Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by James Matthew Wilson
Dear Editor,

Ezra Pound’s explosive literary criticism, confident experimentation, and prophetic vision for poetry all won him fame in life, and earn him sustained historical attention now. His contemporaries recognized him as a “professor manqu,” spouting theoretical promises of aesthetic revolution to which one must pay attention even as their realization on the ground seemed thin, rather watery. Young poets and critics ever since have sensed the legitimate beauty in some of his pronouncements and in some of his lines, and have been initially seduced by the dogmatic power with which he aphoristically expressed some of them. Nonetheless, Pound’s relative vacuity, as James rightly details [“The Arrow Has Not Two Points,” December 2007], must eventually lead to disappointment. The poet and critic was simply not as good as he pretended to be.

But here begins the unique Poundian problem. Even as one discovers that the Cantos are not very good poetry, and even as one suspects that the ideas ensnared within them are potted and cracked, one remains intrigued enough to hope that a little exegesis, a little scholarship, might make the whole thing cohere. The literary reputation of the Cantos remains a consensus endlessly deferred, because critics understandably have difficulty finally setting it all aside and saying, “Enough.” Pound will find fewer and fewer sincere readers over time. The many lessons he taught to young writers will either be ignored as “period style” or learned elsewhere from more consistent poets. This will, in turn, slowly lessen the quantity of Pound scholarship.

But only slowly. Even those of us who wonder, “Was it all worthwhile?” — the hours toiling through the Cantos and commentary — will remain intrigued by the bold feats of pedantry that constitute scholarship on the poem. I agree with everything  James wrote in his essay; I have read with effort and interest, and thrown aside with contempt, the Cantos. But even the name “Pound” still captures my imagination; with many others, I perpetuate his centrality to modern poetry despite knowing full well it is mostly an empty center.

Greenville, North Carolina

Originally Published: January 28, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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