Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
Pound was an American poet, translator, and critic. His political sympathies at one time threatened to diminish his reputation as one of the most innovative and creative artists of his generation. Influencing poetry before, during, and after his career as a poet, Pound was a secretary to Yeats, playing an important part in transforming that great poet's artistic vision during his last period. He is responsible for editing The Waste Land into the form that won Eliot world-wide acclaim, and his tenacious support of Joyce during a period of financial distress allowed the novelist to finish Ulysses. His Fascist sentiments during the Second World War and his subsequent confinement, first in an Italian prison and later in an American mental institution, shattered his optimism but not his artistic gifts. He was able to emerge from his experience with his poetic gifts intact, and continued to contribute to his monumental opus, the Cantos. Originally a proponent of the Imagist school, with the Cantos Pound established himself as a unique artist. In this long poem Pound draws from the historical and artistic wealth of the ages to tell the story of an Odyssean character journeying through time. The points of reference raised in the Cantos are often obscure, but they reveal Pound's vast knowledge of history and culture and his determination to use the past to explicate the present. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)
When A Draft of XXX Cantos appeared in 1930, William Carlos Williams remarked with characteristic insight: "A criticism of Pound's Cantos could not be better concerned, I think, than in considering them in relation to the principal move in imaginative writing today—that away from the word as symbol toward the word as reality." (p. 91)
To understand Pound's gradual shift from what Williams called "the word as symbol toward the word as reality," we might profitably consider Pound's debt to the late nineteenth-century French poet who, in the words of Delmore Schwartz, "tried out the whole century in advance"—Rimbaud. (pp. 91-2)
In referring us back to his A Study in French Poets of 1918, Pound reminds us that his initial interest in Rimbaud coincided with the first burst of activity on the Cantos, which got under way, after the abortive First Draft of Cantos 1-3 in 1917, with the publication of Canto 4 in 1919, and, more significantly, with the composition of the Malatesta sequence in 1923. These dates are important: in study after study, we read that the nineteenth-century French poet who influenced Pound was Gautier, but we look in vain in the Cantos for echoes of the Parnassian mode of Emaux et Camées—a mode that does stand squarely behind Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. It is my contention that after 1920, with Mauberley behind him, Pound turned more and more from Gautier and "the 'sculpture' of rhyme" to Rimbaud's particular brand of Imagism as model. Rimbaud's influence on Pound has gone largely unnoticed, no doubt because Pound paid no attention to Rimbaud's major works: The Saison en Enfer, the Illuminations, or even such late great poems as "Mémoire" and "Larme." But one must remember that Pound's interest in a given poet was almost always stylistic rather than thematic. Rimbaud's feverish self-conflict, his search for identity, his ambivalence about the Church or about sexual experience—these were matters in which Pound had not the slightest interest. What he could learn from Rimbaud, however, was how an American poet of 1920, brought up on Browning and the nineties, and having worked in close conjunction first with Yeats and then with Eliot, could escape from the Symbolist impasse. (pp. 92-3)
In the essay "Vorticism,"… Pound took great pains to distinguish his own theory of poetry from Symbolist doctrine as he understood—or misunderstood—it. "Imagisme," he declares, "is not symbolism. The symbolists dealt in 'association,' that is, in a sort of allusion, almost of allegory. They degraded the symbol to the status of a word…. One can be grossly 'symbolic,' for example, by using the term 'cross' to mean 'trial'." What Pound objects to, in other words, is that Symbolism is still essentially a mimetic art, the image (a) standing for something else (b) behind it, as in Baudelaire's famed "correspondances" between the natural and the spirit world. Such dualism, Pound insists, is detrimental to poetry: "to use a symbol with an ascribed or intended meaning is, usually, to produce very bad art."…
One can object, of course, that in the poetry of the great Symbolists from Nerval to Eliot, there is never such obvious one-to-one correspondence between the image and its referents. But Pound is purposely overstating the case because he wants to replace the polysemous discourse of Symbolist poetry with the language of pure presentation. "If I had the energy," he says, "to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of 'non-representative' painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour."… This statement recalls a very similar comment made by Rimbaud in 1872: "We must root out painting's old habit of copying, and we must make painting sovereign. Instead of reproducing objects, painting must compel agitation by means of lines, colors, and shapes that are drawn from the outer world but simplified and restrained: genuine magic."
By 1916, then, Pound was actively campaigning for a new non-representational art. But theory is one thing and practice another, and I cannot quite accept [Herbert N.] Schneidau's assumption that the poetry of Cathay (1915) and Lustra (1916) is post-Symbolist. Take "The Jewel Stairs' Grievance," Pound's version of a Chinese lyric by "Rihaku" (Li Po), which Schneidau cites as an example of "reticence and presentational condensation."…
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn….
Even without Pound's prose gloss, it is evident that this is a lament for lost love, spoken by a high-born lady. The "jewelled steps" symbolize aristocratic or courtly status; the dew-soaked white gauze stockings stand for the defeat of something precious and fragile, and the letting down of the crystal curtain suggests the coming on of night and despair. Surely in this poem, Pound's images function symbolically rather than presentationally; the principle of substitution (a stands for b) still operates. (pp. 93-4)
In 1918, the Little Review published Pound's Study in French Poets, a 60-page essay which provided the Anglo-American reader with an extensive, if rather biased, anthology of modern French poetry, interspersed with Pound's critical commentary. The Study contains a large selection from the poetry of Corbière, Laforgue, and Rimbaud, followed by shorter samples of twelve less well-known later poets such as Francois Jammes and Jules Romains. In his brief introduction, Pound says: "I do not aim at 'completeness.' I believe that the American-English reader has heard in a general way of Baudelaire and Verlaine and Mallarmé; that Mallarmé, perhaps unread, is apt to be slightly overestimated."
This remark provides us with an important clue to Pound's thinking. We must remember that for most Anglo-American poets from Arthur Symons to Wallace Stevens, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé constituted a kind of Holy Trinity, although individual predilections naturally varied…. If Pound had no use for these poets, it is surely because he dismissed their work as "Symbolist" without distinguishing between such minor neo-Symbolists as Fargue and Larbaud on the one hand, and a great creator of "clear visual images" like Baudelaire on the other. But dispassionate, objective judgment was never characteristic of Pound; he dismissed the Symbolists outright simply because he was looking for models who could teach him the rudiments of a non-representational art. "After Gautier," he thus announces airily, "France produced, as nearly as I understand, three chief and admirable poets: Tristan Corbière, perhaps the most poignant writer since Villon; Rimbaud, a vivid and indisputable genius; and Laforgue—a slighter, but in some ways a finer 'artist' than either of the others. I do not meant that he 'writes better' than Rimbaud…. Laforgue always knows what he is at; Rimbaud, the 'genius' in the narrowest and deepest sense of the term, the 'most modern,' seems, almost without knowing it, to hit on the various ways in which the best writers were to follow him, slowly."… (pp. 96-7)
[Pound] discovered in Rimbaud the qualities he most esteemed in poetry: directness of presentation, the image as the "poet's pigment," ideogrammic terseness, and the avoidance of adjectives and other "non-functioning words" in favor of straightforward subject-verb-object syntactic patterns. (p. 99)
Mauberley has a problematic place in the Pound canon. Throughout the twenties and early thirties, it was hailed as Pound's one indisputable masterpiece; thus Eliot declared in 1928: "I am quite certain of Mauberley, whatever else I am certain of…. This seems to me a great poem … a document of an epoch; it is … in the best sense of Arnold's worn phrase, a 'criticism of life.'"…
In recent years, as the greatness of the Cantos has come to be increasingly recognized, the pendulum has swung. It is now fashionable to argue that Mauberley, far from being unlike the Cantos, is to be seen as an early sketch for them, a slighter work containing in embryo many of Pound's later themes and techniques. (p. 100)
This is true enough with respect to what Mauberley says. But if we look at the way the poem works, a rather different picture emerges. Take, for example, III (Part I), which contains Pound's scathing attack on the bad taste of the modern age, whether in art, religion, or politics. It begins:
The tea-rose tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,
The pianola "replaces"
Christ follows Dionysus
Phallic and ambrosial
Made way for macerations;
Caliban casts out Ariel.
"To use a symbol with an ascribed or intended meaning," Pound had said in Gaudier-Brzeska, "is, usually, to produce very bad art."… Yet I count eight such symbols in these eight lines. Briefly, the "tea-rose tea-gown" symbolizes the vulgarity of modern dress in contrast to the delicate and beautiful "mousseline of Cos"—the Propertian tunic of Coan silk. The pianola, which reduces music to a punched sheet of paper to be played...
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[We] need to know about the curious vocabulary used in the "Mauberley 1920" half of [Hugh Selwyn Mauberley] and, crucially, the problem of Mauberley's temperament remains an urgent issue in the reading experience. Professor [John J.] Espey established the formula [in his Ezra Pound's 'Mauberley'; a Study in Composition] for that temperament which, in one way or another, has characterised all subsequent commentaries: "… the relation is, I think, clear enough: the passive aesthete played off against the active instigator".
Such a formula seriously distorts the operation of the poem. One cannot deny that Mauberley is a minor artist, that it is right to see him quite firmly as a...
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The two last poems of Ripostes, "The Return" and "The Alchemist," facing each other, offer a chance to watch Pound's genius quarrying out its resources. Both poems triumph in the skill with which they conjure up their particular moment; the return of the gods and the transformation of inferior—though lovely, alive—metals into gold. Both poems are miracles of equipoise. In "The Return" we must recognize the provisional, brilliant peace Pound has achieved between stone and wave. For the poem in its near Sapphic stanzas has a carved feeling indeed: cut out of a giant rock, broken off from a once mighty temple, vibrant as Valéry's notion of the dance. As with such great sculpture the poem is made wholly of...
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As we read through the original verse of Ezra Pound (as distinct from his "translations") from the beginning of his career until the end, that is, from A Lume Spento to the final Cantos, we become convinced that Pound was a poet not for all time but for an age. We must hasten to add, however—what an age! The complexity, depth, and brilliance of the poetry written during the first six or seven decades of this century will rival that of any other period of comparable length in the history of English and American literature. And yet something went wrong. The Experimentalist Movement—of which Pound was the founder and leader—ended in the Cantos, many of which (let's face it) are unreadable, and...
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