Ezra Pound, the most prolific essayist among his Modernist contemporaries, wrote from within an astonishingly wide range of allusion, yet his thematic interests remain relatively narrow. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that after The Spirit of Romance (1910), he wrote only endless installments—many brilliant—of two extended essays.
Pound is initially concerned with poetry and its place in society, and then, beginning around 1924, with the ways economic systems promote or debase culture. Pound’s cultural criticism is almost always aimed at establishing the proper grounds for poetry’s growth and appreciation. Whatever their particular occasion, the essays exude polemical intensity, for Pound seldom took up his pen without meaning to argue or instruct.
T.S.Eliot, in his introduction to The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (1954), writes, “Mr. Pound has never valued his literary criticism except in terms of its literary impact.”
The discoverer of James Joyce and the champion of Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound can lay claim to being the inventor of Anglo-American Modernism, or at least its greatest impresario. Largely through the medium of the personal essay, Pound exerted substantial influence on the arts of painting and sculpture, as well as literature, and took intelligent notice of music. The “Treatise on Harmony” (1924) and the two essays on Arnold Dolmetsch (1918) are still of interest.
Beginning as a late Victorian admirer of Browning and the early Yeats, steeped in the traditions of European poetry, Pound was transformed by the destruction, waste, and stupidity of World War I into a radical stylist and eccentric economic and aesthetic theorist. The same experiences turned him toward the fascism of Mussolini, whom he naively believed would be interested in the economic theories of Social Credit. The fullest and most coherent of Pound’s political writings is “Jefferson and/or Mussolini” (1935). The least coherent and most noxious of his fascist statements are to be found in the radio scripts of the early 19405, broadcast over Rome radio. Pound’s real passion, however, was always the arts, and his fondest hope in the 1920s and 1930s was that fascism could establish the sort of society in which the arts could flourish. He was, obviously, wrong; at the same time, his error was shared by many intellectuals in England and America.
Something of Pound’s characteristic tone during this period can be heard in the very brief “The Constant Preaching to the Mob” (1916), which argues that poetry is not “entertainment,” but a mode of feeling crucial to the functioning of a healthy society.
After quoting and translating from Old English four lines of “The Wanderer,” Pound remarks that “Such poems are not made for after-dinner speakers… Still it flatters the mob to tell them that their importance is so great that the solace of lonely men, and the lordliest of arts, was created for their amusement.” Pound, like Eliot, is an unashamed elitist with no use for the common reader except to decry his ignorance.
No Modernist poet relied so heavily upon the genre of the essay as Pound. Throughout his life he employed it to promote poetry as the highest and most exclusive of the arts, and to defend it against sentimentality and the fuzzy thinking that results, he believed, from economic and political corruption. The mature style of Pound’s poetry is highly essayistic, his essays poetic. In both genres he makes extensive use of juxtaposition, which he called “the ideographic method,” an idea derived from the work of the Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa. Donald Davie (Pound, 1975) sees what he calls an intellectual “rhythm” in the way Pound juxtaposes the materials of his art. In both poetry and prose, Pound’s technical innovations were always designed to achieve what he called “hardness.” In “Credo” (1918) he writes, “I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity.”
Expatriate from his early twenties, Pound saw American culture as smugly sentimental and isolated from the traditions that make the arts possible. In “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” (1909) Pound writes that his great predecessor was “an exceedingly nauseating pill,” but admits that “he accomplished his mission.” “His crudity is an exceeding great stench,” Pound added, but later, in the brief lyric “A Pact” (1915), admits Whitman had “broken the new wood.” Much the same can be said of Pound himself. It is hard to overestimate the effect of Pound’s poetics on American and British poets of the second half of the 20th century.
Pound’s literary reputation rests on his poetry, but the greater part of his influence has been transmitted through the essays. Generations of poets have been instructed in the tenets of their art by the ABC of Reading (1934), which evolved from a cluster of key essays from the 1920s. Among these, “Credo” and “A Retrospect” (1918) may be said to have established Modernist poetic technique. In “The Prose Tradition in Verse” (1913), Pound can be said to have created the academic literary taste of the 20th century.
Virtually all Pound’s famous mottos are to be found in these three brief pieces. “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” from “A Few Don’ts” (1913) launched imagism as a literary movement. By 1918, Pound is definitely propounding a system of composition. In “Credo” he writes, “Rhythm—I believe in an ‘absolute rhythm,’ that is in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed… Symbols—I believe the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object … Technique—I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity…” In “A Retrospect,” he offers the following three prescriptions for poetry: “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 the sequence of the metronome.”
Pound’s most influential essay may be a “translation.” He compiled The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (comp. 1914; pub. 1936) from the notes of Ernest Fenollosa. It is hard to distinguish where Fenollosa leaves off and Pound begins.
In any event, Pound’s meditations on the Chinese character, which he and Fenollosa supposed less distant from the processes of both human thought and the natural world, gave rise to imagism as a literary movement, as well as to Cathay (1915), a collection of Pound’s versions of Chinese poems. As a poet Pound is justly famous for creating a different analogue in English—almost a separate version of the language—for each writer he “brought over”; he seems to have done the same for Fenollosa’s fragmentary prose.
The ABC of Reading formalizes the doctrines of the early essays and adds an extensive syllabus. Its theoretical underpinnings are taken over from The Chinese Written Character. Throughout Pound addresses himself to the poet who wishes to become part of the tradition, as well as to the reader who aspires to an adequate understanding of the canon. The ABC of Reading presents the reader with Pound the pedagogue. It also exhibits the paradoxical relations of Romantic and scientific modes of thought in Pound’s criticism.
Confronted with the body of Pound’s work, especially in prose—full of screeds against his countrymen and venomous reviews of his contemporaries—the reader encounters a similar paradox. Pound’s fascism is nauseating, certainly, and his elitism, while it avoids Eliot’s religiosity, seems rooted in an equally untenable vision of the social world.
Against these deficits is counterbalanced the beauty of Pound’s music, his genius for polemic, his astonishing literary energy on behalf of other writers, and a profound personal integrity.
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound. Born 30 October 1885 in Hailey, Idaho. Studied at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1901–03 and 1907–08, M.A. in Romance languages, 1906; Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, 1903–05, Ph.B., 1905. Lived in Venice, 1908, London, 1908–11, Paris, 1921–24, and Rapallo, Italy, 1924–45.
Contributor or editor, New Age, from 1911, Poetry, 1912–19, New Freewoman (later the Egoist), 1913–14, Blast, 1914, Little Review, 1917–19, Athenaeumy 1910, the Dial, 1920–23, the Exile, 1927–18, Il Mare (The sea), 1931–40, and New English Weekly, 1931–35. Married Dorothy Shakespear, 1914: one son; also had one daughter with Mary Rudge. Made broadcasts over Rome Radio critical of United States involvement in World War II, from 1940, and as a result jailed by the U.S. army, 1945, first near Pisa, but then found mentally unsound and committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1946–58. Returned to Italy and lived mainly in Venice, 1958–71.
Awards: Bollingen Prize, 1949; Harriet Monroe Award, 1962; honorary degree from Hamilton College. Died in Venice, 1 November 1971.
Essays and Related Prose
The Spirit of Romance: An Attempt to Define Somewhat the Charm of the Pre- Renaissance Literature of Latin Europe, 1910
Pavannes and Divisions, 1918
Make It New, 1934
ABC of Reading, 1934
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited from a work by Ernest Fenollosa, 1936
Polite Essays, 1937
Guide to Kulchur, 1938; as Culture, 1938
Literary Essays, edited by T.S.Eliot, 1954
Pavannes and Divagations, 1958
Impact: Essays on Ignorance and the Decline of American Civilization, edited by Noel Stock, 1960
Selected Prose, 1909–1965, edited by William Cookson, 1973
Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism, edited by R. Murray Schafer, 1977
“Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of World War II, edited by Leonard W.Doob, 1978
Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, edited by Harriet Zinnes, 1980
Ezra Pound and Japan: Letters and Essays, edited by Sanehide Kodama, 1987
Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose: Contributions to Periodicals, edited by Lea Baechler, A.Walton Litz, and James Longenbach, 1991
Other writings: many volumes of poetry (primarily The Cantos, from 1925), works on literary criticism and culture, and much correspondence. AIso translated work from the Japanese, Chinese, and Italian.
Ezra Pound Criticism, 1905–1985: A Chronological Listing of Publications in English, Marburg: University of Marburg Library, 1991
Gallup, Donald, Ezra Pound: A Bibliography, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, revised edition, 1983 (original edition, 1963)
Ricks, Beatrice, Ezra Pound: A Bibliography of Secondary Works, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1986
Coyle, Michael, “Determining Frontiers: T.S.Eliot’s Framing of the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound,” Modern Language Quarterly 50, no. 3 (September 1989):248–71
Harmon, William, “Pound’s Earlier Critical Writings on Cultural Time and Value,” and “Pound’s Later Critical Writings on Cultural Time and Value,” in his Time in Ezra Pound’s Work, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977:3–23, 24–43
Harris, Natalie, “A Map of Ezra Pound’s Criticism,” Southern Review (Summer 1983):548–72
Knapp, James F., Ezra Pound, Boston: Twayne, 1979
Longenbach, James, Stone Cottage, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988
McLuhan, Marshall, “Ezra Pound’s Critical Prose,” in Ezra Pound: A Collection of Essays to Be Presented to Ezra Pound on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, edited by Peter
Russell, London: Nevill, 1950; New York: Haskell, 1968
Ruthven, K.K., Ezra Pound as Literary Critic, London and New York: Routledge, 1990
Wellek, René, “Ezra Pound’s Literary Criticism,” Denver Quarterly 11(1976):1–20
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