Christ’s Teeth

C.K. Stead

  • BuyStudies in the Ezra Pound by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 388 pp, £25.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 85635 850 9
  • Poems 1963-1983 by Michael Longley
    Secker, 205 pp, £8.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 436 25676 2
  • BuyUnder the Circumstances by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 64 pp, £5.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 19 282834 7
  • In the Echoey Tunnel by Christopher Reid
    Faber, 73 pp, £12.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 16252 5
  • A Cold Coming by Tony Harrison
    Bloodaxe, 16 pp, £2.95, July 1991, ISBN 1 85224 186 1

‘Dates, dates are of the essence; and it will be found that I date quite exactly the breakdown of the imaginative exploit of the Cantos: between the completion of the late sequence called “Rock-Drill”, and the inauguration of the next, called “Thrones”.’ This is Donald Davie in his introduction to Studies in Ezra Pound, offered as Volume IV of his Collected Works, and including the whole of Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964), followed by a single essay from 1972, then ‘Six Notes on Ezra Pound’ from Trying to Explain (1980 – nowhere actually named in the present volume), and nine essays and reviews written since. Excluded without mention is his 1975 Pound in the Fontana Modern Masters series, a book that mixed some of his best critical insights with strange eruptions of moralising petulance.

Davie’s problem with ‘Thrones’, and so his location of the ‘breakdown’ of the Cantos there, is that it offers ‘propagandist fiction’ as historical fact; and worse, there is ‘its levity: the high-handedness with which Pound at that stage exploited several mutually inconsistent myths of history as if all were equally nourishing and proper’. In other words, the truth of the thing beyond poetry is compromised. The poem hands itself over to modern theorists who argue that poetry is only a linguistic construct, not to be measured against anything outside itself. ‘Thrones’, Davie’s book asserts in its final sentence, ‘cannot be saved from the ... Post-Structuralists; and that is just what is wrong with it.’

But elsewhere Davie argues against reading the Cantos simply for ‘meaning’ or ‘ideas’ or ‘history’ – treating the words as a code to be broken. He even rejects his own six-page reading of Canto 91 as a ‘travesty’ since it has ‘raised to the explicitness of ideas matters which the poet goes to great lengths not to make explicit’.

So critics who use the poem as a stepping-off point into history and a world outside the poem are resisted by Davie: but so are theorists who invite us to stay in there with the doors and windows shut and the curtains drawn. This appears to be a contradiction: but it’s clear that Davie feels it need not be – and I agree with him, though I think it’s a problem he doesn’t ever quite resolve.

Even with the most successful passages from the Cantos there can seem to be a problem residing in a contradiction in Pound himself – between the poet and the man. The poet advocated, achieved, and sustained relentlessly, what he called ‘the presentative method’. Nothing is, or ought to be, explained. It is simply there, fulfilling the Jamesian injunction, ‘Dramatise!’ But much of what the poet insisted must be presented dramatically, as voice, had been chosen by the man, from remote and random sources, because he considered it important, worthy of exposition, even necessary if Western civilisation was to be saved. The more the man insisted on this material, bringing it in by the cartload from his reading, the more the poet insisted on disposing it eccentrically – truncated, juxtaposed, verbalised, twisted into a texture that was not permitted simply, or even primarily, to point beyond itself. Even in its worst absurdities – the crackerbarrel ‘Amurkin’ passages, the being-on-first-names-with-history (‘Miss Tudor’, ‘Jim First’, ‘Noll’ and ‘Charlie’) – one can see Pound the poet resisting Pound the man, determined that the material of his art shall be seen for what it is: not history, nor landscape, nor biography, nor economics, but language.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in