Pound, Ezra (Vol. 18)
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...
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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 publication of the Adams cantos in 1940 no more than six out of their twenty-five hundred lines have been explicated, and these incorrectly. The case presents a challenge not only to the reputations of Pound and his followers, but also to some of the cherished dogmas of modernism. (p. 112)
[After] the apotheosis of 1922, and while the pioneering [modernist] works were still being absorbed and made influential, their authors [Eliot, Joyce and Pound] withdrew from the battle of modernism in order to write at greater length in the idiom they had established. This second wave of modernism saw the awed reception of works in progress by the masters as they appeared over the next twenty years. One could not hope to grasp all of...
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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)
Pound's evocation of Sigismondo's world is different. He wants us to feel Sigismondo in our bones, see what he saw, participate vicariously in what he did. This means seeing the man through his words, through his works, through the "stuff" he has left for posterity. As Hugh Kenner shows us [in The Pound Era], there are two dominating symbols in the Malatesta Cantos: the "post-bag" which contains correspondence to and from Sigismondo and his peers, and the Tempio, that strange, unfinished monument to his ego that he built at Rimini. The former represents Sigismondo's present, the intrigues, squabbles, jealousies, love-affairs, battles, etc. that occupied his life. The latter is "what remains" of the man for us to see today: the Tempio...
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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 equivalence of art and science:
The arts, literature, poesy, are a science, just as chemistry is a science. Their subject is man, mankind, and the individual….
Pound maintained that the material of art, human nature, is a constant, as the material of science, physical nature, is a constant, but he believed just as firmly in "the art of poetry, as a living art, an art changing and developing, always the same at root, never the same in appearance for two decades in succession."… Whatever the underlying causes of Modernism in literature may have been, for Pound, as instigator, they were rooted in human nature, which like all organic nature was in continual process of...
(The entire section is 2399 words.)