When this book arrived, the
first thing I noticed was its aesthetic beauty. Plain and elegant, I hoped it
would be a sign of what to expect in its contents, at least crediting the
imagiste with the simplicity he applauded and so furiously encouraged.
Immediately, the book seems to be justifying its own publication. Beginning
with a chronology of Pound's life, not only did I feel like I was a fan of
Pound's but suddenly a student - which, we are told in the foreword notes,
was Pound's true intention. I didn't quite understand the need for this heavy
annotation - surely an imagiste's work should speak for itself with no need
for this kind of self-awareness. Considering Pound's plea for the direct
treatment of 'the thing', these poems are not treated directly but somewhat
relentlessly dithered around, needlessly justified, and I felt like I was
constantly being told: 'If you haven't worked out why Ezra Pound is good yet,
allow me to explain it to you'. My question was: should poetry need to
explain itself like this? Pound's personal justifications seem somewhat
tongue-in-cheek, or at least the reader can appreciate Pound's blase
arrogance. Take this Rihaku translation and the notes he adds:
steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late
that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let
down the crystal curtain
And watch the
moon through the clear autumn.
NOTE - Jewel
stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something
to complain of.
Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who
complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no
excuse on account of
come early, for the dew has not merely whitened
but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially
utters no direct reproach.
It's hard to know here whether Pound is justifying his own translation, or
lecturing us on his own work; or precisely why he chose to translate it in
the first place. Perhaps wrongly, I could assume that the footnote is as
important as the poem itself, that one could argue it was all part of the
art. Either way, this collection treats Pounds own poetry with a similar -
but more confused - apologia.
That's not to say that this isn't a fascinating book. To see Pound's
progression from his early, more traditional writing is inspiring: you can
almost sense his feelings as a young poet, how he plays with form and tests
himself within the boundaries of villanelles and sestinas.
Looking at this collection objectively, it feels as if it fits and starts at
first but settles into itself the more you read, which makes sense. His
earlier poems are not what I personally come to expect from Pound but raised
a smile to my lips; I liked how unsure they were, it was nice - somewhat
revealing, perhaps - to see what Pound was like before he was so sure of his
voice, that he too was once a struggling and confused poet. For example, the
first stanza of ‘La Fraisne (Scene: The Ash Wood of Melvern)':
For I was a
gaunt, grave councilor
Being in all
things wise, and very old,
But I have
put aside this folly and the cold
That old age
weareth for a cloak.
Having read this with no prior knowledge I would
not have recognised this as Pound's. It was fascinating, and to read the
progression, to see that become so pared-down and minimal, to organically
change into something as imagist as ‘Shop Girl':
For a moment
she rested against me
swallow half blown to the wall,
And they talk
of Swinburne's women,
shepherdess meeting with Guido.
And the harlots of Baudelaire.
The joy of this was all mine, witnessing the tangible journey Pound took, as
all poets do, as a poet himself. Perhaps the thing I dislike about this book,
the thing I'm ice-skating around is how much like an academic text it reads.
I can make my own judgements from it, I can forge my own path through it. I
never understood Ezra Pound as an intrinsically academic poet until I read
this collection, its extensive footnotes, its justifications, its
self-awareness and fawning. I don't dislike Pound at all, but reading this
felt like a set study-text rather than something for pleasure. This is an odd
response for me, because normally I welcome academic notes. I love essays,
articles and manifestos - but I think my poetry collections ought to retain
their voice in the poem. Reading this book was like reading a poetry book
alone, but with someone constantly tapping on my shoulder telling me
precisely why I was reading it, what I was reading and what I ought to think
about it, whilst constantly pushing their glasses up the bridge of their nose
and saying 'actually' a lot. My mind flowing through from the poems to the
Cantos to the translations felt interrupted as if by someone with an
irritating cough. However, this book does sell itself on its academia,
claiming on the inside cover that: 'Unlike previous selections, [this]
edition provides annotation to the early poems as well as a commentary on the
later Cantos -- indispensable to any reader wanting to follow Pound in his
Perhaps it's just me but no, no I don't want to. I want to read the poems, I
want to make my own mind up. Whilst it's a brilliant thing that some of the
older translations have been added, and whilst the annotations are indeed
concise and splendidly academic, I couldn't help but feel they belonged in a
separate book for that purpose, and I feel the collection could have
benefited from taking tips from Pound himself when he famously wrote: 'What
the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow', in his
essay 'A Few Don'ts'.
© Sian S.