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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Northrop Frye's Fables of Identity - the conventions of literature contain the experience

The latest book in my reading of classics of literary criticism is Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963) by Northrop Frye, a collection of magazine writing and so on from the 1950s and early 1960s that serves as a sequel to another Frye classic, one that I have not read, Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  “That very theoretical book stated in its preface that a work of practical criticism was needed to complement it” (p. 1), and this is in effect that.  This, a different “this,” the quotation, explains why I wanted to read Fables of Identity more than Anatomy.

The essays take as their subjects Spenser (specifically The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (the sonnets, The Winter’s Tale), Milton (“Lycidas”), Blake, Byron, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, and Joyce (Finnegans Wake).  They are full on useful insights.  I “tested” some of them, re-reading the Shakespeare play and the Milton poem, as well as quite a lot of Wallace Stevens.  It was a good experiment.  Well, I did not really follow the argument in the Stevens piece, which constructs a metaphysics from single lines pulled from thirty years of poems.  I think I followed the rest.  They are magazine pieces, or talks.  They are meant to be followed.

To jump back to my little project, compared to Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending Frye is a model of clarity and compared to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations his ideas have not been so thoroughly sponged up.  It also does not hurt that Frye occasionally uses humor:

Many readers tend to assume that Spenser wrote [The Faerie Queene] in the same way that they read it, starting at the beginning and keeping on until he collapsed with exhaustion.  (69)

Mild, but a relief from the weight of Spenser.

The “fables” and “mythology” in the title are meant broadly.  They can be taken to mean something like the elements that are common among works of literature rather than those that are individual to the text.  The epic form, the pastoral elegy, the hero quest, stories structured around seasonal change.  That sort of thing.  Some of it explicitly uses existing mythic stories, some of it – like Blake’s big poems – tries to turn old myths into new, and some is unconscious.  To the extent that texts fall completely outside of this framework, Frye ignores them.  Maybe everything fits.  I don’t know.

In “Nature and Homer,” Frye generously suggest that everything fits, that the study of Shakespeare and comic strips is just “exploring different literary conventions” (50), that “[w]herever he goes in his imaginative verbal experience, the conventions of literature contain the experience” (51).  Fables of Identity is for readers who enjoy literature itself, literature as such.

OK, come back in a couple of months for Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, or however much of it I have read at that point.