Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
Contributing Editor: Betsy Erkkila
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Pound's announcement of the principles of imagism in "A Retrospect" provides an excellent introduction to the poetics of literary modernism. Like Hemingway in prose, Pound turns away from the "emotional slither" and abstract rhetoric of romantic and Victorian writers toward an emphasis on precision and concision in language and imagery. The poem "In a Station of the Metro" puts Pound's imagist theory into practice. Pound was struck by the beauty of a crowd of faces he observed in the Metro at La Concorde in Paris; he tried to represent the experience first in a thirty-line poem; then through a Kandinsky-like splash of color; finally, he says, he found the best form for the experience in the model of Japanese haiku poetry. The poem interweaves subjective impression with objective expression, presenting in miniature the controlling myth of Pound's work: the discovery of light amid darkness, fertility amid waste, figured in the myth of Persephone in the Underworld.
In teaching "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and The Cantos you might want to prepare a handout explicating some of the allusions in the poem. You can use Ruthven's Guide to Personae, Brooker's Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, and Kearns's Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos. Begin by asking students to think about the overall import of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." On the broadest level, the poem is a compelling critique of the modern age; more specifically, it is about the plight of the artist, and of Pound in particular, in the modern world. Look at the ways the opening section on "E.P." works formally. The poem moves not by linear progression but by the juxtaposition of images as emotional and intellectual complexes; meaning develops not through direct authorial statement but by engaging the reader in a continual process of interpretation.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
While Pound buries the aesthete figure of his early period in the opening section of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," he does not renounce the value of artistic creation as a source of personal and social renewal; he represents and asserts the enduring value of beauty and song in "Envoi," which is modeled on the poem "Go, Lovely Rose" by the seventeenth-century English poet Edmund Waller.
The postwar context of the poem should be emphasized; sections IV and V contain one of the most negative and moving chants against war in modern literature.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
If Pound is the first or only modern writer you are discussing, you might want to begin by discussing the relation between an increasingly complex and allusive form and content among modern writers and the increasing isolation and alienation of the artist in the modern world. Pound went abroad both physically and mentally in his early period, seeking models and masks in past literatures, including Greek (Homer), Latin (Virgil, Ovid, Catullus), Italian (Dante, Arnaut Daniel, Guido Calvalcanti), French Provençal (Bertran de Born), and Chinese (Li Po, Confucius). During the war years, as he began to turn his attention toward the contemporary world, he also turned backward toward the native tradition of Walt Whitman. This turn is evident in the raw and comic exuberance of "Salutation the Second" and in "A Pact," where Pound seeks to come to terms with Walt Whitman.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
After "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," Pound turned his main attention to his epic Cantos, which he worked on for the remainder of his life. In a letter to W. B. Yeats, he said he intended to write one hundred cantos, modeled on a Bach fugue: "There will be no plot, no chronicle of events, no logic of discourse, but two themes, the Descent into Hades from Homer, a Metamorphosis from Ovid, and mixed with these, medieval or modern historical characters." As Pound's comment suggests, the poem has three analogues: an Odyssean journey, modeled on Homer's Odyssey; an ascent through Inferno and Purgatory toward the light of Paradiso, modeled on Dante's Divine Comedy; and from Ovid's Metamorphosis a series of "magic moments" in which divine energies are revealed in the physical world.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Ask students to note how Canto XLV examines the relationship between politics and poetry. Normally, the students respond positively to this poem as a chant against the commercialization of the modern age; in fact, the poem might be compared to Ginsberg's chant against Moloch in section II of Howl. Ask the students if there is any problem with the term usury, which Pound defined as "A charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production; often without regard to the possibilities of production." Discuss the ways the charging of interest became--through Christian prohibition--associated with the Jewish people. Is Pound's chant against usury also a chant against the Jews; and insofar as it is, how does this affect our reading and evaluation of the poem?
This discussion should raise some of the same questions about the relationship between politics and poetry, fascism and modernism, that were at the center of the debate about Pound receiving the Bollingen Award for the Pisan Cantos in 1949. The same questions, it might be pointed out, are at the center of the reconstruction of American literature. The "Pound Problem" is a telling instance, not only of the ways poetry is political, but of what happens when the poem's politics are "out of tune" with the politics of the dominant culture. One might ask how Pound's anti-Semitism differed in kind and degree from the racism and anti-Semitism that one finds in other major American writers. And why was Pound singled out for persecution at this time?
The "pull down they vanity" section of Canto LXXXI in the Pisan Cantos reveals a new attitude of humilitas and humanitas; Pound speaks in a personal voice that anticipates the confessional strain in the poems of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. The Cantos are incomplete and inconclusive: They end with two fragments, Cantos CXVII and CXX, which are like the Cantos themselves a figure of the fragmentation and incompleteness of the modern world. Pound's final words are at once an apology and an admission of failure: "Let those I love forgive/what I have made." Ask the students if they agree with Pound's final assessment of his epic. Is there, ultimately, any value in his work?
See works cited in the section on "Classroom Issues and Strategies."