporary art, philosophy, and writers like Beckett,  Pound and Joyce.

His books include Lacan Literario (2007), 1913: The cradle of modernism  (2007, Chinese translation 2013), The Ethic of the Lie (2008), Etant donnés: 1) l’art, 2) le crime  (2010). The Ghosts of Modernity has been republished in 2010. In 2013, he has edited A Handbook of Modernism Studies and a new French translation of Joyce’s Exiles, Crimes of the Future (2014), The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis, (2014), The Pathos of Distance (2016), Think, Pig! Beckett at the limit of the human (2016), Les Guerres de Derrida (2016).

More recent titles inmclude Rust (2018), Kafka L.O.L. (2018), After Derrida (2018), Rire au Soleil (2019), New Beckett (2019), Understanding Derrida / Understanding Modernism (2019), Knots: Post-Lacanian Readings of literature and film (2020), Beckett and Sade (2020), Rires Prodigues (2021). Forthcoming are the co-edited collection (with Angeliki Spiropoulou), Historical Modernisms: Time, History, and  Modernist Aesthetics and the book James Joyce, Hérétique et Prodigue.


Jean-Michel Rabaté will talk about his one meeting with Hugh Kenner at the Joyce symposium in Copenhagen. 

Barry Ahearn  – Hugh Kenner at Johns Hopkins


Barry Ahearn is Professor of English Emeritus at Tulane. He was born and raised in Massachusetts. His undergraduate days were spent at Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut). From there he went on to receive his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. While there he studied under Laurence Holland, Angus Wilson, Frances Fergusson, Stuart Curran, Ronald Paulson, Leo Braudy, Jerome McGann and Hugh Kenner. His dissertation on Louis Zukofsky was directed by Kenner. Following graduation from Hopkins, he worked in publishing in New York City. He also served for one year as a visiting assistant professor at Manhattan College. In 1982 he took up a position as an assistant professor at Tulane. In the year following he married. His wife, Pamela, is a literary agent. They have one son. In 1986 he was promoted to associate professor; in 1998 he was promoted to full professor. His principal publications are: Zukofsky’s « A »: An Introduction (California UP, 1983), the first book-length study of Zukofsky’s poetry; Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (New Directions, 1987); William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry (Cambridge UP, 1994); Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings (Michigan UP, 1996) and The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky (Michigan UP, 2003). He has completed an edition of the selected letters of Zukofsky. He is now at work on a critical study of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and Robert Frost, a study tentatively titled The Imprecise Muse.


Barry Ahearn will share his memories of Kenner at Johns Hopkins. 

Barry Cole – The Intersection of Marginalized Thinkers and Shunned Spaces in the Critiques of Hugh Kenner


In an age in which critics and writers are catalogued in binary terms, Hugh Kenner offers a breathtaking alternative by examining literary works from a contrapuntal perspective. In The Pound Era, Kenner does not shy away from exposing how genius and madness walk together. Nevertheless, I propose that a spatial analysis of Kenner’s critiques offer additional possibilities for inferring a deeper political analysis. Although The Pound Era is void of any singular, grand interpretation of literature, its eclectic essence hinges on an ingenious acknowledgment that writers such as Ezra Pound must be holistically considered as more than the sum of their unfortunate flirtations with fascism. As Jeet Heer states, any “notion of Kenner as a covert fascist is simply absurd.” However, this interpretation must be bounded by the need for a strong disclaimer for both Kenner and Pound, thereby paying homage to the victims of fascist atrocity.

I will therefore pair Kenner’s examinations with Shunned Space Theory, a term I coined to reflect how marginalized communities must negotiate with the larger society to promote the survival and cultural accomplishment of their residents. By definition, a shunned space consists of land and resources deemed undesirable for occupation by the larger, more powerful society and pockmarked by political exclusion, scarcity, and disproportionate violence. Kenner’s observations of Ezra Pound therefore animate at least an indirect focus on European Jews and other groups targeted by fascist atrocities. In distilled form, I will demonstrate that these marginalized communities and their enfolding spaces not only burn through Pound’s ostensible prejudice, but categorically inform Kenner’s analyses.

My outline pivots on a specific trio of perspectives: Kenner’s critiques, Pound’s writings, and (most importantly) the Jewish Community as a series of shunned spaces. I argue that Kenner’s dynamic investigation of Pound is not immunized from the cultural productivity of the Jewish population he perennially vilified. In distilled form, history itself has judged that Kenner’s critique zealously celebrated the accomplished poet but suppressed an entirely honest representation of the political monster known as Ezra Pound.


Dr. Barry Cole is an Instructor of literature at The University of Alabama. He lives with his partner of thirty years in Central Alabama and advocates for the rights of marginalized communities in his work and research.

Joseph Staten – Syntax in Santa Barbara


In the chapter on William Carlos Williams in The Pound Era, Kenner argues that Williams’s achievement in his 1930 “Poem” is one not of mimetic representation but of what he calls “pure syntax”: although at the level of literal sense the poem describes a cat climbing over a jamcloset, the poem’s “pattern” of “linguistic torsions,” Kenner says, “fulfills a syntactic undertaking, purely in a verbal field” (400). Foreshadowing the distinction he would later make about “meaning” versus “saying” in his comparison of Williams and Wallace Stevens in 1974’s A Homemade World, Kenner here characterizes the meaning of “Poem” as deriving from its syntax, and thus as distinguishable from the semantics of what the poem’s sentence “says”—a characterization that will have much to do with Kenner’s understanding of modernism more generally.

Although The Pound Era is published in 1971, Kenner first writes “Syntax in Rutherford” in 1968, a decade after Noam Chomsky publishes Syntactic Structures and right when two other major figures of the period are also making the concept of syntax central to their work. One, Robert Smithson, uses syntax to characterize the meaningless materiality of the artistic formations he’s most interested in (syntax may be understood as a “set of linguistic surfaces that surround the artist’s unknown motives”); the other, Michael Fried, takes the exact opposite tack, describing syntax not as opposed to meaning but as its very structure: arch-modernist Anthony Caro’s sculpture will, through its syntax, “essentialize meaningfulness as such” (162).

This paper situates Kenner in relation to Smithson and Fried through that trio’s distinct but deeply related uses of the notion of syntax, and argues that Kenner, who may or may not have ever read Smithson or Fried, nonetheless might be reconsidered as an indispensible figure for understanding the problem of meaning in art so central to the 1960s, and still profoundly at issue today.  


Joseph Staten is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Literalism: Meaning After Materiality,” explores modernism’s complex involvement with the notion of raw material as both an opportunity for advancing art and as a threat to art’s capacity to produce meaning. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Interface, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Mediations.

Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff is Florence Scott Profesor of English Emerita at USC. She has written extensively on modernist and postmodernist American poetry. Her paper will be about Kenner’s The Pound Era.