It’s Ezra Pound’s Birthday: “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.”

And give up verse, my boy,
There’s nothing in it.
— Ezra Pound

I grew up hearing stories of Ezra Pound. Not the stories of his fascism or his relaxing time in a cage in Italy, or being indicted for treason or his mental breakdown and decade-plus vacation in a mental institution. Fun stories for kids! Pound was a character in my childhood lexicon because of his support and promotion of James Joyce. Even the name calls up the rows of books on my father’s shelves, and my father’s gravelly voice talking to me about the literary world of the 20s and 30s, and Pound’s advocacy for new and radical voices.

Ezra Pound. The name is an onomatopoeic device.

Pound didn’t just do it for Joyce, he did it for so many people. T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H. D., Ernest Hemingway. He was ferocious in his promotion of new talent. He pushed new voices until reluctant editors had no choice but to publish them. Pound wasn’t a rich man. He couldn’t afford to be a Renaissance-era-type benefactor. But he had pull and power. Pound’s dictum “Make it new” is famous, and at the time it was a galvanizing command. WWI had destroyed more than Europe, it had destroyed the past, too. The issue was: how can we use the OLD language to describe this NEW world? Well, there needed to be a NEW language, too, and writers had to “make it new.” Pound was a poet, of course, but his artistic legacy (at least) lies in his support of others. His poems are still controversial to this day because of his political beliefs and his eventual insanity – and, honestly, the Cantos are … incomprehensible. You can FEEL him going off the deep end. He worked openly against the United States during WWII, and anti-Semitism poisoned his work and his mind (people have clocked how many times “usury” shows up in his poems. It’s a lot). So. Unfortunately all these polar opposites are true. Maybe one obliterates the other, and I don’t blame you if you feel that way. And I have moral qualms, of course, in all of this. He’s, in many ways, made up of irreconcilable opposites. But. I think he’s interesting to talk about. So. I talk about him.

“Joyce — pleasing; after the first shell of cantankerous Irishman, I got the impression that the real man is the author of Chamber Music, the sensitive. The rest is the genius; the registration of realities on the temperament, the delicate temperament of the early poems. A concentration and absorption passing Yeats’ — Yeats has never taken on anything requiring the condensation of Ulysses.”- Ezra Pound

And then there’s this:

I respect Mr. Joyce’s integrity as an author in that he has not taken the easy part. I never had any respect for his common sense or for his intelligence, apart from his gifts as a writer.

I immersed myself in all things Ezra Pound early in 2020 when I was doing my research for my piece on H.D.’s film criticism, published in the final issue of Film Comment. (sob.) It was my final piece in the print magazine. Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) got to know each other back in the first decade of the 20th century, when H.D. was a teenage college student, and Pound a burgeoning poet and college teacher. Her religious parents did not approve of the relationship. While Pound and Doolittle did not end up getting married, true to form Pound encouraged H.D. to quit America and come to Europe. Pound was busy in London trying to create a poetic movement, basically by fiat (let’s just observe that even in poetic matters, Pound tended towards fascism). H.D. wrote some poems – her very first – and Pound instantly recognized their worth and their “Make it New”-ness. He sent them to Poetry magazine, where they were published, and H.D. was off to the races. In fact, Ezra Pound was the one who christened her “H.D.” It stuck. Their relationship lasted their whole lives, even when their paths separated. She wrote a couple of books where their relationship figures prominently, if not centrally: there was the roman a clef HERmione and, later, An End to Torment. An End to Torment was written in the late 1950s, when H.D. got word that her old boyfriend was about to be released from St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital, after 15 years behind bars. It stirred up old feelings towards her oldest friend. In HERmione, the narrator describes the impact “George Lowndes” (Ezra Pound) had on her:

She did not know that all her life would be spent gambling with the stark rigidity of words, words that were coin; save, spend; and all the time George Lowndes with his own counter, had found her a way out.

It seems to me that Pound had the gift/curse of the insane, inflating abstractions into a reality unlivably austere. Listen, I speak from experience. When people strive to live by theories – even when reality contradicts said theories – they lose their humanity. This especially goes for political theories. The political cataclysms of the 20th century – hell, the 21st century too thus far – all the genocides and slaughter – was the result of a couple generations’ collective love affairs with different THEORIES. Abstractions imposed on a living populace never goes well. It is amazing how powerful these delusions are, and how they repeat. One of the harbingers of living-by-theory is a belief in utopia (to lay it out broadly: for righties, the Utopia is in the past, for lefties, the Utopia is in the future. I fear – and reject – both).

Pound’s insanity was clinical, it was mental illness. The manifestation of his illness came from the rigidity of his belief in rules (this went for poetry too). He had theories for everything. He wanted everyone to abide by his rules. His rules for the Imagists – the poetry movement he strong-armed into being in the ‘teens – were stringent. He came up with an acronym for his #1 rule for poets: GIFOA (Go in fear of abstractions). Which is … ironic in the extreme, considering his own relationship with abstractions. BUT. Poetially what he meant was: Describe what is THERE, don’t fly off into philosophy, stay with the real. There were many poets- including H.D. – who followed this to great effect. More rules from Ezra in “A Few Don’ts”.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Pound’s eventual retraction of fascism and anti-Semitism. For example, Robert Lowell – who counted Ezra Pound as a friend, albeit from a former generation, as well as an inspiration to his own art – took pilgrimages up to St. Elizabeth’s to visit Pound. In 1968, he attempted to read one of Pound’s poems onstage during a lecture and was booed. People got up and stormed out, etc. Which … I can see both sides. Both sides coming from a sincere non-bad-faith place.

What interests me is his belief in people with talent, and also just how much he shows up in other people’s biographies. He was everywhere. He was evangelical in his support of ignored or dismissed others. He was evangelical about it. James Joyce MUST find a wide audience!! T.S. Eliot MUST rise. Pound was a dog with a bone when it came to his contemporaries. My dad loves him for that, and so do I. [Update: I wrote a lot of this in 2008, when my dad was still here. I am keeping that tense as a reminder.]

Pound’s tendency towards abstraction – detrimental to his mental health, yes, but also how he strolled down very unsavory philosophical paths – also helped him be a master theorist. This is the difficult part of Pound. I prefer to wrestle with it, as opposed to dismiss him as not worthy of my attention. Wrestling with people like Pound – whose lives are symbolic of entire eras – keeps you sharp! Pound whip-sawed around with the times. Pound engaged with poetry and actively tried to divorce himself from his influences. He could be very prescriptive, i.e. “Here is the proper way to do it.” A damaging mindset, but it was also a valid reaction to the unthinkable slaughter of WWI. CLEARLY the “old ways” deserved to die, if the “old ways” brought humanity to that precipice. He hated anything passively received. Everything must be evaluated on its own merits. Swallow nothing wholesale. If he couldn’t do it himself in his own work (which I don’t think he could), he recognized the genius of others. He was not a bitter Salieri.

Modernism needed a champion. That champion was Ezra Pound.

In a 1915 letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, Pound wrote (now famously):

Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (ie. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s … Objectivity and again objectivity, and expression: no hindeside-beforeness, no straddled adjectives (as ‘addled mosses dank’), no Tennysonianness of speech; nothing – nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance in the stress of some emotion, actually say. Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity.

This was a revolution. Was Pound a good poet? He himself called his early work “stale creampuffs”. I find much of him unreadable, but when he’s “on”, he’s unforgettable.

Pound served as Yeats’ secretary during the teens, so he had a front-row seat to Yeats’s various transformations. You can sense in Yeats’ work in the ’10s and teens that he was trying to wrench himself out of the 19th century. Pound was instrumental in helping this process along. If you read Yeats’s work in chronological order (which I did in 2005), the development is startling! It’s like you are reading the works of two entirely separate people. You wonder where the second guy, the one who wrote poems like “Among School Children” came from. Sometimes Pound wielded a heavy editorial hand. (One need only look at the early drafts of The Waste Land, and then check out the post-Pound work. Eliot was in the middle of having a nervous breakdown, Pound put The Waste Land together. Eliot dedicated the poem – one of the most well-known 20th century poem, one of the most well-known poems of all time – to Pound.)

Pound’s politics ruined him. His reputation did not recover. This seems fair. You broadcast anti-Semitic pro-fascist anti-American broadcasts during WWII while living in fascist Italy and championing Mussolini … well, you deserve what you get. As heinous as his views were, we can LEARN from people like Pound: how susceptible intelligent people are (even more susceptible) to abstract theories like fascism, etc. The draw of authoritarianism, the paranoid conspiracy theories, the frantic search for MEANING in chaos, needing to CONTROL messy reality.

Pound’s journey is worth getting into because it’s representative of so many of the forces working during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. There was a lot of really bad theorizing going on. Pound is the most notorious, because of how far it all went. Not too many people were kept in a cage in a public square. Not too many people were institutionalized for 15 years. Pound was diabolical!

Here’s one of his most famous poems, which … in a way is hilarious because … Pound was influenced by Walt Whitman? If this is true, then that influence shows up NOWHERE in his work.

A Pact

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.

People might think the Cantos – all its fragmentation and piecing-together of daunting words – is akin to Finnegans Wake, but no, I’m sorry, you’re wrong. Finnegans Wake may be daunting, but it’s – in a way – clearer than Ulysses is. It’s about a man going to sleep and having a dream. That’s it. It’s 800 pages of word play, puns, metaphors, jokes. Toni Morrisono read it on her own in college and said she was laughing out loud – OFTEN – as she read it. Yes! Me too! If Pound attempted something similar with the Cantos, he … failed miserably. Pound was totally humorless.

Pound’s greatest contribution may very well be his work as a translator. His translations of Japanese and Chinese poets brought these works to the English-speaking public for the first time.

Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”, originally published in Poetry magazine in 1913, shows what he was like when he hit the nail on the head. His mind wasn’t all muddled yet. He was looking for clarity and minimalism. The poem was much longer at first, but he pared it down into just fourteen words.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
Petals on a wet, black bough

This is my favorite of Pound’s poems by a long shot.

His reputation did not surpass those of the friends whom he championed. Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, H.D. loom far larger, cast longer shadows. This is good and right. But if you look into the journeys of that generation of writers on even the most superficial level, one name comes up again and again.

Ezra Pound.

The below list of quotes is way too long, but … the collection gives a good look at people’s complicated feelings.


T. S. Eliot:

Pound is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual.

Ezra Pound:

An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. It is the presentation of such complex instantaneity that gives a sudden sense of liberation that we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.

Christopher Hitchens, Ezra Pound: A Revolutionary Simpleton:

Pound’s early life story is in some respects not unlike that of T.S. Eliot, the man who in his dedication to The Waste Land called Pound “il miglior fabbro (which can mean either “the better writer” or “the better craftsman”). They shared the same desire to escape from provincial gentility in America to Europe and perhaps especially to England, the same struggle to convince parents and family that the effort was one worth endorsing and financing, the same quixotic belief that poetry could be made to yield a living and that poets were a special class, and the same register of annihilating shock when in the summer of 1914 the roof of the over-admired European civilization simply fell in.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Without Pound, much of the most innovative poetry looks like nonsense. Williams is not enough: Pound is the problematic, polyphiloprogenitive ancestor. And those who reject him, for his politics or for his poetry, build on the tradition he abandoned in 1920 when he abandoned England, the “sinking island.”

W.B. Yeats to Lady Gregory, about Pound helping to revise “Two Kings”:

[He helped me] to get back to the definite and the concrete away from modern abstractions. To talk over a poem with him is like getting you to put a sentence into dialect. All becomes clear and natural.

Robert Lowell:

The Pisan Cantos are very uneven … If you took what most people would agree are maybe the best hundred passages, would the beliefs in those passages be obnoxious? I think you’d get a very mixed answer. You could make a good case for Pound’s good humor about his imprisonment, his absence of self-pity, his observant eye, his memories of literary friends, for all kinds of generous qualities and open qualities and lyrical qualities that anyone would think were good. And even when he does something like the death of Mussolini, in the passage that opens the Pisan Cantos, people debate about it. I’ve talked to Italians who were partisans, and who said that this is the only poem on Mussolini that’s any good. Pound’s quite wily often: Mussolini hung up like an ox – his brutal appearance. I don’t know whether you could say the beliefs there are wrong or not. And there are other poems that come to mind: in Eliot, the Jew spelled with a small j in “Gerontion,” is that anti-Semitism or not? Eliot’s not anti-Semitic in any sense, but there’s certainly a dislike of Jews in those early poems. Does he gain in the fierceness of writing his Jew with a small j? He says you write what you have to write and in criticism you can say what you think you should believe in. Very ugly emotions perhaps make a poem.

William Carlos Williams, from Kora in Hell:

E.P. is the best enemy United States verse has. He is interested, passionately interested–even if he doesn’t know what he is talking about. But of course he does know what he is talking about. He does not, however, know everything, not by more than half. The accordances of which Americans have the parts and the colors but not the completions before them pass beyond the attempts of his thought. It is a middle-aged blight of the imagination.

Ezra Pound, from “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” (1909):

I honour him for he prophesied me while I can only recognize him as a forebear of whom I ought to be proud … I read him (in many parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms. The expression of certain things related to cosmic consciousness seems tainted with this marasmus.

Robert Lowell:

Ezra Pound has written that he doesn’t think anyone can know anything at all about the art of lucid narrative in English if he hasn’t seen all fifteen books of Ovid’s Elizabethan translator, Arthur Golding. That is a good way of putting it, and yet I imagine Golding has rarely been read cover to cover.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

At first, Eliot and Pound seemed to be moving in the same direction. They both wrote about the modern world as a group of fragments, Pound in the first Cantos that he published in Poetry and Eliot in The Waste Land, which Pound had helped Eliot complete. Only gradually did it become clear that these poems embodied divergent views: for Eliot, the disjunctiveness of the world was intolerable, and he was determined to mind it (as his eventual conversion to Anglican Christianity helped him do). Pound preferred to accept and exploit this disjunctiveness.

T.S. Eliot:

I think I went to call on him first [in 1914]. I think I made a good impression, in his little triangular sitting room in Kensington. He said, Send me your poems. And he wrote back, This is as good as anything I’ve seen. Come around and have a talk about them. Then he pushed them on Harriet Monroe, which took a little time…When I went to see Pound, I was not particularly an admirer of his work…I am certain that in his later work is to be found the grand stuff…He was a marvelous critic because he didn’t try to turn you into an imitation of himself. He tried to see what you were trying to do…Pound said, It’s no use trying to do something that somebody else has done as well as it can be done. Do something different.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Pound’s major work is The Cantos, which seem to me to anthologize badly, nor do I have much esteem for them, or for Pound, whether as a person or a poet. Like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, with Robert Browning and Walt Whitman, was a crucial precursor, Pound excelled as a translator.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

But the total impression of The Cantos may rather be one of shifting intersecting forms, coming into being and then retreating from the page. The fragments, instead of adding up to degradation, as in Eliot’s Waste Land, compose for Pound possibilities and brief realizations. The Cantos stand like a monolith in modern literature, not to be avoided or ignored.

Ezra Pound:

At a particular date in a particular room, two authors, neither engaged in picking the other’s pocket, decided that the dilutation of vers libre, Amygism, Lee Masterism, general floppiness had gone too far and that some countercurrent must be set going. Parallel situation centuries ago in China. Remedy prescribed ‘Emaux et Camees’ (or the Bay State Hymn Book). Rhyme and regular strophes. Results: Poems in Mr. Eliot’s second volume, not contained in his first…also H.S. Mauberley. Divergence later.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, February 10, 1963:

I have been thinking of the great callousness and bravado of Ezra’s existence, so free one might [think] of half-thought, of most men’s waverings, feelings of being a copy, of not pursuing the good, etc. Then the shell breaks and the cold air tortures the exposed flesh. Then partial recovery, though the other was a recovery of humanity.

Hugh Kenner on The Cantos:

[There is a] paradox that an intensely topical poem has become archaic without ever having been contemporary: archaic in an honorific sense … There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced … Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, September 7, 1948:

Had a good afternoon with Pound. “It does me good to get unstoppered.” The only trouble is that it is always much the same bottle. New this time: that he went to Italy to be somewhere the French couldn’t look down on; and stories about the seven male poets of England (who were they?) going to call on Wilfred S. Blunt, and his 20 year old mistress. “When I went with Dorothy, the mistress was gone, but I told her all about it.” “I wish I’d read Confucius when I was young, but Dorothy says I would have been the most unbearable old bore that ever lived.” He’s translated the Confucian odes in St. Eliz and wants them printed with a Chinese, phonetic and English texts. His family think them his best work, and I wouldn’t be surprised.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Even Pound and Eliot did not break completely with nineteenth-century poetry: they were indebted to Whitman … But since Pound and Eliot sought to distinguish themselves from the Romantics and Victorians, their modernist emphasis on rupture and on formal invention colors the overall picture of what is new and distinctive in modern poetry as a whole.

Ezra Pound, Active Anthology:

Mr. Eliot and I are in agreement, or “belong to the same school of critics,” in so far as we both believe that existing works form a complete order which is changed by the introduction of the “really new” work.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, March 5, 1963:

I admire Pound’s extraordinary courage, many things about him–but read [the biography of Chekhov], Cal, and see how petty Pound appears, how horribly “flawed,” as you say–and almost completely lacking in natural human feelings.

Marianne Moore:

In Henry James it is the essays and letters especially that affect me. In Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance, his definiteness, his indigenously unmistakable accent. Charles Norman says in his biography of Ezra Pound that he said to a poet, “Nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, under stress of some emotion, actually say.” And Ezra said of Shakespeare and Dante, “Here we are with the masters; of neither can we say, ‘He is the greatest’; of each we must say, ‘He is unexcelled.'”

Robert Lowell:

I thought the Pisan Cantos was the best writing Pound had ever done, though it included some of his worst. It’s a very mixed book: that was the question. But the consequence of not giving the best book of the year a prize for extraneous reasons, even terrible ones in a sense – I think that’s the death of art. Then you have Pasternak suppressed and everything becomes stifling. Particularly in a strong country like ours you’ve got to award things objectively and not let the beliefs you’d like a man to have govern your choice. It was very close after the war, and anyone must feel that the poetry award was a trifling thing compared with the concentration camps. I actually think they were very distant from Pound. He had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs – and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course – they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Ezra Pound, from “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” (1909):

He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’ He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission.

What are you TALKING about, Ezra.

Michael Schmidt:

His economic theories seemed hare-brained, his anti-Semitism intolerable. Friends chose to ignore him rather than call him to account. Unchecked in his pursuit of “truth,” unheeded in his Cassandra-like prophecies, he became ever more strident. The politics and economics of the later Cantos are increasingly crude, until the poem is broken open by the defeat of the Axis powers and Pound himself is arrested by the Americans in 1944 for treason. Was he driven mad by his theories, hatred and defeats? The Pisan Cantos and the later work suggest that he was not.

Marianne Moore:

[The early poems] seemed a little didactic, but I liked them.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Collage, which is handled as metaphor by Marianne Moore and by the Eliot of The Waste Land, is a much more literal process in Pound, is more scheme than trope, as it were. The allusive triumph over tradition in Moore’s “Marriage” or The Waste Land is fairly problematical, yet nowhere near so dubious as it is in The Cantos. Confronted by a past poetic wealth in figuration, Pound tends to resort to baroque elaborations of the anterior metaphors. What he almost never manages is to achieve an ellipsis of further troping by his own inventiveness at metaphor. He cannot make the voices of Whitman and Browning seem belated, while his own voice manifests what Stevens called an “ever early candor.”

Ezra Pound, 1948:

to Jarrell / Tate / Spender / ?
discuss: Brooks Adams, Frobenius, Gesell, essential Loeb /
Ford, W.L. to Tate.
Barry Domville “Admiral to Cabin Boy”
Has Tate anything of Devlin’s / or has L?
what any one else know of him.

Tate’s question re / Marianne /
O.K. but see what others think / IN ANY CASE NEVER
more than ONE wumman at a time.
Tate’s re / some prof /
?? usual time lag or not?

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, on the Yeats relationship:

Yeats found unexpected company in a young American, Ezra Pound. Pound arrived in London in 1908, at twenty-three, convinced that Yeats was the best poet then writing in English and determined to learn from him. Yeats also discovered how much this young man could tell him of new ideas and techniques, and from 1913 to 1916, they spent three winters together in a stone cottage south of London. Pound’s generosity and gregariousness, his propagandizing for the avant-garde, made his apartment in Kensington for a time the headquarters of innovative verse for both England and America.

Ezra Pound, from “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” (1909):

I am (in common with every educated man) an heir of the ages and I demand my birth-right. Yet if Whitman represented his time in language acceptable to one accustomed to my standard of intellectual-artistic living he would belie his time and nation. And yet I am but one of his ‘ages and ages encrustations’ or to be exact an encrustation of the next age. The vital part of my message, taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his.

Dude. Chill.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion:

The Cantos, the twentieth-century version of Casaubon’s “Key to All the Mythologies” from Middlemarch, ranges through all time and all space looking for a pattern, tracing specious lines of connection in which Pound progressively entangles himself, until finally he hangs mummified with only his mouth moving, unable to explain even his own era, a nut for politics whose political role was to be the kind of Fascist that real Fascists found naive.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, January 1, 1954:

I saw Pound some two weeks ago at St. Elizabeths, the first time in four years. It’s a shock how unchanged he was, the same list of books (when he learned I was only to be there for the day, he brushed aside human amenities, plunged in medias res, and told me how to teach history from 1830-1860), the same rhetoric. But he’s much fatter and healthier, jumps about, dances like a bear and no longer complains of memory gaps. O, I think he has lived because he has wanted to, and [Dylan] Thomas didn’t. No I don’t mean that exactly. Thomas wanted to live burning, burning out. So we. I want to live to be old, and want you to.

Pound on Ulysses:

In a single chapter he discharges all the cliches of the English language like an uninterrupted river.

Marianne Moore:

If you have a genius of an editor, you are blessed: e.g. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.


Ezra Pound was very kind and used to bring me (literally) armfuls of books to read. I did a few poems that I don’t think Ezra liked …but later he was beautiful about my first authentic verses … and sent my poems in for me to Miss Monroe [the editor of Poetry magazine]. He signed them for me, ‘H.D., Imagiste.’ The name seems to have stuck somehow.

Ezra Pound on H.D.

Objective – no slither; direct – no excessive use of adjectives, no metaphors that won’t permit examination. It’s straight talk, straight to the Greek!

Marianne Moore:

The first time I met Ezra Pound, when he came here to see my mother and me, I said that Henry Eliot seemed to me more nearly the artist than anyone I had ever met. “Now, now,” said Ezra. “Be careful.”

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

I find Whitman quite unrecognizable in nearly every reference Pound makes to him. Our greatest poet and our most elusive, because most figurative, Whitman consistently is literalized by Pound, as though the Whitmanian self could be accepted as a machine rather than as a metaphor.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In 1912-13, he adopted the more epigrammatic and ironic mode that became Imagism. Imagism evolved from symbolism and shared its antipathy for explanatory discourse, but it shifted the emphasis from the musical to the visual, the mysterious to the actual, the ambiguously suggestive symbol to the clear-cut natural image. Pound was helped to chart the new course in his writing by Ford Madox Ford, an American expatriate novelist who insisted on precision and efficiency in writing, on presenting facts without commenting on them,

Pound on Ulysses:

The action takes place in one day … in a single place, Dublin. Telemachus wanders beside the shore of the loud and roaring sea; he sees the midwives with their professional bags. Ulysses breakfasts, circulates; mass, funeral, bath house, race tracktalk; the other characters circulate; the soap circulates; he hunts for advertising, the “ad” of the House of Keyes, he visits the national library to verify an anatomical detail of mythology, he comes to the isle of Aeolus (a newspaper office), all the noises burst forth, tramways, trucks, post office wagons, etc.; Nausicaa appears, they dine at the hospital; the meeting of Ulysses and Telemachus, the brothel, the brawl, the return to Bloom’s, and then the author presents Penelope, symbol of the earth, whose night thoughts end the story as counterweight to the ingenuities of the male.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion:

Pound’s version of the Fascist era never arrived, and indeed it was never there, even under Fascism, although Pound managed to convince himself that Mussolini had actually read his presentation volume of the Cantos. (Admittedly, Mussolini told him so, but Mussolini also told the Italian people that they were going to win the war.)

Michael Schmidt:

Concentrating on his studies, he developed his anticapitalist and anti-Zionist theories. In the magnificent Canto XXX, one of the great political poems of the century, unpardonable because it defines with such plangency his early fascism even while his contemporaries were lining up behind Stalin …

^^ Read that again.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, October 1, 1948

An emotional last meeting with Pound: “Cal, god go with you, if you like the company.”

Marianne Moore:

When I went to see Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths, about the third time I went, the official who escorted me to the grounds said, Good of you to come to see him, and I said, Good? You have no idea how much he has done for me, and others. This pertains to an early rather than final visit.

I was not in the habit of asking experts or anybody else to help me with things that I was doing, unless it was a librarian or someone whose business it was to help applicants, or a teacher. But I was desperate when Macmillan declined my Fables. I had worked about four years on them and sent Ezra Pound several – although I hesitated. I didn’t like to bother him. He had enough trouble without that, but finally I said, Would you have time to tell me if the rhythms grate on you? Is my ear not good? Yes, he said. The least touch of merit upsets these blighters.

Visits to St. Elizabeths
By Elizabeth Bishop

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the time
of the tragic man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a wristwatch
telling the time
of the talkative man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the honored man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the roadstead all of board
reached by the sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the old, brave man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

These are the years and the walls of the ward,
the winds and clouds of the sea of board
sailed by the sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the cranky man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
beyond the sailor
winding his watch
that tells the time
of the cruel man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a world of books gone flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
of the batty sailor
that winds his watch
that tells the time
of the busy man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is there, is flat,
for the widowed Jew in the newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
waltzing the length of a weaving board
by the silent sailor
that hears his watch
that ticks the time
of the tedious man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to feel if the world is there and flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances joyfully down the ward
into the parting seas of board
past the staring sailor
that shakes his watch
that tells the time
of the poet, the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch
that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion:

In the long run, a poet like Galway Kinnell could do what Pound vaunted himself as doing but never could: make poetry from history. Pound staked everything on that, and was bound to fail; not because he couldn’t write poetry, but because he was debarred by nature from understanding history; he thought his gift for the dogmatic epigram was a guarantee of universal scope. Having failed, he faded; gradually but beyond recovery.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, December 3, 1957:

I sent copies of my poems to Randall, Allen, and Ezra Pound…Pound wrote:

“Mr. Lowell of Boston
No light Baby-Austin
but when the garbage froze or
the vast accumulation of residues
caused exacerbation,
a bulldozer
was wanted for deep excavation…

whether I can corrugate
castigate or elevate this nonsense
into somethink worthy the occasion
REEMains to be sawn
rough, hew them as we will.”

That does seem unusually clear for Ezra. But, whose nonsense? His or mine? I’m not sure if enthusiastic flattery is meant or fierce abuse.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 20, 1958:

Pound is out. Going to a Chinese restaurant and using a telephone for the first time in 15 years, he told his daughter-in-law “the ancestral voice is once more on the air.” A joke, I think, not the beginning of a Jeremiad.

Michael Schmidt:

Ezra Pound loved [Elizabeth Barrett] Browning as only poets love – with jealousy and disappointment.

More along those lines: one of Pound’s Cantos addresses Elizabeth Barrett Browning directly:

And I discern your story : Browning’s
Peire Cardinal “Bordello”
Was half fore-runner of Dante. Arnaut’s the trick
Of the unfinished address,

And half your dates are out; you mix your eras
For that great font, Sordello sat beside —
‘Tis an immortal passage, but the font? —
Is some two centuries outside the picture

And no matter.

It’s the “and no matter” that matters. Browning’s “dates” are “out”. She mixes eras in her poems. Pound is disappointed but then he gives it all to her.

Pound on Thomas Hardy’s poetry

Now there is clarity. There is the harvest of having written 20 novels first.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, May 18, 1948:

And thank you for taking me to see Pound. I am really endlessly grateful for that experience.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

After abandoning Imagism as too static and insufficiently rigorous in 1914, Pound helped create a new movement, Vorticism, that emphasized not the do’s and don’ts of style, such as those he had enumerated in “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” but the dynamism of content. Pound conceived the vortex — an image of whirling, intensifying, encompassing energy– as the movement’s emblem. Like Imagism, Vorticism lasted only for a few years, finding its most raucous embodiment in Wyndham Lewis’s journal Blast and its main aesthetic achievements in Lewis’s painting and Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpture rather than in verse. After its decline, Pound quit founding movements and, a few years later, left London for Italy….Though the Imagist movement formally came to an end in 1917, when [Amy] Lowell published the third of her anthologies, both Pound and H.D. went on to write long, complex, many-layered poems that recall Imagism in their musical cadences, sharp juxtapositions, and free-ranging content.

Ezra Pound, The Imagists, rules:

Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether objective or subjective; to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation: as regarding rhythm, to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion:

If you read Ezra Pound early on–and when I was coming of age in Australia in the late 1950s we all did–you can spend a lifetime wondering how he ever got under your skin.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, May 8, 1958:

And now the latest rumour is that Pound is coming here. At least a friend called from Rio last night and said he has a letter about coming here in the current Journal of Letters. I haven’t seen it yet but shall try to get a copy today or tomorrow. Can it be true? I thought he wanted to go straight back to Italy. There is an enormous Italian colony in Sao Paulo, and he might well have fascist friends there, and he did translate some of Camoes, and the exchange is extremely high now (but so are prices here)…so I suppose there are reasons why it may be true. It depresses me terribly, though, to think of him spreading more anti-Americanism here, where there is already a lot of it … Do you know anything about it? If he does come, of course, I’d like to go call on him in Rio, help Mrs. P if I could, even have him up here,maybe. But he’d probably be going to Sao Paulo, and if he ever saw that poem of mine, or Mrs. P saw it, he might not want to see me, anyway…If ever he came up here I’d have to get Lota to swear up and down first that she wouldn’t let him get a rise out of her, or argue with him! (I’m a coward, I know,–but I’ve never seen the point of, or been able to endure, much argument!) I really hope it isn’t true. There are too many crack-pots here already…. I am glad he’s out.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, June 21, 1958:

I gather it’s pretty certain that Pound is returning to Italy sometime towards the middle of July. He seems rather to hibernate through his winters–a relative hibernation; for us it would seem fierce activity. But of course when he was released, exhausting energies appeared–a trip to Charlottesville, lunches with colones, professors, fans, suggestions that he was about to study old Egyptian, tour Germany, France, and England. Mrs. Pound had a long list of addresses and high-spots to see in Boston. We cut them down to a morning at the John Adams’ house–very grave and cool after Ezra and the pealing traffic-wrung environs of Boston.

Florence Herman, wife of William Carlos Williams:

Pound came over in … I think, 1938 to get an honorary degree at Hamilton. And he spent two days with us when he was released from Saint Elizabeth’s in 1958, before he sailed for Italy. I wouldn’t know what to say of this last impression. He was self-centered, as always. You couldn’t talk to him; it was impossible… Ezra always tried to tell Bill off, but they got along as friends over the years. Bill wasn’t afraid of him; their letters used to be rather acrimonious, back and forth.

Ted Hughes:

As a personality – [Pound] doesn’t have the power to fascinate as a personality that, for instance, Eliot does, or Yeats, perhaps because his internal evolution, or whatever it was, was so broken, so confused by a militance that took it over from the outside. Perhaps one recoils from what feels like a disintegration. But many pages of the verse seem to me wonderful in all kinds of ways.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion:

Pound went on and on about making you see, but the cold truth is that in the Cantos there are not many moments that light up.

Ezra Pound, on being Yeats’s secretary:

Mostly reading aloud. Doughty’s Dawn in Britain, and so on. And wrangling, you see. The Irish like contradiction. He tried to learn fencing at forty-five, which was amusing. He would thrash around with the foils like a whale. He sometimes gave the impression of being even a worse idiot than I am…Once out at Rapallo I tried for God’s sake to prevent him from printing a thing. I told him it was rubbish. All he did was print it with a preface saying that I said it was rubbish.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Eliot consolidated his innovations, while Pound restlessly extended his.

On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos
By Basil Bunting

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

T.S. Eliot, letter to Conrad Aiken, on Pound’s poems:

Touchingly incompetent.

Ezra Pound:

I went to London because I thought Yeats knew more about poetry than anybody else. I made my life in London by going to see Ford in the afternoons and Yeats in the evenings. By mentioning one to the other one could always start a discussion. That was the exercise. I went to study with Yeats and found that Ford disagreed with him. So then I kept on disagreeing with them for twenty years.

Robert Graves, on meeting Ezra Pound:

From his poems, I had expected a brawny, loud-voiced, swashbuckling American; but he was plump, hunched, soft-spoken and ill-at-ease, with the limpest of handshakes.

Ezra Pound:

Eliot and I started diverging from the beginning. The fun of an intellectual friendship is that you diverge on something or other and agree on a few points. Eliot, having had the Christian patience of tolerance all his life and so forth, and working very hard, must have found me very trying. We started disagreeing about a number of things from the time we met. We also agreed on a few things and I suppose both of us must have been right about something or other… There’s the whole problem of the relation of Christianity to Confucianism, and there’s the whole problem of the different brands of Christianity. There is the struggle for orthodoxy – Eliot for the Church, me gunning round for particular theologians. In one sense Eliot’s curiosity would appear to have been focused on a smaller number of problems. Even that is too much to say. The actual outlook of the experimental generation was all a question of the private ethos…. I should think the divergence was first a difference in subject matter. He has undoubtedly got a natural language. In the language in the plays, he seems to me to have made a very great contribution. And in being able to make contact with an extant milieu, and an extant state of comprehension.

Ernest Hemingway:

Ezra was extremely intelligent on the subjects he really knew…. Ezra [was] a great poet and a loyal friend.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion:

Galway Kinnell’s great poem The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World is the long Ezra Pound poem that Pound himself could never have written. It could not have been written about Pound’s Cantos as a point of departure, but it is so much more human, humane and sheerly poetic that you realize why Pound’s emphasis on technique and language, fruitful to others, was barren for himself. A poetic gift will include those things–or anyway the capacity for them–but finally there is an element of personality which brings them to their full potential, and only as a means to an end.

Ezra Pound on The Cantos:

A fugue: theme, response, contrasujet … Reading matter, singing matter shouting matter, the tale of the tribe.

Ezra Pound:

We are up against so many mysteries. There is the problem of benevolence, the point at which benevolence has ceased to be operative. Eliot says that they spend their time trying to imagine systems so perfect that nobody will have to be good. A lot of questions asked in that essay of Eliot’s cannot be dodged, like the question of whether there need be any change from the Dantesque scale of values or the Chaucerian scale of values. If so, how much? People who have lost reverence have lost a great deal.

Ezra Pound:

Often, I think, so-called obscurity is not obscurity in the language but in the other person’s not being able to make out why you are saying a thing. For instance the attack on Endymion was complicated because Gifford and company couldn’t see why the deuce Keats was doing it.

Christopher Hitchens, Ezra Pound: A Revolutionary Simpleton, [on the Cantos]:

… by which time Pound’s poetry had become little more than a doctrinaire and propagandistic screen: a mechanical attempt to make poetry do what economics could not. That such an outcome was a tragedy no reader of [Moody’s biography] can doubt. If one seeks or desires to explain the tragedy, one might say that Shelley wanted poets to be “the unacknowledged legislators” of the world, while Pound sought hectically for acknowledgment, not just for poetry but for himself, and lost the sense of both in the process.

William Carlos Williams, on Pound’s Cantos:

…the impressive monument which Pound is building against our time.

Ezra Pound’s outline for The Cantos:

A.A. Live man goes down into world of Dead
C.B. The “repeat in history”
B.C. The “magic moment” or moment of metamorphosis, bust thru from quotidian into “divine or permanent world.” Gods, etc.

Ezra Pound, 1915:

[I am working on] a poem of immeasurable length which will occupy me for the next four decades, unless it becomes a bore.

Ezra Pound on Yeats:

He is the only living man whose work has more than a most temporary interest. I shall survive as a curiosity.

Pound wasn’t wrong.

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3 Responses to It’s Ezra Pound’s Birthday: “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.”

  1. Pound is tough in ways that other poets are not– at least for me– because I am insufficiently erudite in the matters which were important to him and were shattered by the Great War. And now I have expressed myself poorly, in a way that would have irritated him, so I will try again. I know that the world was broken by the war, and Pound’s work was a complex reaction to the effect this had on the things that were most important to him.

    • sheila says:

      Bill –

      // because I am insufficiently erudite in the matters which were important to him and were shattered by the Great War. //

      I feel the same way. The cloud of associations are lost to me and I have to look up every other word, practically! It definitely requires a different kind of engagement.

      // I know that the world was broken by the war, and Pound’s work was a complex reaction to the effect this had on the things that were most important to him. //

      I like how you say this. Thank you.

  2. I once saw Ginsberg lecture on Pound. He recited the canto about usury with a clipped Zen precision. Then he played a recording of Pound reciting the same and it sounded like a lion roaring.

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