Last Updated on October 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6603
Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
Pound was an American poet (who lived most of his life outside the United States) and literary advocate. Archibald MacLeish called Pound "the principal inventor of modern poetry." He is the "melior poet" of Eliot's dedication to The Waste Land and he exerted profound influence on Joyce and many other great modern writers. His discovery of Ernest Fenollosa and the Chinese ideogram led to his elaboration of Imagism, a tremendously influential poetic method that attempted "direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective." His great work, The Cantos, occupies a central position in modern letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Let us admit that [Pound's] initial approach is that of a major poet, that he goes to the ends of the earth and backward and forward in time, adding economics, history, philosophy, to literature and linguistics, to create his own framework, his own high platform from which his poetry will speak. Let us also admit that his incessant demand that poetry should be more concentrated, should carry the maximum load of meaning, is within certain limits a reasonable and valuable one. But Pound cannot be contained within limits. His talent, though genuine, is not strong enough to defy his theories. He is capable of compressing a poem, until it looks as if Haiku are only round the corner, while actually losing and not gaining in intensity. And what he has built for himself, as framework, platform, special world of chosen ideas for his verse, is such a wobbly, crazy Provençal-pagoda that no wonder he fell off it into bad trouble.
For all his long and deep concern for the art, he has been a bad influence on modern poetry. It is he more than anybody else who has encouraged an unnecessary obscurity, not arising from the flashing broken images of passion, but too often from a cold cleverness working away at compression. For a line can be so loaded with meaning that it can only be understood if the reader regards it as part of an exceptionally difficult crossword puzzle; but at what moment, in this puzzle-solving atmosphere, does aesthetic experience arrive, when does poetry begin? It is he who has encouraged too many younger poets to collect savoury and rare ingredients, but then to ruin the dish because the heat of the oven, the poetic feeling, is too low to cook it properly. Following his example, they have offered us too many recondite allusions, too many scraps of other languages …, and too many of those cold flat statements, filled with polysyllabic abstractions, that read like quotations from legal documents. What may have been originally conceived in passionate intensity too often somehow loses, through too much concentration and cool brainwork, real poetic feeling, and ends by suggesting an over-self-conscious intellectual sneering and showing off. Pound and those who have followed him may feel, not unreasonably, that they have taken poetry past the point at which an older poet like Yeats worked with white-hot iron; and certainly the art must be kept in movement; but where they have taken it, the whole temperature seems much lower, the music harsher or non-existent, the shapes less comely, the heartbeat fainter, the glory and ecstasy of the art infrequent and fading. It is as if poetry, determined to keep up with the age, were running away from itself.
J. B. Priestley, in his Literature and Western Man (copyright © 1960 by J. B. Priestley; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters and Company and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1960, pp. 406-07.
I have read Pound's poetry all my life, carefully, with pain and with pleasure, and I know that his poetry is anything but insane. People who have termed it so many know a good deal about insanity but they know little about poetry. One of the chief defects of Pound's poetry, in fact, is that it is too rational, forced, and wanting in imagination….
Pound's ideas are neither very complex nor very extensive. In the first place he is without religion and practically without a mystique of any kind. He is a rational poet, a humanist manqué, if one needs a name for him (though not many humanists would claim him). Pound's humanism is, of course, a bookish variety and derives from the periods of art and poetry he admires. The eighteenth century is about as far as he wishes to go in time, Jefferson and Adams being the main political figures he admires from our own past. The Italian Renaissance and similar periods in China are his two main focal points. In the twentieth century he tries with miserable results to equate Jefferson with Mussolini; and Mussolini he even compares with Christ…. As far as a social order goes, Pound has a vestigial idea of a kind of hierarchy based upon the good-ruler-art-patron equation; very likely it is this simple notion which led him to a study of Oriental history…. Finally there is Pound's own economic system, which according to his view could stop war, balance all national economies and bring about something like a terrestrial paradise. His precedents for this belief are a few non-usurious banks tried out here and there in history. Evidently the greatest crime Pound can invent in his world ideology is the crime of Usury; and it is because of Usury that he devotes a good deal of his prose and poetry to imprecations against capitalism and the Jews, whom he associates historically with Usura….
The Cantos are an anachronism, or rather a historical phenomenon of a certain decade of long ago. While Eliot abandoned the fads of the twenties, Pound did not. The method of the Cantos is precisely the method of The Waste Land. Had the so-called mythic method, with all its artificiality, proved successful, we may be sure Eliot would have hung on to it. No other poet has profited by this "form," and only Pound would not give it up. The reason he did not give it up is that he was still searching for the meaning of the form. The Cantos are a series of experiments that failed; they are almost scientific in their exhaustive persistence. But this hysterical search for "form" is the chief characteristic of modernism….
Mauberley is a miniature of the Cantos; it has all the defects and only a couple of suggestions of the virtues. No one but T. S. Eliot, and that for his own reasons, would ever call it a good, much less a great poem. It has the kind of skill which we associate with putting a full-rigged four-masted schooner, with people on deck, inside a bottle…. There is no question that the poem would never have reached publication, much less "greatness," had it not been for the critical hoodwinking of the Eliot-Pound team….
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley does have some sections which are good poetry: Part IV about the World War, Part V, and the envoi to Part VI. The rest is student poetry which every teacher of Creative Writing sees at least once in a semester, the weighty and deliberate display of what and how much the author knows, put into "poetry." This is not meant as a joke: it is an exact description of Mauberley, which is such a poor little poem that one turns away from it with a blush….
With Pound the scheme to save civilization with a poem is true-blue evangelism and rather poetic to boot. Pound at bottom shares that American optimism which, when it goes bad, attempts to destroy itself in a wholesale negation of everything that can be tagged American. We recognize in Pound that peculiar buffoonery of the frontier American, the intellectual dandyism of the tourist abroad, and the enormous wasted energy of the crank.
How much of Pound's worst can we attribute to the solemn encouragement of T. S. Eliot? How much to reckless journalism? How much to criticism itself, which disdains so haughtily to talk about anything except the poem in vacuo?
And yet under it all one feels a flow of sympathy, a kindliness, and a sorrow for Pound. He is such a storybook American, a sterotype, and a scapegoat certainly. And when you come right down to it, there is something lovable about the old man.
Karl Shapiro, "Ezra Pound: The Scapegoat of Modern Poetry," in his In Defense of Ignorance (copyright © 1960 by Karl Shapiro; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1960, pp. 61-85.
[It] is … the sense of measure, and how actively it may be proposed, that I found insistently in Pound's work. Rather than tell me about some character of verse, he would give the literal instance side by side with that which gave it context. This method is, of course, an aspect of what he calls the ideogrammic—it presents, rather than comments upon. The emphasis I feel to be present in all his work, from the rationale of imagism, to the latest Cantos.
Robert Creeley, "A Note on Ezra Pound," in Agenda, October-November, 1965.
[While] Pound the critic and programmist was striding into the twentieth century, Pound the poet seems to have been stuck in the nineteenth, or in a nineteenth-century idea of the Middle Ages. His language veers between what sounds suspiciously like Wardour Street and what is uncomfortably close to Dowson and fin de siècle. By comparison, admittedly, the satirical pieces in their cool and relaxed English are all the more striking—but the price is an ominously high one. It is easier to respect early Yeats than early Pound, for the former, however out-dated, has its own genuineness and spontaneity, whereas there is a sense of perverse contrivance about the latter….
Given a tendency towards dialect, imitated or concocted, and a taste for the archaic, Pound was an easy prey for the exotic, remote in space as well as in time. Despite Eliot's claim that Pound was the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time, I think it was a disaster when in 1913 Pound acquired the literary remains of Ernest Fenollosa, one of that still extant class of talented amateurs devoted to the ancient and suspicious of the modern of whom Lafcadio Hearn is probably the best known: Pound found so many new toys to play with, free from competition or restraint; and his tendency to believe that a thing really was what Ezra said it was found a large new territory in which to expand…. This mixture of carelessness and arrogance is the reverse side of Pound's energy and enterprise, and it consorts ill with the insistence of himself and his followers upon precision and clarity….
I believe that his unguided and undisciplined transactions with Eastern literature and philosophy led swiftly to a widening of the gap between word and thing, between the daughters of earth and the sons of heaven, and to an encouraged confusion of the Poundian assertion with the objective reality….
So much remains that is admirable and inspiriting: the man's inexhaustible energy, his courage and fortitude, and of course his perceptiveness in many though not all literary matters. As for the other side of it, he paid the price (and rather more) for his follies and his bad advice—which is something that many are incapable of doing. Besides the grandiosity, there is something grand about Ezra Pound.
D. J. Enright, "A Life of Ezra Pound" (1970), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 123-27.
The poetic record of an almost shattering experience, the poems of The Pisan Cantos (1948) are the culmination of all that had gone before in Ezra Pound's life and work. Conceived in humiliation, when Pound's will to endure, to survive intellectually and aesthetically, was put to its greatest test, these eleven cantos (74-84) stand as a victory won from defeat—a pledge of aspiration wrung from extremity.
When they are considered both as a distinct group and as a part of a major work, an epic, they also provide a focus for questions of form. The most directly personal of all Pound's poems, the Pisan cantos are the only ones that give the reader a satisfying sense of the man behind the work, as distinct from the persona or personae of the other poems….
As a new and climactic addition, the Pisan cantos also provide a fresh perspective for viewing the formal organization of The Cantos as a whole. Although Pound's temperamental distaste for logical or chronological organization makes for difficulty in reading, much of what has been regarded as fragmentation and inconsistency in The Cantos is the result of necessary changes and adjustments in the poet's conception of his work during successive periods of his life. Though these shifts in outlook and interests have detracted from the unity and coherence of the poem, they have not resulted in formlessness, as has often been charged. The Cantos is neither a perfectly integrated work with the kind of form desired by Yeats ("full, sphere-like, single") nor merely a collection of shards or fragments.
Certain unifying devices present from the beginning persist throughout the cantos. Among these the two most important, and closely related, are the quest theme and the author's distinctive view of history. The image of the Odyssean voyage, which Pound introduces in the first canto, supplies the main strand of thematic continuity for the work, which can best be understood as an epic (a "poem with history," in Pound's definition) focused on the artist's quest for values in the modern world. As a voyager in the stream of history (chiefly Western) from the classical past to the present, Pound presents an unchronological, highly personal view of a process in which there has been a deepening decay of standards from the classic age of Greece and Rome, with their high cultures; through the Middle Ages, which still preserved a semblance of cultural unity through the influence of the Catholic Church; through the Renaissance, which saw the rise of capitalism (the modern version of usura) and the breaking of feudal communal ties; into the modern period, with the disruptive forces of mass revolutions and world wars.
But collectively the cantos have a positive and optimistic as well as negative emphasis. Pound not only condemns the forces that have corroded communal bonds. He also points to historical periods (the Confucian age in China; the Revolutionary period in America) and exceptional persons (princes, public servants, ethical teachers, incorruptible artists) as models of the values he is eager to promote. Pound is in fact attempting to provide specifications and a manifesto for a new and better culture deriving from, the best and most enlightened values of a heritage that he has sifted and graded in a highly eclectic and individual way….
[In] The Pisan Cantos the belief in art is combined with a belief in the human capacity for endurance and love. What is most striking, perhaps, about these poems is a persistence of confidence in the midst of conditions that had brought Pound to the brink of disintegration during his ordeal in the cage. The affirmation here is based on the bedrock of human amity and love. It is what remains as an unquenchable inner resource when a cultured, humane man is stripped of his accustomed associations and his place in the world….
The mode of expression in The Pisan Cantos … violates the modernist requirements of objectivity and dramatic detachment which Pound, like Eliot, had long supported. His dropping of the mask in these poems, his speaking forth in his own person of his deprivation and his rewards, has resulted in a poetry of greater emotional depth and intensity, perhaps of greater authenticity, than much of his earlier purer, more technically consistent work. Besides a current of deep feeling, new in his poetry, and a lyricism reminiscent of his early poems, there is a sense of the poet as a human presence behind the moving words.
Walter Sutton, "The Pisan Cantos: The Form of Survival," in Sense and Sensibility in Twentieth-Century Writing, edited by Brom Weber (© 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 118-29.
Throughout his poetṙy, Pound gets himself buried; he deadens his own troublesome identity and his personal desires and conflicts through his empathy with either a poet he invokes from the dead or the shades he summons in his versions of Hades. Out of this failure of emotion, this frigidity of his own spirit and his consequent identification with a voice from a mythical realm of the dead, there emerges a persona which releases a curious combination of feelings—rage, contempt, despair, and longing for power and immortality—often expressed in a chaotic and exaggerated form which ultimately suggests the coldness and rigidity of their source….
Pound's Homage does not reflect either Propertius' intense joy in love or his terror of death; love in the Homage is a game, death more a symbol of the muted spirit than real extinction. Even Propertius' traditional assertion that his poetry will be immortal is qualified by Pound's irony. The persona of Propertius served Pound as a means by which he could express his conception of the artist alienated from the values of a society he despised, and, more important, it served as an "antiseptic," purifying the poet's feelings so that they emerge as the impersonal expression of one of his "elaborate masks." Certainly the persona of Propertius helps to control Pound's anger in the Homage, where it is a mere suggestion of the fury and contempt of his later work.
In Hugh Selwyn Mauberley Pound employs a less congenial mask. Having arranged for his own burial to "get rid of all his troublesome energies," he allows himself to speak through the desiccated form of Mauberley, a disillusioned minor artist defeated by the insensitivity of his age…. Pound is never directly present in the poem; he emerges, after his symbolic or emotional death, in the aloofness, rage, and contempt of his persona, "mere surface" reactions to the very real problems Hugh Selwyn Mauberley touches on….
The image of death discloses repression and rage in the unconscious mind of the persona most effectively in The Cantos, where the myth of Hades is basic to the structure of the poem. The Cantos begins with a journey to Hades, where Pound's persona Odysseus performs the appropriate rites for summoning the shades of the dead in order to obtain their counsel; throughout The Cantos, moreover, periodic allusions and returns to Hades establish the connection between the dead and the living, the hidden past and the demanding present. The descent is also Pound's chief means of releasing the voice of the Odysseus persona and of establishing his claim to superhuman authority.
Further analysis of Pound's persona in The Cantos and his emergence from and returns to Hades will disclose assumptions and feelings which determine the poet's approach to history, ethics, and the problems of contemporary man—the themes of his poem. The Odysseus figure of The Cantos represents not only the poet's conscious search for experience and knowledge; as Odysseus plans his journeys, enters, and leaves the underworld, he conveys the darkness of its atmosphere and the pain of its inhabitants….
In the cantos that follow Circe's invitation to love and Hades, Pound inveighs against the crimes of past and contemporary history and what he regards as their essential cause—usury. He insists that the corruption of the economy infects individual and personal experience…. There is obviously no logical justification for this simplistic attribution of all the crimes of history to one main cause—ill-understood and scarcely explained—or for the intensity of the poet's rage at and hatred of those he feels are responsible for it. Usury for Pound is not simply an economic institution; it becomes the focus of his wrath because it represents a quality of hell visible and active on earth, which he alone recognizes for what it is: a disease destroying the fertile spirit of man. A repression of nature and thus opposed to her principles, it results only in death. Its proponents are creatures of hell….
Lillian Feder, "Ezra Pound: The Voice From Hades," in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 93-113.
Unlike most American poets of his generation, [Pound] was … not concerned to develop a specifically "American" poetry. But for the most part he reacted against them, remaking himself, and, in the process helping to remake poetry. He helped teach a generation of modern poets to think of "poetry" not as a state of mind but as a craft. He taught virtues of style. For the most part, they were the old virtues of economy, force, and precision…. He advised writers not to be afraid to make their readers think, and he reminded them that poetry should be at least as well written as prose—two recommendations of tremendous meaning in the poetic milieu of that time. He urged poets to observe rhythm. Learn, he said, that to every particular state of feeling there is one minutely appropriate rhythm…. He told poets to strive for concreteness. The image does the work. And you can lay images together, side by side, and with this rapid juxtaposition create surprises, wit, suggestion. He kept reminding writers what year it was, as he reminded Eliot, in blue-penciling the manuscript of The Waste Land, that in the year 1922 he had better write "car" instead of "carriage." And despite his emphasis on form and technique, he wanted a poetry packed with actual life.
I have dwelt on the age in which he grew up and on the literary ideals he advocated, for in this area he performed his greatest work for poetry. He saw, in other words, the needs of his time, and as he educated himself, he taught and goaded others, becoming a source and center of poetic revolution. For this he will always be remembered. The sweetest part of his life was his selfless, unstinting aid of every kind to other writers and artists. Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Joyce, among others, had reason for deep personal gratitude, though they did not always express it. Of his own poetry only a small part is likely to survive for the general reader…. The personal errors that obscured his reputation will be gradually forgotten or forgiven, and his name will live….
David Perkins, "Ezra Pound (1885–1972)," in The Harvard Advocate (© 1973 by The Harvard Advocate; reprinted by permission), Vol. CVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973, p. 6.
The foreword to Selected Prose must be Pound's last published work, since it is dated July 4, 1972. Only a dozen lines, it begins modestly: "To tread delicately amid the scrapings of the cracker-barrel is no easy job and Mr. Cookson [the compiler] has made the best of it." Pound finally saw himself as just a cracker-barrel philosopher, or village explainer, as Gertrude Stein called him; but the foreword is not quite modest enough. Most of the occasional writings printed here are much worse than broken crackers. On the subjects of religion, music, Confucius, American history and economics, which take up three-quarters of the book, floor-sweepings would be a fairer description; it is only in the last 100 pages, which concern the Art of Poetry and Contemporaries, that we are offered the occasional fragment of edible biscuit.
Pound was a compulsive journalist, who boasted that he was strong enough to sit at the typewriter for eight hours a day, and he poured out a flood of articles for any journals that would take them, not because he wanted money but because his madness drove him to seek every possible platform for his views. This madness dated not from 1945 when he was hospitalized, but from 1935 or even earlier. Its symptoms appear in these articles as well as in the Cantos, in letters and in reported conversation: everything is connected with everything else, every literary topic involves economics, the Jews and usury appear on almost every page, everything is so blindingly obvious and true to the monologuist that only a fool or a knave could possibly disagree; yet nothing is explained, the reader is supposed to know just what Major Douglas or Confucius or Frobenius wrote, and before he can find out what usury or even money is, Pound has collapsed in exhaustion, his logic and syntax disintegrating….
Behind everything that Pound wrote is a hideous set of delusions, that he understood Greek, Latin and Chinese, that he knew all about scholastic philosophy and canon law, and even that he knew more about the theory of harmony than any contemporary musician except Antheil.
"Fragments of Cracker," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), March 16, 1973, p. 292.
A critic has used the French word revolté to describe Pound as a poet; that is, he was not a rebel or revolutionary in the usual sense, but like Rimbaud was revolting against everything, the world, nature, life itself. This is an evasion, I believe, as so much that is said about Pound is evasive. In The Cantos, Pound's rejection of the present, his worship of the past, though reactionary, implied that what he saw as the good things in the past were still recoverable: he was urging us to go back. His revolt in The Cantos was against a present that he had not understood: he had a subject for which he could supply only a very vague and incoherent predicate. What gleanings of substance we do find between what is largely unintelligible is—with some notable exceptions—too repugnant and biased to be taken seriously, and is consequently, by critics, English professors, fellow poets such as Robert Lowell, publishers and editors, simply and totally ignored….
Falsification on the part of the poet, Pound believed, is a crime against society: he compared it to a person who would sell defective thermometers to a hospital. Where Allen Tate has asked, why "should the poet be held responsible to society for everything that nobody else was paying any attention to?" Pound answers, "If its literature be not active a nation will die at the top … the nation decays in its head."
Perhaps Pound's work conveys a "sensibility without a mind" as Yvor Winters has said, or perhaps the money-mad Investment House/Banker/Broker culture of the USA in the first decade of the century turned him toward the confusion and obsessive practicalities of a tirade on economic theory—which contributes nothing to economics and makes very dull reading, perhaps especially when it is intelligible. His fixation on the evils of usury, his despairing forlorn hope that the Machiavellian force and fraud of II Duce would save the world through the necessary "surgery" of fascism, suggest an oddly American pragmatism where good and evil are, as he put it, what does or does not "square with reality".
To the extent that The Cantos illuminate their subject at all, we find ourselves in a very cramped and certainly finite universe, where good means a correction of the monetary system and evil is usury as practiced by the Rothschilds and other usurious "yitts". The politics are indeed polemical: fragmented feverish rantings filled with bigotry and prejudice. The erudition that has awed generations seems deliberately recondite: when the references aren't personal, therefore meaningless to any one not close to Pound, they are obstruse historical figures that far more profound scholars would probably not be able to recognize. Compared to the magnificent acceptance of Whitman that gives his work its vitality and ebullient freedom, where outrage and bitterness only expand our vision of reality, what comes through The Cantos is vitality choked back into bursts and frenzies of nervous energy and an incoherence that jolts and irritates. Yeats has described them as "nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion". To see them as the indefatigable Pound apologist, Professor Hugh Kenner, insists, as achieving unity (that is, The Cantos is rather than are) is to use language that in Pound's words is slushy and inexact, excessive and bloated. When there is no movement or development, when any part can be taken out and anything can be added without affecting the whole, what form has been achieved? Yet it is the "achieved form" of The Cantos on which Pound's exalted place in the world of poetry rests.
Evaline Bates, "E. P. and the Critics," in Chicago Review, Spring, 1973, pp. 108-15.
Somebody [in fact, it was Pound himself] has said that Pound was the last of the crackerbarrel philosophers. The remark is telling. He was a wit who occasionally hit on an observation that startled and illuminated. He didn't think; he had ideas. And these basic ideas can be identified and classified. First, he was an optimist. He thought, like my grandfather, that the future of America is limitless. We must educate the people; in their wisdom, once freed from error, they will correct all ills and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Pound, like my grandfather, seemed to have faith in a certain human, American, perfectibility. These common errors which must be corrected are perpetrated, Pound thought, by a malevolent few: Wall Street, the East, the sophisticated Europeans who are out to take the naive country boys. Europe is a bad lot: let them stew in their own juice. We Americans, unlike them, must respond to a higher calling. We are a race apart and can go on to glorious achievement. We only trust our native genius. These opinions I recognized as the clichés of another generation, but they were not in the least recondite. With Pound they came dressed in startling erudition….
The writing of this century—commercial, popular, literary—has taken the direction which he prescribed. But much of his own writing is disjointed, and crotchety, to say the least. An almost professional American who devoted his life to defining and "purifying" an American tradition, he lived outside his country for some fifty years. And in World War II he made broadcasts from Italy which earned him an indictment for treason. A man of ranging learning, he was guilty of anti-Semitism, that ultimate provincialism. He studied western culture all his life, but he regarded everybody born east of Philadelphia with suspicion. Pound could be loved more promptly than his ideas can be accepted, but if we are to understand our time, we cannot pass him by. Talking to Pound was like talking to your grandfather, your grandfather who is wise, opinionated, and old fashioned.
Robert E. Knoll, "Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1973, pp 1-13.
I don't believe anyone can hope to understand our time without immersion in religion, Marxism and the Cantos. The visionary Paradiso seeks realization in the Paradiso Terrestre; both are conjured in the Cantos. Christianity today is sterile without its natural body, Marxism, and Marxism is disensouled without Christianity. Each alone is Blake's 'single vision', the Sleep of Ulro—a one-eyed perception of a reality that's at least four-dimensional. The historical sense is still as important, and not only for poets, as Eliot said it was, and perhaps the thirty-nine articles. But what's certain is that history is economic history, and a poet who doesn't understand the connection of human suffering in our time to economics knows nothing about the central subjects of poetry—and will be destined for the ashcan, to use a Poundism….
Pound's economics are not radical enough for me—I don't believe anything less than the complete, planned and phased-out abolition of money can allow us a future of more than a decade or two. But Pound's writings on economics, generously contained in Selected Prose, still contain essential (and simple) information most people are ignorant about. With sections on Religion, America, Money, Civilization and Poetry, it may be 'the bottom of the cracker-barrel' (Pound's late words), but it contains things Pound enthusiasts have been wanting around for years; it's an essential adjunct to the Cantos, and if perused will light up many otherwise obscure pages of the great poem….
Pound's amazing failures worry me as much as anyone. After all, his friend Hemingway wrote of Mussolini that there must be something wrong, even histrionically wrong, about a leader who wore white spats with a black shirt—just the sort of poetic insight that surely ought to have jerked Pound out of it? But the Cantos are still the big poetic adventure—the very cover still has glamour, the errors are becoming intriguing and tragic mysteries. And as the Cantos become more understood and are retailed to new generations of students, they may yet help to create a new civilization. In the meantime it's only necessary to read 'capitalism' for 'usury'.
Herbert Lomas, in London Magazine, Vol. 13, No. 2, June/July, 1973, pp. 144-45.
This man from Hailey, Idaho, who in exile liberated American poetry from effeteness, decoration, rhetoric, from a rhythm resembling that of the metronome, is still influencing poets from Allen Ginsberg to Robert Bly. Pound, dead in Venice, on November 2, 1972, at the age of 87, left more to poets, however, than his well-known poetic dicta. His "don'ts" may have overturned the traditional poetic line, hardened diction, and restored the natural object to its rightful center in the poet's vision, but his propaganda, whether accurate or pernicious, had an even more revolutionary effect: it gave back to the poem its political and economic subject matter. The neo-epic was born.
Though the confessional school has set poetry back at least a decade (to paraphrase Williams on the publication of The Waste Land), there are signs that poets are beginning to realize that looking at their own navels is an infantile preoccupation, or what Pound has described as a "howl[ing] and weep[ing]" out of the "lavender sachet." In an article published in The New England Weekly in 1935 that is collected in this long overdue edition of the poet's Selected Prose 1909–1965, Pound summed up in one of his most significant critical statements why infantilism is not art: "A work of art, any serious work," he wrote, "vivifies a man's total perception of relations." Those relations reflect the status of the body politic, not, in the manner of the confessional poets, the status of the poet's physical body, in love or in decay. Pound realizes that "a work of art need not contain any statement of a political or of a social or of a philosophical conviction, but it nearly always implies one"—unless of course the writer is willing to succumb, to quote Pound again, to a "mere relaxation, slumber stuff, escape mechanisms," to the "bric-a-brac category."…
Cookson demonstrates through his prose selections [for Selected Prose 1909–1965] that Pound's world has not only a "unity" of vision and an "integrity of … concerns," but that these concerns, because they go beyond aesthetics into large questions of economics and history, "give the Cantos order and profundity," and establish the greatness of Ezra Pound.
Harriet Zinnes, "In the Classical Tradition," in The Nation, December 10, 1973, pp. 634-36.
If ever a dead man needed living men to help him, it is Pound; and if ever a living generation risked misfortune in the failure to perform its duty, it is ours. The dead go on and on in time with the rest of us, and unless they go honestly, unless they go as themselves, as what they really are, we may all be led astray….
Pound, though he has not lacked for stupid critics, suffered not at the hands of others but at his own. It was he himself who invented the dead man who survives him. Where the body carried down the dark canals should have been that of a great and innovative poet, it was instead the body of a man once tried for treason; a man who had defended fascism in strident public broadcasts at the very moment when that unspeakable beastliness had all but conquered the continent of Europe; a man whose name was associated with the most idiotic literary squabble of the age—in brief, the man the television cameras and the newspapers remembered. And that man, though not the truth of Ezra Pound, was Pound's creation….
[The] issue raised [in response to the award to Pound of the Bollingen Prize while he was imprisoned in St. Elizabeth's] was not the justice of Pound's incarceration but the justice of the award of a national prize to a man indicted for treason….
Critics and intellectuals, particularly those who thought of themselves as constituting the avant-garde, rushed to the defense of Pound in a roar of rage. Excellence in poetry, they informed the yokels, had nothing to do with right-mindedness or morality or patriotism or anything else but excellence in poetry. A criminal or a pervert, a pimp or a pederast, could be as good a poet as John Milton and probably better, and as for fascism, look at D'Annunzio! Nothing very intelligent was said about the reasons for all this, nor did anyone ask where it left the art of poetry—but the effect was overwhelming. And so was the harm to Pound. No one bothered to ask what Pound thought: It was simply taken for granted that he must believe in an aesthetic that would justify his political aberrations, a poetry to which the human world, the moral world, the historical world, is irrelevant. And the consequence was that the dead man who was carried down the dark canal was, in addition to everything else, a dilettante.
Of all the lying masks, this, of course, is the most palpably fraudulent. Pound was one of the inventors of modern poetry: in retrospect, one must say, the principal inventor. And modern poetry, which is still the poetic achievement of the century, is a poetry committed to the human world, to the historical world, the moral world, as Yeats's work after Responsibilities proves and Eliot's Waste Land and Perse and Neruda and Seferis and the rest of those enduring names, with Pound's not last or least. The nearest thing we have, either in prose or verse, to a moral history of our tragic age is the Cantos of Ezra Pound, that descent, not into Dante's hell, but into our own. And the greatest contribution our century has made to the enrichment of the tradition of poetry is the translation of that most human poetry, the Chinese: a work in which Pound played an impressive and influential part. To bury this man as a dilettante is a distortion of the truth indeed.
So we are left at the end, as so often in tragic life, with a dilemma. We can burn this dead man's bones clean of the taint of treason and clean off the reek of dilettantism, but the flaw of the Roman broadcasts still remains. There is no use pretending, as some still do, that Pound was insane when all that happened. The Pisan Cantos were written afterward, and it was in those later years that he himself saw clearly where the fault had been. He was not mad in any meaningful sense of the word when he ranted on the Fascist radio. But he was deluded: deluded on the central issue of his time. His fame must suffer for it as he suffered. But the suffering should be just. The Venetian grave holds neither fool nor traitor but, like Elpenor's, an unhappy man … who was a poet also … a master poet for whom a mound should now be raised on the shore of the gray sea.
Archibald MacLeish, "The Venetian Grave," in Saturday Review/World (© 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted by permission), February 9, 1974, pp. 26-9.
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