Ever heard that gobsmacking troubadourist Ezra Pound read his elaborate, funkified sestina, “Sestina: Altafore,” in a voice that is one part American-as-European, swilling-with-the-rolling-R’s accent and cantorian swoons and another part a sort of goofy Hailey, Idaho carnival barker? The nifty Open Culture website is featuring a recording on its blog right now. Check it out. It’ll put a smile on your face for a day.
Pound reads in the late 19th century style where the poet practically sings the poem. Yeats read this way. And: though he was a 20th century man, Dylan Thomas sort of. It was the sonorous Eliot and cozy-voiced Moore and Keystone State nasal-y Williams and especially that wad-of gravel-in-his-cheeks Robert Frost who wrested poetry recordings away from crooning and toward speaking.
Here is the poem “Sestina: Altaforte”
Loquitur: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a
stirrer-up of strife.
Have I dug him up again?
The scene in at his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur.
“The Leopard,” the device of Richard (Cúur de Lion).
Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.
In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!
And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ‘gainst all darkness opposing.
The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.
Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”
And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace!”
Subtracting the great passages from The Cantos, especially in the Pisan era, I consider this one of Pound’s better poems. Listening to Pound read it out loud (and did I mention the kettle drum beating in the background!?) makes me love the anachronism of this poem, love the historical record of this poem, and love the crazy poet in the attic-ness of this poem all the more.
But it also un-lures me from Pound’s poetry. It’s getting less and less contemporary and more and more lost to time. So isn’t it time to admit that we have skewed fantasies about Pound’s literary merit— even if, and here I should add, if even you can, ignore his violent fascism and anti-semitism. (Pound was a mess all right. How bad were those two political errors in judgment, you ask? A simple google search will land you, right now, today, on Neo-Nazi websites that extol Ezra Pound’s economic, historical, and political ideas as in sync with theirs. I’d give you the link but I don’t want to increase their filthy traffic. In the end, Pound’s understanding of history was tragic intellectually and disastrous for him personally, and that’s not just my view but also of his great protector, Donald Davie, who adored him.)
But, back to the poetry: Pound’s influence on the middle of the 20th century is without dispute. No Pound then no Bunting, no Olson, no Duncan, no H.D. And that group begat Levertov and McHugh and C. D. Wright. But there are influencers and there are poets. Pound is the former. Disagree? Please, I invite you to ake it up in the comments section below.
The most honest thing we could do today is reevaluate Pound’s poems in the spirit of a new century and several developing new poetics. That would be, shall we say, giving Pound the “Pound treatment.” As Pound called for reassessing contemporary poetry’s relationship to the Augustans and the Victorians, we ought to reevaluate our relationship to the Modernists. Not deny their existence as in the Collinsesque, Kooseresque fashion, but repudiate their chilly me-ism and vortexes.
Here’s one place I’m staking out: I’m done with giving lip service to writing as geometric patterning. What Pound called ‘vorticism’ has run its literary course. It’s tinny-eared, avant-traditional and, when handled by most poets, it’s a form of infantile rote transcription. Like a key made from a copy of a key, it never locks or unlocks quite like the original. The poetry of abstraction, the poetry of the disassembled, the poetry of mass, space, and volume has become not just unmemorable but hidebound. There. So long. I’ll remember the good times. We can only be friends now.
But one exception: Charles Wright, a poet I deeply care for, who ten years into his career publishing poems rejected the most abstract strata of Pound’s register in favor of a grounded form of mediation and spiritual questing while all the while turning geometric patterning into cohesive thought.
Should today’s poets be looking to Pound for their influence? Should our professional poetry teachers be using him to teach our emerging poets? Well, look where you must. But even Wordsworth’s poems (which I adore and revere) are less important to working poets today that all the poets influenced by him. And so it goes.
Poetry Wire Sound Check: One of the great free audio resources on the Web is Penn Sound, curated by Charles Bernstein and Al Filreis. It’s a fantastic archive. As is the audio archive at the Poetry Foundation, edited by Catherine Halley with archive editor James Sitar. (Know others readers should know about? E-mail me and I’ll post them in the coming weeks.)