November 2003

Dale Smith

incomplete education

Pound! Pound! Pound!


He has a muscular torso

With a thousand erections
Lighting up the night sky
But none sticks up
Than the twin cocks.

(And yet)
Who would think of going all the way

Downtown to castrate
With two knives ablazed?

A muscular story ends.
now speaks differently
And cannot look into the void

Vietnam-born poet Linh Dinh sent that to me one morning recently. He lives in Italy and writes in English. I sent him some words in return and he quickly wrote back: "Us poets are truly in the smallest of ghettoes. The country is going down the toilet and there's almost nothing we can do. We read each other's political poems but no one else gives a fuck."

Poetry is rarely a popular form, no matter how hard Dana Gioia (NEA don) and Billy Collins (former laureate) try to sell it to "the people." Plato barred poets from his Republic. Some nations have persecuted them, like Osip Mandelstam who died in a Soviet gulag, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was beaten and crushed under the wheels of his car. In the United States poetry is mostly ignored. Writers tap away in obscurity, making small booklets for a limited audience. Creative responses to collective social insanity and government corruption go unread, as Dinh notes above. Poetry is alien to the thoughts and feelings of an over-worked, status-crazed population of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. We fled or our parents fled the Old World so we wouldn't have to take anyone's shit. We favor the man-on-the-street over the elite.

There's something dangerous about poetry's critical inquiry into political actions and social issues. Elite critics and commentators will often denounce political work that interrogates present social conditions by attacking the formal apparatus of the poem itself. In this year's Best American Poetry, guest editor Yusef Komunyakaa quietly dismisses active inquiry from diverse formal practices in an introduction that otherwise piously considers the poetry produced post 9-11.

"Are some American poets writing from a privileged position," he asks, "especially after the fiery 1960s and '70s -- from a place that reflects the illusions of class through language and aesthetics, and is the 'new' avant-garde an old aspect of the high-brow and low-brow divide within the national psyche?"

Despite his own social commitments, he reduces a complex array of responses poetry can offer using this double-speech of a "high-brow and low-brow divide." He continues: "...while reading the healthy heap of literary magazines, I was reminded that there exists a poetry that borders on cultivated solecism and begs theorists to decipher it. But it isn't for me to say if this so-called exploratory movement verges on a literary deception, though it does follow an era that praised content and the empirical."

There's the rub. "Exploratory movement" is bad, "content and the empirical," good. More than ten years ago, Komunyakaa had already begun distancing political and social urgency from his poetry, preferring instead a rhetoric that evaded direct commitment to social issues. "Poetry," he said in 1990, "is a kind of distilled insinuation. It's a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault." Actually, a full frontal assault by Komunyakaa would be preferred to the veiled, insinuating condescension he directs at the diverse exploratory methods practiced by many writers. This abstract emphasis on "content and the empirical" is a mantra of reduction used to dismiss a range of concerns that interest the dangerously self-conscious and politicized hordes whose methods are not so refined. By supporting a sort of comatose verse of strained empirical motive, Komunyakaa fails to imagine poetry's greater potential. Political commentary, economic relations, social exploration and historical exegesis are exiled in favor of irrelevant "distilled insinuations." It's an appropriate Bush-era aesthetic.

Despite these politicized reductions of poetry by Komunyakaa and other conservative critics, important bodies of work have been written to challenge and meet our complex and diverse world head-on rather than avoiding it with discursive and prescriptive projections.

The Library of America recently published, with introduction and notes by Richard Sieburth, the poems and translations of Ezra Pound, the great granddaddy of contemporary poetics. At 1400 pages, this is the first comprehensive presentation of the Modernist master poet and fascist sympathizer outside of The Cantos, Pound's epic fragment of a crumbling personal and historic architecture. His revival of the troubadour poetry of Provence and Italy, inspired imitations of ancient Greek and Roman writing, translations of Chinese poetry and his unyielding support of other writers make him a central figure of literary Modernism. In addition to the radicalization of forms pursued by Williams, Stevens, Stein and other American contemporaries, Pound ransacked more than 2,000 years of written art to extend a personal vision of writing that was more political, finally, than aesthetic. "If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays," he wrote. "Literature is language charged with meaning." It is "news that stays news."

With Pound, it's difficult to separate politics from his aesthetics. Even the early, inspired Neo-Platonic pieces gathered in "A Lume Spento," (1908) show an idealist's conception of the world, and idealism often is the catalyst of the political will. Pound, despite his many flaws, was never motivated in his politics by personal gain, but by the engine of his idealism. Studying at Yeats's urging hermetic philosophy and attending lectures on Theosophy by G.R.S. Mead in London, Pound's early work differs from his later, politicized bombshells. In "Plotinus," he writes:

As one that would draw thru the node of
Back sweeping to the vortex of the cone,
Cloistered about with
memories, alone
In chaos, while the waiting silence sings.

Such obtuse, spiritual inquiry differs greatly from the work he would produce seven years later in "Cathay," his first "translations" of Chinese literature based on the notebooks of the Sinologist Ernest Fenellosa.

Blue, blue is the
grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,
White, white of face,
hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand,
And she
was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes
drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.

The rugged simplicity, careful organization of images and straightforward American diction relate an energy he saw in the ancient text. With the influence of Asian literature, his spiritual idealism transforms into a vision of the physical world. Admiring the conservative cultural values, political practicalities and relations of power hierarchies in ancient China, he would later translate the Odes of Confucious. The range, consummate devotion to formal craft, penetration of historical and social particulars all give Pound a tremendous authority in the authoring of contemporary poetics. Despite his failures (he supported Hitler and Mussolini, spending 11 years incarcerated in a nut house after the war), he achieved an amazing view of the past that finally consumed him.

There's too much here to comment on fully, and Pound's work has been discussed in detail by many (see Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era for background). What's striking though is finding the poems together here, in chronology, extending a sincere and complex array of concerns for religion, the vivid realism of spiritual contemplation, social order, political justice and economic priorities. I don't know if he was the first, but he was certainly the most prolific and aggressive American poet to inquire into the works of Asian literature, translating a substantial body of it and inspiring generations of ethno-poetic research and practice.

When you read these poems you won't find Pound per se. He disguises himself through diverse masks, assuming the "Masters of the Soul" in a shaman-like practice of retrieval and ministry. He thought by channeling ghosts he could give them new life in the world as on the page. The imagination for him was as real and tangible as any physical phenomena. What Pound didn't get was that he was to become a bookend, rather than progenitor, of a culture that was, like his mind, composed of fragments and jewel-like debris. His heroic efforts to be accountable for 2,000 years of history, extending the highest cross-cultural achievements of that aeon, were noble and damning and eventually ruined him. But his efforts also set the terms for post-war Poetry around the world. He inspired Zukofsky, Oppen and the other Objectivists as well as forming the foundation of poetics for Charles Olson and other Black Mountain poets of the 1950s and '60s. From Ernesto Cardenal to Allen Ginsberg, Pound's influence on writing remains enormous.

The Pisan Cantos, recently published with an excellent introduction also by Richard Sieburth, was written while Pound sat caged in a U.S. military compound near Pisa at the close of World War II. After two and a half weeks of open-air exposure, with only the odes of Confucious and a Chinese dictionary to sustain him, the 59-year-old prisoner was moved to less extreme quarters. Later, with a makeshift desk and irregular access to a hospital typewriter, he worked on the manuscript of these tremendous poems, some of them written on toilet paper.

These cantos, coming toward the middle of The Cantos as it was finally published, reveal a broken man. His ideals and his efforts to realize them were crushed with the death of Musolini. Against the wreck of his mind and after committing treason through anti-American radio broadcasts from Rome, he found himself in isolated and stripped of the masks he so often wore.

nothing matters but the quality of the affection- in the end-that has carved the trace in the mind...

If in other parts of his great epic, and in the other collected poems, he functions best as a translator or Promethean bringer-of-fire, here for once he is stripped to his own resources. Sympathizing with the mostly African-American prisoners he was incarcerated with (though he still referred to them with demotic, racist slurs: "coon," "nigger," etc), The Pisan Cantos are testaments to personal and imaginative failures that would haunt future generations of writers.

Despite his failure and racist and anti-Semitic ravings, (or perhaps, more appropriately, because of them), Pound embodied a spirit of the age. He retrieved forgotten ideals, vivid historical constellations and revived literary forms to extend his vision of a sane, just and sustainable world. His insistence on a poet's right to speak his or her mind on all issues remains today an example of conduct in a world struggling through dynamic change. It's not that poetry can't be heard, that contemporary markets don't extend poets' voices or even that elite pundits reduce the poem with their manipulative claims for it. The charge instead is given to poets to publish, translate, support in essays and combative discussion and arguments their claims for the world as they see it. You do the work yourself, according to Pound. Start your own press. Define your own ground and share it with others, despite vast markets and culture industries designed to distract us from our deepest curiosities. Pound's example, love it or leave it, will not go away. His, finally, is a grass-roots vision: "What thou lovest well remains," he wrote, "the rest is dross."

Pound: Poems & Translations
The Library of America
ISBN: 1931082413
1,400 pp.

The Pisan Cantos
New Directions
ISBN: 081121558X
159 pp.