Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Massimo Bacigalupo
Dear Editor,

Clive James tells an interesting personal history in his piece on Ezra Pound, "The Arrow Has Not Two Points" [December 2007]. It is a good point that Pound writes lines that are supposed to carry more weight than they actually do. But this is difficult to maintain, as James does, of "The arrow has not two points," which is a quotation from the Confucian scriptures, and, though it seems to state the obvious, certainly lends itself to interpretation and reflection. It is worth noting that for Pound this line was of so great an import that he had it printed on leaflets which he distributed in Rapallo (where I live) during the last months of WWII. Many Zen koans may sound similarly silly, and the last two lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" have been laughed at by schoolboys and pundits.

James also dwells on the line "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world." This comes from the famous "Pull down thy vanity" passage which is (to begin with) a sort of Chaucerian pastiche: Pound is imitating a certain Biblical tone, remembering the Psalms' "ant," and adding a bit of metaphysical conceit. Those who know his work have usually claimed (with Yeats) that he is most personal and successful when writing in an assumed style, or "translating." Thus "Pull down thy vanity" is a set piece, but it is effective and memorably expresses his feelings in the Pisan camp. In simple terms, "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world" means that ants have wonderful patterns of behavior and order, and that we humans are to contemplate the miracles of nature and God (just as Job is told to do in the Bible). One can quarrel with the line, but it functions within the passage and its orchestration of traditional English lyric voices and sentiments.

There are also a few slips of attention, as when James tells us that Pound published Rock Drill 85-95 de los cantares and then, "for once devoid of Roman numerals, a third collection, Thrones: Cantos 96-109." His editors should have pointed out to him that "85-95" are Arabic, not Roman, numerals. James also makes a connection between the Roman numerals of most cantos and the Fascist era. But Pound's "Three Cantos" were published with Roman numerals—and in the pages of Poetry!—long before the Fascist era was thought of. Later James says, with some justification, that Pound was so much in love with the past that for him "the Wright brothers might as well never have bothered." But there is quite a bit (in fact, too much) in Canto 28 about the heroism of early pilots: "Weight of ice on their fuselage/Borne into the tempest, black cloud wrapping their wings,/The night hollow beneath them." So James is to be thanked for making us look again (and finding much to praise) in a poet who after all must be not so negligible if he made it into the Library of America (not only, as James suggests censoriously, into the TLS).

Rapallo, Italy

Originally Published: May 16, 2008

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