Motion begins by lamenting "the blur near the centre of 20th-century literary biography: lives of the two greatest modernists are missing." Of course, he means modernist poets – heaven knows there are lives of Joyce, arguably greater than either Eliot or Pound, the "two greatest" he's referring to. Motion continues:
Peter Ackroyd and others have done their best to get round the prohibitions of the Eliot estate, but we still lack a properly detailed, intimate account. Problems of a different kind have delayed a full and scholarly biography of Pound, despite the best efforts of Humphrey Carpenter and others. Pound's life is so vast in its energies, so richly international in its reach and so bedevilled by controversies that it has taken more than 30 years - since Pound's death in 1972 - for A David Moody's book to arrive on the scene. The first volume of this grand opus is a significant event.I'm flummoxed by this paragraph. In the first place, while the Eliot estate did indeed make problems for Ackroyd in his writing TS Eliot: A Life, it's still a pretty damned good biography, and Lyndall Gordon's TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life is even better. I can imagine more detailed, more revelatory biographies – & heaven knows we'll get them in 15 years' time, when crucial caches of TSE's letters are unsealed – but I have no idea what Motion wants in a "properly detailed, intimate account": details of Eliot's cock size, as we get in Lew Ellingham & Kevin Killian's life of Jack Spicer?
And this notion that we lack a "full and scholarly biography of Pound" has me rather puzzled. There's no shortage of Pound biographies out there: full-length treatments include Charles Norman's (1960), Noel Stock's (1970), Humphrey Carpenter's (1988) and JJ Wilhelm's (in three volumes, 1985, 1990, 1994); shorter & more specialized books include Ackroyd's illustrated Ezra Pound and His World (1980), Jacob Korg's book on EP & HD (2003), C David Heymann's Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile (1976), Anne Conover's book on EP & Olga Rudge (2001), John Tytell's Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987), Ira Nadel's recent volume for Palgrave's Literary Lives series, & probably a few others shelved in my office at work right now, where I can't lay hands on them.
All of these books have shortcomings, some of them more dire than others. Norman's book is a breezy celebrity bio, notable mostly (to me at least) for his use of Zukofsky as a resource. Stock's is the life as told by a somewhat repentant former disciple. Wilhelm simply can't write, & has no sense of discrimination among his materials.
Humphrey Carpenter's big (1000+ pp.) work, then, is probably the biography of record, unfortunately: while he conveys an admirable density of facts & dates, his work is hampered by the fact that he's utterly unsympathetic to, & mostly uncomprehending of, Pound's mature poetic project. (What possessed the author of lives of Auden & JRR Tolkien to devote this much energy to Pound of all people? Aesthetically, it's rather like me polishing off the LZ biography & setting out to write the life of Billy Collins.) I'll consult Carpenter for a date; but for a sense of Pound's poetry or for a clear idea of what his political or economic thought at any particular stage, I look elsewhere.
For all of Motion's boosterism on behalf of Moody's new biography (or at least its 1st volume – which, let's be frank, covers Pound the young man and Pound the impresario, & doesn't quite get to the Pound of the Cantos, which is where the real interest lies), he doesn't really say anything to persuade me that this book's any better than its predecessors: according to Motion, Moody's
prose is more obviously driven by the need to get the facts straight and to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of the poems, than by curiosity about psychological motives and personal characteristics. It means the book has an air of slightly detached efficiency - which is no bad thing, except that it makes Pound himself seem a touch remote. We see the blaze of his firebrand energy; we marvel at his generosity to writers of whom he approves; we admire his astonishing powers of self-driving; but we rarely feel these things on our pulses.And that's all he has to say about the book itself; the rest of the review is, as the manner of anglo-reviewers on biography, a summary of the biographee's career (as if readers of the Guardian had never heard of EP).
Which leads me to a tentative conclusion: A David Moody's is not merely the best Pound biography Andrew Motion's ever read, but it's the first. And what makes it better than all the rest (which he seems not to have dipped into) is the mere fact that it's been published by Oxford University Press – a grand step towards making Pound safe for British palates.
[Final note: I'll read Moody's book, of course, & its sequel, tho there's nothing about Moody's criticism – mostly on Eliot – that persuades me he'll have much perceptive to say about Pound's poetry. The Pound biography I'm waiting for, of course, is the one in progress by Tim Redman, author of the excellent Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism.]