Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts
Ezra Pound and His World
From adolescence to about 1934, Ezra Pound had considerable curiosity about plastic art, parallel to his curiosity about music. His verse, prime reliquary of his genius, is compact with vivid visual imagery:
Autumn moon; hills rise above lakes
Evening is like a curtain of cloud,
a blurr above ripples; and through it
sharp long spikes of the cinnamon
a cold tune amid reeds.
—from Canto XLIX
The aesthetics of lyric Imagism, which he promoted if he did not invent it, laid down rules of precise observations which henceforth were weapons in a long crusade against redundant rhetoric and exhausted models. His writing on painting and sculpture, with side glances at architecture and the camera, has been collected in a valuable volume, companion to one already published of Pound on music. Pound wrote “How to Read”; this present accumulation serves as his “How to Look.” Unfortunately, cost prevents inclusion of illustrations, here sorely missed since much of the criticism applies to objects unfamiliar or forgotten.
He had better formal training in music than in art history. He wrote two operas which have been sung without scorn. He painted few pictures. Ford Madox Ford recalls him fiercely striking “blocks of granite with sledge hammers.” He fenced, played tennis; Hemingway tried to teach him to box. His involvement in such practice gave him confidence in the skills of craft. In visual art his thought was narrow but deep, and while his judgment is scarcely definitive, his appreciation of individual talent, of ancient and current movements, provides a touchstone of taste for many aspects of his epoch.
Facing the problem of an extremely generous, influential poet and promoter who became an unstable and violent eccentric, one is tempted to assign him a peripheral position in which the strident and preposterous disqualify him from serious attention. Pound, from his start, was a powerful taste-maker and instigator, not only in verse. He never exercised Cocteau’s seductive operational charm for Paris, but in London, from about 1910 to 1920, he gave similar service. In lyric sensibility, poetic metric and diction he became master of his own and subsequent generations, more in tune with his times than Robert Bridges, the finest royal laureate with Tennyson and Dryden.
He was always prone to surprising modesty in the midst of his temperamental arrogance. In 1907 he wrote: “Poetry is my ‘métier,’ the only one of the arts in which I progressed beyond the kindergarten stages. Anything I do outside of it is a make-shift….” His scholarship drew from the troubadours through Swinburne, Whitman, and Browning; he extended the lifeline of English verse. Later, his assurance with words in measured sequence betrayed him into imagining he had equal capacity in music, the visual arts, then, alas, with economics and politics. His steady dream was to reduce all art to a single principle, although his actual knowledge was fragmentary in the extreme. In 1953 Ernest Hemingway wrote to Bernard Berenson:
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