Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by William Watt
Dear Editor,

Ezra Pound is not above criticism; he is, however, above ill-informed and tendentious criticism. A case in point is Clive James's squib in the December issue of Poetry ["The Arrow Has Not Two Points"].

James asks us to believe that Pound erred in his famous line about Dioce, "whose terraces are the color of stars," on the grounds that stars, unless seen through a telescope, have no color. This is arrant nonsense. To take just two obvious counter-examples, the relatively nearby red giants Betelguese (Beetlejuice) and Aldebaran are most certainly, as seen by the naked eye, colored. They are red. Moreover, had James done his homework, he would have learned that Pound's line is based on Herodotus's report of a King of Media named Deioces (Herodotus's Historiae, 1, 96.2), builder of Ecbatana, whose terraces were colored after the five then-known planets: and if Mars isn't colored red on close conjunctions with Earth, I don't know what red is. So if Pound is open to criticism on this point it can only be on the basis of his having called planets "stars," whether basing this misnomer on ancient astronomy (in which the planets were called "wandering stars") or on the poet's need for a monosyllable to clinch his verse. Either is of course an altogether different matter.

James has harsh things to say about Pound's line "the ant's a centaur in his dragon world," claiming that he doesn't understand it. Well I do, like many others. A centaur as classically depicted consists of a horse (four legs) surmounted from neck on by a man's torso (two arms), counting six appendages in all. Seeing a six-appendaged ant as a miniature centaur is, then, a wholly apt—indeed brilliant—metaphor, perhaps one that John Donne would not have been ashamed of.

James says that, contrary to his ephebic expectations, the Cantos doesn't (or don't) cohere. Well, they do (or it does). Not in the usual way, granted, and probably not even in the way that Pound himself may have expected during the roughly half century of their composition. Rather, they cohere as a depiction of one man's take on things over that same half century—his experiences, thoughts, readings—enlivened by a comparative depiction of previous ones. They do not constitute an "epic" in the traditional sense, but "epic" is an elastic-enough term to serve as well as any other to cover both the Cantos and their nearest predecessors, Wordsworth's Prelude and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. All three, did one want to be picky, could be called "autopsychographies," but if a traditional epic is the tale of one man either in tune or at odds with his times, why couldn't that man be the author for a change? True, Wordsworth's life was a lot more coherent than Pound's, and his (rather boring) long poem shows it; but few enough lives are that coherent, and so few enough records of a life could cohere to that extent without lying.

James complains that some of Pound's metaphors—or comparisons if you prefer—fall flat, and comes down hard on "in the gloom the gold/Gathers the light about it" on the grounds that gold no more does so than "Indian costume jewelry." Well, sure. A valid point, unless one recalls that a poetic comparison is meant to do more than juxtapose dissimilars, it's meant to fit the poem and suggest something further that furthers the theme. Thus, for instance, "Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang" (Sonnet LXXIII) is no truer to wintry boughs than "Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the gross crows squawked," but Shakespeare's line fits the rest of his poem's theme a little better, doesn't it? And in any case when Pound was at his lyrical best (which wasn't always), it's hard to think of anyone in all of English literature who surpassed him: for example, "where the salt hay whispers to tide's change" (Canto CXV): specific, vivid to mind's eye and ear, new.

James—and this may be the bone he comes before us most particularly to pick—wishes to animadvert to Pound's politics and crackpot economics and their effect on his poem. Well, OK, his economic theories were unworkable, and did infect the Cantos, just as Avicenna's theory of vision infected John Donne's "The Extasie." And Pound was thoroughly wrong-headed (in fact, downright nasty) in his politics during his Mussolini period. In point of fact he might well, on either score, be labeled both paranoid and megalomaniac (two sides of the same coin, in Freudian parlance). What's worse, in his broadcasts for Fascist Italy during WWII he certainly verged on treason, though his few possibly treasonable remarks, relying as they mostly did on his auditors' putative knowledge of late-medieval Italian history and other obscurities, must in the main have been incomprehensible to those few who could tune him in, as they certainly were to those in Washington trying desperately to transcribe them (as can be seen in their raw transcripts, readily available on file at the Library of Congress). As to his having escaped hanging into the benign care of an insane asylum in Washington, surely James never visited him there. (Full disclosure: I did.) St. Elizabeths was in every sense an institutional loony bin, and Pound lived in a cell there, in something rather less than comfort, for fourteen years before his release. I wish James could in his charity imagine mealtime, Pound released for it at a time of his guardians' choosing, facing, or so I surmise, powdered eggs, "mystery meat," and faux mash, downed in the close company of his clamorous fellow inmates. Justice is fickle, especially after a war, but isn't it a little late to debate this?

Ezra Pound was a greatly gifted poet—surely, with Eliot, one of the two greatest poets in English of the last century, and of American literature of any century—who, for reasons we will probably never know, was deeply flawed. He wrote some of the finest lyrical lines that any poet has ever achieved, or ever will. He was, in addition, an infallible guide to his co-equal, T.S. Eliot, and a kind and giving guide to neophytes (myself included). A man of strange and unsavory beliefs and compulsions, who strayed far from any path one can countenance—and our only Dante so far. He deserves better than uninformed attacks.

Irvine, California

Originally Published: November 9, 2008

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

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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