Friday, October 30, 2015

Are you a genius?

‘Oh! Ezra! how beautiful you are! With your pale face and fair hair! I wonder - are you a genius? or are you only an artist in Life?’ This is a gushing, young Dorothy Shakespear writing in a notebook about her passion for the American poet, Ezra Pound, born 130 years ago today. Pound would go on to become a most controversial literary figure. On the one hand, he propelled poetry into Modernism, and encouraged/influenced a generation of writers whose works would become far more popular than his own; yet, on the other, he would also embrace Fascism during the Second World War, and become alienatingly anti-semitic.

Pound was born on 30 October 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, but grew up mainly in Pennsylvania. He was educated at a series of primary schools, some of them Quaker, before entering the Cheltenham Military Academy, where he specialised in Latin. Thereafter, he went to the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal Arts and Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. In between his academic studies - studying past languages, such as the Proven├žal dialect - he took trips with his family to Europe. He also pursued various women, being turned down in marriage at least twice. He embarked on a PhD, but fell out without the department head, and took up teaching, until, that is, early in 1908, when he sat sail for Europe. He spent several months in Gibraltar and Venice, where he self-published his first book of poetry A Lume Spento (With Tapers Spent).

In August of 1908, Pound moved to London where, the following year, he met the novelist Olivia Shakespear. She introduced him to her daughter, Dorothy, who he married in 1914, and to the poet W. B. Yeats (see The poet’s labour). Although Pound returned to the US in 1910, he was soon back in London, and it would be 30 years before he visited the US again. Between 1908 and 1911, Pound published six collections of verse, most of it dominated by his passion for Proven├žal and early Italian poetry. By this time, he was contributing reviews and critical articles to various periodicals such as the New Age, The Egoist, and Poetry, where - according to The Poetry Foundation - ‘he articulated his aesthetic principles and indicated his literary, artistic, and musical preferences, thus offering information helpful for interpreting his poetry’.

Around 1912, Pound, along with Hilda Doolittle, Richard Aldington and others developed the idea of a movement in poetry called Imagisme, with the aim of bringing clarity to the poetic form, a precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. Historically, the Imagists are considered an early influence in the much broader movement known as Modernism. Within a couple of years, though, Pound was moving away from Imagisme towards the wider movement that became known as Vorticism, as reflected in his volume of poems translated from the Chinese - Cathay. Apart from publishing his own poetry, Pound was keen to promote other writers. Between 1914 and 1916, he helped with the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (initially in The Egoist), and he also persuaded Poetry to publish T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Later, he would edit Eliot’s Wasteland. He was also an early advocate of D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway.

After the war, Pound produced two of his most admired works, Homage to Sextus Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. But, in late 1920, he and his wife left London for a new start in Paris. There, Pound fell in love with Olga Rudge, an American violinist. When, in 1924, tired of France already and seeking a quieter life, the Pounds moved to the Italian city of Rapallo, Rudge followed them. In 1925, she had Pound’s daughter, Mary; and the following year Dorothy bore him a son, Omar. Both children were raised apart from their parents, and separately, Mary with a peasant woman, and Omar with Dorothy’s mother in London and then at boarding schools.

Professionally, Pound was working on a long poem - The Cantos - published between 1925 and 1940, but also turning more towards politics and economics. He took on the idea that injustice in the world was shaped by international bankers, whose manipulation of money led to wars and conflict. In 1933, he met Benito Mussolini, and became an ardent supporter; later, during the Second World War, recording hundreds of anti-semitic broadcasts for Rome Radio, but also writing many articles and sending thousands letters in support of Mussolini’s regime. In 1945, with Mussolini dead, Pound was arrested by Italian partisans, handed over to American forces, who detained him for six months before flying him back to the US to stand trial for treason.

Although Pound was not tried, he was considered insane and admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C, where, after a while, he became more than comfortable, writing (on The Pisan Cantos, for example), and receiving visitors on a regular basis. Although he repudiated his antisemitism in public, he continued to be stridently anti-semitic in his behaviour, and to maintain unsavoury friendships. It was not until 1958, that friends and allies (including Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway) managed, finally, to get him released, though this was done under the argument that he was permanently and incurably insane. He returned to Italy, where he carried on writing, publishing, in 1969, Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII.

Physical and mental ill-health never seemed far away in Pound's last years, with Dorothy, Olga, and his daughter Mary all caring for him at times. He managed to get to London in 1965 to attend Eliot’s funeral, and to Dublin to visit Yeats’s widow, and to the US in 1967 where he was received warmly at Hamiton College. He died in Venice in 1972, Olga by his side.

The Poetry Foundation has this assessment of the poet: ‘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.” ’ Further information is available from Wikipedia,, the Poetry Foundation.

Pound was not a diarist, as far as I can tell, but Dorothy Shakespear kept a kind of diary for a few years when she first met Ezra, and extracts from this were included by Omar Pound and Arthur Walton Litz in Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters 1909-1914, published by Faber and Faber in 1985. The authors say: ‘Since no letters survive from 1909 we have used extensive entries from a black school notebook Dorothy kept after their first meeting [. . . and] we have also used entires from the notebook to augment the letters of 1910 and 1911.’ Here are several extracts from that notebook.

16 February 1909
‘ “Ezra”. Listen to it - Ezra! Ezra! - And a third time - Ezra!. He has a wonderful, beautiful face, a high forehead, prominent over the eyes; a long, delicate nose, with little, red, nostrils; a strange mouth, never still, & quite elusive; a square chin, slighly cleft in the middle - the whole face pale; the eyes gray-blue; the hair golden-brown, and curling in soft wavy crinkles. Large hands, with long, well-shaped, fingers, and beautiful nails.

Some people have complained of untidy boots - how could they look at his boots, when there is his moving, beautiful face to watch? Oh! fools, fools! They are the fools one cannot “suffer gladly”. I do not think he knows he is beautiful.

At first he was shy - he spoke quickly, (with a strong, odd, accent, half American, half Irish) he sat back in his chair; but afterwards, he suddenly dropped down, cross-legged, with his back to the fire: then he began to talk - He talked of Yeats, as one of the Twenty of the world who have added to the World’s poetical matter - He read a short piece of Yeats, in a voice dropping with emotion, in a voice like Yeats’s own - He spoke of his interest in all the Arts, in that he might find things of use in them for his own - which is the Highest of them all.

“Have you ever seen things in a crystal?” I asked - And he looked at me, smiling, & answered “I see things without a crystal”. He suggested the Great Inspiration he was waiting for. That he wished above all things to be in readiness, open-minded and waiting, on the Great Day when it should come. For he evidently believes it will come. “You should never get up from a book tired” - he said. [. . .]

Oh! Ezra! how beautiful you are! With your pale face and fair hair! I wonder - are you a genius? or are you only an artist in Life?

How can people look at his boots, instead of his face - It is they who impossible, not he - not the beautiful Ezra. He said of one college, that it was only another tract of the barren waste - and suffered that which is untellable.’

26 February 1909
‘He (Ezra) has passed by the way where most men have only dreamed of passing. He has done with a Soul, that might be saved or damned - He has learned to live beside his body. I see him as a double person - just held together by the flesh.

His spirit walks beside him, outside him, on the left-hand side - He has conquered the needs of the flesh - He can starve; nay, is willing, to starve that his spirit may bring forth the ‘highest of arts’ - poetry. He has no care for hunger & thirst, for cold; of an ordinary man’s evils he takes no notice - “It is worth starving for” he said one day. He has attained to peace in this world, it seems to me. To be working for the great art, to be living in, and for, Truth in her Greatness - He has fond the Centre - Truth.’

4-5 November 1909
‘Oh! Ezra! you leave me so far behind! You have passed through the wood - and the fear you felt in the darkness is even now vibrating in between the pine stems.

It is the only trace of your passing for yr. thoughts are so white, that the cobwebs cling along the path, as though none had gone trough them. Yet I know that you went by once, long ago -

Sometimes in the loneliness I cry your name, hoping to dispel the fears which crowd behind me. Well I know that you do not hear my voice, that you cannot come back to speak with me - Yet I greatly desire some sign, when my faith fails me.’

19 March 1910
‘Ezra! Ezra! beautiful face! I love beautiful things - and I know it more than ever, because when you made yourself ugly by shaving off your joyous hair, I was miserable - I was angry also for I thought I understood the charm of your appearance altogether - Now that you know you have been a fool, I am sure of it again - but the time between us (passed in) touched with despair.’

28 August 1910
‘Surely you & I, Ezra, are both dreams; we are (the) subjective existences of some man or other, who little knows that we have met & loved - we - (his) forms of his imagination! He (dreamt) formed you before he thought of me. You have had time to go (further) deeper into the Truth than I have been given.

But one day you & I met - all unbeknown to our Objective. We met in a blue, open, place - We saw each other’s hair & knew that we both loved the Sun. Later we loved each other as well. But now, the Objective has taken you to the other side of the world & he has forgotten me - left me behind.’

7 May 1911
‘To-night (and all yesterday) I have had a feeling you were “about” - Is it possible you are coming back to me? And yet the news is bad - For Mercy’s sake come back to me - I shall never rest until I have seen you again, & settled that one thing in my own mind. How can I rest?’

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