February 24, 2012

Detesting Ezra Pound

Pound was a literary giant and many have lived in his shadow. Although I have not often liked his poetry, I've have been influenced by those he influenced. His essays about poetry and his translations are still read, and they still resonate. Pound edited an essay by Ernest Fenollosa comparing the pictographs or characters of the Chinese language with poetry. In the Chinese character, image joined with action to convey the essential quality of transformation. So influenced, it was image that drove Ezra Pound as a poet. He edited the work of Yeats and T.S. Eliot.  He was a strong force promoting the work of several other poets.  In the essay "Retrospect" he writes about Imagist poetics:

"In the spring or early summer of 1912, H. D., Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:
  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome."
I do agree with these principles. I believe that the image carries meaning like nothing else.  It easily becomes symbol or metaphor.  The image that undergoes change in the poem, like the image of lemon slices in the poem "Miniature" by Yannis Ritsos, goes beyond metaphoric to metamorphic.  It's powerful.

H.D. was a powerful poet. Her spare lines still emit her radiant skill with sound and image. Other poets, also called modernist, used these tenets well: William Carlos Williams (although in a letter to Ezra Pound, he criticized Pound's first book of poetry as bitter), D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Hart Crane, and Gertrude Stein. In the lineage, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, and Amy Lowell.

On the subject of influences, even unwanted influences, here is a poem he wrote about Walt Whitman: 

A Pact
by Ezra Pound

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.  

The powerful poetry of Whitman with its sweeping democracies and celebrations were not those of Pound's.  Pound complained that sometimes he detected Whitman's rhythms emerging in his own lines, but he brought the focus of his poems back from such abundant multiplicity to the single image, defined as "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

Some of Pound's work seems to me as mysognist: "The Garden," "Portrait d'une Femme" or "The Lake Isle." Sometimes his endings seem clunky. I do much prefer the other modernists to him.  Only this poem of his, so deeply influenced by the Chinese poetry he studied, I love:

In a Station of the Metro
by Ezra Pound

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

It is an instant of time, the intellectual and emotional complex, that fascinates. His choice of word, "apparition" means sight, yes, but it also means haunting.  This small haiku: a stream of faces, perhaps going to the front, or returning to it, faces of women who are saying good-bye or reuniting, the endless motion that is captured by the strong counterpoint of "petals on a wet, black bough."  His equivalent image captures the brevity, the fragility of full blossoms in the rain.

A translation of Li Po, "The River-merchant's Wife: A Letter" Pound did beautifully.  This is the work that will let me have commerce with him. 

While in Italy, Pound became involved with the Fascists. He was anti-Semitic and pro-Mussolini and Hitler, and he referred to President Roosevelt as "that Jew in the White House." When Mussolini died, Pound was arrested and returned to the United States.  He was charged with treason (the penalty was death by execution) for broadcasting fascist propaganda by radio to the U.S., but he was found incompetent to stand trial by reason on insanity. He was committed as mentally ill to a St Elizabeth's Hospital, a federal asylum, in D.C. in about 1946 where he remained until 1958.

Some people have argued he not mentally ill, and some think he must have had bipolar disorder.  I've worked in the mental health field for thirty years. I know that at the time he was committed, patients often went into a patriarchal and brutal system. Medications were just coming into use; the heavy tranquilizer Haldol had disabling and sometimes permanent side effects like tongue rolling and uncontrolled hand movements (called pill rolling). This was the era of lobotomies, high voltage electroshock treatments, strait jackets and shackles. Commitments were also done on people with mental retardation, epilepsy, and homosexuality. In 1981, when I first walked through a back ward in a state run psychiatric hospital, I thought of Dante's circles of hell. Patients were over-crowded. Some people spent their life time in these hospitals; often their bizarre behaviors were related to the environment, lack of privacy or control, assaults or intrusions of other patients, and punitive or demeaning systems (like an M&M economy--a system of exchange based on candy M&Ms). I don't know what the conditions were in St Elizabeth's when Ezra Pound was there, but I know they were difficult in general for all mental health patients.

During his commitment, he convinced Eustace Mullins, another writer, of a conspiracy of "The Rothschild system" which was a group of bankers, corporations, and secret governmental agencies which yielded world power. Pound's theory of monetary control leading to the Federal Reserve influenced Mullins went on to write a book, Secrets of the Federal Reserve, updated later in The World Order: A Study in the Hegemony of Parasitism (1985), and The World Order: Our Secret Rulers (1992). Pound continued to rant; perhaps he was delusional. Clearly he was racist, and this also I detest about him. When he was released, he returned to Italy and lived there until he died in 1972.

Despite his political involvement, his literary contributions were recognized in 1948 with a Bollingen-Library of Congress Award.

Sources

Aldington, Richard. "Images" http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21788

Doolittle, Hilda (H. D.) http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/234

Ezra Pound Biography http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/161

Ezra Pound Biography http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/ezra-pound

"Insanity on Trial," Frontline, PBS. c1995-2011, WGBH. retrieved 02/24/2012. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/crime/trial/other.html

Pound, Ezra, Editor. The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry by Ernest Fenollosa. City Lights Books, San Francisco. c1936 Ezra Pound.

Pound, Ezra. Selected Poems

Pound, Ezra. "In Retrospect" and "A Few Don'ts" (1918) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237886

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