Discuss Ezra Pound's use of classic mythology in his poetry.
Pound believed that the classics were the pinnacle of art and literature. Back in ancient Greece and Rome, society revered these masterpieces, but Pound felt that during his time, profit-mongering had corrupted the art world. In his work, Pound drew heavily from ancient tales of gods and goddesses. In "A Girl," he alludes to the story of Apollo and Daphne, and in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," Pound refers to the classic deities as the ultimate representation of beauty. Though they deal with many topics, The Cantos begin and end with Odysseus's journey. Pound frequently associated himself with Odysseus throughout this monumental work. He compared his literary and social interactions in Europe with Odysseus's quest to return home.
What autobiographical details does Pound use in his poetry? What is the function of these personal allusions?
In the latter half of his career, Pound began to place himself directly in his poetry and speak from his own point of view, which is evident in both "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and The Cantos. He would clearly state his own opinions on politics, economics, and other societal matters without fear of criticism. He would also draw inspiration from his environment at the time. Once he moved to Italy, Pound began to write about fascism and the political leaders of the late 1930s and 1940s. In his early poetry, Pound was able to compose poems with different perspectives, but as he got older, his life experiences narrowed the scope of his opinions. For example, when he explores the concept of love and marriage, he hints at his own struggles, which increased after he began an extra-marital affair while living in Paris.
How did Pound's support of Imagism affect his own work? Is it accurate to label him an Imagist?
Pound certainly supported Imagism and developed the concept as an antithesis to the flowery language of the Victorian and Romantic poets. However, although Imagism certainly paved the way for many modernist poets, Pound did realize throughout his career that poetic styles are not "one size fits all." Imagism suited his earlier poetry—"In a Station of the Metro," "A Girl," and "A Pact," to name a few—but for his longer works, like "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and "The Cantos," he realized that a concise, compact, and non-abstract style would not work and embraced a more wordy, free-verse style. However, Imagism and modernism showed many poets that they could employ less verbose styles in their work, and readers, too, would become more open-minded about poetic form in general - thanks to the innovative techniques of Pound and his contemporaries.
What kinds of controversy did Pound's poetry cause?
While Ezra Pound was living and writing in Europe, Hitler and Mussolini came into the international spotlight as the fascist leaders of Germany and Italy, respectively. Pound quickly became absorbed in fascist politics while living in Italy. The longer he lived there, the stronger his antisemitic opinions became. However, these hateful views were unfortunately not limited to Pound. Europe was rife with propaganda that blamed Jews for "polluting the human race." Pound was also the kind of poet who reflected his environment in his work. In The Cantos, Pound openly appraises fascism, criticizes many world leaders, and speaks out against specific Jewish families like the Rothschilds. Ultimately, Pound's hateful views drove readers away. Even though Pound's intelligence was undeniable, his prejudices understandably prevent contemporary readers from understanding or respecting his later work.
How does Pound explore economics in his poetry? Use specific examples
Pound's interest in economics is evident in his early Imagist work. Imagism centers on the economy of language and efficient word choice, which is a thematic way for him to connect the form and content. He explores ideas of trade and commerce in a number of his shorter poems. For example, in "Portrait d'une Femme," he imagines an intellectual exchange between the female protagonist and the "great minds" who come to her for ideas, stories, and knowledge. In "A Pact," Pound writes, "Let there be commerce between us," to poet Walt Whitman, as if he's decided to accept Whitman's influence. Pound's specific opinions on economics are evident throughout The Cantos. He examines historical examples and uses them to condemn usury and the interest system. He also vilifies American capitalism and predatory banking practices.
What does Pound mean when he says he wanted The Cantos to bring cohesion to the universe? Did he fail or succeed, and how?
The Cantos are a result of Pound reflecting on all the information, stories, and opinions that are swirling in his mind, which he had collected over a lifetime of moving, wandering, and learning. Pound was extremely well-informed about world history and politics, and in The Cantos, a massive book-length poem, he attempts to unite all his thoughts and show how everything is connected. He did manage to weave together certain historical patterns in unique ways, and in each canto, Pound takes a certain aspect of the previous one and expands on it. However, many readers and scholars alike find The Cantos to be scattered and overly-ambitious - Pound loaded the piece with so much information that it is difficult to unravel every single message he was trying to convey. He seems to have understood the impossible nature of his task - at the end of the final complete canto, he acknowledges that no poet or human being could achieve total coherence.
Compare and contrast Ezra Pound journey with that of Homer's Odysseus, whom Pound frequently associated himself with. Discuss how this comparison is evident in The Cantos.
Many of Pound's poems reflected ideas of journey and transformation, probably because Pound felt like he had undergone one himself. Both Pound and Odysseus set out on their journeys for a purpose: Pound wanted to change society's views on literature and art, and Odysseus was trying to return home after a bloody war. Pound begins and ends The Cantos with allusions to Odysseus's journey - at the end, Odysseus is finally is able to return home, but it has changed in his absence. Pound's journey back to America ended tragically, though - he was imprisoned for his fascist and anti-semitic views. The fact that Pound compares himself to Odysseus suggests that Pound viewed himself as a hero, and this ego likely played a part in his desire to share his hateful opinions with the world.
What role does aesthetic beauty play in Pound's poetry? How does he explore this topic?
Pound places a lot of importance on beauty and aesthetics; the entirety of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" is the poet's attempt to get the rest of the world to value beauty as much as he did. Pound often uses symbols of beauty in his work, particularly goddesses such as Aphrodite (Venus in her Roman form). He also mines the natural world for images of purity. For example, in "In a Station of the Metro," Pound compares the faces on the subway platform to flower petals on a tree branch. In The Cantos, he uses light as an additional representation of beauty. In the last few sections of The Cantos, Pound employs metaphors and figurative language involving light as he attempts to craft his own version of paradise.
Why did Pound strive to create a paradise at the end of The Cantos?
Pound had a very idealistic view of the world and spent his life looking for his own version of paradise. He would move from place to place, unsatisfied with the corruption and greed that modernity brought into many European cities. In his writing, Pound often escaped into a paradisiacal setting because this vision in his mind was a favorable alternative to the degraded version of society he saw before him. By including paradise in the Cantos, Pound felt that he could convince others to share his viewpoint. He uses images of light and the natural world in order to illustrate his vision. However, his goal for the final canto fell short because he could not extricate his own prejudiced opinions and self-hatred from his work.
Do you consider Ezra Pound to be a successful poet? Did he think he was successful? Why or why not?
Later in his career, Pound alienated most of his readership because of his heavily fascist and antisemitic opinions. However, it is hard to deny Pound's impact on the world of modern poetry. The Imagist movement, in particular, has been extremely influential, and countless poets have employed this style in their work. In addition, while Pound felt that he failed to create the universal cohesion that he hoped for in The Cantos, the massive work has moments of uniquely insightful commentary and perspective. Pound's influence is clearly evident in the careers of many of his contemporaries, whom he edited and advised, like Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, George Oppen, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. While Ezra Pound's fervent political beliefs marred his legacy, he did make some positive contributions to modern poetry that will resonate for generations to come.
Ezra Pound turns up five times in Peter Gay’s big survey of the modern movement in literature and the arts, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy”—once in connection with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which Pound edited), once as the author of an anti-Semitic sentiment (one of many), and three times as the originator of the slogan “Make It New” (which suits the theme of Gay’s account). Pound’s poetry and criticism are not discussed; no reader of Gay’s book would have any idea of what his importance or influence as a writer might be. Gay’s is a commodious volume with a long reach, “From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond”; still, a handful of passing references seems a sharp decline in market value for a writer who was once the hero of a book called “The Pound Era.”
Pound’s aspirations for literature were grand. He believed that bad writing destroyed civilizations and that good writing could save them, and although he was an élitist about what counted as art and who mattered as an artist, he thought that literature could enhance the appreciation of life for everyone. He was vain and idiosyncratic, but he had no wish to be a prima donna. No doubt Eliot, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore would have produced interesting and innovative work whether they had known Pound or not, but Pound’s attention and interventions helped their writing and sped their careers. He edited them, reviewed them, got them published in magazines he was associated with, and included them in anthologies he compiled; he introduced them to editors, to publishers, and to patrons; he gave them the benefit of his time, his learning, his money, and his old clothes. “A miracle of ebulliency, gusto, and help,” Joyce called him. It’s true that he was flamboyant, immodest, opinionated, tactless, a pinwheel of affectation; he made people crazy and he became crazy himself. Gertrude Stein’s description of him is frequently invoked: “A village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” In his devotion to the modernist avant-garde, though, he was selfless. “A bombastic galleon, palpably bound to, or from, the Spanish Main,” Wyndham Lewis wrote about meeting Pound. “Going on board, I discovered beneath its skull and cross-bones, intertwined with fleurs de lys and spattered with preposterous starspangled oddities, a heart of gold.”
Pound’s own work, on the other hand, has had a difficult reception. The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past. A great deal of Pound’s poetry therefore takes the form of translation, imitation, allusion, and quotation. He is trying to breathe life into a line of artistic and intellectual accomplishment, but it is a line of his own invention—a “tradition” that includes, among others, John Adams, Confucius, Flaubert, the Provençal troubadours, and Benito Mussolini. Not, prima facie, a canon. This means that to understand what Pound is doing you often need to have read the same writers, studied the same languages, and learned the same history that Pound read, studied, and learned (or rely on the commentary of a person who has). This is especially the case with the work on which he spent fifty-four years and staked his reputation, “The Cantos of Ezra Pound”—“a cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length,” as he once described it. So it is very easy for the average underprepared reader to get Pound wrong, and he desperately did not want to be misunderstood. Opacity and ambiguity can be deliberate effects in modernist writing: sometimes the text goes dark, reference becomes uncertain, language aspires to the condition of music. In Pound’s case, though, any obscurity is unintentional. Clarity is the essence of his aesthetic. He sometimes had to struggle against his own technique to achieve it.
There is another problem with Pound, which is that he was a Fascist. The term gets abused freely in discussions of modernist writers, a number of whom were reactionaries—Gay calls these “the anti-modern modernists”—and some of whom were anti-Semites, but very few of whom were actually Fascists. Pound is one of the very few. His obsession with the Jews (there are some anti-Semitic passages in his early prose, but nothing systematic) dates from his interest in the views of the founder of the Social Credit movement, Major C. H. Douglas, around 1920. (Social Credit was an economic reform movement aimed at the elimination of debt—hence Pound’s attacks on usury and on Jews as moneylenders and financiers of wars, a classic type of anti-Semitism.) Pound’s infatuation with Mussolini dates from a concert given by Olga Rudge, a violinist who was Pound’s longtime mistress, at Mussolini’s home, in 1927, where he came up with the idea of enlisting Mussolini as a patron of the avant-garde. Six years later, Pound had a private audience with Il Duce, at the Palazzo Venezia, in Rome, and presented him with a copy of “A Draft of XXX Cantos,” which Mussolini graciously acknowledged with the remark “Ma questo è divertente” (“How amusing”). Pound concluded that Mussolini had an intuitive grasp of the significance of his poetry.
In 1941, Pound began delivering broadcasts from the Rome studios of Ente Italiana Audizione Radio, attacking the Jews, Roosevelt, and American intervention in the war. The broadcasts continued through the Allied invasion of Italy, in 1943. In 1944, he wrote two propagandistic cantos—which are known as the Italian Cantos, and which were for many years omitted from the New Directions edition of the complete “Cantos”—praising the Fascist fighting spirit. In 1945, he surrendered to American officials on a charge of treason and was imprisoned in an Army Disciplinary Training Center north of Pisa. He was brought to the United States, but, thanks to the intercession of friends and of Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, in Washington, D.C., he was spared a trial, on psychiatric grounds (although he never received a specific diagnosis). He spent twelve years in St. Elizabeths, where he acquired a number of disciples, including John Kasper, a segregationist associated with the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell. In 1958, the indictment was dismissed and Pound returned to Italy. When he walked off the boat, in Naples, he gave the Fascist salute.
Pound’s politics are not incidental to his achievement. Italian Fascism is integral to “The Cantos,” and the section called “The Pisan Cantos,” which Pound composed in the Army Disciplinary Training Center, at a time when he had every expectation of being executed, is, formally, an elegy occasioned by the death of Mussolini at the hands of Italian partisans (“Ben and la Clara a Milano / by the heels at Milano”). Like most classical elegies, it is as much about the poet as about the departed; it is suffused with memories, and spiked with anger at the indifference of the world. It won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, and although the award was (and remains) controversial, “The Pisan Cantos” is the finest thing that Pound ever wrote. It’s the one place in his work where his learning is fused with genuine personal feeling.
Parts of “The Pisan Cantos” have been read as a recantation:
“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
I say pull down.
This may sound repentant, but it is not the poet speaking to himself in the second person. The lines are addressed to the American Army (“Half black half white”): the prisoner is raging against his captors. Pound laments, but he does not regret. “The Pisan Cantos” is a Fascist poem without apologies.
A. David Moody does not deal with the political side of the Pound problem in the first volume of his biography, “Ezra Pound Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work” (Oxford; $47.95), because he takes us only to 1921, the year Pound left London, first for Paris and then for Rapallo, where he lived until he surrendered to the Americans. Pound was born in 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, a fact useful to English satirists, whose ridicule Pound abetted by occasionally speaking and writing in a kind of homemade cowboy/Yankee drawl. But Pound was not really a Westerner; he spent less than two years in Hailey, where his father, Homer, briefly registered mining claims. The family moved to New York and then to Wyncote, near Philadelphia, which is where Pound was reared and educated. Homer worked in the Philadelphia Mint; Pound’s mother, Isabel, was a New Yorker. Pound spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania, then transferred to Hamilton College, graduating in 1905.
Pound came to Europe in 1908, when he was twenty-two, after getting kicked out of the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. (Later in his career, he several times applied to Penn to receive his doctorate on the basis of work published, but was turned down.) Pound resisted the philological approach to literature that he was taught at Penn, since philology considered itself a science and above critical judgment, and Pound was consumed with a passion for critical judgment. He thought that the whole purpose of studying the past was to discover the principles of good writing—“the search for sound criteria,” he called it—and his early poetry is a kind of creative philology, consisting largely of promiscuously free translations and reanimations of the literature of half a dozen expired traditions: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Provençal, medieval Italian, eighth-century Chinese, and fourteenth-century Japanese. (After decades of frustratingly under-edited New Directions reprints, virtually all of Pound’s poetry and translations, apart from the “Cantos,” are available in a single Library of America volume, expertly edited, with annotation, by Richard Sieburth.)
Moody’s book is a biography more of the work than of the man. Pound’s love affairs, friendships, and quarrels and the intellectual and artistic culture within which he operated are mentioned, but they’re not endowed with much explanatory power. Moody treats Pound as a poet whose primary concern was writing poetry, and his pages are devoted mainly to patient, intelligent, and prudently sympathetic readings of the contents of the twenty-one books Pound produced between 1905 and 1920, beginning with “Hilda’s Book,” which he wrote for his girlfriend Hilda Doolittle (later the poet H.D.), and ending with the work he called his “farewell to London,” the self-deprecating satire “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Given the enormous variety of Pound’s production in this period, Moody’s gloss is elegant: he thinks that Pound (with a little help from his friends) grounded poetry in the everyday. He did this in two ways. He campaigned, as a prolific and bumptious critic, against the aesthetes and the Symbolists—the avant-garde of the late nineteenth century. And he formulated an aesthetic that was intended to preserve poetry’s privileged status, but without the Symbolist’s mysticism or the aesthete’s cult of the beautiful. Pound took the merely poetical out of poetry. He did not believe that (in the words of the preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) “all art is quite useless.” He thought that poetry had a kind of power. He believed, Moody says, “that ‘the perfect rhythm joined to the perfect word’ would energize the motor forces of emotion and will and illuminate the intelligence, and that the result would be more enlightened living.”
“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ ” was the formula of the movement that Pound invented, in 1912: Imagism. In the Imagist model, the writer is a sculptor. Technique consists of chipping away everything superfluous in order to reveal the essential form within. “It took you ninety-seven words to do it,” Pound is reported to have remarked to a young literary aspirant who had handed him a new poem. “I find it could have been managed in fifty-six.” He claimed that his best-known short poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” took a year and a half to write, and that he had cut it down from thirty lines:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The form “made new” here is, of course, the haiku: two images juxtaposed to evoke a sensation—in this case, according to Pound, the sensation of beauty. It’s important to recognize, though, that the subject of the poem is not “these faces”; the subject is “the apparition.” (Otherwise, the first three words would be superfluous, subject to the Imagist razor.) The faces are not what matters. What matters is the impression they make in the mind of a poet. That is where the work of association takes place. This is what poets do: they connect an everyday x with an unexpected y. “Apparition” also reminds us, as Hugh Kenner pointed out in “The Pound Era,” that the poem takes place under the ground: the people are experienced as ghosts, the subway as a visit to the underworld. (Kenner thought that the association with petals alludes to the Persephone myth, the cycle of death and rebirth.)
When Pound abandoned Imagism, around 1914, he did so noisily, and in the name of another doctrine, which he (along with Wyndham Lewis) named Vorticism. The trope in a Vorticist poem is the Vortex—although, as Moody rightly says, a Vortex is just an Image by another name. The key notion now is energy. (Pound and Lewis had very much in mind Filippo Marinetti’s Futurism, an artistic and literary movement that had a vogue in England shortly before the war. They affected to despise Marinetti as a showman, but they were, stylistically, his imitators.) “The vortex is the point of maximum energy,” Pound explained in BLAST, the magazine that he and Lewis produced, and that ran for two issues. “All experience rushes into this vortex. . . . All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.” The cluster of associations triggered by the apparition of the faces—Odysseus’ descent into Hades, Dante’s visit to the Inferno, Persephone and Demeter—is present in the twentieth-century subway, but only for those who can see. “Swift perception of relations, hallmark of genius,” Pound wrote.
As Moody concedes, somewhat reluctantly, not every reader is a genius, and this can lead, in Pound, to many conundrums. Moody spends several pages, for example, puzzling out the opening lines of Canto IV:
Palace in smoky light,
Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones,
Hear me. Cadmus of Golden Prows!
Most readers will get the reference to Troy, but the rest is, well, Greek. Moody thinks that the palace in the first line is Agamemnon’s (although there is nothing about “smoky light” that would make this necessary, and other commentators have seen an allusion to Euripides’ play “The Trojan Women”). “ANAXIFORMINGES” is from a poem by Pindar; “Aurunculeia” is from a poem by Catullus; Cadmus was the brother of Europa and the founder of Thebes. Even with the allusions identified, there remains the question of what to make of this particular cluster. What about Troy, Agamemnon, Cadmus, and so on makes for significance? Moody works it out (something to do with cities, women, music, and ravishment), but, by the end, any notion of the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’ ” has vanished. The perception of relations is anything but swift.
The seed of the trouble lies in what most people find the least problematic aspect of the Imagist aesthetic: the insistence on “the perfect word,” le mot juste. This seems a promise to get language up to the level of experience: artifice and verbiage are shorn away, and words point directly to the objects they name. Language becomes transparent; we experience the world itself. “When words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish,” Pound wrote in 1915. This is a correspondence theory of language with a vengeance. We might doubt the promise by noting that in ordinary speech we repeat, retract, contradict, embellish, and digress continually in order to make our meaning more precise. No one likes to be required to answer a question yes or no, because things are never that simple. This is not because individual words are too weak; it’s because they are too powerful. They can mean too many things. (“Palace in smoky light”: could this be Buckingham Palace in the fog?) So we add more words, and embed our clauses in more clauses, in order to mute language, modify it, and reduce it to the modesty of our intentions. President Clinton was right: “is” does have many meanings, and we need to be allowed to explain the particular one we have in mind. In “The Cantos,” Pound became the prisoner of his own technique, and he must have found his poem unfinishable (he never did end it) because he couldn’t control the significances his images unleashed. “New Cantos form themselves out of schemes to make sense of old Cantos,” the critic Daniel Albright has said, “so the story of ‘ The Cantos’ comprises two intertwined stories, one concerning Pound’s writing of the poem, the other concerning Pound’s interpretations of what he had already written.” The poem kept metastasizing meaning, a Vortex battening on itself.
“He was in his own way a hero of his culture, a genuine representative of both its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions,” Moody says about Pound. This seems fair. Pound was, in the end, a poet’s poet—he looked like a poet—and, despite the shambles of his political beliefs and the limitations of his poetics, he does stand for something. His claims for literature were free of supernatural mystification, and he believed that the proper organization of language was supremely important. If you are a poet, or any serious kind of writer, you have to believe that, whether you think Pound’s formula is workable or not. Getting the words right is, at a minimum, part of the therapy.
Pound was also, and by his own account, a failure.
That I lost my center
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered—
that I tried to make a paradiso
he wrote in notes for the final cantos. Kenner’s title was deliberately ironic: the point of “The Pound Era” is that a Pound era never happened. The hopes of the pre-war avant-garde, the artistic excitement of the years between 1908 and 1914, when the modernist movement spread throughout Europe, died in the trenches and the camps. “Dreams clash and are shattered”: two wars of annihilation destroyed the aspirations of poets and painters to be the authors of an earthly paradise. Pound was, in a way, a war casualty, too; but he outlived almost all his literary and artistic contemporaries. He died in 1972, in Venice, at the age of eighty-seven. In his last years, he did not speak. ♦