Pound’s influence on twentieth century literature was felt in three ways: through his life, his theories, and his poetic practice. It can be argued that the first two were of greater impact than the third, and while this may seem unusual for a writer, Pound’s career made this result almost inevitable.
Pound decided when he was only fifteen that, by the time he was thirty, he would know more about poetry than any person living.
Although this might seem at first the typical dream of a talented, ambitious adolescent, Pound obviously meant it, and his dedication to his art was so intense that he largely fulfilled his pledge. His knowledge of verse form, meter, rhythm, and poetic devices and traditions was unrivaled among his contemporaries. In pursuit of his goal, Pound became the image of the modern poet: He dressed the part, acted the role, and subordinated almost everything in his personal life to his poetry.
Pound the character could be dismissed were it not for his interaction with other writers of his time. He was a generous friend, securing funds for men such as Joyce, tutoring aspiring poets such as Hilda Doolittle (whom he renamed H. D., by which she is now known to literary history), and assisting T. S. Eliot in editing The Waste Land into final form. Pound was concerned with promoting true talent wherever he discovered it, and it is likely that many modern classics would have been unwritten—or written less well—without Ezra Pound.
In his theories, Pound exerted a similar influence. He found English poetry to be verse that was largely content with outworn techniques, sentimental vision, and an inability to distinguish excellence from mediocrity. Although Pound despaired over his lack of influence, he actually succeeded remarkably well in establishing higher poetic standards and forcing modern poets to abide by them. Pound brought renewed attention to the key elements of poetry: precise word choice, attention to rhythm, and creation of poems that were organic wholes rather than vaguely pleasing collections of soothing sounds.
Some complained, and still complain, that this made modern poetry difficult, even incomprehensible. These objections do have a certain merit, because Pound articulated theories that led to poetry which made greater demands on the reader. If at times modern poetry cries out more for translation than simple reading, this is the legacy of Pound. Because it focuses more attention on the poem itself, however, and causes the reader to become a participant in the work of art, this is a legacy which has strengthened true poetry while giving the attentive reader more worthwhile pleasure.
Pound’s own poetry, as contrasted to his theories, has not had a comparable effect, at least among the poetry-reading public. He is a difficult poet—although not intentionally so—and his work requires a level of knowledge and sensitivity which some readers cannot bring to the page and which others do not believe worth the effort. It is among fellow poets that Pound’s verse has been most important. Although he founded no real school and established no specific tradition—other than a general “modernism” which was only partially his and is impossible to define narrowly—Pound created an atmosphere which expanded the horizons of modern poetry.
The Cantos have been called the great unread poem of the twentieth century. Along with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), they mark the outer boundaries of modern literature, perched on that edge where creativity and incomprehensibility come dangerously close. Pound may have been right when he concluded that he could not make the Cantos cohere. Still, in their individual sections they offer breathtaking vistas of language and thought, a collection of shining images that radically redefine what poetry can be and what it can do. Perhaps it was inevitable that Pound’s practice should fall short of his own stringent standards, but by having the standards and attempting to fulfill them, Pound once again made poetry matter.
His was a paradoxical, perhaps pyhrric victory, because Pound’s poetry could never be truly popular poetry—certainly not in the sense that Walter Scott or George Gordon, Lord Byron, once had the poetic equivalent of best sellers. Without intending to do so, Pound’s theories led to a poetry that could be understood only by a relatively limited, elite audience. To his credit, Pound recognized this and sought a solution. No ivory tower intellectual, but a socially committed writer, he wanted to include, rather than exclude, and he consistently advocated education, true education, as essential for a fully human society. In a sense, Pound wanted a society where anyone had the opportunity and the ability to read the Cantos. It was only a vision, perhaps, but a worthy one.
“Portrait d’une Femme”
First published: 1912 (collected in Collected Early Poems, 1976)
Type of work: Poem
Pound presents a satirical yet ambiguously affectionate depiction of a literary hostess.
The literal translation of Pound’s title “Portrait d’une Femme” is “portrait of a lady,” which has inevitable associations with the novel The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, published in 1881. Pound greatly admired James’s book, especially for its keen psychological insights, and in this poem he attempts to re-create the same sort of description, outlining the character of a person by detailing her surroundings.
The woman is a London literary hostess who rules over a conventional, if slightly boring, salon where writers and artists have come for “this score years,” amusing the lady and themselves with clever but, it would seem, inconsequential conversation. Nothing really important is said here, possibly because it would be wasted: “Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else,” Pound writes.
The woman is compared to the Sargasso Sea, that area in the North Atlantic where floating seaweed from the Gulf Stream gathers and where tradition says that wrecked ships, lost hulks, and vanished vessels are mired forever. In much the same way, the lady of the title has gathered cast-off ideas, second-rate notions, and “fact that leads nowhere.” In this respect the poem is in keeping with Pound’s satirical verse on the English literary scene, a view that he expressed more forcibly and much more bitterly in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Thus, by extension, the woman in “Portrait d’une Femme” becomes an embodiment of an entire culture, one which is incapable, or at least unwilling, to recognize and appreciate true originality in art. Perhaps it would be threatened by it; perhaps it is simply not interested.
On the other hand, there is a certain affection for the character, and Pound’s poem sounds wistful, almost elegiac, when it recounts the meager hoard the woman has gathered after twenty years of association with artists and writers. While she is compared to the Sargasso Sea, a stagnant backwash of the vital ocean, she is not explicitly condemned. Perhaps, the poem implies, she, like the artists of the time, has been a victim of the culture.
The style of the poem is notable for Pound’s use of blank verse, a poetic form that he seldom employed and seems to have thought the refuge of second-rate writers of his time. It has become a critical commonplace to remark on Pound’s ear for the music of English poetry, while at the same time maintaining that he could not discipline himself to write in conventional forms. “Portrait d’une Femme” shows that the first half of this commonplace is precisely right, the second half, decidedly wrong.
“In a Station of the Metro”
First published: 1913 (collected in Collected Early Poems, 1976)
Type of work: Poem
Pound uses a brief vivid image to express a profound aesthetic experience that occurred in everyday life.
The short poem “In a Station of the Metro” is an example of Pound’s artistic theory of Imagism, which he advocated for a brief while in his career and which had a lasting impact on his writing and modern poetry. During his time in London, just before World War I, Pound developed a theory of poetry, which he termed Imagism, that stripped away the rhetorical excesses and vagueness that he believed obscured so much of contemporary poetry. In their places he advocated precise, careful presentation of specific images accurately rendered. Although Pound would later move beyond this rather limited concept, he retained the essential parts of it, and many of the passages in the Cantos are basically Imagist in their style.
An Imagist poem, by the very definition of the term, was brief. Seldom has the concision been carried so far as Pound’s 1913 verse, “In a Station of the Metro,” which consists of only two lines. The poem appears to be a translation of some Japanese haiku, and while Pound was undoubtably influenced by that tradition, his poem was completely original.
He has left a description of how he composed it. One evening, while coming out of the London subway (the “metro” of the title), Pound was struck by the sight of a beautiful face, then another and yet another. Seeking to express this experience, he began writing a poem which ran to thirty-two lines. After much paring and revision, he finally achieved the image and effect he sought: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ petals on a wet, black bough.”
Although at first reading the poem seems to be about very little (and even that little is mysterious), a second glance shows how well it fits into Pound’s theory of imagism and just how Imagism works. To begin with, there is the single image, designed in this case to reproduce an experience not literally but emotionally and psychologically. Further, the image is presented in a specific literary form, the metaphor, recognized since ancient Greece as one of the most powerful devices of poetry. Aristotle, for example, termed the proper use of metaphor the supreme test of a writer. This use of metaphor is worth noting, because Pound is often considered a poet who rejected past conventions and techniques. Actually, he delighted in the poetic devices and scorned only their inferior use.
In keeping with Imagist theory, the words in the poem are, with one significant exception, concrete and specific: “faces,” “crowd,” “petals,” and “bough” are all common English nouns, strung together in conventional English syntax. The two adjectives, “wet” and “black,” are hardly unusual, and are just the sort of precise words to modify a noun such as “bough.” Moreover, the metaphor is logical: Beautiful faces seen against a rainy London evening are like flower petals on a dark, wet branch. Through a careful selection of relevant images, Pound has re-created for the reader the effect impressed upon him that night.
The one word that is not a concrete noun is “apparition,” and its unusual nature is highlighted by its placement at the beginning of the poem. By using this word, suggestive of ghostly sightings or supernatural experiences, and linking it with a string of commonplace nouns and modifiers, Pound is again re-creating what happened and what he experienced: a seemingly ordinary climb up a flight of subway stairs that turned into a vision.
In only two lines and fourteen words, Pound managed to re-create an entire experience by careful use of a specific image. A brief poem has been made to...
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