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A major minor: Ezra Pound's poetry.

The Pound that matters is early Pound, essentially the Pound of the London years. He arrived in London to stay (he had visited earlier) on August 14, 1908 and within a decade or so of that date had composed most of what is permanently valuable in his enormous oeuvre.

Pound had been a bright and prolific young poet before settling in London. He was born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885 and educated at Hamilton and Penn; Humphrey Carpenter, in his excellent biography, tells of how, back at Penn in 1906 to write a doctoral thesis on the gracioso in Spanish drama, Pound
 put his name down for classes in Provencal, Sicilian poetry, the Chanson de
 Roland, Boccaccio, Dante ... and plays by Lope de Vega and his
 contemporaries ... he abandoned it all almost at once, scarcely turning up
 for anything.


It's an anecdote prophetic both of Pound's slapdash ways with languages and of his almost total ignorance of drama.

The atmosphere in which Pound began writing poetry was informed by the Decadent and Pre-Raphaelite aestheticizing of writers like Rossetti, Swinburne, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and early Yeats. Such writing went in for medievalizing and classicizing in attitude and subject matter; poetry was seen as the summoner of an imagined otherwhere, some place of passion, beauty and languorous loveliness totally unlike the ugly quotidian present. Not only is a great deal of Pound's apprentice work drenched in the diction and Weltanschauung of this late Romanticism, but his whole later career, indeed, may be seen as a struggle, successful only in part, to break away from it.

One poem from 1906, "La Fraisne" (meaning "The Ash Tree" and typically couched in a foreign tongue), has been correctly dubbed, by Thomas F. Grieve, "a Poundian exercise in medievalism borrowed from the nineteenth century." "La Fraisne" manipulates the tale of a troubadour who "runs mad in a forest for unrequited love and chooses a tree for his bride." The poem shows Pound adopting the rhetorics of his two major influences: Yeats and Browning. (Pound was himself, of course, to influence Yeats in the direction of more natural speech rhythms.) Early in the poem the situation is put thus:
 By the still pool of Mar-nan-otha Have I found me a bride That was a
 dog-wood tree some syne. She hath called me from mine old ways


Later the voice changes and the situation is differently articulated:
 Once there was a woman ... ... but I forget ... she was ... ... I hope she
 will not come again. ... I do not remember....

 ... I think she hurt me once, but ... That was very long ago. [ellipses in
 original]


Here we get Pound's Browning, the master of the dramatic monologue, but Browning's tortured pentameter has been "fractured" (Carpenter) into iambic tetrameters where aposiopesis mimics self-pity and distraction. Pound seems to need masks to express anything but rancor, and the Browning mask was to prove very adhesive.

Another early poem that, like "La Fraisne," manages partially to escape from the shackles of poetical diction is "Cino," dating from 1907, subtitled "Italian campagna, 1309, the open road" and written in the voice of a troubadour.
 Bah! I have sung women in three cities, But it is all the same And I will
 sing of the sun,

 Lips, words, and you snare them, Dreams, words and they are as jewels,
 Strange spells of old deity.


The opening ejaculation is Browningesque macho. The weary languor of the first three roughly iambic lines gives way to one of the first of the poet's paradisal incantations in Greek lyric meters grouping syllables around a central choriamb, that is, the four-syllable foot - -. Later on, Cino breaks into a sun song that begins, "`Pollo Phoibee, old tin pan, you." This slangy truculence, at once Cino's and Pound's, is ominous here, for it was to become one of the writer's favorite voices. Two other troubadour monologues, "Na Audiart" (1907) and "Sestina: Altaforte" (1908), remain largely moored in archaizing diction (the former) or Browningesque bluster (the latter).

By February 1910, Pound had completed a prose study of the troubadours, The Spirit of Romance. By February 1912, he had a new collection ready, Ripostes, which he dedicated to his schoolfellow William Carlos Williams. Carpenter finds it exudes "still a strong flavor of the Pre-Raphaelites and the 1890s," but there are other notes sounded as well. To be sure, there is much overstuffed bric-a-brac on the order of "The Tomb at Akr Caar" ("I am thy soul Nikoptis") and "Apparuit" ("Golden rose the house, in the portal I saw/thee"). The archaizing is bent to a purpose, though, in the rendition of "The Seafarer." It mingles with urban flavors in "Portrait d'une femme":
 Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, London has swept about you this
 score years, Bald bright ships left you this or that in fee, Ideas, old
 gossip, oddments of all things.


Also in "N.Y.":
 Now do I know that I am mad, For here are a million people surly with
 traffic; This is no maid.


While rhythmically arresting, "Portrait"'s attitudes are simple; it has been well, if unkindly, described as an unconscious picture of Pound's own jumbled mind and sensibility. The poem is far slighter than the roughly contemporaneous "Portrait of a Lady" by Eliot, who was, like his friend and mentor, alluding to James. The metrical achievements of Ripostes are "A Girl" and "The Return," both of which are discussed by D. S. Carne-Ross in "New Masks for Old: A Note on Poundian Metrics," by far the most valuable introduction to the subject. "A Girl" begins: "The tree has entered my hands,/The sap has ascended my arms." The lines, which can be scanned - - - - and - - - -, are free variants on Greek Alcaic meter; for Pound, as had often been said, the line-length was the verse unit; these line-lengths sounded a note new and sweet. "The Return," as Carne-Ross shows, adopts a dactylo-epitrite scheme - - - in lines like:
 Gods of the winged shoe! With them the silver hounds, sniffing the trace of
 air!


The formalist brio of these two poems is expended in the service of classicizing tropes--an Ovidian metamorphosis and a cleric invocation of the Furies. Search not for allusions, we are advised by Hugh Kenner, but the poetry has tones, if not specific referents. These are not language-poems, although Marjorie Perloff stresses the nonsense-formalist side of Pound, but are rather exercises in decorative paganism, Tennysonian melodies orchestrated for modernism. Classicizing, too, is the famous 1912 "In a Station of the Metro," a poem Kenner admits evokes "a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Kore saw crowds in Hades."

Pound's next collection, Lustra (1913), contains many exiguous lyrics like "Metro" and "Alba" and "Art 1910," but its keynote is a sarcastic epigrammatism. Pound tries for a concision out of Martial or the Greek Anthology in squibs like "The Garden":
 Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall She walks by the railing of
 a path in Kensington Gardens, And she is dying piece-meal of a sort of
 emotional anemia.


The Decadent pictorialism collapses into the bathos of a diagnosis; neither is rhythmically alive. Pound's repertory of easy contempt rarely rises into wit (with the exception of "The Bath Tub"). The 1913 Lustra has two works of power: "The Coming of War: Actaeon" is a fuzzily archaizing divine invocation, and "Provincia Deserta" is a spare, lovely evocation of a walking trip through Provence. While praising the paratactic vigor of "Provincia Deserta" ("There is a place of trees ... gray with lichen./I have walked there/thinking of old days."), Kenner sees the diction as courting a kind of Hemingwayesque, self-parodying mannerism. In Lustra, too, occur Pound's first verses in the orientalizing manner, a manner that was to become one of his major masks.

Before moving on to Pound's key achievements in Cathay and Propertius, I suppose I'd better explain that the absence of the sanctified taxonomy of Poundian verse --symbolism, imagism, vorticism, logopoeia, melopoeia, Ideogrammic Method, phanopoeia, et hoc genus omne--here is motivated by a conviction that these counters were always at best uselessly vague and volatile, at worst obfuscatory. Solemn attempts to chart or to evaluate his work by their lights are sterile.

During or after the First World War, Pound composed what have, with some plausibility, been called war books: Cathay in April 1915 (later to be augmented by four poems); Homage to Sextus Propertius in 1917, and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley in 1920. In all three, Pound, now feeling his way toward what he wanted to be major verse, flaunted masks or personae (the title, confusingly, of two of his volumes). In Cathay, Pound sounded for the first and last time in his oeuvre the notes of warmth and humanity; in Prapertius he sounded, equally uniquely, notes of humor and sexuality. The fourteen poems in the first Cathay represent Pound's workings-up from transliterations in the notebooks of the sinologist Ernest Fenollosa; what Fenollosa transliterated were, mainly, poems by the eighth-century Tang poet Li Po, whom he, using a Japanese form, called Rihaku. They are of course to be judged as English poems, not as trots. Kenner puts the case for Cathay as a war poem: "Its exiled bowmen, deserted women, levelled dynasties, departures from far places ... were selected from the diverse wealth in the notebooks by a sensibility responsive to torn Belgium and disrupted London." Carpenter, remarking on "how very little of [Pound's] own voice is recognizable in Cathay," yet calls "the success of Cathay ... an achievement of diction." Precisely: the less of Pound in propria persona, the greater the artistic success.

Pound's diction--he writes with laconic sobriety and decorum self-contained freeverse lines informed by Greek patterns--is here miraculously supple and delicate. In lines like "When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,/ We come back in the snow," we see technique at the service of something significant. In "Exile's Letter," Pound found a language purged of the Decadent poeticality of chinoiserie, a modernist bareness:
 And if you ask how I regret that parting: It is like the flowers falling at
 Spring's end Confused, whirled in a tangle.


 What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking, There is no end
 to things in the heart.


There is a relaxed humanity in lines like
 Rain, rain, and the clouds have gathered, The eight ply of the heavens are
 darkness, The flat land is turned into river. "Wine, wine, here is wine!"


Remarkable is Cathay's tenderness towards women characters and speakers, as in "The Beautiful Toilet" ("Blue, blue is the grass about the river") and "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" ("At fourteen I married My Lord you./ I never laughed, being bashful"). "The most appealing poem of Ezra's whole career," says Carpenter about this piece. To write it, however, Pound needed the mediation of Fenollosa and of Li Po and of Chinese, in which he soon declared himself an expert, although his wife let slip the fact that he "never quite" learned how to look up radicals in the dictionary--the necessary skill for doing Chinese. He was soon, predictably, elaborating a theory of the Ideogrammic Method based on Chinese.

Pound's knowledge of a foreign tongue became a big red herring in the reception of his next large work, Homage to Sextus Propertius. Its twelve poems, stitched together from separate passages of the Augustan love elegist, contain many "poker-faced misreadings" (Kenner's phrase) planted to infuriate dons. Pound knew what he was doing, for the results are almost always bilingually funny. In long, loping lines full of the sort of place names and proper names Pound adored sniffing into his verses, he echoes and transmutes the Roman poet's contempt for high politics and obsession with his girlfriend. "Poem III" ("Midnight, and a letter comes to me from our mistress") finds the poet on the Via Sciro at night, hoping that "The moon will carry his candle,/ The stars will point out the stumbles." The familiar Greekoid rhythms are here inflected with a self-deprecating humor. The timorously polysyllabic accents of a cowed male are amusingly caught in VII ("Me happy, night, night full of brightness;/ Oh couch made happy by my long delectations") and in X ("Light, light of my eyes, at an exceeding late hour I was wandering,/ And intoxicated,/ ... There were upon the bed no signs of a voluptuous encounter,/ No signs of a second incumbent"). Uncaught by commentators, "Homage" rises to a sly lewdness: "Bright tips reach up from twin towers,/Anienan spring water falls into fiat-spread pools." Propertius is an (anti-) war poem in explicitly rejecting public poetry ("And I will also sing war songs when this matter of a girl is exhausted") and epic poetry ("And if she plays with me with her shirt off,/ We shall construct many Iliads"). Influenced by the Eliot of Prufrock and by Jules Laforgue's deflating ironies, Homage insists on a separate erotic peace. Ironically, Pound abjured epic with more aplomb and finesse than he later embraced it.

The war done, Pound, making ready to leave England, attempted a summing up of his years there in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" in 1920. He called it "a farewell to London" and a parallel to Homage in its vision of an "empire [here, the British] declining into the shit pile." In quatrains that are modelled after Gautier's (Eliot was experimenting on similar lines as part of a joint project), Pound tinkers with the persona of a failed aesthete--"a dilettante version of certain aspects of Ezra," Carpenter ventures. After reading chapters of Ulysses (Joyce was a dangerous stimulus to Pound), the poet conflates, in poem I, Mauberley with the Greek wanderer: "His true Penelope was Flaubert/ He fished by obstinate isles." In poem III, modern vulgarity is simplistically set off against ancient beauty--the sort of thing Eliot is wrongly accused of doing in The Waste Land and elsewhere: "The piano `replaces'/Sappho's barbitos."

What first strikes the hearer here is the total unsingingness of these lines as the Gautier smoothness is mechanically undercut by flat prosaicisms. Leavis, who found Mauberley to be Pound's masterpiece, speaks of the verse as "extraordinarily subtle"; Kenner, otherwise differently affected toward Pound, also praises the poem as a "technical marvel." I see rather an absence of rhythmic enactment and the growing presence of a bullying rhetoric. Already in poem III "we choose a knave or an eunuch/To rule over us," modern democracy being inferior to ancient tyranny; by IV and V soldiers are dying "For an old bitch gone in the teeth,/ For a botched civilization,// Charm, smiling at the good mouth/ Quick eyes gone under earth's lid." The easy generalizations of the first two lines are only partially redeemed by the rhythmic life of the last two.

There ensues a rhymed catalogue of aesthetes and other mediocrities named (Swinburne, Burne-Jones) and disguised (Beerbohm anti-Semitically slurred, Arnold Bennett undervalued as always). A parade of analysis is proffered in a later poem about aestheticism:
 And his desire for survival, Faint in the most strenuous moods, Became an
 Olympian apathein In the presence of selected perceptions.


In contrast to the witty withdrawals of Propertius, Mauberley withdraws into "ambrosia": "He made no immediate application/ Of this to the relation of the state/To the individual." This is unconvincing as language and as thought. Pound is exaggerating the aesthete's refined self-distancing from life because he has no notion of what to put in place of aestheticism, although, considering what he did eventually find to supplement aestheticism, perhaps we should count our blessings. Mauberley is not a confession; it is a game. Bereft of a powerful persona not himself and incapable of genuine introspection, the poet natters on, elaborating a fantastic case against an improbable "hedonist." Donald Davie is right to call Mauberley "thin" and "attitudinizing."

As early as 1915, Pound had composed three ur-Cantos, published in Poetry in the summer of 1917. Called Three Cantos I-III, they were designed as the start of a "chryselephantine poem of immeasurable length" an "endless poem of no known category," as the author variously referred to it. The asymptotic amorphousness of the plan is telling. Would Dante have spoken thus of his project? It seems indeed odd that "this painfully limited mind, which does not know what a civilization is, and can suppose that to appreciate the best poems in a language you need only know as much of the language as the poems contain," in Leavis's words, should set out to create a modern epic. Envy, perhaps, of Joyce, who really did the thing.

Three Cantos I engages in an argument with Browning over the contents, the ingredients, the permissible mix of fact and fiction in both Browning's "Sordello" (a long narrative about an obscure troubadour) and in the verse at hand. It's revealing that Pound concentrated on the hermetic broodings of "Sordello" rather than, say, Browning's The Ring and the Book, one of the great poems of the nineteenth century and one that involves interpersonal drama. Was there ever a less dramatic, a more solipsistic talent than Pound's? "What's left for me to do?" wonders the poet. He decides to concoct one of his pagan theophanies: "God floats in the azure air,/ Bright gods, and Tuscan, back before dew was shed." Aware of possible criticism of this aestheticism, he immediately asks, "Is it a world like Puvis'?" and answers, not altogether convincingly, "Never so pale, my friend." Botticelli, Shakespeare, Picasso, and Wyndham Lewis get mentioned. (In the interesting 1915 poem "Near Perigord," Pound had argued with himself and with Arnaut Daniel over the propriety of putting fiction and imagined material into a historical poem. Into his own later Cantos Pound would dump documents wholesale.) Three Cantos III ends with a passage from the Odyssey about the underworld (meant to be a Dantesque gesture in pagan robes), followed by some cryptic data about the Latin translation of Homer Pound bought in Paris.

By the time the first Cantos were published in final form in A Draft of XVI Cantos in 1925, much had been changed, compressed, reshuffled, abbreviated. Ronald Bush, a meticulous and sensitive tracer of Poundian revisings, remarks on the "elliptical ... increased obscurity" of the revisions. "The unfortunate effect ... was to obscure Canto IV forever," he sighs. Canto I is the Homer, further cropped and lopped. Canto II, written later in 1922, is, centrally, a funny and magical rendering of the Ovidian metamorphosis of the kidnapped Dionysus's ship into a panther-stalked vineyard ("Beasts like shadows in glass/A furred tail upon nothingness"). The verse, close to Greek glyconics, is alive and lithe. Canto III reprises the sexy sylvan and marine theophanies from the Three Cantos I. Canto IV, begun in 1919, deploys an even less discursive, more cubistically fragmented collage, "ply over ply" in the poet's words. It offers quick cuts from violence in classic and medieval stories to serene eastern stories; the central anecdote, vividly told in ripe Pound, recounts the Ovidian metamorphosis of Actaeon into a stag. Canto V alludes to violence in the Medici and Borgia families; Canto VI to violence in the family of Eleanor of Aquitaine; Canto VII jumbles all the above. These cantos do not resemble, suggests Carpenter, "a classical text which will finally reward patient unravelling. Rather, the reader encounters an imagination that has not left sufficient clues as to its activities." That's one way of putting it; another would be to say that Pound's obscurantist technique results not from the felt complexity of modern life and language, as do those of Ulysses and The Waste Land, but from a will to lord it over and baffle the reader.

Bush speculates that both these cantos and Eliot's "Gerontion" were reactions to Joyce's "Proteus" chapter, with its talk of the "ineluctable modality of the visible." "Pound, however," Bush says, "does not [unlike Eliot] recognize any action as evil; because he does not believe in a Christian soul" True about Pound, no doubt, but Bush's implied syllogism is rather shaky. "The only evil he [Pound] understands is a deprivation of good, and he defines good as a perception of the beautiful." This is well and definitively said, and constitutes a sort of propaedeutic preparation for the abysses into which the Cantos's aestheticism, unsupported by an adult moral sense, falls.

By the time Pound wrote Canto VIII, in 1922, he had The Waste Land to react to and he did. He began the canto with a messily aggressive dig at Eliot:
 These fragments you have shelved (shored). "Slut!" "Bitch!" Truth and
 Calliope Slinging each other sous les lauriers: That Alessandro was
 negroid. And Malatesta Sigismund.


He had something else, too: a hero and counterfoil to English decadence in the Renaissance desperado Malatesta, a hero he totally endorsed and an avatar of Mussolini, Pound's new idol (some very unsavory anecdotes about Pound rooting in the early 1920s in Fascist-controlled libraries, as told in Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism, settle this point). He soon decamped to the land of the Duce. Even back in England, the Cantos never had been, as an epic, anything more than absurd--a scattershot Paradise fitfully evoked by apparitions of Greek godlets. In Italy, Pound made more and more room for his hates and crackpot theories. His tantrums, infantile in their scatology and name-calling, are interrupted by snippets of (misunderstood) documents from Renaissance Italy and our Founding Fathers; snippets of personal reminiscence intersect pastel tableaux from ancient mythology and Chinese history. Elaborating an anti-Christian mythos is a neutral poetic ambition. Stevens tried it, so did Shelley. They worked at it, though, and took thought. Pound never got beyond dusting off statues.

Pound was a dedicated hater, a fanatical anti-Semite whose every utterance came, at least as early as the 1920s, to be colored by what Christopher Caldwell, in a devastating review of Pound's disgusting letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti (the niece of Dante Gabriel and Christina), calls tout court his Nazism. Caldwell is right; Pound's central, focal hatred was directed at Jews and he never repented it. Attempts by acolytes to fudge, diffuse or ignore his monomania are shameful. For all his mumbo-jumbo about Fascism and Douglas economics, he was in essence a Nazi. Or rather, he became one, although warning signs of a certain human deracination are there in the compulsive mask-grabbing of the early verse.

It is, however, indiscriminate to aver, as Caldwell does, that "the mental patient Ezra Pound and the raving anti-Semite are the poet Ezra Pound." Much more judicious and sensible was Leavis who said, in reviewing some Pound letters in 1951, that "the spectacle of Pound's degeneration is a terrible one and no one ought to pretend that it is anything but what it is." "Degeneration" implies a process; characters, even very strong ones like Pound's, change for better or worse. Caldwell's blanket denunciation, moreover, sits oddly with his formulaic homage--"Twentieth-century poetry offers nothing more metrically dazzling than this, and little more moving"--to the rhythmically inert and morally null Pisan Cantos (written in 1945 during Pound's internment by the U.S. Army).

As a figure in the early history of modernism, Pound is central, inspiring, intriguing. He edited The Waste Land; he serialized some chapters of Ulysses: and responded generously to much of it--calling "Circe" Joyce's Hell chapter, "a new Inferno in full sail ... megaloscrumptious-mastondonic." As a modernist poet, he accomplished some amazingly original work in his English decade--above all, in my judgment, in the more or less achieved wholes of Cathay and Propertius. But even his best verse does not have major weight. Next to Eliot and Stevens and Frost, next to even his friend Williams, he is a minor poet, a major minor but a minor. He will always appeal to cultists and decipherers seduced by the allure of a master cryptographer; in this sense, he resembles George Chapman or William Blake. As a versifier, he has inspired some verse wiser and sweeter (I do not say better) than his own, for example, "Black Zodiac" by Charles Wright.

Donald Lyons is the theater critic of the New York Post.
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Author:Lyons, Donald
Publication:New Criterion
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Date:Jun 1, 1999
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