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