The HyperTexts

Ezra Pound: Master of Modernism

Ezra Pound was an important and influential figure in the early modernist movement. He was a sort of father or godfather to other poets such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway wrote of Pound: "He defends [his friends] when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. ... He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying ... he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide."

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 anemia.

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.

"En robe de parade" appears in Albert Samain's Au Jardin de l'Infante; it means something like "dressed for show."
Kensington Gardens is a fashionable London park; it contains the Palace Gardens, the Albert Memorial and statues of Queen Victoria, William III and Peter Pan.
Matthew 5.5: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

A 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.

Editor's Note: While Ezra Pound is widely considered to be the father or godfather of modernism in English poetry, he did tip his hat to Walt Whitman for "breaking the new wood." Some of Whitman's innovations that greatly influenced modernist poets to come included: ditching the metronome for a freer musical cadence; making end rhyme optional or abandoning it altogether; speaking clearly, without artifice; making all subjects fit themes for poems, including things deemed gross, coarse, vulgar and/or obscene by polite society, and treating subjects directly in the manner of haiku and other oriental poetry. When I read Pound's poem, I wonder if perhaps the son may have been more pig-headed than the father, but the commerce between the two has been fruitful, so perhaps all is well that ends well.―Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

The introduction below has been graciously provided by THT featured poet T. Merrill.

Since [THT Editor] Michael Burch seemed to think it would be interesting to have a piece from me on Ezra Pound, I decided I might as well be daring and accommodate.

As much as anyone I can think of, Pound—quite ironically really, considering the style of many of his own effusions—deserves to be regarded as the "Father Of Modern Poetry." As an acquaintance of mine used to like saying, "Some mothers have strange children," and perhaps the same could be said of some fathers.

Pound was sent by his own father to military school, where his bookishness drew ridicule from other students but where, nonetheless, he shone as a scholar and also got his first exposure to ancient languages, which were to become an invaluable and much-used tool in his later literary career. He went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he kept up his language studies, and where he met and courted Hilda Doolittle and also began a lifelong friendship with William Carlos Williams, who in time would become famous in NY literary circles as a proponent and champion practitioner of the New Poetry. From 1903 to 1906, Pound continued language studies at Hamilton College, where he focused mainly on Anglo-Saxon and Romance languages.

In 1907 he began teaching French and Spanish at Wabash, a small Presbyterian college in Indiana, but his incipient teaching career was nipped in the bud when he was discovered, for a second time, in his lodgings with a female impersonator he had invited to spend the night. In a letter to a college friend in 1907 about his first time being discovered with his exotic guest, he amusingly relates how he was "...found...sharing my meagre repast with the lady-gent impersonator in my privut apartments...find me a soft immoral place to light in when the she-faculty-wives git hold of that jewcy morsel." It was a different era, especially in deeply conservative Crawfordsville where Wabash was located, and with his repetition of the ungodly association, Pound's professorial debut abruptly ended with his dismissal from the college after only four months there.

In 1908 we find him in Europe as a journalist, and in the same year appeared his first volume of verse, a collection of about forty poems called A Lume Spento (literally, To A Candle Snuffed), which was privately published in Venice and whose title was inspired by the death of W. B. Smith, an artist with whom he'd had a deep friendship in his student days in Philadelphia. He then went to London to chase down Yeats, whom he regarded as the last word in matters poetic, and there, joining forces with poet Richard Aldington and others, he adopted and became a principal advocate for the school of poetic thought known as "Imagism," first conceived by English philosopher and critic T. E. Hulme, and also edited his first anthology, Des Imagistes (1914). Japanese poetry, haiku in particular, with its stark imagery capsulized into a tight free-verse form, was this school's main model and inspiration, and strict economy of language, and non-monotonous rhythms were accordingly two of its principal dictums. "In A Station At The Metro," presented below, is a good example of the favored style. But Pound fairly quickly lost interest in his conceptual adoptee after some quarrels with its main American proponent, Amy Lowell, and subsequently referred to the school as "Amygism."

In collaboration with two others, author Wyndham Lewis and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, he helped conceive another brainchild, "Vorticism," which primarily was a movement in the visual arts, and which eschewed sentimentalism and aimed at depicting, through a sort of fragmented lens, the harsh realities of the new industrial culture that came to be known as The Machine Age. He and his literary allies wrote numerous articles about this new movement.

In 1913 he became the secretary of his poetic idol, Yeats, and in the same year began corresponding with James Joyce, whom he went to great lengths in helping to gain an audience and recognition, writing many articles about him, and evidently holding him in high esteem. He even raised money for him and sent him clothes.

Poetry in Pound's view was not "entertainment," and he boasted of his literary elitism and publicly avowed his disdain for the common reader. It is perhaps no wonder then that he favored Joyce so much. While poetry can at times serve as a passably satisfying pastime for the poet himself, it is hard not to agree that poetry isn't "entertainment," since its sources and aims would suggest otherwise. Poetry is primarily, it seems to me, a sort of self-translation, a more or less labored reflection of what matters most to the poet, of some idea or feeling that urges itself on his or her consciousness and may even cry out for expression, and for preservation in a memorable form. But if poetry is not really born of any desire to please an audience—even if the poet may entertain a hope that there still might be one—it is by no means evident that poetic concerns never touch, nor in some degree coincide with, commonly shared ones, nor ever speak by chance to people not poets themselves in a way that is pleasing to them. Love, mortality, illness, separation, heartbreak, grief, loss, loneliness, disillusion, for just a handful of widely shared afflictions of the human condition, are after all quite natural and appropriate poetic themes, if it yet remains entirely likely that the poet will express his feelings in a style more powerful and compelling than is commonly encountered, and indeed in a language not commonly spoken.

Pound's own definition of great literature was "....simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." Probably this is just another way of expressing one of Imagism's principal tenets, that in composition of any kind, every word should be selected with particular attention to its potential for deepening and enriching one's theme, and all superfluous language should be rigorously avoided, and excised from a work when found. This is a reasonable enough proposition, I think, and when observed, can really only help make writing more concentrated and condensed.

Among the most admired of all Pound's writings are his Chinese translations, which can be found in his book Cathay, published in 1915.

Pound was variously labeled by different writer-friends. Wyndham Lewis called him "the Trotsky of literature," Yeats called him "a solitary volcano," and Eliot, whose "Wasteland" Pound is famous for having edited and trimmed down, called him "the miglior fabbro" (the superior maker).

Pound had a wife and concurrently a mistress, and had a child by each.

Jumping far ahead, in 1945 Pound, who had been an admirer of Mussolini, was arrested and taken prisoner in Italy by American forces for the propagandizing he did on Italian radio during the war that got him branded as anti-semitic; and on being returned to the US he was charged with treason. His case went to trial, but since psychiatrists that were summoned to deliver medical testimony declared him paranoid, instead of possibly receiving a death sentence he ended up in a hospital for the criminally insane. During his twelve-year residency at this hospital he received the Bollingen Prize from Yale, in 1949, for his Pisan Cantos. After his release, which in part was due to letters written on his behalf by various influential authors, including Robert Frost, he returned to Italy, and in 1972, reminiscently of Thomas Mann's famous work, he died in Venice, a virtual hermit.

My own favorite Pound poem, of the fair sampling of his works I've read, is "Histrion," which relates an experience often ascribed to poets, that of helplessly assuming a voice not unlike that of poets they have admired. And readers may indeed notice this principle at work in much of Pound's own poetry.

Ts'ai Chi'h

The petals fall in the fountain,
the orange-coloured rose-leaves,
Their ochre clings to the stone.

Ts'ai Chi'h (Ts'ao Chih) was a Chinese poet (AD 192-232) who wrote "five-character poems."

In A Station Of The Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.


No man hath dared to write this thing as yet,
And yet I know, how that the souls of all men great
At times pass through us,
And we are melted into them, and are not
Save reflexions of their souls.
Thus am I Dante for a space and am
One Francois Villon, ballad-lord and thief,
Or am such holy ones I may not write
Lest blasphemy be writ against my name;
This for an instant and the flame is gone.

'Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
Translucent, molten gold, that is the "I"
And into this some form projects itself:
Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
And as the clear space is not if a form's
Imposed thereon,
So cease we from all being for the time,
And these, the Masters of the Soul, live on.

Ancient Music

Winter is icumen 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.
        Damm 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.

An Immorality

Sing we for love and idleness,
Naught else is worth the having.

Though I have been in many a land,
There is naught else in living.

And I would rather have my sweet,
Though rose-leaves die of grieving,

Than do high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men's believing.

The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-Yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden,
They hurt me.
I grow older,
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you,
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

The Rest

O helpless few in my country, 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.


When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs,
I am compelled to admit
That man is the superior animal.

When I consider the curious habits of man,
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.

The HyperTexts