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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

[7119] Shoshan, Monkey Reaching for the Moon (c. 1910), courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London.

Like T. S. Eliot, with whom he enjoyed a long friendship, Ezra Pound lived his early years in the United States but spent most of his life and career elsewhere. Born in Idaho, Pound spent his formative years on the East Coast. At sixteen, he attended the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently enrolled at Hamilton College. Eventually he returned to the University of Pennsylvania to study Romance languages and literature. After a year in Italy and Spain, Pound took a teaching job at Wabash College in Indiana, but soon left for a long sojourn in Europe.

While Ezra Pound’s poetry remains important, his work as a mentor, editor, and theorist of literary modernism had a greater cultural impact. When Pound arrived in London, the literary scene seemed ripe for change. Cubism was shaking the art world; Stravinsky was composing radical music; T. E. Hulme was proclaiming the advent of literary voices that were powerful, new, and strange. In the years before the outbreak of World War I, Pound moved from one short-lived literary movement to another, sometimes as a leader, sometimes as an appropriator of ideas originated by others. Imagism and vorticism especially felt the impact of his presence, energy, and personality. Intense, tightly focused, and borrowed from French experimentation at the close of the nineteenth century, imagism was supposed to spawn a new kind of European American poetry. In Pound’s manifestos for the movement, imagism held to three principles: (1) “Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective”; (2) “To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation”; (3) “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.” When imagism came under the influence of Amy Lowell, Pound nicknamed the movement “Amygism,” resenting the fact that her tastes and hard work had eclipsed his own. With artist and writer Wyndham Lewis’s help, Pound became the center of vorticism, which set out to produce poetry characterized by greater intensity and vigor than the imagist verse in Lowell’s Poetry magazine. Both of these schools attracted their share of aspiring poets, but they remained smaller currents of modernism.

The important and abiding contribution of these hectic prewar years was the restlessness they witnessed, a deep dissatisfaction with any art that continued languidly in old forms, anything that did not “make it new.” As the slaughter of millions along the Somme River, at Tannenberg, and at Verdun fostered a doubt that anything of the Belle Époque culture was worth saving, Pound and other radical experimenters seemed prophetic in their recognition that an unimaginable new era required literary voices and forms that had not been seen before.

With the publication of the manuscript of Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, it has become clear just how significant Pound’s influence was as an editor and arbiter of modernist taste. His editing of the poem was drastic and deft. Pound was also influential in the careers of the premier Irish modernist William Butler Yeats, the American imagist H.D., and many other modernists. Pound’s most familiar poem is “In a Station of the Metro” (1916), his two-line haiku about people in the Paris subway. By his account, he worked for six months to achieve this poem, which began as more than thirty lines. Pound’s most arcane and difficult works, The Cantos, are characterized by baffling shifts in time and perspective, abstruse allusions, and a cacophony of languages. He explained the nonlinear path of this modern epic as an attempt to emulate the Chinese ideogram, in which an image stands for a concept. At other times he suggested that the overall form was that of a fugue. Pound worked on The Cantos for most of his career, publishing the first in 1917. Although he never completed the project, he left a mass of stanzas which literary scholars have been decoding and annotating ever since.

Pound’s later years were marked by unrest and conflict. In 1939, he visited the United States for the first time in twenty-nine years. Upon his return to Italy, he started speaking out against President Roosevelt on the radio, which continued as anti-Allied propaganda after World War II began. Eventually Pound’s hatred of Jews and his enthusiasm for the Nazi agenda embarrassed even Mussolini. Indicted by the United States for treason against his country in 1943, Pound was arrested and imprisoned in Pisa when the Allied armies liberated Italy. In 1945 he was put on trial in Washington, D.C., saved from execution by means of an insanity plea, and incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s, a psychiatric hospital. In 1958, after vocal support from many American poets, including Robert Frost, Pound was released and allowed to return to Venice, where he lived until his death.

Teaching Tips

  • It is helpful to note that Pound was an enthusiast about Chinese art and poetry. Have your students review the Core Context “Orientalism: Looking East.”
  • Pound’s later work is characterized by allusiveness, and it often proves obscure and difficult, particularly for first-time readers. Before asking your students to read “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” ask them to research some of the allusions. Have groups report on different references, including perhaps the story of Odysseus, the Greek gods, Ariel’s role in The Tempest, and Elizabeth Siddal/Pre-Raphaelite painting. Then ask them to discuss allusiveness in poetry-its strengths and its limitations.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “A Pact,” what is Pound saying about his relationship to Whitman? What does he mean when he says, “I make a pact with you”? What is the tone of this poem? If Pound was so intent on creating a new kind of poetry, why does he invoke Whitman here?
  2. Context: In “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” the narrator makes a timely reference to “kinema” (an early spelling of “cinema”), saying that “The ‘age demanded’ . . . a prose kinema” (lines 28-30). How might this poem be described as cinematic? How do you think the grow-popularity of cinema in the 1920s and 1930s affected Pound’s poetry?
  3. Context: “Mauberley” also bears the burden of a war just fought. How does Pound portray World War I? What is his attitude toward it?
  4. Exploration: Compare Williams’s poems “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and “The Dance” with Pound’s “To Whistler, American.” What differences do you notice? What techniques do the poets use to capture the visual art? Why do you think Williams chooses a Flemish artist, while Pound chooses an American? How do the poets use visual art differently?

Selected Archive Items

[4006] Ernest Hemingway, Letter, Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish discussing Ezra Pound’s mental health and other literary matters, 10 August (1943), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Archibald MacLeish Papers. 
The year this letter was written Pound was indicted for treason against the United States. He was brought to trial but was found mentally unstable and sent to a psychiatric hospital.

[4981] Alvin Langdon Coburn, Portrait of Ezra Pound (n.d.), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, and New Directions Publishing Corp. 
An influential poet himself, Ezra Pound also supported other writers. He was deeply interested in Chinese and Japanese poetry, and his own work stressed economy and precision.

[4985] Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound with Gargoyles at Provence (1923), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature and New Directions Publishing Corp. 
Ezra Pound was born in Idaho but spent most of his life in Europe. Pound was charged with treason for broadcasting fascist propaganda to the United States during World War II, but the charges were dropped due to the efforts of a number of his fellow poets.

[4997] Janet Flanner-Solita Solano, Group Portrait of American and European Artists and Performers in Paris (1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Janet Flanner-Solita Solano Collection [LC-USZ62-113902]. 
Photograph of American and European artists in Paris, including Man Ray, Ezra Pound, and Martha Dennison. Many expatriate artists found inspiration in Paris’s traditions and less restrictive culture.

[4998New York World-Telegram and Sun, Ezra Pound, Half-Length Portrait, Facing Front (1943), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature and New Directions Publishing Corp. 
In part because of the generosity he had shown them, many of Ezra Pound’s contemporaries were very loyal to him. While imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital after being charged with treason against the United States, Pound wrote his Pisan Cantos and was awarded the Bollingen-Library of Congress Award.

[7119] Shoshan, Monkey Reaching for the Moon (c. 1910), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
Japanese print showing a monkey hanging from a tree. Asian art became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century. Many modernist poets used Japanese and Chinese themes.

[8945] Lisa M. Steinman, Interview: “Rhythms in Poetry” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages. 
Professor of English and humanities Lisa M. Steinman discusses Ezra Pound.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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