Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Making it new: Ezra Pound

You must begin with Ezra Pound as you begin your first swim of the season in the ocean surf - you must dive in. You must come up shivering and shocked amid the cold breakers and begin swimming or flailing until you warm up, until you regain a kind of knowing ease. There is no other way. For Pound really has no ''safe'' poems. He has no collection of warm-up verse by which a reader can get a feel for his diction and idiosyncrasies. Even his earlier, shorter poems, which are in one sense fairly immediately comprehensible, have a certain startling, elusive quality.

There is a great deal one could say about Pound, for Pound was probably the most influential and controversial figure in 20th-century British and American poetry. Born in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885, he spent a number of years in London and Paris before settling in Rapallo, Italy. He founded two notable literary movements: Imagism, which emphasized precise observation over the gutless abstraction of the poetry prevalent at the time; and Vorticism, which provided phototypical versions of a guiding idea of mid-20th-century poetry - ''organic form'' and its avowed freedom from the constricting traditions of poetic structure. He ''discovered'' such different talents as T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost; he was instrumental in publishing James Joyce's Ulysses. He was also brought to trial for treason after World War II for broadcasting pro-Fascist radio programs in Italy. Yet, while acknowledging this influence and controversy , we cannot overlook Pound's own writing, which has much to say to us about breaking down the mental barriers that so often divide up, parcel out, and limit intolerably the emotional and mental substance of our lives.

About these ads

Pound does not demand from the reader any particular learnedness or scholarship (although, to cope with his foreign languages and historical references, it is wise to have an excellent book like George Kearns's Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos). Rather, he demands something harder: a willingness to confront the various slots or pigeonholes the reader has consciously or unconsciously constructed to make life more comfortable, and a willingness to say, ''Well, yes, perhaps these slots for 'thought,' 'feeling,' 'past,' 'present,' 'future,' are too narrow after all.'' Pound tries to demonstrate how these pigeonholes can be broken down, so that the intricately interrelated experiences of life can come to us with a new keenness. To accomplish this, Pound writes in ways that often seem illogical, nondiscursive. His Cantos, for example, can leap from Homer's Iliad to a 16th-century Parisian translator of Greek in a single pair of lines.

''In a Station of the Metro,'' written in 1916, is the most famous early example of Pound's effort to jar the reader to a rediscovery of the world. It's only two lines long:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound doesn't say the faces are like petals; he doesn't even say the faces are petals, although this clearly is the implication. Pound abandons any grammatical relation between these two perceptions: he yokes them, as Samuel Johnson once said, ''by violence together.'' Yet this arresting juxtaposition of the two seemingly unrelated ideas gives us a feeling for the subway, the crowd, the whole urban scene and its ambiguous relation to the natural world, that is stronger for its compactness. It is difficult to pass through a subway after having read this poem and not think of the faces differently - the three or four that suddenly stand out from time to time, which one so often quickly notices and forgets. If they have something in them of ''petals'' - delicate, beautiful, and evocative of a less clamorous world - we find ourselves perceiving a surprising richness and depth. Yet this is not a poem to remind us of the common idea of being more generous to our fellow men. Its sudden yoking of the human and natural realms reminds us that we all partake of a wider, more captivating world than we commonly admit. We bring this world into our lives only as we realize it in relation to the actual conditions of our lives, even the seemingly dreary and uninteresting subway.

Pound's ''In a Station of the Metro'' is famous in part because it demonstrates some of his notions of the Imagist poem:

Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.

Don't use such an expression as ''dim lands of peace.'' It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. . . . Go in fear of abstractions. . . . Use either no ornament or good ornament.This practical advice to other writers reminds us how much Pound's efforts to break down those pigeonholes of experience were tied up with his certainty that only the sharpest, most evocative language could be of use. Pound himself was not always successful putting this idea into practice: in many places his Cantos are too compact, allusive or private, too hard to unravel. Yet, if we look at two small selections from the 803-page Cantos, we can see a bit of how Pound combines concise diction with an unexpected range of thought and feeling. In the opening of ''Canto IV,'' for example, the diction is extraordinarily lush, evocative, and compressed. Troy is abandoned; Pindar's ''Lords of the lyre'' (Anaxiforminges) are invoked; a marriage is being announced (Aurunculeia is the bride in Catullus's Collis o Heliconii); and Cadmus, founder of Thebes and a representative both of civilizing and savage forces, is setting out. In the first five lines, Pound uses fragments from several realms of history and mythology to set out his theme of the cyclical destruction and restoration of civilizations. And suddenly the theme takes off: everything is in motion, and the motion itself is scintillatingly beautiful, a dance of nymphs (''choros nympharum''). One feels caught up in this passage well before one understands its intellectual meaning. Yet in a sense being caught up is the meaning, for Pound saw his readers as being caught up themselves in this dance of adventure, of founding, breaking down, and refounding civilization, and he wanted them to feel this role. By contrast, ''Canto XIII'' - which introduces the Asian theme in the Cantos - is subdued, straightforward, and meditative in tone. It invites the reader directly into its insight, yet it jars the reader by switching him suddenly to an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar characters. This quality of unfamiliarity runs throughout the Cantos, and indeed throughout Pound's work in general. It is a powerful way of keeping the reader alert at a particularly deep emotional level, though the intellect may feel itself disoriented. It is, for Pound, a way of showing the reader ''a little light, like a rushlight/to lead back to splendour.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.