Ezra Pound was con­victed of trea­son and con­fined to a ‘mon­key cage’. He also trans­formed po­etry. Was it worth it? asks Robert Gray

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ezra Pound, an Amer­i­can born in 1885, can be con­sid­ered the in­ven­tor of mod­ern po­etry in English. He was also the most no­to­ri­ous lit­er­ary fig­ure of his time, whose coun­try sought to ex­e­cute him. Pound’s fa­ther worked as an of­fi­cial at the Philadel­phia Mint, and Ezra was a self-con­fi­dent only child. Af­ter trips to Europe with an aunt, he de­cided, while still at school, to as­so­ci­ate him­self with the high cul­ture he found there, as the nov­el­ist Henry James was do­ing. His fa­ther agreed to him aban­don­ing the start of an aca­demic ca­reer and go­ing to London to meet the great­est poet of the time, WB Yeats.

Pound was a born ped­a­gogue, ir­re­sistibly drawn to teach­ing. He sup­ported him­self in London with lec­tures and lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism, and re­alised there the ne­ces­sity of a cul­ture re­new­ing it­self. ‘‘Every­thing has to change, so that every­thing can stay the same,’’ as the nov­el­ist Giuseppe To­masi di Lampe­dusa said.

But Pound was too flam­boy­ant to co-ex­ist with the English for long. He had cul­ti­vated any­one there he thought an in­no­va­tive artist, It’s been a mixed week, en­rich­ing of mind close to home thanks to the Syd­ney Writ­ers Festival yet dispir­it­ing of heart be­cause of the ter­ror­ist at­tack in Manch­ester. News of that crime made me con­sider whether to pro­ceed with what I planned to do to­day: share read­ers’ com­ments on amiss apos­tro­phes and other gram­mat­i­cal gherkins. But, I thought, the world must go on, even the poorly punc­tu­ated one. Plus, this is a place where we try to be friendly, and have a bit of fun. It’s a small­ish en­deav­our in the scheme of things, but it should not change.

I’ll start with an email that made me smile. It’s from Tas­ma­nian wife-and-hus­band team Pam and Tony Adams. I imag­ine them sport­ing green eye­shades and por­ing over my col­umn (which shows my vin­tage). They also sent Ezra Pound: Poet By A. David Moody Vol­ume 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920, 528pp, $60.95 (HB), $35 (PB) Vol­ume 2: The Epic Years 1921-1939, 440pp, $60.95 (HB) Vol­ume 3: The Tragic Years 1939-1972, 680pp, $60.95 (HB) Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press al­most all of them ex­pa­tri­ates. He pro­moted James Joyce, re­vised TS Eliot, tough­ened Yeats, an­nounced the achieve­ment of his former girl­friend Hilda “HD” Doolit­tle, main­tained a com­bat­ive friend­ship with Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams back in Amer­ica, praised Robert Frost on the ap­pear­ance of his work in Eng­land, and en­cour­aged the nov­el­ist and pain­ter Wyn­d­ham Lewis, among many oth­ers, in­clud­ing mu­si­cians and in par­tic­u­lar sculp­tors. While rais­ing funds to help some of them, he lived in near penury him­self (although he had mar­ried into the English up­per mid­dle class). the pho­to­graph I’ve used here. Here’s Pam:

“Your para on apos­tro­phes was grist to my mill! As an ex­am­ple I at­tach a sign stuck on the wall of the wait­ing room of the West Coast Wilder­ness Rail­way in Queen­stown, Tas­ma­nia.” Pam, a former teacher, says she is con­cerned about the de­cline in gram­mar and punc­tu­a­tion. “Don’t get me started on its, it’s and its’!!! Not to men­tion 1900’s, 1920’s, 2000’s. And an­other thing! My English teacher back in the UK made us chant the mantra ‘com­pared with, sim­i­lar to and dif­fer­ent from’. That’s enough whinge­ing from me. Over to my hus­band who is equally punc­til­ious.” That’s Tony, a real ps and qs man.

“Over many years I have no­ticed the var­i­ous ways in which news­pa­pers and more im­por­tantly books treat the two ex­pres­sions ‘mind your ps and qs’ and ‘cross your ts and dot your is’. I have never seen them writ­ten like that which I think is the cor­rect way although our brain will in­ter­pret ‘is’ in­cor­rectly, be­cause of fa­mil­iar­ity. The most com­mon method is to use p’s, q’s, t’s, i’s. An­other is to cap­i­talise the let­ters: Ts etc but more com­monly T’s or T’S. The most com­pli­cated method I have seen, which does make some sense, is to iso­late the let­ter with apos­tro­phes both be­fore and af­ter and then plu­ralise: ‘p’s’ etc.

The turn­ing point for what had been his own af­fect­edly ar­chais­ing verse came when the widow of an ori­en­tal­ist brought him her hus­band’s translit­er­a­tions of some Chi­nese po­ems. Although he knew noth­ing of the lan­guage, Pound saw that this aus­tere work (even more di­rect and con­crete in trans­la­tion) was an an­ti­dote to Vic­to­rian claustrophobia. He pro­duced free-verse ver­sions from these notes, which, with due ac­knowl­edg­ment, ap­peared as a twoshilling pam­phlet, Cathay. It has been called the most beau­ti­ful po­etry of the 20th cen­tury.

A fur­ther ori­en­tal in­flu­ence on Pound came via France, where po­ets had dis­cov­ered the haiku as part of a fash­ion for Ja­panese aes­thet­ics. Pound also saw, at this time, the virtue of the clas­si­cal Greek epi­gram, and ad­vo­cated a sim­i­lar hard­ness, clar­ity, brevity and di­rect­ness. This con­flu­ence of styles, the ori­en­tal and the Greek, can be found in his early book Lus­tra. He called the method imag­ism, since the ori­en­tal com­po­nent was pre­oc­cu­pied with evok­ing men­tal pic­tures. A longer poem, he saw, could be made by jux­ta­pos­ing im­ages without com­ment. (One might also see here the in­flu­ence of cin­ema, I have looked at many books on gram­mar but never found this dis­cussed.”

Ian Wood shows his colours by start­ing off with a Bris­bane Bron­cos rugby league star: “The tat­too on Sam Thai­day’s chest says it all: ‘One brother bleeds, all brother’s bleed’.” Fiona Lewis sin­gled out a tat­too too: “Dad­dies Lit­tle Girl (on a young woman).” But back to Ian. He agrees with the Bris­tol gram­mar vig­i­lante who in­spired this dis­cus­sion. “As a mem­ber of the last gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents who had to learn for­mal gram­mar and parse sen­tences, I wince when­ever I see a gro­cer’s apos­tro­phe. I have amended signs with its mon­tage tech­nique. Pound would have known the work of the great Sergei Eisen­stein.)

The most fa­mous imag­ist poem (from what be­came a school) is, ap­pro­pri­ately, by Pound. It is re­alised mainly through im­pli­ca­tion: In a Sta­tion of the Metro The ap­pari­tion of these faces in the crowd, Pe­tals on a wet, black bough.

The ti­tle serves as the first line of the poem. It was writ­ten in 1912 when, one re­alises, un­der­ground rail­way tun­nels were lined with soot and the steam there dripped wet­ness. He sees beau­ti­ful, del­i­cate faces among the Parisian women on the plat­form, who are in black, also. In­flu­enced as he is by Ja­panese art, he thinks they are like cherry blos­soms clus­tered along a bough — like an ex­otic vi­sion. The ex­pe­ri­ence has been trans­formed.

Pound claimed it was bet­ter to pro­duce one great im­age than vo­lu­mi­nous works.

He soon in­cor­po­rated with the some­what re­duc­tive imag­ist method a more dy­namic style ad­ver­tis­ing banana’s and ap­ple’s.” Ian warns I may have opened a can of worms. To prove that pre­dic­tion he sends a worm farm at me, de­liv­er­ing slip­pery er­rors he’s spot­ted, many in the me­dia, in­clud­ing this news­pa­per. This in­cludes the mis­use of its and it’s, who’s and whose, prac­tise and prac­tice and prin­ci­ple and prin­ci­pal. He’s also irked by sub­ject-verb (dis)agree­ment, such as when anger and ha­tred is in the air, and the sin­gu­lar us­age of words such as cri­te­ria and phe­nom­ena. When it comes to less and fewer, “I’ve al­most given up”. Me too. Ditto with dec­i­mate mean­ing to wipe out far more than 10 per cent. Ian leaves us with a laugh. A book on Phillip Adams, he notes, refers to Aus­tralia’s sex­ual morays. “Li­cen­tious eels ca­vort­ing in creeks and rivers?”

If Ian needs a hand amend­ing signs, Ken Rubeli may be the man. On a re­cent coastal hol­i­day in NSW he and his seven-year-old daugh­ter al­most fell out of their sail­boat at Smiths Lake. “To­gether out on the wa­ter we pon­dered who Smith might have been and what hap­pened to his/her apos­tro­phe. I may be out in the dead of night amongst the Smiths Lake sig­nage ad­dress­ing the ab­sences.” Alex Ge­orge sent in a pho­to­graph, from Mar­garet River in

Ezra Pound at his desk in 1940, five years be­fore his ar­rest for trea­son; Pound with writ­ers Ford Ma­dox Ford and James Joyce, and lawyer John Quinn, about 1925

A dou­ble whammy from Tas­ma­nia

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