Friday, September 23, 2011

A sharp stick in the eye

Ezra Pound is some one who has given me eyestrain and head aches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything that was remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history, or to lay claim to it's reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned, but the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid.

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the  vernaculars of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz , theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always a close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is poet as eroticized intelligence.
A reader should care if a poet's work adds up to the sum of their theories because it's a difference between talking a good game and playing one. Pound seemed to me to have the instincts of a good talent scout. I'm grateful for his remarks to his fellows, but I wish reading his work wasn't a path I had to go through in order to find the better poets.
If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet).

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough with out his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might other wise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. It can be said of Eliot, though, that he was attempting to run interference with the critical reception of his own poetry by supplying a good amount of writing dedicated to form, or seeming to form, a substantial theory of his. A neat trick, this, since the popular critics and attending academics cannot begin their post mortems on  Eliot's verse without first engaging what he had to say about the practice and purpose of poetry; in some sense he swayed opinion to regard his work favorably. The point, though, is that one is required to deal with Eliot first on his own terms; his ideas color your findings regardless of the position you take.

Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

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