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A Note on Ezra Pound

For my generation the fact of Ezra Pound and his work is inescapable, no matter what the particular reaction may be. But it should equally be remembered that during the forties, that time in which we came of age, Pound's situation was, in all senses, most depressed. To the young of that period he was often simply a traitor, an anti-Semite, an obscurantist, a money crank—and such courses in universities and colleges as dealt with modern poetry frequently avoided all mention of the Cantos . For example, I remember in my shyness going to F. O. Mathiessen at Harvard, to ask why we had not used the Cantos in his own course on contemporary poetry. His answer was that he understood Pound's work too poorly, that he felt Pound's political attitudes most suspect, and that he could not finally see the value of the work in a course such as ours was.

It is hard to see, in one sense, how we were not frightened away from Pound—there was so much to persuade us of his difficulties and of those he would surely involve us with. But who else could responsibly teach us that "nothing matters but the quality of the affection," that "only emotion endures"? The work we were otherwise given was, on the one hand, Auden—wherein a socially based use of irony became the uselessly exact rigor of repetitive verse patterns—or perhaps Stevens, whose mind one respected, in the questions it realized, but again whose use of poetry had fallen to the questionable fact of a device.

Pound, on the other hand, brought us immediately to the con-

Agenda , October–November 1965.


text of how to write. It was impossible to avoid the insistence he put on precisely how the line goes , how the word is , in its context, what has been done, in the practice of verse—and what now seems possible to do. It was, then, a measure he taught—and a measure in just that sense William Carlos Williams insisted upon:

       . . . The measure itself
has been lost
       and we suffer for it.
             We come to our deaths
in silence. . . .

To the attacks upon Pound as bigot merely, Charles Olson—speaking in the guise of Yeats in defense of Pound, in 1946—makes the relevant answer:

It is the passivity of you young men before Pound's work as a whole, not scripts alone, you who have taken from him, Joyce, Eliot and myself the advances we made for you. There is a court you leave silent—history present, the issue the larger concerns of authority than a state, Heraclitus and Marx called, perhaps some consideration of descents and metamorphoses, form and the elimination of intellect.[*]

For my own part I came first to the earlier poems, Personae , and to the various critical works, Make It New, Pavannes and Divisions, ABC of Reading, Guide to Kulchur , and Polite Essays . It was at that time the critical writing I could most clearly use, simply that my own limits made the Cantos a form intimidating to me. As a younger man, I wanted to know in a 'formal' sense where it was I was going, and had a hard time learning to admit that the variousness of life is as much its quality as its quantity. Or rather—akin to the anecdote Pound tells of Agassiz's student not really looking at the fish—I wanted the categories prior to the content which might in any sense inform them.

But it is again the sense of measure , and how actively it may be proposed, that I found insistently in Pound's work. Rather than tell me about some character of verse, he would give the literal instance side by side with that which gave it context. This method is, of course, an aspect of what he calls the ideogrammic —it presents , rather than comments upon. The emphasis I feel to be present in all his work, from the rationale of imagism, to the latest Cantos .

In the same sense he directed a real attention to characters of


verse in the early discriminations he offered as to its nature. For example, he spoke of "three chief means" available to the man wanting to "charge language with meaning to the utmost possible degree"—in the context that "Literature is language charged with meaning":

I throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination.

II inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech.

III inducing both of the effects by stimulating the associations (intellectual or emotional) that have remained in the receiver's consciousness in relation to the actual words or word groups employed.

(phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia)

Such location of attention meant an active involvement with what was happening in the given poem—and not a continuingly vague discussion of its aesthetic 'value,' or its 'period,' or all that area of assumption which finds place in unrealized generality. Pound's discriminations were located in the poem's literal activity.

How large he was then for us, is more simply stated than described. He took the possibility of writing to involve more than descriptive aesthetics. He defined sincerity as Kung's "man standing by his word." He moved upon the active principle of intelligence, the concept of virtu , so that, as Charles Olson has written:

 . . . his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors (so far as I can see only two, possibly, are admitted, by him, to be his betters—Confucius, & Dante. Which assumption, that there are intelligent men whom he can outtalk, is beautiful because it destroys historical time, and

thus creates the methodology of the Cantos , viz., a space-field where, by inversion, though the material is all time material, he has driven through it so sharply by the beak of his ego, that, he has turned time into what we now must have, space & its live air.[*]

Beyond that sense of principle—if such 'beyonds' can exist—there is the effect of reading Pound, of that experience of an energy, of ear and mind, which makes a language man's primary act. A sound:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea . . .


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