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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), who met him early on in London, described Pound:

Ezra would approach with the steps of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point and a single, large blue ear-ring.1

The English appreciated eccentric behavior, he believed, and he obliged them by looking as if he had stepped out of an operetta by Offenbach. Amy Lowell, who met him then, spoke of his personal charm as well as of his thin-skinned, chip-on-the-shoulder personality. Pound always strove to call attention to himself. He challenged a minor Georgian poet to a duel for writing in favor of a return to Wordsworth as a source of inspiration. “Dear Mr Abercrombie,” he wrote, “stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace.” The arts serve society best when they subvert its conventions and beliefs, he thought.

He seemed to know everybody. Not just established names like Henry James and Yeats, but all the best up-and-coming writers and poets in London and elsewhere. The publishing careers of Joyce, Eliot, Frost, W.C. Williams, Hemingway, and several other major figures would not have been the same without his enormous efforts on their behalf. Time, that most reliable adjudicator of literary reputations, has proved Pound right. He had impeccable taste. The writers and poets he championed were completely unknown when he started badgering editors in England and this country to publish them. Not only that. Though penniless himself, at one point even fantasizing about writing ghost sto-ries for The Ladies’ Home Journal, he turned himself into a one-man Guggenheim Foundation, managing to find people willing to give money to writers. This is amazing considering how young Pound was. Like Emerson and Whitman, both of whom he tended to ridicule at times, he was a man with a mission who hoped to bring about a new intellectual awakening in America which would have an effect not only on the arts, but in politics and economics as well.

To talk over a poem with him,” Yeats said, “is like getting you to put a sentence into dialect. All becomes clear and natural.” While he was being helpful to others, his own poetry for a long time did not sound modern at all. “A collection of stale creampuffs” is how he described his early poems when they were republished in 1965. Swinburne, Rossetti, Browning, and the so-called Decadent poets of the 1890s were his models. He mimics them:

Aye! I am a poet and upon my tomb
Shall maidens scatter rose leaves
And men myrtles, ere the night
Slays day with her dark sword.

Pound had also made the discovery of medieval Provençal poetry and that of the Italian Renaissance and had attempted to imitate their diction and versification in English. There’s hardly any hint of Pound’s own experience in these poems, little living language and nothing vurry Amur’kn, as he would put it. What makes him stand out from among his contemporaries is his uncompromising devotion to the art, his sense that a great lyric tradition has been lost sight of and needs to be recovered. Except for a few poems, like “Villonaud for This Yule,” “The Tree,” “Sestina: Altaforte,” and others with moments of genuine poetry, there are just too many conventional and forgettable poems in A Lume Spento (1908), A Quinzaine for This Yule (1908), Personae (1909), and Exultations (1909).

Pound credits Ford Madox Ford for making him see the light one day. The novelist, who fought for Flaubert’s precision and economy in English prose, collapsed on the floor laughing after hearing the stilted language of one of his poems. That roll, Pound said afterward, saved him two years. Ripostes (1912) is a much better book with truly fine poems like “Portrait d’une Femme,” “The Seafarer,” and the strange, visionary poem “The Return,” in which the old Greek gods come back to earth in a language stripped of superfluous verbiage and in uneven lines of free verse:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
Wavering!

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Inviolable.

Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!

In the meantime, there was the Imagist movement. It was invented by Pound in October 1912 in London and dead by 1914 when it was appropriated by Amy Lowell and others and became something totally different, short poems about nature with an Oriental flavor and a moral that could have come out of a fortune cookie. For Pound, however, its minimalist aesthetic became the foundation of his later style. Here’s how he explained the tenets of Imagism for Poetry magazine in 1913:

  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.

  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

One doesn’t have to tamper with something to make it poetic, Pound is now saying. “Go in fear of abstractions,” he advises. “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”2 An Imagist poem so conceived is an illustration of our wonder, a recognition of something that was always there in front of us, a homage to the pleasures of clear sight. “For it is not until poetry lives again ‘close to the thing,’” he wrote, “that it will be a vital part of contemporary life.”3

Yeats’s comment after he read “The Return” was that it sounded to him as if Pound was translating at sight from an unknown Greek masterpiece. Certainly, not in the way Yeats meant it but in another, less obvious way, Pound was at his most ingenious when he pretended to be someone else. A good translator is an impersonator, someone who can play many roles and employ a variety of accents. His early translations of Provençal and Italian poetry lack that verbal range. His first genuine success came with Chinese, a language he did not even know. He not only invented a new kind of poem in English, but he changed how we think of Chinese literature. No one reading the earlier translations would have suspected that these poets were so fine.

The original volume of Cathay (1915) contains fifteen poems of which only ten are included in the present volume. This is odd, because they are all worth preserving. The most famous poem in the book, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is regularly included in anthologies as if it were an original poem of Pound’s and not a translation. I imagine this is due to the controversies regarding the status of all the poems in Cathay. When they appeared, the Sinologists were scandalized and rushed to point out the numerous errors Pound made. There’s no question that he took liberties with the poems but he had a good excuse. He used the cribs, glosses, comments, and translations made by an American scholar, Ernest Fenollosa, who while living in Japan studied classic Chinese poets with Japanese tutors. Pound relied on his own literary savvy and very little else. Here’s a poem, “The Beautiful Toilet” by Mei Sheng (140 BC), in Pound’s version:

Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand,
And she was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.

And here is the same poem by Arthur Waley, the most famous translator from Chinese, who published his own version three years after Pound’s to correct his inaccuracies:

Green, green,
The grass by the river bank,
Thick, thick,
The willow trees in the garden.
Sad, sad,
The lady in the tower…
Now she is a wandering man’s wife
The wandering man went, but did not return.
It is hard alone to keep an empty bed.

Pound’s Chinese poems, Hugh Kenner points out, incorporate

the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.4

As for the subject matter, the poems with their war widows, disgruntled soldiers, fallen empires, and melancholy exiles had obvious contemporary parallels. World War I was in full swing with all of its disruptions of normal life and its horrendous slaughter of an entire generation of young men on the battlefield.

There’s a curious poem in his next book, Lustra (1916–1917), called “Commission” that makes Pound sound like a revolutionary poet. Go my song, he says in it, to those enslaved by convention and bear to them my contempt for their oppressors. Even more than his other collections of poetry, Lustra is an anthology of styles, as if Pound was more interested in different ways of writing a poem than in developing a consistent voice and vision. There are satires and epigrams that echo Greek and Roman poets, Imagist poems about a cake of soap and a bathtub, others that show the influence of Chinese and Provençal poetry. Pound can be anecdotal, ribald, lyrical, and didactic. The quality, however, is uneven. Slight, occasional poems and imitations alternate with more successful ones and some that are truly memorable like “Provincia Deserta,” “Near Perigord,” and this little spoof of an anonymous Middle English lyric that his London publisher thought was too blasphemous and indecent to include in the volume:

ANCIENT MUSIC

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, ‘tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Once he got over the inhibition of mixing high and low diction and subject matter, Pound became a different poet. His three greatest poems, The Cantos, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (1919), and the nineteen-part poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), are each in their own way a grand collage. As much as the painters who drew with scissors by cutting headlines, words, and images from newspapers, he practiced the art of assemblage in his poetry. For his “Homage to Sextus Propertius” he went through the collected works of the Roman poet in their original Latin and underlined lines and sections in the poems that he wanted to translate and then made a series of poems out of these fragments. When it was published in Poetry, it aroused the ire of a classical scholar from the University of Chicago who was shocked to find mention of refrigerators and Wordsworth in a translation of a poet born in 50 BC. For Pound it was a poem recalling the manner of Propertius, a record of his own mood while facing the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the British Empire as the old poet had to face the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the Roman Empire. It was also a love poem. Here’s a sample of it:

Light, light of my eyes, at an exceeding late hour I was wandering,
And intoxicated,
and no servant was leading me,
And a minute crowd of small boys came from opposite,
I do not know what boys,
And I am afraid of numerical estimate,
And some of them shook little torches,
and others held onto arrows,
And the rest laid their chains upon me,
and they were naked, the lot of them,
And one of the lot was given to lust.

“That incensed female has consigned him to our pleasure.”
So spoke. And the noose was over my neck.
And another said “Get him plumb in the middle!
“Shove along there, shove along!”
And another broke in upon this:
“He thinks that we are not gods.”
“And she has been waiting for the scoundrel,
and in a new Sidonian night cap,
And with more than Arabian odours,
god knows where he has been,
She could scarcely keep her eyes open
enter that much for his bail.
Get along now!”

We were coming near to the house,
and they gave another yank to my cloak,
And it was morning, and I wanted to see if she was alone, and resting,
And Cynthia was alone in her bed.
I was stupefied.
I had never seen her looking so beautiful
No, not when she was tunick’d in purple.

Such aspect was presented to me, me recently emerged from my visions,
You will observe that pure form has its value.

“You are a very early inspector of mistresses.
“Do you think I have adopted your habits?”
There were upon the bed no signs of a voluptuous encounter,
No signs of a second incumbent.

She continued:
“No incubus has crushed his body against me,
“Though spirits are celebrated for adultery.
“And I am going to the temple of Vesta…”
and so on.

Since that day I have had no pleasant nights.

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a depiction of the English literary milieu before the war and a lament for a generation that died “believing in old men’s lies.” It is his last major shorter poem. For the rest of his life, he devoted all of his efforts to The Cantos and to his numerous translations from Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and other languages. Increasingly unhappy in London and somewhat isolated, he began spending more and more time in France and Italy, and finally moved to Paris in 1921, where for a while he seemed to be again in the center of things. He befriended Cocteau, Picabia, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and the musicians Ravel and Stravinsky. There were also many Americans coming for shorter or longer stays, including Eliot, whose rough manuscript of The Waste Land he revised into the poem we read today.

The most famous expatriate in Paris was Gertrude Stein. Pound paid her a visit but the two egomaniacs did not hit it off. She called him “a village explainer” and she was not wrong. Pound combined in himself the incompatible temperaments of an aesthete and a rabble-rouser. He never passed up an opportunity to condescend to his compatriots. “Any country which is afraid of thought in whatever form it may be expressed is not a habitable country,” he told an interviewer in Paris who had asked what his opinion of America was. He lectured everyone he corresponded with and everyone he ever met, not just Gertrude Stein who, as he said in a letter to William Carlos Williams, “wdn’t empty a piss pot to save the bleedin world.”5

Like many of his contemporaries in the 1930s, Pound was tempted by radical political cures. He thought he knew what needed to be done to fix things in Europe and America. Much of his cultural and political criticism of the United States is still on the mark and is no harsher than Mark Twain’s or Dreiser’s. He saw American history as one long struggle between the people and the financiers. The usurers, now called financiers, plotted against abundance while the press misled and distracted the people. The aim of finance, he wrote, is to profit by others’ labor. He predicted that this greed for lucre, a greed that abandons all common sense and every sense of proportion, will blindly create its own undoing. He’d make a shrewd observation about the American tendency to mess in other people’s affairs before establishing order in their own affairs and thoughts; he would then argue implausibly that the only cure for the nation is to adopt Confucian ethics, which recommends putting one’s own house in order first. Hundreds of newspaper articles and essays and over eight hundred pages of his poem The Cantos endlessly reiterate these points, fulminate, and shout down all those who doubt his remedies.

Pound left Paris in 1924 and settled in Rapallo, a small seaside town near Genoa where, except for a short visit to the United States, he lived, until his arrest in 1945, in a kind of ménage à trois with his wife and his mistress of many years. Despite his vast interest in the subject, he was out of touch with political realities of the day. He now felt that sweeping economic reforms could only be carried out by strong leaders like Mussolini. “Usury is the cancer of the world which only the surgeon’s knife of Fascism can cut out of the life of the nations,” he wrote.

Some of the admirers of Pound’s poetry still play down his anti-Semitism. There’s no point in fooling oneself. It wasn’t just his writing about Christianity being tainted by Semitic insanity, or his calling for a truly European religion unpolluted by Semitic influences; there was another, even crazier side to his obsession. For instance, he liked to speculate about the effects circumcision had on the mind of a Jew. “It must do something, after all these years and years, where the most sensitive nerves in the body are, rubbing them off, over and over again,”6 he told Charles Olson. After the disappointment of his 1939 trip to the United States, when he failed to persuade the senators and government officials he met in Washington of the wisdom of his economic and political ideas, he went back to Italy even more embittered. By then even his oldest pal, William Carlos Williams, had had enough of him. Here’s a part of his reply to one of Pound’s rants. It’s dated Nov. 26, 1941.

Dear Eazy:

Your brutal and sufficiently stupid reference to meat lying around on the steppes at this moment is quite an unnecessary flight of fancy, you’ll find far more of it solidly encased in your own head. I used to think you had a brain, no more….

You ask me what I know about doctrines that I do not read. What in hell do you know about the doctrines you do read? The presumptive effects of them never for one moment seem to dent your skull—or you wouldn’t write such trivial wash. You have, I presume, read all the outpourings of your imbecillic [sic] leaders and have swallowed everything they say, spittle and all. Is this or is this not true? Come on, let’s have specific statements of just what and whom you are backing. Is it Hitler or Moussie [Mussolini]? Or both? I want facts….

Barnum missed something when he missed you.7

Pound is like Céline, a monster who is a great writer. He is never going to be widely read and esteemed by his compatriots and yet American poetry of the last century is inconceivable without his contribution and his vast influence. What makes Pound unlike any other poet we have is that the voice of his poetry is American, but his landscape seldom is. There’s far more of Britain, Europe, and ancient China in his poetry than the country where he was born. And yet no one heard our language and displayed its riches and nuances with such sure touch and with such brio.

When Joyce’s Dubliners came out, Pound praised the book for being careful to avoid “telling a lot of things that the reader didn’t want to know.” One wishes he took that advice himself, instead of writing what ended up being one of the longest poems in world literature. Even a reader with a fair amount of knowledge of ancient and modern culture and history has a hard time with The Cantos. Nearly thirty years in the making, it is both an extraordinary and exasperating poem. The constant shifting of themes and contexts, the dipping into a multitude of cultural traditions, the long and short passages in Italian, Greek, Chinese, Latin, German, and a few other languages, were to serve as a demonstration of what he called paideuma—the tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period.

Pound wanted to show through examples what went wrong in the past and what cultural values ought to be preserved. His expectation was for an all-knowing reader who would see the connection between the pieces. What his epic in fact requires is disciples, the few true believers willing to sit at the feet of the master. The problem with The Cantos is that the poem combines two conflicting strategies, a didactic view of literature with that of lyric poetry. With his ear for language Pound could make the poem flow, but with his inability to stick to one subject, he could not make its meanings clear. There’s no credible over-all structure. The Cantos only make sense if seen as consisting of themat-ically related, but separate, groups of poems.

The eleven Pisan Cantos (1948), written while he was interred in an army prison camp near Pisa and now published in a separate volume by New Directions, are regarded by many critics as the finest section of the long poem. “A man on whom the sun has gone down” is how Pound describes himself. He is humbler, more introspective, and gives the impression of being embarrassed by his old hatreds and by his vanity. Even there, it’s hard to be sure about the author’s intent. At times, these cantos sound to me like the confession of a bad man; at other times like an elegy for Italian Fascism. When Pound is not caught up in his inner turmoil, when he looks around and pricks his ears, he is still the unsurpassed poet that he was, letting the eye and the ear work together as one and making that moment luminous:

and there was a smell of mint under the tent flaps
especially after the rain
and a white ox on the road toward Pisa
as if facing the tower,
dark sheep in the drill field and wet days were clouds
in the mountain as if under the guard roosts.
A lizard upheld me
the wild birds wd not eat the white bread….
…Sunset grand couturier.

  1. 1

    Peter Ackroyd, Ezra Pound and His World (Scribner, 1980), p. 21.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (Grove, 1973), pp. 36–38.

  3. 3

    Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909–1965 (New Directions, 1973), p. 41.

  4. 4

    Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (University of California Press, 1971), p. 199.

  5. 5

    Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, edited by Hugh Witemeyer (New Directions, 1996), p. 169.

  6. 6

    Charles Olson, Charles Olson & Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, edited by Catherine Seelye (Grossman, 1975), p. 55.

  7. 7

    Pound/Williams, pp. 209–210.

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