A Few Don'ts

Ezra Pound. Selected Poems and Translations
, ed. Richard Sieburth
(390 pp, £16.99, Faber and Faber)

When this book arrived, the first thing I noticed was its aesthetic beauty. Plain and elegant, I hoped it would be a sign of what to expect in its contents, at least crediting the imagiste with the simplicity he applauded and so furiously encouraged.

Immediately, the book seems to be justifying its own publication. Beginning with a chronology of Pound's life, not only did I feel like I was a fan of Pound's but suddenly a student - which, we are told in the foreword notes, was Pound's true intention. I didn't quite understand the need for this heavy annotation - surely an imagiste's work should speak for itself with no need for this kind of self-awareness. Considering Pound's plea for the direct treatment of 'the thing', these poems are not treated directly but somewhat relentlessly dithered around, needlessly justified, and I felt like I was constantly being told: 'If you haven't worked out why Ezra Pound is good yet, allow me to explain it to you'. My question was: should poetry need to explain itself like this? Pound's personal justifications seem somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least the reader can appreciate Pound's blase arrogance. Take this Rihaku translation and the notes he adds:

     The Jewel Stairs' Grievance

     The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
     It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
     And I let down the crystal curtain
     And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

     NOTE - Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something   
     to      complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who   
     complains.      Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of    
     weather. Also she has      come early, for the dew has not merely whitened   
     the stairs, but has soaked her      stockings. The poem is especially prized    
     because she utters no direct reproach.

It's hard to know here whether Pound is justifying his own translation, or lecturing us on his own work; or precisely why he chose to translate it in the first place. Perhaps wrongly, I could assume that the footnote is as important as the poem itself, that one could argue it was all part of the art. Either way, this collection treats Pounds own poetry with a similar - but more confused - apologia.

That's not to say that this isn't a fascinating book. To see Pound's progression from his early, more traditional writing is inspiring: you can almost sense his feelings as a young poet, how he plays with form and tests himself within the boundaries of villanelles and sestinas.

Looking at this collection objectively, it feels as if it fits and starts at first but settles into itself the more you read, which makes sense. His earlier poems are not what I personally come to expect from Pound but raised a smile to my lips; I liked how unsure they were, it was nice - somewhat revealing, perhaps - to see what Pound was like before he was so sure of his voice, that he too was once a struggling and confused poet. For example, the first stanza of ‘La Fraisne (Scene: The Ash Wood of Melvern)':

     For I was a gaunt, grave councilor
     Being in all things wise, and very old,
     But I have put aside this folly and the cold
     That old age weareth for a cloak.

Having read this with no prior knowledge I would not have recognised this as Pound's. It was fascinating, and to read the progression, to see that become so pared-down and minimal, to organically change into something as imagist as ‘Shop Girl':

     For a moment she rested against me
     Like a swallow half blown to the wall,
     And they talk of Swinburne's women,
     And the shepherdess meeting with Guido.
     And the harlots of Baudelaire.

The joy of this was all mine, witnessing the tangible journey Pound took, as all poets do, as a poet himself. Perhaps the thing I dislike about this book, the thing I'm ice-skating around is how much like an academic text it reads. I can make my own judgements from it, I can forge my own path through it. I never understood Ezra Pound as an intrinsically academic poet until I read this collection, its extensive footnotes, its justifications, its self-awareness and fawning. I don't dislike Pound at all, but reading this felt like a set study-text rather than something for pleasure. This is an odd response for me, because normally I welcome academic notes. I love essays, articles and manifestos - but I think my poetry collections ought to retain their voice in the poem. Reading this book was like reading a poetry book alone, but with someone constantly tapping on my shoulder telling me precisely why I was reading it, what I was reading and what I ought to think about it, whilst constantly pushing their glasses up the bridge of their nose and saying 'actually' a lot. My mind flowing through from the poems to the Cantos to the translations felt interrupted as if by someone with an irritating cough. However, this book does sell itself on its academia, claiming on the inside cover that: 'Unlike previous selections, [this] edition provides annotation to the early poems as well as a commentary on the later Cantos -- indispensable to any reader wanting to follow Pound in his epic odyssey...'.

Perhaps it's just me but no, no I don't want to. I want to read the poems, I want to make my own mind up. Whilst it's a brilliant thing that some of the older translations have been added, and whilst the annotations are indeed concise and splendidly academic, I couldn't help but feel they belonged in a separate book for that purpose, and I feel the collection could have benefited from taking tips from Pound himself when he famously wrote: 'What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow', in his essay 'A Few Don'ts'.

     © Sian S. Rathore 2011