Thursday, August 21, 2008

Moody's Pound

So we're about 65% unpacked; I'm still waiting for a couple of cartons of books to arrive from New York – acquisitions from The Strand & Book Culture (formerly Labyrinth), but there's plenty to keep me busy right now, including a copy of A. David Moody's new Pound biography. The thing's got one of those titles that makes you unclear as to where to colonize & where to hyphenate: near as I can tell, the full moniker is Ezra Pound: Poet – A Portrait of the Man and His Work – Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 (pause for breath).

Back in November, I responded rather snarkily to Andrew Motion's Guardian review of the book – mostly to Motion's inane review, mind you, not to Moody's book, which I hadn't seen at the time. I do regret, however, a sidenote in which I doubted – based on Moody's Eliot scholarship, which was all I'd read of his work – how good a Pound biographer he'd prove. Boy, how wrong could I be!

Anyway, back then I'd noted that Pound had already received more than a little biographical treatment:
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.
And now I know where that elsewhere is: Moody's first volume (out of a projected two, which even if vol. 2 is the same length as this hefty volume 1, will still be a bit shorter than Carpenter) is absolutely luminous. I'm tempted to say that this, folks, is biography as it ought to be written – if you've gotta read one biography of a major modernist (who isn't Joyce or Zukofsky, of course), then Moody's Pound is the ticket.

I'm particularly impressed, beyond Moody's limpid and sometimes elegant (but never show-offy, like Carpenter's) prose, with how the biographer keeps Pound's poetic project in his sights, and shows convincingly that even the "stale cream-puffs" of A Lume Spento are logical steps in the development of a quintessentially modernist poetics. He's very good on the poetry; he's even better on Pound's cultural thought, how even in his earliest stages he was seeing poetry as inextricable from the larger life of the polis (in volume 2, we'll see how this leads him down the path to Italian fascism). And he's very good indeed at depicted Pound in the context of the London literary scene of the 'teens – just how much of an outlander, a kangaroo Pound was even to those who sensed his formidable drive and intelligence.

The only fault I would find with Moody is his discounting of WC Williams's testimony about Pound's early years. (By the way, on the evidentiary issues that I find so fascinating in biography, Moody is about as scrupulous as they come; his notes at the end of the book make fascinating reading when he tangles with earlier biographers & editors.) All of WCW's testimony about the pomposity & basic silliness of the young Pound, it seems, is vitiated by the distance from which Wms was writing, & by his tangled relationship with EP in the intervening years. The biographer in me approves of Moody's handling here; I think he's well justified. The biography-reader, on the other hand – the one who's cherished those snapshots of a silly young Ez – is disappointed with a rather puerile disappointment.

Go read this one; you won't regret it.


Joseph Donahue said...

Glad to get your thumbs up on this. I've been eyeing it, and now will track it down. Best, Joe D.

A.H. said...

Well, I am glad that you changed your mind. Be consoled however. Most in the UK would have gone in your direction. Moody=Eliot. But not so. Pound is his secret passion (and American poetry by the way: he had students reading your favoured poets when most tutors would have been happy sitting in a field with sheep and Wordsworth). Your review shows a generous spirit and real insight. Yes, luminous, always the luminous detail. I enjoyed this appraisal greatly, Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

It was nice to read your comment on the list of Ezra Pound’s biographies. Personally, I enjoyed John Tytell's book because he manages to balance facts and analysis better than Carpenter or Moody, which makes him a little more readable. And hereby I would like to recommend to you any of the books by Henri Perruchot, who (for me) is the single greatest writer on modern artists and their art. Thank you again for sharing!