A Look at Early Ezra Pound

When first introduced to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound many years ago in college, I could find little that I liked in Eliot’s works, though I bought The Complete Poems and Plays, and nothing in Pound’s poems to even justify buying even a single one of his works.

My attitude towards Pound was not improved any when I had to give up my favorite poetry text in high school because the publisher decided to place his poem “Ancient Music” prominently on the opening page:

ANCIENT MUSIC

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,

So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm.
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Nora: This is not folk music, but Dr. Ker writes that the tune is to be found under the Latin words of a very ancient canon.

Strictly speaking, I find the poem rather amusing, though nothing special enough to justify its prominent placement in the textbook. Still, in some strange, perhaps archaic, sense it does seem to capture the power of Spring breaking up the frozen rivers. Still, it struck me as a dumb poem to begin a high school text with. If they’d buried it back a few pages, no parent would ever had the patience to find it.

Although I could probably have saved the text by calling in favors from several parents and administrators, I decided to give in to the demands of a group of conservative patrons rather than starting a witch hunt among all the texts that I had approved as department chairman and turning myself into a human lightning rod.

That said, I have found myself running into so many references to Pound’s influence lately, particularly recommendations from people whose opinions I respect, that I finally decided to take another look at Pound’s poetry, if for no other reason than to help me more clearly understand the poetry of other, more-beloved poets.

Unwilling to devote the rest of my life to trying to interpret, or even make sense of, Pound’s Cantos, I settled on Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, a New Directions Paperbook that claims to offer a “compact yet representative selection of Ezra Pound’s poems and translations.” I’ll be spending at least the next few days exploring this work.

Surprisingly, I had little trouble finding short poems written early in Pound’s career that I truly enjoyed reading. There is certainly something delightful in his “The Garden:”

THE GARDEN
En robe de parade.
Samain

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anaemia

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.

I can remember being strangely attracted to women like this in college, believing, for some strange reason, that a rich sophisticated woman held more appeal than girls I had known in the past, only to discover how shallow some people really are.

“Salutation” also attacks the kind of superior smugness that I’ve recently come to identlfy with the Bush Administration’s white elitists:

SALUTATION

O generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.

Although economically I probably no longer belong to the “working class,” I still identify myself with that class, so it’s hard not to identify with the insight offered in the poem.

Ironically, of course one of my ultimate complaints about Pound’s poetry is precisely its “elitism.” His later poetry seems written for a “select” group of artists and critics who view themselves as the “cultural elite.” Pounds is no “man of the people.” You can damn well bet that none of the fishermen depicted here are going to be lying on the beach reading Pound’s Cantos.

7 thoughts on “A Look at Early Ezra Pound

  1. The Garden struck a real chord with me. It gets to the heart of certain aspects of the British class system that I experienced as a child (my mother was that woman). I’ve never come across a swifter more accurate dissection. How long did he live here to gain that sort of insight? Or maybe it was the swift perception of the outsider.

  2. after reading your interpretation/analysis of pounds work I can only say that I was dissapointed. your failure to comprehend his work, though lamentable, is understandable. I would like to suggest this, if nothing else is of value in the cantos, the information contained, historical, poetical, econimical, is immense. coming to an understanding of the cantos, is an odyssey thru our social heritage circa 20th century. no person having learned of the history, if fragmentally, of provencal poetry, or greek, or roman, or chinese, can say that their time was wasted. obscure to the uninitiated, perhaps, but only to those uninitiated in the history of the world. pound was an elitist. but he is still accessible. if you’re interested in coming to a more complete understanding of his work or are looking for further elucidation on any of his work, please feel free to respond.
    thank you adrian

  3. I have only just read Pound’s poem The Garden recently for an assignment i’m doing but looking at it, isn’t there a bigger sort of picture about the Garden been a micro-view of the earth, and the rabble (being society) seen as polluting it…i don’t know am i trying to read more into the poem then there actually is. And by the way does anyone know what ‘En robe de parade’ or ‘Samain’ refers to?

  4. “En robe de parade” translates as “dressed for show,” and it comes from the preface to Albert Samain’s 1893 work Au Jardin de l’Infante, which is where the Samain comes from.

  5. “You can damn well bet that none of the fishermen depicted here are going to be lying on the beach reading Pound’s Cantos.”

    Yeah, and he never claims that they would be. Which is precisely why he says that “they were happier” than he is. Also, your desire for Pound’s poetry to appeal to the working class instead of an elite, poetic class is unrealistic and unfair. If his work was like that, it would only be fake and posing in that way. Yes, it is difficult. Get over it. Just because it is incredibly elusive and assumes an understanding of the classics or of poetic history, that doesn’t make it elitist. Pound expressed what was in his head, just like any other poet does. If the set of conventions and allusions are too obscure for you, just move on.

    Despite all of that, I actually agree with you that his earlier poetry was better. I think he used language more efficiently and brilliantly in his younger days. And the poem Ancient Music is taken from the Middle English lyric “Sumer Is Ycumen In,” which is pretty important to understanding Pound’s version.

  6. I think wanting to understand is the problem…as he says…what thou lovest well remains…you might be a bit gentle with the meaning of lovest at first! it’s like a landscape – which you also don’t possess.

What do you think?