Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
Pound was a major American poet who lived most of his life outside the United States. He was, according to Babette Deutsh, "an alchemist of words, producing, out of the commonest substances, precious metals and life-giving elixirs." He called the Cantos a "history of the world" and it is because of those uneven and opaque poems, modulations of his own voice through time and space, that he is now recognized as a major force in the development of modern poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)
[The Cantos] makes greater demands on one's learning and perseverance than any other poem that has ever been written. The reader is expected, for example, to guess at the meaning of quotations and monologues in nine foreign languages: Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Old French, Provençal, Spanish, German, and Chinese (besides one name in Persian script and, in Canto 93, a group of Egyptian hieroglyphs). The reader is also expected to plow his way through many long or obscure works in order to grasp the force and appositeness of the quotations. Some of those works Pound himself found it hard to procure: for example, the letter books of the Venetian foreign office and The Works of John Adams, in ten volumes that provide the substance of Cantos 62-71.
In addition to undertaking such studies, the ideal reader—or "suitably sensitized apprehensor," as Mr. Kenner calls him—will make himself as familiar with the details of Pound's literary career as if they were incidents from the Odyssey. Even then he will understand many passages only after learning to recognize Pound's friends and minor acquaintances….
[What] about the general notion of writing long poems that can be fully understood only after one has become acquainted with the poet's life, read his correspondence, published or unpublished, and studied all the books he happened to acquire? And what does Pound offer us in return for such labors?
In some ways he offers a great deal; in others, less than we have a right to expect. The Cantos does not present "an action of considerable magnitude," as Aristotle said that an epic must do; in fact it presents no action whatever. It does offer hundreds of incidents, all fragmentary, and thousands of separate sharp images, but usually there appears to be no connection between one incident or image and the one that follows. There are names, again by the thousands, but no true characters. Even the hero, who appears under many of the names—as Ulysses, as Hanno the Carthaginian explorer, as Sigismundo Malatesta, and as a number of early American statesmen—is only a series of faceless masks for the poet himself. Emotions are often celebrated or condemned—for example, there is a fine canto in praise of love and part of another in dispraise of pity—but they are seldom or never evoked from the reader. There are no recurrent patterns of meter or rhyme or refrain or strophe to create and satisfy one's expectations. In a poem where everything is freedom and surprise, one expects anything, and nothing at all is truly surprising….
Although Pound's system of rhetoric has not proved effective in persuading any but a few scholarly critics and various members of right-wing groups, it is not something he happened upon by chance or wrongheadedness. It is truly a system, being based upon a theory of knowledge, an epistemology. In philosophical terms Pound is a nominalist, a disciple of Aristotle and Duns Scotus, as well as of Confucius, but one who carries a few of their theories to simplified extremes. He insists that the only genuine knowledge is of separate things (including separate actions and sensations). He distrusts all generalities except his own….
Let me present an example of my own. If Pound were asked to define "vegetable," which is a generic term, and if he strictly followed his own method, he would appear with a basketful of onions, beans, lettuce, and cauliflower. Then, fearing that his statement was not sufficiently complete or qualified, he would rush back to the market and reappear with another basket, this time piled with carrots, beets, turnips, and radishes. That is essentially what he calls his "ideogrammic method," and it is the system of rhetoric he follows in the Cantos. There his usual means of conveying ideas is by presenting basketsful of disconnected items from the history of various countries, including Italy, China, the United States, medieval England, and the Byzantine Empire….
There are obvious weaknesses in the ideogrammic method when carried to the extreme to which Pound carries it, and one of them is that it abolishes logical thinking. One cannot compare or evaluate statements that consist of vegetables by the basketful or historical items by the gross. One cannot test the statements for consistency with each other….
Then too, if he puts one item after another, isn't he suggesting that the first is the cause or explanation of the second? Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. There are examples of this simplest logical fallacy everywhere in the later cantos, as likewise in the political prose of Impact. Indeed, the verse and the prose are hard to distinguish, except that the verse is more ideogrammic and harder to read….
I feel no resentment against Pound for presenting this eccentric picture of history. He believes in it as in everything else: his collection of ideas, his ideogrammic method of presenting them, his bold non sequiturs, and his mission of saving the world from usury, war, and bad art. After his years of confinement let him live in peace—and in honor too, for the debt that other poets owe him. The resentment I feel is only against the critics who have been proclaiming that Pound is a genius to set beside Dante and that his end-less harangue against the bankers is a poetic masterpiece to be studied in every course in modern literature. There is time in college to study only so many masterpieces. The Cantos would have to take the place of something else, perhaps of other modern poetry, perhaps of Wordsworth or Milton. Students might conclude, in their practical way, that poetry was damned nonsense and that critics didn't know what they were talking about.
Malcolm Cowley, "Pound Reweighed" (originally published in a shorter version in Reporter, March 2, 1961), in his A Many-Windowed-House: Collected Essays on American Writers and American Writing, edited, with an introduction, by Henry Dan Piper (copyright © 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 178-90.
Ezra Pound had two very remarkable qualities: he was a poet and, despite his passion for the past, a deeply original one. He was also something rarer than a poet—a catalyst, an impresario, a person who both instinctively understood what the age was about to bring forth and who helped it to be born. We recognise this quality in Apollinaire, in Cocteau, in Diaghilev, in André Breton….
1912 was an important year for Pound. He brought out his fifth book of poems, Ripostes (dedicated, incidentally, to William Carlos Williams), in which his authentic voice began to be heard. It is a tone of cool, relaxed dandyism, playing with the forms of the Greek and Latin epigram, yet capable of a deeper magic—as in 'Portrait d'une femme' ('Your mind and you are our Sargasso sea' or 'The Tomb at Akr Çaar', or his bleakly alliterative adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon 'The Seafarer')….
Both Pound and Eliot had a very unusual combination of gifts—revolutionary élan, first-class minds, and a most fastidious and critical ear. One is always surprised by Pound's taste, he is indeed the Catullus (a gamin Catullus, wrote a reviewer) of Yeats's 'Scholar' poem which, I fully believe, was intended for him….
The Pound of 'Lustra' is still a minor poet. With Quia Pauper Amavi he attains a stature which is worthy of the admiration since bestowed on him…. The book consists almost entirely of long poems and includes the first three Cantos and 'Homage to Sextus Propertius'. The Cantos have not yet begun to belch forth huge lumps of prose like a faulty incinerator and include the lovely Elpenor passage paraphrased from Homer, while 'Homage to Sextus Propertius', complete with howlers, grows better at each rereading, a complete identification of one fame-struck, slightly wearying dandy with his dazzling archetype. The passage of time encrusts the howlers with a hoary rightness.
Cyril Connolly, "The Breakthrough in Modern Verse" (originally published in The London Magazine), in his Previous Convictions (© 1963), Hamish Hamilton, 1963, pp. 235-51.
It is nothing new to say that the basis of Ezra Pound's poetics may be seen in the Imagist Movement that Pound himself brought to being in 1912 in London. Yet Imagism remains a somewhat cloudy business…. The repetitions about Imagist theory have obscured the fact that the earliest focus of Imagism was on a discipline involving what Pound called "living language" and "presentation," not on any theories of the Image as such. Slightly later the focus shifted to include more theoretical concerns, but the discipline remained the heart of the achievement, yielding poems that employed severe artistic control to make a few words carry a large burden of meaning. This discipline was derived to a significant degree from ideas and attitudes of Pound's good friend, the novelist Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford). When talking about Hueffer's relation to them, Pound spoke of these ideas as "the prose tradition."
Pound's pre-Imagist poetry lacked this discipline, and his early poetics was a mélange of Aestheticism, scientistic "realism" and Browningesque "vigor" that Pound later mocked as "red-blooded." (pp. 3-4)
The "Contemporania" poems indicate that Imagism was first of all an ascetic means of dissolving impurities and of resolving the poem into "straight talk" a classic directness in the accents of contemporary speech. Next they imply a new freedom of attitude, a new unpretentiousness of subject, a new brilliance in the use of himself as persona—all taking rise from Pound's desire to bid good-bye to his earlier style, and the postures in which it had involved him. (p. 8)
Pound stopped trying to forge a poetics from Yeatsian ideas, and sought the "hard-edged" quality that Hueffer's doctrines seemed to promise. (p. 17)
Hueffer insisted on the unchanging nature of experience: unless he has the courage to look at and portray life, the modern poet will "never realize that Paolo and Francesca loved and suffered precisely as love and suffer the inhabitants of the flat above him" [The Critical Attitude]. This kind of statement did more than make Pound a modernist; it gave him the clue for a new non-derivative way to use his scholarly research into the past, and the idea of an unchanging basis of experience is certainly a key to his later poetry, especially the Cantos. (p. 18)
[The] fact is that Imagism was best suited to post-Victorian London, and a few other situations in which reticence is the idiomatic norm. One of these other situations can be found in classical Chinese poetry, of which Pound made good use: in his poetic development, the phase of Imagism proper was followed by a period in which his main concerns were epigrams, haiku, and adaptations from Chinese. (p. 31)
Pound was of course in favor of visual quality wherever it helped to achieve definite and precise "presentation," and often praised the visual imaginations of Dante and his other Italian and Provençal favorites. But he never pretended to believe that this was the only proper effect for poetry, and his own poetry even in its most Imagist phase shows no unusual reliance on visual effects or qualities; moreover, he continually warned his group against being "viewy" or "descriptive." The aim of Pound's Imagism was to produce a kind of pattern or structure of insight, to "present a complex instantaneously," and he never proposed to limit the means for such presentation to one sensuous effect. Quite often Pound talked about qualities of poetic form in a vocabulary derived from the plastic arts—"getting an outline," "hard-edgedness," and so on—but the values here were as often tactile as visual, since (as Donald Davie has pointed out [in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] Pound often conceived his art in sculptural terms. (p. 44)
Most critics have thought that [Ernest] Fenollosa's important gift to Pound was the "ideogrammic method," yet Pound's early outbursts of praise for Fenollosa single out not that but Fenollosa's thesis that verbs are the basis of living language [presented in his "Essay on the Chinese Written Character," 1919]…. In his view reality is faithfully described only by transitive verbs, for it consists entirely of actions and processes: "A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them." As for parts of speech, he says, "the verb must be the primary fact of nature, since motion and change are all that we can recognize in her." (pp. 58-9)
The implication in the essay is that we should in our usage try to recapture a sense of this verbal substratum in all the parts of speech. Fenollosa seems to have convinced Pound that if we will recognize the true verbal basis of language, we can write a poetry that will attain the desired closeness to nature. (pp. 59-60)
To better define the true form of predication, Fenollosa attacked the traditional definitions of the sentence-form. Rejecting the criterion of "a complete thought" because "in nature there is no completeness," he went on to denounce the usual "subject-predicate" definition as hopelessly subjective:
In the second definition of the sentence, as "uniting a subject and a predicate," the grammarian falls back on pure subjectivity. We do it all; it is a little private juggling between our right and left hands. The subject is that about which I am going to talk; the predicate is that which I am going to say about it. The sentence according to this definition is not an attribute of nature but an accident of man as a conversational animal. If it were really so, then there could be no possible test of the truth of a sentence. Falsehood would be as specious as verity. Speech would carry no conviction.
It is amazing that this passage has received so little attention from critics; perhaps the Johnsonian use of specious has thrown them off. For here Fenollosa proposes nothing less than a way across the terrifying Cartesian gap between internal and external, between subjective and objective; it proceeds from the conviction that we can have a truly objective predication that will manifest the operations of reality itself. The sentence-form is not an arbitrary convention, but a structural representation of these operations: "agent—act—object." (p. 61)
Objective predication, with its aim of capturing such "moving images," is the key to Pound's idea of a "poetry of reality" and to Pound's work as a whole. For Pound is, in Charles Tomlinson's phrase, "engaged with the 'out-there'"…. (p. 65)
It was Charles Norman, who as a biographer cannot have made such a statement lightly, who asserted that the Cantos form the "most autobiographical poem in the English language"; but what do we know of the private Pound or of his subjectivity when we have read the poem? The Cantos give me no feeling of knowing "Pound the man" while reading; if autobiography, it is that of a reagent in history who tests what he comes into contact with. Most of the hostile criticism has complained that not enough subjective "order" is imposed. Disturbed by the idea of bits and pieces of reality predicating themselves, the critics have demanded that Pound "comment," say more as himself, develop a philosophy and elaborate it in verse. Actually Pound talks incessantly in his poem, of course, but somehow it isn't the kind of subjective "what I have to say about it" that we are used to.
The sharpness of the paradox in Pound's work is almost certainly related to a comment once made by Hueffer: "The Impressionist author is sedulous to avoid letting his personality appear in the course of his book. On the other hand, his whole book, his whole poem is merely an expression of his personality." A self-indulgent author might use that principle to pour himself all over his work under a thin disguise, but Pound would not have put it to that use. Here is his adaptation: "The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment. His work remains the permanent basis of psychology and metaphysics." This was written before he read Fenollosa, but it shows how the Imagist discipline of "presentation" [as defined by Pound in his 1913 essay "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste"] was preparing him to become a faithful believer in the power of objective predication. (pp. 67-8)
As prose discipline signified for Pound a means toward a sweeping reform of poetry, so his apprehension of Joyce's merits seems to have been a sign of a further goal: it is almost as if Joyce showed him the way to put twentieth-century literature on a basis not only technically sound, but metaphysically solid. One theme recurs in Pound's essays on Joyce aside from praise of stylistic achievements: fascination with the way Joyce had been able to use a narrow, insular city to imply the world in general. (p. 76)
Pound believed that Joyce, and Eliot too, had attained a "poetry of reality" that not only answered the call of "presentation" for an exact proportion between detail and insight, but embodied a metaphysical world of universal meanings. The formula for such a relation between literature and reality was one that would have pleased a Schoolman of the Moderate Realist persuasion: universalia in rebus.
Critics of Pound ignore his statement of belief in universals to their cost. So convenient has it been to explain Pound away as a "nominalist" that many have mistaken his attack on "abstractions" as a nihilistic rejection of universals. They are therefore nonplussed when Pound says that the Cantos contain "magic moments or moments of metamorphosis" that lead into a "divine or permanent world" [in Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941, 210]…. (p. 77)
[In] his own attempt at the re-sacralization of a profaned world,… [Pound] is concerned with the details of myth, seeking the moment of metamorphosis which opens into the permanent world of "gods, etc.," as he succinctly puts it [in Letters, 210]. Metamorphosis is a way of showing the true nature of things under the figure of swift and dramatic change; see Ovid, and Dante. Pound's assertions of the truth of myth and the reality of the gods reflect not only the hope of restoring some of the meaning dissipated by reductionist skepticism, but a sense of "striking at universals" through real particulars. (p. 83)
One aim of Pound's poetics seems to be the construction of a morphology of experience in the form of images. He renders bare, skeletal shapes of insight or feeling, creating in quick strokes the recognizable forms. Ideally the poems have no shape or form except what is produced by the applying of energy to material in the particular poem; hence the poems often seem formless to those accustomed to more traditional kinds. Yet if the poems are indeed quests for universal forms in particular images, their formal aspirations are far more ambitious than those of traditional kinds. Even to contribute to a morphology of experience is a rather high aim. If such was the ultimate goal of Imagism it helps further to explain statements like "It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works." (p. 97)
Joyce had the advantage over Pound in that he could make use of the novelistic accretion of detail, and thus his work seems more "realistic" than Pound's. But the underlying assumptions of both included a sense of potentiality in the particular, and a sense of the configurational, relational character of experience, and from these assumptions proceeded not only the use of synecdoche as the method of their symbolism, but also a generally organicist world-view—each part of the world ultimately related to every other part—that permitted the further developments of their arts. (p. 108)
[In his 1928 essay "Medievalism," Pound makes] an ingenious assertion that visionary activity leads to greater precision, not less, in perception and presentation. It is followed by a denunciation of modern thought for tolerating imprecise and formless concepts of energy: for us energy "has no borders, it is a shapeless 'mass' of force," whereas "the medieval philosopher [Guido Cavalcanti] would probably have been unable to think the electric world, and not think of it as a world of forms." The inseparability of force and form is a cardinal principle for Pound, and the basis of Vorticist theory…. A morphology of experience requires clear distinctions and separations—fittingly Pound finds his model in the Middle Ages. He did not object to what later ages scorned as pedantic fussiness about terms, or rigidities of hierarchical thinking, in medieval writers: to his mind these were all to the good, since they preserved demarcations, gradations, and values with exactness. (pp. 128-29)
Many literary comparisons have been proposed for the Cantos: Homer and Dante obviously, lately and suggestively Piers Plowman, and perhaps we should add Blake's Prophetic Books. But the best analogy of all is surely Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that Pound seems unable to praise too much. Ovid, however, was not "writing" mythology, but rather constructing a living compendium of myth, gathering together metamorphic interpretations of realities. So also with Pound, who retells certain vital segments of myth, flashes of man's intercourse with the "vital universe," rendering them in his own "interpretative metaphors." Like Fenollosa he believes in language carrying alluvial deposits of these meanings, hence his interest in the layers of language, e.g., in various translations of Homer. Those layers preserve live speech…. (p. 136)
Ovid's great work provides yet another major analogue to the art of the Cantos in its organization. Pound never assumed that unity was Ovid's aim, but rather took the Metamorphoses to be a compendium of its varied sources and insights, multi-layered and multi-faceted…. Pound apparently believes that if a poet really concentrates his work, the logical result is a compendium; a long unified tale can be produced only by spreading the effort. (pp. 138-39)
If a poet proposes to himself to write not a "myth for our time" but a huge process-epic carrying the burden of a "tradition" embodied in various layers of language and racial consciousness, how could his work be anything other than a compendium?… But for Pound's work the root of the matter is that real concentration boils a work down to separate "gists and piths," which must seem at first fragmentary and disunified. He has never desired a unity of surface or style, nor made a secret of the "binding matter" in the Cantos which, while holding the poem together, has made it seem even more heterogeneous. This matter includes, for instance, annotations…. Insofar as Pound really hoped to write "the tale of the tribe" his work must be endless, episodic, and conglomerate, justifying itself only in the sharp etching of those bits of fact that "govern knowledge as the switchboard governs an electric circuit." The very precision demanded in the etching of those details prevents them from being subordinated to any unifying principle; tonal or thematic unity imposed by a single mind, no matter how creative, tends to diminish the sense of jagged clarity. If the texture is made smooth, the details cannot stand out sharply…. The Cantos … seek texture rather than major form…. When asked anxious questions about the form of the Cantos, Pound's replies usually tried to indicate that the poem was not schematic, but organic in the most literal sense—growing…. (pp. 140-42)
Study of Pound's writings has convinced me that even by the most hostile evaluation his mind was never so disorganized as to prevent him from imposing "form" on the Cantos if he had wanted to. It rather seems that his principles of composition were governed by two great values he derived from "the tradition"—medieval exact distinctions and Ovidian multiplicy. (p. 143)
Among the effects on Pound's poetics of the alliance with Eliot was a broadening of perspectives. One augmentation stands out: a new tolerance of wordplay in the form of logopoeia. This new interest is related to an awareness of Laforgue, whose interest for Pound went up sharply after he met Eliot…. Apparently Pound and Eliot decided that the age demanded sharp-edged satire, and that clipped regular form, scored in the apparently "caressable" but really disturbing "sculpture" of rhyme, would draw the ridiculous poses of the age into cramped and uncomfortable display. A technique that could mock pretentious rhetoric was required; Pound named it logopoeia [which he defined in his essay "How to Read"]…. (pp. 157-58)
In a sense, everything that is part of Pound's mature poetics was latent in the earlier conceptions of Imagism. The assured control that logopoeia demanded was immensely facilitated by the severities to which Pound faced up when practicing Imagism as discipline. (pp. 159-60)
Thus, while Pound owed to Eliot and Laforgue a new flexibility and a broadened sweep of perspective, he did not see that their lessons involved him in any self-contradictions. The enthusiastic practice of logopoeia on which he embarked implied for him no devaluation of earlier modes, only certain narrowed definitions for the sake of neatness and clarity. He triumphantly discovered logopoeia in Propertius, and made it part of his Homage; but he also discovered a "limited range" of it "in all satire," and "something like it" in Heine, who had been one of his earlier enthusiasms. (p. 161)
Though at first Pound seems much less concerned with religious ideas than his friends Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce, their place in his mind is quite central, and they are crucial not only to his beliefs about mythology but, for example, to the whole conception of Imagist discipline. Most of the ideas I have used so far [Schneidau employs several ideas and metaphors drawn from religion to clarify his analysis of Pound's thought] could roughly be characterized as Catholic ones, and the main point of the comparison is fairly simple: it can be seen in the Catholic insistence on the real and literal, not "symbolic," nature of what it deals with. Pound's belief in a "poetry of reality" starts from similar convictions…. Perhaps more than other modern poets Pound believes in the literal reality of what poems say; he was so irritated by the bourgeois equation of poetry with fantasy that his attack on it has been in a profound sense his life's work. (p. 174)
The fervor, urgency, and absoluteness with which he delivered his opinions testifies to his origin from a country that takes evangelism seriously, and throughout his thought, from aesthetics to economics, something that looks suspiciously like a Puritan pattern keeps revealing itself. Imagist poetics is a useful example: it was founded on the idea of discipline, an askesis necessary for poetic purity. The Imagists sought no elusive poésie pure, of course, but they did demand a poetry purified of signs of decadence like rhetoric, comment, metronomic rhythm, "emotional slither," "Tennysonianness of speech," and many other immoral practices. Most puritanically they eschewed decoration and ornament, that Victorian gingerbread that obscures truth. (pp. 177-78)
Pound himself ascribed his moral strenuousness to his belief that it is the duty of art to present reality. (p. 180)
His art continued to rest on the principle of the "universal in the particular," just as it continued to strive for objective predication, letting realities manifest themselves, rather than settling for subjective affirmation or denial…. He continued to render the shapes of experience, and to try to enshrine the direct knowledge that differs from our conceptual ones. All the Imagist ingredients stay in his work, in one form or another, although the poetry came to have obvious differences from the Imagist poems of the early period. (p. 188)
My concern is simply to assert that the Cantos have their roots in Imagist poetics. Between an Imagist poem and a Canto there is a major difference in form, of course, yet the continuity is there too, much like the one that obtains between Impressionism and contemporary art: the Cantos are to the short Imagist poems as today's freewheeling sculpture is to the anti-academic picture. In both Imagism and Impressionism we have a breakthrough toward dynamism; and both, by seeking truer representations, ended by breaking the stranglehold of "representationalism." The sense of the isolated "moment," of instantaneity, that inheres in a short Imagist poem had been useful to render shapes of insight or sudden illumination or realization. But Fenollosa taught Pound that the sense of activity is the sense of reality, and large-scale embodiments of it demanded a less constricted form. (p. 189)
In view of [the] merging of Imagism into reverie and phantasmagoric vision, and in view of the relationship between the precisions of Imagism and the precisions of the Cantos, it seems allowable to contend that the Cantos are not a repudiation of Imagism but a magnified projection of it. (p. 190)
Form was one of the values to which Pound was utterly committed. Not a form of objects—not "well-wrought-urnism"—but a form of events, of process, of lines of force as Fenollosa apprehended them: "Transferences of power." Sight alone can never come to the conception of a universe so full of vital energies that forces are being transferred constantly, but without sight we would have only a vague roaring in our ears from such apprehension. Form, for Pound, is an attempt to focus on the loci of these transferences. His is dynamic form, to be sure…. Reading a line from a Canto, we must have a sense that something is "going on" all the time; the words do not simply lie in limp patterns, the poem is something happening rather than something over with. But it also has a fixedness, a dance, even in its movement; Pound was a Vorticist, a man who believes that powerful force creates and maintains form. The vortex is a figure for the reconciliation of those mighty opposites, dynamic and static, in a shape whose fixedness is dependent on a certain intensity of movement. (p. 195)
If he is surely a "poet of reality," he is just as surely determined to extend the boundaries of what we call real…. The greatest figures in the literary tradition of the Western world have always been concerned to assert the "higher truth" of poetry, and Pound is one of their most convinced and passionate inheritors.
In the end Pound's "poetry of reality" depends on his boundless faith in language. He truly believed that words did not merely describe or point to real things, but could really body them forth. Far from wishing that poetry could be made with something other than words [as suggested by Frank Kermode in Romantic Image], with objects or with bodily sensations, he believed instead that words could get closer to the inner nature of reality than other apprehensions of experience. This is not to say that he believed that "words alone are certain good," or valued verba over res: on the contrary, he felt that the highest function of language could be achieved only by a severe restriction on verbalism, a discipline that would remove the "curse of mediacy" from words by making language totally efficient, making every word count…. What Pound saw in Egyptian statuary is what he wanted: an art of incarnation. To be sure, it is the reverse of an orthodox incarnation: it is flesh made word…. These conceptions depend on an idea of language in which the word has, through the centuries, in the "magic moment" received reality into it. In this moment, all analogies for language are transcended. (pp. 200-01)
Herbert N. Schneidau, in his Ezra Pound: The Image and the Real, Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Old age closed in on the Cantos. Did some flaw in the scheme, as well?
Not if you say there was no scheme. But clearly there was. Already we can discern a great deal of it. I say "already" because the poem has only been known for some twenty years, though it has been in progress for fifty….
Lacking … a continuous tradition of relevance, the reader of the Cantos must attempt an act of historical reconstruction to locate the work's point of origin, whereas the reader of The Waste Land need not. This points not to a defect in the Cantos but to a defect in the history of their reception….
The volumes have always been structural units. The first unit, A Draft of XVI Cantos, was quite clear if there had been anyone to pay attention to it in 1925. Its span is from Homer to World War I, that watershed…. There is always a "now" in which the language on the page before us is being found, analogous to but no longer coincident with the "now" in which we read it, and the language normally encompasses many times simultaneously. This is perhaps Pound's most profound invention, this way of seeing the past, many pasts, without nostalgia: active now, in the words. The Malatesta documents, even, exist in two times: the fifteenth century, and today's English….
In Mauberley Pound shed like a skin the aesthete who does not know what is going on, the author, as it were, of the first drafts of the first cantos, and replaced him with a persona who can scrutinize the times, including wars and wasted lives, and can understand the social value of perceptivity, its function as a generator of wealth.
The historical retrospection in Mauberley concentrates on the immediate past. In the first thirty cantos the method is similar but the scope is larger, embracing the span, from the Renaissance till now, during which the contradictions of European history had worked themselves out. Malatesta had managed to work against this current. So, for a while, had America, and the plan next called for the presentation of Jefferson as a second Malatesta….
The Rock Drill Cantos carry us up through a vision of a syncretic heaven, which falters and vanishes when the mind can no longer sustain it. But the cosmos contains order independent of mind, the patterning vegetable energies of seed and root and flower; the governing science of Rock Drill is natural growth. The poem's center of gravity is moving from the human will out into nature, await with paradigms.
The governing science of the next sequence, Thrones, is philology: luminous words and their meanings, seeds of mental growth. The large blocks of the early cantos are reduced to a scatter of luminous particles, fulfilling the imagery of rising sparks Canto V had postulated long before. These sparks of exactness define legal systems: Byzantine, Chinese, English; the governing subject of Thrones is Law. And about the time he was conceiving Thrones, Pound produced one day on the lawn at St. Elizabeths a sheet of paper bearing sixteen ideograms, "for the last Canto." "That is my first Chinese quatrain." It consisted, he said, of the sixteen ideograms he found most interesting. (You cannot write a poem with the sixteen English words you find most interesting.) So the arc would close. Having brought new blood to Homer's meanings in the first Canto, he would bring new patterns of meaning to Chinese gists in the last; that was what return to Ithaca would mean. The meanings are in the characters; the poet does not impose meaning, he unlocks it in finding a new arrangement.
Hugh Kenner, "'Drafts and Fragments' and the Structure of the 'Cantos'," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 7-18.
Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII is a very valuable little book. There is an ancient legal maxim to the effect that the deed does not establish a crime—there must also be proof of a guilty mind behind it. So it is with poetry. To produce sets of verses which in stanza form, rhyme, metre and such other characteristics as school-teachers tell their pupils are the distinguishing features of poetry is nothing. All these things may be present—and the one essential absent. Indeed, it is so in perhaps ninety-nine per cent of what is generally regarded as poetry. Almost always indeed the very presence of these things is a substitute for what alone is required. And the consequence is that such work as we have in this book is apt to be dismissed by the traditionalists as formless rubbish. It is very far from that and in fact contains more genuine poetry than is to be found in the totality of alleged volumes of poetry published annually. These scraps and trial shots are sufficient to furnish material for more good poets than have used any form of the English language for at least the past century.
Hugh MacDiarmid, "The Esemplastic Power," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 27-30.
At the core of Pound's work is a frustrated equation…. This equation exists a priori, it is a truism, it is absolute and eternal, not subject to differences of time or cases, like all true mathematics, or even simple arithmetic…. In human life the obvious, God-given equations rarely work out right at all: for between the term and the term, between the desire and the act, falls the shadow. The shadow may be called Sin, the Fall, or whatever: but [it] is the way we account for the observable fact that in human life two plus two rarely equals four: some third or more factor enters to spoil the equation….
The shadow for Pound is Usura, the palsied shadow that keepeth the bride from the groom (Miranda from Ferdinand), the maid from her Loom, the man from his house of good stone, the word from its true meaning, the coin from its proper value, the thing from its true price. For Pound the original sin (and he wouldn't call it that) is not sex but Usura…. The two worlds of nature, unfallen, and of man, fallen (not through sin but ignorance Pound would say with the Bhagavad Gita), confront each other in page after page of the Cantos, the one accusing the other, but also teaching the other, coaxing, leading back to truth, reality, the original perfection…. There are the images of things, realities in nature, set over against the images or whatever of non-things, the emptiness of reality created by Usury…. This "thinginess" of Pound's poetry in its positive mood is characteristic, and imagistic: and is not "thinginess" the meaning of "realitas"? Usury creates a world of nothingness, it creates "ex nihil", and out of nothing comes nothing—except misery. The world created by Usury is psychosis, an unreality empty of real things, a world in which no thing has a definite value, or a definite price, no money a definite correspondence to anything by which real value and price can be established….
Pound's idea of the nature of the shadow that spoils our natural equations, that creates a world in which criminals are raised to power and wealth while saints are crucified and poets starved, is as much worth consideration as any other idea of it. The fact that it provokes such irrational fear and hatred would seem to suggest, indeed, that it is much more worth consideration than others all too acceptable. Where the patient winces and becomes resistant is where the trouble is: we should all probe deeper into the questions of money and Usury. And we should do it of course as writers concerned with values, not as economists or whatever concerned with pseudo-science. The kind of resistance to be looked for is plain from the treatment the greatest poet of our age has received.
Tom Scott, "Two Plus Two Would Equal Four But For The Shadow …", in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 35-7.
Impossible to approach the latest fragments of this impassioned poem [the Cantos] without bending the knee before the length and dedication of the life lived. But there is enough new seeing [in Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII] for veneration without ancestor-worship.
The sight is attained after pain, the keener for knowledge of its causes, but the tone is not sharp. It is levelled by humility, by admission of error, and by the distancing of experience through time.
Gone, years ago, concern about "how to say it"—style, verse, language, and all that. Long study and great love have brought to the work exactitudes immediate as instinct, phrases of absolute rhythm moulding the sense. The ear never errs but the tongue falters, its broken phrases sighting states of mind in motifs of nature, history and art….
No-one else has so delicate an ear. The words define themselves by the movement of their sounds, more precise than the definitions of the lexicographers, but trace areas of meaning where the mind plays. Raised to another power, the technique allows lines and sequences of lines, equally precise in what they mark but do not say, to determine by their placing multiple volumes of thought and perception. The clarity of detail in multidimensional spacing makes the poetry look both simple and difficult. Historically the progression is from delineation by mots justes through dissociation of ideas to ideogram and a kind of projective geometry, but here all are used.
"Monuments" one might call them if the word did not evoke the stuffy and the overpowering. But lightness, lightness above all, with the calm and discrimination of observers of nature: to walk with Mozart, Agassiz and Linnaeus.
Here take thy mind's space
Just words moving, given weight by experience only, meaning the knowledge of centuries as well as the memory of an old man, words reaching out to ultimates, to live by and die with.
Kenneth Cox, "New Things Seen," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 38-9.
Those critics who claim the Cantos do not cohere and who would read Pound's personal expressions of doubt as concurrence with their judgment ought to study carefully these new cantos [Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII]. The searchlight of intellect which Pound throws mercilessly upon the work does not register doubt of his accomplishment. He merely keeps to the Confucian principle of looking straight into the heart and acting on the results. He puts his work to the test, judging it by the true tones given off by the heart. Under such straight gaze, doubt that assails the human spirit at all too frequent intervals becomes affirmation….
Marcella Spann, "Beauty in Fragments," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 40-3.
Drafts & Fragments makes us realise that Pound probably oversimplified the world in some earlier parts of the poem. Sadness and beauty are here inextricably interwoven. These are fragments of beauty that because of their fragmentation are permeated by pain. The greatest happiness we know comes in moments which are gone before we can grasp what it is we have experienced. It is instants of this kind that these Cantos define….
Cantos CX-CXVII are a cluster of things felt which spark off new relationships with themselves and with the body of the work on each rereading. They make us see, in flashes, all parts of the poem draw to a deeper unity than had once seemed possible.
Cyril Connolly, "A Short Commentary," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 44-9.
In The Cantos, Pound constructs his own mythical conception of ancient and modern, eastern and western history. In so doing, he imitates the original creator as he imagines him, transforming myth into art, personal into objective experience. Pound deliberately distorts historical material; he sees historical figures as either heroes or villains, and he involves them with gods and creatures of hell. His narrator is omnipotent and his perspective messianic, for he attempts to create the great historical myth of which western society has been deprived by vulgar and unethical leaders….
The laws that Pound envisions in history are not derived from the empirical evidence provided by the Italian Renaissance, China, or the American Republic, but are mythical laws of "inborn qualities of nature" which can be traced not only to ancient concepts of reality but to Pound's own messianic view of order and control. Like Zeus or Odysseus, the poet himself "pilots" all of history to conform to his own construction of an ideal past, which is more myth than history, more eccentric than universal. In Guide to Kulchur, Pound writes of his idea of "dynamic form," which is intrinsically related to his belief in the "dynamo" that the past must provide for the present…. Pound's myth of recurrence and permanence in history rises from death, for its purpose is ultimately to involve the reader in a ritual of abhorrence of the present and reversion to an idealized inner vision of the past. If his "history" contains some vital persons and events of earlier societies, these are often used to support the hatred and contempt which seem to inspire Pound's visionary pattern. History in The Cantos is finally Pound's own creation.
Lillian Feder, "Ezra Pound: The Messianic Vision," in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 293-307.
Despite critical pleading, the Cantos are an unfinished, totally flawed, almost totally destroyed poem. The recent volume (1968) of the Cantos is called Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII; it is not possible to distinguish these clearly labeled notes and drafts from the two earlier volumes Thrones and Section: Rock Drill. No reader can fail to note the progressive disintegration of substance and surface. The mind loses its way among the scattered bundles of torn documents and fragmentary texts translated (or not translated) from the languages of the world; the ear forgets the vigorous prosodic tune which begins Canto 1 and at the end hears little more than the mutter and buzz of free association. With the best will in the world, the most up-to-date scholarly annotation, and the sharpest exegetical tools, it is impossible to read the macaronic lines which follow and derive pleasure from their music or intellectual stimulation from their propositional sense….
Nowhere do we find a basic tonality or tone-row, a consistent development or climax, a fully orchestrated page. My concern with the Cantos, then, centers more on intention and intended method than on intrinsic aesthetic value. The Cantos is not an achieved poem, "a window to existence and history," but a shattered mirror crazily reflecting historical knowledge and historical process. I take Pound at his word that he is writing "the tale of the tribe," a poem that means to be exemplary history. There is no reason why histories cannot be framed in verse or told with the grace, precision, and power which poetic form renders human experience. Pound himself discounts the Cantos as detached art; and horrible dictu and contrary to every canon of post-Symbolist literary theory, stresses their importance as naked propaganda.
Pound faces problems as old as Aristotle. If the Cantos is a poem "about" history, if it is a poem containing history, or if (as some critics have affirmed) it is history, then we stand deep in an ontological quagmire. A poem qua poem is not expected to tell wie es eigentlich gewesen, preserve chronology and sequence, or infer patterns of cause and effect. But if the Cantos is history told as a poem, then we should expect that it follow the canons governing the writing of humanistic history. If Pound really means to give us knowledge of the past and instruct our wills for right action, then the history of the Cantos must separate present and past, sift the true from the false ("the lies of history must be exposed"), and erect a structure of premises, a philosophy or a metaphysic, which shows an inner reality to events as well as their outer factuality….
Pound responded to what Nietzsche so bitterly attacked: the nineteenth-century belief in History and its redemptive possibilities. History was meant to function as the major ordering structure in the Cantos; historical knowledge could supply a system of belief. As Dante knew his reader believed in God, Pound knew his reader believed that in History truth is revealed and salvation achieved. Far from thinking History a burden, a deterrent to action, Pound believed historical knowledge would energize men to action….
The ideogrammatic or anachronistic method (they are identical) would make all of the past instantly present and hence available not only to the imagination but to the will. But the method, as Pound employs it, more nearly prevents than aids historical knowledge, more often confuses than enlightens the reader about the true nature of history….
The method of ideogram and anachronism denies that history requires either verification or chronology; without the possibility of knowing truth from falsehood or what came after when, history is reduced to meaningless recurrence or regressive myth. Ideogram and anachronism deny that history reveals process or that history is available to the understanding. Thus the arrangement (I should say disarrangement) of documentary material in ideograms, in patterns of deliberate chronological disorder, produces nothing we can call historical knowledge….
Pound's "study" of economics supposedly traces the deterioration of culture brought about by the abrogation of the traditional theological strictures against usury; it also traces the ways in which the corruption spread from social practice to the forms of art. However, Pound demonstrates no relationships between art and economics or between economics and politics. We must accept Pound's word that whatever is evil in the modern world is the result of usurious practices. Pound's theory is single, simple, and unequivocal; the history of western Europe and America, in all its variousness and complexity, can be understood if we recognize usury as the motivation behind human action.
Even if we find some truth in Pound's ad hoc definition of usury (munitions-selling is a despicable racket), its application is irresponsible and dangerous….
To believe in a "key to History," to believe that a single historical phenomenon explains historical process means holding one of the many varieties of conspiratorial theories of history. And a conspiratorial theory of history can hardly "affirm the gold thread in the pattern …"….
Despite Pound's awareness of time passing, he reveals nothing in the Cantos we might call temporal process. Some critics have discovered in the Cantos evidence that Pound holds a cyclical concept of time or that Pound progresses through time: from the writhing disorder and hate of an Inferno to the blessed order and love of a Paradiso. But these integrative critics write in their criticism the poem Pound might have written but could not….
The Cantos is not a poem sustained by circular or organic time: by myths of death and resurrection or by the return of the seasons. Quite deliberately the Cantos is a poem without time or sequence…. If the poem were sustained by an integrating myth, there would be a discoverable movement—from birth to death and resurrection; or from winter to spring. What sustains the Cantos, in those places where we can follow Pound's meanings and respond to his feelings, is tone and mood; the binding material is the pervading emotions of regret and despair. Pound's understanding of time and history is limited to his own feelings. He knows that events took place, that men and women suffered, that it all seems a terrifying waste. Time and history are thus reduced to a spectacle of undifferentiated change—a spectacle where all event is inexplicable occurrence….
Pound is a learned and cultivated connoisseur of all the arts. But in both his political attachments and in the Cantos Pound waged a furious campaign against the bourgeois tradition, rational historiography, and anything that might be considered conventional or not sufficiently revolutionary. Always in the avant-garde, he proclaimed as his motto "Make it new!" Always the enthusiast for the latest movement, he urged the demolition of the nineteenth century—that good gray century of middle-class values. A scholar and intellectual himself, he sneered at scholars and intellectuals; in his own frivolous way, he reached for a revolver when he heard the word culture: he spelled it Kulchur. Pound was not alone in thinking that it might be fun to blow up the European cultural heritage; the Futurists and Dadaists showed a similar taste for what they felt was "creative" violence.
In all his activities Pound was neither consistent nor aware that at one and the same time he was urging the destruction of culture and thinking himself the last defender of Europe and the West. Nor was he aware that in pushing his campaign against history (for that is what the Cantos do), he became an enemy of the Europe he believed he was defending. At this point I am tempted to say that Pound's History, with its thousands of documents, letters, and economics of social credit; with its Greek, Latin, and Chinese words of wisdom; is, in the words of another American primitive, The Bunk. Perhaps Pound cannot be dismissed so glibly. It took tremendous effort and the work of more than fifty years to write the one hundred and seventeen Cantos; it has taken the work of a dozen critics to discover their form and unravel their obscurities. The Cantos is the longest modern poem in English; it offered itself as a solution to the problems of its age. Yet the Cantos remains an unsuccessful epic of human culture (more exactly, an epic against culture) because it is based on an idea of history and a historiographical method to which the mind, unless it abrogates its responsibility, cannot give assent.
Harvey Gross, "The 'Cantos' of Ezra Pound," in his The Contrived Corridor: History and Fatality in Modern Literature (copyright © by The University of Michigan 1971), University of Michigan Press, 1971, pp. 100-23.
For more than fifty years, the prospect of failure has haunted the Cantos. But during that time, Pound's ambition has proved so compelling, his effort so Promethean, that even the most severe criticisms have seemed short of the mark. Pound has, in fact, preserved for us the belief that poetry has to do with ceaseless energies, with prophecy, with the articulation of those things about which all the rest of us can be expected to fall speechless. Serving thus a rare function in a time when many poets are bled of their self-esteem, the Cantos persist as an artifact outreaching the judgment of failure or success.
William M. Chace, "Talking Back to Ezra Pound," in The Southern Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1972, p. 226.
Ezra Pound sometimes seems less a writer than an entire literary community, one that has accidentally assembled in the body that goes by his name. Editor, poet, anthologist, critic, propagandist, cultural historian, English teacher, he has also been called patriot, traitor, sage, madman, defender of the artist, corrupter of the young….
Even the reader of the Selected Poems is bound to be struck by Pound's extraordinary facility, his capacity to sound casually "right" in forms that range from Anglo-Saxon verse structures to the most intricate Italian, Provençal, or French ones.
What makes this facility possible is something that is less learned than innate: Pound's ability to hear and to reproduce the most subtle nuances of speech. Pound talked a great deal about the importance of the poet's sense of verse melody—the delicate weave of sound and accent that plays above the stress pattern of a line and that imposes on that pattern an author's unique voice. It is this sure ear for verse melody, I think, that makes us swear by the "rightness" of a great deal of Pound's work—whether in his own poetry (most conspicuously perhaps in the Pisan Cantos), his editorial activity (most conspicuously perhaps in his cutting of Eliot's The Waste Land), or his translations (most conspicuously perhaps in the translations from Li Po).
Once we have accustomed ourselves to this voice, then we are ready to discover the ways in which individual elements of Pound's work interconnect: the melodies of the Chinese, the Provençal, the Italian translations weaving into and through the historical and contemporary "events" that accent The Cantos, melodies that fuse in a mind like waves washing into and over each other, interpenetrations of light….
John Unterecker, "Foreword," to Ezra Pound: An Introduction to the Poetry, by Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F. (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. vii-x.
If a reader regards Pound's The Cantos as too formidable an introduction to his poetry, he can begin with the highly readable prose. Here the writer very often assumes the role of preceptor, a word stemming from praecipire, "to know beforehand," and, as applied to Pound, meaning one who promulgates working rules respecting the techniques of an art. The rationale of all that he has written is contained in his critical essays, a factor which renders them decidedly useful to one who wants to know Pound. Moreover, his ideas are so influential that they have changed the character of four decades in American letters, have truly given poems … new directions. (p. 37)
Pound himself in his early years considered his criticism more a form of rhetoric than a lasting genre of appraisal…. [But Eliot believed that, despite] the absence of any evaluation of drama, no critic of our time … can less be spared. He stresses the need to bear in mind the contexts in which the selections were written, none being produced in a vacuum or as ultimate; rather each is a landmark in the growth of a great sensibility…. Pound's prose is much more lively than that of any other poet-critic of his age, brimming over as it is with apothegm, image, wit. (p. 38)
That the poet conceived of himself as preceptor is clear from that essay of his, in Eliot's culling [The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound], entitled "The Teacher's Mission." He envisions this mission as a restoration of language from its corruption through journalism, in order that the "Health of the National Mind" be maintained. No one can achieve success as a teacher unless he first examine his own interior condition—a flashback to Confucius—and then turn toward the light in all openness. In the study of poetry Pound desires, as the furthest possible remove from abstraction, a comparison of masterpieces. This method rests upon disciplined concreteness such as is found in the ideogram's union of word and thing. (p. 45)
Accuracy for Pound is a goal consistently held to…. At least five Cantos enshrine his love for conciseness in their employment of the ching ming ideogram, which might well serve as emblem for the intent of all his critical prose. (pp. 45-6)
Most hostile critics accuse Pound of violating the adage "Shoemaker, stick to your last" because his essays often range far from literature. However, a man lives his life as he chooses: style includes, among other things, the subjects one elects to write about. From at least his forties on, the lion's share of Pound's energies went into economics. (p. 46)
If one is to comprehend the last fourth of the Cantos, he will be forced to learn at least the outline of a history of money, some familiarity with which is needed in order to make any sense of them at all. Realizing how such a requirement will alienate readers, Pound nevertheless thinks the issue important enough to take that risk. (p. 48)
Some of Pound's best poetry is to be found in his translations, as exemplified at the start of The Cantos by his putting into magnificently economical English a Renaissance Latin version of the eleventh book of Homer's Odyssey. His theory of "the immortal concept," traveling down the years to emerge in era after era expressed by means of different media, has direct relevance to this aspect of his genius. Though his central thrust is to capture the spirit of each original, the vision informing the unique artifact and linking it with vanished splendor, he is no blunderer among masterpieces. Pound is a far better scholar both by education and by experience than philologists in general have recognized. (p. 75)
Sometimes one is almost tempted to divide Pound's career into before and after his contact with ideograms. (p. 95)
In more than one sense, Ezra Pound was "the son of Homer." As all readers of The Cantos know, its substructure is Homeric, with an Odysseus-figure as the hero, part fictional, part autobiographical….
[Passages] from Cantos 1, 4, 9, 13, 14, 16 … represent the aged poet's advice to those who wish to acquaint themselves with his major achievement but feel at a loss as to how to start. Faced by its bulk, many hesitate, thinking the challenge too great. Others spend years reading without a plan. To have il miglior fabbro single out the best passages for initiation [in Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound, 1967] is therefore an enormous help. (p. 103)
If nothing remained of the Cantos beyond those written during the days at Pisa, especially the twenty-five pages of magnificent poetry which constitute the seventy-fourth, Pound's status as a literary genius of the first rank would be secure. It is all but incredible to find a writer considered by some to be a major poet in English (Robert Graves) denying the excellence of these Cantos [Graves' contention appears in a letter to the editor of Esquire, December, 1957]. Their loveliness is the more remarkable in that they were composed in captivity, under most painful conditions, after a collapse from exposure and other hardships had necessitated Pound's removal from the 6′ × 6 1/2′ "gorilla cage" of the camp wherein he was held in secrecy. These Cantos contain the basic elements introduced and developed in the first seventy, starred by certain "epiphanies" which act as preparation for the Edenic splendors ahead. Only rarely has Pound achieved passages of like beauty since that November in 1945 when he arrived in Washington, D.C., expecting to be tried for treason….
Nowhere in The Cantos does he reveal more of his personal history, expressing in accents of humility his union with mankind's common pain. These "minor key" passages [in The Pisan Cantos] strike a new note in the music of the whole. (pp. 131-32)
Pound himself selected Cantos 81 and 84 as essential to understanding his whole work. Laughlin, his publisher, adds four and a half pages of Canto 83, perhaps because of its marked autobiographical nature, perhaps because no introduction to Pound is complete without the marvelous poetry that this section contains. Its mood is tranquil, contemplative: the meditations of philosophy (Gemistus and Scotus Erigena), the talk of writers (Yeats), the aesthetic experience as before the statue of Our Lady in Paris or the mermaids of the church in Venice. (p. 139)
Toward life's end, Pound wrestles with self-doubt. He knows what every artist must finally admit: one cannot write Paradise. But the cosmos coheres, beyond any transcript. All of that which is durable in classical literature, East and West, as he has encountered it, all of his own visions and revisions have gone into The Cantos as palimpsest. The "erasures" are not really that: their originals still exist under new and newer beauty. The words are done in gold light on the newest surface of the palimpsest—modest, as things human must necessarily be: "A little light, like a rushlight/ to lead back to splendour." More and more personal as they proceed, the Cantos after the hundredth frequently echo a sense of failure, "a tangle of works unfinished." Pound's humility, the direct opposite of hybris, sees far less in his total achievement than is really there; or perhaps one might say that with authentic sensitivity he judges even the highest masterpiece of man to be only "a rushlight." (p. 163)
On the last page of The Cantos Pound writes of how he has tried "to make a paradise/ terrestre." Paradise can never be put into words. But to try is a high enterprise—for a poet, the highest. (p. 167)
Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., in her Ezra Pound: An Introduction to the Poetry (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1972.
[Whereas] no one, for instance, would question the fact of the modernist movement, it does not necessarily follow that one has to accept Pound as a modernist because he supported James Joyce or T. S. Eliot. Moreover, if one concedes the historical importance of certain technical innovations or such loyalties, one cannot—however much one wants to do so—close the door on the historical significance of Pound's anti-Semitism and Fascism. Similarly, one cannot argue about Pound's translations of the Provençal the same way one can about his translations of the Chinese. No one … is willing to claim that Pound invented Provençal poetry for his time, and the critic is consequently hard pressed to minimize that which he is coevally praising. In both cases, some of the pitfalls for a critic dealing with a contemporary figure become apparent.
First, any dismissal of Pound's anti-Semitism on the grounds that when he uses "Jew" he does not mean "Jew" seems to defeat all of Pound's pronouncements against a poet's using sloppy language. Either "Jew" is not "Jew," as [Sister Bernetta] Quinn [in her book Ezra Pound: An Introduction to the Poetry] would insist, and one must convict the poetry of the same imprecision that Pound attacks in politicians; or "Jew" does mean "Jew," and critics like Quinn must face up to this fact and justify the greatness of the poetry despite its content….
Any defense of Pound's views of translation which does not take into account the relation of sound to word meaning invites a similar questioning. Here Pound has been subject as well to the charge of having used sloppy language, and examples like [Stuart Y.] McDougal's [in his book Ezra Pound and the Troubadour Tradition] of times when a rejected dictionary meaning has led the poet to inventive and exact analogues do not balance the greater number of inaccuracies that scholars cite. Pound's statement in the ABC of Reading that "poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music" is in this matter relevant. His esteem for language seems intimately linked to both its sound value (melopoeia) and Walter Pater's notion of all art's aspiring to the condition of music. What the translator sees as an original work is a series of sounds to be rescored into English words. Such a vision is itself transcultural and atemporal, and it suggests ratio in its Augustinian sense is a better explanation for precision in language than the resverba relations that most critics employ. The view also allows the poet under the international language of music to revive the past and make its poets his contemporaries as well as to hold coexistent the permanent products of any civilization. Louis Zukofsky's Catullus is the logical extension of such a position, just as his "upwards music/downwards speech" is a concise statement of its practice.
Nevertheless, both Quinn and McDougal are correct in assuming that language is the key to whatever greatness Pound may earn as a poet. The reader is immediately struck by an unusual vocal vividness that Pound derives from Robert Browning and that John Donne in a different way possesses. Bizarre spellings and phrases, colorful diction, and fragmented syntax evoke Ben Jonson's remark about Spenser, that "in affecting the ancients, he writ no language," and it is a charge that at various times Pound has had to bear. Yet, the very archaism, as McDougal's tracing of translations from the Provençal proves, seems deliberate. It is as if by creating an artificial language Pound is defying the lockstep of his age and, like The Faerie Queene, the Cantos projects a voice that is more than the voice of a particular community. Its vision of proper behavior and earthly paradises not only suggests the biblical prophets but the style, too, seems to have gained from a study of the King James version of the Bible. When Ford Madox Ford advised Pound that poetry should be at least as well written as prose, it was to the Bible that the poet went for one model, and various cantos owe phrases and rhetorical devices to what he learned from reading the ethical and prophetic books.
Critics have tended to play down these stylistic matters for what W. D. Snodgrass once called the "flash-card" nature of the language. Reviewing Cantos 96-109, he complained that "life with Ezra had come more and more to be a daily mid-semester test. I must spend hours each day watching him flash (a little faster each day) note cards containing significant phrases (a little shorter each day) past my nose. For each snippet of phrase I must produce a full historical context together with the received interpretation." Most books on Pound are precisely the laying aside of the reader's vision to memorize the poet's life view that Snodgrass indicates may result from such examinations. This laying aside of vision prevents a number of these critics from seeing in the Cantos what Randall Jarrell termed "the Organization of Irrelevance": "If something is somewhere, one can always find Some Good Reason for its being there, but if it had not been there would one reader have missed it; if it had been put somewhere else, would one reader have guessed where it should have 'really' gone?" It also prevents them from seeing how much a work like the Cantos is a cultural document and how the greatness of its poetic art consists in its triumphing over an enormous prose content….
[Pound] helped clear poetry of some of its false poeticisms and was the important publicist and mythmaker for the modernist movement. In addition, for good or bad, he took American letters out of the coterie and put it into the marketplace where it has remained. It is to Pound—though perhaps not singly—that one owes the subsequent literary campaigns and orchestrated receptions of modern writers that have democratized literature and secured so many raises and tenure for academics. He abroad and H. L. Mencken at home helped turn literary criticism into an adjunct of journalism and, while Pound complained of comparable debasements in other fields, this debasement of criticism seemed not to have bothered him. Rather, like the cultural imperialism which underlies his practice of using foreign phrases, his references, and his translations, a belief in the ultimate good judgment of the average magazine reading citizen then common to Americans supported his actions. In fact, some of his most famous attempts at reform came out of his journalistic efforts.
Jerome Mazzaro, in Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright 1974 by Wayne State University Press), Vol. XVL, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), p. 85-7.
Throughout his translation [of Guido Cavalcanti] Pound does many things to irritate the scholar….
Still,… we must admit that there is no inarguable way of looking at Cavalcanti, and Pound is fully aware of Cavalcanti's heretical, empirical, scientific bent. If Shaw sees Cavalcanti as an orthodox Christian, Nardi aligns him more convincingly with the Averroists. If the stanzas [of the Donna mi prega] dealing with light sound Neoplatonic, other sections are markedly Aristotelian or Averroistic. It is no wonder, then, that Pound himself seems to employ Cavalcanti in a double way: both as a scientific observer of love and as a hymner of its metaphysical power.
Cavalcanti thus displays that tension between idealism and realism that can be found in many minds, including Dante's and Pound's. Pound could admire Cavalcanti's idealism because it was not slavishly aligned to tradition. At the very same time he could admire Cavalcanti's insistence on scientific inquiry, his defense of the sensual, and his refined use of the mot juste. For these reasons Cavalcanti is a recurring voice in the Cantos, operating almost as an undertone to the more conservative Dante. However much scholars such as Shaw may have condemned Pound's philosophic judgments and critical acumen, the poet allows Cavalcanti to sing from the pages of the Cantos more clearly than he does in any of the complex and contradictory commentaries about him.
James J. Wilhelm, "Guido Cavalcanti as a Mask for Ezra Pound," in PMLA, 89 (copyright © 1974 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), March, 1974, pp. 332-40.