I tried to capture Pound’s Canto LXXIII (73) but the spirit of Ez must have been thwarting me because neither scanning nor capturing from the web would work. But there is a readable translation on the web, done by an Australian—the canto is written in Italian. The web site gives what seems like a good walk through the history of this poem.

The poem is eerie in that it seems too current in its motifs. A spirit has a dream wherein a horseman appears, and the horseman recounts a story about an Italian girl (the point is reiterated that she’s plump) who leads Canadian soldiers into a minefield and is blown up along with them. Which also allows some German prisoners to go free. A poem about suicide bombing, which sings the glory of it (at least the ghost sings the glory)—this sounds prescient.
Pound may have been of troubled mind when he wrote the poem—his family was in danger, houses in his village had been bombed, civilians had been killed. Of course, errant bombs and “collateral damage” amd retribution have been thorns in the paw of the current war.
I was reminded of the poem again when I read the article about Levertov and Duncan. (I’d deprecated Pound’s war poetry in a previous post where I’d made the rather obvious observation that most poets were on the left, which was not met kindly.) I find myself in agreement with Duncan’s assertions, which can be sketched in broad strokes as something like: poetry written as an act of protest against war risks being sentimental (which is the same as being propaganda.) Our best (anti, it goes without saying, because who is for?) war poetry is about the experience of war itself.
My theory: it is difficult not to talk down to the reader, who thinks war is just as awful as you do, poet. Easier it is to write a poem about peace, or getting a big car, or convincing a virgin to screw you, or your own inevitable and in all likelihood grisly death. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set ourselves difficult goals in writing poems, or try to write poetry that makes something happen. But maybe we shouldn’t inflate our expectation of our efforts’ being any good.
At the same time…I like Levertov’s poetry better than Duncan’s.

  1. July 12, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    Brava for writing rashly and regretting it later! A messy life is at least a life well-lived, so don't let the terrorists win. (Though as an editor friend of mine says wryly, "Man, I let the terrorists win SO long ago....")
    or else, shall we &
    why not, buy a goddamn big car....

    Of course it's just as easy to be patronizing about plenty of other lyric subjects (besides combat). Here's to uninflating ALL writerly expectations (my own being particularly humble just at the moment because my Internet connection is so damn patchy).
    Then, too, that cranky deceased teacher of mine maintained that "the best poems are language-driven, and the others tend to become propaganda, confession, or therapy." He had a keen nose for propaganda, having been schooled in what was then the Soviet Union during the acme of its self-fictions. (Though I generally disagreed with him about confession.)
    So why DO you like Levertov better? :o)
    (PS--There seems to be some unspoken agreement that Harriet blog + emoticons = big intellectual no-noooo, but I shall do it anyway, nervily, because the darkness sur- / rounds us.)

  2. July 13, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    You make two revealing observations, Lucia:
    1) "I find myself in agreement with Duncan’s assertions...."
    2) "I like Levertov’s poetry better than Duncan’s."
    Illustrating what should be quite obvious: Poets who write from intellectual/emotional Necessity write better poems than those write from Theory.
    The issue is not "Craft vs. Conscience," as the title of Ange Mlinko's puts it (implying that writing from conscience somehow undermines craft), but denatured expression vs. imperative expression. Both Duncan and Levertov were masters of their craft, but when it came to public issues, only Levertov proved capable of pushing her craft to the limit in order to say what she felt compelled to say. Some readers may find that a failing, but I find it admirable.

  3. July 14, 2008

    Dear Joseph Hutchinson,
    Why, it sounds like you got yourself a theory there!
    I often feel a sense of compulsion in Duncan's work. Intensely.
    Your theory is a rhetorical theory, it seems to me: That, in matters of duress, a sense of mannerism (what you call "denatured expression") weakens the impact of the poem.
    I would never deny that Duncan can come off as mannered (I wouldn't say "denatured"), but I do find his urgency to be intense. "Guernica" could be seen as mannered too, and those figures Picasso paints aren't "natural," but people generally find it to be urgent and intense (and I agree).
    I like your theory, though, because rhetoric allows for the primacy of the auditor ("know your audience" being a primary rule), and there's nothing invalid about your or Lucia's reaction to Duncan's style at all.

  4. July 14, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    Hello - Lucia, thanks for your thoughts on the Duncan-Levertov debate. I just want to point out that the title "Craft vs. Conscience" wasn't mine (I didn't offer a title). As a hook, though, I think it works. There may be no necessary conflict between craft and conscience. But the demands of lyric to "tell it slant" surely bump up against the demands of conscience: to speak plainly and loudly against injustice.

  5. July 14, 2008

    Now is the time to admit I need to read more Duncan and report back later. Whereas I just recently finished a selected Levertov (she's someone I've followed on & off for as long as I've been writing) and don't remember there being the political poetry in there. But I will check and report. My preference for Levertov may be due chiefly to familiarity.
    For me, it's important that I not put any of my theories in front of my poetry. I used to teach a forms course, where we'd read poets' statements on from, then study their poems. Poets always did, in practice, the opposite of what they said they did in their manifestos. Except for Levertov's notion of "organic form" which is a convenient explanation for anything, if one wants to sound theoretical.
    Ange: I love the prose you've written for Poetry, but I ask: who says poets have to speak any way about injustice? Is that our job? Can a poem do that? And still be a poem, not a polemic? Are the two mutually exclusive? Whose injustice? Will these questions end? I guess I need a link to your article.:
    I would recommend that everyone read Daisy Fried's poem "Empty Woman" in My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, a good treatise on the difficulties of writing a poem that speaks against injustice.

  6. July 14, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    Lucia, you asked me:
    "who says poets have to speak any way about injustice? Is that our job? Can a poem do that? And still be a poem, not a polemic? Are the two mutually exclusive? Whose injustice? Will these questions end?"
    I don't think poets are required to speak of injustice. Images are a million, trillion times more effective in moving the average person, than a poem. (Perhaps poets -- everyone -- should be asking where the photographs are -- why there are so few images of, say, the Iraq war on TV or in the newspapers.) I am rather old-fashioned and think that poets should astonish. I'm interested in the fact that Levertov & Duncan tried to do both -- and I'm interested in the reasons they often failed. (Not always....)
    Daisy Fried's "Empty Woman" is indeed delightful!

  7. July 23, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Dear John–
    "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself." (You know who.) Which in itself, I suppose, could be said to involve a theory–of Self, of authenticity, of Language even. But I don't think Whitman would have endorsed such a thing for other poets.
    Which is what sticks in my craw when the Theorists get high on their own abstrusities and start trash-talking at the block party.
    In the end, Duncan and Levertov, Eliot and Williams, Mlinko and Perillo–maybe even you and me–write what we believe we must write, surely with the hope and rational expectation that some prissy brain surgeon in a French beret won't beat us up for causing the wrong set of neurons to fire.
    I wouldn't dignify my feelings on this with the term "theory," but if you must–what can I say?
    By the way, every time I read "A Poem Beginning With A Line From Pindar" the hairs on the back of my neck snap to attention. Which means I don't mean to dismiss Duncan at all. I just get the sense that he too often lets restraint become constraint. Which is to say I like him best when his practice contradicts his theories!