Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ezra Pound and the 20th Century

As difficult, dense, and challenging as his own writing can be, Ezra Pound helped bring to the world some of the most memorable poets and writers of the last century. Ernest Hemingway appreciated him for his ability “to advance the fortunes, both material and artistic, of his friends…he defends them when they are attacked, gets them into magazines, [and] gets publishers to take their books”, and Alfred Kreymborg affectionately stated that, “In a world where most people slavishly coddled their own egos, here was a fellow with a heart and intelligence at the service of other contemporaries”.

In the early 1900s, artists were seeking to reinvent their art forms for a new age, to put their individual stamp on them and make them their own. Frank Lloyd Wright was modernizing architecture, Picasso was deconstructing centuries of painting with Cubism, and Stravinsky was provoking rebellion with his savage and beautiful “The Rite of Spring”. Pound saw these innovations, along with the burgeoning technological age, and worked to do the same with poetry. His own Imagism was, like Picasso’s Cubism, a deconstruction of his chosen form and could even be considered a conscious backlash against technological progress and the stale ideas of the past; a way of simplifying and searching for the core of a thing’s importance and truth. The idea of Imagism was to emphasize the precision of a more economical language than was already present and to cast aside the established rhyme and meter of poetry. He wanted “to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” and to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”. To Pound, the rigidity of the metronome may have represented the harness of technology, which was a hindrance to arriving at essentially what is beautiful. However, Imagism proved to be much more than one poet’s notion and an end in and of itself, it also helped to spawn the modernist movement.

T.S. Eliot denoted Pound as being more responsible than any person for the modernist movement of early 20th century poetry, and nothing could be closer to the truth. Pound rubbed elbows with artists such as the Dadaists, Jean Cocteau, Picabia, and Duchamp, and welcomed and championed the writings of William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and James Joyce. But it was Eliot who benefited the most from Pound’s interest. Pound excessively praised Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and exclaimed, “Pray God it be not a single and unique success”. He continued to take an active interest in Eliot’s work, publishing him in various anthologies and culminating in the editing and shaping of Eliot’s epic, “The Waste Land”.

Throughout all of his charity to other writers, Pound somehow found it possible to create some of the richest poetry of the last century. In the form of “The Cantos”, an epic masterwork of 120 sections, he used and alluded to everything from Japanese Haiku and Chinese poetry to the works of Renaissance Italy and ancient Greek lyrics, referenced obscure moments in history and politics, and employed a variety of languages such as French, English, Chinese, German, Latin, and Greek. Encompassing the totality of over 50 years, “The Cantos” would prove to be his life’s work, but as impenetrable as the subject may seem he still managed to maintain the clarity of language that he established with the Imagist movement.

While his own work may have become overshadowed by the considerable influence he has had on the poets and writers who have followed him, his legacy is inescapable in that his hand has touched so many things: politics, poetry, literature, painting, music, and criticism. And studying him will only lead you to some of the greatest works of the last century.

Copyright to the author 2008.

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