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This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.The Young Pound
MORE 'stale creampuffs'? The various self-derogatory remarks uttered by Pound during the last years of his life were accorded an often unscrupulous welcome, whereas his less overt but more consistent acts of self-criticism in the collection of his work have met with a different kind of attention. It is to be borne in mind that a good fifth of the confections reprinted in A Lume Spento and Other Early Poems in 1965 had survived in the canon of his shorter poems established by Pound in the 1926 Personae; a circumstance which should not, however, be interpreted as the poet's self-indulgence, but rather as a matter of economy in presentation. The Collected Early Poems now makes available the contents of the six early books from which Pound made cuts in 1926, together with a number of poems from other printed sources, and from manuscript (principally the 'San Trovaso Notebook' of 1908). The 'early' of the title can therefore be taken to refer to a period which terminates at an important watershed in Pound's career, somewhere between the publication of Ripostes (1912) and Cathay (1915). But because this volume does not supersede the Collected Shorter Poems (the title under which the 1926 Personae has been issued since 1968), to which the reader must still refer for Cathay, Lustra, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and so on, it must be admitted that were it not for the Cantos there would be little justification for this elaborate reissue of so much rejected material. It is because the Cantos are as a whole little read and less understood that the publisher's enterprise in uncovering for us the full extent of the foundations of Pound's career is to be welcomed. Little is revealed that might specifically augment his poetic reputation, and no fresh evidence is brought to light to modify the received account of Pound's early eclecticism and metrical ingenuity; but, by adding to the available record some 150 poems belonging to a period represented in the Collected Shorter Poems by a mere sixty, the general aspect of Pound's beginnings is substantially modified. Pound was an honest and intelligent editor of his early work; what was impossible to convey editorially, however, was the persistent and uncertain effort entailed by his early writing. Whereas the 1926 selection suggests a series of fairly rapid stylistic and thematic evolutions, the mass of the poems appears to be a dense network of recurrent preoccupations. Figures and motifs are repeated and reworked in a way that suggests that some quasi-symbolist value attaches to them, in excess of their immediate figurative occasion: there is, for example, the subject of an apparitional face, glimpsed or sought among the crowd, as in this poem from Canzoni (1911).
Und Drang (VIb)
I have gone seeking for you in the twilight,
Here in the flurry of Fifth Avenue,
Here where they pass between their teas and teas.
Is it such madness? though you could not be
Ever in all that crowd, no gown
Of all their subtle sorts could be your gown.
Yet I am fed with faces, is there one
That even in the half-light mindeth me.
The face remembered and invoked here belongs to that type of visionary lady whose aetherial passage is the subject of poems such as `Ballatetta' and 'A Virginal'. But the figure in this poem is a distinct anticipation of the faces of 'In a Station of the Metro', and also points back to the concluding poem of Personae (1909), which Pound printed in italics as if in epilogue.
Beautiful, tragical faces,
Ye that were whole, and are so sunken;
And, O ye vile, ye that might have been loved,
That are so sodden and drunken,
Who hath forgotten you?
O wistful, fragile faces, few out of many!
The gross, the coarse, the brazen,
God knows I cannot pity them, perhaps, as I should do,
But, oh, ye delicate, wistful faces,
Who hath forgotten you?
But not all the figures which preoccupied Pound present such a continuous sequence of development. Whereas that of the face contains its value, iconically, other figures take on more dramatic means of articulation, and reveal Pound in the process of changing his mind about their significance. In 'Fifine Answers' (A Lume Spento, 1908) for example, Pound celebrates the imprudent freedom of the gipsy dancer's life in terms analogous to those employed, we infer, by that 'Good "Hedgthorn" ' whom he accuses of sentimentality in 'To a Friend Writing of Cabaret Dancers' in Lustra.
This kind of development, critical rather than rhetorical, is noteworthy because it charts the movement of Pound's poetic intentions towards a more open encounter with the empirical bases of experience, away from an almost total reliance upon a theoretical model of experience compounded from the various literary models (such as Browning) he had at his disposal. To understand the dynamics of this sequence of events it is better not to regard it as the substitution of one kind of material for another, but rather as an endeavour to match and adjust two different orders of experience. This is put very well in the essay on Cavalcanti where Pound writes of 'the dogma that there is some proportion between the fine thing held in the mind, and the inferior thing ready for instant consumption'. This sense of proportion is the very heart of Pound's work: it both exemplifies his fullest meaning, and underlies its stylistic and technical evolutions. What Pound sought was an exact but vital, rather than rigorous, definition of experience, and he found in the inferior thing an instrument for the expression of the equations of psychology and language that he envisaged. 'In a station of the Metro' is the instance of the most compact and theoretical expression of such a definition.
But Imagism and Vorticism, which for Pound were aspects of the same principle, stand on the further side of that first important watershed in Pound's career, and represent a conceptual rather than a technical attainment, dependent upon the solution of problems of poetic syntax and rhythm with which Pound had first to struggle. Four main characteristics appear predominant from the Collected Early Poems. 1. Although Pound's subjects reveal a strong interest in the psychology of experience, he very rarely dealt with his own empirical experiences. 2. He entertained a high notion of the potency of literary experience, and applied such experiences to his own work as a consistent range of influences. 3. He almost invariably used a model of discourse based upon the first person. 4. His work possesses what might be described as an affective doctrinal content, an amalgam of transcendentalism and neo-platonism presented as ecstatic perception.
In his introduction to Pound's Selected Poems T. S. Eliot stated categorically that Pound owed nothing to Whitman, and in the limited sense of the technical derivation of Pound's vers libre he is no doubt correct. But the whole question of Whitman's paternity of free verse is a notorious red herring which Eliot has used to obscure the question of other ways in which Pound might owe something to Whitman and the New England tradition. The undercurrent of affective doctrine running through Pound's work from the start has an immediate antecedent in a line of feeling promoted by Emerson in essays such as 'Nature' and 'The Over-Soul'. Pound used an Emersonian vocabulary in the note he added to the typescript of 'Malrin', while still at Crawfordsville, Indiana: the poem, he explained, 'arises from a perception how the all-soul of mankind is one and joineth itself wholly at some time and returneth to God as a bride. And he the great hero of the new things spiritual is whoso waiteth for all the rest aiding as he may, yet daring to be last.' What Pound must have recognized, however, from the examples available to him, was that Emersonian doctrine was an inadequate basis for a poetic. The emphasis it placed upon personal experience was insufficiently correlated to a range of constraining information, since language itself tended to be seen as a reflex of the self. When Pound did try to write in Whitmanesque cadences the result was a tedious, attitudinizing pastiche. Yet Pound was true to his native tradition in the way he started out with an interest in personal feeling, although in his case the interest was often of a rather special kind, the temper of which is exemplified in the draft of an essay on poetry in the 'San Trovaso Notebook', which begins: 'All art begins in the physical discontent (or torture) of loneliness and partiality. It is. . . to fill this lack that man first spun shapes out of the void.' From this, the very note of transcendental estrangement, he goes on to speak of the 'essences of beauty' that have 'grouped themselves into form', and glosses the perception of form as 'not the perception of matter but of space matter does or might fill'.
The immediate direction in which the young Pound was led by such habits of thought involved the projection of various poetic identities for himself, by which he became the possessor of esoteric knowledge and mythic experience, and guardian of an occult poetic tradition stemming from Greece and Provence. The poems are profligate of figures for the relationship of the singular sensitivity to the spirit of the whole, such as raindrops, wind-borne seeds, flames, travellers, exiles. `Histrion' (A Quinzaine for this Yule, 1908) is a prime example of this kind of thing. The speaker presents himself as a medium through whose plastic identity an esoteric mystery is perpetuated. But this passage through the self of the souls of great men is really nothing more than a reworking of transcendental notions about the relation of the individual identity to others. And indeed, when Pound annotated 'Guillaume de Lorris Belated, A Vision of Italy' with reference to Richard of St Victor's definition of contemplation, the passage in question employs a distinctly Emersonian vocabulary.
. . . I saw
How all things are but symbols of all things,
And each of many, do we know
But the equation governing.
Reference to the section on Language in 'Nature' might have been more appropriate. It seems obvious that a number of issues raised by Pound's early work are clarified if this background is borne in mind. It would appear, for instance, that his employment of the apparatus of masks and personae is not merely derivative, but a carefully adjusted strategy. (One might say that a third or fourth generation Transcendentalist poet would inevitably, if he had his wits about him, turn to Browning and Yeats rather than Whitman.) The use of 'decadent' figures and sentiments, on the other hand, can be seen to be of largely incidental significance. The tendency to think of the self and feelings in spatial terms was, again, an Emersonian trait.
Pound's position in the London poetry world between 1908 and 1912 was altogether curious. His behaviour, socially as well as poetically, was dated in comparison with that of contemporaries like Hueffer, Storer, and Flint. But, when it came to the point, he rather than they was able to construct a poetic based upon the 'living tongue' precisely because his transcendentalism made it impossible for him to adapt efficiently to the manner of the 1890s. Pound's London contemporaries had rejected their immediate predecessors for obvious reasons. The poets of the Rhymers' Club were condemned to be marginal and lightweight because their dream, however fine, was no more than the lyrical mode of the normal terms of discourse current in the world on which they turned their backs. (American transcendentalism, on the other hand, had allowed itself to be recuperated by bourgeois society when it mistook the individual mind for a universal; a conceptual rather than a formal error.) Pound's sense of experience was altogether too diffuse and inward to allow him to become an adept handler of the lyric syntactic closures of first person experience. Instead he tended to wander off into redundant paraphrase and parallel but loosely coordinated grammatical structures of a thoroughly Whitmanesque order. But what often appears clumsy and inept in the early poems, deficient in syntactical control and psychological concreteness, was potentially fruitful. For what Pound needed to discover was an alternative to the normal discourse which the poets of the 1890s shared with the world they, and Pound, rejected; specifically, Pound needed to invent a discourse of primary experience which would not be based upon the first person. The free-floating, loosely attached clauses of his early work were the prototypes of the absolute verbal equations for experience, free of discursive location, that constituted Pound's initial achievement. The concluding lines of 'The Flame' (printed in Canzoni as section VIII of `Und Drang') are typical.
If I have merged my soul, or utterly
Am solved and bound in, through aught here on earth,
There canst thou find me, O thou anxious thou,
Who call'st about my gates for some lost me;
I say my soul flowed back, became translucent.
Search not my lips, O Love, let go my hands,
This thing that moves as man is no more mortal.
If thou hast seen my shade sans character,
If thou has seen the mirror of all moments,
That glass of all things that o'ershadow it,
Call not that mirror me, for I have slipped
Your grasp, I have eluded.
If the translucent soul corresponds to the fine, esoteric thing held in the mind, then lines eight, nine, and ten (each of which is a variant of the central figure of an earlier poem, 'On His Own Face in a Glass') approximate in different ways to the inferior thing to which, in the esoteric Pound, they can only imperfectly correspond.
But the transition from lines such as these to 'Petals on a wet, black bough' called for more than the exercise of an editorial blue pencil. Pound's inferior things are subordinate here to a grammatical self which loads them with personal allusiveness; they are imperfect equations, symbols for an ineffable, interior self, and as such incapable of sustaining the autonomous status accorded to the 'image' by Pound's later theory. What Pound seems to have gone on to recognize was that the syntactic authority of the self might be transferred, by a process of exteriorization, to rhythm. By dispensing in such a way with the conventions of normal discourse he could release himself from the psychological strain, very apparent in 'The Flame', of resisting at all points the pressure of what he thought of as inferior social values. Detached from their social definitions, the inferior things might be free to co-exist on the same plane, so to speak, as whatever other items of information a poem contained. Poetic discourse could then proceed according to the specific values of its various parts, rather than at the direction of some privileged agency operating within the poem by grammatical proxy or, as was the case with Pound, through the intermediary of mask or persona.
The nature of poetic rhythm thus conceived is unlike that of rhythm with a metrical base, which is essentially a forward moving vehicle, governed by expectation. It is required, instead, to function as an instrument of arrest, control, and coordination. Pound possessed the model for a rhythm endowed with such properties in his basic notion of form as 'space matter does or might fill'. Form in this sense does not inhere in things as such, but is an impalpable demarcation within the mind between the abstract and the inert. (Thus it was possible for Pound to think of forms interpenetrating, and of form potential in matter, awaiting release by the mind.) Such a spatialized rhythm can have an actual character in the typographical disposition of a text, but this is strictly secondary to its fundamentally mental structure; it is primarily perceived as a mental topology of language, whereas metrical rhythm is governed by the perception of number.
Pound came to believe that a verbal rhythm of this sort could be an absolute expression of experience, but this somewhat theoretical account of the bases for such a belief runs ahead of the matter. A few poems in Ripostes exemplify the way in which the rhythmic coordination of syllables and phrases can bind language into a shape in which experience is made concrete, from inferior things, yet is not yoked to a discursive context of meaning. The achievement of `Doria' and 'The Return' depends upon a scrupulous perception of the specific qualities of individual syllables, and the way in which they combine in sequence, and while it might be suggested that much of Pound's early practice enabled him to acquire such skill, it is the canzoni, which he carefully expunged from the canon of 1926, that show Pound systematically developing his mastery of the syllable. Pound thought that these poems constituted something of a special case, and admitted that they said 'nothing in particular', and for this reason, perhaps, found himself able, within a metrical structure, to make a fine discrimination between syllables, and the speed of different phrases, so that groups of syllables knot together, separate, and recombine, as in the following stanza from 'Canzon: The Spear'.
That fair far spear of light now lays
Its long gold shaft upon the waters.
Ah! might I pass upon its rays
To where it gleams beyond the waters,
Or might my troubled heart be fed
Upon the frail clear light there shed,
Then were my pain at last allay'd.
It was by way of the coordination of individual syllables at this level of attention that Pound arrived at the just proportioning of feeling and language, the expression of primary experience outside the terms of first person discourse, that he sought.
It is a comparatively easy thing to supply the imagist poems that Pound went on to write with a few adjunct parts of speech and so make them over to the model of a more amenable normal discourse. But to turn 'In a Station of the Metro' into a simile or a personal statement is to import into the poem an additional content which it was Pound's whole purpose to reject. It is not possible to doctor the Cantos in this way but, faced with such an extended piece of writing in which the conventions of normal discourse are systematically dispensed with, the parallel recuperative strategy is to treat it as an accumulation of details. To do so is sheer folly. What the Collected Early Poems show is a mind searching for, and on the verge of discovering, a model of its form. In the Cantos that mind gives us the record of its passage through the world of inferior things, which memory treasured. Noble, pathetic, and deranged by turns, what is recorded was, to say the least, an act of immense worldly abnegation.
Andrew Crozier was joint-winner of the 1976 Alice Hunt Bartlett prize for his poem Pleats (Great Works Editions). Street Editions will publish his High Zero in 1978.
This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.