Introduction to Ezra Pound, from Poetry Speaks, ed. Elise Paschen, Rebekah Presson Mosby (Sourcebooks, 2001)

Charles Bernstein

Ezra Pound is one of the most ambitious, influential, and innovative poets of the modernist period (the first half of the 20th century). Pound made significant contributions to American poetry not only as poet but also as a translator, editor, polemicist, and essayist.

Pound’s poetics had a profound influence on both the poets and readers of his generation. He was a primary proponent of other modernist writers, including Yeats (who served as a model for him), Eliot (with whom he edited “The Waste Land”), James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and H.D., and poets of the next generation, such as Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting. Pound strenuously attacked the prevailing verse styles of his time, which he found flabby and vague. Such verse, he said, had lost its musicality because of its lock-step adherence to metrical structures that substituted the regularity of the metronome for the intricate patterning of composition by ear. As a leading proponent of what came to be known, somewhat problematically, as “free verse,” Pound said that poetry could be divided according to three essential elements: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia – the play of image, music, and meaning. In his manifestos for imagism and vorticism he advanced a poetry stripped of all nonessential elements, where every word makes a necessary contribution to the poem, “which  presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1911), exemplary of the condensation and obliqueness of the imagist aesthetic,  also reflects the influence of classical Chinese poetry:


     The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

     Petals on a wet black bough.

A second approach that Pound took to poetry, early in his career, was the use of masks or personae (Personae is the title he gave to his collection of shorter poems). Rather than the poem representing the voice of the author, as in much lyric poetry, the speaker in Pound’s persona poems is a made-up character with whom Pound did not completely identify. This allowed Pound to be satiric, even sarcastic, not only about the subject of the poems but about their speaker, although he sometimes appears to share the sentiments of the poem’s persona, making for an interesting ambiguity. Section II of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” (on the accompanying CD) lampoons what “the age” (the period just before World War I) “demanded” – the superficial hit of “plaster” rather than the richer pleasures of “alabaster.” Section V (also on the CD) is a bitter (and anti-patriotic) comment on the futility of the World War I, in which so many young men died for a “botched civilization.”

“Cantico del Sole” (also on the CD) is a particularly funny example of Pound’s critique of the contemporary American culture’s rejection of art. The poem is based on a judge’s ruling that obscenity is okay in the classics because the audience for the classics is so small. In his poem, Pound mockingly repeats a sentiment that might be said by the advocates of censorship, but he substitutes “classics” for “pornography”: “The thought of what America would be like / If the Classics had a wide circulation / Troubles my sleep.” Hearing Pound draw out “America” and “wide circulation” adds a strikingly perfomative element to his send-up.

The third, and most important, approach Pound took to poetic composition is reflected in his “epic” poem The Cantos, a series of long poems on which he worked from his mid-thirties until the end of his life. Pound defined an epic as a “poem including history.” By calling his poem an “epic,” Pound brought to mind such works as Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Virgil’s Aenead. Unlike these narrative poems, however, The Cantos uses collage or what now might be called “sampling” – the  juxtaposition of quotations from a carefully selected range of Eastern and Western cultures, including a fair amount of American history and current events.  Quoted material forms only a small part of the overall text, however, since the entire poem is shot through with Pound’s own interventions, interpolations, and compositional extensions. Pound’s quotations were often in Chinese, Italian, French and other languages and he usually left them untranslated.  This was because Pound was interested in an opaque texture for the poem; he once commented that if you didn’t understand something you should just push on. In the later Cantos, Pound organized the words spatially on the page, decisively breaking with the flush left orientation of much Western poetry up until that time, though following the lead of Stephane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés. The result is a poem of immense sweep, often gorgeous lyricism, with a sometimes baffling range of references and many infuriatingly didactic passages. For this poetry of ideas, Pound maximized discontinuity, what some would call fragmentation. At the same time, he tried to maintain strong authorial control over the intended meaning to be derived from the juxtaposition of what he called “luminous details.”

Over the course of The Cantos, and in his essays, Pound became  increasingly obsessed with economics and, in particular, his belief that charging interest on money lent – in other words, the whole system of monetary credit – was destroying Western civilization. In Canto XLV (on the CD), he attacks “usury” – lending money at exorbitant interest rates, which for Pound was any interest rate. Pound believed interest eroded the rock-solid value of things.

Pound’s economic views became increasing rabid over time. He associated Jews with money lending and usury (a common stereotype with genocidal implications), insisting that Jews, not being grounded in the land they own, contributed to a waste land of modern fragmentation (an unintentionally ironic view for one of the greatest progenitors of modernist fragmentation in poetry and one who lived most of life in exile). In World War II, while living in Italy, Pound sided with the fascist cause, writing poems and speeches extolling Mussolini and excoriating Roosevelt.

Pound’s troubling politics are interwoven, throughout his work, with his poetics and aesthetics, making for a useful, albeit sometimes distasteful, study of the unavoidable relation of poetry to politics. Pound’s work reflects, like much of the century in which he wrote, both the best and worst of Western civilization.