By Guido Cavalcanti (1255 – 1300)
Translated by Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972)
IF Mercy were the friend of my desires,
Or Mercy’s source of movement were the heart,
Then, by this fair, would Mercy show such art
And power of healing as my pain requires.
From torturing delight my sighs commence,
Born of the mind where Love is situate,
Go errant forth and naught save grief relate
And find no one to give them audience.
They would return to the eyes in galliard mode,
With all harsh tears and their deep bitterness
Transmuted into revelry and joy;
Were’t not unto the sad heart such annoy,
And to the mournful soul such rathe distress
That none doth deign salute them on the road.
Ezra Pound’s life story reads like fiction. I can’t begin to approach the expanse of it in a short blog post, so I will begin where I will end, with mercy. Pound’s 1934 book Make it New, looked to the past and through a combination of translations, imitations and original material, sought to recast the old with a fresh voice. I am, of course, drawn to Pound’s translations of Guido Cavalcanti’s sonnets, but the sonnets are not reflective of most of Pound’s life work, in fact they stand almost diametrically opposed to Pound’s pursuit of a simpler modernistic style.
Pound was a driving force in the Imagists movement in poetry. It was Pound who saw the genius in T. S. Eliot when no one else would publish him and forwarded on a copy of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Poetry magazine and promoted its publication. To a non-academic interested in poetry, I have been shocked how I seem to run into Pound at every turn. Pound befriended and promoted the careers of many leading modernist writers of the Twentieth Century. In addition to Eliot, Joyce, Lewis, Frost, Williams and Hemingway, he corresponded and helped the careers of Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Jacob Epstein, E.E. Cummings, Margaret Anderson, and Charles Olson as a short list.
I think the Imagist movement was probably the most important in English 20th-century poetry simply because of the sheer number of poets influenced by it. Carl Sandburg wrote in Poetry magazine in 1917:
“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”
Pound developed his theory of being a poet in 1912. His aim was clarity. He was rebelling against abstraction, romanticism, proscribed rhetoric and over-use of adjectives. He laid out the following three principles for his writing:
- Be direct regardless of whether the “thing” is subjective or objective.
- Be brief. Use only words that contribute to the image, avoiding unnecessary words, particularly adjectives.
- Be musical, make the words flow, but not necessarily in a pre-set rigid sequence.
Bravo Pound! I agree whole heartedly with this philosophy that the job of a poet is to make words that are meaningful sound beautiful. It’s why I find his translations of Cavalcanti’s sonnets remarkable. In his own writing he was moving away from classical poetry and yet he undertook the task to carefully translate 13th Century sonnets into the English language beyond just their meaning. He wrote in the forward:
“I have in my translations tried to bring over the qualities of Guido’s rhythm, not line for line, but to embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man…. it was my first intention to print only his poems and an unrhymed (translation). This has not been practicable. I can not trust the reader to read the Italian for the music after he has read the English for the sense….”
For me, Pound is a symbol of the complicated personal contradictions that make us human. He was a modernist who translates classical poetry. He was a romantic in lifestyle and militant in his politics. He supported the Italian Fascist cause because he believed that only through conflict would come a new economic order that would create greater wealth equality, but he invoked racist ideology to further his cause. In his writing, he was just as inconsistent. He used translation and imitation to inform his body of work, yet was cutting edge in his modernist free verse. Through it all he persevered to an old age, despite reoccurring depression and an extended imprisonment in an insane asylum in the United States.
His writing veers wildly. He himself condemned his Cantos as “scattered and unfinished.” It was published despite its obvious flaws and received a literary award because his literary friends and political supporters hoped it would put pressure on the State Department to release him from the mental hospital where he had been confined after being convicted of treason in 1945 for his support of Fascism and Mussolini. When Hemingway won the Nobel Peace prize for Literature he told Time magazine “this would be a good year to release poets.” In 1957 the government finally relented and realized Pound was no threat to anyone and had suffered enough. He was released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and was quoted as saying:
“I never was (released). When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum.”
Pound was both contrite and unrepentant at times following his release in terms of his extremist right-wing views. He made contradicting statements regarding whether he had matured beyond his anti-semitic racism. I like to think he found some measure of clarity and peace in truthful contemplation late in life, as I nostalgically root for my literary heroes to do the right thing. In an interview by Allen Ginsberg in 1967, Pound described his life’s work as:
“A mess…my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through… but my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything…I found after seventy years that I was not a lunatic but a moron… I should have been able to do better …”
Yes, some of Pound’s life and by reflection his writing is a mess and not very attractive. But some of it is beautiful. I think it is with mercy we should forgive this complex and imperfect man who had an impact on poetry that is vast and uncompromising. Where would poetry be without the unmeasured life of Ezra Pound? The current headlines in the United States on sexual harassment beg this same question: can we admire a person for their art, despite their despicable failings as a person?
The Seeing Eye
by Ezra Pound
The small dogs look at the big dogs;
They observe unwieldy dimensions
And curious imperfections of odor.
Here is a formal male group:
The young look upon their seniors,
They consider the elderly mind
and observe its inexplicable correlations.
It is in only small dogs and the young
That we find minute observation.