Il Miglior Fabbro
EZRA POUND: POET
A Portrait of the Man and His Work. Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920. By A. David Moody. Illustrated. 507 pp. Oxford University Press. $47.95.
T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were the "Odd Couple" of 20th-century poetry, a most unlikely pair who between them rewrote the rules for everyone else. Eliot was Felix, of course: fussy, clerkish, conservative in both politics and religion, so somber that as a young man he sometimes dabbed his face with powder to make himself look even grayer. And Pound was Oscar: a yapper, provocateur and shameless self-promoter with a radical opinion on just about anything; he signed his name with a caricature of a gadfly and strode about London in the years before World War I wearing an earring, a sombrero and trousers made of green billiard cloth. From our perspective, almost a hundred years later, it's hard to imagine that these two ever sat in the same room, let alone shared meals, friends, manuscripts. Eliot is now an almost churchly figure in our cultural imagination, the prelate of modernism, while Pound, if we bother to think of him at all, is remembered mostly as an embarrassment a crank, a Fascist and anti-Semite confined to an asylum.
But one of the virtues of A. David Moody's new biography of Pound is to remind us that when the two poets first met, in 1914, Pound was by far the greater presence, and that without him Eliot might never have become the Eliot we revere. Pound, three years older, spotted Eliot's gift immediately (he called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the "best poem I have yet had or seen from an American"), urged him on and helped him get published. When Eliot, then a graduate student in philosophy at Oxford, decided to give up an academic career for a life in poetry, it was Pound who wrote and broke the news to Eliot's parents. Pound was similarly helpful to Joyce, for whom he scrounged money and even scavenged an old pair of shoes; to Wyndham Lewis; to the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breszka, whose agent he became to just about everyone who mattered artistically in pre-war London.
One way or another, he was connected to all the important little magazines of the time. He had an unerring eye for talent and was tireless in his efforts to promote the work of those he admired. He was a whirlwind of energy in those days a "highly mechanized typing volcano," he called himself and so restless that, unable to sit still, he broke the legs off chairs. In the dedication of "The Waste Land" Eliot called him il miglior fabbro the finer craftsman because of his brilliance as an editor. (Were it not for Pound, we might still know that poem as "He Do the Police in Different Voices.") He even took his red pencil to Yeats, and Moody's book includes two pages showing his brilliant, slashing revision of "The Two Kings." Pound was so good an editor, in fact, and so enterprising a talent-spotter and impresario such a cultural force that he would easily merit a biography even if he had never written a poem of his own.
And it would be an easier biography to write. Unlike Eliot, whose output was relatively small for a poet of such stature, Pound wrote reams, not all of it good. The jury is still out, in fact, on the true significance of his work. Some critics consider him the major poet of his era; others dismiss his "Cantos" as gibberish. What makes Pound's poetry even more confounding is that it was so frequently at odds with his many pronouncements and manifestos. "Make it new" was his slogan, and yet his early work wasn't new at all. It was warmed-over Pre-Raphaelism. Pound's flirtation with Imagism produced a great many maxims ("Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something"; "Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose") and probably his best-known short poem, "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound's connection with Imagism was short-lived, however (he quit the movement when Amy Lowell and others wouldn't let him run it), and he never fully embraced it. At the same time he was writing "In a Station" he was also writing a lot of verse that was old-fashioned and formulaic. In principle, he declared that poetry ought to be concrete and immediate; in practice, and in the "Cantos" especially, he often wrote poems so allusive and erudite that to understand them you had to be as well-read as Pound was.
In sorting out all Pound's contradictions and complexity, Moody, a professor emeritus at the University of York and the author of a previous book about Eliot, is invaluable. He knows more about Pound's poetry than probably anyone else alive, and supplies careful, detailed readings of all the early books (this volume ends in 1920; a second will cover the years until Pound's death in 1972). He even manages to uncover a plot of sorts in Pound's fitful development, culminating in the "Fourth Canto" of 1919 and "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," a perplexing poem that both is and isn't autobiographical. Vastly simplified, the story is that Pound, who was immensely learned in Renaissance and Provençal poetry, was for a while before he had much to say interested in the sound of poetry almost at the expense of its sense, and that he had to discover both a suitable subject and suitable method for himself, a way of engaging the world and not just the poetic past.
Helpful as it is, though, Moody's book is sometimes more Felix than Oscar: it's dense, meticulous (except for the author's dismaying habit of forming the plural of a proper name by adding an apostrophe before the 's.'), formidably well researched and, in the first half especially, a little dull. Moody is more concerned with cramming in information than with fashioning a narrative, and his chapters are organized like an outline, with little subheads. He has little gift for characterization, so that the key people in Pound's life, figures like Hilda Doolittle (or H. D., as she became), Ford Madox Ford or Harriet Weaver, the publisher of The Egoist, flit through these pages like disembodied presences, sometimes introduced in footnotes or sometimes not at all. Even Pound himself is a little remote sometimes. Moody has not much interest in psychologizing, or in trying to explain why Pound was the way he was, and says next to nothing, for example, about his love life or lack of one.
Oddly, Pound's bohemianism did not extend to sex. His courtship of the woman who became his wife, Dorothy Shakespear, was touchingly old-fashioned, with Pound's letters and visits strictly rationed by Dorothy's mother (herself a former mistress of Yeats's) because his financial prospects were so poor. Dorothy, one senses from her letters, might gladly have eloped, but Pound was in no hurry. When they did finally marry, in 1914, their relationship was companionable but hardly passionate. Friends of Pound's with a more prurient bent than Moody even wondered whether they slept in the same bed. There are things more important than sex, Pound had written in 1912, and perhaps he meant it, or perhaps his erotic life took place in his brain, an organ he once called a "great clot of genital fluid." A curious thing about his poetry is that there are almost no genuine love poems to speak of, or none addressed to real women. His love-objects tended to be abstract figures, diaphanous goddesses and the like.
Like a lot of self-invented people, Pound was in the beginning part genius and part humbug something that William Carlos Williams, a few years ahead of him at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed right away. Pound "was often brilliant," he wrote, "but an ass." Pound was also, in classic American fashion, a young man from the provinces determined to make his mark in the metropolis. He was born in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885 but grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs after his father took a job with the Philadelphia Mint. By 15 he had determined to be a poet an ambition he certainly didn't inherit from his parents, though they loyally supported him and then bounced from school to school pursuing a curriculum of his own devise. He enrolled at Penn, finished at Hamilton College, where the professors were less fussy about requirements, and then went back to Penn for a graduate degree he never finished.
In 1907 he took a job teaching at Wabash College, in Indiana, but found the atmosphere so stifling that he contrived to get himself kicked out by harboring a chorus girl in his room. With a small parental allowance he sailed for Venice, where he arranged for an Italian printer to run up a few copies of his first book, "A Lume Spento," and then headed for London, intent on making a name for himself. He succeeded in remarkably short order, and even won over the great man himself, Yeats, whose secretary he eventually became, and even the best man at his wedding.
Reading between the lines in Moody's book, you get the sense that Pound in these years was charming and insufferable in about equal measure and bestowed his friendship only on those who met his very exacting standards. To those who didn't he could be withering. He challenged the poet Lascelles Abercrombie to a duel on grounds of "stupidity" so great it amounted to "public menace," and he called The Times of London a "slut-bellied obstructionist," a "fungus" and a "continuous gangrene."
Every now and then is a hint of the even darker, nuttier Pound to come: casual anti-Semitism, a burst of misogyny, contempt for the stupidity of the masses, a growing fascination with the dubious economics of one Maj. C. H. Douglas. And throughout the whole, even as he is heading toward the great artistic breakthrough of the "Cantos," there is a sense of swelling intemperateness and self-importance. By the end of 1920, when he declared himself disgusted with England and prepared to move to France, he had pretty much worn out his welcome, and everyone, even Eliot, was glad to see him go.
Charles McGrath, formerly the editor of the Book Review, is a writer at large for The Times.