Drawling cowboy, enfant terrible, fascist sympathiser or tragic old man?


POETRY: Selected Poems and Translations of Ezra Pound 1908-1969, Edited by Richard Sieburth, Faber and Faber, 391pp. £16.99

‘BAH! I HAVE sung women in three cities, / But it is all the same; /And I will sing of the sun”; “Damn it all! All this our South stinks peace”; “Hang it all, Robert Browning, / there can be but the one ‘Sordello’.”

Ezra Pound always was good for an attention-grabbing opening. Drawling Idaho cowboy, enfant terrible, midwife to The Waste Landand Anglo-American modernism, epic poet, fascist sympathiser, traitor, psychiatric patient and tragic old man, Pound was many things in his long life. We must be absolutely modern, Rimbaud wrote, and for much of the last century readers battled their misgivings about the more indigestible parts of The Cantosin the knowledge that here was a certified modernist genius. Since his death, in 1972, however, his reputation has ebbed and flowed, to the point where the case for this difficult but rewarding poet needs to be made afresh.

It is a peculiar accident of literary history that keepers of the flame can mutate into firewalls, their protective reverence erecting a keep-out sign between the writer and new generations of readers. DH Lawrence had FR Leavis, Lionel Trilling felt obliged to rescue Robert Frost from his admirers, and Pound too has had his share of votaries and acolytes as opposed to mere readers and critics.

One thing a critic, as opposed to an acolyte, might want to start by noting is how uneven were Pound’s beginnings: “stale cream puffs” he called his early poems in 1965, and the Swinburnean vapours to which many succumb are hard to reconcile with the hard line Pound was preaching at the time in his prose. But then we reach The Seafarerand Cathayand modern poetry has its On First Looking into Chapman’s Homermoment .

Pound is the most important translator since Dryden, harvesting riches from classical Greece, China, Provence and Italy in versions that retain their power to startle and astonish. The rights and wrongs of his working methods remain matter for debate: Pound knew no Chinese, for instance.

“Cat-piss and porcupines!” he snarled on being confronted with the howlers in Homage to Sextus Propertius. In the funniest of these he translates the verb canes (“you sing”) as “dogs”. Yet in some ways the howlers are part of the point: it would be a very deluded reader who turned to this wonderful text for a literal translation of the Roman poet, any more than readers of The Cantosexpect a textbook account of Chinese history.

Some of the best of the early poems pioneer a third zone between translation and original: The Return, for instance, which Yeats thought read as though translated “at sight from an unknown Greek masterpiece”. (It is also, I might add in passing, one of the most perfect free-verse lyrics ever written in English.) It is a measure, too, of how live his influence remains on Irish poetry that Trevor Joyce and Derek Mahon, who appear to represent such opposite stylistic poles, both owe him so much as poet-translators.

Which leaves The Cantos. “There are the Alps,” wrote Basil Bunting of Pound’s epic, “you will have to go a long way round / if you want to avoid them”. All is movement and process from the start: “And then went down to the ship, / set keel to breakers,” begins Canto I, a reworking of a Latin translation of Book XI of the The Odyssey. Peeling away layer upon layer of literary history, Pound excavates the primal mythic scene of the descent to the underworld, the storied encounter of the living and the dead.

The hobby-horse theme of correct governance wrecks its fair share of The Cantos, but in the beautiful Canto XIII Pound demonstrates his ability to write wisely on public themes, even when the public theme in question is Confucian China. The Cantosare also, to a surprising degree, a decades-long love poem, preaching an aesthetic of mystical attention to the natural world through the contemplation of the beloved, as in the radiant version of Cavalcanti’s Donna mi prega that occupies Canto XXXVI.

“I cannot make it cohere,” Pound lamented of his epic in a beautiful late fragment. Perhaps the benefits of coherence are overrated, where a fruitful approach to The Cantosis concerned. If the poem fails as epic it is less obviously, but no less compellingly for that, an incomparable anthology of fragments, which may be why it responds so well to Sieburth’s job of selecting from it here. To read the poem against the grain in this fashion is also, I would suggest, the only way to come to terms with its totalitarian politics. (There are no two ways about it: the Pisan Cantos are a hymn to fascism.) Like Ozymandias, Pound the strongman of history is a much more agreeable sight off rather than on his pedestal.

Make it new, Pound commanded. Insofar as Pound’s poetry has lived up to his own precept, Richard Sieburth had the task of refreshing not just what is old in his work but also what remains compellingly new about it. He has succeeded splendidly. His annotations are a model of informative restraint, enhancing the poems without choking them. Pound is the most Ovidian of modern poets, and with this fine new edition he has transformed himself yet again.

David Wheatley’s most recent collection, A Nest on the Waves,is published by the Gallery Press