Having re-read and written about Ezra Pound's Malatesta Cantos recently, I looked forward to reading Clive James's essay with attention and enthusiasm. I could not believe how badly the essay was argued, nor how much I could be disappointed with such a reputable magazine.
The first several pages merely play at length with personal memories. Des Mots, I thought, get the ideas going. The first quotation is not "specific," James claims, though the passage reminded me of lovely moments in Homer, another poet I've been mulling closely for quite some time, and an acknowledged influence on the Cantos, though I don't see his name in the essay.
James goes on to single out or to speak generally about passages mostly bland; I have not found such lines typical, however; I did find James typically biased and shallow in his censures. So what if Manhattan was of more interest to Whitman than to Pound? James pokes at a line of Pound for coloring the stars. "What color are stars?" he says. Some in fact are red giants, like Betelgeuse; others are distinctly blue and gold. James calls the rhythm here "non-mellifluous," supposedly "inexorable because rarely iambic." Shall we then dismiss the honeyless, non-iambic lines of Beowulf?
Subsequent paragraphs are jerky prose, insulting and increasingly unfair: can it be that Pound never created beautiful poetry in all of the Cantos? James falls back on the old contempt for Pound's fascism, discounts the poet's emotional life, and, when he concedes merit to a section, declines to explain why—or even to explicate. James tries to be insulting and funny both, and he fails at both.
But probably the worst flaw of this essay is its age. The flashy-looking attacks, for anyone familiar with Pound and his readers, go back decades—nay, generations—to the thirties and forties. Moreover, the space, time, and energy allotted to the essay imply some level of agreement by the editorial staff. Shuddering at the spectacle of more such wasted space—not to mention the loss of good poetry there—I must cancel my subscription for the foreseeable future.
Newport, Rhode Island