Thursday, October 9, 2014

Was Ezra Pound a Great Poet. A. David Moody's Ezra Pound, Poet vol 2 #3

This really is the last post about this book. Review to follow.

Was Ezra Pound a Great Poet?

Moody’s new book assumes the answer is yes.  While tracking the failure of Pound’s political agenda and his increasing lack of understanding of the world he was living in, Moody holds to the belief that Pound was a Great Poet. 

Someone reading this book with little knowledge of Pound, his poetry, or the history or its reception, could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Cantos are relatively straight forward and criticism of them is either self-interested, misguided, or evidence of a lack of intelligence. Above all, their highly contested value is slid over and avoided

The last is the strangest of all. There is a literature of dissenting voices, some of which would deny any value to Pound and his poems. Reading Moody you’d be forgiven for thinking that there has been very little discussion of either.  When he does acknowledge the dissent, the way he deals with criticisms of his hero’s poetry is deeply unsettling and seems to question the validity of the case he doesn’t make but takes for granted.

At one end of the spectrum there is the outright denial of any value. An extreme version can be found in Robert Graves’ comments in “These Be your God’s Oh Israel”.
( Mr. Graves on the Cantos here )

But I wouldn’t expect Moody to deal with this kind of criticism. It can’t be argued with, so there’s no point.  

On the other hand, simply deciding that Pound is great and dismissing all criticism as simply reflecting an inadequate appreciation of Pound’s greatness, or inadequate intelligence seems equally useless.  Unless a work can be considered, unless the flaws can be admitted, and weighed against its strengths, and those strengths explained then a claim of greatness has no more value than Graves’ gleeful trashing. 

There are measured criticisms of the Cantos by people who admired them. But Moody dismisses these as well and his dismissal becomes unconvincing and ultimately inconsistent.  

Two examples will suffice.

Having dismissed Eliot’s criticisms in After Strange Gods (see previous post)  by labeling them infamous and curious he goes on to note that Eliot, discussing Pound in 1928, wrote, “‘I am seldom interested in what he is saying,” he wrote in his best putting down manner, ‘but only in the way he says it’. Eliot knew perfectly well that this form/content dichotomy was untenable; that form, to be at all interesting, had to the form of something of interest…”

This may seem a small point, but it’s the little details in this book which make me doubt the bigger picture. Firstly, in this quotation, Eliot doesn’t use the word form, he says “the way he says it”. This is much more, for Eliot and Pound, than “form”.  I’ve already suggested Moody’s potted history of the epic is suspect. He must know, being an expert on Eliot as well as Pound, that the two of them have been justifiably accused of fetishizing poetic technique as part of what has been described as the “professionalizing of poetry”.  For Eliot, praising “how” over “what” is to recognize art, which is what the real poet works hard to master. Pound had praised Joyce’s poetry by singling out Joyce’s control of rhythm and metre: there was no content to praise.

The distinction, for poetry, between style and content, between How and What, is not untenable and famous and not so famous poets have held to it. Many defences of the Cantos rely on it so they can dismiss What  (banal, tedious, repetitious and repulsive) to focus on How.

Moody's  tendency to dismiss criticism can also be seen later, discussing the Chinese Cantos.  These have to be a test of critical honesty,  as there is very little to love in them.  In what appears to be  a balanced paragraph,  Moody offers two examples of praise and two of criticism. He summarises 2 objections (p283): Randall Jarrell called them “almost unreadable” and  “monotonous didacticism”, Donald Davie wrote, “there is no alternative to writing off this whole section of Pound’s Poem as pathological and sterile.”  (both quoted By Moody p283).

Yet the criticisms are framed in such a way as to make them seem like minority objections.  The paragraph starts: “This fairly elementary lesson in the fundamental principle of Western Democracy has been well taken by some but by no means all” 283. [There's no pause to consider that if this is a fairly fundamental lesson,  why does it need to be expressed in such a turgid manner.]

Moody simply chooses two representatives for the case against, Jarrell, Davie, and then dismisses them by going aslant to deal with their objections. Having castigated Eliot earlier for distinguishing between style and content, Moody defends Pound against Davie by writing: “Part of Davie’s problem was that he could not follow Pound’s method of making music of history”. (To believe the Chinese Cantos are melodious requires a redefinition of Musical). 

Moody dismisses Jarrell by writing: “unreadable’ is of course a common way of saying “I  can’t read them”.  But this wasn't a pimply adolescent undergraduate who had been brought up on a diet of Ted Hughes and War poets and who thought Paradise Lost is written in a foreign language.  The full sentence which Moody doesn't quote from, reads ’ Mr. Pound is obviously one of the most talented poets of our time: yet these Cantos are almost unreadable”. 

There is a great deal more in Jarrell’s article: He wrote: ”The versification of these cantos is interesting: there is none. The prose is an extremely eccentric, slangy, illogical, sentence fragment note-taking sort of prose-but prose; the constant quotations from letters or documents or diaries are no different form the verse that frames them. The technical skill that went into some of the earlier Cantos has almost disappeared.” 

Like the rest of his article, this levels criticisms at the poem that anyone who wants to make the argument that this is great Poetry should be dealing with. But Moody simply dismisses or avoids and some of the tactics are disturbing.  

Earlier,  Moody dismisses both Yeats and Eliot’s reservations with the words….’The true revolutionary finds confirmation of his project in the resistance it provokes.” (P93) This is horribly circular and the statement implies a judgment that is actually devoid of discrimination. ‘Resistance’ to the project says nothing about the value of the project. “Revolutionary” is no longer a neutral noun: it has become a term of unqualified approval,  though how one distinguishes between the revolutionary and the true revolutionary is another question that goes begging.   

It is obvious that I could provoke resistance by agitating in a revolutionary manner for any number of horrible or pointless ideas. Resistance would not validate them or me. ”Only those who have vital interest in changing the existing social and intellectual order are likely to respond positively to a radically new way of thinking.” (op cit) We are always, with Pound and his followers, heading towards this: only the elect will understand.

Linked to this is the other move that became a characteristic of twentieth century critical discourse.

Once there was an observation: X is a genius, and few people can understand him.

This was inverted and became a characteristic of 20th century literary thinking:  

Few people understand X therefore he must be a genius.

Obscurity became a positive value and a host of famous writers rode the gravy train to guru status on the back of it.  At the same time “innovation” and “originality” slipped from neutral terms to positive ones. The key critical question became ‘Has it been done before?’ and the wannabes queued up to applaud when the answer was No.

There has been a shortage of dissenting voices asking, “Was it worth doing?”

Whether you want to privilege How or What, or it you think that greatness is perhaps excelling at both, the question the Cantos raise, is the one Pound asked indirectly of Joyce's work in progress:

15th November 1926: 
'I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clapp [sic] can possible be worth all the circumambeint periperhization’.

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