Pound, Ezra 1885–
A major American poet, now living in Italy, Pound will be remembered for his Cantos and for his influence on, and assistance given to, innumerable English-language writers. He has also written prose and has done translations. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Ezra Pound could be a beautiful poet, in dribs and drabs of isolated lyric pieces. His real gift is for pastiche. He has imitated the Greeks, the Chinese, and finally his own youth. But he has always been obsessed; for a number of years he was clearly insane, and what makes him puzzling—if you really look into him—is his manic oscillation between savagery and tenderness, between real insight and phony scholarship. Any man of good will must be divided about Pound. For myself, surrounded as I am by inexpungible memories of the millions of dead, I cannot think of the purely literary case made out for Pound without horror.
Alfred Kazin, "The Youngest Man Who Ever Was" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 113-18.
Excitement attends almost all Ezra Pound's prose and poetry—the excitement of the man himself, his urgency and cantankerousness and virtuosity. Also, he has authority. In part this is the irritating authority of the self-appointed leader, yet it is indisputable. One sees it in the reminiscences of his oldest friends, still full of mingled admiration and resentment. 'An uncomfortably tensed, nervously straining, jerky, reddish brown young American,' says Wyndham Lewis, describing Pound's arrival in London in his mid-twenties. 'He had no wish to mix; he just wanted to impress.' For the British, as for his own countrymen, he was 'an unassimilable and aggressive stranger.' Still, the authority was there despite the hostile response; he stood for the most rigorous poetic dedication, and the best writers were likely to recognize this fact….
Pound's experiments with translation added enormously to the authority of his tone and style. From the start translation afforded him the chance to sink himself into the poetry of the past and of other languages and societies. Responsive to tone and nuance, he could recover the sensibilities of others and find a voice for himself through them. His translations have the same basic virtue as his other poetry: intuitive grasp of the shape and emotional essence of his subject….
From the early poems, translations, and adaptations, we can see that the vast excitement of Pound's work is rooted not only in his own personality and abilities but in those artistic and intellectual revolutions which marked the first third of this century. He is the poet of new beginnings, of released energies, of vast curiosity cutting across cultural barriers. And tragically, the psychological symptoms of prolonged social crisis, that crisis which culminated in two wars as well as in the Fascist system he has defended, have found expression through him also. He is an epitome of a paradoxical era: a fighter for creative freedom and sanity who found himself, in old age, committed to a mental hospital….
Published in 'installments,' as it were, since 1919, the Cantos has been a gigantic experiment of a new kind, its growth in time essential to its very nature. Each of its larger units extends our range of consciousness concerning the relevance of the central perspective: a universal sensibility gauging the depravity of a usury-ridden world and setting against it the ideals of rational thought, rational economic practices ('rational' in the view of such Social Credit thinkers as Douglas, Gesell, and Pound), and a 'pagan' aestheticism. As each unit is developed, it recapitulates the root-themes in a new context; ordinarily the refocusing is not at first clear to the reader, but the pattern does emerge.
M. L. Rosenthal, "Ezra Pound: The Poet as Hero" (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 49-74.
There is … a great deal of misunderstanding about Pound, and perhaps even misrepresentation…. The earliest prose, for example the fine study of Henry James, is perceptive and cogent, and the poetry written during the same period, mostly before World War I, is often carefully wrought and subtle. But even then, in the poetry, one is never wholly certain which of the Pound voices is the real Pound.
Pound the lyricist is most frequently in view, and it is in his lyricism that he has had his greatest success. This is best exhibited, perhaps, in the early Cantos. It appears intermittently, sometimes in explosive flashes, in the later Cantos, but usually the lyricism is not sustained; in its place one finds anecdotes, cryptic and gnomic utterances, dirty jokes, obscenities of various sorts, and a harsh insistence on the importance to culture of certain political leaders and economists.
The majority of Pound's critics find the Cantos his most important literary contribution. Various efforts have been made to say what they are about. Perhaps the easiest way of getting at their subject matter is to say they are about Pound's reactions to his own reading, of Homer, Ovid, or Remy de Gourmont, of various economists and political leaders, and Pound's own literary recollections, usually memories of London or Paris. As the years went by, Pound became less interested in literature than in economics, although he continued to express literary interests in the Cantos, and his interest in translating from Greek and Latin remained fairly constant. (p. 7)
Pound is not especially imaginative in creating the substance of his own poems. His gift is verbal, and he is at his best when using another poet's substance for his own purposes. In the Cantos,… he is not quite a translator, but he does rely on the substance of earlier poems. (p. 18)
Pound is commonly seen as one who explained, justified, and rationalized the modernist idiom in poetry. All this is true. He has also written in that idiom. But at his best, as in occasional passages in the Cantos, he is a lyricist in the company of Herrick, Waller, or Ben Jonson, though certainly of a lesser order. His "translations" from Chinese poetry have a similar lyric quality. "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," written in a subdued tone, is as beautiful as any poem in the Pound canon. (p. 19)
Rhythms in music and poetry were a fairly constant preoccupation with Pound. Rhythm, he said, determines pitch and melody; pitch depends on the frequency with which sounds strike the ear; variations in pitch control melody. In poetry, he continued, the frequency of vowel or consonant sounds produces pitch; a changed frequency makes for higher or lower sound, and variation produces the melody of a line. (p. 21)
His commitment to Imagism and Vorticism was complicated by his interest in Chinese poetry and the Japanese Noh. Pound also theorized about the relationship between music (in the British Who's Who he identified himself as "poet and composer") and the conversational or prose line…. The city, the automobile, and social life did not deeply engage him. There is a sense then in which Pound is not a modernist poet. Or perhaps one should say he was a modernist only briefly. Pound has a pantheon of writers who helped sustain his vision of the world as it ought to be, and more and more he turned to them. (pp. 25-6)
In the Cantos, as the years pass, there is an increasing dependence on violence and shock, on obscenities and scatological descriptions. Worse, there is an airy indifference when Pound mentions genocide or mass suffering. (p. 42)
William Van O'Connor, in his Ezra Pound ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 26), University of Minnesota Press, © 1963 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
The classic defence of The Cantos as a unity must always depend upon an unquestioning acceptance of Pound's own critical theory—upon the contention that Pound is exploiting a new, or at least unfamiliar principle of construction—what Pound himself called the ideogrammic method. Imagist poetry had required the poem to be a hard, clear and complete thing which presents not simply the outward fact, but with that fact creates and communicates an inward experience. Pound's theory proposes the use of these single images in a syntactical sequence analogous … to Eisenstein's use of the single shot in the montage syntax of the film. Both developed their theories by analogy with Oriental writing systems, and in both cases the analogy was wrong—which is, of course, of no importance. What is important is that both of these two great artists should be reacting in such very similar ways to the new problems of communication created by the twentieth century….
Pound regularly mistook his own total immersion in his material for the total involvement of his reader. Only intermittently was he able 'To have gathered from the air a live tradition/or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame'. The rest is vanity. Pound bullied his audience, but what is worse, he bullied the tradition too….
By instinct he was a reformer; he wanted to change society, to change people. His poetic theory was an attempt to direct poetry once more into an exploitation of the natural and instinctive patterns of man's experience and behaviour, and his final aim was to educate man into a proper understanding of himself and the world he had inherited. He aimed at a blend of the epic and the correspondence course in general culture….
[Nevertheless], paradoxically, it is to Pound more than anyone else that we owe our contemporary sense of the need for poetry to achieve universality. The very essence of his theory, like that of Eliot's, was that the poet and the poem should, as it were, be loci through which the fullness of a shared tradition shall manifest itself with new vigour….
The astonishing thing is that a poet who is so often silly as a thinker, and whose emotional equipment is so unstable and unreliable, could ever have achieved the reputation of greatness. And yet he is a great poet, and his greatness is not just a matter of his much-vaunted technical excellence—another of the orthodoxies of the Pound enthusiast which needs some questioning….
Furthermore, the great successes of The Cantos, for instance the Pisan sequence, are achieved despite frequent technical failure, to say nothing of the frequent failures of tone and taste which we have to learn to disregard if we are ever to get anywhere with The Cantos.
David E. Ward, "The Emperor's Clothes?," in Essays in Criticism, January, 1968, pp. 68-73.
[The] Cantos convey very clearly the power that has sustained Pound throughout his turbulent career: it lies, still, in the ultimate conviction that the poet is in some way the voice of a supernatural power running through the universe…. It is Pound's conception of a world in memory sustained within the mind of one man that makes the Cantos one of the great poems in English. Pound calls it … his "palimpsest," and indeed there is no better word to describe the effects of these, as of all the earlier Cantos. Pound's poems are a manuscript written over the faintly discernible words of others, a shifting, glittering, glimmering memory of creative achievement that gleams through the ugliness of existence and makes what Pound … humorously calls "a nice quiet paradise over the shambles"—a paradise within the mind, holding together man's cultural achievements, retaining the old scripts, making them legible again. It is, of course, the romantic conception of mind that DeQuincey summed up when he said that the human brain was "a natural and mighty palimpsest." Deriving from Wordsworth's Prelude and Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Pound's Cantos pick up and sustain the cultures of the world within the apprehension of an individual mind and pass them on to poets such as [Robert] Lowell.
Louis L. Martz, in Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1970, pp. 262-63.
Ezra Pound's Cantos are cultural poems. They belong in the tradition of Walt Whitman which survives in the twentieth century in the poetry of Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams. Pound differs from a poet like Crane because he does not necessarily see individual reform as the answer to external abuses. Crane bolts an iron suspension bridge to our hearts. Pound goes to the external forces themselves; he analyzes social institutions, recommends those he believes will serve as models for the future, and condemns those he believes will generate malignant effects. More than this, Pound writes as a poet-historian. His Cantos lay claim to the validity of historical scholarship. They claim to be truthful presentations of actual historical events.
Ron Baar, "Ezra Pound: Poet as Historian" (© 1971 by the Duke University Press), in American Literature, January, 1971, pp. 531-43.
[Pound's] spluttering and incandescent failure is worth more than most men's solid achievements. His romantic desire for the earthly beatitude which many artists are continually seeking: his poetry, perhaps, would be a torch lighting up a neglected pathway: as a recent poem declares, a rushlight to lead us back to splendour.
William Dyson, "The Fluctuations of Ezra Pound," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1971, pp. 22-7.
[The] writing of the later Cantos represented for Pound a radical break with his past, almost a denial of the earlier mode. Erudite to the point of pedantry, opaque, and generally incomprehensible except to the most dedicated literary archaeologists, the later Cantos kept away many who would have come to him quite naturally as a teacher. And so, of course, did the U.S. government, for during that crucial decade of change for poetry, the 1950s, Ezra Pound was tucked away in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a prisoner for his wartime follies….
Yet it may well have been more than Pound's inaccessibility that diminished his influence with the new generation of poets that was then struggling to be born. In a more devious way, it was probably because Ezra Pound, with his secure niche in the literary history of the modern movement, was more academically respectable that his impact [on the Beats and others] was less than [William Carlos] Williams's.
Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971, p. 119.
Pound always made a great show of learning and a bold claim to authority. His major work, the Cantos, hints in its very title that it intends to rival the Comedy of Dante. It is nearly as polyglot as Joyce's Finnegans Wake. It contains sentences and phrases not only in poetic English and slang both American and Cockney, but in Chinese, ancient Greek, classical Latin, medieval Latin, French, Italian, Provençal, German, and jargons of various origin. Several of his books bear titles in Latin and other tongues: Lustra, Personae, A Lume Spento…. His interest in Greek and Latin is not merely a pose. It is an essential part of his development as a poet. He really loved the classics and believed in them. But he would not take the trouble to understand them thoroughly….
An earnest reader, if he has no Greek and Latin himself, is pleasantly mystified and feels a vague admiration for a poet with so many languages and echoes ringing in his mind. Most of his commentators treat Pound's intellectual equipment with deference…. [and] readers seem to believe that Pound is a truly scholarly writer. How deeply, how accurately, and how sensitively he knows other languages I cannot tell; but although he shows off his Greek and his Latin, his Latin is poor and his Greek is contemptible….
He would not admit his deficiencies and cure them through humility and industry. Nor would he shun those areas where a display of ignorance might be damaging. Where others would turn their eyes away from the sanctuary, or else enter with quiet step and bowed head, Ezra Pound charged in, shouting and singing and hiccuping, on roller skates, and rollicked around breaking the decorations and scrawling his name on the walls….
These are not trivial or pedantic criticisms. They go to the heart of Pound's poetic ambitions…. Reflecting on Pound's incoherent and shallow work, reading the record of his wasted life, glancing through the respectful but impercipient commentaries on his poems, and looking with painful puzzlement through his collected letters, we can understand why many intelligent people—not only in the United States but elsewhere—turn away from him with pity and scorn. He ruined what might have been a viable talent, because he believed that he could be a great writer without humility, without knowledge, and without concentration. When he began to write, he possessed several of the qualities of a poet. His mistake was to believe that he was already complete, that he did not need to grow, and that his few inborn qualities were enough. We are surrounded, infested, by poets of this kind two generations later. In Canto LXXIV he quoted the Greek proverb 'Beauty is difficult'; but he did not remember it. He wrecked his mind with exhibition and competition and improvisation and opposition and destructive criticism and silly self-advertisement and pointless correspondence and a perpetual compulsive self-justificatory monologue which served as a substitute for thought.
Gilbert Highet, "Beer-bottle on the Pediment" (© 1971 by Gilbert Highet; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), in his Explorations, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 244-56.