Ezra Pound (1885-1972), an American from Hailey, Idaho, is possibly the most influential and the most controversial poet of the twentieth century. According to T. S. Eliot, “Pound is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual.” He was famous for the generosity with which he advanced the work of such major contemporaries as W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H. D., James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and especially T. S. Eliot who dedicated The Waste Land to Pound who was instrumental in editing the final version. In his own poetry, Pound adopted many voices with great skill, learning from Robert Browning’s dramatic poetry which was an enduring inspiration. An early collection was entitled, appropriately, Personae. Pound could speak through the mouth of a troubadour warrior, a Chinese river-merchant’s wife, an Italian Renaissance prince or the Roman poet, Sextus Propertius.
He was among the early practitioners of a school of poetry known as Imagism (or Imagisme to give it its Frenchified term bestowed by H. D.). It was, according to Thom Gunn “a tiny movement with a tiny life-span which produced tiny poems; but it was to be the most influential poetic movement of the century, in subject matter confining itself to the sensory at the expense of the conceptual, in style emphasising clarity and compression, and in form carrying with it the implicit necessity of free verse, which was still young and experimental at that time, and by no means the drab norm it is nowadays.” The most famous example of Imagism remains that short two-line poem which Pound wrote in 1913, In a Station of the Metro.
In a Station of the Metro
Pound’s Parisian Metro station has the same iconic status as the red wheelbarrow of William Carlos Williams. First printed in 1913 in Poetry Magazine in the version printed below (I am indebted to Thom Gunn’s selection for this information) it was originally a thirty line poem before he put it through his Imagist paces. This was his version of Japanese haiku which, he claimed, provided a model of compression in verse, a “one-image” poem which is “trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” The title anchors and places the poem. The first line is a simple, clear and straightforward statement. The second is a brilliant use of metaphor. The poem’s emotional core is the connection and the disconnection between the two lines.
Pound claimed in his essay A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste that “an image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. It is the presentation of such complex instantaneity that gives a sudden sense of liberation that we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” He went on to state that “it is better to produce one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” That he managed both, if we include the encyclopedic epic poem he entitled The Cantos, is to his immeasurable credit. (My own view of The Cantos is that it is like Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: in parts, utterly incomprehensible and, in other parts, absolutely brilliant.)
Ezra Pound and Translation
Throughout his long and varied life, Ezra Pound translated from nine European languages and from four other languages. Michael Alexander in an essay divides his translations into two kinds; what he calls “copies” which stick close to the original (such as those included in the brief translations section below) and what he calls “remakes” where Pound edits and reshapes the originals such as his poem, Papyrus, which is based on three words found in a Sappho manuscript.
Pound has arguably done more than any other poet in the twentieth century to open poetry in English to non-English influences. He may not be an accurate translator. His friend, T. S. Eliot, claimed that “Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” and went on to call his poems from other languages, in a brilliant word, “translucencies” rather than translations. Whatever way you approach them, they are wonderful poems in English.
Brief Poems by Ezra Pound
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
Petals on a wet, black bough .
(As printed in Poetry magazine, 1913)
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
As cool as the pale wet leaves
She lay beside me in the dawn.
I know that what Nietzsche said is true,
I saw the face of a little child in the street,
And it was beautiful.
Write me when this geste, our life is done:
“He tired of fame before the fame was won.”
The petals fall in the fountain,
the orange-coloured rose-leaves,
Their ochre clings to the stone.
Leucis, who intended a Grand Passion,
Ends with a willingness-to-oblige.
Fu I loved the high cloud and the hill,
Alas, he died of alcohol.
And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
(The epigraph to Lustra)
I join these words for four people,
Some others may overhear them,
O world, I am sorry for you,
You do not know these four people.
Women Before A Shop
The gew-gaws of false amber and false turquoise attract them.
‘Like to like nature’: these agglutinous yellows!
Fan-Piece, For Her Imperial Lord
O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
GREEN arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.
Brief Translations by Ezra Pound
Then folk would stand to watch him pull out
tench or bream, bream or trout.
from the old Chinese
I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me and ache.
after Catullus 85
Thais has black teeth, Laecania’s are white because
she bought ‘em last night.
From the Latin of Martial
I dreamt that I was God Himself
Whom heavenly joy immerses,
And all the angels sat about
And praised my verses.
After the German of Heinrich Heine
Nicarchus upon Phidon his Doctor
Phidon neither purged me, nor touched me;
But I remembered the name of his fever medicine and died.
From the Greek of Nicarchus
Woman? Oh, woman is a consummate rage, but dead or asleep she pleases.
Take her—she has two excellent seasons.
From the Greek of Palladas
Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.
The Poetry Foundation page devoted to Ezra Pound.
Pound’s Metro, an essay by William Logan.
That section of the Modern American Poetry site devoted to Ezra Pound.
A page from the Modern American Poetry site devoted to In a Station of the Metro including Pound’s description of the genesis of the poem.
Ezra Pound as Translator, an essay by Michael Alexander.
Listen to Ezra Pound read his poetry on the PennSound site.