Writing in the Devil's Metres: He Was Cantankerous, Arrogant and a Fascist. but, as a New Edition of Ezra Pound's Poetry Is Published, Helen Carr Argues That Our Distaste for His Personality and Politics Should Not Diminish Our Appreciation of the Work
Carr, Helen, New Statesman (1996)
"How do you account for Ezra?" W B Yeats asked the poet Richard Aldington over spaghetti one evening in the northern Italian resort of Rapallo. "Here is a man who produces the most distinguished work and yet in himself is the most undistinguished of men." Aldington had no answer, though he thought accounting for Ezra was even more complicated than Yeats's neat antithesis suggested. For all Pound's gifts, his work was often "abrupt and barbarous", yet in spite of his "throwing down of fire-irons and sputtering of four-letter words", he could be "a pleasant companion and the most generous of men".
That was in 1928, but the question of accounting for Ezra, despite a fury of critical exegesis, has not yet been answered. He wrote some of the most lyrical and innovative poetry of the 20th century. He promoted and found funds for many significant writers, most notably James Joyce, T S Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, but also a range of others, from Marianne Moore to Basil Bunting. An ardent exponent of the craft of poetry, both in person and through his criticism, Pound the editor skilfully wielded what his fellow imagist H D called his "creative pencil" - not least in his inspired slashing of Eliot's Waste Land. He was one of the driving forces in the emergence of Anglo-American modernism and has arguably had more influence than any other writer of his day on succeeding generations of English-language poets, particularly in the United States.
But there was a darker side to Pound. It wasn't just that he could be cantankerous, abusive and dangerously sure he was right - faults that Yeats was probably thinking of that night in Rapallo. The shadow that still hangs over Pound's reputation is that of his uncritical admiration for Mussolini and Italian Fascism, and the anti-Semitism that he embraced as the Second World War approached. He later acknowledged the error of his anti-Semitism: Michael Alexander, in a moving account of visiting Pound in the 1960s when he had fallen into silence and despair, suggests he had finally come to understand what Fascism implied. But that he had held these views, and that they entered into parts of the Cantos, the vast work he spent 50 years writing, cannot be denied.
Pound was born in 1885 in the frontier town of Hailey, Idaho - "a half-savage country, out of date", as he put it in his 1920 poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" - but grew up in Wyncote, a suburb of Philadelphia. He claimed he knew by the age of 15 that he would be a poet, and he and his fellow UPenn student William Carlos Williams read and criticised each other's work. His first book of poems was a collection of typed pages hand-bound for his then fiancee, Hilda Doolittle (later HD). One of those poems, "The Tree", is still the lead poem in the latest edition of Pound's Selected Poems and Translations, edited and annotated by Richard Sieburth. It is a poem about Daphne's transformation into a tree, an Ovidian metamorphosis that Sieburth sees as the core theme of Pound's writings and translations, "the elusive persistence of identity within change".
The two poets who most influenced the young Pound were Yeats, for the musicality of his verse and his visionary imagination, and Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues bring to life figures of the past. "Make it new" is Pound's best-known injunction, not, as it is sometimes taken to be, an exhortation to concentrate on the modern, but instead to rediscover the past so it can speak to the present. "All ages," he wrote, "are contemporaneous."
Pound developed in these early poems the practice of creating "personae" or "masks of the self": the voice of a figure from the past who at the same time enacts a version or aspect of himself. Initially, they were wandering Provencal troubadours; later ones, also often wanderers or exiles, include the Anglo-Saxon "Seafarer", the Chinese poet Li Po, the Latin writer Propertius and Odysseus, whose voice (in Pound's translation of a Latin translation from the Greek) begins the Cantos by ritually calling up the souls of the dead. …