In response to:
Love, Hate, and Ezra Pound from the May 27, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
Irvin Ehrenpreis should reread his own Literary Meaning and Augustan Values, in which he demands of critics scrupulous common sense in handling allusions and sources, and insists that we must not disregard a poet’s “explicitness of statement and purpose.” He wonders “what we gain by diverting a reader from the text to a reminiscence,” and demonstrates how insisting on ingenious allusion “beats up awkward references.” In his long article on Pound (NYR, May 27) he abandons his own principles for an inaccurate, flashy, meanly reductive review of Pound’s work.
The kind of biographical criticism he suggests as a clue to Pound’s “most private feelings” is unproductive. Determining whether the poet was “inspired” at this point or that by any of the many women in his life helps us read his poems no more than finding another name for Lucy makes more public the feelings of “She dwelt among the untrodden ways.”
1) He suspects that Pound translated the Trachiniae “because it reminded him of the occasion when he asked his own wife to share a home with his mistress,” as the Germans forced the Pounds from Rapallo. For this, he ignores everything Pound wrote about the play, most importantly the note he added to the dying Herakles’ speech, “what / SPLENDOUR / IT ALL COHERES.” For Pound, “this is the key phrase, for which the play exists.” It was upon that phrase that the poet, preparing for the end of his poem and the end of his life, drew to present his private feelings—if Ehrenpreis insists on distinguishing between private feelings and what gets written: “And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.” For a sliver of imprecise parallel, Mr. Ehrenpreis ignores the overall feeling of the play and most of its plot, where no parallels can be discovered. His interest in Women of Trachis springs from the coarsest available way of reading literature.
2) Concerned with Pound’s love-life, he misreads the great cry of “AOI” which forms the “turn” of Canto 81, makes no effort to look at its context, nor recognizes it as the heroic refrain that echoes through the Song of Roland. Rather, he naïvely accepts an unfounded remark by the poet’s daughter that the cry expresses the stress of being pent up with two women who loved him. The cry marks a heroic effort by the poet/prisoner to return to his true calling as an artist, after which he produces, masterfully, the formal and “traditional” lyric passages that end the canto. Only unjustified guesswork allows reading the “AOI” as an expression of stress produced by living with two women.
3) Mr. Ehrenpreis next “leaves it to specialists” to decide how Pound’s “relations with the two devoted women influenced his treatment of Penelope and Circe in the Cantos.” Again, for a crude biographical parallel, he is willing to cheapen the poem and ignore all the narrative and psychological implications where common sense says there are no parallels. He “beats up awkward references,” for Pound did not have to take moly to protect himself from Miss Rudge’s charms; she did not delay his return to any Ithaca, etc. Must we also wonder how Pound’s domestic affairs influenced his treatment of Beatrice and Francesca da Rimini?
4) The paraphrase from Mary’s letter in Canto 76 is not “framed in such a way that the implications can hardly be grasped unless one realizes the nature of the source,” nor leads to Pound’s domestic affairs. The words are there for what they say, not for who said them; it would make little difference if the source was a letter from X rather than from Mary. They refer to a young Italian soldier blinded in the war, and are related to the long meditation on war in the Pisan Cantos.
5) Mr. Ehrenpreis complains that Pound “tried to embody his ideals not in lucid reasoning but in suggestive images” [!], and was “unable to make an argument,” lacking “powers of intellectual synthesis.” If we imagine a poet whose virtue is lucid reasoning, and who does not work through suggestive images, would we want to read him? The ways in which the Cantos makes sense cannot be explained here—but surely Ehrenpreis is suppressing everything he knows about poetry for the sake of his argument.
6) He believes the “best parts” of Pound’s longer poems “would gain power if they were isolated…. ‘Medallion,’ for instance, has been misinterpreted largely through its place in Mauberley.” But it was never anything else than part of Mauberley: it has intricate connections with the rest of the poem. It’s like arguing that “Out, out, brief candle!” has been misinterpreted largely through its place in Macbeth.
7) After a blurred discussion of “concepts of culture” he slides towards the conclusion that Pound confused “an intellectual elite with a racial elite.” What race this is is hard to know, since the Cantos draws positive or “paradisal” insights from so many traditions, including the Chinese, Japanese, African, Hebraic, and Egyptian. The Cantos is the “tale of the tribe” and the tribe is the human race. Pound believed in a “conspiracy of intelligence” (not of intellectuals) open to anyone, and having nothing to do with class or race.
Pound at times displayed enormous errors as a poet and as a man. His worst, he admitted, was “that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” His fictional, selective “Mussolini” has little to do with Mussolini. When he fell from his own ideals his language coarsened incredibly, and, as he said, he lost the law of Confucius. Like many intellectuals, he became frustrated in the role of unacknowledged legislator, and the results were disastrous. Yet he thought that “the only chance for victory over the brainwash is the right of every man to have his ideas judged one at a time.” We need not claim that Pound’s virtues outweigh the specific politics we detest, for such things cannot be quantified.
Yet Mr. Ehrenpreis does not begin to suggest the scope of Pound’s vision; the energy and wit with which he collected the “record of the top flights of the mind”; nor the power of his dramatization, within a tragic view of history, of the “attempt to move out from egoism and to establish some definition of an order possible or at least conceivable on earth.” He does your readers a disservice in his inaccurate summation and in the suggestion that Pound’s domestic life is a key to the Cantos. But then, since the time of Joseph’s brethren, there have been those who are willing to slay the dreamer to see what will become of his dreams.
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Irvin Ehrenpreis replies:
The first question a reviewer of poetry, film, or ballet must face is whether he represents the audience or the artist. Some critics, especially of contemporary painting, suppose it is their job to explain the intentions of the artist and encourage the reader or spectator to sympathize with them. Critics of television programs are more likely to report the experience of a spectator and to tell in what ways a program delighted or instructed them. Reviewers of poetry sometimes sound as if they had a duty to educate the poet and tell him how to do better next time.
I take my job to be helping people decide whether or not to read a book, especially by suggesting the kinds of pleasure they may expect from it. If an author is young or his work is obscure, and if in addition I believe a knowledge of his intentions and peculiar techniques will open the pleasures of his work to those who might otherwise miss them, I try to elucidate those intentions and techniques while recommending the work. But when I deal with an established author, I do not try to win readers over to his inferior work by asking them to let his intentions make up for flaws in the accomplishment.
Pound’s poetry is often obscure. But he had the highest poetic gifts. I think his best accomplishments are found not in the large design of the Cantos but in the shorter, independent poems. The reason, I think, is that he ignored his own genius when he chose to produce a modernist long poem.
In revolt against models like Idylls of the King or In Memoriam, but sympathizing with the kind of judgment that Poe delivered on conventional long poems, Pound had incompatible aims. He inherited the Romantics’ high esteem for brief, intense, lyric effects; and he wished to embody that beauty in a poem which also had the powers of cumulation, foreshadowing, and retrospection to be gained from length. What he (like his successors) would not admit is that length holds most readers only through coherent narrative or coherent argument.
A long poem may have a unified narrative plot like the Iliad; it may have a series of interlocking actions like Orlando Furioso; it may have an instructive or persuasive argument like De rerum natura. Otherwise it separates into passages that are perhaps linked by various motifs but that lack the impetus to carry most readers across the gaps.
Pound wished to live like Homer on Horace’s income. He wished to convey lyric intensity by the direct representation of heightened moments of awareness. He wished to avoid the moral didacticism and dull informativeness of expository poems; and he rejected the obvious, ponderous shape of epic narrative (which was already, of course, splendidly managed by novelists in prose). As he went on with the Cantos, he admitted the need for edification after all, yet would not supply it through coherent exposition or firm, implicit design. Instead, he relied on extracts from documents, on teasing aphorisms, and on the ideograph.
I tried indeed to see the Cantos in Pound’s terms. But after I took his definitions and statements of purpose back to the experience of reading the poem, I discovered they did not fit. Why should I substitute the poet’s commentary for my own response?
As for the cry of “AOI,” although I knew it came from the Song of Roland, I also knew scholars were unsure of its meaning there. Mr. Kearns is as ungracious in suggesting I overlooked its origin as I should be if I faulted him for not knowing the cry occurs outside the Cantos in Pound’s “Phanopoeia,” which I regard as deeply erotic. In other words, the meaning Mr. Kearns attributes to the cry is not to be found in an external source, as he implies, but in Pound’s peculiar application; and to clarify that, its context in “Phanopoeia” seems of crucial significance.
As for the poet’s daughter, since she was familiar with the Cantos from childhood, translated much of the poem under her father’s correction, and provided material for several passages, I am inclined to credit her explanation against that of Mr. Kearns.
A quite different issue is the use of biography in criticism. I don’t see why one should not search a man’s life for clues to obscurities in his writing. Neither do I see why one should not satisfy the normal human instinct to connect a man’s work with his life, so long as the one is not confused with the other.
For example, The Women of Trachis: according to the consensus of learned judges, the Greek original is deeply flawed. Certainly, this is my experience of it. Pound’s version sounds unsuccessful to me as either translation or independent composition. So I did not discuss it as a literary work but only observed that the choice of the play for translation puzzled me. I then tried to account for the choice and remarked that the central situation would have attracted Pound.
Mr. Kearns replies with an exposition of Pound’s doctrine. But I found no such doctrine in the Greek original; so I could not believe this was the basis of Pound’s choice. Nor did I think his own play rose to the level of deserving an elaborate interpretation. Besides, I had a further reason for making so much of the central situation. Before Pound took to The Women of Trachis, the Greek tragedy he singled out for praise was the Agamemnon, which has the same central situation.
Another example: Pound often paired poems to show contrasting treatments of the same motif; he often grouped poems to illustrate various responses to the same scene. If I try to link a lyric called “Doria” with his wife, and from the biographical clue can infer that a number of poems the poet liked to keep together seem to make a sequence dealing with a crucial experience, the attempt does not seem to me wasted.
Another example: suppose that a poem keeps evoking parallels with the Odyssey; yet it has many references to Circe and hardly any to Penelope. If neither the Oydssey nor the modern poem tells one the cause of the lopsidedness, a reader may be pardoned for seeking an explanation elsewhere—not only of the lopsidedness itself but also of the alert poet’s failure to anticipate one’s natural bafflement.
Finally, there is the relation of culture to race and class. Pound’s own career is an example of how a high, aesthetic culture can reach across the differences of race and class; and I agree that Pound urged his readers to accept insights which he claimed to draw from many traditions. Yet in his poems Pound also relieved certain classes—the rulers, the creative elite—of common moral obligations; and he granted them various privileges (such as the infliction of suffering) that he withheld from other folk. In his poems he opposed certain races and classes to his vision of the best life, except as they occupied the humble place he might assign them in that hierarchical vision.
“Fictional” is a curious epithet for the Mussolini of the Cantos. The character was not invented by the poet; he has Mussolini’s name, his life, his mistress, his death. The poet represented him as possessing attributes of Pound’s ideal ruler. Did he thereby create a fiction or make a mistake? According to the poem, this man was the historical figure. Incidentally, I knew that Pound as an old man tried to recant some of his doctrines; but that is a fact of his biography: the poetry remains.
These are the chief issues between us. The reader who would like to follow up Mr. Kearns’s other points had best go back to the works under discussion and test our reasoning against independent responses. As for my recent book on English literature 1660-1760, since the main effort there was to show that the practice of modernist writers like Pound is fundamentally different from that of “Augustan” writers like Dryden, it would be awkward for me to apply exactly the same principles to both.