The French honor their writers by publishing them whole in good typography on India paper, meticulously edited and annotated, in Gallimard's Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. This series, begun just after World War II, is understood to bestow official recognition on a writer; to be in the Pléiade is to be classique. Recently, however, when the Pléiade added Georges Simenon, voices were raised. Does the phenomenally prolific creator of Jules Maigret and tersely plotted psychological thrillers deserve to be on French bookshelves with Racine, Molière, and Apollinaire? André Gide, once an editor at Gallimard, thought so. French students think of Racine as homework; Simenon they read. Racine is Culture; Simenon is fun.
The inclusion of Pound in the Library of Americaóthe publishing house Edmund Wilson campaigned for in the New York Review of Books and that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation brought into being in 1979óis as much a surprise as Simenon in the Pléiade. Although many will object, as they have over the years, that Pound's poetry is unintelligible, hopelessly obscure, perhaps not even poetry at all, the inevitable objection will be Pound's anti-Semitism, unrepentant Fascism, and the charge of treason in World War II for which he spent thirteen years in Washington's St. Elizabeths Federal Hospital for the Insane. Here Pound found himself in a Kafkaesque double bind (complete with a psychiatrist named Kavka): To get out, he would have to be declared sound of mind. But if legally sane, his next venue would be a firing squad. One of the first things that happened to him in St. Elizabeths was being awarded the first Bollingen Prize for Poetry (for The Pisan Cantos). The prize was administered by the Library of Congress, and the money for this prize came from the Bollingen Foundation, which had it from aluminum tycoon Paul Mellon, son of Andrew, the secretary of the treasury from 1921 to 1932.
The press went into a paroxysm of indignation. Pound, who was known in literary circles as a powerful instigator of the modernist movement and as an erudite poet of awesome difficulty, was suddenly famous as a crazy, anti-Semitic Fascist. The facts are: Pound went to live in Rapallo, Italy, in 1925. Here he became fascinated with Mussolini, whom he saw as a reincarnation of the quattrocento feudal barons who ruled with sword and mace, encouraged the arts, and built Tuscan and Umbrian cities in which the Renaissance was born. Italy had twice civilized Europe, first under Augustus Caesar, second under the Medici and Borgias. Why not a third time under Mussolini, the Thomas Jefferson of modernism? So Pound argued in shortwave broadcasts from Rome. These nighttime broadcasts were monitored by the Federal Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC (which was not wholly skillful in following precisely what John Adams had to do with Confucius, or Major Douglas and Alexander del Mar with something called Social Credit). What the agents could hear was treason, which is legally defined as "aiding and abetting the enemy in time of war." Pound's anti-Semitism was bigotry pure and simple, a paranoid fantasy no less ugly for being a European prejudice with deep historical roots and awesome virulence. There is no available casuistry for excusing it.
Poems and Translations brings together for the first time all of Pound's poetry except his masterwork, the 823-page Cantos (available in its complete form from New Directions), with notes and a chronology of the poet's life that for information and clarity is better than any of the available biographies. The volume begins with a book that he typed and bound himself, Hilda's Book (19051907), now in Houghton Library at Harvard. Pound reworked some of these poems for later collections, until he settled on an arrangement for his lyric poems, which he titled Personae (first published in 1909), for whose many editions over the years he continued to add and subtract poems.
Personaeóactors' masksóevolved with something like a progression toward Pound's maturest style. His first poems are late Victorian, under the spell of William Morris and the Rossettis. Walt Whitman called the Pre-Raphaelite style "the Stained Glass School of Poetry." Pound's extrication from Wardour Street English is dramatized in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts)óin what Pound described as a "Henry James novel in verse." Mauberley, an 1890s aesthete, assesses the age of Ruskin, Morris, and Wilde in relation to World War I and its aftermath of disillusion. He discards Swinburne for the hard, cut verse of Théophile Gautier; he discards pathos for irony:
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Than the classics in paraphrase!
The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.
He would later combine Mauberley with his freely translated Homage to Sextus Propertius as the diptych Rome-London (1958): two private, alert sensibilities in the center of the world's largest empires, two masks through which the poet could comment.
Critics unwilling to give Pound high honors as a poet usually concede that he is an accomplished translator. He had to translate the Provençal and Latin poems he discusses in his collection of literary essays, The Spirit of Romance (1910). Having been given the sinologist Ernest Fenollosa's notebooks, he used them to invent Chinese poetry in English. Translation, in fact, became a guiding strategy for all of his poetic composition. The Cantos begin with a translation of the episode in The Odyssey where Odysseus talks with spirits of the dead. In order to speak they must drink sheep's blood. Pound saw a beautiful metaphor here: Translating provides blood for the past to have a voice.
The Cantos are so many dialogues with the past. The first thirty explore the Renaissance, particularly its recovery of the classical past and its geographical speculations whereby Mediterranean culture found routes to the Western Hemisphere and China. There's a block of Cantos for American history (Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren) and a block of Cantos for the long history of China. Pound's eye is always on resourceful intelligences, embodiments of the Odyssean archetype. When he wrote The Pisan Cantos he had come to that part of his Homeric parallel where Odysseus escapes from the goddess Calypso to return home. The later Cantos constitute a Paradiso where Pound conflates Odysseus's return with Dante to evoke an intellectual and emotional paradise.
In the US Army Disciplinary Training Center outside Pisa, a mobile prison for the army's own offenders, Pound was kept in a cage made of sections of temporary airstripping. It was for him a strangely euphoric experience, with moments of mystical illumination. Humane officers allowed him into the company HQ, where he typed letters for soldiers (like Whitman in field hospitals).
The DTC experience tends to be all that marginally literate people know about Pound. I've heard of two operas being written about it. He emerged from the detention a broken man, talking nonsense to the FBI and counterintelligence. Arraigned in a Washington court, he was deemed unfit to stand trial. Pound's American publisher (and friend) James Laughlin hired a Quaker lawyer with skills in defending conscientious objectors and pacifists, and then the long thirteen years in a ward for catatonics began.
At St. Elizabeths Pound wrote some of his finest works: two more blocks of Cantos, Rock-Drill and Thrones, and what I think will be seen as his masterpiece, The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, which constitutes nearly one-fifth of the Library of America edition. This is one of the sacred books of China, the Shih Ching, or Book of Odes. Its compilation is traditionally ascribed to Confucius (sixth century BC), a contemporary of Sophocles. The text is much older. It includes folk songs, hymns, court poetry, and magnificent ritual odes.
What Pound did in this text was to construct a Well-Tempered Prosody to exercise his mastery of metrics and diction. Uncle Remus, Scots ballads, Elizabethan elegies, Thomas Hardy, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Herrickóhere we find a display of virtuosity without parallel. The only analogue I can think of is the Bible itself (at least a thousand years of Hebrew poetry interspersed with history, legal codes, and philosophy). The Greek Anthology, a collection of erotic and witty epigrams compiled from classical to Byzantine times, pales beside it. The first poem in Pound's Classic Anthology is an imitation of a medieval folk song that Pound sought to make imitate the sound of archaic Chinese:
"Hid! Hid!" the fish-hawk saith,
by isle in Ho the fish-hawk saith:
"Dark and clear,
Dark and clear,
So shall be the prince's fere."
Clear as the stream her modesty;
As neath dark boughs her secrecy,
reed against reed
tall on slight
as the stream moves left and right,
dark and clear, dark and clear.
To seek and not find
as a dream in his mind,
think how her robe should be,
distantly, to toss and turn,
to toss and turn.
High reed caught in ts'ai grass
so deep her secrecy;
lute sound in lute sound is caught,
touching, passing, left and right.
Bang the gong of her delight.
Pound wanted the Odes to be printed with the Chinese en face, as well as with a phonetic transcript. In 1954, Harvard University Press, the original publisher, promised to do this "later." I don't think Pound was surprised. New Directions had declined to print the maps of China his wife, Dorothy, had drawn for The Cantos. Laughlin, the impresario of modernism in the US, drew the line at poems with maps. (I wonder what happened to Canto 100óonce the finaleówhich Pound showed me in 1952 at St. Elizabeths; it was entirely in Chinese.)
Pound never quite admitted that there was anything he couldn't do. To his most devoted readers, his English translations of Sophocles's Elektra and Women of Trachis are the oddest of his texts. He is redefining classicism in what seems like a rough-and-ready way, with no regard for "poetry." Yet they play well onstage, however much they grate on classicists' nerves. Pound had shown as far back as his translations of Japanese Noh plays that he could write lines that actors could speak. (As a longtime expatriate in Italy, he kept in touch with spoken American language through the movies, which he regularly attended.) He had written operas just as successfully (Cavalcanti, Villon), meant for radio, thirty years before Beckett made use of radio for serious art. Pound, old and in despair, described himself as merely a minor satirist. Was he thinking of his "Moeurs Contemporaines" (1919), the most civilized verses in American writing? Or was he drawing attention to the sharp-eyed satiric passages that run through all his work? Pound's satire, like Voltaire's, smiles. His vatic tones have claimed more attention.
His work has not been served well by printers, and he himself tended to be cavalier about texts. A New Directions proofreader queried mangos in a Canto; rather than correct it to magnos, Pound scribbled in the margin, "Love mangoes!" Typesetters typically confuse Greek letters in setting Greek quotations: nu with upsilon, theta with phi. Unfortunately, the Library of America text, which students will assume to be authoritative, displays the usual ineptitude with words in Greek. The tag from The Odyssey so neatly tucked into Mauberley has been set properly once, to my knowledge; here a hyperopic printer has seen an omicron with a soft-breathing above it as a delta. Polyphloisboio is misspelled on page 525. The Chinese characters are all set right side up; even so, a Chinese calligrapher might have been employed for an hour to graph them elegantly. What we have instead are Dorothy Pound's laborious tracings.
Even the most assiduous of readers will find the last eighty-five pages of this edition a surprise and a bonus: a dazzling appendix of uncollected poems and translations. For sheer eclectic range I can think of no rival. Bawdy medieval lyrics, Sudanese folk songs, parodies, political satires, and an ode on the 250th anniversary of Newark, New Jersey, that Whitman would have admired as timely exhortation and insult. Some scholar should give us a study of Whitman and Pound as public scolds and civic moralists.
When I met Pound in 1952 I was just out of the army, where I had kept on my desk at XVIIIth Airborne HQ (Fort Bragg) The Great Digest and Unwobbling Pivot and Guide to Kulchur. General Hickey, who disapproved of books, picked them up once and put them right back down. Our counterintelligence had discovered communist propaganda in several comic books in the PX, but even an Airborne general could see that my books were not from the PX.
Pound knew things that my education had left me wholly ignorant of. So I was not all that surprised when, at St. Elizabeths, he began our conversation by handing me a modern Greek translation of Cathay. "That's what poetry should look like on the page!" Next, he handed me his beautiful Cavalcanti: Rimi as an example of Fascist culture under Mussolini. I was there to talk about Leo Frobenius and the diffusion of culture and technologies. I was soon, however, being incited to study the rhetoric of Senator Joseph McCarthy. I reminded myself that I was indisputably in a madhouse.
The great advantage of talking with Pound was to experience his talent for mimicry. He could do Yeats and Henry James, Joyce and radio evangelists, southern women and Kensington tobacconists. Was there any such person as "Ezra Pound" behind the personae? He had understood the profession of poet to be that of an impersonator of compelling voices (like, shall we say, Chaucer and Shakespeare?). The translators of the King James Bible had declined to sign their work. They had made Job, Elijah, and Paul speak English. Pound made Li Po, Confucius, Arnaut Daniel, and Villon speak English. To say that Pound was a great translator but not himself a great poet is to miss the genius of his enterprise. Culture continues; in the very process of being handed down it displays a radical inventiveness. Pound believed that Shakespeare's sonnets were ghostwriting, an empathic voice. His tragedy may be that when he was himselfóthe economic theorist who thought that banks cause wars and depressionsóhe got into serious trouble. The psychiatrists diagnosed him as a megalomaniac with delusions of being a great poet, economist, linguist, historian, and political adviser to heads of state.
There's a photograph in the Pound family photo album of the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini (the subject of four Cantos) with an elegant Ford Model T in the foreground. At its wheel is Ernest Hemingway; in the backseat are Ezra and Dorothy. It was Hemingway who got Pound interested in Sigismundo Malatesta (template of Mussolini). It was Malatesta (d. 1468) who fixed in Pound's imagination the idea of a duce who orchestrated architects, painters, poets, and scholars. This photograph is a symbol of loss. Hemingway's genius would be squandered, enervated by celebrity, and he would die an alcoholic and a suicide. Dorothy (née Shakespear) would live stoically for thirteen years in a Washington basement apartment in order to be with Ezra every single day. Though the Tempio began the Renaissance, it contains the tombs of the Byzantine scholars who brought Greek culture to Italy. Even the Model T (form and function in perfect balance) would evolve into a gas-guzzler with tail fins.
Among the Uncollected Poems we find, from Mencken's Smart Set (1916), "Reflection":
I know that what Nietzsche said is true,
I saw the face of a little child in the street,
And it was beautiful.
This snowflake of a poem is kin to the more famous "In a Station of the Metro" (Poetry, 1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Hugh Kenner discusses Pound's gazing faces in The Pound Era. Their prevalence is a kind of trademark. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley ends with a staring oval face (a soprano, singing beside a piano, as if in a painting by Eakins or Whistler). Trace the piano back to the lyre from which it evolved, and see a Eurydice frozen at the exit from Hades as Orpheus's lute "utters a profane protest." Eurydice and Persephone stand for the human spirit in Pound, usually symbolized by a beautiful face. Our freedom and mobility take priority over "what Nietzsche said," what governments, custom, and timidity dictate, and over the prison of the self.
Pound saw history as surges of the spirit in recurring epochs: Greece in the time of Sappho, Augustan Rome, medieval Spain and France, Italy in the fifteenth century. These were historical springtimes, returns of Persephone. He himself had exercised the gift of renewal as strenuously as Picasso and Joyce.
Richard Sieburth's notes and editing in both volumes are superb. His edition of the short poems and translations brings together for the first time sixty years of energetically dispersed writing. Sir Maurice Bowra said in a lecture at Oxford in 1949, "Ezra Pound is a bore, and an American bore." Many things but certainly no bore, Pound was surely American. Despite his long expatriate life, he was a pure product of his native landóas evidenced by his ambition, his idealism, and his epic-size personality. At last he has his definitive American edition.
Guy Davenport's most recent book is The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writings (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003).