Pound mugshot 1945 whilst under arrest for Treason in Italy
An interesting session last night with Sarah Jackson again focusing on imagery which had an unexpected relevance to me and not in the direct way I might have imagined. There was a good selection of examples and the background reading was interesting if only because it confirmed what I already thought about both Pound and Frost i.e. that Pound was a seminal modernist but a terrible self-obsessed diva and closet fascist from the get-go and that Frost was far truer to the democratic principles I hold dear. Pound probably the more important historically especially in history of modernism but that doesn’t mean I like him one bit and that has coloured my appreciation of his poetry.
I feel far closer to Frost. Reading a small Bantam book I was amazed at how he continually shape-shifted away from easy categorisation even in early poems. His father was a Democratic politician and this democratic Californian start informs a lot of his worldview. He resisted easy labels such as ‘nature-poet’ indeed John Ciardi said ‘Robert Frost is no lollipop’ referring to a saccharine film portrait of the poet as nature poet..barns and fields persona to the fore. His essay ‘The Form a Poem makes’ from introduction to Collected Poems 1939 (also available in ‘The Prose of Robert Frost‘) I knew by attribution purely because of the wondrous and off-quoted line
Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its
The Do’s and Don’ts by Pound and Aldington in ‘Retrospect’ I found less inspirational if only because in full document ( the class excerpt missed out much of the full ‘Retrospect’ which available here) Pound spends fifty per cent of the time slagging off or praising all and sundry from a Turkish war correspondent to fullsome praise for anything by Wyndham Lewis who famously ended up driving across marshes pursued by a flying submarine…..which says it all really. Will Self sometimes feels like Wyndham Lewis’s bastard offspring which probably not a link he’d thank me for but I get the impression Self would have been happier in 1913 than now.
The taint of Futurism/Vorticism is like a sickly smell around the sloganeering here and is basically an incipient Fascism in all but name. The famous Imagist poem ‘In a station of the Metro’ is more interesting to me for its title than for the pseudo Japoniste sentiment ( a reflection of trends in art 20 years earlier perhaps?) By locating on ‘The Metro’ Pound not only adheres to the classic Yankee abroad fetishism for the French capital but also links directly to the ‘cleansing’ forces of modernism as represented by the machine. The date of the statement (published in Poetry in March 1913) is telling. This is surfing on the boundless sense of optimism for a mechanical future that ground to a literal halt in the mud of The Somme just a few years later.
Pound did not fight in World War One preferring to view from the safety of Bloomsbury where he continued to promote the nascent ‘Modernism’ and influence the Lewis inspired Vorticist movement ( literally naming VORTEX’ in one article’). As a catalyst,tub-thumper and investigator of obscure European literature he has no equal and save for Ford Maddox Ford no challenger in early Twentieth century influence. However as Hugh Kenner pointed out he also is probably the least read of the avant-garde with William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting and other Objectivists influenced by him having far greater actual readership. In Great Britain the actions of the allegedly ‘mad’ Pound in the ‘cage’ and his support for the fascist point of view ( LINK) in the war certainly affected native support for his writing and still does.
What is fascinating is how many of the sounder strictures that Pound evinces in ‘Retrospect’ form the core texts of contemporary ‘Creative Writing’ instruction almost 130 years later. Raymond Carver had a 3×4 inch card above his desk with a Pound quote…
Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.
This is interesting as Donal Foreman points out here this statement seems unimpeachable but fragments like the supposed compression of his Imagist poems do collapse under intense scrutiny. Pound’s war on adverbial abstraction reflected more of his setting, a forceful ‘clean’ machine-like stringency against the puffy,flabby post-Romantic past than an actually taut new line. He was a brilliant self and general publicist . Alive now, he would be a Saatchi of his times perhaps, constantly ‘branding’and re-branding his own and other artists efforts to fulfill a ‘manifesto’ of his own imagining. Like Saatchi or Brand this kind of messianic delusion leads to madness or breakdown or both.
Yet Pound’s influence remains strong across countless creative writing courses and in countless self-help manuals and online guides with very little acknowledgement of their source. Two occasions of countless there, used deliberately, Pound would spin in his grave no doubt.
That a self-confessed Fascist should be the originator of the fundamental’disciplines’ so many left-wing leaning courses is an interesting irony. There is, I believe, a deeper meaning at work here. What Pound did was clear a path away from the mawkish, sentimental effects of mass publishing. It was literary elitism. Wheat and chaff approach which why it popular now in a time of similar uncertainty and mass cultural overload. The second coming of the Victorian. Frost was an instinctive democrat he did not impose strictures and he benefitted from Pound’s storming of the gates’ of the Edwardian syrup-masters but never aligned himself with his politics.
Pound as stated in Retrospect had no problem with people writing sentimental and mawkish drivel but he had a big problem with it being respected and ‘published’ that is the key. He was a golden age medievalist intent on holding the fort against the barbarism of the modern age as exemplified in the photograph, the cinema and the penny broadsheet.
It is ironic that William Morris more enthusiasticly embraced technology than Pound. Morris used photography to examine Italian fonts and also called it up when needing to prove ‘copyright’. I cannot recall Pound ever discussing the new visual technologies. Frost had several engagements with film and not least just before his death in ‘A Lover’s Quarrel’ (LINK) where he honoured by J.F.Kennedy. Hard to ever imagine Pound doing this. Chalk and cheese.
Right now, 100 years exactly on from Pound’s proto-modernism, I feel Frost’s shape-shifting and non-alignment pact has far more to teach us than Pound’s ranting from the battlement of elitism. Let us take the common-sense and filter out the stridency as suits us but we ignore the darker art in Pound at our peril. At root it believes in a new order.