Thursday, October 21, 2010


Reading – mostly re-reading – Ezra Pound's early criticism, most of it from before the First World War, in Ira B. Nadel's Penguin Early Writings: Poems and Prose. An odd freshness to the reading, out of the aged New Directions typefaces and into the "canonical" Penguin fonts – and perhaps simply the lapse of a couple of years since revisiting the texts.

Pound was 28 when the Great War broke out; me, I'm – well – rather older than that now. When I was 28, I was living in Northern Virginia, finishing my dissertation. It would be another three years or so before I landed my first (and still only) academic position. Where I am now Full Professor, aged, grey-bearded, balding, making up for the sclerosis of my thinking with a kind of awkward Pythonesque classroom showmanship.

The cusp of 30 is a good age, a vigorous age: I read Pound's always energetic prose, his boundless ambitions, & envy:
I resolved that at thirty I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know the dynamic content from the shell, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was 'indestructible,' what part could not be lost by translation, and – scarcely less important what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated. ("How I Began")
There is no waffle, no "on the other hand" or "but" or "one might concede." Positions are staked militarily, with no concessions, no "I am staking out a position" – the poet-critic speaks, & presents what he says as self-evident truth:
Ibycus and Liu Ch'e presented the "Image." Dante is a great poet by reason of this faculty, and Milton is a wind-bag because of his lack of it. ("Vorticism")

No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life... ("A Retrospect")
This is the writing of youth – or the writing of sublime self-assurance – or the writing, some would cavil, of monstrous arrogance. I wish I could write like this. I wonder, is my constant weighing of alternatives a mark of my fundamentalist upbringing, my deeply-ingrained diffidence (a Uriah Heepish humility – my mother always pronounced "humble" without the aitch)? or has a quarter-century in the academy so socialized me in the discourse of the "yes, but" that I'm unable, without considerable strain & self-analytical unease, to say what I think?

Note to self: a course in arrogance, in the sublime self-assurance that makes Milton (fuck you, Ezra Pound) just as great a poet as Dante, and just as scrappy.
all criticism should be professedly personal criticism. In the end the critic can only say 'I like it', or 'I am moved', or something of that sort. When he has shown us himself we are able to understand him. ("The Serious Artist")

All that the critic can do for the reader or audience or spectator is to focus his gaze or audition. ("A Retrospect")


marco218 said...

Thank you for posting this.

I fell under the "The Spell of Ezra" as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s. I especially liked his insistence that that good poetry should be at least as well written as good prose. (If only he'd stuck to his own ideas, maybe The Cantos would have made more sense!)

But after I'd spent some time in the working world, I began reading some biographies of Pound to recapture that undergraduate "spell". I learned to see him then through more experienced, if somewhat prematurely jaundiced, eyes. The spell never returned, and I think that was a good thing. (I'm still mad at myself for letting that Binyon translation of Dante go to a rummage sale 10 years ago, but really glad I finally decided to read Paradise Lost!)

I think Pound did some valuable work in pointing out some of those cross-currents in English poetry (and music and art!) that were part of the mainstream but overlooked -- then, and maybe now.

Thanks again.

Katherine said...

It's funny to read this and then go back to your book on Z. and try to think about you writing the thing with a rather large life going on in the background; this blog is becoming more like a snapshot for me all the time, you in the middle of a polaroid with these big white borders and who knows what outside the frame. It makes me smile. Cheers to you, from sunny Boise. -K