American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Ezra Pound


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Ezra Pound was no admirer of Poe. In a concert review of 1920 he praised a setting of “Annabel Lee,” dismissing the poem itself as “containing considerable excess verbiage and no little sentimentality.” This would be no remarkable opinion were it not expressed with a haughty disdain — and at great length — in a manner that forcefully brings to mind Poe’s own criticism. Like Poe, Pound subjects fanciful language to a rational reading, correcting flaws as if the poem were a newspaper story; and like Poe he spares disdain for those who inflated the poem’s reputation, throwing in a few untranslated words to inflate his own authority. It never occurred to me before to connect these two disturbed personalities, but now it seems natural. I won’t quote the entire review (which can be found in Ezra Pound and Music). But here are the choice bits:

This poem is evidently addressed to the senile, for it begins with a remark that “it was many, many years ago.” We are then told that “a maiden there lived,” “whom you may know,” ergo, q.e.d. age on part of auditor. The maiden who “there lived” in line three, patronymic Lee; arrives in fifth line sic: “And this maiden she lived.”

If anybody but a man with a great international reputation had written this first stanza our literary critics would tell us that it was very badly written, and full of remplisage, of words, that is, chucked in to fill up the metric scheme, and for no other reason; and that these words in no way assist the poetic intensity or any other quality of the poem; and that this remplisage displays no mastery whatsoever on the part of its author.

In fact, if Baudelaire had not translated some of Poe’s tales, and if Poe hadn’t been a tragic figure, and if the symbolistes in Paris hadn’t stewed about the matter, and if Mallarmé hadn’t translated the “Raven” into one of the worst pieces of arty prose extant in the French language (refrain “Et le corbeau dit ‘Jamais Plus'”), and if, above all, the poem weren’t a piece of sentimentalism, it might not have been set at all, or sung on January 10, 1920.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 1, 2017 at 10:02 pm

Posted in Poe

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On Usury Laws

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Stan Apps has written a delightful essay on Pound’s “Usura” canto (link here), giving the poem credit for its beautiful language while calling in the chit for meaning. He does Pound a favor, taking the poem’s economic theory at face value — as Pound himself would have wanted — but of course this is no favor at all since Pound’s thinking is so shoddy in this context. Confronted with that shoddiness, many a critic has lent Pound a hand, and done such a good job, you cease to recognize the original structure. Other critics pause to gander, but move on quickly after noting the filth. A few others, very few, go through Pound’s premises room by room, identifying all the violations of code. The delight of Stan’s essay is its restraint: he observes Pound’s thought in all its ramshackle glory, but only in order to make a sketch, which he does with an architect’s eye. A piercing, disengaged appraisal.

My excuse for mentioning Pound here: Stan’s post brought to mind an 1836 essay by William Cullen Bryant, “On Usury Laws,” which adopts the exact opposite stance as The Cantos. For Bryant, money is a commodity like any other, entitled like any other to profitable investment; the usury laws, which fix the interest on loans, are a fetter on free trade. Like Pound, he denounces the ignorance of common understanding, but his ignorance is Pound’s corrective. Here is  Bryant’s opening paragraph:

The fact that the usury laws, arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive as they are, and unsupported by a single substantial reason, should have been suffered to exist to the present time, can only be accounted for on the ground of the general and singular ignorance which has prevailed as to the true nature and character of money. If men would but learn to look upon the medium of exchange, not as a mere sign of value, but as value itself, as a commodity governed by precisely the same laws which affect other kinds of property, the absurdity and tyranny of legislative interference to regulate the extent of profit which, under any circumstances, may be charged for it, would at once become apparent.

Bryant’s arguments are familiar enough: a lender’s return should be proportionate to risk; without that return, fewer loans would be made, and economic development would stifle. Also familiar: the laws hurt the very people they’re supposed to protect. OK, not very interesting. Worth maybe a sentence or two in a book on poetry and economics.

But it did give me a thought. Call it a thought bubble — better than an economic bubble: an episode of Deadliest Warrior, with Pound and Bryant doing battle. Crank up those computer simulations! If it’s not too prejudicial saying crank…

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm

More Lint

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Matted in my head, as in the filter of a drying machine.

Emma Lazarus, who wrote the most famous of all American sonnets, “The New Colossus,” made translations from Petrarch. So too did Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who domesticated the Italian form by inscribing it in an American landscape. In “Sunshine and Petrarch,” written for Atlantic Monthly in 1867, he describes a little cove set above a steep bank of buttercups and grass, then comments:

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a lifetime that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean.

A beautiful tranquility. But sonnets are not tranquil by nature, if only because they are often occasioned by powerful emotions. Here are the last ten lines of one of the Lazarus translations; they enact as it were an argument within the sonnet against the placidity sonnets are said to exemplify:

This life is like a field of flowering thyme,
Amidst the herbs and grass the serpent lives;
If aught unto the sight brief pleasure gives,
‘Tis but to snare the soul with treacherous lime.
So, wouldst thou keep thy spirit free from cloud,
A tranquil habit to thy latest day,
Follow the few, and not the vulgar crowd.
Yet mayest thou urge, “Brother, the very way
Thou showest us, wherefrom thy footsteps proud
(And never more than now) so oft did stray.”

Petrarch’s straying footsteps work very well as a figure for free verse, and free-verse sonnets are the ones I know best from my own era  —  Ted Berrigan’s being the best known (though I have a special fondness for those of John Clarke). The prototype is Walt Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 10th, 1876. Here is a reproduction of the manuscript, held by the New York Public Library:

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

The Walt Whitman archive reproduces the newspaper printing and gives a transcript here.

For a sonnet that takes issue with its own form, you cannot do better than Poe’s “Enigma” (1848): Read the rest of this entry »