As you may have guessed from the length of my last post, I admire Ezra Pound.
I’ve found, though, that I’m one of a relative few. His poetry seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair, and I can certainly understand those who don’t care for him. Much of his poetry is difficult, his references obscure, and his politics generally right-wing but eclectic enough mostly to just throw people off, except that he vocally supported Benito Mussolini, and even those critics who appreciate, say, T.S. Eliot’s conservatism will draw a line at that.
Yet, with the sole exception of Eliot, Pound is the best poet I know of the past 400 years or so since Shakespeare. He’s also the most important, because even if one prefers some other writer of his generation, Pound very likely knew and influenced him to at least some degree. For example, a professor of mine once commented that Pound’s hand in editing Eliot’s The Waste Land is so great that one could almost call it the first Canto.
That professor specialised in Pound’s work, and he was the one who instilled his own love for Pound in me. I had read a couple of his easier works in a high school textbook and a few more in an anthology of American poets. I enjoyed the simpler ones but didn’t understand the more complex, so I knew him mostly as just a good poet. This professor, though, had us read a few other works leading up to Pound in the Western literary tradition (Homer, Ovid, Dante, H.D.) as well as Pound’s own ABC of Reading. Much like Eliot, the key to understanding Pound is largely a matter of having a solid foundation in the tradition he worked with.
That love of the tradition is, I think, what attracts me to Pound; the man really loved literature as few others have. Now, one would think that there are plenty such people out there. However, even among well-known authors, though obviously they all loved writing to some extent, very few incorporated the classics into their own work as thoroughly as Pound; then there are also a few who overshot the mark and tried to turn poetry into some surrogate religion, which is off-putting.
Pound, though, gives one the sense that the classics are vital for civilisation. The arts give us a means to communicate with the dead, like Odysseus at the beginning of The Cantos. Not only are these works beautiful and good in themselves, they can illustrate that which is essential to human thriving, if only we seek them out and listen. Above, I called his references “obscure,” but that’s not completely true; many of the works and figures he refers to are quite famous, and as for the lesser-known figures, his prose works like ABC of Reading and Guide to Kulchur spell out which he believes are most important, and gives recommendations to those who would study the arts seriously.
What makes his field of reference even more interesting, though, is the breadth of material he draws from. Everyone from Greek poets to Medieval princes, Confucian philosophers, Renaissance poets, modern sculptors, and economists all find a place in his work, and he manages to tie them all together into a vast network of ideas. Culture forms a coherent whole, and it’s not possible to separate the arts from each other (e.g., “poetry decays when it strays too far from music; music decays when it strays too far from dance”), nor is it possible to separate the arts from the society that produces it. As I’ve discussed in another post, art and the broader culture influence each other; thus, artists are the “antennae” of their age, as Pound put it.
I could probably keep writing on this forever, but for now I’ll give the Poundian posts a break. Today is Ezra Pound’s birthday (born 1885), so even if you don’t normally care for Pound or poetry in general, please make an exception and make a pact, as it were, with the greatest poet of his generation. I’ll let Pound’s own words on another great poet close out this week’s posts:
I make truce with you, Walt Whitman —
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root —
Let there be commerce between us.
-Ezra Pound, “A Pact”