- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

EZRA POUND: POEMS AND TRANSLATIONS

Edited by Richard Sieburth

The Library of America, $45, 1400 pages

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

In the Summer/Fall 2003 issue of “Crossroads,” the journal of the Poetry Society of America, Spencer Short, one of 20 new Americanpoets profiled there, recalls that his first experience “of how a poem works” was when a friend read Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” to him. The first stanza of this lovely, though acerbic, poem reads:

Like a skein of loose silk blown

against a wall

She walks by the railing of a

path in Kensington Gardens,

And she is dying piece-meal of

a sort of emotional anemia.

It is easy to see why these words could attract and teach a young poet, but because Pound’s reputation is based more on his abhorrent behavior during World War II — his ardent support of Mussolini, his ranting against the Allies on Italian state-controlled radio, his repulsive anti-Semitism — than on his merits as a major poet and as a shaper and definer of Modernism, too few readers take the time to sit down with this often difficult poet.

This is not the place to consider at great length the controversy that surrounds Pound. Neither is there space to detail all of his extraordinary contributions to the arts in the first half of the last century. Richard Sieburth, the editor of this superb collection of Pound’s poems and translations, provides in his chronology and notes many of the facts necessary to get a basic grip on the seemingly endless accomplishments of this pivotal figure.

And he does not ignore the ongoing debate about Pound’s place in the history of 20th-century art, a debate that has caused his reputation to fall well below that of his contemporaries, especially T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams.

Pound lived a long life, one that was, for the most part, spent in the service not only of poets and poetry but also of the arts in general. Born Oct. 30, 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, he died in Venice, Italy, on Nov. 1, 1972. In 1896, he published his first poem, a limerick, Mr. Sieburth tells us, “on the defeat of William Jennings Bryant in the presidential election.”

From then on his life involved formal and informal study of quite a few languages and literatures; extensive travel both with his family and, later, on his own; the writing and publishing of his own poems and translations; the tireless support of other poets and artists; and an eccentric and often damning involvement in the social and political upheavals resulting from World War I.

Where he found the time to do all he did — from serving for three winters as secretary to the great William Butler Yeats; to arranging the publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”; to promoting and reviewing the early work of Robert Frost and many other now well-known names — is an epic story that can be found in the late Hugh Kenner’s dynamic book “The Pound Era” (1971), or in the many biographies and critical studies that have tried to understand what Pound’s friend William Carlos Williams called “the liveliest, most intelligent and unexplainable thing.”

Certainly, Pound’s place not only as a major player in literary Modernism but also as a primary handmaiden to its creation and development is assured even in the face of his well-documented moral lapses. There can be little doubt that, although he had an unbelievably sharp eye for spotting artistic talent, his inability to discern bigoted sham economic and political theories led to his long incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s, the federal mental institution in Washington, D.C., and to his partial exclusion (generally by university pundits) from what would have been, for any other poet of his caliber, a life of awards and honors.

Pound’s is a strange case. This was a man with a unique ability to identify creative genius, who cajoled and browbeat editors to publish work that was breaking down, or away from, the aesthetics of the 19th century. His own work ranged far and wide in pursuit of the “truth” of poetry. On the other hand, there is the arrogant dandy disliked by many, including some whose careers he helped establish. William Carlos Williams, who remained a good friend, said that much of the bad feeling against Pound was “because he is so darned full of conceits and affectation.”

And yes, there is also that Pound who adopted as gurus such dangerous crackpots as C.H. Douglas, whose economic theories advocate “social credit,” attack capitalism and have an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. But it is Pound as a poet and translator, however, whom this volume — the 144th in the Library of America series — honors.

Pound’s early poetry is often hard on our ears. Its language is often archaic, and much of it is composed in forms rarely in the bag of tricks available to present poets, especially those too lazy to learn the history of their art. Consider the first stanza of “A Villonaud. Ballad of the Gibbet”:

Drink ye a skoal for the gal-

lows tree!

Francois and Margot and

thee and me,

Drink we the comrades

merrily

That said us, ‘Toll then’ for the

gallows tree!

These lines sound alien to us, certainly if we are more used to the deceptively easy lightness of, say, the good poems of Billy Collins. Pound, in his early work, was under the heavy influence of the poets he was studying and translating: Robert Browning, the medieval troubadours, the ancient Greek and Roman poets, and many others. They were his school, and he learned, as all good poets do, by imitating them; by carefully observing how they went about writing poems.

One of the most interesting and important of Pound’s poems is his version of the early Anglo-Saxon text, “The Seafarer.” This extraordinary piece begins:

May I for my own self song’s

truth reckon,

Journey’s jargon, how I in

harsh days

Hardship endured oft.

Bitter breast-cares have I

abided,

Known on my keel many a

care’s hold,

And dire sea-surge, and there

I oft spent

Narrow nightwatch nigh the

ship’s head

While she tossed close to

cliffs. Coldly afflicted

My feet were by frost

benumbed.

We become transfixed by the speaker’s ordeal, his bravery in the face of the harshest of all natural worlds. Don’t be thrown off by the alliteration and assonance. Let the poem do its work, and you will have a memorable experience. But don’t expect it to be a direct translation. When Pound was attacked for the liberties he took with the original text, Mr. Sieburth notes, he replied that it was as “nearly literal … as any translation can be.” In other words, he sought what Seamus Heaney has called “the tune and the tone” of the original.

One of Pound’s more difficult and, with certain parts of “The Cantos” and the “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” best poems is the 19-part “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Pound indicts modern Western culture for the madness of World War I. To Pound, “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace,” and the age was defined by the Great War’s killing fields:

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.

Pound’s poetry, especially from between the two World Wars, is neither pretty nor easy to read. Like his friend James Joyce, Pound made his readers work. Just as T.S. Eliot had to attach a list of clarifications to “The Waste Land,” which Pound edited (Eliot dedicated the poem to him as “il miglior fabbro,” or the better craftsman), so too is Pound best approached with a guide.

So, here we have Ezra Pound in a long overdue single volume. His epic “Cantos” are absent from this volume (although Mr. Sieburth has recently edited “The Pisan Cantos,” which many readers believe to be the best of a rather chaotic lot). That Pound created a major body of poems and translations cannot be denied. Young poets still can learn from him; readers who enjoy poetry will find much to please them.

According to Allen Ginsberg, who visited the old poet in 1967, Pound admitted that “The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” As an apology, it is suspiciously arrogant and self-serving. Well, sanity and goodness have never been prerequisites for artistic creativity, and the morality of the maker of art is not always necessary to its glory. In the end, each of us will have to decide which of the many Ezra Pounds we want.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic living in Pottsville, Pa.


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