Pound’s Pact with Whitman

Although I admit I never connected Pound with Whitman until I re-read his poetry, Pound does adapt Whitman's style in some interesting ways. As many critics have pointed out Pound was quite ambivalent about Whitman, as can be seen in:

PACT

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman-
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root-
Let there be commerce between us.

Pound’s referral to Whitman as a “pig-headed father” makes it clear that though he recognizes Whitman’s power that there is still much about him that he doesn’t like. Still, Pound seems to realize that Whitman offered modern poets a chance to transcend their poetic past.

While borrowing Whitman’s style, Pound uses it for very different effects than Whitman did:

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.

While the first line certainly sounds like Whitman, the message seems nearly diametrically opposed to anything that you might find in Whitman’s poetry. Though I’m sure that Whitman resented certain people in life, there is very little sign of it in his poetry. By attacking the rich, upper class in the first line and then following it with praise for the common fisherman’s family, Pound changes the whole thrust of Whitman’s message. Instead of serving as a message of affirmation and transcendence, it becomes a message of condemnation. Instead of showing the “oneness” of mankind, it splits people into the “haves” and the “have-nots,” a split Whitman tried desperately to overcome in his poetry.

Pound’s “The Rest” employs Whitman’s style to convey a message that may well have been spoken by either Whitman or Pound:

THE REST

O helpless few in my country,
O remnant enslaved!

Artists broken against her,
A-stray, lost in the villages,
Mistrusted, spoken-against,

Lovers of beauty, starved,
Thwarted with systems,
Helpless against the control;

You who can not wear yourselves out
By persisting to successes,
You who can only speak,
Who can not steel yourselves into reiteration;

You of the finer sense,
Broken against false knowledge,
You who can know at first hand,
Hated, shut in, mistrusted:

Take thought:
I have weathered the storm,
I have beaten out my exile.

The truth is that both artists, but particularly Whitman, never received the recognition they thought they deserved. In fact, it’s hard to deny that art is often neglected for entertainment in America, and certainly poetry has lost the position it once had in society.

Still, to me, this poem seems much closer to the Beat poets who claim Pound, than to Whitman. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the genesis of Ginsberg’s “Howl” in the poem. A poem like “Coitus,” though it doesn’t seem very Whitmanesque, certainly shows how Pound could have served as an important bridge between Whitman and Allen Ginsberg:

COITUS

The gilded phaloi of the crocuses
are thrusting at the spring air.
Here is there naught of dead gods
But a procession of festival,
A procession, 0 Giulio Romano,
Fit for your spirit to dwell in.
Dione, your nights are upon us.

The dew is upon the leaf.
The night about us is restless.

It's hard to imagine that Gerard Manly Hopkins was writing poems like "Spring" nearly at the same time Pound was writing this. While the emerging crocuses may very well appear to look like "gilded penises," it's still a frighteningly surrealistic image. It's also difficult to believe that the poem's phallic imagery wouldn't have shocked Pound's audiences in England and America. The imagery is much closer to that of the Beats than to that of most of Pound's contemporaries. Pushing the Beat connection a little further, it doesn't seem too far from Pound's brochure Blast to the magazines and brochures published by the Beat generation.

What do you think?