Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ezra Pound and the wrath of Ted

It seems I just can't please Ted Jenner. After I wrote about the Tongan philosopher and classicist Futa Helu last year, Ted e mailed and phoned me to register his disapproval at some of the comments my essay had made about Heraclitus, and about the ancient Greek academy. As one of New Zealand's foremost scholars of ancient Greek texts, and a particular expert on the gnomic texts of Heraclitus, Ted was someone I had to listen to carefully.

Ted is also an expert on Ezra Pound, and he called the other night to tell me he was very irritated at some of the remarks I had made about Pound in my essay 'Crossing the Plains', which was published on this blog last year and has been republished in revised form in the latest issue of the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief. My text is an account of a car journey across the Hauraki Plains, one of the least picturesque and therefore - for me, at least - most interesting regions of New Zealand, but it finds the time to mention the poetry and politics of Pound. I was too cowardly to talk to Ted in person, but after Skyler fielded his call the great man explained to her that he was upset by my essay's comparison of The Cantos, the epic poem Pound spent fifty years writing, to the messy and sometimes ugly antique shops of Paeroa, the little town on the eastern edge of the Hauraki Plains.

Like Heraclitus, Pound's work exists only in fragments. But where Heraclitus' texts are fragmentary because so much of his work was lost in the centuries after his death, Pound's are deliberately fractured. As a young man moving on the Bohemian fringes of the London literary scene before World War One, Pound invented a new way of composing poetry. Influenced by the Cubist painters and by his eccentric understanding of the Chinese ideograph, Pound stopped filling his poems with linear arguments and narratives and instead began to juxtapose fragments of imagery. Here is the complete text of the 1913 poem 'In a Station of the Metro':

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

Pound forces our minds to leap from a crowded Paris railway station to the branch of a peaceful tree, and to consider the relation between these two images. After Pound's innovation, much of the poetry of the later half of the nineteenth century suddenly seemed long-winded and affected.

At about the same time that he was liberating other poets, Pound was imprisoning himself in fascist ideology. After he moved to Italy in the early '20s, the poet began to praise Benito Mussollini, and to rant about usury, that ancient obsession of anti-semites. Pound spent World War Two giving increasingly incoherent lectures in praise of Hitler and Mussollini, which the Italian authorities dutifully broadcast by radio to his native America. After the war he was deported to America and kept for a dozen years in a mental hospital, before emerging and returning to Italy. Through all of these years, Pound worked away at The Cantos, a poem which attempts to use the technique he had discovered before World War One to explore and elucidate human history. Juxtaposing scenes from Confucian China, revolutionary America, Napoleonic France, and dozens of other eras, The Cantos has been called the greatest long poem ever written, a dangerous anti-semitic polemic, and a fearful mess.

Ted does not in any way share Pound's fascist politics. In conversation with me he has defined himself as a non-Marxist socialist, and he is proud of the broken tooth he suffered on a protest against the Springbok tour back in 1981. While conceding that parts of The Cantos are ruined by Pound's politics, Ted still finds many stretches of beauty and wisdom in the poem. I'm not sure if I can agree with the second part of this judgment: while there are undeniably pages full of resonant phrasing and luminous images in Pound's poem, they all too often give way to explosions of bigotry and to demented raves. The poem's passages of beauty seem to me like the leafy countryside which surrounds some of Hitler's old death camps: how can their beauty be enjoyed, when it sits so close to evidence of something so sinister? I'm dismayed, as well, when I see that a number of contemporary neo-Nazis, including New Zealand's own Kerry Bolton, cite Pound as a political inspiration.

Although I find it difficult to celebrate The Cantos, I can agree with Ted that Pound was one of the most important and influential of all twentieth-century poets. Even if Pound's writing ceased to find readers, his influence would remain, because the technique that he showed off in poems like 'In a Station of the Metro' has become a part of the way we think as well as the way we write. Back in the '60s, Marshall McLuhan noted that the modern newspaper, with its many separate stories juxtaposed with one another, resembles the sort of poem Pound pioneered. In the internet era the hyperlink frequently operates in a Poundian way, by making our minds leap suddenly from one piece of information to another.

Most of today's poets are instinctive Poundians. The first entry in the new issue of brief is a poem called 'Stutter won't' by Sarah Bogle, an undergraduate student in law and English at the University of Auckland. I first met Sarah almost a decade ago, when she was in her early teens, and when her mother, who is a well-known Auckland trade union activist, dragged her along to a political function held at the house where I lived. In those days Sarah haunted a website where fans of Harry Potter would publish unofficial prequels and sequels to JK Rowling's tomes; I remember her working on one of her own Potter novels. I'm not sure whether Sarah has ever read Pound with as much fervour as she read about Potter, but 'Stutter won't' shows a certain grasp of the technique Pound invented:

remember lips like
and hair, words on paper-pillow, scrawled, untidy...

remember, underwear black like the caves at Bethells
remember trees behind glass - palms scratched from climbing them...

When Sarah writes 'underwear black like the caves at Bethells' she brings together two images - one of them suggestive of intimacy and domesticity and comfort, and the other drawn from the wild west coast of Auckland, with its wave-gouged cliff-faces and fatal rips and uninhabited horizons - and asks us to hold them both in our heads, and to consider what they might mean together. 'Stutter won't' has some of the same quality as 'At the Station of the Metropole'.

I'm not sure if these words of measured praise for Pound will placate Ted Jenner, but I'll soon find out: he's writing a reply to 'Crossing the Plains' which he intends to submit to Hamish Dewe, who is guest editing the next issue of brief.


Anonymous brief said...

Hamish's e mail is

He certainly doesn't just want Ted and Maps fighting in his issue.

Send him material: stories, poems, photos...

5:25 pm  
Anonymous Maps said...

It is great to see not only Sarah Bogle but Giovanni Tiso and Andrew Dean (who is about the same age as Sarah) appearing for the first time in the new brief. Both Giovanni and Andrew are members of what we might loosely call the Kiwi cultural blogosphere, and it's pleasing that their work managing the leap into the mostly-offline brief.

I've just been reading Andrew's defiantly South Islandocentric report on an art show in the Oxfordshire countryside - it's good stuff!

7:09 pm  
Blogger AngonaMM said...

Ted Jenner is a scholar and a gentleman.

7:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

For God's sake Maps: you’re in your sixth year!

You know that Pound is THE poet of the 20th Century (o.k. (of those writing in English) there's Yeats and Geoffrey Hill and (a few others...Stein, Stevens, Berryman, Smithyman in fact...others)...but don't cross Ted, he is wild and fully armed with his Latin and Greek and he fought huge spiders in Malawi in his heroic effort to spread Kulchur to the dark Afric shores, and so on...

Charles Bernstein's essay "Pounding Fascism" is a great take on Pound in his book "A Poetic"

I heard Pound reading some of his Cantos at Ted's place and the effect was awesome. Pound’s works including his early works are held by some to be greater than the works of Eliot, whose output is relatively sparse...

I can’t agree with you re the Cantos.

Pound is undeniably a great poet and (if not the 20th Century's greatest) the fact of his fascism makes no difference whatsoever.

You confuse High Art and politics...

Great Art has no conscience.

7:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the dark, the gold gathers the light against it.

7:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'he fought huge spiders in Malawi in his heroic effort to spread Kulchur to the dark Afric shores'

like Mussolini in Ethiopia?

7:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I didn't submit this time. Do I get copy?!!

That thing by Sarah Bogle is very good indeed. There is a Janet Bogle is there not, in the political world?

The famous Haiku like (At the Metro) poem you quote was actually originally a huge mass of words, which Pound reduced down to two lines...

But there are many instances of such great things in his other poems and in the Cantos.

Zukofsky admired Pound and was influenced by him and he was Jewish. Eliot is a bit of a worry, but many writers and artists stood to Pound's support, recognizing that his anti-Semitism, while terrible and grave, did not, finally, (fatally), mar his greatness...

WCW's was his friend ... another wonderful poet...

We are past the Pound Era but.....hmmm..........

Tiso I am glad to see is published, despite some silly disputes we have had, I admire his passion and intelligence.

7:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Michael Steven has a great knowledge of poets of recent times. Maybe he could wade in at this point?

7:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I'll give you "lke Mussolini in Africa" my anonymouse person!

7:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous said...

In the dark, the gold gathers the light against it. "

yes, Pound in the Cantos...who can argue with that. No one.

7:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

E leai - "Mussoliini in Ethiopia" ...

7:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teu loa la’u ato o la’u malaga
Fa’atofa ma savalivali i le ala
Po’o fea a alu i ai e le’i iloa lava
E le’i faia fo’i se fuafuaga

7:55 pm  
Anonymous Mister Accurit said...

London tube station?

10:02 pm  
Anonymous Maps said...

Sorry: London's is the only underground rail network I've experienced, so it stands in all for the others in my imagination. But I gather Pound was writing about Paris:

'Three years ago in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that - a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols...

...Victor Plarr tells me that once, when he was walking over snow with a Japanese naval officer, they came to a place where a cat had crossed the path, and the officer said," Stop, I am making a poem." Which poem was, roughly, as follows: --

"The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:

(are like) plum-blossoms."

The words "are like" would not occur in the original, but I add them for clarity.

The "one image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work "of second intensity." Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence: --

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals, on a wet, black bough."

I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. I a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.'

10:38 pm  
Anonymous Maps said...

And here's Hugh Kenner on the poem:

'We need the title so that we can savor that vegetal contrast with the world of machines: this is not any crowd, moreover, but a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Korè saw crowds in Hades. And carrying forward the suggestion of wraiths, the word "apparition" detaches these faces from all the crowded faces, and presides over the image that conveys the quality of their separation:

Petals on a wet, black bough

Flowers, underground; flowers, out of the sun; flowers seen as if against a natural gleam, the bough’s wetness gleaming on its darkness, in this place where wheels turn and nothing grows. . .'

10:42 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...

Teu loa la’u ato o la’u malaga
Fa’atofa ma savalivali i le ala
Po’o fea a alu i ai e le’i iloa lava
E le’i faia fo’i se fuafuaga "

Your own poem in Samoan or translation into Samoan?

I make out something about saying good bye, packing a ((kit-bag?) or bag), and going on the roads with the plan of or walking and forgeting...?

10:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberely is one of the great poems. Possibly more interesting than The Waste Land. Not for nothing did Eliot put for Ezra Pound "il miglior fabbro"...

11:00 pm  
Anonymous Maps said...

'Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberely is one of the great poems'

I find it a dull whinge! I downloaded it in audio and still couldn't get into it - though Pound does have a remarkable voice.

The only works by Pound I really like are the short Imagist poems - but even there I prefer the comparable pieces by TE Hulme (a badly under-rated writer) - and the very last Cantos, which seem to repudiate much of what precedes them, and aren't as damn cluttered with quote and allusion as their predecessors.

I think I enjoy the work of Poundians - Hamish Dewe, George Oppen, Basil Bunting - more than the work of their master!

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Andrew Dean said...

Hi Maps,

Thanks! This is my first publication in any kind of literary journal, so pretty happy about that.

Now, about Pound: I personally have a lot of time for 'Cathay', a collection I've done some research on. His translations are in no way 'accurate'--he didn't speak Chinese, and was working from the cribs made by Ernest Fenollosa, a scholar of Japanese--but they're fascinating, and deeply moving too I think.

And I'm sorry Richard, I can't agree with you. Pound's 'high art' has a political location, and it's not one particularly friendly to Jews during the wartime cantos.

Even Cathay is deeply politicized, especially when you compare to the Chinese originals. Politics of selection alongside selective translation. The argument I made in my research was that Pound realized no one would call him out on it and so used the poems as the basis for his pacifist poetry, which neatly abutted his aesthetic interest.

Hugh Kenner agreed, largely:

"[Cathay’s] exiled bowmen, deserted women, levelled dynasties, departures for far places, lonely frontier guardsmen and glories remembered from afar…were selected from a diverse wealth in the notebooks by a sensibility responsive to torn Belgium and disrupted London…Cathay essays an oriental obliquity of reference to what we are to understand as its true theme."

One of my favourite bits about his translations is that between different editions he'll change the supposed origin of the poems, putting them further and further back in time. I'm sure if he were still alive today the poem based on 采薇 would have come down with the comet that created life on earth.

6:46 am  
Blogger Richard said...

For GOD's sake Maps and Andrew you're both in your sixth years!!

We know Pound is political...but he was..well he was just about mad...everyone knew that...even Mussolini...

Talk to Ted if you want to learn something about Pound or Hulme ... or C. K. Stead, who Ted handled the agency for Paideuma (Smithyman declared no, "Yeats is the only great modernist poet"...

It's a wonder Hamish hasn't come in here and given you all a terrible blast. The Man in the Panama Hat wont be amused at this vicious denigration and attack on Pound's Cantos!

We'll have Giovanni Tiso wading in with his great intagliated postmodernist knowledge at this point....

I read Jack's translation of 'The Fascist Cantos' They are a bit worrying.

If it wasn't for Gertrude Stein Pound would be number one for me. Stein and Beckett are the ones for me...

Pound almost created Eliot's The Waste Land (see his red slashes and his poor mad siwife timorus aparobatoions (read Cynthia Ozick on Eliot 'T.S. Eliot at 101' (for God's sake you're..) of the greatest Modernist poems...
Except for my own (Postmodernist?) "The Waste Land"

1:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pound's worst lines:

a fart is
the whistle of the train
before the goods

(from the Hell Cantos I think)

1:40 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Unlike Ted and Hamish though I have I have to confess I have only read bits and pieces of the Cantos...I just like the idea of it!!

Mostly I have no idea what he is raving on about but much of it is wonderful raving and writing...

Let's put it this way, I used go read R A K Mason as a teenager over and over (he is a young man's poet)...and some of his friend Fairburn. Like Pound Mason used or knew a lot of Latin and Greek and all kinds of arcane and obscure references and classics etc (but unlike Pound didn't use it too much in his poetry (or maybe his daily life! he was a Communist and a Trade Union official so not much room for all of that!)))...Pound perhaps has too much although I suppose his use of other languages etc is part of his point).

Now Fairburn wrote the great masterpiece:


He knew so much
Greek and Latin:
He fouled the very chair
He sat in.


1:42 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

John Ashbery has the wonderful two worder in one of his poems*

"Time farted."

*Variations and Fugue and Calypso on theme by Ella Wheeler Wilcox" I think it is.

1:45 pm  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

Some facts for you ignoramuses:

Luther is a heretic. And the reference in the Good Friday liturgy at the mass of the pre-sanctified (which for some reasons Christians are now expected to apologise for and feel ashamed of; regretabbly some of our misguidedly oversensitive and politically correct brethren do) to “perfidy” is a wilful mistranslation by the enemies of Christ from the Latin: the word means, not “perfidious”, but “faithless”, in the sense of not sharing the true Christian faith that is the fulfilment, not the abolition or rejection, but the perfection of Judaism.

Yes I'm back. It's me Pete.

12:05 am  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

And also. Some of the language on your comments are disgusting. Richard Taylor I bet you sit round in your own filth when you type your comments. Do you???!??

12:07 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Hello Mappa, I'm keen to know what Ted objected to in your comments on Heraclitus... Malo

1:28 pm  
Anonymous Ted Jenner said...

will get back to you soon. Mean to write something on this site re your comments about Pound in Italy before his incarceration at Pisa. You don't have the facts quite right. Let me affirm though that i did enjoy your well written account of the Hauraki Plains. Likewise your recent comments on Pound's influence: very pertinent. Richard and i heard you were in Olduvai Gorge, preparing to write a piece on that famous ravine for brief. Was there any spark of factuality in that rumour? Isometimes think your politics prevent you appreciating the work of poets at the other end of the spectrum, viz. Pound and Leigh Davis.

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Ted Jenner said...

Your comments on Pound betray the the bias of a doctrinaire socialist who cannot force himself to recognise that good poetry might be written by someone who expressed (yes, virulently at times) sympathy with causes such as Fascism and Anti-Semitism. And yet having known you for three years now, i do not believe you are of a doctrinaire nature. You do, however, evince blind spots in the case of two poets whose politics i abhor but whose poetry i admire, namely EP and Leigh Davis.

You accuse Pound of writing 'increasingly incomprehensible poetry', and i suppose it is incomprehensible if you have not bothered to work through the Adams Cantos with their themes of monetary reform and 'calling things by their right names' - themes surely as important now as they were in the thirties, perhaps even more so. The Adams Cantos are the batch that P. wrote before his incarceration,during which he produced what are universally recognised as his best sequence, namely the Pisans.

I am glad you mentioned the seeds that P is supposed to have filled his pockets with before his incarceration. When arrested by partisans, he stooped to pick up a eucalyptus seed on the salita that descends from Sant'Ambrogio to Rapallo. Is this what you're thinking of? That seed became a sort of 'talisman of memory' in the DTC at Pisa (see my short piece in Splash 4, p.13). At any rate, P's last-minute activities with these seeds are indications of a poet struggling to maintain a grip on sanity; they are not symptoms of a poet losing that grip, as even you would admit - and do, indirectly. Ted

3:59 pm  
Anonymous Ted Jenner said...

Let's get that verse from Fairburn right:
Here's Mason who will greet us
With some damned tag from Epictetus.
His belly was so full of Latin,
He fouled up the chair he sat in.

'Mauberley' a greater poem than 'The Waste Land'? Never! Doesn't have anything like the depths of emotion poor old TSE reached in WL, a poem written on the verge of a nervous breakdown. -TJ

4:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Ted - I read that by Fairburn last about 1965 or so!

Hugh Selwyn Mauberely - I was counterattacking Maps but I have to say that The Waste Land is my favourite...but HSM is a brilliant effort for sure.

Pound is, as always, problematic.

His importance maybe his influence and his place in connecting and fostering writers etc

It is a fact that he actually persuaded Eliot to start with'

Arpil is the cruellest month...

(He crossed out pages and pages of "pub dialogue" by Eliot..

Perhps had he not been obssesed with usury and his own dubious politics and anti-Semitism he had been a greater poet and man..who knows...

For me, Stein, as for Charles Bernstein, is the great modernist.

I have a high opinion of Bernstein also BTW especially say his early books such as "Controlling Interests"

7:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Ted have you seen Scott's more recent

He is for makin' a filimm an' beccommin a great filim star...

8:01 pm  
Blogger suzain66 said...

is great to see not only Sarah Bogle but Giovanni Tiso and Andrew Dean (who is about the same age as Sarah) appearing for the first time in the new brief.
Round Picnic Tables

12:22 am  
Anonymous wandybrad said...

Sarah Bogle but Giovanni Tiso and Andrew Dean (who is about the same age as Sarah) appearing for the first time in the new brie
business translation service

9:53 pm  

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