Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dickinson and Pound: the long and short of it

A major movement in the creation of a modernist poetry was the effort to slough off the well-worn devices of  the last  three hundred years of poetic devices and the creaking, rusting, swerving structures that gave them purchase and replace them with a more direct address of things. One could also maintain that there was a concentrated effort to make the idea behind poems and their subjects clearer and less abstract as well. What was once useful in a world where God was the prime mover and quite nearly each thing and event that was beheld was the result of His good graces and undisclosed Plan was now a quaint murmur of suffocating cliches and half-hearted apologies that obscured the actual world; the phenomenal world was hidden from view , what was considered wisdom was only a means to contain the masses. Robert Pinsky, in an intriguing blog entry, brings to our attention the two poets , Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound, who had done more than any other in creating the style and means of a  very succinct, blunt modernist verse. One wanted to maintain an internal equilibrium with what she wrote on paper, the other wanted to change the world in something very much like his own image.

This is an interesting connection  Dickinson and Pound, with two unlike personalities. Dickinson didn't care to make her thoughts clear for public consumption or to see the world differently; what she poems were notes to herself , where the solitary but active mind's penchant for irony, contradiction and a changing personal outlook on mortality, over time, were all the mattered to her. This was the poetry of a mind that, by need for personal preference, was solitary much of the time, dwelling, thinking, abstracting on much of the insoluble vicissitudes of life, those matters being nothing less than the self in the world and arguing whether one were merely existing or if the fact of one's flesh and blood constituted a benefit to the world.  

This is the unending introspection that is seamless, without end or beginning, a stream, and her writing, I believe, was a project to pare the  overlapping ontologies that might have driven lesser minds to variations of unhinged utterances and present them as clear perceptions, jewels of irony and reductionist wit. Hers was a desire to make her own notions clear, concise, beyond the confusion a studied rhetoric brings. She was so direct that hers was an abstract art that rejected Abstraction for its own sake. I've always thought of her poems as akin to a view through a microscope, or at least an intense focused  magnifying glass. 

She suggests, I think, the writings of Wallace Stevens decades later, and John Ashbery more decades later still, with her world so closely observed and tersely addressed that her estimations constitute a category of Ideal Types ; certainly her work seems dedicated to the short summations of proposed notions and how those notions come up short;  the elision in her  work , for me, is an absent middle section where the theory was applied and  where it had failed. The third part of the poems are the results, the moral, the larger irony of expectation meeting the unfathomable truth that is existence, replete with a result quite unexpected.  I don't think Dickinson's poems were mere jottings; they are, I believe , products of hard, concentrated reflection and it is the poet's genius that made those leaps of perception into the dense, difficult poems that are her legacy. Hers was a clarity meant for her self alone, a method of reaching conclusions on matters her imagination would not leave alone. Her short hand taught contemporary, by direct readings or the influence of other poets who arrived in Dickinson's wake, how to  turn introspection into an enticingly evocative sort of poetry , a system of insight that challenges philosophy as the best method as to why life is so difficult and why we make ourselves so unhappy with the given strata of existence.
Pound, to the other extreme, was very public , dynamic, restless with his notions and had a life long desire Pound, to the other extreme, was very public , dynamic, restless with his notions and had a life long desire to change the manner in which the masses saw the world. Rid of the culture of outmoded, old, obsolete, incorrect and purposefully deceitful cosmologies and you will improve our collective. His inventions took much from the Chinese poets he admired and claimed to have translated--whether he really understood what they were doing or saying or whether he did any actual translation is another matter. Pound wanted poems to have the ability to get things exactly; there was the appealing idea in the kind of Modernism he proposed that we have to shed the baggage of the past, the useless and irrelevant inventions of antique times and make for ourselves a new way of using language that can pierce the  veil between us and the actual world; he wanted to break the shackles of the overly -referenced Plato's Cave  so we can enter the light, figuratively (I suppose) with a native language that was means of witnessing , defining and molding reality, not masking it in excuses and daydreams.
“Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—”

Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan humanity , and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many who would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is indeed a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not suffer . Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a ready made narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her. While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking , I think, is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.

This was, more or less, the intention of the Imagists from the start, to write manifestos, to argue actively and loudly against older literary conceits and decadent cultures, to purify the senses and the words used to define the world and to remake  a world for the future.  This is an attractive pitch on the face of it, that art must create new ways of seeing the world, but Pound's poetics were mixed up with his politics which were, we remember , racist, anti-Semitic, and was attractive to various avant gard movements that were obsessed with machines, speed, destruction; the world must be destroyed by virtually any means and available technology so that new ideas of how society is to be structured can arise. 'Structured" is the operative word, as Pound wanted power over people more than control of his own writing;  Imagism, it seems to me, was only a start of growing set of ideas that the world could only be changed through violent dynamics. 

He blamed a lot of groups for what he considered to be the decline of Western culture and it's not surprising that he found a patron in the Italian Fascists , for whom he made propaganda broadcasts during WW2.   Brief, clear, concise descriptions of objects , the hall marks of Imagist poetry, remain in strong evidence in more contemporary work by younger poets.  He had an agenda, though, and his is the case where we can give thanks that poets are not the literal legislators of the world.