Among the poets of the modernist
movement in the early twentieth century
, Ezra Pound
stands out as one of the most critically respected yet most obscure. He fathered many of the important ideas of the age, served as a mentor and friend to several significant figures
, and became the driving force behind sub-movements within the broader literary revolution, yet he is not widely read. Much of this can be attributed to his intimate association with Italian fascism
and his documented anti-Semitism
, which leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many readers. While these portions of his life cannot be ignored, they aren't proper grounds on which to critique his work
. The poetry of Ezra Pound was about more than just his economic theories and distorted perceptions of politics. He was both a master craftsman and keen observer of the realities of humanity's psychological existence. The poetry of Ezra Pound was first and foremost concerned with the accurate relation of human experience. He saw the poet as a distiller of emotion and spirituality into a concise, expressive image.
Songs from the Past
When examining a work of poetry by Ezra Pound, the impression of immense weight is impossible to resist. There is a pervasive feeling of significance, rooted in no specific element. The epic quality to Pound's work was not unintentional, but carefully constructed to reflect his opinions on the place of history and culture in the relation of our race's story. There could be no full depiction of the story of man, whether in specific or the abstract, that did not take the works of man's history into account. Pound chose his sources carefully, but he immersed himself in their detail. He believed that history and mythology were vital to encompassing the range of human experience and effectively interwove the traditions of Provence and Italy, the mythology of Greece and Rome, and Classical Chinese poetry into his works.
In both his shorter works and the longer Cantos, Pound relied on much of the work from medieval Provençal and Italian tradition. The most evident expression of this inspiration appears in his use of the bards who ranged across southern France and Italy throughout the middle ages. He had an encyclopaedic memory of bards' names and exploits. T. S. Eliot has commented that, "One of Pound's most indubitable claims to genuine originality is, I believe, his revivification of the Provençal and Italian poetry" (Pound 11). No poet before him had been so concerned with a relatively obscure era of Western civilization's history. His knowledge came not only from historic discussions but also first-hand documents, for he was fluent in both Langue d'Oc and Italian. Pound saw in the bards of the region a microcosm of humanity to which he could most easily relate and describe. His intense interest in the legends of their lives helps bring them from the dusty confines of history books into breathing life. "The people who tire of Pound's Provence and Pound's Italy are those who cannot see... [them] except as museum pieces, which is not how Pound sees them, or how he makes others see them" (Pound 11). Although seemingly archaic, Pound's persistence in establishing his characters of Provence and Italy as true persons, worthy of consideration not as abstracts but as concrete examples of the human experience allows him to deftly incorporate them into his poetry. Their most important artistic achievements, the songs, became for Pound a convenient vehicle for relating his own poetic expression. In Praise of Ysolt he is far more comfortable and convincing defending himself through the speaker of a Provençal bard than he would be in his own persona.
In vain have I striven,
to teach my heart to bow;
In vain have I said to him
'There be many singers greater than thou.
But his answer cometh, as winds and as lutany,
As a vauge crying upon the night
That leaveth me no rest, saying ever,
'Song, a song.' (1-8)
Pound's revitalization of the static into the dynamic occurred with more than just bards of Provence and Italy. Like many poets, he drew great inspiration and motivation from the classics of Greece and Roman, but unlike them he placed special insistence on their use as a living artistic source rather than relics of bygone ages. Early in his career Pound made a name for himself lambasting the treatment of Classics by modern scholars. "Pound constantly attacked the growing academism whereby 'the critical faculty is discouraged'" (Hesse 215). He thought the first important step towards revitalization of the Classics was "discrimination in classical studies" (Hesse 215). By turning off one's sense of evaluation when greeted with anything produced before the fall of Rome, Pound felt that one was not giving the Classics their due, and subconsciously would disregard them. Holding them under the same standards as any other piece of literature would not only eliminate sub-par works of the ages, it would also give one a new appreciation of their significance and allow one to incorporate them legitimately into one's artistic expression without an aura of staleness. And this was just what Pound did. He often incorporated the gods of olden times into his poetry, finding in them a more accurate and complex picture of human experience than that given by later Christianity. Of note is that, unlike his philosophical companion T. S. Eliot, Pound never used the Bible except in deconstructive references. When he could be bothered to even concern himself with it, he "turns the authority of the Bible against itself" (Morisson 35). But his true effort was usually directed toward projecting his ideas into the stories of the gods, liberally relating myths of Greece and Rome in vivid language to serve as a weighty testament to the one facet of human experience upon which he would focus. One famous example of this merging of old into new is his running parallel between Odysseus and himself in the exploratory epic, The Cantos. His search for redemption of the human race is smoothly framed into Odysseus' own search for home.
While much of Pound's work was original, a great contigent of it took more direct inspiration from Classical sources and served as a translation. His knowledge of Chinese gave him a rare perspective on a different world of poetic conception from which he derived many of his ideas. His translations of Classical Chinese poetry, however, were more than just translations. While a word-for-word literal translation would get across the symbols involved, the meanings behind them would be lost. It is necessary for a translator to fill in the blanks with his own inspiration, to deviate from the main text by remaining true to the ideas behind the words. Pound was a master of this, having become intimately familiar with translation as a refined practice with his discussion of examining authors through their translators. "He introduced the radical and important method... of looking at Homer through his translators, which is not the same as looking at Homer from a translator's point of view" (Hesse 217). The translator is not a clear window through which a foreign work is examined, he makes his own contributions and refinements which subtly transform the work into part of his own as well. When Pound examined poetry of Classical China, he did so well-aware of his own perspective, perhaps even bias. He was vitally concerned with the economic interpretation of history (similar to Marxism), and this came through in his translations. "The switch, from an 18th century Frenchman's conception of Chinese history to the world of John Adams, makes good sense" (Cookson 62). It was the perspective that came most easily to him and allowed for the smoothest transition between languages. Pound's translations, with his contributions and refinements, became more than just translations; they were reinterpretations. "Chinese poetry as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound" (Pound 15). In this he was very similar to the Elizabethan poets of England who translated the works of Petrarch. In later times it would be recognized that those 'translations' were artistic achievements in of themselves. It is not that he produced the original works, it is that his contributions to expressing the ideas behind them in the English language cannot be ignored as an artistic expression of their own.
The Mathematic of Emotion
In this time when postmodernism reigns, it sometimes takes very little to be considered a great artist. The idea is all important, its method of communication is relegated to the background. The more direct, the more shocking, the better. While Ezra Pound certainly recognized the importance of meaning, or meta-meaning, this was not enough for him. Poetry was not just about the evocation of a feeling or mood, it was also a craft. As such a certain amount of skill was necessary. Before throwing yourself head-long at that spatter-painted expression of your distopian, post-structuralist angst, learn to draw. For Pound, proper, refined technique was an absolutely necessary step toward the depiction of human experience.
Pound was not a poet to pretend he had no source of inspiration save the confines of his own mind. He freely acknowledged not only the myriad of academic sources from which he derived inspiration, but also the persons whose work he admired and emulated. The regard Pound showed for his contemporaries, Robert Browning and William Butler Yeats, reflected the importance he laid on the refinement of technique. In his early days Pound, "declared... that Yeats was the only poet worthy of serious study" (Hesse 55). He examined traditional poetic values and added them to his collection of tools for evoking his ideas. The emotional tenor of Yeats' work finds resonance with Pound's own poetry, especially of his early periods. "Certain of the early poems are obviously affected by the technical influence of Yeats" (Pound 12). His other greatest personal influence came in the form of Robert Browning. Describing a collection of Pound's early poetry, T. S. Eliot posited, "in Lustra there is the voice of Browning" (Pound 13). Pound gained his skill with use of free verse and dialect from Browning. He would never have as realistically portrayed his characters of Provence, Greece and Rome without the technique of word localization to the speaker at hand without Browning's influence. So great was Pound's admiration that he composed a poem of tribute, Mesmerism, which also served as a test of his skill in emulating Browning.
Ayre you're a man that! ye old mesmerizer
Tyin' your meanin' in seventy swadelin's,
One must of needs be a hang'd early riser
To catch you at worm turning, Holy Odd's bodykins! (1-4)
Pound as a poet was a master of efficient usage. To him there must be no wasted space, a poet cannot afford to distract his reader with anything which does not directly move toward the poet's purpose. This requirement extended not just to meanings, but also to technique. All elements of technique to Pound, from word choice to meter, must contribute toward the final goal of evocation. The starting point was the simple techniques which Pound believed all poets should at least have some familiarity, if not put into regular use. "In poetry there are simple procedures and there are known discoveries" (Kenner 30). Without a thorough knowledge of these, a poet would be needlessly reinventing the wheel, and probably doing a far worse job of it than his ancient predecessors. Once this was done, other new techniques might be utilized. Pound was well known for his use of free verse, but it was not to him any sort of rebellion against the fixed verse of previous ages. He did not want to do away with meter, but instead he wanted to elevate it. He wanted to give it as much flexibility as possible, while still always keeping in mind that the meter should serve to further a poem's theme at all times. "Time after time its author gives rhythmic and melodic articulation to states of consciousness" (Kenner 109). Word choice as well was put under the gun by Pound's insistence on efficiency. He was an enemy of rhetoric for rhetoric's sake. "In decrying the classical and renaissance cult of verbosity, Pound's alignment is with the line of tirelessly moral aphoristic wisdom running from Seneca through Montaigne into the French Enlightenment" (Kenner 44). A word was to exist with is purpose well set, only as many of them as absolutely necessary. Flowery language, while perhaps charming, was to Pound an obstruction toward the more important goal of communication. This clearly informed his poetic style, which packed words with as much meaning as they could hold, and sometimes a little more for good measure.
Critics of Pound have often leveled the accusation that his tendency of including obscure references and sudden shifts in language, from Provençal to Greek to Chinese and many other examples in between, was an exercise in obfuscation. It was, however, never his intention to lead the reader astray, he had no need to. There was certainly no deficiency of meaning to hide. Much of Pound's more difficult technical choices were not intentionally made to obstruct, but instead served specific purposes in furthering his poetic conception. Pound often felt that the sense he was trying to evoke didn't have a satisfactorily expressive equivalent in English. It wasn't so much that the language was incapable of rendering his idea, rather the interconnection of ideas and philosophies like a branching web could not be recreated without going to its source. Pound was irritated with commentators who sought too far for references and paid no attention to the emotional weight of a borrowed phrase in its isolation. "There would be less disputation... if the prevalent critical tradition could relax a little from its digging among sources... Pound's impatience with critics was largely on such a basis" (Kenner 68). Pound himself was quoted as saying, "I believe that, when finished, all foreign words in The Cantos, Greek, etc., will be underlinings, not necessary to the sense" (Cookson xix). In The Cantos specifically, he often used foreign phrases to foreshadow future occurrences within the sequence, lending them a more mysterious and weighty air. Likewise the disconnected, sporadic nature of his connections was intentional. He felt there was no better way to model his poetic expression on the workings of the human mind itself. His poetry seems somewhat like a miniturized version of E2, with hardlinks and softlinks of ideas guiding the reader haphazardly but inevitably towards his final conclusion. "The looseness of organization over long stretches of The Cantos is deliberate. For only if we are presented with references thus disorganized can we appreciate their gradual drawing together" (Baumann 212). In the end, it is up to the reader to strive ahead through the difficult technical choices, for beyond lies a rich realm of meaning. "The hard shell of difficulty is in most places very thin. No poet is less mysterious once we have entered his world" (Kenner 13).
A Mosaic of Words
When the name of Ezra Pound is mentioned, if he is known at all, most will associate him with the founding of the Imagism. This is accurate, as he is truly the father of that trend in modernist poetry, however near its end he had practically disowned it over conflicts with Amy Lowell. Nonetheless, Pound saw the Image, a concrete expression lended abstract meaning through objective correlative, as a vital tool toward expression. Image was to Pound the best, most accurate method of evoking the emotions and ideas of human experience.
Beyond all else, Pound wanted his images to be precise. "The whole key to Pound, the basis of his Cantos, his music, his economics, and everything else, is this concern for exact definition" (Kenner 37). This exact definition meant that the poet must exercise the utmost caution in his writing. Relating back to the importance of efficiency, Pound was obsessive over the most thorough depiction of his subject possible. He wanted to dig down to its ultimate core, to rip away any assumptions or misconceptions and reveal some aspect of humanity in its naked reality. Typically, Pound used a Chinese idiom to summarize his ideology of precision; cheng ming, 'call things by their right names'. He oftened used the ideograms for this concept through his poetry, using the 'right name' for his philosophy of right names. All was to be sacraficed for him to the principle of truth, that there was something real and unchanging at the root of all things, a forma, which a poet could clearly and quickly uncover. "The forma, the pattern Pound perceives at the bottom of all the luminous manifestations of the universe" (Baumann 43). It was a concept decidedly in conflict with the relativism of later literary works. It is worth noting that this concept was not unconnected with Pound's sympathies toward fascism. "Any commitment to the principle of cheng ming needs to recall the very real violence that attended its imposition and administration in China" (Morisson 31). The infection of authoritarianism in stress on absolute correct interpretation is impossible to remove.
With so much stress on the depiction of an Image, it is trivially easy to slip and create a static, lifeless view onto something unreal, a crude model of true experience. The images Pound sought were always in movement, and he was careful to keep them from becoming superfluous through this stress on vitality. "If you can't think of imagism or phanopoeia as including the moving image, you will have to make a really needless division of fixed image and praxis, or action" (Kenner 57). To keep the image rooted in reality it must not stand still, it must run through the poem fluidly and dynamically. But what does it mean to say, 'an image in movement'? Pound's definition tied in typically with his stress on technique. "The 'motion' of the moving image is contained, ultimately, in the word-to-word jostle of language itself" (Kenner 62). The words themselves must bring the image to life, they must form the bridge between image and action. In this the efficiency of Pound's technique again comes into play. He explained his method of evoking image by saying, "The image is to be presented to the mind's eye without superfluous words, and without the opposite danger of presenting merely a pretty noise" (Kenner 60). The perfect balance between significance and superfluity was always Pound's final goal. A detailed description is worthless if each of those details is not vital to the meaning behind the image. Abstraction must never be mixed with concrete, dulling the image, but rather connected by course of thought. Pound found a perfect model for his belief in the use of image with the Japanese hokku, a short poem similar to a haiku but with further restrictions. "The action of the simplest category of lyric, the two-line Japanese hokku with which Pound experimented extensively" informed Pound's more complicated use of Image in his later poems. In the end, the poet must relinquish the duty of an Image's final completion to his reader, or all the effort of refinement would come to naught. Pound preferred to craft a situation that would evoke ideas rather than communicate too directly. "Pound aimed to express, not 'ideas' some of which admittedly cannot be expressed in this way, but rather a state of mind in which ideas... tremble at the edge of expression" (Hesse 209). This was the most important intention of Pound's Imagism.
All Ezra Pound's techniques and philosophies resolved themselves ultimately to one truth. He wished to encompass as wholy as possible the range of human experience, distilling it into its most pure form through his poetry. His aims greatly influenced other members of the modernist movement around him. He made major contributions to the progression of literary theory and poetic technique with his wide academic knowledge of history and mythology. Even those who sharply criticize his poetry on the grounds of being outdated and incompatible with modern postmodern conceptions must acknowledge that without his driving force pervading modernism, they would have no 'repressive system' to rail against. He was a vital figure of the history of poetry, and will hopefully serve as a source of artistic inspiration just as he found inspiration of the works of his predecessors.
- Baumann, Walter. Roses from the Steel Dust. Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 2000.
- Cookson, William. A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. London: Croom Helm, 1985.
- Hesse, Eva. New Approaches to Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
- Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Farber & Farber, 1951.
- Morrison, Paul. The Poetics of Fascism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Pound, Ezra. Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1928.
This piece was the salvaging of a subpar research paper for an American Literature course. Node Your Homework better.