Friday, September 6, 2013

Ezra Pound on James Joyce's Poems. "Stuff them in the Family Bible".


I thought Pound told Joyce his poems were only worth stuffing in the family Bible. But tracing sources it’s not so straightforward. I must have got the phrase from:

Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano by John Tyrell,  Bloomsbury London 1987

‘His relations with Joyce had cooled since Joyce had showed him a manuscript of poems later published as Pomes Penny each . Condescendingly Pound had recommended that Joyce stuff the poems in the family bible or family photograph album. It was an example a new brutal insensitivity and Pound displayed a similar vein of it to Yeats a few years later'.  (P192)(M italics)

So Pound was trashing Joyce’s poems. Or was he? 

The use of the verb “stuffed” does sound like “brutal insensitivity”. But ‘stuffed’ is the biographer’s verb.  Going back to the letters, which are the stated source of this event, and checking with Ellmann’s Biography of Joyce, it becomes obvious that more was happening than this simple version allows.

Firstly, Joyce was responding to Pound’s criticism of “Work in Progress” which would later become Finnegans Wake… Pound had written: “Nothing,  so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient periperization”.  Pound letter dated 15th November 1926 (and that might be described as blunt or brutal depending on your preference.) 

Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: Feb 1 1927

It is possible Pound is right [about Work in progress]  but I cannot go back. I never listened to his objections to Ulysses as it was being sent him once I had made up my mind but dodged them as tactfully as I could. He understood certain aspects of the book very quickly and that was more than enough then.  He makes brilliant discoveries and howling blunders.  P249  Letters of James Joyce Vol. 1 ed Stuart Gilbert,  New York, the Viking press 1957

As Ellmann then narrates:

Joyce thought at first he should check Pound’s criticism by showing him the manuscript of the thirteen poems he had written since Chamber Music, which at the suggestion of Mrs. Arthur Symons he was thinking of having published. But this overture did not work out well. Pound handed them back without a word. Joyce pressed him for an opinion and Pound said: “They belong in the bible or in the family album with the portraits”. “You don’t think they are worth reprinting at any time?” Joyce asked. ”No, I don’t”, said Pound and began to extol the work of a young man he had just discovered named Ralph Cheever Dunning. Joyce read Dunning, and got Miss Weaver to read him. She agreed it was poor stuff. Joyce then, at the  beginning of March, asked Archibald Macleish to read his new poems and MacLeish sent him two letters so enthusiastic as to renew Joyce’s self esteem, confirm him in his opinions of Pound’s caprice, and encourage him to have his poems published under the modest title of Pomes Pennyeach.     Ellmann James Joyce. 603/604

Ellmann’s ‘they belong in the bible or the family album with the portraits’  gives Joyce’s version of Pound’s words. They lack the obvious 'brutality' of “stuff”. You might put things in either which are valuable keepsakes.

Joyce had only shown two poems to Pound. Not all thirteen. And what neither biographical version acknowledges is Joyce’s “worth reprinting”.  8 of the poems in Pomes Pennyeach had appeared in Poetry as long ago as 1917.  They were dated.  They were hardly going to strengthen Joyce’s reputation post Ulysses. In retrospect if they weren't written by one James Joyce they would have been forgotten years ago along with Dunning's. 

The stated source for this event in both biographies is a letter of Joyce’s to Harriet Shaw Weaver 18 Feb 1927 which clears up what Joyce showed Pound.

Tyrell claims it was “ a manuscript of poems”,  Ellmann says Joyce showed Pound “the manuscript of the thirteen poems he had written since Chamber Music, which at the suggestion of Mrs. Arthur Symons he was thinking of having published.”

Joyce wrote:

Some time ago Mrs Symons asked me (from her Husband) If I had not written any verse since Chamber music and if it would collect. I sad it would make a book half as big but I did not trust my opinion of it as I rarely thought of verse. There are about fifteen pieces in all, I think, and I suppose someone someday will collect them. I mentioned this to Pound and ask could I show him,  say two.  I left them at his hotel A few days after I met him and he handed me back the envelope but said nothing.  asked him what he thought of them and he said: They belong in the bible or the family album with the portraits. I asked: You don’t think they are worth reprinting at any time? He said no, I don’t. Accordingly I did not write to Mr Symons. it was only after having read Mr. Dunning’s drivel which Pound defends as if it were Verlaine that I thought the affair over from another angle. They are old things but are they so bad that Rocco is better than their poorness…Letters, Volume 3, Ed Ellmann (p155)

Rocco was a book of poems by Dunning which had won Poetry’s verse contest. William Carlos Williams didn’t understand Pound’s enthusiasm for Dunning either (Tyrell, EP Solitary etc p192).  Since Poetry Chicago’s archive is now on line, it’s easy to read Dunning’s poetry and share WC Williams and Joyce’s confusion. 

In retrospect Pound was probably right about the Pomes. In 1927 Pomes Penny Each, with the exception of 'Night Piece',  would have looked like refugees from the 1890s. A bad imitation of Young Yeats. A good example of the truth that formal skill does not necessarily produce worthwhile poems. 


See the next post for Yeats and Pound on Joyce as a poet.   


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