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The voice impersonator.

Ezra Pound is the supreme ventriloquist of American literature. Over the course of his long and often scandalous career, he turn by turn assumed the voices of a medieval Italian sonneteer of the dolce stil nuovo school, a Confucian sage, a Provencal bard, a Latin erotic elegist, a Noh dramatist, and even that of a transplanted Yankee modernist. Pound restlessly adopted as many guises as "kulchur" in the grandest sense could afford him. If these disparate voices still manage to display a certain shaky coherence, that is only because Pound possessed an unusual gift for the music of words; in the matter of verse he had what could be termed perfect word-pitch. How else, except through his remarkable instinct for verbal cadences, could frontier Idaho, where he was born in 1885, coalesce so improbably with Medici Florence and Han China, how else could the small-town swaggerer on his stump-pulpit conceal the troubadour? And yet, given his cranky and vicious opinions, had Pound not labored with dogged determination to cultivate his gift, he might very well have ended up as a ranting evangelist in a windy revival tent.

Pound's polyphony carries through all his twenty-six books and constitutes his signature. Of course, the larger, and unavoidable, problem with this most musical of our poets is that he too often donned the ill-fitting mask of the public intellectual; unable to trust his own individual accents, he turned into a cock-eyed purveyor of muddled dogmas. That a poet of such native talent, to which almost every page of the Library of America's wonderful new edition attests, (1) should feel so drawn to convictions--Fascism and the vilest brand of anti-Semitism chief among them--that were not merely hare-brained but downright murderous, suggests that Pound (in this at least like Faust) had "two souls, alas, dwelling within his breast." In Pound's case, however, the twin souls, locked in enforced hypostasis, were those of a sensitive lyricist and a profoundly deluded bigot. In my opinion, the virtuosic ventriloquism and the intellectual and moral shallowness are not unconnected.

In The Cantos, the magnum opus he toiled on from 1913 until his death in 1972, brilliance and blather lie so close together as to be well nigh inextricable except in judiciously sanitized anthology pieces. In the Poems and Translations the issue does not arise right away, or at least not so conspicuously. Throughout The Cantos we must pick a path amid the clotted rubble of discredited attitudes and shrill sloganeering (not to mention those deadening historical asides) to light upon amazing passages that for a moment make it all seem worthwhile:
 So that the vines burst from my fingers
 And the bees weighted with pollen

 Move heavily in the vine-shoots:
 chirr--chirr--chr-rikk--a purring sound,
 and the birds sleepily in the branches.


A man who can write like that (and this is only one of the many passages that I could quote) but instead turns to
 But in Russia they bungled and did not apparently
 Grasp the idea of work-certificate
 And started the N.E.P. with disaster


deserves to be horse-whipped, even posthumously. Pound's authority as a poet came from his command of song; too often, however, song commanded him. He followed words wherever they might lead him. He adhered, I suspect, to the puzzling line of his friend and mentor, and sometime pupil, W. B. Yeats who once wrote: "for words alone are certain good." This sounds fine but is the purest sophistry, as Yeats himself would come to realize. Words in themselves are neither good nor bad, nor are they substitutes for the things they signify. Pound the medievalist fell for that fallacy defined by the medieval logicians as the failure to distinguish between de re and de dictu, between the thing itself and an assertion about the thing, and it proved, for him, a tragic fallacy.

A further corollary to Pound's uncanny knack for mimicry is the striking anonymity of his manner as his work develops. This edition permits one to see how he moved, in stages and false starts, not merely from apprentice to master but to a kind of abolition of individual intonation. The result is that, though there is obvious progress as he sheds the Victorian mannerisms which for so long held him captive, his last work is not so strikingly different from his first. It is as though his whole career were an effort to recapture that unformed, almost generic tone which flashes briefly from certain early pieces. An example is the opening of "Cino," which appeared in his 1908 collection A Lume Spento, printed in Venice at his own expense:
 Bah! I have sung women in three cities,
 But it is all the same;
 And I will sing of the sun.


Compare this with a stanza that appeared in his 1964 volume Translations:
 I, Arnaut, love the wind, doing
 My hare-hunts on an ox-cart,
 And I swim against the torrent.


Certainly the later lines are more assured but the borrowed braggadocio is the same and we wonder, in both instances, as to who in fact is speaking. The persona, Pound's beloved mask-face, of the later poem may have a richer glaze or be more spider-webbed at the corners of the eyes but it is still a speaking surface, the masquerade of a voice, rather than a specific and irreducibly distinctive one; it would not plot on a voice-graph.

I stress this not to discredit or belittle Pound but because it is of his essence as a poet. As the man got more and more crusty, obstreperous and repellent, the poet grew ever more impersonal, translucent and serene; especially in reading his many translations from the Chinese, which occupy the major portion of the present edition, one gets the impression that, in his lyrics at least, Pound was striving not so much to be a modernist but a kind of archaic folk-poet, or, indeed, a whole folk unto himself:
 With thud of the deep drum,
 Flutes clear, doubling over all,
 Concord evens it all, built on
 The stone's tone under it all.
 T'ang's might is terrible
 With a sound as clear and sane
 As wind over grain.


I wonder sometimes whether the strange facelessness of his most characteristic work was not a lifelong reaction to the excesses of his early period. For many years Pound was committed to deliberately archaic diction, all too evident in the present compilation. I suspect that his immersion in the language and literature of Italy may have been partly responsible for this unfortunate phase. Certainly his antiquarian manner is most on display in his versions of Italian poets. Italy represented the fount and origin of Pound's inspiration; he began his serious writing there and there he ended. And as much as it nourished him, Italy also--Pound's own private Italy--prompted some of his worst excesses, the ugliest of which are the Cantos (LXXII and LXXIII, for example) he composed directly in Italian (I translate a brief sample: "In the beginning, God/the great aesthete, after having created heaven and earth ... shat out the great usurer Satan-Geryon/prototype of Churchill's bosses"). But his involvement with that country and its tradition poses something of a puzzle. The Italian poets within Pound's wide range, from St. Francis and Cavalcanti to Leopardi--he ignored the Baroque as well as Mannerism--write a plain and straightforward Italian with few flourishes; it is, in fact, part of their glory to have scaled such heights of expression with such simple means. But when Pound comes to translate them he indulges in affectations of diction and phrasing that often seem grotesque. By contrast, his translations from the Greek, Latin, or Chinese rarely display these antics.

Of course, as anyone knows who has ever attempted to translate medieval Italian verse, it is exceedingly difficult to avoid padding, either overt or surreptitious. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom the young Pound admiringly termed his "mother and father" in the matter of verse translation, succeeded because his highly wrought pre-Raphaelite language was his own native idiom; it was not at war with his personal manner. But for Pound, toiling in Rossetti's wake, the problem was subtler: how to "make it new" without traducing either the spirit or the forms of the originals? Victorianisms, by which I mean the use of older verb forms ("heareth," "listeth," etc.) and obsolete adverbs, among other devices, do provide a quick fix; they allow the translator to enhance the cadence of his English by providing a small lilt, especially to our monosyllabic verbs. Pound has frequent recourse to such effects, as in his otherwise excellent translation of Guido Guinicelli's sonnet 'Vedut'ho la lucente stella Diana":
 I have seen the shining star of the dawn
 Appearing ere the day yieldeth its whiteness.


"Yields" would have sounded too abrupt a note while "yieldeth" suggests the ripple of the original; but at the same time, because he wants to avoid "before"--"appearing before the day" would have staggered the melody--he resorts to the outmoded "ere" and this, in league with "yieldeth," imparts a fatal mustiness to the line.

The nadir of this tendency occurs in Pound's rendering of Cavalcanti's "Donna mi prega" ("A Lady Asks Me," which by an unfortunate typo became "Donna mi pregna," a "lady impregnates me" in Pound's edition!). This notoriously difficult ballata, perhaps the subtlest and most arcane in the Italian language, becomes even more puzzling and opaque in Pound's version, of which the following is a representative sample:
 Look drawn from like,
 Delight maketh certain in seeming
 Nor can in covert cower,
 Beauty so near,
 Not yet wild-cruel as darts,
 So hath man craft from fear
 In such his desire
 To follow a noble spirit,
 Edge, that is, and point to the dart.


Pound struggled to divest himself of such mannerisms but it was a long and painful process (admirably detailed, by the way, in A Serious Character, Humphrey Carpenter's 1988 biography of the poet). Interestingly enough, the Cavalcanti versions, some of which date from 1912 or thereabouts but most of which were not published until 1932 ("Donna mi prega" was finished in 1928), reveal Pound still caught up in his Victorian trammels long after he had foresworn it elsewhere. For a poet reluctant to write in propria persona, a poet with a facility for poetic impersonation but lacking his own unmistakable manner, it was perhaps irresistible to mimic an established mode of discourse and even to carry it to preposterous extremes.

In this respect, it is striking how rarely Pound chooses to translate poets possessed of an intense individuality: Cavalcanti but not Dante, Gautier but not Baudelaire, Chinese poets whose names have been lost, but not Li Po or Du Fu. Only in such more accommodating models could he discover a platform for his own impersonations. His gift was symbiotic; it needed a host to thrive.

Rather mercilessly, the present volume spares Pound (and us) nothing in reproducing some of his attempts to achieve a more direct and contemporary manner, such as the long and awful poem "Redondillas," written around 1911, where we read:
 I would sing the American people,
 God send them some civilization;
 I would sing of the nations of Europe,
 God grant them some method of cleansing
 The fetid extent of their evils.


As Walter Benjamin once remarked of Stefan George, the poet-herald of the Third Reich, never was a prophet more punished by God in having his prophecies fulfilled. The same could be said of Pound.

Thanks to Sieburth's edition, we can witness for ourselves how the great poems began to emerge from the sumps of fustian and rant. We can gauge how very far Pound had come by, say, 1919 when "Homage to Sextus Propertius" appeared. There is little in Pound's work before or after to equal that sequence:
 When, when, and whenever death closes our apparently
 Moving naked over Acheron
 Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
 Marius and Jugurtha together,
 One tangle of shadows.

 Caesar plots against India
 Tigris and Euphrates shall from now on, flow at his bidding,
 Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
 The Parthians shall get used to our statuary
 And acquire a Roman religion;
 One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
 Marius and Jugurtha together


Style and subject are inseparably melded here and the motion of the verses enchants; the alteration and varying placement of long and short lines augment the solemnity of the measure while the simplicity of the diction keeps it from turning portentous. The "Homage" is a fine example of what Pound was working towards as early as 1912 when he opened a poem with the line "I would bathe myself in strangeness." In the early poem it is still affectation; in the mature poem the strangeness has been woven into the very texture of the verse.

This is the thirteenth volume devoted to a poet or to poetry in the Library of America, and it is one of the very best. The volume itself has a plump, apostolic feel, like an old Roman Missal, and the scraggly young Pound who peers out from the jacket photo looks at once shy and supercilious. Pound often took up earlier poems in later collections and his various books overlap. Richard Sieburth, his editor, has not reproduced all these multiple inclusions and so the successive collections cannot be read here as they were issued (it is hard to see how he might have done otherwise without unduly swelling an already thick tome). His notes, both textual and factual, are exemplary and his chronology of Pound's long career is especially fine, not least because he includes numerous anecdotes and comments (some of them quite bitchy) about the poet. In certain volumes of the Library of America, the chronologies have been occasionally too sparse and not all the editions of poets have seemed as full and rich as this one. For example, while it is good to have Wallace Stevens in the series, the space constraints give his more ample poems a cramped look, as if a maharaja had been squeezed into a tenement (the chronology in the Stevens volume is faulty too: the editor, for reasons of her own, suppressed such facts as Stevens's death-bed conversion to Catholicism). To follow Pound's recapitulations and regroupings of his poems you will still need the admirable old New Directions imprints, but for the sheer pleasure of reading him this is the book to have.

Near the end of this commodious edition, Sieburth includes Pound's versions of two Greek tragedies. Reading these within the context of the collected poems is revelatory, for it is as if the clamoring welter of voices that had inhabited Pound from the beginning of his career were here given free and virtually pandemoniac rein. I have never seen these performed and it's hard to imagine how they might sound; the dialogue ranges--zigzags would be an apter term--from high and lofty pronouncement to bursts of transliterated Greek to kooky echoes of popular verse and song, from folk to what, with its weird redneck timbres, sounds like early Country Western:
 She's somebody, all right, all right.
 Name's Iole, and 'Rytus her father.
 And Likhas hadn't found that out
 'cause he hadn't troubled to ask her.


Or this, from his version of "Elektra":
 Tell me, or lemme tell you what good it cd/do me
 To stop objecting out loud
 I'm not dead yet, it's a dirty life
 But my own.


These versions read like a full-scale realization of Eliot's original title for The Waste Land: "He Do the Police in Different Voices." Significantly, what drama there is in Pound's versions of Sophocles arises not from the action but from the concatenation of divergent voices. Elektra at one point is described as bursting into song "like wild Sioux injun war dance with tommy hawks," and after chanting three lines of Greek, delivers herself of this:
 Oh to hell with all the hens
 In the old hen house
 I ain't afraid of hens
 Cause they ain't a bit of use.


Pound finished the translations while confined in St. Elizabeth's Hospital and it shows. There is something mad and pathetic and desperate in these final efforts. Yeats felt the circus animals desert him at the end but in Pound's case it seems as though the music of words had taken on terrible and uncontrollable shapes as they defected. In self-imposed exile in Italy in his final years, he fell into intractable silence, never attempting to explain his earlier actions or to summon back those voices which had once danced so willingly to the tap of his baton.

(1) Poems and Translations, by Ezra Pound, edited by Richard Sieburth; The Library of America, 1363 pages, $45.00.
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Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Words:2779
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