What Ez Could Do

The Pisan Cantos

by Ezra Pound, edited by Richard Sieburth
New Directions, 159 pp., $13.95 (paper)

There’s no great contemporary who is less read than Ezra Pound, I recall Hugh Kenner saying more than thirty years ago. If that was true then, it’s certainly even truer today. How widely is Pound being taught in colleges and universities beyond the few poems included in anthologies? Are young American poets reading him and being influenced by him? I suspect not much. More than Eliot, Stevens, and Moore, Pound is looked upon as an impossibly difficult poet. Not many read his essays either, and yet when his subject was poetry, Pound was one of our most astute literary critics. His writings on religious, historical, economic, and political themes are another matter. He was wrong about a lot of things. After 1945, when his fascist sympathies and his broadcasts on the Rome radio during the war became widely known and he was brought back to the United States to stand trial as a traitor and subsequently committed to a madhouse, there was even more reason to be wary of him. What does one do with a poet who compared Hitler to Jeanne d’Arc? These two new books with their magnificent poems and translations, meticulously annotated and edited by Richard Sieburth, remind us once again that the question will not go away.

With his stupefying contradictions, Pound is a kind of character, one is tempted to say, that only America can produce. Grandson of a congressman from Wisconsin and descendent of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his mother’s side, he was born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, where his father had gone to work for the Land Office. His parents moved back east shortly after, first to New York and then to a suburb of Philadelphia, where Pound grew up and published his first poem, a limerick on the defeat of William Jennings Bryant in the presidential election of 1896. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he met William Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle, and after graduation went to teach Romance languages at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. His academic career ended abruptly in the very first semester of teaching. He was accused by his landladies of letting an actress spend the night in his rooms and swiftly sacked by the college. With nothing definite in view for the future, he sailed for Europe in March of 1908, going to Venice initially, where he published his first volume of verse, A Lume Spento, in 150 copies at his own expense and shortly after settling to work and live in London, where except for frequent trips to the Continent and one trip back to the States in 1910, he remained for the next twelve years. As for God’s Own Country, there was no man living there whose art in letters was of the slightest interest to him, he said, no living American with the sole exception of Bliss Carman, who will not improve by drowning.

This is how the novelist Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford …

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