ezra poundIntroduction

Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972), the co-founder of modernism and America's most contentious poet was born in Halley, Ohio, educated at Cheltenham College and at Pennsylvania University, transferring to Hamilton College to gain an MA in 1905. He was appointed Instructor in French and Spanish at Wabash College in 1907, but dismissed a year later. Pound then went to London, becoming a noted figure in the literary avant-garde, pamphleteering and writing the poetry for which he is best remembered. He married, but also began a lifelong liaison with Olga Rudge.

After W.W.I, Pound retired to Italy, where he lived quietly on his wife's inheritance and applied himself to translation and writing the Cantos. Dreaming of a new society, and sympathetic to Mussolini, Pound broadcast for the Axis powers during WWII, was incarcerated as a POW in 1945 and then as an inmate of St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, DC. Released in 1958, after his Pisan Cantos won the Bollingen Award, Pound returned to Italy, only briefly leaving to attend Eliot's funeral and see friends in Paris and the States. Depressed and finally silent, he died in Venice, and was buried there.

Pound was not the first truly American poet — that honour goes to Whitman, or possibly Poe, Dickinson, Lowell or Whittier, but he created poetry that seems destined to last, set translation on new tracks, and continues to be a potent influence. About the man views are more mixed — many detested the egoism and posing — but Pound supported his protégés, and furthered several careers. He campaigned for a precise poetic language, founding Vorticism and flirting with Dadaism.

To this early phase belong some of the best work of modernism: The Seafarer, Lament of the Frontier Guard, The River Merchant's Wife, Homage to Sextus Propertius and possibly parts of Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and the Cantos. Pound seemed to get beneath the skin of his characters, recreating poetry from only the flimsiest understanding of the language.

Pound's interests shifted after 1920 to economics and government, but he also applied himself to the Cantos, whose sprawling 23,000 lines many see as the great poetry achievement of the twentieth century, influencing Zukofsky, the projective verse school, Wright, Bly, Duncan, Ashbery and many contemporary figures.

The Cantos juxtapose voices from the whole range of human existence, though dwelling much on the renaissance, Chinese history and eighteenth century monetary policies. The poem is a kaleidoscope of vivid fragments, where voices speak for themselves, giving immediacy and a richness of texture. Later Cantos take the process further, using "ideograms" to make presentations more direct and author-independent — themes which Postmodernism explores. And however baffling at first, many passages achieved a rare beauty of phrasing, opening doors to poets escaping from strict forms.

Pound's best verse is collected in Collected Shorter Poems (1968), The Cantos of Ezra Pound (1975) and Selected Poems 1908-1959 (1975). He published over 70 books: poetry, prose, important translations, and around these has grown an enormous critical literature. The poetry is made difficult by art for art's sake colourings, diversity of interests, cryptic or obscure name-dropping, abrupt juxtaposition, ellipsis, private allusion, and doubtful scholarship — all common in contemporary poetry. Pound's politics can still raise hackles: his anti-Semitism and fascism, though not unusual at the time, do not accord with liberal democracy, and still less with political correctness.

Suggestion: A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. Carroll F. Terrell. O.U.P. 1993. $28.98

To get much out of the Cantos, you're going to need some literary companion or guide. This is one of the best: six years in the making, reasonably up-to-date, and simply written.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.