A Storm in His Luggage

C.K. Stead

  • Ezra Pound and James Laughlin: Selected Letters edited by David Gordon
    Norton, 313 pp, £23.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 393 03540 9
  • ‘Agenda’: An Anthology. The First Four Decades edited by William Cookson
    Carcanet, 418 pp, £25.00, May 1994, ISBN 1 85754 069 7

In a letter dated 22 January 1934 to his protégé James Laughlin, Pound makes passing reference to R.P. Blackmur, who had written a long unflattering essay, ‘Masks of Ezra Pound’, in an issue of the periodical Hound and Horn (which Pound renamed Bitch – Bugle). Next day he refers to it again – ‘24 depressing pages’. A year later there is an angry letter to Blackmur on the subject, sent, however, to Laughlin, perhaps to be sent on. Blackmur is accused of ‘placid and conceited ignorance’: ‘you pups who are born omniscient ... and utterly indifferent to FACT never never never will understand the need for data before assumption.’ Three years later there is a reference to Blackamoor; and in 1949 the article was still not forgotten.

Reviewing the first 30 Cantos Blackmur had argued that Pound was ‘neither a great poet nor a great thinker’ but rather ‘at his best a maker of great verse’. Attempting to explain and justify this judgment, Blackmur went on:

When you look into him, deeply as you can, you will not find any extraordinary revelation of life, nor any bottomless fund of feeling ... The content of his work ... cannot be talked about like the doctrines of Dante or the mental machinery of Blake ... It is not to be found in any book or set of books. Only in a very limited way can Mr Pound be discussed as it is necessary to discuss, say, Yeats: with reference to what is implicit and still to be said under the surface of what has already been said.

Is the ‘revelation of life’ which poetry offers necessarily ‘extraordinary’, or its fund of feeling always ‘bottomless’? Do Dante’s ‘doctrines’ or Blake’s ‘mental machinery’ explain the greatness of their poetry? Yeats’s ‘content’ has given his critics much to talk about; but does that talk explain his superiority (if he is superior) to Pound? Blackmur was saying in his own way what many have felt about Pound; and his difficulty, which springs in part from conscientiousness, does not make that view ‘wrong’, or untenable. But Pound’s work, which demanded such an effort of definition, had forced his critic back in the direction of an old argument about aesthetics, or Beauty and Truth. One can see that Blackmur will not tolerate an absence, or incoherence, of ‘content’; yet he writes awkwardly, as if he can hear a ghostly voice asking: ‘What is the content of a nightingale, or a Grecian urn?’

As for Pound: a man so isolated, so precariously placed, and at that time in his life so seldom written about seriously and at length, was hardly likely to be unaffected by this kind of attention. His brassiness has the hollow ring of insecurity. Perhaps we may thank Blackmur in part for the largely unfortunate increase in ‘content’ which the 40 Cantos written in the next seven years displayed.

Pound had come to intellectual consciousness at the time of Fin de Siècle aestheticism and its hearty aftermath, and perhaps half-shared Blackmur’s view that the early Cantos lacked a proper purpose beyond poetry. As if to prove himself no insubstantial, or substanceless, aesthete, he took more and more to stuffing his epic with political history and monetary theory which he persuaded himself could save the world from poverty and war. The problem with these Cantos (roughly 31 to 71 – though there are some beautiful exceptions) is precisely a reversal of Blackmur’s objection to those which preceded them: not that their ‘content’ cannot ‘be found in a ... set of books’, but that it can and, many Poundians believe, must be if the work is to be properly understood.

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