MAKERS OF THE NEW The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939 By Julian Symons Random House. 304 pages. $19.95 POUND AS WUZ Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound By James Laughlin Graywolf Press. 203 pp. $17; paperback, $9.50 EZRA POUND & JAPAN Letters & Essays Edited by Sanehide Kodama Black Swan Books. 256 pages. $25 IT IS late in any age when its literature can be said to have created nothing truly new in three-quarters of a century. No matter how innovative or gifted, our writers play in the field marked out and graded by a few men in the cultural effusion that followed the Great War. Those who choose to remain outside it, in mockery or reaction, only underscore the prevailing orthodoxy of modernism.

To say that contemporary poetry and fiction is descended in some wise from the House of Joyce, Pound and Eliot is to acknowledge their stature, even if they cannot be held responsible for all that they spawned. For literary forebears one could do worse.

Awarding these men paternity, however, requires us to ask what it is they had in common one with another. What was so new about what they were moved to write? And what do we mean when we call their literature "modern"?

Julian Symons, who has distinguished himself on both sides of the Atlantic as a literary biographer and detective novelist, is about the business of answering these questions. He adds a fourth name to the list of modernist giants, that of Wyndham Lewis, and prudently lays out a roomy definition.

Modernists, he writes, "were attempting consciously to change the form, language or subject matter of literature, sometimes all three." The achievement of these four writers, Symons declares unexceptionably, was to have "changed permanently the language in which poetry is written, and enlarged beyond measure what could be said and the way of saying it in fiction."

Every writer, of course, must believe himself a pioneer, but Symons wants to make the case that these four really were -- and that others weren't quite. James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot -- well, sure, we'll listen. But Lewis? From our vantage, he seems least at home on the short list, and certainly least familiar. If this is so, it is a historical injustice that Symons means to redress in these pages.

These four were roughly of the same generation and literary milieu, but their styles had little in common beyond a penchant for wordplay and allusion, and their sensibilities -- apart from a revolt against romantic literary conventions -- even less. If there was glue among them, it was supplied by Pound, who is painted here as a tireless networker who promoted the careers of fellow-writers. When Eliot and Lewis, together on a bicycle holiday in France during the summer of 1920, called on Joyce in Paris, it was the closest the four makers of the new ever came to meeting. Modernism was no salon.

It does, however, owe much to the support of now-forgotten patrons. The inheritances squandered on the shaky promise of genius are remarkable to behold here -- all the more so when the beneficiaries behave so neurotically in return. This book is, among other things, a testament to the people who launched and supported the small-circulation publications where the masters first were printed: Poetry, The Egoist, The Little Review, transition, The Criterion, The Dial.

Even at this distance, Symons is not charitable in his assessment of those he deems also-rans and would-bes in modernist circles between the wars.. Harry Crosby, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Robert McAlmon, and Abraham Lincoln Gillespie were flakes, poseurs, "genuine phoneys." John Dos Passos, William Carlos Williams and e. e. cummings receive slight and even slighting treatment in the long shadow cast by Wyndham Lewis. Djuna Barnes he admires.

A facile raconteur, Symons is manifestly at ease with all manner of discourse -- literary anecdote, biographical sketch, explication du texte, historical narrative and critical commentary -- but captive to none. Anyone familiar with the life and work of the principals will find his learned yarns diverting.

Readers with hearty appetites to boot will find a certain charm in Pound As Wuz, James Laughlin's memories and ruminations about his literary mentor. Collected from symposia Laughlin conducted at Brown University and elsewhere during the centennial of Ezra Pound's birth last year, these essays and lectures draw on a lifetime association that began when Laughlin made his pilgrimage to Pound's kitchen "Ezuversity" in Rapallo, Italy, 50 years ago.

As part of his instruction the master pronounced Laughlin unfit to be a writer, and encouraged him to become a publisher instead. The advice was not only accepted -- Laughlin soon founded New Directions ("Nude Erections," to Pound's terminally playful ear) -- but repaid again and again, when Laughlin published Pound's books even and especially when no one else would.

Looking back on Pound's obsession with bizarre economic theories, his embrace of Mussolini's fascism, and his burbling about the infamy of Jews, it is fair to ask -- as many did when he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 -- whether a bad man can write a good poem. Laughlin, who had much to endure as Pound's acolyte, believes that Pound could not control himself, and quotes approvingly a St. Elizabeths Hospital psychiatrist who urged him to judge Pound medically, not morally.

In any case, Pound could write a good poem, and wrote not a few great ones, even in the throes of madness. As Laughlin's memories remind us, he was an intellectual packrat, picking and choosing among continents and centuries for the tools and materials of his poetry. Ezra Pound & Japan, a handsome sampler of his correspondence with Japanese writers, reflects just one of his eclectic passions.

The complicated mind on display in these documents was not exactly hidden in the poetry Pound made. The same can be said for the uneasy authorial lives that turn up freely in the art of Eliot and Joyce and Lewis -- which suggests a postscript to Julian Symons' definition of modernism. Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era, frames it by implicit comparison: "Flaubert had wanted the artist, lonely as God, to be somewhere outside his work, which is impossible: impossible because words are said by somebody. Art does not 'happen.' The vision that made it is part of it."

Charles Trueheart writes for the Style section of The Washington Post.