|Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews|
Poems & Translations.
The Library of America (2003) 1363 pages
The Cantos: New Directions, 4th Ed.
The Library of America (1996) 896 pages
Reading over Ezra Pound's life's work The Cantos in May of 2004, and also the full collection of the rest of his poems recently put out by The Library of America, I begin to understand, to some degree, why the sudden reëmergence of Pound as a Major American Poet and the resurgence of interest in his work. And while it's not my purpose here to try to interpret, explain, justify or write a dissertation on The Cantos, even from a fresh perspective, I find it remarkable—wonderfully so—that such a large number of people appreciated Pound's original and inimitable genius while the poems were being written, and shortly after—and from my perspective here, re-reading certain of these poems for the first time in a quarter-century or so and many for the first time, I realize that far from being unintelligible or impenetrable, as his detractors have long had it, The Cantos form an intelligible and phenomenally brilliant cohesive epic, complete with a time-honored "epic" structure and, especially in the mid-to-late cantos, poetry stylistically at least fifty years ahead of its time.
With the addition of Pound's Poems & Translations to The Library of America's growing canon, interest in his work and awareness of it has surged, and this of course includes The Cantos as well. The decision to put out the collection has been controversial, mainly because of Pound's wartime treason, his anti-Semitism, etc., but also because of the perception that he's just not a major enough poet to merit such an honor. However, most people have never read much Pound, it seems—and while some of his mid-to-late period work is difficult and yes, "obscure," even the inclusion in a single volume of his lyric poems from 1905-1926, when he was Yeats' erstwhile secretary, amply demonstrates that the honor is warranted.
But if Pound (or Yeats) had died or stopped writing in 1926, they would be notable poets, even great ones (in Yeats' case), or important and memorable, in Pound's. Indeed, aside from the neo-formalism or Anglophile "schools" of writing published in, say, The New Yorker and the like and encouraged in so many MFA programs (which Pound had incidentally mastered 100 William Logans over), and in terms of the poetry Americans are actually writing, it is Pound (not Whitman) who is the Great-Granddaddy of contemporary American poetry. And in terms of the sheer variety and volume of his accomplishment, he is, more than later followers like Williams, the Great American Poet. I don't like all his work—in fact, I rather despise a good deal of it for many of the same reasons others do (pretentious obscurity, sometimes)—but the influence of his style remains, and to write against is to concede importance. As William Logan once said in one of my graduate seminars, the poets who came before us are our fathers, and we learn to hate our fathers. He wasn't talking about Pound, but I doubt he'd read all of Pound, either.
That I have read Pound has been such a monumental task it renders my using quotations from his work almost impossible, unless I'm to write a dissertation or a monograph and really, one can only do justice to the subject in a full-length study, perhaps in several volumes—and I understand a few are on their way. But my generalized contention is out there. I'm not the first, even of my generation, to have made it.
Pound's early lyric poems are often dated and silly and often brilliant. He wasn't Yeats, who was much more deliberate and measured in his published (or written) output; he wasn't even Whitman. He was sui generis, if you will. By the time he really found a "voice," in the first edition of Personae (1909), he was making innovations, sometimes with a sly irony, on established forms and Classical themes and in deliberately archaic language—at 24, he was emerging into the maturity he gestated through Exultations (1909), Canzoni (1911), Ripostes (1912) and Cathay (1915)—all leading up to the brilliant, groundbreaking Lustra in 1916-17. That is where the poem he's most well known for today and for some years, the two-line "Imagist" masterpiece "In a Station of the Metro" is found, but this volume, much lengthier than its forerunners, finds Pound in full form. It also includes some of my very favorites among the earlier lyrics (he was now 33), such as the vividly portrayed longing of "Dance Figure," written (as many of the early lyrics are) on a Jewish-Biblical theme, the five-line "April," the acrid "Ladies," the hilarious "Phyllidula," and those close to my heart when I first read them at 15 as now, the facetious "Ancient Music" and the equally irreverent "Our Contemporaries."
But also in this crucial collection is found the poem (1916) I take to be the psychological turning point of Pound's career: "Further Expressions," in which the speaker (Ezra Pound, let's be real) articulates the need for new forms in poetry, as he has gone "half cracked" and denounces the value of his earlier, still-life poems—he suggests Chinese form as a way out.
Also in Lustra, the first of the cantos are published.
The Cantos begin "conventionally" enough, in media res in the form of the epic poem they (it) truly are, with the line "And then went down to the ship," and a seeming re-telling of The Odyssey. For the most part, the line-breaks and such is standard "form" too. I love them—up to the lusciously archaic and contextually appropriate language of Canto III—I remember reading and admiring and imitating them as an adolescent, reading these things with the true sense of the word "wonder" in my grandparent's basement.
Now, twenty years later, I see that the section of Cantos that come after III—the section known as "Eleven New Cantos" (1934)—mark the beginning of his freewheeling, "obscure" style, and Pound was thrilled that Mussolini had found the works "amusing"—this tells us something about the poet's intentions, perhaps, just as telling as his "Meeting Charles Olson saved my life" in 1946, when he was a prisoner.
—Now, at well over 1000 words, I have to leave discussions of 1920's masterpiece Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and the Translations of this period unremarked upon, for Pound's output is just too complex and voluminous, as I've suggested. I must also not go into evidence from Eliot's The Wasteland, a poem transformed by Pound, suggests that Ezra actually knew what the hell he was doing, after all. But I submit to you that crazy and eccentric or hotheaded or mean or wrong as he was in his public personas, statements and actions, this crap is not actually evident in the poems themselves.
Oh, sure, he deals with American history and disses the Founding Fathers and of course there remain the notorious Pisan Cantos (1948) and the "Usury" one, but look, the man was a poet. He uses more personas and voices in these poems than an entire shelf of that New Yorker shit, and, if you're a poet, you know I'm right.
Oh, yeah—his appeal to our generation. Well, see, he brought poetry into the Computer Age by some quantum pole-vault of mind, before the computer was even around for us to write poems on. Just skim through the Cantos after III—see it? That fragmented & multi-layered irony and cultural inclusion that half the stuff in City Lights of Gotham Book Mart published by small presses since 1985 are in some way in tune with?
—It's not just that Ezra Pound introduced a new "form" or "style" to American poetry. He forced us to reconsider what poetry is. People always say poetry is dead, and it never is—but without Pound, it would have died with Charles Olson in 1970. He was a bastard, sure, but it's on the work that he must be judged, and if you're a poet, or a critic of it, Ezra Pound is your Granddaddy.
—When I first started my MFA at the University of Florida in 1992, I remember a discussion about whether it was okay or proper or whatever to write poetry on your Mac. (I'd thought about this too, but I didn't own a computer until 1996!) This guy named C. Dale Young was all for it. I didn't see a problem with it, in theory. Christian Nagle was dead against it. And the "professor," Debra Greger, used a typewriter (I think it was a Remington 5). Maybe she should have used a Mac.
But be all that as it may, Pound used a pencil, and look what he did! God! No wonder I always thought Robert Lowell was boring, he and all those no-spunk technicians they made us imitate. Good thing I now write mainly fiction. But in fairness, it's not like you can teach Pound, is it? (...although I have, and have worked on my own Cantos in Creative Writing classes, with spectacular and exciting results.)
—So let's leave it there: any discussion of Pound ends in heated argument, even if you're having it with yourself. Maybe that's why he's such an appropriate master for our age.
The author wishes to thank New Directions Publishing for providing the edition of Pound's complete Cantos for use in this piece. Readers—respond, if you wish! We both encourage and respect letters, and that's what the "Scrawl Wall" is for. —K.M.