The whipping boy of western poetry deserves betterby Robert Chandler / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
The tone and title of Michael Lind’s “Poetical Correctness” in the July Prospect give the impression that he is attacking an entrenched orthodoxy. There is nothing daring, however, about criticising Ezra Pound-no major poet of the last century is less fashionable. Pound’s place in our culture is a little like Sigmund Freud’s: Pound also suffers from being simultaneously over-familiar and unknown. Nine tenths of the advice offered at creative writing workshops is taken third-hand from Pound’s ABC of Reading; too few people, however, read Pound himself.
Many of Lind’s criticisms of Pound are justified. Pound’s work is often incomprehensible, and much is viciously fascist and anti-Semitic. I can’t help wondering, however, whether Lind has actually read Pound. Does he not realise that Pound also wrote poetry of remarkable clarity and simplicity? Like this famous early lyric:
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
Pound’s early work is delicate and ethereal. By 1915, however, when he published the adaptations from Chinese collected in Cathay, Pound had become capable of a directness and conversational brio that brought new rhythms to poetry. For all his inaccuracies, Pound is also one of the greatest translators in the history of English verse. Even when he chooses to use archaic diction, his rhythms are alive and fresh. If I read any other translator of Homer, contemporary or not, and then turn to Pound’s first Canto-his version of Odysseus’s descent into the underworld-I feel as if I am looking for the first time at an old masterpiece that has been cleaned of centuries of grime and excessive varnish. And compared with Cathay, the often-praised translations of Arthur Waley seem prosaic and dilute.
One of our difficulties in approaching Pound is perhaps that we have grown mistrustful of beauty. In an age of plastic surgery and computer-generated images, when reality can always be improved upon, a kind of ersatz beauty has become all too easy to achieve. Perhaps because of this, visual beauty has become a realm of fashion more than of art and few poets today seem to want to make words sing. Pound himself, in contrast, was unabashedly devoted to beauty; beauty is a central subject of much of his work and his own language is more musical than that of any English-language poet, apart from Keats, since the 17th century. This does not, however, mean that Pound was blind to the problematic nature of beauty in the modern world as he shows in the Pisan Cantos, where he discusses the artist’s predicament with compassion.
One of Pound’s less remembered dicta is that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” The Cantos may look intimidating, with their untranslated quotations from a bewildering variety of languages, but the best of Pound is anything but academic. Lind, incidentally, quotes some pleasant lines of Dana Gioia in support of his claim that “American poetry dances (in Gioia’s work) as it has not danced for a long time.” I myself feel that Lind would do better, if he wants to see language dance, to turn to a poem by Thom Gunn. Gunn is the editor of the best selection of Pound’s work and, clearly, learned from him.
As a young man, Pound was attractively combative and generous. Few writers have done so much to help their most talented contemporaries: Eliot and Joyce are obvious examples, but Pound also wrote admiring reviews of Robert Frost, Edward Thomas and William Carlos Williams, poets whose work has little in common with his own. Gradually, however, what had been an admirable readiness to champion the work of others degenerated into a paranoid determination to take on the world. Pound believed-understandably enough, after the first world war-that western civilisation was self-destructing. Unfortunately, he slipped into believing that he alone could save it. Still more unfortunately, he blamed the tyranny of capitalism on the Jews and saw Mussolini as a benevolent figure who could save culture from this tyranny.
Many writers have made disastrous political choices; many writers have botched (Pound’s word) both their work and their lives. Few, however, have analysed their failings as clearly as Pound did in the drafts and fragments he wrote during his last years of catatonic depression. No one has summed up his career more truthfully and succinctly than he himself: “That I lost my centre/fighting the world.” There is greatness in Pound’s acknowledgement of failure:
I have tried to write Paradise.
Do not move.
Let the wind speak.
That is Paradise.
May the gods forgive what I have made.
May those I have loved try to forgive
what I have made.