In the Gloom the Gold

Pound-thumb-490x300-1181 Jamie James on Ezra Pound in Lapham's Quarterly:

Ezra Pound never made it easy. He was a poet who cared little about public success and not at all about money: he dedicated his life to art with the rapturous abandon of a bacchant. Pound saw himself as forging ahead on the path poets had pursued since the preclassical bards, toward deeper wisdom and a more perfect expression, in pursuit of the beautiful. In the years since his death, this perennial vision of an enlightened Republic of Letters, one of humankind’s greatest intellectual accomplishments, has quietly gone the way of falconry and intaglio carving. So impenetrable and taxing do Pound’s poems appear to most modern readers that the soaring ambition of his work has been eclipsed by the neatly plotted narrative of his life.

Everybody knows the story. Pound launched the Imagist movement, epitomized by that hardy perennial of poetry anthologies, “In a Station of the Metro” (in full: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough”), and then played a decisive role in shaping T. S. Eliot’s epochal masterpiece The Waste Land. He devoted the rest of his life to composing The Cantos, a vast, unreadable epic left unfinished at his death in 1972. The story ends badly: he went off the rails during the war years, embracing fascism and anti-Semitism in broadcasts for Mussolini that got him arrested for treason, and was eventually committed to a mental hospital.

As conventional wisdom goes, the standard skinny on Pound is no worse than most. True to the genre it lacks nuance, emphasizing controversy over substance, but it isn’t actually wrong about anything—except the work. Pound’s Imagist poetry was revolutionary but by no means the best even of his early compositions, and The Cantos are called unreadable by the same people who call Tristram Shandy and Ulysses unreadable, those who haven’t read them. Many of the cantos are as deeply felt and exquisitely rendered as any verse in English. No poet has ever been so influential, so controversial, and so little read.