Pounding the Catalogue

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

A Review of “Ezra Pound in His Time and Beyond: The Influence of Ezra Pound on Twentieth-Century Poetry.” Special Collections Exhibit, University of Delaware Library, curated by Jesse Rossa; catalogue published by the University of Delaware Library.

May a woody and sequestered place cover me with its foliage

Or may I inter beneath the hummock

of some as yet uncatalogued sand;

At any rate I shall not have my epitaph in a high road. – “Homage To Sextus Propertius”

Much conversation is as good as having a home. – Ibid.

If Ezra Pound’s ghost required nourishment-as did Tiresias’s spirit in Book XI of the Odyssey-it could do worse than raid the University of Delaware Library’s exhibit, on display through June 12. Pound would be pleased, and not just because the prim rectangular room approximates an altar. By 1960, he was starved for validation and, in a striking reversal, for the academic kind. That year, Donald Hall recounts in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets(1992), Pound warmed to the idea of a series of readings across American campuses, briefly linking the proposed appearances with his self-esteem. But Pound’s earlier misadventures precluded that possibility. Even if graduate English departments had welcomed Pound’s increasingly cryptic additions to his Cantos or assured his place (then precarious) on the curriculum-even if they could overlook his hysterical rants on Rome Radio during World War II, his subsequent internment at Pisa, and more than a decade in an insane asylum-even then, Hall felt, Pound would not be up to the strain. “Mr. Hall, you-find me-in fragments,” Pound told the 31-year-old Hall at the outset of their Paris Review interview. The most self-commendation he could muster, this man who had rocked the London literary establishment of the 1910s and then taken his act to Paris, was one sentence: “There is no doubt-that I have been some use-to some people.”[private]

Among Pound’s various dicta that have passed into the bloodstream of writers talking about writing (“A Few Don’ts”; “make it new”; the notion that poetry should be at least as well-written as good prose) is a rejoinder to critics who would launch an essay on his work by exposing his personality. “You can spot the bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet and not the poem,” he writes in The ABC of Reading. Likewise, to justly appreciate the Pound Collection, a visitor craves communion with the oeuvre and not the man.

Here is where the exhibit proves successful, by restoring that communion. Again, Pound would be “pleased”-not because of any shabby vindication of his self-worth-but because the curator, Jesse Rossa, has allowed the specimens to speak for themselves. The result is a dialogue of ideas and influences as fresh as they were upon arrival, unencumbered by commentary. Pound was alive to this challenge. The ABC of Reading contains a section titled “Exhibits,” with a series of must-read lyric poems he supplies, as for a textbook. It begins:

The ideal way to present the next section of this booklet would be to give the quotations WITHOUT any comment whatever. I am afraid that would be too revolutionary. By long and wearing experience I have learned that in the present imperfect state of the world, one MUST tell the reader….

In the present case I shall not tell the student everything. The most intelligent readers, those who most want to LEARN, will however encompass that end, and endear themselves to the struggling author if they will read the EXHIBITS, and not look at my footnotes until they have at least tried to find out WHAT THE EXHIBIT IS, and to guess why I have printed it.

In other words, yes, it would be nice if art could work its effects unheralded, but let’s go heavy on the capital letters just in case. After all, Pound was a promoter and pamphleteer extraordinaire (you can imagine him editing his pal William Carlos Williams’s maxim “no ideas but things” to read “. . . and their advance men”), and the collection is full of prospecti and tracts. Apart from texts such as the infamousJefferson and/or Mussolini (1935), there are the short-lived “little magazines” he co-founded: The Little Review (based in Chicago), which serialized James Joyce’sUlyssesExile (1922-1928), and the Vorticist BLAST, which he published with Wyndham Lewis. The latter sports a hot pink cover with the title, in boldface, running diagonally across it. (By comparison, most of the other books on exhibit-Pound’s and his friends’-are clothed in brown or dull green). BLAST‘s “stark and aggressive design was enormously influential,” says Mr. Rossa, who notes similarities to Russian constructivist art, though the Bolshevik Revolution was yet three years away. Indeed, a 1917 passport photo of Pound reveals the handsome rake who had staged improbable coups in countless “stuffed-satin” drawing-rooms:

Doubtful, somewhat, of the value

Of well-gowned approbation

Of literary effort,

But never of The Lady Valentine’s vocation:

Poetry, her border of ideas,

The edge, uncertain, but a means of blending

With other strata

Where the lower and higher have ending:

A hook to catch the Lady Jane’s attention,

A modulation toward the theatre,

Also, in the case of revolution,

A possible friend and comforter.

Except by then Pound was no longer an upstart. By 1917, he had accomplished his original goal: to sit at the feet of W. B. Yeats, and, as has been well charted, the relationship was symbiotic. He had discovered Eliot and befriended Joyce, and would see their masterpieces through to publication; soon he would find Hemingway. But already his feet were planted outside London. He had soaked up the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tradition, its spondee-heavy rhythms (to provide effective line-endings for the rest of his career), and was ready to layer those on the other styles he had gleaned from hard study. Just as he had imported Provencal song to conversational free verse, so had he delved into the Chinese characters, themes and idioms he found in the posthumous works of academic translator Ernest Fenollosa. The swift result was Cathay (1915), but Pound soon would grow preoccupied with Confucian ideology, and not literature alone. He had come to view Imagism and Britain as equally sterile; Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920) would prove a long goodbye to both. Yet, above all, he was conscious that World War I had been the tragedy of his generation, just as suicide, drink, and dissipation had been for the bohemian set of the 1890s. For Pound, the most gaping wound was the loss of friend and fellow-artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,

Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,

For a few thousand battered books.

Of Mauberly, Yeats wrote Pound: “But those first 14 pages, there I am certain, there certainly you have discovered yourself-a melancholy, full of wisdom, a self-knowledge that is full of beauty-style which is always neighbor to nobility when it is neighbor to beauty, a proud humility, that quality that makes one’s hair stand up as though one saw a spirit. You have gripped all that now.” The quotation appears in 1988’s Stone Cottage, James Longenbach’s unrivaled account of the two poets’ partnership.

Though Pound’s devastating loss does not begin to explain his behavior during the next World War, one can trace how he steeled himself into an isolationist and then groped for consoling theories such as Social Credit and Italian Fascism. Not far from the passport photo is a symbol of that decline: a reproduced snapshot of Pound’s booking at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., nearly 30 years later. Bearded and triangular, the face is instantly recognizable, but a blend of panic and outrage distorts his features-most graphically, the eyes, whose lurking horror recalls Auden’s comment on seeing a photo of Delmore Schwartz: “No one should look that unhappy.”

Back to the poems. It is almost prescient how they valued intellectual friendship long before Pound became a solitary figure. “Who is there now to share a joke with?” he would write in a moving tribute upon T. S. Eliot’s death in 1965. Pound celebrates friendship and artistic brotherhood in several translations from Rihaku (Li Po), notably “Exile’s Letter” and “Leavetaking of a Friend.” Moreover, the concern looms large in his earlier collections and Troubadour lyrics. In “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour,” the speaker’s paranoia for having “overprepared the event”-a rendezvous with two friends-gains force from the obsessive refrain: “Beauty is so rare a thing, / So few drink of my fountain.” In the poem, the invitees have shown themselves unwilling to partake of the shared struggle that art, like friendship, demands. (Again, one thinks of Pound’s request in The ABC of Reading, quoted earlier-how readers will “endear themselves to the struggling author if they will read the EXHIBITS.”) The concept of beauty as a rigorous undertaking is one of many insights Pound lifted from Yeats, who had written: “We must labor to be beautiful.” (Later, Pound would eulogize that “nobility” of purpose in a Pisan Canto: “‘So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.'”) While quaint-sounding to postmodern ears, this pragmatic version of aestheticism supplies the missing link between the poets of the 1890s and the avant-garde of the 1910s. Pound’s sometime mentor Ford Madox Ford-the “stylist” in Mauberly and an intimate of the Pre-Raphaelites-served a similar function for the English novel.

Upon entering the exhibit room, you will see a low glass case on the right-hand side. Here lies Pound’s first book, A Lume Spento, one of 150 copies privately printed in Venice. This coveted item once belonged to the bookseller Robert Wilson (founder of Greenwich Village’s Phoenix Book Shop), who has donated his entire Pound Collection to the University of Delaware Library, thus making the current exhibit possible. But the display’s cleverness belongs solely to the curators. By ranging A Lume Spento alongside a volume of Swinburne’s, for example, they usher us into an era when American poetry took its cues and cudgels from England. But long before Eliot or Auden arrived on the scene, the traffic was two-directional. The Swinburne text contains “To Walt Whitman in America,” and it is amusing to consider how Pound’s indebtedness to Swinburne eventually transferred to a grudging admiration for Whitman. (“I am old enough now to make friends . . . We have one sap and one root- / Let there be commerce between us.”)

Pound’s other American guide is on display-a Vergil at the gate of this life’s reckoning: Henry James, aptly represented by Transatlantic Sketches (1875). Such touches lend the exhibit a contemporaneity that shares close quarters with Pound’s ideogrammatic method, his startling gift from Asia. For Pound’s apologist, the late Hugh Kenner, the achievement was akin to “dragging a dark world up into the light, forging an ecumenical reality where all times could meet without the romance of time,” as he writes toward the end of The Pound Era (1971). For James, had not the intent been similar? “Dramatize, dramatize!” had been the Master’s watchword, and Pound frequently testified to the education he received from James’s prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels.

To Pound, composition was an act of propitiating elders: feeding the assortment of voices, languages and influences contending for his poems. In some ways, Eliot’s early rejected title for The Waste Land-“He Do the Police in Different Voices”-would better suit a Pound production. This hyper-educated aspect of Pound, if the adjective is treated neutrally, spars with localized musings about posterity. For every poem invoking a descent to visit Pluto’s dead, so that pale spirits might be raised by a blood-sacrifice, there is a jaunty lyric or envoi with lines such as “Come, my songs, let us speak of perfection- / We shall get ourselves rather disliked.” This gauging of unknown territory, even as the poet pays homage to forebears, exemplifies the wit, charm and bravado that are Pound’s most arresting features. They are of a piece with his mandate as a translator. There is small difference, in the end, between Whitman’s opening sequence in “Song of Myself” and the last two lines of this passage from Canto II:

Hang it all, there can be but one Sordello!

But say I want to, take your whole bag of tricks,

Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form,

Your Sordello, and that the modern world

Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in;

Say that I dump my catch, shiny and silvery

As fresh sardines flapping and slipping on the marginal cobbles?

(I stand before the booth, the speech: but the truth

Is inside this discourse-this booth is full of the marrow of wisdom.)

To what extent might Pound’s verse be considered democratic, as Whitman’s is? Though it ranges from genuine to spotty, Pound’s erudition in the Cantosheightens a sense of elitism he elsewhere conveys more directly. (“I mate with my free kind upon the crags; / the hidden recesses / Have heard the echo of my heels, / in the cool light, / in the darkness.”) But his bluster, again like Whitman’s, is rather more inviting than off-putting. And like any true democracy, the citizens vote with their feet. Scan the exhibit room for only a fraction of his followers: George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and, further downstream, The Beat Poets, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. In our time there are poets as dissimilar as Charles Wright and Gary Snyder. This collection of disciples, many of who probably viewed Pound with the same original distrust as he viewed Whitman (as a “pigheaded father”)-this long and growing ledger is Pound’s final act of magnanimity. From reading Pound we have learned to take what we need and discard the rest. (“To have gathered from the air a live tradition / or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame . . .”) Such discrimination rests on the generous impulse he bequeathed us, to pardon imperfections when they dwell with the exceptional.

You also, our first great,

Had tried all ways;

Tested and pried and worked in many fashions,

And this much gives me heart to play the game.

Here is a part that’s slight, and part gone wrong,

And much of little moment, and some few

Perfect as Durer!

(“To Whistler, American”)

The complete poem grew from an encounter with the painter’s works, then on loan at London’s Tate Gallery. Though Whistler is not represented in the University of Delaware Library’s holdings, the example of his career suggests another way to view them. True to the aesthete’s legacy, these Poundian relics haunt the niche between bohemian severity and boutique glamour. Many are rare first editions and would fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction today. The exhibit boasts not only the Shakespeare & Company-published Ulysses of 1922, in its famous sea-blue wrapper, but also a signed copy of The Waste Land as it appeared in the October issue of The Criterion; Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press-published edition of the poem (1923) is also present. Stowed away at the far side of the room is Robert Frost’s comparatively modest debut, A Boy’s Will (1913), published by David Nutt in a cream-colored cover, which nevertheless drew Pound’s praise in Poetry magazine. It is highly likely that Pound, a wayward student of economics, would have derived satisfaction or at least amusement from the prospect of so many of his friends attaining, in the end, not mere respectability, but premium market value.

A postscript and disclaimer: Mr. Rossa’s slim but eloquent catalogue summarizes what may be remembered as the most theatrical literary life of the 20thcentury. The University of Pennsylvania years with H.D. and William Carlos Williams, the mentorship of New Directions founder James Laughlin, the shameful invective and subsequent controversy surrounding Pound’s 1949 receipt of the first Bollingen Prize-all is justly rendered. Along the way, Mr. Rossa distributes many little known facts-that Eliot published an anonymous monograph on Pound in 1917, for example, or that Williams and Pound were involved with a journal called Paganyaround 1929. None of this attractively presented material has anything to do with me, and yet the catalogue lists my name in the credits, on the strength of two brief e-mails I exchanged with Mr. Rossa.

For more information, please visit:http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/pound/index.htm


About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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