I’ve been in this kind of jujitsu match with Ezra Pound’s ghost for a little while now, and I’m reasonably sure the only reason I’m doing so well is because, while specters are awfully slippery, they also have no leverage. But I thought I’d let this fight spill out of the haunted saloon into the ghost town streets for the two or three passersby who might find such antics amusing to witness.
I used to think my gripes with Pound were minimal, but the more I tried to come to terms with them and him, the more objectionable I found practically everything associated with his aesthetic program. The only thing that I agree with him about is that sound is important, or at least the idea of sound (a terrifying distinction when properly understood), and he may have been onto something trying to wed prosody and musicality, even if the fruits of those labors did not generate much in the way of the generally recognized theoretical success I assume they were intended to produce.
I could see how this disagreement would probably not move a bystander to tears. “I have not seen photos of you in a tastefully appointed home, wearing the fine garb associated with the cultural authorities of my people. Why should I care what you think about Ezra Pound?” I don’t have a very good answer for you. There is something to be said about making sure someone has an expensive couch before bothering to listen to their argument about some high lit subject. I could say something like, “This is, like, my *blog* man, it doesn’t care what you do or don’t assent to,” but that would be pretty fucking disingenuous. For good or ill, this post is an act of persuasion. But I don’t have any good first principle justification for why you should submit yourself to it in the first place.
How did you get here, anyway? You could be watching, like, really adorable cat videos right now. I mean that very sincerely. Cat videos are great. An essay about a dead poet probably can’t beat a cat video:
Are you still here? Poor bastard.
Alright, anyway, yadda yadda, the usual caveatifications. Ezra Pound is a great poet. There are even parts of the Cantos that are really good, in my estimation, although not enough of them to justify the nightmarish scale of that work. He satisfies the only test any poet is required to satisfy to justify one’s legacy in the annals of poetry, and that is the authorship of some good poems. And we can easily understand why so many people were seduced by his efforts to drag 20th century poesy out of the muck of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Before Pound, poets were stuffed shirts having deep thoughts to the sound of a metronome. Afterwards they were craftsman pushing against the limits of form to create ever more gnostic literary figures. This has been good for poetry, there is no doubt about it. But not everything that’s good in moderation is good in excess, and there have been, dare I say, excesses. Perhaps with nearly a century of perspective behind us, we are in good stead to identify them.
So we’re going to start with Imagism, or the Friends episode entitled “The One Where the Poets Get Really Jealous of Picasso.” And I’m not going to bone you up on it. If the cat video didn’t suck you away into a youtube k-hole then the odds of you somehow not having the gist about Imagism already is pretty small. It’s not too deep a subject for a nice google search if you don’t know what it is. Instead, let’s talk about what Imagism was trying to correct. For that we have to dig out some Wordsworth:
UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
So “The Tables Turned.” For a more thorough example of what I’m going to talk about you might try Swinburne:
But this little guy will do for our purposes. So what the fuck is going on here? Wordsworth is making an argument that’s kind of, not sure what the right word is. Antipedagogical, maybe? There’s the usual nature fetishism we get all over the realm of poesy before the blessedly widespread adoption of the parking lot. Whitman is no stranger to this kind of thing. “Fuck all this, let’s go stare at some trees!” This still makes sense to some people, by the way. Mary Oliver is one of the most widely read living poets, and her schtick is mainly about how cool it is to think about grass. I don’t understand it myself, but far be it from me to stand in the way of the understated grandeur of botanical mysticism if that’s what other people are into.
Not enough robots for me though, so I’m inclined to offer the Romantics an apology instead. We are talking about people who lived during a time when watching baseball for recreational purposes made a lot of sense. In such a time, we might imagine that a reader would have more patience, not just with the ubiquitous greenery in poetry, but with the build up to a kind of rhetorical denouement which entails a certain amount of front-loaded fluff.
If you look at the poem, you’ll see that Wordsworth spends 5 stanzas-over half of the poem-engaged in just this kind of build up. But the real fireworks-what makes this poem good, doesn’t happen until the sixth stanza, when we finally get our thesis, and even then it’s the text of the seventh that this whole poem is about. And that text is very gnomic-I’m sure there are quite of a few sig blocks that have that quote about murdering to dissect in them. It’s the memorable part of the poem that sticks with a reader after all the miscellaneous warbling about meadows and thrushes has been forcibly ejected from the brain.
Now I think these things go together. This poem is famous for a reason, and not just because it trolls bookworms. A poem is, importantly, a sequence of words. It’s temporal, and we can sort of imagine this poem doing what say, a locker room speech might do to bling out its persuasive designs, or even what a song might do when it starts out with some gentle humming for a while before the trumpets start to blare. Against some forgettable non-descriptions about nature shit, the transition into a strident generalization acquires the force of a heroic shout. Understood this way, it’s also practically a contradiction of the poem’s premise in the first place, but there’s never been any danger of getting Wordsworth and W.V.O. Quine mixed up.
Anyway, you got a poem with 8 stanzas. Maybe two of them have some real punch. And regardless of whether everything in “The Tables Turned” is necessary to achieve the poem’s intended function, if you’re a poet, looking for ways to make poetry better, it stands to reason that one way you might try to improve poems like this is to try to shrink out the fluff. And this intuition which has a label (compression) in poetry dominates the way contemporary poems are judged by the people with the sad job of trying to figure out what to commit to print and what to consign to artistic ignominy. And I will say here without too substantial an argument (i.e. feel free to just dismiss it) that the success of Pound in getting successive generations of poets to buy into this idea about how they should write poetry has contributed to the widespread collapse of popular interest in the art.
If you think of a poet as an artist in the manner of, say, Van Gogh, then this may not seem like such a big deal. Popular shit sucks. That Thomas Kinkade and his fucking eerily lit cottage paintings. “Damn Maya Angelou,” says some overeducated academic who has spent the last ten years of his adjunct career trying to get students in his Introduction To Creative Writing class to become acolytes of his obscure language cult. You can see him grind his teeth as he notices a book of poems written by Jewel sucking up space in the tiny, tiny poetry section in the big box bookstore. Not a single fucking book by Ashbery, he mutters. I bet Jewel doesn’t even know who John Ashbery is.
I bet she doesn’t either!
Nevertheless, the existence of Thomas Kinkade should probably be kind of unsettling to poets. Because it’s not like there isn’t a flourishing high art scene that turns its nose up at practically the whole idea of landscape paintings. And yet people still buy landscape paintings. And, oh yeah, people still read shit, and we know that because didn’t they just turn a book that started out as Twilight fan fic, perhaps the lowest, most debased form of literature there is, into a blockbuster smash hit? And somehow everyone knows who the fuck Robert Frost was. So how is it that we live in a world where Dan Brown is a millionaire, but only three people have figured out how to even make a living writing poetry? It can’t possibly be the case that there aren’t enough suckers with a disposable income out there. People will pay five dollars for a cup of coffee.
This isn’t all Ezra Pound’s fault, by the way. A substantial amount of blame can be heaped upon the New Critics who invented the idea of the close reading. And we can’t get too mad at them, either, because it isn’t like it was a bad idea. In a classroom, the close reading approach to poetry makes sense. In a literary world with the likes of The Wasteland in it, it may even be a practical necessity just to give readers a sense of their own literary competence in the face of almost unreadable literary esoterica. But most people are not close readers, and building an entire literary tradition atop of the idea that readers can be expected to stare at the same sentence for a minute if they have to is grotesque. People have things to do, man.
One of the advantages of old school form, like the kind Wordsworth uses, is that it permitted a poet to write lines that weren’t grand slams and move on. If it rhymes and rhythms right, it satisfies a kind of structural minimum standard, and a poet could move on without wondering whether the commas are doing any work or not. And a reader, knowing that most of the time his eyes will be spent reading exactly such lines, doesn’t have to take a deep breath before plunging into every new poem, wondering whether he’s boned up enough on French symbolism to even figure out what the hell is going on.
And obviously, there’s plenty of contemporary poetry that is accessible. But there’s an inevitable heuristic that people will develop based on the general composition of the available instances of an artform. If you have to dig through ten poems in a lit mag to find one that isn’t making you feel bad for not taking enough literature courses in college, at a certain point, you’re going to stop looking. And the dominant ways that contemporary poets who have moved away from traditional form go about signaling to the world they are writing poems is precisely by engaging in techniques like estrangement and various weird couplet forms, or just spattering words on a page as non linearly as the word processor will allow. If the way you prove what you wrote is a real poem is by making it as hard as possible to understand, it’s going to discourage some readers.
Now, I don’t think we should go back to heroic couplets. The state of form has advanced quite a bit since Wordsworth. But, I know this might sound a little crazy, artist, but maybe it’s okay if a poem contains a few aesthetic defects. One might even deliberately put some lines in that aren’t designed to swoon a reader. There’s certainly precedent for this kind of thing in American poetry that goes all the way back to Emerson. It could be justified, is all I’m saying.
One of the important differences between poetry and visual art is that you can just look at a painting and fucking pretend to have all kinds of emotions on the basis of the colors or how the little blue tricycle makes you feel. But you actually have to engage in some form of interpretation in order to unlock a poem. Because otherwise it’s just a mass of black squiggles on a white background, and all these squiggles look the fucking same. Poets who are cavalier about this effort aren’t just being assholes-they are abrogating their responsibilities as vanguards of the public coin of speech. You owe it to your profession and to society to get off your fucking high horse every now and then and do some pro bono work for the hoi polloi. Then go back to your favorite display at the New York Museum of Modern Art and recommence your avant garde circle jerk if you like.