Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
An American poet, translator, essayist, and critic, Pound is "the principal inventor of modern poetry," according to Archibald MacLeish. Pound's masterpiece, Cantos, was constantly revised and added to during the more than forty years of its construction. Literary allusions, foreign phrases and forms abound in this volume, which T. S. Eliot called "an inexhaustible reference book of verse form." Pound is important both for his own poetry and for his support of other artists. He 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 worldwide acclaim, and his tenacious support of Joyce during a period of financial distress allowed the novelist to finish Ulysses. Pound's pro-Fascist statements during World War II led to his indictment for treason and for a time diminished the reputation of one of the most innovative and creative artists of the twentieth century. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
[Pound] was the greatest poet of the age!…
The one poet who heard speech as spoken from the actual body and began to measure it to lines that could be chanted rhythmically without violating human common sense, without going into hysterical fantasy or robotic metronomic repeat, stale-emotioned echo of an earlier culture's forms, the first poet to open up fresh new forms in America after Walt Whitman—certainly the greatest poet since Walt Whitman … the man who discovered the manuscripts of Monteverdi in Venetian libraries and brought them out in the twentieth century for us to hear; the man who in his supreme savant investigations of vowels went back to the great musicians of Renaissance times to hear how they heard vowels and set them to music syllable by syllable and so came on the works of Vivaldi also, and brought him forth to public light…. (p. 180)
Pound told me he felt that the Cantos were "stupidity and ignorance all the way through," and were a failure and a "mess," and that his "greatest stupidity was stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice," he thought—as of 1967, when I talked to him. So I told him I thought that since the Cantos were for the first time a single person registering over the course of a lifetime all of his major obsessions and thoughts and the entire rainbow arc of his images and clingings and attachments and discoveries and perceptions, that they were an accurate representation of...
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If there is one word which provides the clue to the life-work of Ezra Pound, it is "productivity." To him, man was essentially a productive animal, and if one thinks of Pound's aestheticism in this light, it ceases to be an escape from life, as in the case of previous Ivory Tower aestheticism. On the contrary, the life of the ordinary worker is subsumed under that of the artist. Even animals and insects are for Pound essentially artists….
Everything that helped production was good; everything that hindered production was bad. That was Pound's simple creed, and it informed all his work as an artist, as an economist and as an impresario of the arts. His aim was not merely production but productivity; i.e. a multifarious busy activity, continually branching out in an open-ended way. Not for him the finished product, with its air of completion and perfection. That would suggest that work can come to an end. His poems all capture the atmosphere of work in progress, of conceptions about to flower into performance; and as an entrepreneur of the arts he was continually helping to bring talent to parturition-point, to see that good work was not stillborn, to goad and harry those who stood in the way of production….
Unfortunately, Pound came to think of the Jews as the supreme anti-artists, the enemies of production. Pound's anti-Semitism was at first an unthinking prejudice to which he gave deliberate indulgence; later it became a vicious obsession, fed by Nazi propaganda and proliferating into theoretical constructions of paranoid complexity. But the role which he gave to the Jews was always the same; they were those who hindered and corroded true production by concentrating on activities which battened on the forces of production without contributing to them. The principal manifestation of the Jewish spirit was "usury"; but behind this (as he later came to think) lay the Jewish religion of monotheism, with its anti-artistic ban on graven images and its abstract unimageable God spinning in transcendental activity above the world like the money-market and its bodiless manipulations. (p. 59)
It has been argued that Pound uses the word "jew" merely as a convenient metaphor or metonymy; a word that will conjure up the required associations in his reader's mind without having to be taken literally. But such a metaphorical use must arise from the conviction that the Jews are the true source of the poison. A metaphor always implies certain known qualities in the object metaphorically adduced—qualities which throw light on the object described. So to call an activity "Jewish," even—or especially—when this is not meant literally, is to assert the existence of essentially Jewish qualities. It is mere confusion of mind to suppose that such "metaphorical" use of an anti-Semitic stereotype implies a lack of literalism in the anti-Semitism itself—it is as if calling one's love a red, red rose implied some doubt about the redness of roses. (p. 60)
Pound's sheer ignorance on the subject of Jews and Judaism is extraordinary. He seems to have made no effort to read about Jewish history, thought or language; yet he tries to create an impression of knowingness…. (p. 62)
Pound's carelessness and negligence in Jewish matters is, of course, part of his general strategy in the field of learning. In all the areas of study to which he contributed (Provençal poetry, Latin and Greek poetry, Chinese literature, economics, etc.), complaints have been made of his blunders, incompetence and charlatan bravado. Some of these complaints have been ill-founded, proceeding from the scholarly literal-mindedness which Pound detested and combated. Pound's translations, for example, are not intended to be literal, and the "howlers" (e.g. "votes" for "votas" in Propertius) arise from an original aesthetic of translation, not from ignorance. Yet his scorn of scholarly small-mindedness led him eventually into an insane self-confidence. He really came to think that he had only to know one or two facts about a civilization in order to intuit its whole essence. The "ideogrammic" method became a means to instant polymathy. The ideograms of Chinese picture-writing seemed of great significance to Pound (following his reading of Ernest Fenollosa) because they pointed to a way of thinking that would never lose touch with concrete particulars; a method that proceeded from image to image in such a way that generalizations emerged incarnate and never degenerated into disembodied abstractions. The connections of this theory of thought with Pound's affiliation to the poetic method of Imagism are obvious. His method of poetic composition, and even of prose composition, is the juxtaposition of significant details in such a way that the unconscious mind receives reverberations and forms generalizations subliminally, or alters its general conformations to see the world in a new light. The question is, "How does the poet know which details are significant?" The answer is that he does so in the light of a discursive theory previously arrived at but never explicitly disclosed. This is an answer Pound did not want to accept. He wanted to be just as surprised by his images as the reader; to choose the images or details by blind intuition and join the reader hand in hand to see where they would lead. But this is to abdicate the responsibility of the writer and to hand himself over to the mercy of his own unconscious prejudices. When Pound really knows about a subject, the ideogrammic method is successful. When he does not know about a subject, the ideogrammic method becomes not a way of thinking or expression but a substitute for them. It is all very well to choose the significant fact which will echo in the reader's mind and cause a re-orientation. But without a background of real, solid knowledge, how is one to be sure what counts as a significant fact, or even as a fact?…
We know incontrovertibly that the aesthetic stance adopted by Pound in the 1910s and 20s led him eventually into the moral abyss. How did Imagism, The Little Review and London soirées lead to the espousal of Nazism? The question is particularly interesting in that Pound's variety of aestheticism is one that appears to bridge the gap between art and morality, to turn towards the world instead of away from it and to concern itself with the health of the whole of society. (p. 63)
Pound's aggressiveness forms part of his aesthetic vision. The ruthlessness and dismissiveness which are essential to Pound's personality can be seen as the qualities of the sculptor, who produces his work through ruthless rejection of irrelevant material, which stands in the way of the revelation of the form hidden in the stone. (p. 64)
Pound was not against money as...
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The longest and most obscure section of Ezra Pound's Cantos has until recently been all but ignored. His ten cantos devoted to John Adams, when they are discussed, are described by Poundians as an extreme but viable example of Pound's poetic method. Old fashioned readers, argue the Poundians, are put off by chronological discontinuities and by apparently obscure passages, but these fall into place in the harmonious design of the whole work. This defense at once invokes the authority of Pound's private terms for modernist poetics—vortex, ideogram, paideuma—and asserts that he has written nothing but what can be understood with care by an intelligent general reader. But aside from such generalizations, since...
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Although readers may disagree as to the kinds of groupings one can find in The Cantos, almost everyone will recognize that cantos VIII through XI form a distinct unit, unified by their preoccupation with the deeds and exploits of Sigismondo Malatesta, an Italian prince of the Renaissance, Lord of Rimini during the middle years of the 15th Century. By almost all accounts Sigismondo (or Sigismundo, as Pound spelled the name) was a much detested figure, although his infamous reputation can be traced to Pope Pius II's description of his exploits in Pius' Commentaries which Pound cites. Posterity has taken Pius' cue; he has been almost universally denounced by historians. (p. 107)
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Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound's ironic portrait of the artist, stands at the end of the Imagist Decade, from 1910 to 1920, when literature in English became recognizably Modern…. [Lines] from the second section of the poem imply that the modern revolution in literary style came from two main impulses—focus on the image, and defiance of the age, an age which was preoccupied in that second decade of the century with the First World War. Modern literature, it seems fair to say, began as a contradictory art, modern in form, anti-modern in content, and so it was to remain throughout its period of greatness. (p. 15)
Ezra Pound in his early critical writings took [the following] view of the...
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