Saturday, November 17, 2007

laureates in space

Who'd've thought it – an English Poet Laureate entirely out of it? I'm shocked, shocked. (Until, that is, I consider John Betjeman & John Masefield, & a whole parade of mummified relics who've occupied the office: the list is of course considerably shorter than the American one only because the English post is a lifetime one.) But then I read current PL Andrew Motion's review in the Guardian of the first volume of A. David Moody's biography of Pound, Ezra Pound: Poet. Vol 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920.

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.]

7 comments:

alex davis said...

Mark: I found Moody good on the early poetry, to which he devotes a lot of space. There's far more analysis of poetry in this volume than in, say, Roy Foster's first volume of his Yeats biog. Incidentally, I believe Tim Redman has abandoned his Pound biography.

Mark Scroggins said...

Well, I'll be -- I guess I'm as out of it as Andrew Motion. I hadn't heard about Redman, which is a trifle disspiriting. But it's good to hear Moody's set out to write a book that will take account of the work as well as the life. I still very much have my doubts as to what he'll be able to say about the post-1922 work.

eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Scroggins said...

Well, I'm grateful, Eshuneutics, for your pointing me towards Moody's Pound criticism, which I'll certainly have a look at. I suppose I'm not as familiar with Paideuma (tho at least I can spell it correctly) as I was a decade ago, so I'll look thru the two dozen or so numbers shelved in my office.

The reason Moody is known as an Eliot rather than a Pound scholar -- whatever his strengths as the latter may be -- is that he's published two books on Eliot, & so far as I know zero books on Pound (up until, that is, this biography -- for which he seems oddly to have chosen to recycle the title of his TSE book, *Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet* -- *Ezra Pound, Poet*). The wishes of the "establishment", which seems to publish a half-dozen new books on Pound every year, would seem to have little to do with it.

But I look forward to Moody on the early Pound: and yes, "reading Moody on Pound via the establishment eyes of Motion is like judging a Bergman movie thru the eyes of Walt Disney" -- but isn't that the point of my post, which was primarily about the Guardian's review of the book, and only in passing about the book itself (which I'm happy to admit I've never laid eyes on)?

eshuneutics said...

Yes, "Paideuma", typos do get through, as do grammatical errors in your writing. But never mind, we are all capable of proof-reading errors. As for the rest of the comment, it rather betrays your critical prejudices and little else. The early Moody work is more than a "decade" ago, so as I say, you're not as familiar with what you are tilting against as you suppose. As for this comment, "And what makes it better than this...is the mere fact that it's been published by Oxford University Press-- a grand step towards making Pound safe for British palates..." is absolute nonsense. Motion should have used "objectivism" to describe Moody's critical tone, a very important quality of this volume; and the book is not at all interested in diluting Pound for British tastes. As an avid reader of American poetry and open form composition, Moody is not a School Of Q critic. I'm not quite sure what the point of your post is beyond the fact that you wish to judge what you have not read, not exactly a Poundian stance, and wish to have a pop at English poetry from a superior American altitude. The weaknesses of other biographies of Pound, by the way, are connected to the fact that they are written by critics who know all about Pound, yet do not have a "sufficient phalanx of particularities" to do much with the poetry. If "You are happy to admit" that you criticise what you have never seen, well, Poundian poetry (based on distinctions of vision) will not mean much to you, I guess.

eshuneutics said...

Good grief, you could not be more wrong in this statement: "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." Moody is more of a Pound expert than he is an Eliot...he has taught specialist Pound courses at the University of York for decades. Obviously, you are not exactly familiar with "Paideuma". Moody is one of the few Pound critics able to read Pound, not by general allusion, but line by line. His early work on the relation between Pound, vision and the primitive rites of Eleusis opened new lines for Pound studies. The only reason that Moody is known as an Eliot scholar rather than a Pound scholar is that the establishment is more willing to recognise the first. Reading Moody on Pound via the establishment eyes of Motion is like judging a Bergman movie through the eyes of Walt Disney.

Mark Scroggins said...

Dear Esh -- I'm not "tilting" against anything, as I've tried unsuccessfully to make clear, EXCEPT the Guardian's review of Moody's book, & the various blind spots displayed in that particular piece of Andrew Motion's prose. Godspeed to Moody & his biography, which I still very much look forward to reading, despite your ad hominem partisanship.

Not all Poundian stances, by the way, are healthy: & was it not EP himself who claimed that one could have a valid opinion of a book without reading it through? But I never claimed to be making substantive comments on Moody's I'm sure wonderful book: only on Motion's review.

Let's drop this now. I will read Moody as soon as I've bought a copy. You're welcome to read my Zukofsky biography as well, by the way.