Friends Poems Biography
Ezra Pound of all the major literary figures in the twentieth century, Ezra Pound has been one of the most controversial; he has also been one of modern poetry's most important contributors. In an introduction to the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot declared that Pound "is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual." Four decades later, Donald Hall reaffirmed in remarks collected in Remembering Poets that "Ezra Pound is the poet who, a thousand times more than any other man, has made modern poetry possible in English."
The importance of Pound's contributions to the arts and to the revitalization of poetry early in this century has been widely acknowledged; yet in 1950, Hugh Kenner could claim in his groundbreaking study The Poetry of Ezra Pound, "There is no great contemporary writer who is less read than Ezra Pound." Pound never sought, nor had, a wide reading audience; his technical innovations and use of unconventional poetic materials often baffled even sympathetic readers. Early in his career, Pound aroused controversy because of his aesthetic views; later, because of his political views. For the greater part of this century, however, Pound devoted his energies to advancing the art of poetry and maintaining his aesthetic standards in the midst of extreme adversity.
In his article "How I Began," collected in Literary Essays, Pound claimed that as a youth he had resolved to "know more about poetry than any man living." In pursuit of this goal, he settled in London from 1908 to 1920, where he carved out a reputation for himself as a member of the literary avant-garde and a tenacious advocate of contemporary work in the arts. Through his criticism and translations, as well as in his own poetry, particularly in his Cantos, Pound explored poetic traditions from different cultures ranging from ancient Greece, China, and the continent, to current-day England and America. In The Tale of the Tribe Michael Bernstein observed that Pound "sought, long before the notion became fashionable, to break with the long tradition of Occidental ethnocentrism." In his efforts to develop new directions in the arts, Pound also promoted and supported such writers as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost. The critic David Perkins, writing in A History of Modern Poetry, summarized Pound's enormous influence: "The least that can be claimed of his poetry is that for over fifty years he was one of the three or four best poets writing in English"; and, Perkins continues, his "achievement in and for poetry was threefold: as a poet, and as a critic, and as a befriender of genius through personal contact." In a 1915 letter to Harriet Monroe, Pound himself described his activities as an effort "to keep alive a certain group of advancing poets, to set the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization."
Arriving in Italy in 1908 with only $80, Pound spent $8 to have his first book of poems, A Lume Spento, printed in June, 1908, in an edition of one hundred copies. An unsigned review appearing in the May 1909 Book News Monthly (collected in Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage) noted, "French phrases and scraps of Latin and Greek punctuate his poetry.... He affects obscurity and loves the abstruse." William Carlos Williams, a college friend and himself a poet, wrote to Pound, criticizing the bitterness in the poems; Pound objected that the pieces were dramatic presentations, not personal expressions. On October 21, 1909, he responded to Williams, "It seems to me you might as well say that Shakespeare is dissolute in his plays because Falstaff is ... or that the plays have a criminal tendency because there is murder done in them." He insisted on making a distinction between his own feelings and ideas and those presented in the poems: "I catch the character I happen to be interested in at the moment he interests me, usually a moment of song, self-analysis, or sudden understanding or revelation. I paint my man as I conceive him," explaining that "the sort of thing I do" is "the short so-called dramatic lyric." Pound continued to explore the possibilities of the dramatic lyric in his work, later expanding the technique into the character studies of Homage to Sextus Propertius and Selwyn Mauberley and of the countless figures who people the Cantos.
Pound carried copies of A Lume Spento to distribute when he moved to London later that year; the book convinced Elkin Mathews, a London bookseller and publisher, to bring out Pound's next works: A Quinzaine for this Yule, Exultations and Personae. Reviews of these books were generally favorable, as notices collected in The Critical Heritage reveal: Pound "is that rare thing among modern poets, a scholar," wrote one anonymous reviewer in the December, 1909 Spectator, adding that Pound has "the capacity for remarkable poetic achievement." British poet F. S. Flint wrote in a May, l909 review in the New Age, "we can have no doubt as to his vitality and as to his determination to burst his way into Parnassus." Flint praised the "craft and artistry, originality and imagination" in Personae, although several other unsigned reviews pointed out difficulties with Pound's poems.
His first major critical work, The Spirit of Romance, was, Pound said, an attempt to examine "certain forces, elements or qualities which were potent in the medieval literature of the Latin tongues, and are, I believe, still potent in our own." The writers he discussed turn up again and again in his later writings: Dante, Cavalcanti, and Villon, for example. Pound contributed scores of reviews and critical articles to various periodicals such as the New Age, the Egoist, the Little Review and Poetry, where he articulated his aesthetic principles and indicated his literary, artistic, and musical preferences, thus offering information helpful for interpreting his poetry. In his introduction to the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot noted, "It is necessary to read Pound's poetry to understand his criticism, and to read his criticism to understand his poetry." His criticism is important in its own right; as David Perkins pointed out in A History of Modern Poetry, "During a crucial decade in the history of modern literature, approximately 1912-1922, Pound was the most influential and in some ways the best critic of poetry in England or America." Eliot stated in his introduction to Pound's Literary Essays that Pound's literary criticism was "the most important contemporary criticism of its kind. He forced upon our attention not only individual authors, but whole areas of poetry, which no future criticism can afford to ignore."
Around 1912 Pound helped to create the movement he called "Imagisme," which marked the end of his early poetic style. In remarks first recorded in the March, 1913 Poetry and later collected in his Literary Essays as "A Retrospect," Pound explained his new literary direction. Imagism combined the creation of an "image"—what he defined as "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" or an "interpretative metaphor"—with rigorous requirements for writing. About these requirements, Pound was concise but insistent: "1) Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective 2) To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation 3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." These criteria meant 1) To carefully observe and describe phenomena, whether emotions, sensations, or concrete entities, and to avoid vague generalities or abstractions. Pound wanted "explicit rendering, be it of external nature or of emotion," and proclaimed "a strong disbelief in abstract and general statement as a means of conveying one's thought to others." 2) To avoid poetic diction in favor of the spoken language and to condense content, expressing it as concisely and precisely as possible. 3) To reject conventional metrical forms in favor of individualized cadence. Each poem, Pound declared, should have a rhythm "which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.