By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was a controversial but central figure in the history of modernist literature. He helped to publish both T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, was friends with a number of leading modernist writers including W. B. Yeats and Ford Madox Ford, and his slogan, ‘Make It New’, encapsulates much of what modernist literature sought to do.
But as well as all this, we should remember that Ezra Pound was a major modernist poet himself, albeit a very difficult one. Here’s our pick of five of Pound’s best poems or poetic works.
1. ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
This is probably the most famous Imagist poem ever written: in just two lines, Pound seeks to capture the fleeting impression of seeing a crowd of people at the Paris Metro, and puts into practice some of his key imagist principles. The speaker, in a station at the Paris Metro underground system, observes that the faces of the crowds of people are like the petals hanging on the ‘wet, black bough’ of a tree.
The poem stays in the memory partly because of the frailty of the image which is being suggested: petals on a bough will not be there forever, just as the faces in the Metro a hundred years from now will not belong to the same people. Like Hulme’s poems, and like much imagist verse, the poem is a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death: its brevity is closely linked with its theme, which is partly the brevity of life.
After the poem’s publication in 1913, Pound’s interest in Imagism dwindled, and he moved away from the Image and towards the ‘Vortex’, founding the short-lived artistic movement Vorticism with his friend Wyndham Lewis.
2. ‘The Return’.
The old gods have gone, but are not quite forgotten; and now, Pound announces, ‘they return’. This is the subject of this short poem, which remains one of Pound’s most popular shorter works.
3. ‘The Seafarer’.
As well as being a fine poet, Ezra Pound was also a gifted translator, and many of his own poems incorporate allusions to different literary traditions, from the Japanese haiku to ancient Greek lyric and epic poetry and the French troubadours.
This 124-line Anglo-Saxon poem is often considered an elegy, since it appears to be spoken by an old sailor looking back on his life and preparing for death. He discusses the solitariness of a life on the waves, the cold, the danger, and the hardships.
As such, the poem captures the bewitching fascination the sea holds for us, but also its darker, more unpredictable side. Ezra Pound’s loose translation of the poem is one of his triumphs.
4. ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’.
Published two years before T. S. Eliot’s landmark poem The Waste Land, this long modernist poem from 1920 was described by Pound as his ‘farewell to London’. It’s also an impassioned rant about consumerism, the commoditisation of art, and the struggle to write poetry in the wake of the First World War, not to mention the failed artistic ‘movements’ of the 1890s.
Pound explained his approach to the dramatic lyric in a letter to his friend William Carlos Williams (who himself would become an important modernist poet, but over the other side of the Atlantic). For Pound, the dramatic lyric was a matter of ‘catch[ing] the character I happen to be interested in at the moment he interests me – usually a moment of song, self-analysis, or sudden understanding, or revelation’.
The critic F. R. Leavis remarked that the poem was ‘the summing-up of an individual life’ but also reflects the ‘miscellaneousness of modern culture’ and ‘the absence of direction’; another important theme in Mauberley, for Leavis, is ‘the uncongeniality of the modern world to the artist’.
The poem also hammers home just how exhausted the older, Romantic mode of English poetry had become by the early twentieth century. Poetry needed to be revitalised and rejuvenated, but nobody – not even Pound – was clear about what needed to be done.
5. The Cantos.
Not so much a poem as a vast ‘ragbag’ of poems (to borrow Pound’s own word), The Cantos vary hugely in quality, although the Pisan Cantos, which Pound composed while a prisoner of the US in Pisa in 1945 just after the end of WWII, are the most critically acclaimed sections of this 800-page book.
Our advice is to begin with Canto I and wade through: Pound begins The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New Directions Books) in medias res with a multi-layered poetic account of Odysseus’ journey into the underworld to seek counsel from Tiresias.
Although the episode is from Homer’s Odyssey, Pound’s version of this story is told using a sixteenth-century Latin translation of Homer’s poem.
The poem thus immediately foregrounds Pound’s interest in multilingual poetry, the way such stories resonate for different cultures and eras, and the link between Odysseus’ summoning of the dead and Pound’s own use of dead poets’ words in his own work. We’ve analysed the opening canto here.
Discover more about modernist poetry with our discussion of May Sinclair’s forgotten imagist novel, Ford Madox Ford’s poem about WWI, and Hilda Doolittle’s classic imagist poem ‘Oread’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Ah, but the cantos can be a serious drudge! (Very much worth reading though…. it’s just that sometimes the graphic imagery of rot and bugs and dirt gets to be too much, doesn’t it? )
Such a beautiful discovery!