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  • Michael Parker
    January 27, 2008 Il Miglior Fabbro By CHARLES McGRATH EZRA POUND: POET A Portrait of the Man and His Work. Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920. By A. David
    Message 1 of 2 , Jan 25, 2008
      January 27, 2008
      Il Miglior Fabbro

      A Portrait of the Man and His Work.
      Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920.
      By A. David Moody.
      Illustrated. 507 pp. Oxford University Press. $47.95.

      T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were the �Odd Couple� of 20th-century
      poetry, a most unlikely pair who between them rewrote the rules for
      everyone else. Eliot was Felix, of course: fussy, clerkish,
      conservative in both politics and religion, so somber that as a young
      man he sometimes dabbed his face with powder to make himself look
      even grayer. And Pound was Oscar: a yapper, provocateur and shameless
      self-promoter with a radical opinion on just about anything; he
      signed his name with a caricature of a gadfly and strode about London
      in the years before World War I wearing an earring, a sombrero and
      trousers made of green billiard cloth. From our perspective, almost a
      hundred years later, it�s hard to imagine that these two ever sat in
      the same room, let alone shared meals, friends, manuscripts. Eliot is
      now an almost churchly figure in our cultural imagination, the
      prelate of modernism, while Pound, if we bother to think of him at
      all, is remembered mostly as an embarrassment � a crank, a Fascist
      and anti-Semite confined to an asylum.

      But one of the virtues of A. David Moody�s new biography of Pound is
      to remind us that when the two poets first met, in 1914, Pound was by
      far the greater presence, and that without him Eliot might never have
      become the Eliot we revere. Pound, three years older, spotted Eliot�s
      gift immediately (he called �The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock� the
      �best poem I have yet had or seen from an American�), urged him on
      and helped him get published. When Eliot, then a graduate student in
      philosophy at Oxford, decided to give up an academic career for a
      life in poetry, it was Pound who wrote and broke the news to Eliot�s
      parents. Pound was similarly helpful to Joyce, for whom he scrounged
      money and even scavenged an old pair of shoes; to Wyndham Lewis; to
      the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breszka, whose agent he became � to just
      about everyone who mattered artistically in pre-war London.

      One way or another, he was connected to all the important little
      magazines of the time. He had an unerring eye for talent and was
      tireless in his efforts to promote the work of those he admired. He
      was a whirlwind of energy in those days � a �highly mechanized typing
      volcano,� he called himself � and so restless that, unable to sit
      still, he broke the legs off chairs. In the dedication of �The Waste
      Land� Eliot called him il miglior fabbro � the finer craftsman �
      because of his brilliance as an editor. (Were it not for Pound, we
      might still know that poem as �He Do the Police in Different
      Voices.�) He even took his red pencil to Yeats, and Moody�s book
      includes two pages showing his brilliant, slashing revision of �The
      Two Kings.� Pound was so good an editor, in fact, and so enterprising
      a talent-spotter and impresario � such a cultural force � that he
      would easily merit a biography even if he had never written a poem of
      his own.

      And it would be an easier biography to write. Unlike Eliot, whose
      output was relatively small for a poet of such stature, Pound wrote
      reams, not all of it good. The jury is still out, in fact, on the
      true significance of his work. Some critics consider him the major
      poet of his era; others dismiss his �Cantos� as gibberish. What makes
      Pound�s poetry even more confounding is that it was so frequently at
      odds with his many pronouncements and manifestos. �Make it new� was
      his slogan, and yet his early work wasn�t new at all. It was warmed-
      over Pre-Raphaelism. Pound�s flirtation with Imagism produced a great
      many maxims (�Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not
      reveal something�; �Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already
      been done in good prose�) and probably his best-known short poem, �In
      a Station of the Metro�:

      The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
      Petals on a wet, black bough.

      Pound�s connection with Imagism was short-lived, however (he quit the
      movement when Amy Lowell and others wouldn�t let him run it), and he
      never fully embraced it. At the same time he was writing �In a
      Station� he was also writing a lot of verse that was old-fashioned
      and formulaic. In principle, he declared that poetry ought to be
      concrete and immediate; in practice, and in the �Cantos� especially,
      he often wrote poems so allusive and erudite that to understand them
      you had to be as well-read as Pound was.

      In sorting out all Pound�s contradictions and complexity, Moody, a
      professor emeritus at the University of York and the author of a
      previous book about Eliot, is invaluable. He knows more about Pound�s
      poetry than probably anyone else alive, and supplies careful,
      detailed readings of all the early books (this volume ends in 1920; a
      second will cover the years until Pound�s death in 1972). He even
      manages to uncover a plot of sorts in Pound�s fitful development,
      culminating in the �Fourth Canto� of 1919 and �Hugh Selwyn
      Mauberley,� a perplexing poem that both is and isn�t
      autobiographical. Vastly simplified, the story is that Pound, who was
      immensely learned in Renaissance and Proven�al poetry, was for a
      while � before he had much to say � interested in the sound of poetry
      almost at the expense of its sense, and that he had to discover both
      a suitable subject and suitable method for himself, a way of engaging
      the world and not just the poetic past.

      Helpful as it is, though, Moody�s book is sometimes more Felix than
      Oscar: it�s dense, meticulous (except for the author�s dismaying
      habit of forming the plural of a proper name by adding an apostrophe
      before the �s.�), formidably well researched and, in the first half
      especially, a little dull. Moody is more concerned with cramming in
      information than with fashioning a narrative, and his chapters are
      organized like an outline, with little subheads. He has little gift
      for characterization, so that the key people in Pound�s life, figures
      like Hilda Doolittle (or H. D., as she became), Ford Madox Ford or
      Harriet Weaver, the publisher of The Egoist, flit through these pages
      like disembodied presences, sometimes introduced in footnotes or
      sometimes not at all. Even Pound himself is a little remote
      sometimes. Moody has not much interest in psychologizing, or in
      trying to explain why Pound was the way he was, and says next to
      nothing, for example, about his love life or lack of one.

      Oddly, Pound�s bohemianism did not extend to sex. His courtship of
      the woman who became his wife, Dorothy Shakespear, was touchingly old-
      fashioned, with Pound�s letters and visits strictly rationed by
      Dorothy�s mother (herself a former mistress of Yeats�s) because his
      financial prospects were so poor. Dorothy, one senses from her
      letters, might gladly have eloped, but Pound was in no hurry. When
      they did finally marry, in 1914, their relationship was companionable
      but hardly passionate. Friends of Pound�s with a more prurient bent
      than Moody even wondered whether they slept in the same bed. There
      are things more important than sex, Pound had written in 1912, and
      perhaps he meant it, or perhaps his erotic life took place in his
      brain, an organ he once called a �great clot of genital fluid.� A
      curious thing about his poetry is that there are almost no genuine
      love poems to speak of, or none addressed to real women. His love-
      objects tended to be abstract figures, diaphanous goddesses and the

      Like a lot of self-invented people, Pound was in the beginning part
      genius and part humbug � something that William Carlos Williams, a
      few years ahead of him at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed
      right away. Pound �was often brilliant,� he wrote, �but an ass.�
      Pound was also, in classic American fashion, a young man from the
      provinces determined to make his mark in the metropolis. He was born
      in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885 but grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs
      after his father took a job with the Philadelphia Mint. By 15 he had
      determined to be a poet � an ambition he certainly didn�t inherit
      from his parents, though they loyally supported him � and then
      bounced from school to school pursuing a curriculum of his own
      devise. He enrolled at Penn, finished at Hamilton College, where the
      professors were less fussy about requirements, and then went back to
      Penn for a graduate degree he never finished.

      In 1907 he took a job teaching at Wabash College, in Indiana, but
      found the atmosphere so stifling that he contrived to get himself
      kicked out by harboring a chorus girl in his room. With a small
      parental allowance he sailed for Venice, where he arranged for an
      Italian printer to run up a few copies of his first book, �A Lume
      Spento,� and then headed for London, intent on making a name for
      himself. He succeeded in remarkably short order, and even won over
      the great man himself, Yeats, whose secretary he eventually became,
      and even the best man at his wedding.

      Reading between the lines in Moody�s book, you get the sense that
      Pound in these years was charming and insufferable in about equal
      measure and bestowed his friendship only on those who met his very
      exacting standards. To those who didn�t he could be withering. He
      challenged the poet Lascelles Abercrombie to a duel on grounds of
      �stupidity� so great it amounted to �public menace,� and he called
      The Times of London a �slut-bellied obstructionist,� a �fungus� and a
      �continuous gangrene.�

      Every now and then is a hint of the even darker, nuttier Pound to
      come: casual anti-Semitism, a burst of misogyny, contempt for the
      stupidity of the masses, a growing fascination with the dubious
      economics of one Maj. C. H. Douglas. And throughout the whole, even
      as he is heading toward the great artistic breakthrough of the
      �Cantos,� there is a sense of swelling intemperateness and self-
      importance. By the end of 1920, when he declared himself disgusted
      with England and prepared to move to France, he had pretty much worn
      out his welcome, and everyone, even Eliot, was glad to see him go.

      Charles McGrath, formerly the editor of the Book Review, is a writer
      at large for The Times.

      Mike in Hilton Head

      A Celebration of Reading
      @ http://web.mac.com/mparker_46
      Yahoo Reading Groups:
      BFB @ http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BFB_Readers
      LSG @ http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LiteratureStudyGroup
      ALR @ http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ALitReaders

      .................... CR ....................
      The New York Trilogy -- Paul Auster
      Under Western Eyes -- Joseph Conrad
      Blow Up and Other Stories -- Julio Cort�zar
      The Gum Thief -- Douglas Coupland
      The Atlas -- William T. Vollmann
      .................... RR ....................
      Meat Puppet Caberet -- Steve Beard
      Tlooth -- Harry Mathews
      Mumbo Jumbo -- Ismael Reed
      L'Oeuvre -- �mile Zola
      .................... FR ....................
      60 Stories -- Donald Barthelme
      JPod -- Douglas Coupland
      Pnin -- Vladimir Nabokov
      Gargantua and Pantagruel -- Fran�ois Rabelais
      Th�r�se Raquin -- �mile Zola

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • David Christie
      Michael, I found your essay on Pound very interesting indeed. Until now I have never had the slightest interest in poetry – the change was effected by a
      Message 2 of 2 , Jan 25, 2008
        Michael, I found your essay on Pound very interesting indeed. Until
        now I have never had the slightest interest in poetry – the change
        was effected by a close reading of The Wasteland. Can you recommend a
        readable biography of Eliot ? One that also has the merit of not
        being inordinately long.
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