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:


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:”

En robe de parade.

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:


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.