Pound in Fragments


Writers & Writing POUND IN FRAGMENTS BY KINGSLEY SHORTER In the preface to his biography of Ezra Pound (The Life of Ezra Pound, Pantheon Books, 472 pp , $10 00), Noel Stock claims to have...

...Writers & Writing POUND IN FRAGMENTS BY KINGSLEY SHORTER In the preface to his biography of Ezra Pound (The Life of Ezra Pound, Pantheon Books, 472 pp , $10 00), Noel Stock claims to have attempted "a balanced account of [the poet's] extraordinary life " Unfortunately it is not that There are hilarious glimpses of Pound the practicing eccentric frantically sparring with an imperturbable Hemingway, intimidating his tennis partners with leapmgs and strange cries, shouting out at a Beethoven concert, "What can you expect of a man who had syphilis'", walking down the street with pockets full of bones to feed the stray cats that waited for him at the corner But the comic rehef is only intermittent For the most part Stock's book is sadly one-dimensional, he studiously avoids the personal, contenting himself with the surface details of Pound's career as man of letters and crank publicist Not that one expects a biography, of Pound or anyone else, to lean too heavily on entertaining vignettes Yet if, as Ben Hecht suggested, Ezra Pound was "the exquisite showman minus a show," he mounted no end of sideshows, innumerable coconut shies and Aunt Sallies to distract attention from the embarrassing absence of a Big Top One would have hoped that Pound's biographer, while giving these antics their due, would have made it his business to strip off the motley and reveal the man beneath For more than most men Pound was trapped by his masks Admittedly, Stock's job cannot have been easy Pound was incredibly prolific throughout an exceptionally long working life (from well before World War I until the 1960s), and it is perhaps not surprising that Stock should sometimes have failed to see the wood for the trees Most of the book is a relentlessly linear account of Pound's life as a "literary journalist caught up m the mechanism of deadlines, proof-sheets and printing-houses"—a fact attested by the almost 200 entries under the index listing "Periodicals and Newspapers " Unfortunately Stock is caught up in the mechanism too, as he himself seems to be aware on those rare occasions when he climbs out long enough to offer some interpretation of what it all meant His candor in these instances at least is rn sharp contrast to the frustrating reticence with which he approaches Pound's private life He is an admirably lucid critic, putting his finger on Pound's strengths and weaknesses and resisting the temptation to gloss over the failure of The Cantos, Pound's life work Since this failure is the heart of the matter, it is worth quoting what Stock has to say in full "Early in his life Pound had dedicated himself to the writing of a masterwork and later decided that it should take the form of an 'epic' about history and civilizations But the trouble was that the 'epic' was born of the desire to write a masterwork rather than of a particular living knowledge which demanded to be embodied in art At no stage was he clear about what he was trying to do and further confusion was added when in the wake of Joyce and Eliot he decided that his epic would have to be modern and up to date Although he had no intellectual grasp of the work to be made he was determined nevertheless to write it Some Cantos and some fragments contain high poetry and there is much that is humorous or otherwise interesting But in so far as the work asks to be taken as a whole it verges on bluff " If this is true—and Pound himself would probably not contest it—then one wants to know, surely, why he pursued this course It is clear from the early poetry that Pound had a genuine lyric (rather than epic) gift, not for nothing did he win the friendship and, more important, the professional admiration of men like Yeats and Eliot, to name only two of the poets who claimed to have learned from him It is apparent, too, trom his critical writing—marred though it is by the fanatical posturing and frequent charlatanism—that he not only recognized good poetry when he saw it but could substantiate his insights with spectacular erudition and formidable powers of intellectual analysis Why Pound became the captive of his own eccentricity, why, when he had an unerring nose for genius in others, his own endowment was so pitifully misspent—such questions go unanswered in Stock's dogged chronicle of the man's day-to-day existence his tireless literary busywork, his voluminous correspondence, his peregrinations back and forth across Europe m the exile's restless search for the cultural epicenter Worse than the crushing accumulation of trivia, though, is the fact that such obvious side-trips as Pound's amiable dab-bluigs in the musical avant-garde are described m as much detail, and m the same tone of voice, as the central issue Pound's losing battle to stay in touch with his poetic impulse amid the multiple distractions of an essentially centrifugal personality Stock has long enjoyed Pound's confidence, and apparently had access to a vast amount of unpublished material for the purposes of this biography, perhaps he was overwhelmed by its sheer bulk A natural delicacy, too, may have made him reluctant to probe very deeply But while Stock's respectful, if sometimes ironic, distance from his subject may be good for his relations with Pound, it is hard on his readers Ezra Pound is surely God's gift to the biogra-phei His life has everything prolonged and elaborately documented intimacy with literary greats, the drama of high ambition unfulfilled, if not betrayed, the intellectual thrill of raids on the scholarly preserves of classical, medieval and Oriental culture conducted by a fire-breathing modernist and self-appointed "gadfly of the professoriate " Had he never written a line of his own worth keeping—and there is gold m them thar hills, though one needs exceptional tenacity to dig it out —the sharpness of his artistic judgments would still excite Pound understood what poetry is about, even if he could not often write it successfully By his insistence on the visual component of poetry, by using the Chinese ideogram to underpin his redefinition of image as "an intellectual and emotional 'complex'" that "gives rise to a sense of sudden liberation from the limits ot time and space," he helped to break the grip of traditional forms and provided an esthetic rationale tor poets like Eliot who were feeling their way toward a new freedom But most of all there was Pound's energetic patronage of promising writers, and his unfailing kindness to anyone in need He was personally responsible for launching Joyce and Eliot, and had a considerable hand m the fortunes of many others as well (including D H Lawrence "detestable person, but needs watching") Ever scornful of the United States as a cultural wilderness, Pound the unrepentant expatriate was thus able to give free rein to some standard American virtues pragmatism, irreverence, naivete, love of new frontiers, and above all a huge entrepreneurial zeal that kept him in the thick of things And there he might have stayed, had those virtues not become vices, had his naivete not betrayed him into the terrible foolishness of Social Credit and Fascism Even at his nuttiest, though, Ezra Pound was always the stand-up comic Who could resist the plaintive exasperation of his ex-cathedra pronouncements on, say, bureaucrats'' "If we must have bureaucrats, by all means let us treat them humanely, let us increase their salaries, let us give them comforting pensions, let them be employed making concordances to Hiawatha but under no circumstances allow them to do anything what bloody ever that bnngs them into contact with the citizen" Or his comment on Finnegan's Wake "Nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all the circumambient pen-phenzation " The "Poundian ferment" that Stock has taken so much trouble to document has died down now, the issues that generated Pound's largely factitious effervescence seem if anything yet more removed from us today than the Confusian wisdom he loved so well It no longer matters, if it ever did, that once m time of war he appeared to give aid and comfort to the enemy His great contemporaries are dead and gone, the little magazines in which he and they made their names are footnotes to history All that remains is words on the page Fragments of Pound's beatific vision—that baffling, elusive amalgam of Oriental and Hellenic imagery —glint amid the tons and tons of dross Fragments Pound was one of the first to rebel against the metrical straitjacket in poetry, to break down the purely narrative use of language, to think "cmematically " He sought a new principle of coherence, not finding it, he fell into what Santayana, m a sympathetic letter to him, called "utter miscellaneousness " Perhaps a line from The Waste Land could serve as his epitaph These fragments 1 have shored against my ruins...

Vol. 53 • December 1970 • No. 24

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