Essay on Poetic Theory

“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts” (1918)

by Ezra Pound
RE VERS LIBRE

I think the desire for vers libre is due to the sense of quantity reasserting itself after years of starvation. But I doubt if we can take over, for English, the rules of quantity laid down for Greek and Latin, mostly by Latin grammarians.

I think one should write vers libre only when one “must,” that is to say, only when the “thing” builds up a rhythm more beautiful than that of set metres, or more real, more a part of the emotion of the “thing,” more germane, intimate, interpretative than the measure of regular accentual verse; a rhythm which discontents one with set iambic or set anapaestic.

Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”

As a matter of detail, there is vers libre with accent heavily marked as a drum-beat (as par example my “Dance Figure”), and on the other hand I think I have gone as far as can profitably be gone in the other direction (and perhaps too far). I mean I do not think one can use to any advantage rhythms much more tenuous and imperceptible than some I have used. I think progress lies rather in an attempt to approximate classical quantitative metres (NOT to copy them) than in a carelessness regarding such things. [Let me date this statement 20 Aug. 1917.]

I agree with John Yeats on the relation of beauty to certitude. I prefer satire, which is due to emotion, to any sham of emotion.

I have had to write, or at least I have written a good deal about art, sculpture, painting and poetry. I have seen what seemed to me the best of contemporary work reviled and obstructed. Can any one write prose of permanent or durable interest when he is merely saying for one year what nearly every one will say at the end of three or four years? I have been battistrada for a sculptor, a painter, a novelist, several poets. I wrote also of certain French writers in The New Age in nineteen twelve or eleven.

I would much rather that people would look at Brzeska’s sculpture and Lewis’s drawings, and that they would read Joyce, Jules Romains, Eliot, than that they should read what I have said of these men, or that I should be asked to republish argumentative essays and reviews.

All that the critic can do for the reader or audience or spectator is to focus his gaze or audition. Rightly or wrongly I think my blasts and essays have done their work, and that more people are now likely to go to the sources than are likely to read this book.

Jammes’s “Existences” in “La Triomphe de la Vie” is available. So are his early poems. I think we need a convenient anthology rather than descriptive criticism. Carl Sandburg wrote me from Chicago, “It’s hell when poets can’t afford to buy each other’s books.” Half the people who care, only borrow. In America so few people know each other that the difficulty lies more than half in distribution. Perhaps one should make an anthology: Romains’s “Un Etre en Marche” and “Priéres,” Vildrac’s “Visite.” Retrospectively the fine wrought work of Laforgue, the flashes of Rimbaud, the hard-bit lines of Tristan Corbiére, Tailhade’s sketches in “Poémes Aristophanesques,” the “Litanies” of De Gourmont.

It is difficult at all times to write of the fine arts, it is almost impossible unless one can accompany one’s prose with many reproductions. Still I would seize this chance or any chance to reaffirm my belief in Wyndham Lewis’s genius, both in his drawings and his writings. And I would name an out of the way prose book, the “Scenes and Portraits” of Frederic Manning, as well as James Joyce’s short stories and novel, “Dubliners” and the now well known “Portrait of the Artist” as well as Lewis’ “Tarr,” if, that is, I may treat my strange reader as if he were a new friend come into the room, intent on ransacking my bookshelf.

ONLY EMOTION ENDURES

“Only emotion endures.” Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.

The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s “Drover”; his “O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die”; Joyce’s “I hear an army”; the lines of Yeats that ring in my head and in the heads of all young men of my time who care for poetry: Braseal and the Fisherman, “The fire that stirs about her when she stirs”; the later lines of “The Scholars,” the faces of the Magi; William Carlos Williams’s “Postlude.” Aldington’s version of “Atthis,” and “H.D.” ’s waves like pine tops, and her verse in “Des Imagistes” the first anthology; Hueffer’s “How red your lips are” in his translation from Von der Vogelweide, his “Three Ten,” the general effect of his “On Heaven”; his sense of the prose values or prose qualities in poetry; his ability to write poems that half-chant and are spoiled by a musician’s additions; beyond these a poem by Alice Corbin, “One City Only,” and another ending “But sliding water over a stone.” These things have worn smooth in my head and I am not through with them, nor with Aldington’s “In Via Sestina” nor his other poems in “Des Imagistes,” though people have told me their flaws. It may be that their content is too much embedded in me for me to look back at the words.

I am almost a different person when I come to take up the argument for Eliot’s poems.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 Ezra  Pound

Biography

Of all the major literary figures in the twentieth century, Ezra Pound has been one of the most controversial; he has also been one of modern poetry's most important contributors. In an introduction to the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot declared that Pound "is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual." Four decades later, Donald Hall reaffirmed in remarks collected . . .

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