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Poets - Ezra Pound

Updated on February 11, 2016

Pound & Plato

An insightful friend has said that Pound lived as if he were trying to prove Plato right in believing that poets should be banished from the virtuous city.

This friend doesn't disagree that Pound is a major poet --it is just that he is "the major poet with the fewest major poems," in fact only two. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and Homage to Sextus Propertius, are consistently held in high regard.

Pound is generally classed as an "early modernist,." But that is very strange in important regards. "Archaic modernist" would be, perhaps, a better characterization because, for example, of his love of using "thee" and "thou" and "hast".-- not for jest, but with commitment. The meters of which he is fond, also, are traditional ones.

The backward-lookingness of this modernist is exemplified in his love of medieval poetry and his translations. Who else would translate a medieval poet besides someone in love with the past? Indeed, in translation of the "Sestina Altaforte" of the medieval poet Bertrans de Born Pound found something he was looking for that also marks him out from your run of the mill modernist: medieval aristocratic blood-lust. My friend feels that this is "an objective correlative for his own sincere fascism: the result is great and greatly disturbing: a fascist masterpiece. "

He is similar is some ways to Brecht and Sartre, both of whom opted for the century's other major tyranny: handle with care. In Pound's case I think he is less seductive than Brecht, who was a great writer to the end of his career. And Sartre's folly is a little too complicated to be easily followed: he too is less seductive, and besides, Sartre stopped writing creatively as his tyrannic leftism deepened after 1960.

In Pound's case his talent for writing original poems left him as he converted to fascism. The Cantos are not good: a few memorable lines stand out from much incoherent rubbish.

Sestina Altaforte

LOQUITUR: En Bertrans de Born.

Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife.

Eccovi!

Judge ye!

Have I dug him up again?

The scene is at his castle, Altaforte. "Papiols" is his jongleur. "The Leopard," the device of Richard Coeur de Lion.

I

Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.

You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let's to music!

I have no life save when the swords clash.

But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing

And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,

Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

II

In hot summer have I great rejoicing

When the tempests kill the earth's foul peace,

And the lightnings from black heav'n flash crimson,

And the fierce thunders roar me their music

And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,

And through all the riven skies God's swords clash.

III

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!

And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,

Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!

Better one hour's stour than a year's peace

With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!

Bah! there's no wine like the blood's crimson!

IV

And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.

And I watch his spears through the dark clash

And it fills all my heart with rejoicing

And pries wide my mouth with fast music

When I see him so scorn and defy peace,

His lone might 'gainst all darkness opposing.

V

The man who fears war and squats opposing

My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson

But is fit only to rot in womanish peace

Far from where worth's won and the swords clash

For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;

Yea, I fill all the air with my music.

VI

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!

There's no sound like to swords swords opposing,

No cry like the battle's rejoicing

When our elbows and swords drip the crimson

And our charges 'gainst "The Leopard's" rush clash.

May God damn for ever all who cry "Peace!"

VII

And let the music of the swords make them crimson!

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!

Hell blot black for always the thought "Peace!"

Published 1921.

Believed to be in the public domain.

China connections

As there is with Chenault, Empson, Rittenberg, and Julia Child, there is a connection between Ezra Pound and Yunnan province, China. Pound was one of the most famous poets of the century just gone by. Outside of poetic circles, however, his poetry is less remembered than the broadcasts he made from Italy during the war on behalf of Mussolini and for their consequences. When Mussolini was strung up by his own countrymen, along with his mistress, in front of a gasoline station in Milan, and the nation's mid-war volte face was complete, Pound's already erratic behavior was fully out of control. After the war, rather than being prosecuted as a traitor, he was thrown into Saint Elizabeth's, the federal mental hospital in Washington, DC.

The connection between Pound and Yunnan, though, lies in the tale of an equally famous individual who is best introduced by reference to yet another eccentric whose eccentricities have been dramatized in a famous film: Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo, played by the - there is no other word - eccentric German actor, Klaus Kinski, is located a world away, in the heart of the Amazon. The film is about his effort to transport a passenger ship over a mountain. "Eccentric" seems a good word for that.

(An aside. Perhaps the best known scene in the film is the one in which Fitzcarraldo is cruising down the Amazon playing Caruso recordings on his Victrola and broadcasting them at loudest volume to the surrounding jungle. The film opens with him making his way to a performance in Manaus, in the preposterously ostentatious opera house built by the rubber barons as far away from civilization as it was possible to get. An aged and heavily made-up Sarah Bernhardt is performing. Sarah was of course a diva of the dramatic arts, not a diva of the musical theater - no matter, she is the one the rubber barons want: she is famous, the most famous actress in the world, and all she has to do is lip synch the words sung by another.)

Not long after Fitzcarraldo had made Caruso and Verdi known to the river and the forest, another man was playing Caruso to mountain villages in Yunnan. This was Joseph Rock, the son of an Austrian manservant who had for reasons of tuberculosis made his way to Hamburg and there sailed away for New York and ultimately Honolulu. In Hawaii he taught himself botany, so well that he became the world's foremost plant taxonomist of this rich, diverse, and beautiful island flora.

He had from a young age been fascinated by the East. At age thirteen, he had memorized Chinese characters. He departed Hawaii for Burma, but ended up in quite a different country, high in the mountains, and north of the border -- in Yunnan, in Lijiang, center of the Naxi (then Na-Khi) culture. Bruce Chatwin, in his terrific essay "Rock's World," tells us that Lijiang, northwest of Kunming about 800 kilometers, was for Joseph Rock "the only home he ever knew." His interests turned from botany to anthropology, and specifically to the Naxi people themselves.

So very different from the Han Chinese with their foot-binding and imperial system, the Naxi were in Rock's time a thoroughly matrilineal society, well before the changes wrought (rather gradually) by Communism in the fifties and sixties. Property was inherited and passed down by female members (if the family had no girl, it adopted one). A female resided in her mother's house, and her children, male and female, took the mother's surname. Astoundingly, there was no term for "father," at least traditionally, and no intimate feeling of kinship between father and child. There was a puberty ceremony and after that an extensive system of Azhu, trial marriages. The household was run by the grandmother or the mother and each female had her own room in which to receive her Azhu partners. The young men had no such room, and if they did not sleep in an Azhu's house, stayed in the room for old men at their own family's house. But a young man could acceptably have several Azhu partners at the same time, a form of polygamy, and females could do the same, a form of polyandry.

The Naxi capital, Lijiang, is an ancient and graceful city built of wood. It is now a World Heritage Site, but whether this designation helps protect Lijiang or increases the ravages of tourism is open to debate. And there is currently a lot of debating going on.

Rock continued to collect and identify many thousands of plant specimens in the region and dutifully sent them to the Smithsonian and to Harvard. He is famous for the half-mile long "cavalcades," as Chatwin calls them, which he assembled and led for this purpose. In the field, his table was set with silver, and he ate off of gold plate. He had a portable bathtub, made of canvas, purchased from Abercrombie & Fitch, which was filled with heated water for his bath. He traveled, as Chatwin says, "en prince." He was supported by the National Geographic Society as well as by the Smithsonian and Harvard. Pretty good for someone of his humble origins.

He inspired poetry - quite literally, as Ezra Pound acquired a copy of The Ancient Na-Khi Kingdom of South-West China in 1956, while still in Saint Elizabeth's, read it, and added to his Cantos. Chatwin, who knew far more about the Cantos than I will ever know, opens his essay with this passage from Canto CXIII:

And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise

Rock's world that he saved us for memory

a thin trace in high air

Could a madman write this? No, and in fact Pound was not mad (though not exactly sane, either), despite his confinement in Saint Elizabeth's. By 1956 tempers had cooled somewhat about the events of fifteen years ago, and his supporters were able to get him freed.

A view

Another friend, one who seems to know everything about English Lit, which he has taught for many years, considers Pound a major poet, but the one, as mentioned above, "with the fewest major poems."

Pound is generally viewed as an Imagist and a Modernist, but in my friend's view he is more of a classicist: "his language is quite archaic: he is the last important poet I know to use 'thee' and 'thou' and 'hast'. And he likes traditional meters." Moreover, his merit lies also in his translations and adaptations of medieval texts. As Will puts it, "in one translation, the 'Sestina Altaforte' from the medieval poet Bertrans de Born (whom Dante put in Hell for creating strife) Pound found in medieval aristocratic blood-lust an objective correlative for his own sincere fascism: the result is great and greatly disturbing: a fascist masterpiece."

But my friend, like many, has a low opinion of the Cantos: "a few memorable lines stand out from much incoherent rubbish." Perhaps it is Joseph Rock of Lijiang who inspired these few memorable lines.

Final Chatwin

We have been to Tiger Leaping Gorge (Chatwin writes) and seen the cliff-line plummeting 11,000 feet into the Yangtze. We have watched the Nakhi women cming down from the Snow Range, with their bundles of pine and artemisia; and one old woman with a bamboo winnowing basket on her back, and the sun's rays passing through it:

Artemisia

Arrundaria

Winnowed in fate's tray. . .

---------- Canto CXII

The wild pear trees are scarlet in the foothills, the larches like golden pagodas; the north slopes 'blue-green with juniper'. The last of the gentians are in flower, and the flocks of black sheep brindle the plain.

When the stag drinks at the salt spring

and sheep come down with the gentian sprout. . .

---------- Canto CX

Last look

One last look at Ezra Pound.

According to Ford Madox Ford, who became a good friend of Pound's shortly after this young American from Idaho arrived in London: "Ezra would approach with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point and a single large blue earring."

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