Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ezra Pound and Poetic Value #2

One of the gains of “Literary theory” over the past fifty years has been the fact that it’s now easier to talk about the contingency of literary value. This may be no more than the fact that at any given time of place the terms poet and poem can mean radically different things and the qualities that define a poet or a poem as good vary widely and wildly. This doesn’t mean that there is no value: in any given period some people do “it” better than others whatever ‘it’ is and how ever you define ‘better’.
What Ezra Pound’s career seems to prove is that value is so contingent, so little tied into anything objective, that it can be manipulated.
It’s worth pointing out that Pound would probably have disagreed with this. From his writings, the ABC, his essays, he seems to have believed that Poetic Quality was a trans historical standard which could be identified by someone like himself even if the poem was written a thousand years ago in a language he didn’t know very well. And because of this he was able to make whacky statements about the cultural value of poetry and the political and historical importance of the poet.  

Set yourself up as an expert. Define and then proclaim your expertise.  It helps if you are either an expert on the obscure and unknown (In Pound’s case Provencal poetry) or a generalist. If the former, you’re unlikely to have to deal with criticism, and if you do it is likely to be so specialized that no one else will understand it.  If the latter, you will always be vulnerable to the specialist, but you can respond by attacking the specialist where he or she is most vulnerable: his or her lack of wider knowledge.

Make yourself important as a an arbiter of taste and as a discoverer and promoter of new talent …It helps if you have a good track record, and Pound certainly did.

Defend yourself by attacking your critics where they are most vulnerable. So in the case of translation when the specialists say: ‘You don’t understand translation, your Latin is not good’, Pound responds with  “I say you don’t understand poetry.  I am a poet, only a poet really understands poetry and you have misunderstood Propertius”.

Write enough straightforward, good poetry to establish yourself. Then do what you want but create poems that allow for critical discussion. To the uneducated the Cantos are a sprawling mess and mostly very very tedious.  To the scholar they are a site where issues of sexuality, ideology and genre are in play but in play in such a way that’s it’s impossible to come up with a definitive description. This allows for critical disagreement.  The institutional demands of academic scholarship, the need to publish, can be fed by the cantos. And being a “Poundian” could be a badge of the elect. Anyone can fall in love with Yeats’ poems; it takes much more something to love Pound’s.  Create the possibility of a small group of cognoscenti  whose arcane religion (Your poetry) excludes lesser beings.   To the scholar the Cantos question the boundaries of poetry; to the uneducated they contain great tedious swathes of second hand prose.

It takes courage or childish naivety to say the emperor is unclothed, but attack your critics at their most vulnerable point: their fear that you really do know more than they do. Hammer your claim that you know more about poetry than anyone else, and then dare anyone to say you are not a genius. Exploit the lurking fear that the critic doesn’t understand and in condemning you he or she is parading his or her own ignorance.  Exploit this. Don’t dare them to say you are naked, tell them that you are naked and only a genius can understand the nudity you have defined on your own, invented terms.  

And if you do all this you can manipulate poetic value in your own lifetime.


And perhaps only if, you can also produce poetry that people who have nothing to gain from its recognition will accept as great and interesting poetry. Anyone who thinks Pound was a charlatan is forced to confront the fact that writers like Bunting and Eliot thought he was worthy of their critical attention and respect.

And that doesn’t even begin to get at the complexity of the issue.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ezra Pound and Poetic value

Pound fascinates me, probably for the wrong reasons. It’s as if an outsider gate crashed the emperor’s parade, convinced a small but powerful portion of the crowd he was the real emperor, and the fact that he was naked, and knew that he was naked, and knew more about nudity than anyone else and was proud of being naked, was proof of his right to be the emperor and only those who could understood nakedness on his terms would be saved and those that didn’t or couldn't or wouldn't were simply confessing to their own stupidity.

As Author Function the sign “Ezra Pound” is unstable.  For some it equals “Genius” for others “Fraud” for others “Lunatic anti-Semitic fascist” .  But you can read the poems of Yeats or Eliot or Bunting and come to a conclusion about their abilities as a poet from their poems. Their biographies and reputations seem  irrelevant. With Pound, however,  it’s almost as if you have to decide first; genius or fraud and then read the poems in the light of that decision because it seems impossible to do it the other way round.

Which suggests something about the way the literary critical field can work that is so very disturbing it’s easier not to think about it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Uses of Poetry

In her readable (and impressive) 'Graven with images’ Nicola Shulman gives a biography not of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but of his poems.  She points out that his poems have survived their critical dismissal for the simple reason that they were written to be used and still can be used as they were intended.  A Wyatt poem offers the reader the shock of recognition and the possibility of appropriation: the words describe a situation, and offer the reader a vocabulary for it. As she shows, this is probably why the  poems were probably written. To be used. By people other than the poet. 

She writes:

Though it is not approved for serious readers to seek their own experience in literature, self-recognition is what most people want out of love poetry, in Wyatt they find it directly.(p.16)

I suspect for most people outside the academy, this is still the dominant use of all poetry.  I suspect the self-congratulatory myth that serious readers are above this is one of the reasons so much poetry goes unread and so many academic discussions of poetry sound so fatuous.