Today is the birthday (1885) of Ezra Weston Loomis Pound, U.S.-born poet and critic, who spent most of his adult life in Europe, and was a major figure in the early modernist movement in poetry. He developed Imagism in poetry, a movement derived from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, stressing clarity, precision and economy of language. His best-known works include Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and the unfinished 120-section epic, The Cantos (1917–1969).
While working in London in the early 20th century as foreign editor of several American literary magazines, Pound helped discover and shape the work of contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. This aspect of his work included arranging for the publication in 1915 of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Because of the carnage of World War I, Pound lost faith in England and blamed the war on usury and international capitalism, which may have led, in part, to his growing anti-Semitism (considering Jews to be prime movers in global banking). He moved to Italy in 1924, and throughout the 1930s and 1940s he embraced Benito Mussolini’s fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler, and wrote for publications owned by the British fascist Oswald Mosley. During World War II, he was paid by the Italian government to make hundreds of radio broadcasts criticizing the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Jews, as a result of which he was arrested in 1945 by U.S. occupying forces in Italy on charges of treason.
He spent months in detention in a U.S. military camp in Pisa, including three weeks in a six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cage, which he said triggered a mental breakdown: “when the raft broke and the waters went over me.” Subsequently he was ruled unfit to stand trial and was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., for over 12 years.
While in custody in Italy, Pound had begun work on sections of The Cantos. These were published as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress, triggering enormous controversy. Largely due to a campaign by his fellow writers, he was released from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958 and returned to live in Italy until his death. His political views ensure that his work remains as controversial now as it was during his lifetime; in 1933 Time magazine called him “a cat that walks by himself, tenaciously unhousebroken and very unsafe for children.” Hemingway wrote: “The best of Pound’s writing—and it is in the Cantos—will last as long as there is any literature.”
You can read about Pound’s biography in general elsewhere. I want to focus on Imagism followed by a few notes on his fascism. Pound’s former lover, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), from Philadelphia met Pound in London in May 1911 with the poet Frances Gregg and Gregg’s mother. When they returned in September, Doolittle decided to stay on. Pound introduced her to his friends, including the poet Richard Aldington, whom she would marry in 1913. Before that the three of them lived in Church Walk, Kensington—Pound at no. 10, Doolittle at no. 6, and Aldington at no. 8—and worked daily in the British Museum Reading Room.
At the museum Pound met regularly with the curator and poet Laurence Binyon, who introduced him to the East Asian artistic and literary concepts that inspired the imagery and technique of his later poetry. The museum’s visitors’ books show that Pound was often found during 1912 and 1913 in the Print Room examining Japanese ukiyo-e, some inscribed with Japanese waka verse, a genre of poetry whose economy and strict conventions likely contributed to Imagist techniques of composition. He was working at the time on the poems that became Ripostes (1912), trying to move away from his earlier work. He wrote that the “stilted language” of Canzoni had reduced Ford Madox Ford to rolling on the floor with laughter. He realized with his translation work that the problem lay not in his knowledge of the other languages, but in his use of English:
What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary … You can’t go round this sort of thing. It takes six or eight years to get educated in one’s art, and another ten to get rid of that education. Neither can anyone learn English, one can only learn a series of Englishes. Rossetti made his own language. I hadn’t in 1910 made a language, I don’t mean a language to use, but even a language to think in.
While living at Church Walk in 1912, Pound, Aldington, and Doolittle started working on ideas about language. While in the British Museum tearoom one afternoon, they decided to begin a ‘movement’ in poetry, called Imagism. “Imagisme,” Pound wrote in Riposte, is “concerned solely with language and presentation.” The aim was clarity: a fight against abstraction, romanticism, rhetoric, inversion of word order, and over-use of adjectives. They agreed in the spring or early summer of 1912 on three principles:
- Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
- As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Superfluous words, particularly adjectives, should be avoided, as well as expressions such as “dim lands of peace,” which Pound thought dulled the image by mixing the abstract with the concrete. He wrote that the natural object was always the “adequate symbol.” Poets should “go in fear of abstractions”, and should not re-tell in mediocre verse what has already been told in good prose.
Pound wrote concerning his classic Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro”
Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that – a “pattern,” or hardly a pattern, if by “pattern” you mean something with a “repeat” in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.
That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, of even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour.
And so, when I came to read Kandinsky’s chapter on the language of form and colour, I found little that was new to me. I only felt that someone else understood what I understood, and had written it out very clearly. It seems quite natural to me that an artist should have just as much pleasure in an arrangement of planes or in a pattern of figures, as in painting portraits of fine ladies, or in portraying the Mother of God as the symbolists bid us.
When I find people ridiculing the new arts, or making fun of the clumsy odd terms that we use in trying to talk of them amongst ourselves; when they laugh at our talking about the “ice-block quality” in Picasso, I think it is only because they do not know what thought is like, and they are familiar only with argument and gibe and opinion. That is to say, they can only enjoy what they have been brought up to consider enjoyable, or what some essayist has talked about in mellifluous phrases. They think only “the shells of thought,” as de Gourmont calls them; the thoughts that have been already thought out by others
Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language, just as a painter must have pigments or shades more numerous than the existing names of the colours.
The poem is a mere 14 words with no verb:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I’m not a big fan of this kind of poetry although I like parsimony and clarity in language, and probably spend as much time thinking about these issues as did Pound and his circle. I’m even less enamored of his emulation of Japanese and Chinese modes of thinking about language and art. Chinese language (written and spoken), for example, lends itself to imagistic modes of expression in a natural way; English does not. Take “simple” Chinese characters such as老 or道 which can be translated respectively as “old” and “path.” As soon as you combine these characters with others their meanings drift all over the map. The first one, for example, ends up in combinations that can mean “teacher,” “tiger,” “mouse,” “eagle,” “boss,” “tough” etc. etc. This is just not true of English even though there are glimpses sometimes.
Pound’s longstanding embrace of fascism is a little puzzling, but I think I get it. The First World War not only devastated Europe physically, but emotionally also. How could seemingly civilized people end up being so barbaric? All the fruits of intellectual and scientific “progress” lay waste on the fields of Flanders. A whole generation of vigorous and hopeful men lay dead. Pound saw not just money as the culprit, but greed and international finance as the root causes, and blamed Jewish bankers – as did Hitler and Mussolini. Too late he wrote:
The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.
His anti-Semitism drove me away from his poetry for a long time, and I still don’t really comprehend it. You don’t have to be terribly clever to see that Jews are not the cause of the world’s problems (any more than Muslims are nowadays). That, and his rather limited vision of language, leaves me thinking that he was not all that smart. But he did have a big impact on poetry and the literary world for which I am grateful. These thoughts of his do resonate:
The real trouble with war (modern war) is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people.
Either move or be moved.
It ought to be illegal for an artist to marry. If the artist must marry let him find someone more interested in art, or his art, or the artist part of him, than in him. After which let them take tea together three times a week.
The jargon of sculptors is beyond me. I do not know precisely why I admire a green granite female, apparently pregnant monster with one eye going around a square corner.
I guess the definition of a lunatic is a man surrounded by them.
If a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.
The best recipe for Pound, I believe, should be one that is clear and simple, yet contains volumes. There is no question that a lot of the best recipes in the world require a mountain of ingredients, days to prepare, and endless experience. But recipes that are simply stated, and easy to accomplish can be really satisfying. One of my great problems in life is that there are some days when I am swamped with work with little time to cook, but I don’t want to buy something readymade or grab something from the refrigerator – which is the predicament I am in right now as it happens. I have too much to do over the next few hours to be able to cook something complex. But I’m not going to settle for just anything to stave off hunger. I’m going to do this:
Boil 2 eggs
Eat with powdered cumin
I love eggs with cumin as a quick snack. For something so simple to make, the tastes are quite complex and certainly delicious.