Modernist made in a poetic frenzy
NOT all poets spend their days in solitude and quiet reverie. Some fill their lives with argument and incident — know everyone, go everywhere — and plunge deep into the cultural and political currents of the time. More exciting, perhaps, than working as a librarian or watching daffodils, but there is danger in this approach: the inner self may end up swamped by external events.
Take American modernist Ezra Pound. His life was one of brilliant and unceasing creative labour. And yet his public existence — vivid, contentious, and finally very sad — has long obscured the poetry he made. Ever since his treasonous and anti- Semitic radio broadcasts from Benito Mussolini’s Italy during World War II, Pound has inspired confusion in his readers. For decades they have ducked the hard question — whether a bad man can write good poems — by dissolving his individual achievement in the larger success of his generation.
The challenge facing any biographer of Pound is, then, twofold: to reassemble the man in all his apparent genius and decency without becoming an apologist for his vile politics; and to extricate Pound’s art from that of his great colleagues and collaborators without having it suffer by comparison. If A. David Moody has not quite managed to reconstruct a stand- alone Pound with this, the first half of a considerable two- volume biography for Oxford University Press, he has more than justified the attempt.
As the preface makes clear, the biographer has a no- bull methodology: ‘‘ Ezra Pound exists now in what he wrote, in his poetry . . . and I have taken his words as the material and medium of his portrait . . . Nearly everything that matters here has behind it some document: I have refrained from speculation and I have ignored hearsay. My interest has been to weave the varied threads of Pound’s life and work into a patterned narrative and to present the drama of this egregiously individual and powerful vortex in the stream of language and culture.’’
Vortex, with its suggestions of energy and flow, is a key term in the Pound lexicon, as Moody well knows. His decision to stick to documentary material ( more than 100,000 letters by Pound alone, at least 2000 published works, even his collected periodical literature fills 10 volumes) means some scholarly heavy lifting, but it is also a way of not getting dragged into the wrong kind of turbulence: the plughole around which old subjective and anecdotal arguments about the poet circle endlessly. Instead we get the available facts, clearly and exhaustively ordered, of the electrifying first act of Pound’s career.
And really, there is nothing like it in the history of English ( or any other nation’s) literature.
Pound was 21 when he arrived in London in 1907, a defiant exile from his midwestern boyhood and east coast youth, determined to single- handedly wake the capital from its Edwardian slumber. He spent the next dozen years there in a frenzy of poetry and proselytising: publishing volume after volume, launching new writers, steering the course of little magazines, reporting to established journals on both sides of the Atlantic on emerging developments in the arts, and striking up congenial friendships with the leading spirits of the day.
And what spirits they were. When the hard- up Pound landed a job as a secretary, his employer was William Butler Yeats. And when he successfully helped get another Irishman into print, it was a penniless Berlitz teacher named James Joyce ( the book, Ulysses ). Most famously, the poem for which T. S. Eliot sought Pound’s editing skills became The Waste Land : Pound revised savagely, marked whole pages and passages for deletion, nixed the idea of a prelude and told Eliot to get rid of any monotonously ‘‘ tum- tum’’ rhythms, this being as neat a description of modernist poetry as any.
Moody reveals these men took the enormously generous Pound for granted. Joyce would blow the younger man’s financial assistance on expensive restaurants. Eliot enjoyed Pound’s passionate advocacy ( he thought Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock the best poem by an American, and said so) but kept his distance, not wishing to threaten his position with the local literary aristocracy, many of whom found Pound, with his pointed red beard, immense sombreros and hand- painted ties, insufferably bohemian.
And yet privately, often grudgingly, they admired him. Yeats called Pound a ‘‘ solitary volcano’’; Joyce spoke of the man’s ‘‘ unpredictable electricity’’; and Ford Madox Ford was beguiled by his Yankee exuberance into much Poundian myth- making. When Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to Pound — the jewel in the modernist canon, and still considered the best poem in English of the past century — calling him Il miglio fabbro , ‘‘ the better maker’’, Moody would have us understand that this was not politeness but a genuine nod of respect.
For Moody, too, respect is due to Pound not just as the impresario of modernism — an aesthetic revolution that continues to shape the way we read and look and listen today — but as one of its key creative figures. That he should feel the need to argue Pound’s corner is telling, however: the poet’s position is not as assured as it once was.
Clive James, for example, recently reinvestigated his youthful rejection of Pound’s poetry after an early burst of enthusiasm. Having read him once more, James concluded that the ‘‘ mad old amateur fascist’’ was not up to much. He described the Cantos , Pound’s unfinished life work, 120 interlinked poems written over 40 years, as a ‘‘ nut- job blog before the fact’’.
Moody’s response to such attacks is stubborn meticulousness, with occasional outbreaks of passion. For him, Pound’s poetry remains the signal fact of Pound’s existence — ‘‘ a strong dream set at the heart of the culture’’, in his stirring formulation — and he orders the life around the work accordingly.
Happily for Moody, Pound was a born poet: ‘‘ I want to write before I die the greatest poems that have ever been written,’’ was how the ‘‘ lanky, whey- faced youth’’ put it to his parents in one boarding- school letter. The biographer doggedly traces the pursuit of this end, from his years at the University of Pennsylvania, where Pound’s brilliance failed to ‘‘ manifest itself in the regulation manner’’, but where he met fellow poets William Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle, to Hamilton College, where he absorbed entire literatures as though through the skin — especially Provencal, the old French used by medieval troubadours — and practised a verse that owed much to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Yeats: masters whose melancholy fantasies typified the verse of Europe’s fin- de- siecle.
It was the last of these, Moody shows, who really counted. As Pound told the poet John Berryman many years later, he went to London in search of Yeats, ‘‘ to learn how it was done’’. And while Pound’s respect for Yeats’s poetry survived largely undiminished throughout the London years, the poetic development Moody tracks is that of Pound sobering up after bingeing on Yeats’s Celtism.
Moody knows Pound’s work inside out, and through close readings of individual poems from his early collections he shows how the young man groped for subjects and verse forms whose aestheticism would not be, like these earlier heroes, ‘‘ abstracted from the common world . . . world- weary, languorously in love with the dying fall’’, but, rather, ‘‘ alive with the desire to make its dream of beauty come true’’.
He finds comedy as well as drama in the dry arguments about rhyme and meter that raged in response to Pound’s breaks with poetic tradition. The huffing and puffing by staid 19th- century rhymesters is expected, but who would have imagined that a revolution as austere and baffling as modernism could have been inspired by Ford cracking up over some of Pound’s more derivative efforts. Ford stopped laughing long enough to suggest the clarity and simplicity of French prose as an antidote for the stilted ‘‘ language of verse’’ Pound used. Ford’s mockery, the biographer observes, sent Pound ‘‘ back to his own proper effort, namely, toward using the living tongue’’.
Aside from a few kindly, fearless or far- sighted souls such as Ford, sculptor Henri GaudierBrzeska, philosopher T. E. Hulme and polymath Wyndham Lewis, Pound found himself increasingly isolated as the war clouds gathered. His rebarbative personality alienated those who might have helped him, and his radical experiments in verse shocked those critics who initially praised his talent.
World War I soon arrived to put these squabbles into perspective. But the conflict not only claimed some of Pound’s closest colleagues; it curdled his world view. Poetry, once the means of freeing the ‘‘ populace from the tyranny of mass emotions and received ideas’’, increasingly became the preserve of those few capable of appreciating his efforts. Politically and culturally, Britain and its empire were moribund; European civilisation was an ‘‘ old bitch, gone in the teeth’’. Pound decided that something had to be done.
And yet, if Pound’s later anti- democratic and anti- Semitic positions emerged from the calamity, so too did modernism’s triumph. Just at the point where he wearied of ‘‘ wringing lilies from the acorn’’ in London and shifted camp to Paris — the moment where Moody’s gripping first volume breaks off — Pound’s admonition to ‘‘ make it new’’ was finally heeded across Europe and even in America. There hadn’t been a creative efflorescence to match it since the romantics a century before. Geordie Williamson is a literary critic based in Sydney.