Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ezra Pound's Literary Essays, or "the science of being discontented"

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (1954) is a selection of Pound’s critical, scholarly, and ranting writings from say 1914 through 1934, heavily weighted to a glorious period from say 1916 through 1922 when Pound was reading everything, old and new, and writing about it with the greatest possible energy.  T. S. Eliot selected the essays, and while Pound’s criticism is no more insightful than Eliot’s – might be less, even – it is more fun to read.

So maybe sometimes Pound sounds like a crackpot.  Not that often, and Eliot protects him from his worst side.  By crackpot, I mean something like the sudden appearance, in a long, complex essay on Guido Cavalcanti, of Gabriele D’Annunzio, who is “[t]he only living author who has ever taken a city or held up the diplomatic crapule at the point of machine-guns, he is in a position to speak with more authority [about poetry!] than a batch of neurasthenic incompetents…” (192).

This is a late essay, from 1934, when Pound’s cracks are more visible.  Yet the very next page is full of insights about translating Cavalcanti, his own translations and D. G. Rossetti’s.  About poetic translation in general, really:

What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary – which I, let us hope, got rid of a few years later.  You can’t go round this sort of thing.  It takes six or eight years to get educated in one’s art, and another ten to get rid of that education.

… Rossetti made his own language.  I hadn’t in 1910 made a language, I don’t mean a language to use, but even a language to think in.

It is stupid to overlook the lingual inventions of precurrent authors, even when they are fools or flapdoodles or Tennysons.  (193-4)

He is usually this casual, almost as if he is speaking.  He is naturally aphoristic.  “Beauty is a brief gasp between one cliché and another” (“Notes on Elizabethan Classicists,” 241) is one I like.  He means, he explains a bit later, historically.  “For every ‘great age’ a few poets have written a few beautiful lines, or found a few exquisite melodies, and ten thousand people have copied them, until each strand of music is planed down to a dullness” (243-4).

Pound’s demand to “make it new” is really to “make it great,” but with the assumption that who are we kidding the retreads of the old stuff, however skilled, will not end up in that “great” category.  In an early essay, “The Renaissance,” Pound lists “his own spectrum or table” of the greats, beginning with “Homer, Sappho, Ibycus, Theocritus’ idyl of the woman spinning with charmed wheel” (215), then moving on through the Romans and so on.  Catullus, “[n]ot Virgil,” a handful of his beloved Provençal poems, Dante and “The Seafarer” and Villon.

But not too much, really.  “A sound poetic training is nothing more than the science of being discontented,”  (“The Renaissance,” 216).  The poems that make us discontented with other poems, those are the great ones.  Different poems for each of us, of course.

Quite a collection.  Full of surprises, at the level of word, line, subject, and idea.


  1. Is this the collection from New Directions? I've been interested in that one. About two years ago I read Pound's ABC of Reading and it was pretty great stuff. Even when he's a crackpot, Pound's not entirely cracked. I absolutely understand what he means by making a language of one's own, and also being trapped beneath the sediment of one's available vocabulary. That is great, something most writers never think about, and Pound was always good about urging poets and writers to be aware of the whole history of poetry, the vast constellations of possibility.

    Oof, poor Tennyson! I was going to read Idylls of the King this year.

  2. Yes, that is the book. It is good. I should read ABC of Reading now. I really enjoyed this one.

    Thank goodness we have some distance from Tennyson. I can see how he would have become oppressive.

    1. I read The ABCs of Reading when i was about 13. I recall being very impressed by it and wondering if he read Chinese. Maybe i Will try it again but The mere fact i can recall it after more than 50years says something. I remember thinking pound knows tbings my teachers dont

    2. Literary Essays has almost nothing about Pound's interest in Chinese. I don't know if that is Eliot's choice or what. Probably means nothing.

      Pound, at the least, would say things our teachers would not.

  3. This sounds pretty great--including that crackpot Italian interlude. By coincidence, I finally picked up Pound's Cantos yesterday inspired--in part at least--by the poet's apparent imprint on Enard's novel Zone. Timing is everything, no? Weird.

  4. I see, poking around, that the Enard has quite a bit of Pound in it. Interesting. I have read A Draft of XVI Cantos (1925) which was hard enough to absorb. Maybe I will try A Draft of XXX Cantos soonish. Nice to break them up.

  5. Pound is a real litmus test for people's ability to hold two things in their heads at the same time (Faulkner is another). If someone can't get around the fact that he was a blatant fascist (and Faulkner a blatant racist), that's understandable, but that person is missing a whole lot of maybe vitally important stuff. Pound is maddening and indispensable, in both prose and poetry (more indispensable in poetry, natch).

  6. The timing matters, too. Often, quite often, in earlier pieces Pound has throwaway lines that made me think "interesting, I wish he had developed that idea." With later essays, I would think "okay maybe good he stopped where he did."

    Pound was on fire during the 1910s. Much of the entire world history of poetry was passing through him. It is astounding.

  7. Nice post. I really enjoy reading it. Very instructive, keep on writing.Thanks for sharing.