Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man & His Work. Volume 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920,
A. David Moody [507pp. £25. Oxford University Press]

I'm sure A. David Moody has asked himself more than once whether the world needs another biography of Ezra Pound. What is Pound to us, precisely a century after the publication of his first book? If you're past fifty and read him in your youth you're likely to remember what a giant he seemed, his work a master key to the reading and practice of modern poetry. Perhaps you wonder now whether you too easily succumbed to his didacticism. If you're younger then I suspect you find him a little bemusing, if not be-mused. The 'hyperaesthesia' (as he himself came to call it) of his early work sits so uneasily with his concurrent claim to 'modernity' while his obsession with the archaeology of poetic form fuels his passion for archaic diction to the point that he can at times look far less 'modern' than some poets of the fin-de-siecle. What exactly did the striving 'to resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry' have to do with the shaping of a modernist poetic in any way comparable with, say, the contemporary revolution in the visual arts? In this long retrospect Stein's dismantling of the sentence and description and narrative, or the Dadaists' demolition of syntax and the semantic element in poetry, not to mention the blazing artillery of Enemy of the Stars, seem more relevant to a literature looking for survival in a self-styled 'culture' guzzling its own spew of text and image. The young Pound seems by contrast a distant figure, a weathered statue on a sepulchre commemorating '"the sublime" / In the old sense' - he envisaged it himself, with an irony which does not entirely convince. Even in the more ferociously 'modern' Cantos the image persists. Does this mean that Pound has now to be regarded as a strictly 'historical' figure, an undoubtably fascinating and complex subject but of a distinctly other time - or is he as relevant to our current practice of poetry as he did once seem? 2008 may be as good a time as any to consider such a thing and certainly it's the question a new biography must address.

Moody is not a biographer who indulges in speculative gossip. His book is in some respects a chronicle, proceeding year by year and sometimes month by month; he stays close to his sources, whether poems or letters, published or preserved in manuscript, all usefully identified in the endnotes. This procedure makes his work invaluable to a non-specialist. I didn't know for example that Pound's notebook of his walking tour through Provence had been preserved and published; Moody's excerpts throw considerable light on the poems 'Near Perigord' and 'Provincia Deserta' which can be seen as both the culmination of a decade's study of the troubadours and a bridge to the Cantos

The Cantos
lie largely beyond the scope of Moody's first volume but he has them in view from the start. He offers illuminating analyses of the arrangements of the pre-Cantos collections, seeing most of them as divisible structures prefiguring the tripartite architecture of Pound's 'forty-year epic', foreshadowed as early as Scriptor Ignotus in A Lume Spento (1908). A Lume Spento probably does not appear to most 21st Century eyes as a work of 'revolutionary intent' but Moody's exposure of its 'covert and ambitious plotting' will strike a familiar note to readers of the Cantos. '[...] for the first third of the collection the states of mind being studied are those of poets in their poems. [...] The second part [...] has twenty poems in three sets. The first set of six poems is dominated by recessions from life and love into dream and death. [...] The second set has eight poems forming a kind of ascending chain of poetic being. [...] In the third set, again of six poems, the gloom and death of the decadence are confronted and overcome by the affirmative powers of poetry.'

Similar structural breakdowns of Personae
, Exultations and Canzoni enable Moody to reveal an internal continuity among poems we might easily dismiss as a hotchpotch of apprentice work or (as Pound later had it) 'stale creampuffs'. It is notable however that Moody finds the broader themes of the later work most evident in the prose - he sees 'the matrix of Pound's own long poem' in The Spirit of Romance and in the New Age articles 'I gather the limbs of Osiris' hears Pound 'declaring his ambition to recover and renew the vital principle of his civilization.'

It is also notable that Moody detects no such structural arrangement in Lustra
, in which a reader begins to discern the foggy outlines of the 'modern' world. Perhaps Pound had for a time to release himself from his 'ambitious plotting'. Lustra's 'Salutation' mode now tends to embarrass with its self-conscious rebellion - Pound's co-agitator Wyndham Lewis had a happier knack of blasting and blessing. Nevertheless the Martial-like epigrams come as some relief, as do the brief poems in the anecdotal style which would finally embed itself in the more comic passages of the Cantos. Moody offers some sound comments on this period, always with the suggestion that Pound's vision of poetry ran ahead of his practice. 'This is certainly "realistic literature",' he writes of Lustra, 'yet it lacks the "solidity" and the coherent grip on "things as they are" that Pound was demanding. In fact Cathay [...] is the larger work with a far deeper and more comprehensive grasp on life.' I would add that Cathay is the work in which Pound settled into his distinctive verse-line, the line which stands so powerfully on its own, in and of itself - in his own words but in an earlier and unfulfilled context, 'austere, direct, free from emotional slither' and 'as much like granite as it can be'. He told James Joyce that he was 'perhaps better at digging up corpses of let us say Li Po, or more lately Sextus Propertius, than in preserving this bitched mess of modernity.' And yet - this is the paradox of Pound - in the personae of Li Po and Propertius he did find his focus on the 'mess'.

Moody calls Homage to Sextus Propertius
'a thoroughly modern, Vorticist "portrait"; the refraction of the ancient poet through a modern intelligence.' I'm sure Moody is right that the Propertius was also the work which enabled Pound finally to hit on the dominant mode of the Cantos which we see for the first time in The Fourth Canto. Here, Moody remarks, Pound 'invented a wholly new kind of poetry in English.' 'The canto is [...] one great ideogram.' (The other enabling medium had of course been Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.) But Moody is also surely right to say that 'still it lacked realism, lacked the direct engagement with the conditions of contemporary living which he had been calling for in his criticism and celebrating in the works of Joyce and Eliot and Lewis. The canto's method was modern, but its bearing on the modern world was oblique. Composed as it was out of myth and legend and poetry, it was not grounded in ordinary reality.' Perhaps Pound's own recognition of the fact underwrites Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, one of his most likeable and yet in many respects imponderable sequences. Moody's explication of the Mauberley persona's complexities is exemplary, and I was particularly struck by his remark that 'This is writing in which anything that is said may be unsaid in the saying; in which statements may be turned against themselves; in which nearly everything becomes equivocal, and meanings are hard to pin down.' This account seems to me to locate Pound's work in an aspect of 'modernity' (if not 'post-modernity') which 21st Century readers will instantly recognise, and in doing so it demonstrates the work's continuing relevance. It is nonetheless curious that it is Hugh Selwyn Mauberley rather than The Fourth Canto which gives rise to the reflection, for we can also feel that Pound had a point when he remarked to Thomas Hardy that 'The Mauberley is thin.'

The contextualisation of Pound's poetry in his London years is the backbone of Moody's first volume. He has a firm fix (and sometimes a wry aside) on the frenetic activity Pound constantly maintained. Probably no egotist was ever such a selfless promoter of others' work. Anyone must be astonished at the sheer amount of prose Pound turned out on practically any subject and under this or that pseudonym. 'My present existence is that of a highly mechanized typing volcano' he wrote to Joyce with a touch of not entirely undeserved self-glory. But while the articles paid the rent they also provided a channel for Pound's propagandist inclinations. The teacher all too often becomes preacher. Pound the moralist is ever willing to tick the world off. He cannot only be the poetry resuscitator convinced that the pursuit of le mot juste will restore his beloved art to health: he has to believe that the resuscitation will extend throughout the body politic and lay the foundations of the earthly paradise. 'A nation that cannot write clearly cannot be trusted to govern, nor yet to think' - such a statement seems mostly misguided in its apparent expectation that it will be acted on soonish. 'We artists who have been so long the despised are about to take over' - perhaps it is the notion of the artist-ruler which feels so alien, particularly in the general current of modernist art. We must be aware too that Pound's later career, as the poetry resuscitator became the Fascist apologist, would be a dreadful lesson in the pitfalls of any such ambition. Moody will have to wrestle with these matters in his second volume and I look forward to it.

      © Alan Halsey 2008