Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
A major American poet and critic of profound international significance, Pound was as controversial as he was influential. His entire life and work exemplify, it is said, "the wrenching contradictions" of modern culture. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)
Ezra Pound is that rarity, an artist who is a preceptor by example: a master or "sage," whose inexhaustible virtuosity has made and is making his verse and criticism an archive of poetic wisdom.
Marianne Moore, "Ezra Pound," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Special Pound Issue, edited by D. D. Paige, 1949 (and reissued in Quarterly Review of Literature's Special Issues Retrospective, Vol. XX, 1-2, 1976, edited by T. Weiss and Renée Weiss, p. 208).
I would venture the opinion—though it is with the professional poets that the final judgement rests—that [Pound] has written verse of greater beauty than that of any contemporary poet in our language. As to his native talent, that is obviously terrific. He has displayed a demonic power over words. (p. 242)
Pound's nearest American analogue in the past is not Whitman, however, or Mark Twain, but a painter, James McNeil Whistler—the "gentle master of all that is flippant and fine in art." Whistler signed his pictures with a butterfly. Indeed their delicacy would not admit of the intrusion of the customary extrovert clodhopping caligraphy in the lower right hand corner, where the authorship of the work is proclaimed. Only by the unobtrusive presence of this winged insect was the artist's identity revealed. Like Pound in the literary art, it was in the extreme-orient that Whistler had discovered the fundamental adjustments of his preference. But what I would say here is how strangely in contradition American "toughness" and so much that is American is to the Butterfly—taking that as symbol. (p. 247)
Wyndham Lewis, "Ezra: The Portrait of a Personality," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Special Pound Issue, edited by D. D. Paige, 1949 (and reissued in Quarterly Review of Literature's Special Issues Retrospective, Vol. XX, 1-2, 1976, edited by T. Weiss and Renée Weiss, pp. 242-50).
[It] is not on the basis of logic that Pound would have the effectiveness of his rhetorical devices judged. He is concerned with coercing the emotions to follow a new and proper course. Pound often tries, it is true, to take the will of the reader by frontal attack; but if it seems likely to him that sorties from other directions will cause the citadel to fall, he does not draw back because the projected sorties would mar the "purity" of an all-over plan….
[In] Pound's earlier work…, there are two habits of composition that are useful to isolate (they are not isolated in The Cantos). The first we may call the habit of imagism, and the second the habit of dramatic monologue. Both of these habits provide Pound with a technique of disavowal, of withdrawal from the onus of responsibility for what has been said. That Pound—in pre-Canto days—should have desired effects of disavowal is understandable and is part of his general protest against romantic poetry and the poet's personal embrace of all that experience presents him. Any sort of reality—the reality that Pound has faith in: persons and places that existed or exist at a certain time—is, in romantic poetry, perceived only mistily through a cloud that the poet's enthusiasm suffuses over concrete objects, distorting and even hopelessly disguising what was "given" by reality. Pound's early styles aim at correcting romantic excesses; they are designed to cut back the rank, needless growth in the garden of poetry, to establish the outlines of the objects themselves. So viewed, a poem is chiefly successful in its power to suggest the qualities and the nuances of the object—qualities and nuances that should not be distorted by what the poet feels about them. (p. 252)
In this task, imagism is highly useful…. One may anticipate and suggest that the other "devices" of The Cantos but serve to make more flexible and responsive to the wider task of rendering "ideas in action" the earlier techniques of imagism. They strive to preserve the basic excellence of imagism, the tone of disavowal, and they are calculated to overcome its defect—its tendency to a limited treatment of a static subject-matter. (p. 253)
Imagism comes easily to the Chinese and is difficult for us of the West. Our intellectual history is—in Pound's opinion—disfigured by the recurrence of useless abstractions—ideas no longer "in action"—which preside over our poetry when sheer overt egotism does not. For the Chinese the basic unit of written expression is the ideogram: a symbol for a word which still bears, for the instructed, a picture of the object the word refers to. The ideogram binds the Chinese poet to objects, and his poetry can be no more than an arrangement of them which will coerce comment in the mind of his reader or hearer—comment that the poet is not allowed, by the canons of his art as well as by the nature of his language, to make himself. (pp. 253-54)
The other support, in the early Pound, to the mode of disavowal is the habit of the dramatic monologue. A form of long lineage ending in the poetry of Browning (whom Pound respects), it provides the form in which much of the early poetry and The Cantos as well are set. One can say—with great profit if we wish to see the value of the dramatic monologue as a vehicle of disavowal—that Pound has his points of difference with Browning. (p. 254)
Browning's "sin" is covertly to place his personages in comparatively specious conjunction to the aura of the poet's own time or the poet's own belief. Pound—in The Cantos as well as in the early Personae—strives to preserve for each historical personage the aura of his own period. To be thus faithful excuses the poet from making any kind of comment on the object presented; his "job" seems to be delimited, to consist only of presenting the person justly, without comment or comparison. (pp. 254-55)
Both imagism and the dramatic monologue served in earlier days to insulate Pound from the sin and danger of over-personal utterance….
Pound drew near the "dangerous" matters of The Cantos—one may suggest—because of his very triumphs in the realms of detachment. For a long time he had felt and rendered well distant ages and persons; in The Cantos he began doing full, rounded justice to an age that he loathed responding to, the present age. Aside from contributing personal motives (chiefly, his sense of being overlooked), it was Pound's acquaintance with the excellence of other ages that finally constrained him to write The Cantos, a poem that repudiates an age which, Pound judges, is hopelessly stained by capitalistic democracy. (p. 255)
The direct legacy of earlier imagism appears chiefly in the sections which present nature uncorrupted and health-giving. The descriptions of the landscapes and halls through which Ulysses and his fellows pass, the pictures from Chinese history, the religious and secular processions from Renaissance history—all these and similar sections are, as I conceive the matter, in the mode of imagism. Without exception, their appearance in the poem is an indication that the following counter is being advanced by Pound: here is a section of experience that is unspoiled—that has none of the taint we find in modern culture. (p. 259)
[From] one's all-over reading—a reading that struggles to keep in touch with as much of the poem as possible—comes a sense of a kind of all-over plan. The early cantos make a statement about the purity of nature and the Greeks and the comparative purity of the Renaissance. Then come the hell of modern life and the literal hell of the usurers; and these two themes with proper illustrations continue for some space their alternation, with interludes devoted to non-usurious cultures. What one can note, as the poem unwinds, is that each ideogram block is larger and more weighty than similar blocks earlier in the poem. This looming larger of each topic touched prepares one for the giving of many cantos to one subject—such as the declamatory history of China and the monologue-cum-declamation given over to John Adams. These—and other later sections—bulk in the poem as full developments of themes hastily and sketchily announced at first. (pp. 275-76)
Harold H. Watts, "The Devices of Pound's 'Cantos'," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Special Pound Issue, edited by D. D. Paige, 1949 (and reissued in Quarterly Review of Literature's Special Issues Retrospective, Vol. XX, 1-2, 1976, edited by T. Weiss and Renée Weiss, pp. 251-77).
[If we] compare the later work of Pound with that of Eliot [we find that these] works represent two major approaches to life, the religious and the secular; contemplation versus action; the feminine set against the masculine; the inner against the outer world; the world of spiritual timelessness against an artistic reconstruction of history. (p. 278)
I would point up some solemn comments. "human nature/Cannot bear very much reality." We are so much of our age, and Eliot has expressed it so dominantly, that I have heard no one object to this statement. It is taken as a matter of fact, as basically acceptable or accepted truth, the truth about human kind. Yet if we look with detachment at this statement, we do not necessarily believe it. It becomes a pseudo-statement, the best poetry can do, unscientific. Actually we do not know what "reality" means, and we have no measuring rod for "very much."… Some Greek, some Elizabethan, or our present Pound could announce the opposite with telling effect. For human kind can, and has, borne, and will bear, very much reality, by whatever semantic gist. There is a core of man's humanity which Eliot's statement does not reach…. But my point is that Eliot's statement remains aloof from the deepest human suffering, affronting our profound recognition of this, and does not belong with the endlessness of humility.
The positive, the masculine, and the heroic (or its inversion in satire) are in the realm of Pound. The end of Eliot's vision in the Quartets is a state of grace shining from a line Tennyson could have written: "And all shall be well and/All manner of think shall be well."
As yet we have no feeling that this state is available to Pound; nor that he would welcome it; nor that he could make poetry of it. (pp. 279-80)
The poetry of Eliot's statement depends from the whole structure of Christian doctrine, less a made thing than Pound's. (p. 280)
[It] could be substantiated that in his poetry Eliot has little love of individuals. The compassion, and the passion, Hopkins had for specific human beings in his poems, the deep realizations he erected of their essential humanity,… marks him. Where Eliot is deficient in this respect, where Hopkins applied to individuals deep love, Pound is objectively interested in all kinds and conditions of men, historical and contemporary, those in old legends, old courts, or modern states and senates, and lays about him with hatred as well as with sometime affection. This is to be expected, granting the objective, secular, history-redacting nature of the work. It also marks the poet interested in this world, the world, rather than in the soul, the after-world. (p. 281)
The problem of Pound's redaction of history should be attempted. Is Pound's history true? This poses the problem of the relation of art to life. History is always changing. The imposition of his art changes the way of looking at it, not only within the framework of the Cantos, but outside that framework as well. Yet the question is not fundamentally of the validity of the method, but of the value of the work as art, as poetry…. Pound creates a species of history in verse. The history is not the first consideration, but the poetry. We are challenged by him as to the universality of the poetry.
The secular nature of Pound's work and the time in which he is constrained to live work against the unification of ideology and poetic means known to Dante. It is not for nothing that we often cannot see the wood for the trees, the master plan in a Canto or number of Cantos, the totality of design in episodic content.
Universality in secular work I should judge to be more difficult of attainment than universality in a Dantesque sense, where what is given, the Church, is the very altar of absolute meaning. Pound thus, in a sense, has chosen a more difficult task for our times than Eliot; perhaps choice is the wrong term, since each is compelled by the necessities of his own nature: choice is not pure. But Eliot, in assuming the Church (whether of England or Rome would not be radical here), has not only the likelihood of a greater unity in his performance, but of a greater potentiality of credibility in that he has penetrated to, or attempted to penetrate to the heart of Christian feelings in a Western world largely Christian.
Pound is the masculine, aggressive writer, attempting to dominate an immense secular scene and field, to wrest from many centuries, several languages, and multifarious events a pattern of significance, his own, but related to these, whereas Eliot is the feminine passive writer (in his later period) who accepts the strictures of a predetermined way of life, in which there is paradoxically the greatest and the richest freedom, within the confines of which he is able to submit his art to values which he cannot, nor would wish to supersede. Eliot can arrive at a statement of the deepest poetry in "Humility is endless." The truth of this statement is incontrovertible, granted, of course, a Christian premise…. It is gratuitous to attempt to judge what would be Pound's allowance of significance to this phrase, but there is the point that in secular life, in the use of facets of history explicitly, it would be difficult to find a trope as profound as this, as indeed one is haunted all through the Cantos with the question of Pound's profundity.
How profound is Pound? Reading the Cantos hour after hour crosses the mind with the notion that they are not profound, if the bias can be permitted that secular work of this kind, being pagan, is of less value than work of the deepest Christian meaning. (pp. 283-84)
Pound has a handle on the truth and carries history along with him in his case, wearing a gaudy suit of motley. As history, the Cantos are not impressive; as reconstructed history they are a vessel of wonder: as poetry, they are in their element. History, linguistics, economics, sociology, myth are all brought together documentarily, in the weaving of a rich tapestry. I think of the Cantos as a mosaic, or a tapestry, as of an intricate ancient work put together with incredible skill and patience over a long period of time, a Uccello in colored silks. (pp. 287-88)
We do not go to the Cantos for knowledge. We go to them with our own knowledge for revisions of feeling, for accretions of new feelings. (p. 288)
Richard Eberhart, "Pound's New 'Cantos'," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Special Pound Issue, edited by D. D. Paige, 1949 (and reissued in Quarterly Review of Literature's Special Issues Retrospective, Vol. XX, 1-2, 1976, edited by T. Weiss and Renée Weiss, pp. 278-95).
[Pound] was a man concerned with public questions: specifically at first the question of the arts, the place of the artist in society, and he had a fanatical desire to force entire populations to respect art even if they could not understand it. (Indeed, he demanded reverence without understanding, for he sincerely did not believe that art was for the multitude. Whatever was too much praised he distrusted—even to the works of Sophocles. This is the inconsistency of his attitude all the way through: the attempt to force poetry upon people whom he believed not fitted to understand it.) (p. 42)
Pound was one of the most opinionated and unselfish men who ever lived, and he made friends and enemies everywhere by the simple exercise of the classic American constitutional right of free speech. His speech was free to outrageous license. He was completely reckless about making enemies. His so-called anti-Semitism was, hardly anyone has noted, only equaled by his anti-Christianism. It is true he hated most in the Catholic faith the elements of Judaism. It comes down squarely to antimonotheism, which I have always believed was the real root of the direct line of Mediterranean civilization, rooted in Greece. Monotheism is simply not natural to the thought of such people and there are more of them than one might think without having looked into the question a little. Pound believed, rightly or wrongly, that Christianity was a debased cult composed of too many irreconcilable elements, and as the central power of this cult, he hated Catholicism worse than he did Judaism, and for many more reasons.
He was not a historian, and apparently did not know that religion flows from a single source, and that all are by now mingled and interrelated. (pp. 43-4)
Pound's lapses, his mistakes—and this would include his politics—occur when he deals with things outside his real interest, which was always art, literature, poetry. He was a lover of the sublime, and a seeker after perfection, a true poet, of the kind born in a hair shirt—a God-sent disturber of the peace in the arts, the one department of human life where peace is fatal. There was no peace in that urgent, overstimulated mind, where everything was jumbled together at once, a storehouse of treasure too rich ever to be sorted out by one man in one lifetime. And it was treasure.
It held exasperation, too; and related to the exasperation, but going deeper, are the cursing, and the backwoods spelling, and the deliberate illiteracy—at first humorous, high animal spirits, youthfully charming. They become obsessional, exaggerated, the tone of near-panic, the voice of Pound's deep fears. His fears were well founded; he was hard beset in a world of real and powerful enemies. I heard a stowaway on a boat once, cursing and shouting threats in that same monotonous, strained, desperate voice; in the end his captors only put him in the brig for the voyage. The artist Pound knew had become a kind of stowaway in society. (p. 44)
Pound understood the nature of greatness: not that it voluntarily separates itself from the mass but that by its very being it is separate because it is higher. Greatness in art is like any other greatness: in religious experience, in love, it is great because it is beyond the reach of the ordinary, and cannot be judged by the ordinary, nor be accountable to it. The instant it is diluted, popularized, and misunderstood by the fashionable mind, it is no longer greatness, but window dressing, interior decorating, another way of cutting a sleeve…. Ezra Pound understood this simple law of natural being perfectly, and it is what redeems every fault and mitigates every failure and softens to the outraged ear of the mind and heart all that shouting and bullying and senseless obscenity—makes one respect all those wild hopeful choices of hopeless talents….
Fighting the dark is a very unfashionable occupation now; but it is not altogether dead, and will survive and live again largely because of his life and example. (p. 46)
Katherine Anne Porter, "It Is Hard to Stand in the Middle" (1950), in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (copyright © 1923, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1931, 1937, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1970 by Katherine Anne Porter; reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence), Delacorte Press, 1970, pp. 40-6.
The title of the 1909 Personae, Pound's earliest collection of verse to achieve general circulation, implies not merely masks but a man donning them. It is the first of a long sequence of efforts on his part to draw our attention to the status of the poetic process itself as the central drama of his poetry. He will not have us think of him as a medium in which things happen, nor yet as a poet-hero striding and declaiming before backdrops of his own design. He will not, in fact, have us think of him at all: but he will ensure our awareness of his existence, exploring, voyaging, selecting, gathering experiences into a mind in which toward the close of his magnum opus they remain like Wagadu's City, "indestructible." The operations of this mind afford the dramatic continuity of The Cantos; but we do not always hear the unmistakably personal tone by which it announces its presence. As a personality, it makes strategic entrances and withdrawals. As a poetic agent, it is never absent for an instant. (p. 3)
The key to Pound's method throughout The Cantos is his conviction that the things the poet sees in the sea of events are really there. They are not "creations" of his. Similarly, the values registered in the poem are not imported and affirmed by the poet, but discerned by him in the record of human experience. They are literally there to be discovered; it is not a twentieth-century poet-moralist, nor a consciousness colored by the shards of American Christianity, that puts them there. They are not even values created by Confucius or Erigena or Malatesta or anyone else. Their origin is not human, but divine. (p. 14)
This brings us to the gods, who are the archetypal forms. "A god," Pound wrote thirty-five years ago, "is an eternal state of mind"; he is manifest "when the states of mind take form." This sounds as though the gods were human creations; but Pound warns us in Pavannes that the word "eternal" is to be taken literally:
Are all eternal states of mind gods?
We consider them so to be.
Are all durable states of mind gods?
They are not.
Anything originally human is at best merely durable; the eternal state of mind has an eternal object. One thing that fitted the poets of the nineties to be crewmen of Pound-Odysseus was their conviction that certain supernatural types recurred. The great postulate, in fact the great cliché, of their poetry is the permanence of hypostatized Beauty, the cruel mistress of the artist…. This goddess, like her polar opposite, the woman who is a broken bundle of mirrors [incarnating flux], has her characteristic incarnation in every great period of art. (pp. 14-15)
The continually reincarnated goddess is herself the supreme form won out of flux; but Pound goes beyond the nineties in not being content with doing her elegiac homage…. [Cantos LXXX and LXXXI, especially,] illustrate Pound's belief in her actual existence. If the word "belief" makes for epistemological embarrassment, it can be qualified with quotation marks; at any rate, a faith that the flux contains intelligible forms not simply projected there by the observer underlies the whole enterprise of The Cantos. The details of the poem, as we began by remarking, look so casual because Pound is determined not to intensify them by the pressure of superimposed meanings; his objective, in which he succeeds often enough to make the work cohere, is to find the scenes, persons, incidents, and quotations that will release into the poem without coercion the meanings they intrinsically contain. What he is writing about is, finally, human intelligence and the direction of the human will amid the events of history. (p. 17)
The method of Cantos I-XXX is preponderantly the recreation of scene after scene; that of XXXI-LXXI the transcription of fact after fact. (p. 23)
[The Pisan] Cantos elucidate the earlier Cantos by drawing our attention to the sort of truth that is aimed at throughout the poem: a revelation of events by honest presentation. The whole inheres in the details, so much so that the poem has come to be entitled with a word denoting the parts that enter its sum: not Jerusalem Delivered or Paradise Lost but simply The Cantos. And the parts do not disappear into the whole but maintain their individual qualities: indeed it is on their maintaining their individuality that the success of the whole depends. And the parts draw their individuality from the sources Pound actually used, the books he quotes, the scenes he recollects, with as little modification as possible. He is fanatical about facts and dates because the whole enterprise depends on leaving his materials as he finds them; this in turn depends on a faith in the inexhaustibility of the actual, and so in imitation—reflection—rather than fabrication. (p. 29)
He respected the idiosyncracies of his subject matter and it fused itself finally, because by long and ardent attention he was able to discover … not the living principle it would have been fatally easy for the observer's mind to import, but the modes of coherence, always awaited but for most of the history of the acquaintance unguessed at, which in fact inhered. (p. 32)
Hugh Kenner, "The Broken Mirrors and the Mirror of Memory," in Motive and Method in "The Cantos" of Ezra Pound, edited by Lewis Leary (copyright © 1954 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1954, pp. 3-32.
Among the many approaches to The Cantos of Ezra Pound which illuminate its design, not the least fruitful is the pursuit of the metamorphic theme. It is indeed surprising that so little critical attention has been given to this aspect of the poem, since Pound has clearly stated on several occasions that metamorphosis is one of the two major themes used to effect continuity in the long work. (p. 60)
Pound explained [to Yeats] his plan of using as one theme (ABCD) the descent to Hell, as a second (JKLM) metamorphosis; repeating these; then reversing the first (DCBA) to fit changing circumstances; introducing archetypal persons (XYZ) and a fifth structural unit, symbolized by any letters that never recur, to stand for contemporary events; finally setting all sorts of combinations of ABCD, JKLM, XYZ, DCBA whirling together…. That this design is not a discarded hope but one realized in practice can be verified by a careful examination of the whole of The Cantos published thus far, though the evidence is not convincing if one looks only at a single block of the verse. (p. 61)
His letters and criticisms are filled with injunctions to his fellow-artists to go out and read [Ovid's] Metamorphoses, exalted by him as by the Middle Ages (though for different reasons) to a rank analogous to that of the Scriptures. He places it among the five literary works requisite for culture, in such high company as the Confucian Odes, Homer, the Divine Comedy, and the Plays…. (p. 62)
[Besides] beauty, the Metamorphoses contains a great treasury of wisdom; it is a depository of truth which could be registered in this form and in no other…. Ovid presents a world of permanent values, of absolutes, one in which Pound also is at home and into which he introduces us whenever he makes allusion in The Cantos to gods and goddesses of classical cultures. (p. 63)
To understand what role transformation plays in The Cantos, one might consider the doctrine of changes as it affects things, then ideas, and finally the creative act itself, since this is the order in which these three occur in relation to the artifact. First, metamorphosis of things. Of this, Pound says in "Affirmations," "The undeniable tradition of metamorphosis teaches us that things do not remain the same. They become other things by swift and unanalysable process." (p. 65)
The underlying use which Pound makes of the metamorphoses of things might best be classified as an epistemological one, divided into theories of self-knowledge and extra-ego knowledge. Only by accommodating apperception to the nature of things … can we attain truth. We must be willing to admit that our version of reality needs constant revision if it is to remain valid. Moreover, the subject as well as the object is continually changing; what served yesterday as an equation for one's personality, or any fragment of it, is no longer satisfactory today. Only the man who grasps this psychological situation and keeps voluntary pace with his metamorphoses will succeed as a human being.
Besides using metamorphosis as a way of knowing reality, Pound has taken over the principle as a means of uniting the parts of a poem already more than six hundred pages long. (pp. 73-4)
In addition to treating the metamorphoses of things, Pound takes up those of ideas, the effectiveness of which depends upon their renewal. This is crystallized in the title of his 1934 collection of essays, Make It New, a direction quoted twice in Canto LII, which also contains the corresponding ideogram…. Rejuvenation is achieved by clothing the basic thought in fresh particulars, the vitality of which has not been worn down by familiarity. (p. 76)
One such idea requiring to be made new—an idea which appears in various guises throughout the centuries—is that it is vicious to twist the will, to defraud one's fellow man, as in usury. (p. 78)
A second crucial idea, given many guises in the poem, is that beauty is extremely hard to possess, as Danaë, Actaeon, Salmacis, the historical Piere Vidal, among others, found out to their sorrow. (p. 83)
A third idea which turns from one mythical context into another is that love must be free. If, as Hugh Kenner thinks, Circe dominates the first half of The Cantos, the figure emerging as primary from the entire work is Venus, the goddess of love, presented under the several titles of Aphrodite, Cythera, Hathor, and Primavera. How necessary Pound considers this virtue may be seen in the letterhead he uses for some of his correspondence: "J'ayme donc je suis." No external forces can control this value, not even the hardships of the Pisan D. T. C. In the last analysis, nothing truly good comes from violence, whether in public or private relationships. (pp. 84-5)
Each metamorphosis of an idea … presents a change within a change. First of all, Pound uses the various transformations (Circe, Actaeon, etc.) as exempla, ways of setting ideas in action. Like any great teacher, he realizes that concepts of goodness are effective only in so far as they are in operation; like any great artist, he knows that only what has been actuated (i.e., changed from potency to act) can be an object for contemplation.
The last type of metamorphosis to be considered is that which Pound equates with the artistic process. Nowhere has he better explained what he means by this identification than in this passage from a 1915 New Age essay, "Affirmations":
The first myth arose when a man walked sheer into "nonsense," that is to say, when some very vivid and undeniable adventure befell him, and he told someone else who called him a liar. Thereupon, after bitter experiences, when he said that he "turned into a deer," he made a myth—a work of art that is—an impersonal or objective story woven out of his emotions, as the nearest equation that he was capable of putting into words. That story, perhaps, then gave rise to a weakened copy of his emotions in others, until there arose a cult, a company of people who could understand each other's nonsense about the gods (italics mine…).
After this definition, he expostulates about using myths for purposes other than this type of communication—for political or ethical good, allegorically or as a fable. (pp. 89-90)
This aesthetic theory suggests scholastic definitions of form, substance, and accident. The artist has the form in his mind before he begins work: "as the sculptor sees the form in the air/before he sets hand to mallet" (Canto XXV). This is not, however, the Platonic notion of forms as types but a unique concept. Rather than changing the substance while retaining the accidents, Pound transforms the accidents while keeping the substance as it was. (p. 90)
Allied to the art of original creation is that of translation. Pound's versions of Latin, Tuscan, Provençal, and Chinese literature prove him a translator worthy to be ranked among the finest, despite outcries of purists. The root meaning of "translate," to change from one condition into another, sets Pound's translations securely within the metamorphic tradition. All men when they exercise the act of cognition are imitators, reproducing in the intellect the material object. The real translator is not, of course, a copyist, but rather an imitator. (p. 96)
Ezra Pound, in conclusion, writes of the metamorphoses of things, making the changes real, available to the sentient man. He gives us the metamorphoses of ideas—e.g., the evil of usury, the difficulty of beauty, the unwisdom of violence—by embodying them in the shifting histories of Circe, of the seamen who tried to deceive Bacchus, and of other figures from classical poetry. He describes the metamorphosis of the creative act, showing how it operates in sculpture, painting, music, literature. If he is able to complete his poetic restatement of the metamorphic theme as it informs The Cantos, he will have as valid a right as had Ovidius Naso to predict:
And tyme without all end
(If Poets as by prophesie about the truth may ame)
My lyfe shall everlastingly bee lengthened still by fame.
Sister M. Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., "The Metamorphoses of Ezra Pound," in Motive and Method in "The Cantos" of Ezra Pound, edited by Lewis Leary (copyright © 1954 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1954, pp. 60-100.
The Cantos can best be read as a modern Odyssey, following with varying degrees of exactness the experience of Odysseus as Ezra Pound sees it. The narrator of the poem follows the trail of Homer's wanderer, seeking the way home. (p. 101)
To offer some bolstering to this thesis, there is the explanation Pound himself made to his father in a letter dated April 11, 1927. There Pound speaks of three fugal components that will wind through The Cantos:
A. A. Live man goes down into the world of the Dead
C. B. The "repeat in history"
B. C. The "magic moment" or moment of metamorphosis, bust through from quotidien into "divine or permanent world." Gods, etc.
This tripartite scheme has its parallel in the division Dante constructs. One sees, correspondingly, the underworld (Inferno), the mountain (Purgatorio), and the heavens (Paradiso). And as far as the construction of The Cantos is concerned, there is a parallel to be observed and followed in the state of mind of the narrator and observer.
But there is an important difference: in the Commedia it is very clear who, what, and where the narrator is. He is Dante, a medieval man, at home in a medieval world ordered by the Christian myth. In The Cantos there is no presupposed Christian myth as guide. One must search for another myth. And that myth, set in the first Canto, is the myth of Odysseus, the hero who wishes to return home but cannot return until he has suffered and learned through that suffering. But far more important than the construction is the identification of the person who sees and tells in The Cantos. The narrator is Ezra Pound as Odysseus, and his Cantos relate the education of Ezra Pound, the modern man, as Homer's poem relates the education of Odysseus. (pp. 102-03)
The structure of The Cantos is what the narrator sees, as Odysseus before him saw, in Hades. The experience is not Dante's, for Dante began in the selva oscura and progressed from the depths of despair to the perfection of the divine world. Pound and Odysseus undergo different experiences. To gain specific ends they withdraw from the everyday world to establish contact with those who have preceded them, so that they can better cope with this world when they return. (pp. 112-13)
Pound's goal is set toward discovering what he is and what his world is. His return home is really his discovery of what his goal as a man is, and home is a settling into some surroundings. Pound is the wanderer, traveling blindly, groping for an answer to the question, "What am I doing in this world? And what kind of world is it, anyway?" Pound is searching for an ethos, as Dante did not have to search because Dante had the Thomistic world laid out for him. Odysseus-Pound has to search, in the absence of a predetermined ethos, his own way.
From the beginning of The Cantos the narrator is Odysseus-Pound hearing the speech of those he meets at the fosse in the Land of the Dead. He not only sees men and women in the underworld, but attempts, through metamorphosis, to enter their experiences and understand their spirits. He follows in the wake of an earlier Odysseus; it is to this new Odysseus that Tiresias says in Canto I:
"A second time? why? man of ill star,
"Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?…"
The message of Tiresias comes to Odysseus-Pound in Canto XLVII. We have noted that Circe spoke in Canto XXXIX, telling Odysseus he must seek advice from Tiresias before he could return home. We have noted further that Circe spoke in Greek, and was then unintelligible…. [In] Canto XLVII the Greek appears translated, signifying that the advice has been digested…. (p. 114)
The Pisan Cantos mark that intense personal suffering as the real world thrusts itself onto Pound. No more is he a traveler in the Land of the Dead, hearing ancient stories. The social world as he knew it has been destroyed, and he is confined in his own home (Italy) by hostile men, as the suitors held Odysseus. Out of this confrontment with stark fact, Pound comes forth in humility. (p. 116)
Prayer follows, and then humility…. At last Odysseus-Pound has learned, devoured, and digested the wisdom Tiresias spoke in Canto XLVII….
The revelation begins when the famous women appear to Pound in his imagination. They appear to him personally, not as the dead, but they seem to enter his tent "in the timeless air"…. The women and the goddesses, wound into the Pisan landscape with the sun, moon, animals, birds, insects, and winds, form a background of permanence and beauty as the Pisan Cantos unfold. With nature, the women form "the process." Then in Canto LXXXI they reveal to Pound the burden of Tiresias' advice…. (p. 121)
The hymn breaks forth, echoing the words of Canto XLVII: "Pull down thy vanity," "Learn of the green world," "Master thyself, then others shall thee beare."…
Here is the true Odyssean experience breaking through into revelation. The hardness has been metamorphosed by revelation born of knowledge and suffering. (p. 122)
In the next to the last of the Pisan Cantos, the poet attains atasal, or union with the gods whose eyes had entered his tent and revealed to him what he, a man, was. (p. 123)
Forrest Read, Jr., "A Man of No Fortune," in Motive and Method in "The Cantos" of Ezra Pound, edited by Lewis Leary (copyright © 1954 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1954, pp. 101-23.
Ezra Pound is still often regarded as a crank, a great poet with a bee in his bonnet about usury, who has ruined his Cantos with Chinese ideograms and recondite references which one may skip for the sake of the 'good' bits, because, of course, he can 'rise' to occasional passages of magnificent poetry.
This view simply will not do. It might be worth recalling that Pound has said, in another context [in Money Pamphlets by £]:
'I hope the reader has not "understood it all straight off". I should like to invent some kind of typographical dodge which would force every reader to stop and reflect for five minutes (or five hours), to go back to the facts mentioned and think over their significance for himself….'
Facts—'a sufficient phalanx of particulars' (Canto LXXIV)—are Pound's material, and the juxtaposing or ideogrammatic method of presenting them is the 'typographical dodge' he has invented to make us stop and reflect. Even in his prose he does not argue in an Aristotelian manner but ideogrammatically. If it makes most people slide over the very facts he wishes them to stop and reflect on, that is his risk, and their loss. For The Cantos, read properly, can give a sheer poetic enchantment not to be found elsewhere, even to those who do not accept the didactic value that Pound places on his facts.
Christine Brooke-Rose, "His Name in the Record," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 10, 1960, p. 368.
In the United States, poetry has been for so long not so much bought and read as honoured and studied that the poet has grown accustomed to his marginal status. (p. 365)
[What] makes [the American poet] good or admirable is his presumed attitude toward the great audience which notices him without ever reading him; for that audience, by certain mysterious processes of cultural transmission, comes, after a while, to know—or to believe it knows—who in the realm of art is really on its side, who regards it without something less than contempt. The one thing it will never forgive a writer is despising its reading ability, which, to be sure, it does not usually get around to practising. Such despite it regards as the ultimate treason, being willing, on the other hand, to forgive any challenge to its values or beliefs so long as that despite is not visibly present. (p. 368)
The relationship of the poet to the audience in the United States is—in his consciousness—erotic or sentimental; the relationship of the audience to the poet is—in its consciousness—juridical. While the writer may fancy himself pleading a tender suit, or carrying on a cynical seduction, the reader is likely to think of himself as hearing evidence, deciding whether to say, not 'no' or 'yes', but 'guilty' or 'innocent': guilty of treason, or innocent by reason of insanity—or even, as in the case of Ezra Pound, both at once.
It is, of course, Pound who comes into our minds when we reflect on the trial of the poet. A century ago it might have been still Poe or Whitman, but neither of these long-dead (and therefore for us inevitably sanctified and forgotten) figures is capable now of stirring passion in the minds of sub-literates, who have no memory. Each age must have its own, brand-new defendants, and the mass audience sitting in judgment in the middle of the twentieth century has tried and sentenced the poet once more, yet as if for the first time, in the person of Ezra Pound. Indeed, they have condemned him with what, from their standpoint, is perfect justice. I do not mean merely that Pound was, indeed, guilty of the charges of abetting anti-Semitism (and more recently anti-Negro feelings), praising Fascism, and condemning the best along with the worst in his own country; the popular mind in America has often regarded with favour enemies of democracy, Jews, and Negroes. I mean that all of the ambitious long poems of our time have been written under Pound's guidance or inspired by his example: Eliot's The Waste Land, for instance, and Hart Crane's The Bridge, and William Carlos Williams' Paterson: all of those fragmented, allusion-laden, imagistic portraits of an atomized world which have so offended the Philistine mind. And I mean, too, that in his Pisan Cantos Pound, driven by his tribulations beyond the circle of his bad literary habits and his compulsive political idiocies, has caught the pathos and the comedy involved in the relationship between artist and society in the twentieth century with absolute precision. Both the self-pity of the artist and the complacent brutality of the community that needs and resents him have been dissolved in irony only to be re-created as improbable lyric beauty. These are offences hard to forgive for those convinced that they should judge and not be judged—certainly not by a mad poet. (pp. 370-71)
Leslie Fiedler, "Traitor or Laureate: The Two Trials of the Poet," in his Waiting for the End (© 1964 by Leslie Fiedler; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein and Day, 1964 (and reprinted in New Approaches to Ezra Pound: A Co-ordinated Investigation of Pound's Poetry and Ideas, edited by Eva Hesse, Faber and Faber, 1969, pp. 365-77).
Ezra Pound's Cantos are not a poem but a conspiracy. This shrewd comment by George Dekker [in Sailing After Knowledge] is one which few readers who are more than casually acquainted with the poet's forty-years' epic would wish to contest. For in reading the Cantos the subconscious mind is induced to perceive interrelationships in matters of literature and life which had not hitherto been apparent.
Although these links may sometimes exist solely in the mind of the poet, or perhaps of the reader, the process involved is essentially one of poetic osmosis. As the curiosity of the reader quickens, the fragments of the poem begin to organize themselves into meaningful patterns. (p. 13)
Oddly enough, the inductive process of the Cantos is set in operation in the reader's mind irrespective of whether he broadly accepts or rejects the inferences that the poet wishes to be drawn from his juxtaposition of facts and fiction, sense impressions, snatches of conversation, literary quotations, multiple allusions and recorded events. In other words, they continue to 'make Cosmos' [Canto CXVI] in the reader's head. Considering the didactic ambitions of the Cantos, this in itself is no mean achievement. (p. 14)
Pound's resolute eclecticism, which has always rendered him incapable of accepting any ready-made system in toto, appears for some reason to have disqualified him as a thinker. At least there seems to be some general consensus among critics that his views on any matter of philosophical moment are of negligible value. It will be noted that similar criticism is not levelled against poets whose ideas fit more conveniently into some prefabricated system—such as Eliot and, to a certain extent, also Yeats. 'We think because we do not know', Pound has said, and it would seem reasonable that the thoughts of a man in the actual process of thinking aloud in his poetry should have some claim to our interest, especially when they so frequently touch upon some of the more advanced conceptions of the age. (p. 17)
For Pound there was never any prefabricated system of orthodox thought to fall back upon as there was for Eliot…. The scale of values on which future civilizations might be built consequently had to be established by empirical means, and any values which he might wish to borrow eclectically from systems of the past or present had first to be made new and tested against his own experience.
In this sense the Cantos would appear to belong squarely within the framework of the 'poetry of experience' that has been analysed so well by Robert Langbaum [in The Poetry of Experience]…. In creating new values the poet, according to Langbaum, who calls him 'the romanticist' but establishes an unbroken line of descent from romanticism to modern classicism, 'employs two modes of apprehension, sympathy and judgment … sympathy being always ahead of judgment, and certain whereas judgment is problematical'.
This describes Pound's procedure in the Cantos to perfection while at the same time indicating the directions in which the poem's successes and failures are to be sought. The urge to mend the breach between object and value that Langbaum notes in post-Enlightenment poetry comes close to defining the raison d'être of the Cantos, viz. the poet's deep-rooted conviction that there is, as Goethe has it, 'an uncharted pattern in objective things that corresponds to the uncharted pattern within the subjective being.'
It is not generally realized that, underlying all of Pound's actions, critical assessments and poetic techniques, there is one fundamental pattern of thought which might be described as the pattern of congruity: the fact and the value ascribed to it must tally, neither part must exceed the other lest, as with usura in Canto XLV, 'the line grow thick.' It is this equilibrium of mind that Pound perceives in 'mediterranean sanity', and it is essentially as much an aesthetic as a moral or economic perception.
We should not lose sight of the fact that, in its wider metaphorical sense, the history of monetary systems and coinage that forms a recurrent theme in the Cantos revolves around the question of the 'just price' that man should be required to pay for the gifts of nature and civilization: an attitude of mind reflecting a sense of responsibility for the whole of life. (pp. 18-19)
Sin, to Pound's way of thinking, is whatever does not square with reality; it is a deficiency of being, exactly as it was, less recently, for the Neoplatonists. His allergy to all manifestations of such disparity in economics, politics, literature, religion or philosophy, which always indicated to his mind the presence of some insincerity, acted as the constant irritant that kept his poetic faculties alive for so long, even though it was to lead him in economics and politics far out of his depth. At any rate the striving for congruity may be said to account for practically all of his aesthetic insights and technical innovations, which are consequently fraught with ethical and philosophical implications. That this fact is still widely disregarded may be due to certain curious current notions about his alleged 'nominalism'. (pp. 20-1)
Pound's demand for an absolute rhythm—'that this correspondence be exact, i.e., that it be the emotion which surrounds the thought expressed'—is closely related to his belief that in poetry it is really the subjective, emotional, subconscious strata that validate whatever ideas are advanced. In other words, his conception of rhythm and metre points to just those dimensions of his writings that have been so consistently overlooked by critics who have persuaded themselves that Pound is a man of many wrongly reasoned arguments and no innards. (pp. 21-2)
The belief in the message inherent in the factual … lead Pound to his most important device of allowing juxtaposed realities in the form of facts, events, quotations from documents and snatches of conversation to create their own meaning. This does not in any way imply a total repudiation of the subjective or mystical approach: the poet is merely letting the vox mundi of outer reality blend with the vox humana of his own inner reality, the one reinforcing the other. (p. 23)
Pound's practice of trying to establish links between the various branches of knowledge is … in accordance with the poetry of experience in that it seeks to deal with what Langbaum defines as 'the central question posed by the Enlightenment—the question of tradition, of how, after the collapse of the traditional authority of values, to find and justify new values.'
The attempt to answer this question should, again according to Langbaum, be seen as 'in large measure literature's answer to science,… we can understand it as essentially a doctrine of experience, an attempt to salvage on science's own empiric grounds the validity of the individual perception against scientific abstractions.' (p. 39)
In Neoplatonic thinking the urge of all living things to return to their primary cause … constitutes a mystical vortex which informs both Eros and Intellect…. The retrograde movement of Pound's mind, which makes him try to lay hold of ideas at the early stage of the forma and is discernible in all of his moral, social and literary opinions, appears in [a] sense to be of the true nature of religion in so far as religion is a link binding man, both metaphysically and historically, to his origins. In this light it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Cantos are more deeply imbued with religion than any other poem of our time. It is also worthy of note that the cyclical pattern of thought here manifested makes Pound in one way literally the most anachronistic of thinkers, while at the same time enabling him to include within his range various territories that have not hitherto been touched on in literature and which science is only just beginning to consider.
The mental feedback control which continuously compels Pound to refer back to origins as a corrective aid in evaluating contemporary phenomena is also the underlying cause of his profound intuitive sympathy with ancient Chinese thought. China's age-old orientation towards beginnings, and especially such where recorded history merges with archetypal legend, is deeply congenial to his way of thinking. (p. 43)
It might be counted among Pound's achievements that he recognized the affinity between the Confucian idea of the tao, the process of reality as a circular movement around the axis or centre of things, and the Neoplatonic vision of the universal process—which Hegel was to call 'history'—as a cycle which is set off by the 'Unmoved Mover' to which it eventually returns. Pound's mystical Neoplatonic interpretation of Chinese philosophical concepts is perhaps the most interesting development in Neoconfucian thinking since the teachings of the Ming-dynasty philosopher Wang Yang-ming (1472–1528)…. (p. 44)
The method of the Poundian ideogram … breaks away from the thin-blooded progressions of occidental syllogization by blending the metaphoric overtones of words and their multiple correspondences into an intricate fabric of meanings, thereby recovering for poetry the full echo area of each word. Syntax yields to parataxis. (pp. 47-8)
While Pound's method necessarily contains logical incompatibilities as well as paradoxes, it might be argued that syllogistic contradiction cannot arise at the level of the forma because ideas have not there attained the degree of abstraction which would make it possible to use them separately and play one off against the other. The forma is the concrete stage of the incipient idea.
The sequence of themes recorded on the two-dimensional printed pages of the Cantos is the nearest the poet can approach to the three-dimensional cluster that every motif forms in his mind. This process—often dealing in metaphysical concepts—which relies on external objective reality to a degree hitherto unprecedented in occidental literature, is peculiarly close to the mystical mode of contemplation that we find exalted in the late cantos. For contemplation involves, as Richard of St Victor (one of Pound's favourite ecclesiastics) points out, the liber volutas (free flight) of the mind and the mira agilitate circumferri (the wondering encirclement) of its object, thus abandoning, like Pound in his ideogram, the central perspective of a single onlooker. (pp. 48-9)
Eva Hesse, in her introduction to New Approaches to Ezra Pound: A Co-ordinated Investigation of Pound's Poetry and Ideas, edited by Eva Hesse (copyright © 1969 by Faber & Faber Ltd.; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Faber and Faber, 1969, pp. 13-53.
Time and again in the prose works of Ezra Pound we come across remarks which appear to add up to a total rejection of the use of symbols in poetry in favour of, first, the image, then the image-in-action, and finally the ideogram. Yet it might be shown that Pound's original objection applies only to the use of 'a symbol with an ascribed or intended meaning', whereas he defines symbolism 'in its profoundest sense' as 'a belief in a sort of permanent metaphor' and goes on significantly to explain that this does not necessarily imply 'a belief in a permanent world' but 'a belief in that direction'.
What he has in mind at this point is thus a symbol-in-the-making rather than a fixed symbol which can be used outside of its original context. (p. 174)
In his overruling passion to 'make it new', Pound has always exhibited a tendency to restore to intellectual, objective symbols some of their original subjective content, and this is the real reason why he holds the concrete quality of the image and the ideogram to be superior to the abstract cut-and-dried symbol. However, if the Cantos are to be regarded as 'a permanent metaphor' in the direction of 'a belief in a permanent world', certain recurrent expressions and images which gradually grow increasingly 'objective' necessarily assume the status of symbols. This process becomes particularly striking in the cantos of Section: Rock-Drill and Thrones…. (pp. 174-75)
The Neoplatonic belief … that Egyptian hieroglyphs are endowed with magic power, may be taken to explain Pound's frequent use of Chinese pictograms and eventually also of Sumerian and Egyptian hieroglyphs or even music in archaic black notation.
The belief that the written word is charged with thaumaturgic power is of very ancient origin…. (p. 175)
[When] we listen to Pound reading cantos in his quasiliturgical cadence, with chanted passages in Greek or Chinese, we at once recognize the typical intonation of sacred texts and magical incantations. Julius Evola, in his essay Poesia e realizzazione iniziatica, goes so far as to regard magic as the very origin of poetry, believing its imagery and rhythms to reflect the first stirrings of a higher consciousness…. Pound seems to have approached a subconscious realization of this when he wrote: 'I believe that every emotion and every phase of emotion has some toneless phrase, some rhythm-phrase to express it.'
In this sense at least it would seem an acceptable proposition that certain traditional forms of poetry, by their inherent nature, contain definite elements of magic. As a poet ages, these elements tend to become more pronounced. When his visions no longer come freely of their own accord, the subjective symbols and formulas originally evoked by transcendental experience are then employed to invoke past visions. This development may be traced in the works of may poets, the case of Yeats being a classic example. It is also very much in evidence in Pound, but in his case differs from the norm in that a leaning towards magic was already noticeable in his earliest poems and, while largely absent from the poetry of his middle years, reasserts itself more strongly than ever before in his old age. (pp. 176-77)
Boris de Rachewiltz, "Pagan and Magic Elements in Ezra Pound's Works" (originally published in a slightly different version as his L'Elemento Magico in Ezra Pound, Del Pesche d'Oro, 1965), in New Approaches to Ezra Pound: A Co-ordinated Investigation of Pound's Poetry and Ideas, edited by Eva Hesse (copyright © 1969 by Faber and Faber Ltd.; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Faber and Faber, 1969, pp. 174-97.
One of the most dramatic autobiographical elements of The Cantos is Pound's gradual abandonment, in precisely the college-catalogue sense, of creative writing: after the early ones he refused more and more to make up the words in his poem. Found or aleatory poetry and music are now an old story, if not as old as the collages of found materials in the plastic arts. But with Pound it has not been simply a matter of doing something different, or something he liked. He is a perverted socialist—who is an aesthete above all; so that the usura he has always hated most is usury in art, which in poetry is the coinage of words not backed by gold. Gradually, merely basing his coinage on experience came to seem inadequate and even untrustworthy; the coins had to be made of the gold itself, cadences and words and phrases that really happened in his life or his reading, and his role as poet had to be only one of fashioning, shaping….
One result of the aleatory method, especially in a long poem, is exemplified in The Cantos. Admittedly, a principle of coherence (what is meant by "form" and "theme") is not much prized in the present romantic state of our culture, but the apparent lack of any such principle in many of the later Cantos is their chief problem and affects the whole work. In short, chaos is to the poetry of life what desiccation is to the poetry of thought. (p. 128)
Stanley Sultan, "Son of 'The Cantos'?," in Chelsea (© 1971 by Chelsea Associates, Inc.), July, 1971, pp. 128-33.
Pound was obsessed, perhaps to the point of identification, with the life and work of Villon. His chapter on this fifteenth-century Frenchman in The Spirit of Romance (1910) clarifies the attraction at the outset: "there walked the gutters of Paris one François Montcorbier, poet and gaolbird, with no care whatever for the flowery tradition of mediaeval art, and no anxiety to revive the massive rhetoric of the Romans … there were seeds or signs of a far more modern outbreak in the rhymes of this Montcorbier, alias Villon." Pound continued by commending him for maintaining the Provençal emphasis on unvarnished, intimate speech; for exerting the stubborn persistency of one whose gaze cannot be deflected from the actual; for giving voice to suffering, mockery, irrevocable fact in pages of unimaginative sincerity; above all, for unconsciously proclaiming man's divine right to be himself. The first poem in Pound's own Mauberley sequence (1919–20) closes with a stanza that incorporates the opening line of Le Testament, while allusions to Villon abound in The Cantos from Usura to Pisan. In letters and essays alike Pound invoked the ghost of Villon as a model for practicing poets…. But it was through criticism via music, "meaning definitely the setting of a poet's words," that in 1920–22 he converted the mediaeval French poetic masterpiece into an ingenious libretto and proceeded to compose his only complete opera [Le Testament de Villon]. (pp. 79-80)
Pound: "in music, apart from accommodating notes to words, I am an incompetent amateur." But accommodating notes to words, and/or the reverse, is the opera composer's prime business. And that business, by the time he left London for Paris, Pound was self-prepared to undertake. Nobody had entertained longer thoughts about the process, nobody had examined more thoroughly the relationship between music and poetry, and nobody had deplored more deeply the decline in melodic invention consequent upon the gradual divergence of the two since the days of the troubadours. "DAMN it all," he exploded, "the melody contains the root of the matter." (p. 82)
Le Testament may seem to have more in common with the Gay-Pepusch or Brecht-Weill ballad-opera than with the folk-opera of a Smetana or de Falla, but essentially it resembles neither. In the entire history of the medium it is surely sui generis…. Pound took his musical impulse from a period several centuries prior to Monteverdi when opera had not even been imagined…. Yet ur-opera though it would appear, Le Testament sounds somehow more modern now…. (p. 83)
John Lucas, "Villon—Made New and Well," in The Carleton Miscellany (copyright 1973 by Carleton College), Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 78-84.
Had the American Academy of Arts and Science taken poetry seriously, they would have honored the late Ezra Pound with their Emerson-Thoreau prize because his work, with all that can be said against him and it, embodied everything in life that counted for him and was mobilized toward the creation of a self-transcendent art. Pound took the risk demanded in Emerson's challenge: "We do not with sufficient plainness or sufficient profoundness address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance." These aims are simple, perhaps too simple to meet all the requirements of genuine art, and yet they look toward ends nobler and more thrilling than most criticism seems aware of today. Safe tributes to talented mediocrity are the order of the day, even under the Nobel Prize. In Pound's poetry we see the "sufficient profoundness" of passionate and tragic artistic confrontation of life. He locates the enduring conflict within himself and within our civilization. Sometimes he does so painfully, sometimes exquisitely, sometimes wrongheadedly or disgustingly—but he succeeds because, through his images and language, his energetic genius seeks out the elusive realities of human consciousness. The repudiation of Pound by the Academy (once their committee had recommended doing him honor), a quarter-century after the political acts for which he had paid dearly by a dozen years in a mental asylum, was the act of people who would not give two cents for poetry in its own right. They would be unable to name a single one of the many younger poets, anything but fascist, whose master has been Pound. They do not know that if you plunge into his work, which even at this late date stands with the most advanced and brilliant of the age, you are in the midst of the most disturbing and enlightening intellectual and spiritual play with the essential matter of modern consciousness. I make these points so insistently to try to counteract the basic triviality of vision that seems to be coming into the foreground with the current attempt to discredit and demean the high artistic aims and genuine historical relevance of great poetry.
Pound was, however he distorted the position, in the tradition of the Enlightenment and of Thoreau's and Emerson's individualism. He insisted on his understanding of the realities rather than yielding to prevailing opinion. His courage—and foolhardiness, since it pitched him into the abyss—in going beyond the bounds of cultural consensus was surely Concord independence pushed to the extreme. (pp. 58-9)
M. L. Rosenthal, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973.
'If they had read my "Education Sentimentale" these things would not have happened'. This quotation from Flaubert speaking of the war of 1870 begins Ezra Pound's essay 'Provincialism the Enemy' (1917)…. It appeared also in a 1918 essay on Henry James … in the famous passage where he asserts that 'artists are the antennae of the race' whose business is no less than 'to make humanity aware of itself'. The passion, some may say the pretentiousness, of this vision of the artist never left Pound. No poet in English since Shelley has I think claimed so much for the poet's potential as social 'legislator'…. [He also] writes of language as 'constantly wearing out' and of the poet's task 'to new-mint the speech, to supply the vigorous terms for prose'. Further, 'As the poet was in the ages of faith, the founder and emendor of all religions, so in ages of doubt, is he the final agnostic'. These beliefs in the real function of the poet led Pound to involve himself in practical possibilities for the radical improvement of society through any utterance he could make. (p. 46)
Pound's 'New Method in Scholarship' [is what] he calls 'the method of Luminous Detail'. He claims this can cut through the vast information of any given area such as history or literature, to isolate the crucially significant moment or character from which real understanding can flow. This is the counterpart of his definition of the image in poetry: that which presents an 'intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time', and, as William Cookson points out in his Introduction [to Selected Prose 1909–1965], it informs the Cantos with their sequence of key events and characters. By identifying and juxtaposing these crucial occasions we can arrive at a better understanding of our world…. He seeks to write history in the old style, a style which makes no attempt to record every occurrence, or to pretend to impossible 'objectivity', but only those events felt to be of deep significance to the teller's community. This kind of historian is of course the ancient poet who acted also as genealogist and religious functionary…. [Such] a poet has not only to remember but to decide himself, even invent, what is significant…. [Pound] was, from the start, transfixed by the dissolution of Western culture and civilisation apotheosised in Europe's 'civil wars'. He chose to fight this by writing his new history 'idealised and mythical, a string of exempla used to flesh out [his] ruling ethical-philosophical ideas' (Daniel Pearlman quoted in Agenda Vol. 8 Nos. 3-4, p. 6). In one leap he seeks escape from the confines of alienation that have imprisoned the poet at least since the Industrial Revolution, and would become myth-maker and so liberator of our culture. [Selected Prose 1909–1965] in bringing together so much of Pound's political, economic and cultural thinking highlights I think the problems raised by this intuitive approach to events, and the implications of replacing conventional history by myth.
Pound's great virtue is that 'idealised and mythical' as his history is supposed to be, he does make a tremendous attempt to bottom the real facts of history and especially of economics…. The great disappointment to my mind of Pound's economic writings is that the crucial differences he has with Socialist theories are not clearly and rigorously presented. As I understand him he diverges from Socialism because of his belief, following Confucius, in 'man's right to preserve the outlines of his personality, and of his duty not to interfere with the personalities of others'…. In our time exactly what these outlines are is of course of dire political importance, and must involve the economic structure. Apart from a very shadowy distinction between property (justifiable) and capital (unjustifiable) in 'ABC of Economics'…, and the claim that Marx never understood money, I don't think Pound ever clearly debates these issues, and that is a pity.
But if some perceptions arrived at through Pound's 'New Method' are to be admired, what of his famous 'errors', his Fascism, support for Mussolini, his vilification of Jews?… Pound's residual virulence, the cheap sniping—'Jewspapers', the mimicking of accents and the rest—remains. If the problem is the disentanglement of the Jew as Jew from his historical role of usurer, and if it is claimed that the Jew of Malta, Shylock, and even Fagin testify to the problems this presents, then surely Pound also had available to him Dickens' later beautifully sensitive treatment of the theme in Riah from Our Mutual Friend. Elsewhere in 'What is Money For?' Pound defines the purpose of an economic system as to ensure that 'the whole people' are able to eat well, be decently housed, and adequately clothed. 'Another form of that statement', he writes, 'is Mussolini's DISCIPLINE THE ECONOMIC FORCES AND EQUATE THEM TO THE NEEDS OF THE NATION'…. There seems to me no way that Mussolini's jargon, (though such strident vagueness is of course by no means unique to Fascism), necessarily means anything of the sort. Pound's insistent equation between good language and good government is clearly badly unbalanced here. What too of the language of Gramsci's prosecutor, who demanded in 1928 that 'We must stop this brain working for twenty years!'—a luminous enough detail?
I am aware that both in supporting Pound's vision in one aspect and criticising it in another I am adducing conventional and perhaps inappropriate historical criteria to judge a kind of writing, like the Cantos, largely 'idealised and mythical'. Pound's strongest supporters would certainly claim so. One of them, Daniel Pearlman in a letter to William Cookson already referred to … argues that the Cantos cannot be evaluated 'from the point of view of their historical truth or falsity. Such evaluations inevitably suffer from political contamination'. Similarly Tom Scott asserts that 'A poet's politics are visionary, not political' (Agenda, 7, 2, p. 50). The argument, if I understand it correctly, is that as myth-maker, as poet, Pound transcends history. The contradiction is that on the one hand Pound is admired for his very engagement with the political world, 'ideas into action', and especially so where his critics see him as definitely correct as in many of his economic perceptions; and yet when his intuitions are embarrassed he is relieved as a poet from the 'contamination' of history. There is some additional danger I feel in soaring into the visionary and myth-making of arriving uncomfortably close to where Pound himself least liked to be—with the aesthetes, with poetry as 'a lavender bag sachet', and with the literary critical disdain of things political.
History has collided violently with Pound's mythology and my own view is that this has to be recognised. I would argue that Pound's grandeur as a poet arises like his 'political error' out of his acceptance of living in history, in what Eliade calls 'the terror of history'. (pp. 46-8)
Jeffrey Wainwright, "Pound's Prose," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 15, No. 3, 1974, pp. 46-8.
Pound's politics are so patently half-baked (even the sympathetic critic can only stand bewildered before a mind capable of equating Mussolini with Jefferson and Christ), perhaps because of guilt over Pound's incarceration in St. Elizabeth's in which the roles of victim and victimizer were reversed. Even Pound's naked political stupidity—for a poet so overwhelmingly concerned with history he was blind to historical reality—works in his favor with a generation of critics for whom history is still essentially bunk. I suspect, however, that the chief reason is that Pound embodies modernism for us. It is difficult to like him, impossible not to admire him. As critic, poet, and propagandist for the art he believed in, he was a remarkably generous man. The difficulty he presents comes only after one recognizes that the sources of his politics are also the sources of his innovative power as a poet. Pound twisted everything to his own use. This is, of course, what poets have done down through the ages, but what Pound twisted was not the shape of style, but the shape of history. [William M. Chace comments in The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot:] "The single greatest difficulty in Pound's work is one of order, not of allusion." (pp. 287-88)
Chace demonstrates that Pound's fascism does not represent an abberation in an otherwise aesthetically anchored literary career. Pound's political attitudes remain central to his poetic imagination. Both he and Eliot were, as Chace puts it, "entangled in, even obsessed by, politics." And to examine the political-literary relationship in their work is to see that work as we do not really wish to see it. The result is singularly depressing. For Pound and Eliot seem to have extended what Trotsky once called "the plot mentality of history" into an aesthetic order all its own.
Perhaps what is most interesting about Pound's political ideas is the effort his critics have made to separate the politics from the poetry. The poetry promised liberation, the politics extinction. And this still remains the case…. I happened to speak to a Jewish-American poet who argued that Pound was not really an anti-Semite at all. I could, of course, have shown him the lines in The Cantos, the passages in Guide to Kulchur, the transcripts of Pound's Italian radio broadcasts during the war. I could have quoted chapter and verse, but probably to no avail. When applied to artists and writers, the tolerance of intolerance remains a potent legacy. Making it new is still more imperative than making it human.
Pound's was an essentially reactionary temperament, linked to a crotchety suspicion of the democratic ethos. The adoration of the strong man that led him to Mussolini is visible in a "Leftist" writer like Steffens, who can move from Lenin to Henry Ford to Hitler without even pausing to catch his breath. Orwell told us more than we want to know about the intellectual's love of power. (It is, I suspect, the chief reason behind Orwell's present lack of popularity.) Because the poet tends to see his craft as the heart of culture, his "is the true voice of feeling and health in any culture. As a corollary, the strong poet looks with admiration to the strong leader. The muse is quickened as much by authority as by beauty."
For all of his pedagogical plumbing, Pound possessed a smalltown mentality. Attacking the Jews, Roosevelt, or Churchill, he sounds like a street-corner Fascist. The desire for order, for the known stamp of things, can be seen in almost all of his work. Other writers have insisted that history conform to their demands, but it is difficult to think of another modern poet with such a personal relationship to history. History may be a nightmare in The Cantos, but it is a nightmare manipulated by the man who possesses the secret, Pound himself. (pp. 288-89)
In our own time, the "demo-liberal ideology" against which Pound fulminated is even less fashionable than it was in the late Forties. Given the present cultural climate, it is far easier to attack a democratic socialist, Orwell, than a fascist, Pound. (p. 289)
Leonard Kriegel, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1975 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 2, 1975.
Pound's Cantos could probably provide employment for all the critics in the world, typing 24 hours a day, for the rest of time, without exhausting all possible passage interpretations. One is reminded of the priests in the Benares temple moving those discs from one pole to another, an employment guaranteed to last several million years before the game is complete, or that Tibetan monastery which is writing all the combinations which can make up the name of God, in the hope of eventually completing the roster and bringing the universe to a close. (p. 54)
Robert Conquest, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.; II Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), April, 1975.
Pound himself, from early on, suggested from time to time a certain analogy between his proposed Cantos and the Divine Comedy. And although his notion of the form and character of The Cantos underwent certain changes as the poem progressed in basic principles, it remained what he had come to think of it early in his literary career. Conceiving his poem to be a 'ragbag' for the modern world 'to stuff all its thoughts in', 'my history of the woild', 'a more or less proportional presentation of life', 'a new form' of 'meditative, semi-dramatic, semi-epic story', etc. Pound set out to achieve a fusion between Dante's Europeanism and Whitman's Americanism on the one hand, and between the form of the Odyssey and the Divine Comedy on the other. His thinking about the form of The Cantos went hand in hand with his thinking about the form of poetry in general. In fact the two were inter-dependent. (pp. 311-12)
[His] awareness of a certain analogy between his work and Dante's pursued him throughout his poetic career. Thus, for instance, he even defended himself for the absence of a plot or narrative in The Cantos by pointing out that no such plot or narrative existed in the Divine Comedy. (p. 312)
Pound's interest in Dante's poetry is at once too deep and too complex to be exhausted on the purely formal or structural plane. It is an interest of a moral and ethical nature on the one hand and of a stylistic and linguistic one on the other. In fact one can say that it is the ethical-cum-stylistic interest that leads to and subsumes the formal or structural interest. Hence, if Pound ranked the Divine Comedy together with the Odyssey and 'something or other of Shakespeare' as constituting the indispensable requisite of a civilized man, it is because he regarded it as embodying a 'hierarchy of values' as well as Dante's awareness of 'the scale and proportion of evil' which is organically linked with his peculiar 'virtù' as an artist…. [The] form and structure of the Divine Comedy were of interest to Pound only in so far as they expressed Dante's ethical and poetical wisdom which Pound calls 'the major content of the Divine Comedy'. And if Pound's own epic poem 'begins "In the Dark Forest", crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light',… it is because he is no more an aesthete than is Dante and because the ethical and didactic core in The Cantos is just as important as in the Divine Comedy. (pp. 314-15)
For Pound 'a work of art, any serious work vivifies a man's total perception', whereas 'les arts decoratifs, are mere relaxation, slumber stuff, escape mechanisms'. Pure art thus belongs to what he calls 'the lavender sachet and bric-à-brac category' against which he puts 'the whole major domain of writing', namely the content of the Divine Comedy. And if he conceived himself to be a poet qualified to create a neo-Dantesque hell, purgatory and paradise, it was because for him 'the bitter-sweet vision of Dante (was) part of his emotional existence'. If Dante wrote 'The Poem of Faith', Pound wrote 'The Poem of Doubt'. It is, therefore, not so much that the latter endeavoured to emulate the form and structure of the Divine Comedy in The Cantos as that he sought to achieve a Dantesque scale of values. Thus his hell is very much like Dante's even if it is 'without dignity, without tragedy'. And so also his paradiso, even though he had no use for 'fat-headed Aquinas'. Pound may not have Dante's Catholic certainty, or for that matter Dante's Christian faith or philosophy—in fact he regarded Christianity as a poor substitute for truth …—he nevertheless shares his vision of God as 'Supreme Love and Intelligence'. One factor in Dante's ethical consciousness that struck Pound most is Dante's 'sense of mental and spiritual rottenness' which dictates his grading of values. And one of the major manifestations of that rottenness in society is the power of money. Pound observes 'how the whole hell reeks with money', and regards money power as the root of Evil. (p. 315)
Pound considered Dante's Paradiso to be 'the most wonderful image', not in the sense that it is 'a perseveringly imagistic performance', but in the sense of 'the form of sphere above sphere, the varying reaches of light, the minutiae of pearls upon foreheads' being all parts of the image…. In a certain sense Pound's own Cantos may be regarded as one extended image…. Another thing in which Pound seems to have Dante as his model is in his treatment of naturalistic data. (pp. 316-17)
[Pound's] visions are evoked largely through a positivist, as distinguished from a symbolic craft. He had little interest in symbols and he believed that 'the natural object is always the adequate symbol'. [He] admired Dante's grip on the concrete and his splendour of detail. (p. 317)
Pound's interest in Dante then is not altogether a matter of his being influenced by Dante's art, or of the Dantesque reminiscences in The Cantos. It is also a matter of various degrees of technical and artistic affinity between himself and Dante. For instance, if Dante did not have 'the kind of boring "unity" of surface that we take to be the characteristic of Pope, Racine, Corneille', Pound's Cantos have that unity even less…. And in The Cantos his own prosody is based not only on a greater degree of combinations of rhythm units of much more varied shapes and sizes than Dante's, but it doesn't aim at any regularity at all. Moreover, the Dantesque influences, reminiscences of affinities of a thematic, ethical or stylistic kind are themselves interwoven into a form that is more Poundian than Dantesque. In fact the scaffold of The Cantos is in some respects like that of Joyce's Ulysses…. Hence nothing could be farther from the symmetrical rigidness and regularity of the Divine Comedy…. For Pound [unlike Dante—and Eliot—] uncertainty constituted the spur to explore, rather than the need to seek the comfort of a creed or system. And it is this absence of allegiance to any dogma or creed that is behind Pound's openmindedness which finds that 'all gates are holy' and which enables him to learn from Dante while at the same time remaining free to explore and interpret a given experience in his own way. That is why in Pound's case one cannot talk of an illegitimate dependence on Dante as Leavis does in the case of Eliot. (pp. 318-19)
Pound's freedom from Dante's cosmology and theology enabled him to tackle the question of 'dealing with material that wasn't in the Divina Commedia'. In other words, he managed to achieve a Dantesque intensity of concern with and involvement in a material that was basically un-Dantesque. That is why his pictures of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise are Dantesque not so much as pictures, but because of the imaginative as well as realistic grasp over detail with which both Dante and Pound depict them as states of mind rather than as places. (p. 320)
In his later poetry, including Homage to Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound's imagistic theory and craft reached its maximum realization. But behind this imagism there was a certain influence of Dante's style and technique…. Similarly, the satire and irony of some of the pieces in Collected Poems, especially Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, owe their inspiration to Dante's Inferno with its biting satire, as Pound himself observes, 'on the aimless turmoil and restlessness of humanity'. But the most significant result of Pound's interest in Dante is evidenced in The Cantos both on the plane of style and imagery and on that of thought and ethos. (p. 321)
G. Singh, "Dante and Pound," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter, 1975, pp. 311-28.
I have tried to provide in this study what it seemed to me the serious student of Pound and The Cantos needed in the present state of the studies of Ezra Pound; a coherent overview and a detailed analysis of the lyrical passages in The Cantos. "Lyrical" is used in the broad sense, to encompass passages in Pound that dramatize aesthetic or psychic experience, using the language of symbol and myth, accompanied often, though not always, by an elevation of diction and melody. It is clearly demonstrable that these passages have a continuity that, demonstrated, may help the student toward a more precise sense of the overall continuities of thought, attitude, and technique in The Cantos. The basic position of this book is that the central or root attitudes of the poem, what might properly be called its tonality, are "dualistic," as I try to define the word throughout the text. This is not to say that Pound does not have a theological position, only that Pound is earth-oriented. Nor is he the "broken bundle of mirrors," the craftsman incapable of sustained thought, theological or otherwise, that hostile criticism or metacriticism would make him. Pound is himself, as he sees Ovid, "urbane, skeptical" (vide The Spirit of Romance…), but he can also say, "I consider the writings of Confucius and Ovid's Metamorphoses the only safe guides in religion" (Letters…). In my analyses of the aesthetic functioning of the gods and goddesses which populate the lyric passages of The Cantos, I may, at times, and for some readers of Pound, shave a verity in Pound's mental world. But to do so is preferable to me than to talk of the cosmic consciousness or of conscious or unconscious archetypes, which does not explain details of a text or convince those not already true believers. (pp. ix-x)
Dualist—by my definition—Pound certainly is, to the very core of his art. It is indeed the burden of this essay that Pound's deepest intuitions as expressed in the lyrical passages continually affirm man's made beauty ("crystal" from "water") in the face of inevitable cyclic drift toward dissolution, personal and societal. But it is not a Manichean dualism; there is no worship of and no exultation in the darkness, in the conflict of Yin and Yang; there is only acceptance. Likewise with nominalist. Used strictly, as with certain medieval scholastics, to mean that Platonic absolutes, ideals, forms, or universals do not exist (as opposed to the realist's doctrine that the universals are "real"), Pound would repudiate any such denying of felt (though ineffable) energies in the universe. Yet, nominalist Pound is—nominalist used expansively, in the sense that, while words in poetic texts do have a magical effect on one's mood, words and metaphors encompass no absolute or transcendental truth. As with nominalist, so with Platonist. Finally, Pound abhors the word symbol, as it might refer to a concept of fixed counters of representation interchangeable from one literary context to another. He prefers the term image to represent a complex of figures in a unique context. "Archetypal" symbols are as repugnant to Pound as dogma in religion. But, as I hope to demonstrate, Pound is a symbolist, allegorist, emblemist in his lyric modes, the figurative language creating its unique context ("vortex," "node," "cluster") of mood and meaning locally, and, by iteration, in the whole poem. Symbolism, in this sense, is as vital to Pound as is ritual in religion. (pp. 4-5)
The central image of the crystal represents for Pound, as I have implied above, an achieved aesthetic act of completeness and magnitude, one coherent context among other gems. The aesthetic act, of which no one can know the transcendental relation, is performed in the mind of the artist, represented as a "maze" (793:23), a "labyrinth" (799:29), a "mirror" (66, 8: 70, 2) or a "hall of mirrors" (793:23), through the faculty of intuition or imagination, represented by the figures of the "flame" (27:31, 196:204), the "torch" (78:82, 236:246), and "light" (passim). The creative flame "builds light" (642:675), has throughout The Cantos its "moments" (11:15; the "blue flash," 802:32) of "delightful psychic experience," whence it "makes" gods and goddesses (195:203). These subjective visions are rooted in objective perceptions ("mint, thyme, basilicum," 435:463) and colored by these ("Topaz I manage and three shades of blue," 17:21; "The wind is dyed in your valley," 689:719). One's mind, and hence one's art, is limited to one's place ("Art is local," 678:708), one's context ("My Sordello?" 6:10; "Whose world, or mine, or theirs?" 521:556). Whatever gods there may be, our subjective, creative eye is "God in us" (685:715; "God's eye art thou," 790:20). Dante's vision of a god of pure light is denied us (the "Nous" is "ineffable," 201:209); Pound's goddesses populating The Cantos (and the earlier poetry) have always "cloaks," "scarves," "sheaths," "gauzes," about them, representing the limiting "diaphans" (177:182, 644:677) or clouds of perception. These limits are variously represented as the "half-light" (13:17, 17:21), as "hypostasis" (520:551), and as the "mind's space" (786:16). Also as a "cave" (76:80, 238:248) beneath or within a "mountain" or "hill" (passim) where we enter via "stairs," "gates," or "doors" of perception or vision to receive what we can of blessedness (our "paradise terrestre" 802:32), and out of which crystal water (15:19, "Castalia," 605:639) flows. The spiritual adventurer or "sailor" (Odysseus or other) in his travels by "boat" (77-79:81-83) or "raft" (92-94:96-98) enters at times the mind's place (the "new air," 69:73, 238:248, "ver novum," 195:204, 570:606), "that place" (90:94, 458:486) of flowering "almond trees," representing the lyric state of mind. The mind's art transforms cold stone into marble goddesses and marble cities, creates visions that are free-floating (cf. "leaf without root," "grape without seed," 7:11) because they are not real until the mind achieves them. Thus the artist's achievement is "not of the sun" (76:80) but of one's crystal vision, and lasting, radiant, only until inevitable "seepage" (576:612, 789:19) occurs. Destructive reality, wind, wave, "sea-claw" and "sea-wrack," is always being transformed, out of "erebus" (3:7), "out of nothing" (8:12), by the creative spirit into gentle animals (Canto 2 and passim) or zephyrs (238:248, 435:461) or gems to an aesthetic (spiritual?) stillness (245:256) out of the noise of eternal wave motion.
But Pound will never deny the reality of sea-wrack, of the tragic dualism that is embodied in The Cantos to the smallest details. Confucius cannot "keep the blossoms from falling" (60:64); mud and light, gold and gloom, good and evil (Ra-set in her barge, 684:714) is the law of life ("rain also is of the process," 425:451), and the lyric Pound is not at any moment avoiding the fact; the language is of the two, in the constant figuration of "little light in a great darkness" (795:25), and of "narrow paths" (66:70, 746:771, cf. "gold thread," 797:27, "hair's breadth," 632:664) to the one shrine or temple, the "heart's field" (792:22). All of which leads one to the great lyric of Canto 81, the emotional, philosophical, and aesthetic center of the whole. (pp. 7-9)
Pound is a devotee of no specific ritual or belief, but is respectful of and pleased by those which he feels lend light and order to life, so heavily compounded of darkness and disorder. (p. 10)
Eugene Paul Nassar, in his The Cantos of Ezra Pound: The Lyric Mode (copyright © 1975 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Consistency or systematic exposition are the last things to expect from Pound, and they certainly will not be found in the little he has to say on translation. For all that Gertrude Stein called him 'a village explainer', he was never very forthcoming about his own work, only about everything else. He commented approvingly on Joyce's technique in Dubliners: 'His chief merit is that he carefully avoids telling you a lot that you don't want to know.' The one thing he could profitably have told readers of his translations is that they were not intended to be literal, for that is what readers of translations expect: accuracy and the preservation of a consistent and conventional relation to the text. Unfortunately the most talented and interesting translator of this or the last century did not bother; he had no theory. (p. 113)
Pound's 'Seafarer'… is both a translation, a poem in its own right, and a persona: it is an adaptation and an imitation, though he does not make it clear that he is extensively modernising his original, perhaps because he did not realise how far he was going so; in Propertius the process is much more conscious. It is a remarkable imitation of the formal and speaking qualities of the original. As a translation it is brilliant, stimulating, inaccurate, misleadingly heathen and at times rather loud. As an interpretation it is radical and heterodox, though not indefensible. As a model to translators it needs to be handled with care, except by translators of comparable gifts. But as an adaptation and as a poetic performance it is a work of genius. (p. 126)
Michael Alexander, "Ezra Pound's 'Seafarer'," in Agenda, Winter-Spring, 1976, pp. 110-26.
Ezra Pound was a contradictory civilization of one. He was the most original American poet since Walt Whitman, a magically imaginative translator, and a literary promoter nonpareil. He also produced more verbal trash than any other great writer of modern times, wasted decades advancing crackpot schemes for monetary reform, railed disgracefully at "kikes, sheenies and the oily people," called Hitler "a saint" and democracy a "swindle," betrayed his country during World War II, and in old age spiraled down through hells of paranoia. (p. 74)
Just before his death in Venice on Nov. 1, 1972, at the age of 87, he looked like what Jean Cocteau had once called him: "A rower on the river of the dead." In the Greek myth, such spirits row forever and never attain the other shore. (p. 77)
Brad Darrach, "Poetry and Poison," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 8, 1976, pp. 74-5, 77.
Pound cannibalized other authors as if he were under a divine command to speak only in echoes.
Yet the finished poems often do not call our attention to their sources at all. And if they do, the allusions are often too cryptic to be identified without external aid. Even when they can be so identified, they often take us not to an accessible passage of an accessible work but to a particular text or document that has caught Pound's attention. The text itself is often no help unless one has learned the particular interpretation of it that Pound favors.
Therefore, the docile reader who would like to steer away from Pound's personality finds himself turned back, against his will, in that very direction. If the poet selects a passage from a letter that his schoolgirl daughter once wrote to him, if he then works it into a Canto, and if he frames it in such a way that the implications can hardly be grasped unless one realizes the nature of the source, he does not make it easy for the reader to ignore Pound's domestic life….
So it seems fair enough for one to ponder the fact that a vast number of Pound's excellent lyrics deal with the experience of sexual passion, which the poet opposes to conventional morality. We know Pound was drawn to women who were artists or musicians; we know he came to believe that sexual potency was a mark of the creative or ordering imagination….
What makes the amorous themes attractive in the poems themselves is not of course that they give one entree into Pound's private history. Rather it is that he endowed them with suggestive power—as he did above all in the years between 1912 and 1919….
Before this era, the poet was mainly preoccupied with states of attentive rapture or yearning, evoked by sexual passion, the contemplation of landscape, or the enjoyment of works of art. He tried to convey and sustain the states by the use of languorous rhythms, exotic settings, precious language, and solemn tones.
Because a spiritual condition was what the poet longed for, he could regard the various means of reaching it as equivalent to one another. So he could describe poetry as sculpture, women as landscapes, and cities as women: "And svelte Verona first I met at eve/And in the dark we kissed" ("Guillaume de Lorris").
This sort of correspondence, so pervasive in the Symbolist tradition, is the reason the process of metamorphosis became an important theme in Pound's poems. The act of amorous or imaginative vision, as he conceived it, transformed the poet into something more or less than human…. (p. 6)
Nearly all of Pound's poetry derives from that of other writers, whether through translation, imitation, allusion, or pastiche. The result, as with Dryden, is paradoxically fresh and original. But in much of his early work Pound affected archaism, as if to signalize his derivative methods and warn us that they were intentional. Implicitly, he lent authority to his aesthetic principles by locating them in the work of poets he admired. So he regularly masked himself and spoke in their person, through monologues supposed to recreate their personalities.
The doctrine that justifies such poetry is one which Pound shared (among others) with Wallace Stevens. It tells us that the definitive property of human nature is not rational morality (as Locke had taught) or emotional morality (as Rousseau had taught), but the creative imagination; and that this in turn is deeply related to the passion of love and to empathy with things loved. Art records and re-creates the process by which the artist blends with what he loves: "And yet my soul sings 'Up!' and we are one" ("In Durance")…. But Pound had no truly dramatic powers, and could act no part but his own. Therefore, the masks he wore differed in name and costume but not in voice. It was a voice of protest against the didactic explicitness of popular verse, the voice of a talent neither patient nor methodical enough to work out its own persuasive rhetoric. Instead, Pound tried to embody his ideals not in lucid reasoning but in suggestive images. But in many poems he also set up a vivifying interchange between his archaic or precious language and a flow of plain or coarse speech that invites us to feel at home in the high culture he evokes.
The early poems are overripe with amorous yearning, songlike praise of mysterious beauty, desire for absent paramours. What saves them from flaccidness is either the subtlety of the versification or the force of the images—often both….
In the pentameter he found new and charming rhythms. In his free verse he joined musicality with expressiveness, keeping the lines songlike but also giving the impression of a real speaker, while rhythm and sound changed according to emotion and sense. With the familiar meters he mixed other measures that might spring up, persist, and die down as the mood or theme altered.
If therefore one reads aloud the best of his poems, one feels elusive regularities starting and fading as one pattern interrupts another, gives way to it, and returns with variations….
Not yet obsessed with doctrine or with epic ambitions, he was uncommitted to the "ideographic" technique that was to corrupt his poetry. When the total style—rhythm, diction, syntax, and effects of sound—was involved with Pound's peculiarly ironic lyricism, it became his greatest accomplishment. (p. 8)
The turning-point in his positive development as a poet came as Pound neared the age of thirty. Then he undertook to infuse the irony of satire into his lyric elevations, like a man smiling at his own ardors….
Restless and impatient, unable to manage an argument or to organize a narrative, Pound still hankered to write a verse epic that would accomplish for our time what the Divine Comedy had done for Dante's….
Meanwhile, his old, aesthetic doctrine did not lend itself to unfolding in a long poem. When, therefore, Pound was seduced by Calliope, he tried to elaborate moral and public doctrines that would support an epic structure: theories of society, government, and economics which no way suited his impulsive leaps of imagination….
So Pound regressed to the simple style of putting slabs of rapt contemplation beside slabs of document, anecdote, or complaint. As guides to interpretation, he used his would-be "ideographic" images (often repeated) and widely spaced echoes of his own, would-be pregnant phrases….
But although the poet had visions of love, beauty, and order, although he denounced lust and avarice, yet he established no moral argument that distinguished a megalomaniac from a statesman, or cruelty from justice…. (p. 9)
Admirers of Pound have tried to demonstrate the coherence of the Cantos by showing how the motifs of any one section are interwoven with those of other sections. I'm not sure how their case would be affected by the weaving of the anti-Semitic lines into the argument of the whole work. But I would suggest that the mentality behind such passages did not possess high powers of intellectual synthesis. (p. 12)
"Love, Hate, and Ezra Pound," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), May 27, 1976, pp. 6-12.
Pound knew what he was about. And, above all, he wanted to be appreciated and understood in terms of what he believed in. The particular means he employed to tell his story—to spread his message—was the epic form of poetry, but that form, he explained, must contain economics, politics and history, without which it is nothing at all. Most of all, he wanted no aesthetic….
That, in its multifarious manifestations; money, gold, silver, exchange, credit, finance, war, disease, famine—and a false and fatal instruction in History and Economics imposed on society by the "usurocracy"—is what Pound's major literary output is mostly about. The rest is exegesis.
He was not often well-disposed to Christianity … spelling it "Xtianity." It was only "real" to him, he wrote, when it was "antisemitic." On top of this he evinced an invincible contempt for all "inferior" humanity. He knew, he bragged, the "ninety-nine ways of calling a damn nigger a damn nigger." For him Race was all—or nearly all. (p. 16)
Pound's medium was words, words with which he fashioned "columns of infamy." He believed in his words; he believed they had the power to move men to action—and it was action he wanted, not a simpering aesthetics spoken by "flatchested" word-slingers whom he derided in millions of words of prose, and in tens of thousands of words of poetry. Above all, he detested democracy….
Whatever the final judgment, however, it will probably tell us more about the critic's values than the poet's. (p. 17)
Max Geltman, in Congress Monthly, June, 1976.