Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cantos & Curses: What to do w/ Ezra

And then went down to the ship
Set keel to breaker, forth on the godly sea
And we set up mast and  sail on that swart ship
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping:

Ezra Pound wrote Cantos, or long poems, during most of his life. Above are the first lines of the first Canto. It's a translation of Greek Homer into English using Anglo-Saxon metrics. You know, like Beowulf and Grendel.

He is my favorite poet and a pain in the butt to read. Generally you need a biography, footnotes, and a stout heart. He was a man of incredible self-taught skills and many deep, abiding enthusiasms. He is a premier architect, not just of modern poetry, but modern culture.

He translated old English, Provencal French poems and brought them back into modern discourse.
He embarked upon the study of obscure Italian prince-kings and made poems about them, studied their ways of war and power, trying to prescribe for modern social ills, but also, just because they were interesting.
He brought Confucius out of the university and into a poetry and philosophy that others could have interest in, and did the same with Chinese poetry, Noh Theatre in Japan, poems from Egypt, obscure Greek texts.

In short, he rediscovered World literature for the non-professorial reader.

He also sponsored the art of many others. He made sure James Joyce got published, that James Joyce got eye surgery, and glasses, and a patron.  So we have Ulysses, and James Joyce had sight. When T.S. Eliot had his nervous breakdown, he helped him edit one of his masterpieces, so that Eliot did not kill himself, ever, and we have The Wasteland. Consistently broke, he befriended poor artists and scholars.

He wrote about art, studied it, and tried to make new principles of modern art into principles for poems.

He was also a traitor to his country, a madman, a Fascist, a bigamist, a poor father (my guess, anyway, though nobody's talking) and wrote some of the most hurtful anti-Semitic words I have ever run into by accident. Later in life, he denied that they were anti-Semitic in intent--more against international business than Jews--and yet this was Europe between the World Wars--with bad international business and anti-Semitism rushing the world into atrocity.

What To Do
Early on in my Pound studies, I learned not to make excuses for my interest. I learned that quiet librarians would yell at me for half an hour when I asked for obscure Pound stuff, that the bulk of his work is never taught but is available, that his lifestyle is admired or reviled but not well understood.

I learned that re-writing Pound's opinions into something acceptable was unacceptable.  The reputation-repair he has undergone is totally earnest, verbally deficient, and laughable. Because it can't be done. You must take this man as he was.

Problematic, brilliant, vigorous, tainted. His own vanity made much of his work less than it could have been. Yet other poems are completely brilliant. He will never rest easy on a thoughtful conscience. He is my favorite poet.


Unknown said...

You make me want to find the brainpower to try and read this stuff. Understand it. I just dont think I have the patience right now.
I think I'll save him for my twilight years. You know the ones where I'm sitting in a rocking chair on the porch with a couple of dogs at my feet. Yup thats what I'll do.

Thanks Ann.

Bob G. said...

I'm am always surprised that Pound is never really referred to as some sort of Renaissance least for his time.

Must have been all that "wrong side of the tracks" stuff that blew his chance with the critics?

He is a pretty good read as long as you keep his entire life in context.
After all, Van Gogh was a brilliant artist, BUT...

Interesting post...makes me want to go snag some "Ezra", or at least read further into his life.

Christopher said...

"You must take this man as he was."

It could well be said of any of us.

Thanks for the introduction to Pound.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G.,
His father was a government official out in Idaho, I think something like Forestry or natural resources. He got a job in a boy's academy and was fired for keeping a dance hall girl in his dorm overnight. Supposedly she was stranded in a snowstorm. According to Pound's apologists, that was the extent of it. (LOL--how much rehabilitation does a reputation need?)

Anyway, he went to Europe to hang out with the expats. He did bring Americanisms to literature in an effort to make the obscure more widely read. The Academy NEVER forgave him for that.

If you are interested, the Selected Poems has a good mix, and it's paperback. You don't get into the anti-Semitic or other crazy stuff until you read some of the Cantos that aren't included in "selected" compilations.

Glad you enjoyed the post!
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Christopher,
What I learned from Ezra, you put him in a box (of apologies, or an open cage in a Pisan detention camp, or a mental facility) and he is not going to fit. He will defy explanation, write the Pisan Cantos (masterpieces) or end up living King Lear's retirement.

I guess he sort of taught me that none of us really fit a box. Sometimes we try to find one for ourselves, or others try to do it for us.

I knew, if you read this, you would find that sentence. I don't know why I knew it, though. Maybe the poet connection.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

I will gladly bring the books at retirement if you will teach me how to play shuffleboard, arrange parties, and argue politics with me.

To each our own, and plenty of good stuff everywhere,

Ann T.

Unknown said...

You got a deal sista.