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Four years after his centenary, half a generation after his death, the emphatic presence of Ezra Pound is being sustained and even enhanced in those academic circles which—with characteristic ambivalence—he had both sought and flouted throughout his long life. His schoolmates had nicknamed him “professor”; the only full-time job he ever held, four months as an instructor at a small midwestern college, had expired in a mild scandal, to be variously recalled. Yet he functioned most successfully as a pedagogue: “first and foremost a teacher and a campaigner,” in the testimonial of his sometime protégé T.S. Eliot. Through a series of one-to-one relations, many of which broadened into literary movements, he earned his own peculiar title, “the Ezuversity.”
William Carlos Williams, his lifelong friend and polar opposite, once called him “a spoiled brat.” True enough, he had been a coddled only child, and remained exceptionally close to his supportive parents throughout their modest lives. A family man with a vengeance, he managed to become the patriarch of two devoted households, which competed with each other to maintain his modus vivendi. Such personal loyalties must have strengthened his confidence in his poetic vocation and in his prophetic mission, along with his continuous antagonism toward philistines who did not see his points. Growing up in the Nineties, he had Whistler and Wilde as models for his emergence as a Bohemian dandy, with a green velvet jacket, one earring, and (for local color) a sombrero.
In recoil against the new American twentieth century, he initially headed for the Old World as a graduate student, undertaking European research toward a doctoral thesis on the gracioso (buffoon) in the plays of Lope de Vega. He would soon be shifting his concern from the Spanish drama to the Provençal troubadours, attracted by their conception of poetry as a way of life. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography is not inappropriately entitled A Serious Character, though that characterization might be somewhat undercut by the buffoonery of Pound’s original spelling: “a seereeyus karekter.” With a reflexive self-consciousness, he liked to step back from the mannered aestheticism of the fin de siècle and to play a little game of “being Uncle Sam”—as noted by his early sweetheart, Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”).
Over the years it got so that he could hardly say anything in straightforward prose; it had to sound poetic or else facetious, couched in that cracker-barrel idiolect which fell more and more into rasping self-caricature. The farther and the longer away from his native country, the more he out-Heroded Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby. Even the Yankee-Hebrew reverberations of his given name may have intensified his innate avuncularity. But there can be no questioning his high seriousness, though that Arnoldian criterion may have undergone some modulation. One of his most important manifestoes, “The Serious Artist” (1913), is an updated restatement of Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy,” attesting to the importance of good writing and reaffirming the arts against a hostile or indifferent society …
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