Thursday, March 10, 2016

I have walked over these roads; / I have thought of them living - Ezra Pound is mildly abashed

My final poetry rummage-book is Ezra Pound’s Personae: Collected Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound (1926), which includes most of Pound’s early books – Personae (1909), Ripostes (1912), Cathay (1915), Lustra (1916), and more, plus a lot of miscellaneous nonsense.  I also referred to the Library of America Poems and Translations to help me with chronology and annotations, but I expect this post will include several grotesque errors.  Probably already does.

What I want to say is that Pound’s early poems are so much fun, so zippy and alive.  It takes an extra act of imagination to enjoy them.    Pound is young, trapped in Indiana, he fears, or plunging into Europe, full of what Edmund Wilson calls a “cavalier spirit.”  There are as yet no Cantos, no books about usury, no treason. 

You are very idle, my songs.
I fear you will come to a bad end.  (from “Further Instructions”)

Pound is an amateur poet, not a professional crank.  And when he is a crank, he is having some fun of his own. 

        So shall you be also,
You slut-bellied obstructionist,
You sworn foe to free speech and good letters,
You fungus, you continuous gangrene.  (from “Salutation the Third”)

If that sounds more like the Pound I know is coming, I will note that it was published in a magazine called Blast in 1914, and sounds to me exactly like what an avant garde poet should be publishing in something called Blast:  “Let us deride the smugness of ‘The Times’: GUFFAW!”  Yes, let’s do that.  Even if it is now less amusing when, in the same poem, Pound writes:

But I will not go mad to please you,
        I will not flatter you with an early death,
Oh, no, I will stick it out…

But early on, oh how Pound loves poetry, his own and that of everyone else – Heine, Leopardi, Du Bellay, lots of Latin and Provençal poets, and, later, classical Chinese poets.  He just wants to play with it. He wants to make it new, but he also loves “certain accustomed forms, / the absolute unimportant” (“Au Salon”).

That age is gone;
Pieire de Maensac is gone.
I have walked over these roads;
I have thought of them living.  (from “Provincia Deserta”)

He wants the new to be as exciting as the old, so he translates and imitates and parodies.    How is he supposed to know that  in a few years everything he does will be so heavy with importance?

As Pound moves towards the Cantos – not that he knew exactly that he was doing that – the collage of languages and references becomes more obscure, by which I mean I sure don’t understand it.  The Browning-like pseudo-translation “Homage to Sextus Propertius” is already too difficult for me, for how I normally read poetry, and it’s only from 1919.  As Wilson says:

His early poems were full of gallant and simply felt emotions; but they were already tainted with an obsession which has cursed him all his life: the frantic desire to flee as far from Idaho as possible, the itching to prove to Main Street that he has extirpated it from his soul.  (“Ezra Pound’s Patchwork,” 1922, in The Shores of Light, p. 45)

Until then, he can write a poem as good as “The Study in Aesthetics,” where he first watches the Italian children praise a woman for her beauty (“Guarda!  Ahi, guarda!  ch’ è be’ a!”) and then see ones of them play with the sardines when the fishermen bring them in:

And when they would not let him arrange
The fish in the boxes
He stroked those which were already arranged,
Murmuring for his own satisfaction
This identical phrase:
                                          Ch’ è be’ a.

And at this I was mildly abashed.

How beautiful!  How beautiful!

I’m going to take a day off.  On Monday, I will write about something in prose.


  1. I'm very keen to explore Pound's work but frankly have no idea where to start. Maybe his early work would be better if it's a little less complex....


  2. Pound sounds like a better poet than person, but I have insufficient evidence for that assessment/indictment. In any case, thank you for showing me something more likeable about Pound; however, again, I think my perspective is damaged by insufficient yet negative evidence. I'm off to one of my reference works learn more. So, thanks for the catalyst!

  3. guy davenport had a lot to say about pound in one of his books, which i read but don't seem to have any more; he was a big advocate... i highly recommend davenport as a critic; enjoyable to read and perceptive....

  4. The argument for Pound:

    Liu Ch’e

    The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
    Dust drifts over the court-yard,
    There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
    Scurry into heaps and lie still,
    And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

    A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

  5. Kaggsy - Yes, the early work! I think there is an idea with Pound that reading him means deciphering The Cantos. No, much in these early books - not everything, but much - is even "accessible."

    His translations from the Chinese are, as Cleanthess suggests, especially worth seeking out. Cathay was a real pleasure to read.

    I would not want to say that Pound, at this point in his life, was a bad person.

    Davenport has several pieces about pound in The Geography of the Imagination. I agree, one of the best critics.

  6. Really, who cares what artists are like as persons, when we talk about their art? How many readers are saints? How many of us are worthy of the great art we encounter?

  7. We are all worthy of great art! A great nation deserves great art. If you live in a lesser nation, I guess you don't deserve it. I hate that slogan.

    Anyway, we don't have to talk about the artist's art. Pound is - or in the context of this post, becomes - all too interesting aside from his art. A useful case study.

    Even within his art, in some of the later satirical works included in Personae (the "Alfred Venison" sequence) I was on guard - uh oh, he's starting in on banks again, will he - no, he's back on safer ground, whew.

    None of those satirical poems are anywhere near great art, which may be directly to your point.

    1. Yes, it's perfectly reasonable to talk about artists rather than the art they make. People are, after all, infinitely interesting. And when I gossip about my coworkers, I'm never evaluating the their work.

      I do wish more people would point to the work and say, "How beautiful! How beautiful!" I read all of your posts about poetry and wonder at the extraordinary things you share. Among all that wonder, who cares about the poet? Not me.

      [I also admit to a knee-jerk "leave the poor artist out of it" reaction that I'm trying to suppress.]

    2. Hear, hear! I entirely agree with you, and I am fed up with the "but he was a racist/sexist/whatever! how can you read him!!" discourse endemic to our age. Of course racism, sexism, and whatever are bad things and should be combated, but if we use them as gatekeepers to restrict our intake of art, we will end up starved of what we need.

  8. Right. The "artist" is in practice mostly a way to group works of art. A room in my memory palace. These artworks go in this room, unless there is a special exhibit. A temporary "poets who compare their poems to fish" exhibit, something like that.

    1. I like my artists to remain abstractions! Still, my reaction is out of proportion. I wonder why I'm so tetchy. Maybe I'm just tired. I blame DST and the theft of an hour of sleep.

  9. What a beautifully-put short piece about Pound. Thank you. I especially like your "oh how Pound loves poetry," since though we have lots of writers who appreciate poetry, we don't have many of the caliber of Pound, who never met a language he didn't try to translate just to get at the poetry inside. How beautiful! How beautiful! indeed, so much so that I had to go read that poem immediately.

  10. "Pound, who never met a language he didn't try to translate just to get at the poetry inside."

    Gilbert Highet's verdict on "ole EP" was "unable to think, but ready to quote and paraphrase in six languages".

  11. Anyone else who wants to read the poem, and some others, here we see Pound lead off the August 1914 issue of Poetry.

    Pound's approach to translation has been fruitful for so many other American poets. Maybe he did some damage, too, sent poets down some dead ends, I don't know. But the languages, the translation - enriching.

  12. What I want to say is that Pound’s early poems are so much fun, so zippy and alive. It takes an extra act of imagination to enjoy them.

    Surely you meant "It doesn't take an extra act of imagination to enjoy them"? How can anyone not enjoy the best of Personae? It was Pound's early poems that stopped me in my tracks as I was leafing through books in the Occidental College bookstore circa 1969; I had barely heard of Pound, had certainly not studied him in high school (where I was force-fed Eliot), and I was so thrilled by what I saw in the wonderful old Selected Poems that I ran to the cash register with it (and I was very careful about money in those days, as I am once again). I still have that New Directions Paperbook, now minus its covers and held together with tape, alongside my copies of Personae and The Cantos (I actually have two of the latter, one beat-up and full of annotations and deeply treasured, one for carrying around to places where it might get lost), and I still marvel at "The Return" ("See, they return; ah, see the tentative/ Movements, and the slow feet...") and "The Spring" ("And wild desire/ Falls like black lightning./ O bewildered heart...") and of course the brilliant Cathay translations. I have a special place in my heart for Homage to Sextus Propertius, because it was via an enthusiastic conversation about it with a bookstore manager that I got my first bookstore job (with zero experience), which enabled me to survive the post-grad-school transition with reasonable dignity. In short, I appreciate the post, even if you don't sufficiently appreciate Pound for this Poundian!

  13. What did I mean? More like "It may take an extra" etc. It took me an extra etc.

    Think of the poor reader who has not only heard of Pound, but who has read a lot about Pound, too much perhaps, and mostly about Pound in the '40s and '50s. The extra act of imagination is the one that moves that Pound off to the side and imagine the one who wrote these poems.

    The best poems in Personae - not just the best - made this move pretty easy. The satires took more effort.

    "force-fed Eliot" in high school - man, things have changed.