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Sunday, 3 February 2008

The sins of the poet are visited upon the poem

"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?


Jim Murdoch said...

I have one powerful memory of Pound and that, unusually, comes from a television documentary. I assume it was on the BBC, possibly the Open University. He was an old man at this point and walking with a stick. What I remember was the arrogance of the man, and that is what it was, the way he sat down, tossed the pamphlets on the floor, and shoved them about with his stick. I must have been about nineteen about then and I had just discovered the Americans. I was reading a lot, or at least trying to, but I never found Pound an easy read. The blame I took upon my own shoulders but, now I am older, I'm not so sure.

As for his politics, I knew nothing but then I took little or no interest in the lives of any of the poets I read, even the likes of Larkin and William Carlos Williams. In recent years I read a biography of Larkin and, as I'm sure you're well aware, he certainly was not without character flaws. Was I disappointed? Of course, but not altogether surprised. I was a miserable git and wrote miserable poetry, it made perfect sense that Larkin would be one too.

As for whether his work is tainted by that knowledge I would have to say, no. The writing-reading process is one of collaboration and whatever the writer put into a piece is simply his contribution; I bring my own. 'Mr Bleaney' will never stop being the greatest poem in the English language as far as I am concerned. No one, not even Larkin himself, can spoil the effect that poem had on me. I suppose it could have been any poem but it was that one which was the poem when everything clicked into place. Sentimental values are priceless.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Jim, it is always interesting to hear someone's reminiscence, and it being a T.V. memory makes it no less so. It is particularly interesting here, because I too recall seeing him on T.V., but to very different effect: it was a news reel and Pound had been arrested by, I think, the American army. At any rate, he was in what looked like an animal cage in a forest - echoes of Guantanamo Bay?
I just felt sorry for him, and, I suppose, angry that a poet should be treated so. (The innocence of youth!) I have since seen and heard much to endorse your belief that he was arrogant. I don't think there is much doubt that he was. If you listen to him reading from the Cantos, he reads with arrogance in his voice.
I find myself agreeing with much of what you say. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating post, Dave, both in its subject matter & the question it poses. Jim mentions Larkin, a moral schizophrenic if ever there was one (Larking, that is, not Jim!) - adoring jazz & understanding the culture from which it grew & yet capable of sickeningly racist comments.

Conda Douglas said...

This post was fascinating to me,Dave, because I grew up near the town where Pound was born, Hailey, Idaho. That's all he did there. But for many years, until Bruce Willis bought the town, that was the ONLY thing of note that had ever happened in Hailey. And for many years a controversy raged about memorializing Pound in any fashion (or perhaps even mentioning the fact of his birth in Hailey) until the town's newspaper editor resolved the issue by stating (I'm paraphrasing): "Honor his great poetry."

Unknown said...

Henry Ford was many magnitudes much worse and more effective in his antisemitism and publishing of virulently unpleasant propaganda than ever Pound was able to manage, and he was incredibly arrogant too, but that does not stop many folks from buying and driving any one of the cars under the manufacture of that dynasty.

I rather strongly am of the persuasion that the intent of the artist has very little to do with the value or the understanding or the reception of the art, text or otherwise, or even very much to do with how we understand or may use the art to our own purpose.

I spent at one time a considerable amount of time reading up on Pound, on his life and thoughts, and his work and on the life and thoughts and work of people that that he either knew, promoted or influenced.

The closest I ever got to him was I spent an afternoon sitting in a one-on-one talk with Alan Ginsberg who in his writings relates how he once visited Ezra. I think Alan's visit was when Ezra was in Italy and prior to his living in a cage. Ginsberg wore a suit that day that I talked with him.

I think though that a part of the Ezra problem had a lot to do with the underlying American psychosis over art and literature in general.

If Ezra had been the inventor of the Model-T I think he would have been treated different, instead he was portrayed as a nut case and locked up in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital. I would think one would need as a defense mechanism a certain amount of arrogance to survive that.

The one time I heard a recording of Pound reading his poetry it sounded so fake to me and sing song flowery that I thought to myself what a load of bull crap... here this guy says to write like you speak and he speaks like that?

What I do find of value in Pound, let alone some quirks regarding odd theories of economics, is his views on the value of translations for the 'newness' that they can bring to a language.

He started translations I think from Anglo Saxon and Old English... I have those dictionaries around here somewhere as well as a hardbound copy of the Chinese dictionary that he used... anyways, his point was that mistranslation creates something new. [It has worked well enough for Robert Bly, one of the few poets in American to actually make a living at it.] I also have Chapman's 2 volume translation of Homer... it is on occasion a pleasant read. But to be honest though I cut my teeth on Pound I was more interested in going to find the many folks he pointed at.

Wyndham Lewis was one such... and about the time that I was grabbing up whatever books I could get the publisher of Black Sparrow that was doing then reprints of Lewis was out grabbing up as many Lewis artifacts as possible in order to push up the market value of Lewis in general. I am not sure where it has got off to but I do have an issue of Blast hiding in the house here somewhere... and this comment is the only place that I have mentioned that fact in more than 30 years... nobody else I know of would care a wit.

My collection of UFO books though is much much larger and I learned a whole lot more from William Blake and Milton.

Dave King said...

Thanks Conda, that's the kind of background info' that is always interesting to receive. I'll maybe work it in next time I write about him!

And my thanks to for your mammoth effort Gabriel. Again, a great deal that is of interest. The comparison with Ford is taken, though many would say that whereas art and literature are supposed to come from the heart, cars are not. However I do agree that the artist's motives have nothing to do with the value of the final work. I am inclined to agree that the victimization of Pound - if that is what it was - had more to do with The American Psychosis - as you put it - about art and lit, though I guess you would know more about that than I. You have it on in the matter of closeness: the closest I came was seeing him across a crowded restaurant. (sounds like a cue for a song title!)

Unknown said...

Dave: Caution if you tell the art car fanatics that a car is not from the heart. I've noticed that they also tend to bear arms.

We can talk, I presume, about all of the poets that have run off to bear arms, and died, plenty of them in the two large wars.

I am not sure if I can know more about the American psychosis toward art and literature as I am in it, a product of it, wallowed in it. I get in international trouble sometimes for saying what seem to me inane things about the availability of soap in a hotel room.

It is only from those, such as yourself that look in from the outside and will put up to be kind to me to respond to my ravings that I have any clue.

Seeing is closer than reading, even if it is across a crowded restaurant.

Dave King said...

The closeness I was alluding to was the Ginsberg connection.