After unloading on Modernism I felt—guilt. What boorish behavior, I said to myself. Why can’t you just get along? Why can’t you be like Edward Hirsch? He just published The Heart of American Poetry, where he writes “deeply personal readings of forty essential American poems we thought we knew… exploring how these poems have sustained his own life and how they might uplift our diverse but divided nation.” Why do I find this insufferable? How am I any less insufferable? Instead of my blog nourishing our diverse and thriving ‘community of poets‘, I oil my axe. Even here in Vermont, I pick fights with former Vermont poet laureates—and in the local paper no less. I guess I enjoy blood-letting. In the clash of arms there’s more to be learned about poetry (for me) but probably not for the vast majority of readers who prefer to simply enjoy poetry, not dispute it. Robert Frost once wrote that “No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body.” Same here.
That got me thinking, why am I like this?
The answer, strictly in terms of poetry, is that I might be more like Ezra Pound than not. Pound had little patience for the generation of poets preceding him, and neither do I. I find little to admire in the poetry of the latter 20th century. Like him, for better or worse, I have opinions about how poetry should be written. For Pound, the aesthetics of Georgian poets made him grind his teeth. He struck out anything resembling it from Eliot’s The Waste Land. Britannica has the following to say of Georgian poetics:
~ …taken as a whole, much of the Georgians’ work was lifeless. It took inspiration from the countryside and nature, and in the hands of less gifted poets, the resulting poetry was diluted and middlebrow conventional verse of late Romantic character. “Georgian” came to be a pejorative term, used in a sense not intended by its progenitors: rooted in its period and looking backward rather than forward.
Pound played his part in that characterization. When Frost came to England, he said he had ‘come to the land of The Golden Treasury. That is what I came for.’ Pound referred to that same anthology as ‘that stinking sugar teat’. Pound’s objections to Georgian Poetry were both political, he bristled at their insular British imperialism, and aesthetic—what he perceived as their roots in Victorian verse and sensibility. Interestingly, when Poetry’s Harriet Monro planned the series of anthologies called Georgian Poetry, she originally meant to include poems by Frost and Pound. They were excluded at the last minute when Edward Marsh decided to keep the anthology a purely British anthology. That might have contributed to Pound’s contempt, but his aesthetic differences were nonetheless very real.
If it’s possible to set aside Pound’s antisemitism, which TS Eliot shared by the way, and Fascist collaborating; if it’s possible to consider his ambitions and inestimable generosity in isolation (to writers and poets including Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot, Yeats, and Robert Frost) then I admire him as a poet. Even if the execution of his vision was flawed, The Waste Land wouldn’t exist in its current form without him. To quote Hollis, who was referencing Hemingway, “He witnessed their wills and he loaned his own money, and encouraged in each of them a fortitude for life. ‘And in the end,” said Hemingway, “a few of them refrain from knifing him at the first opportunity.'” [p. 319, The Waste Land, A Biography of a Poem]. He had an eye for greatness in other poets and writers, and knew where to find it even when the writers themselves didn’t. Pound didn’t accomplish what he did by writing glowing encomiums. He picked fights. He made enemies. While there’s a place for those who think every poem is precious, I like the Pounds of the world. I’m of the mind, as I’ve written before, that it’s the responsibility of every generation to smash the sacred icons of the generation before. There hasn’t been enough of that in my opinion. Despite the unqualified praise that has anthologized many latter 20th century poets—they’ve produced little that holds a candle to Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Cummings, etc… Freed by an elder generation from the conventions and mannerisms of the 19th century, they turned modernism into their own mannered conventions. There are latter 20th century poets who stand out, but they aren’t, by any stretch, among the great poets.
So maybe this post is partly to further clarify what I wrote in Matthew Hollis & the death of The Waste Land. I meant, not the death of The Waste Land, but the death of the mannered and conventional poetics that grew from its example. I like and admire the modernist poets. The Waste Land itself, along with a number of other poems by Eliot, rank among the very greatest. Pound, on the other hand, was no Eliot. His Cantos fail the test of first rate poetry but, to his credit, he was truly original and was attempting a poetry equal to his vision. In my show of penitence, I decided to finally buy my own copy of the Cantos (the full text is available online). And it was this copy that spurred this post.
The book was discarded by the Chandler/Gilbert Library in Arizona. What made me feel like I ought to revisit Ezra was the due date slip. The book was only checked out once, due back on April 24th 1990. The book was printed in 1986. So, arguably, the book was only read/checked-out once during its 37 years at the library. Pound himself recognized the inaccessibility of the Cantos and worried that his poetry would be forgotten (despite Eliot’s reassurances). Inasmuch as Pound himself is integral to the story of modernist poetry, his own writings won’t be forgotten. But they may be seldom read. The same fate awaits most, if not all, of the better known poets of the latter 20th century.
I also picked up Pound’s Personæ, an original hard cover printed in 1926. More of my making amends.
There’s a rugged quality to Pound’s versification that I like, despite or because of his contradictory predilection for archaic grammar and poeticisms—thees and thous, hasts and haths, -ests and -eths. And yet it can work. I like it most of all in his poem, The Seafarer. The idiosyncrasies of Pound’s versification feel perfectly suited to the rugged and ancient Anglo-Saxon he was translating. It is, frankly, a breath of fresh air next to the generic and characterless versification of contemporary free verse. Pound left off, as he called it, the “platitudinous address to the Deity” which, some argue, was added later by a separate author. My own opinion is that the Christian moralizing of the final third are nothing like the first two thirds of the poem. They possess none of the evocative poetry but read like the self-satisfied bloviating of a third rate theologian. You can read a complete modern translation here. Pound was right to omit the final lines, in my opinion. Based on the quality of the poetry and the complete shift in tone, it’s hard to imagine that the poem, as we have it now, is by a single author. My own completely evidence-free speculation is that the original Anglo-Saxon Seafarer concluded with a possibly similar but more secular, if not ambivalent, note. The original poetry certainly would have been much better. But this was entirely inadequate to the sensibilities of some secondary author who couldn’t resist closing the poem with a pompous and aphoristic sermon—much like the prim Victorians who loved nothing better than a closing moral. If I’m correct, then the secondary author probably also touched up earlier portions of the poem. Pound was having none of it.
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days Hardship endured oft. Bitter breast-cares have I abided, Known on my keel many a care’s hold, And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted, My feet were by frost benumbed. Chill its chains are; chafing sighs Hew my heart round and hunger begot Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not That he on dry land loveliest liveth, List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea, Weathered the winter, wretched outcast Deprived of my kinsmen; Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew, There I heard naught save the harsh sea And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries, Did for my games the gannet’s clamour, Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter, The mews' singing all my mead-drink. Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed With spray on his pinion. Not any protector May make merry man faring needy. This he little believes, who aye in winsome life Abides ’mid burghers some heavy business, Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft Must bide above brine. Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north, Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now The heart's thought that I on high streams The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone. Moaneth alway my mind’s lust That I fare forth, that I afar hence Seek out a foreign fastness. For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst, Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed; Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare Whatever his lord will. He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight Nor any whit else save the wave's slash, Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water. Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries, Fields to fairness, land fares brisker, All this admonisheth man eager of mood, The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks On flood-ways to be far departing. Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying, He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow, The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not — He the prosperous man — what some perform Where wandering them widest draweth. So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock, My mood ’mid the mere-flood, Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide. On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me, Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer, Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly, O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow My lord deems to me this dead life On loan and on land, I believe not That any earth-weal eternal standeth Save there be somewhat calamitous That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain. Disease or oldness or sword-hate Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body. And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after — Laud of the living, boasteth some last word, That he will work ere he pass onward, Frame on the fair earth ’gainst foes his malice, Daring ado, ... So that all men shall honour him after And his laud beyond them remain ’mid the English, Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast, Delight mid the doughty. Days little durable, And all arrogance of earthen riches, There come now no kings nor Cæsars Nor gold-giving lords like those gone. Howe’er in mirth most magnified, Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest, Drear all this excellence, delights undurable! Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth. Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low. Earthly glory ageth and seareth. No man at all going the earth’s gait, But age fares against him, his face paleth, Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions, Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven, Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth, Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry, Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart, And though he strew the grave with gold, His born brothers, their buried bodies Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
Pound’s translation, or transliteration, can’t be beat. His archaisms somehow perfectly capture the flavor of the source. In some ways the poem itself reminds me of Tennyson’s Ulysses. Maybe the original Anglo-Saxon, if there was an original, ended somewhat like Tennyson’s poem. “No man at all going the earth’s gait, But age fares against him,” Then better for the seafarer to return to the sea, to strive, to dream and to perish in his “self song’s truth” than in a grave strewn with gold. There is no treasure hoard but to live life to the fullest. Maybe I’ll write that ending myself.
up in Vermont | February 27th 2023