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Sunday, 3 February 2008
"If a man stinks, his verse is bound to smell". That graphic phrase was said to me once about the poetry of Ezra Pound. It could be thought to sum up well enough the public response to him over the past few decades. Now, though, it seems things might be set to change: one hundred and sixty two of his letters, written over a period of forty years to various Chinese intellectuals, and unearthed by fifteen years of painstaking research, are about to be published, shedding light, it is said, on this very misunderstood man and his poetry.
So where are we at the moment, before their publication? What do we know of this elusive person? What I personally know of his poetry is that before WWII he was responsible for the birth of Imagism. He was also very influential in the development of Vorticism, whose chief exponent was Wyndham Lewis, founder and editor of Blast. For a while during the war Pound lived with Yeats in a cottage in Sussex, studying Japanese,which studies led him to fall under the spell of Ernest Fenellosa, an American academic working on Chinese characters, though in Japan. Although neither of them knew Chinese at all well, and by a process which many have called mistaken, what Pound took from Fenellosa's studies was something he called the ideogrammic method, which he developed to the full in his magnum opus, The Cantos. (This is where, in another life, I came in, so far as Pound is concerned, and for a few years thought there could be no other poetic method - but that, as they say, is another story.) Based upon the pictorial nature of Chinese characters, it was in essence our old friend allusion, used down the centuries by poets everywhere. The Cantos are sprinkled everywhere with simple quotes intended to evoke the work from which they are taken. (Fine, if you are well-versed in literature - as, indeed, you need to be to read, say, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with which Pound assisted, which he edited and which ranks as the first truly modernist poem.) Quotes in such abundance gave The Cantos a certain gravitas, but more than that, Pound was able to juxtapose the quotes the way Chinese characters juxtapose images, a technique which allowed him to express abstract concepts in concrete forms while at the same time shocking and/or puzzling readers with the interconnections and associations thereby created. Meaning became complex and contradictory by turns.
Besides his influence on Eliot, Pound also championed the work of poets and artists such as James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Jacob Epstein, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Rabindranath Tagore and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In other words, he was a main player in the develoment of modernism.
So why has a poet whom many regard as having been more important than Eliot been sidelined in comparison with Eliot? Mainly because he made himself unpopular - to put it mildly - by his endorsement of Mussolini. He embraced him and all that he stood for in the early days, the days when what Mussolini stood for was social justice, but he failed to react when El Duce changed tack. But there was more: broadcasts made from Rome and a virulent anti-semitism. The letters show, we are told, that his views were misunderstood and that he had come to realise his mistakes.
To me the interesting question - which will not be answered by the letters - is the degree to which we allow our feelings about a poet to influence our judgment of his or her poetry. Or do we think - and it possibly is a reasonable thought - that a poet needs to be a man above other men? Is the poetry discredited by the life-style or the moral failings of its creator? Was my friend correct in thinking that some smell will stick and mar the poem? Or have the two considerations nothing at all to do with each other? If, for example, a present day, highly regarded poet, went on record as saying that 9'11 was justified, would that immediately render worthless his/her whole oeuvre?