Modernist made in a po­etic frenzy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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