He is a major figure in ‘modernist’ literature, renowned for his remarkable knowledge of poetic forms, his experiments in style, and his interest in world literatures
Besides having one of the most terrifyingly brutal pun-ready names in the English language, EZRA Pound was one of the 20th century’s great American poets. This man was important for single-handedly crafting the tradition of Modernist poetry and quite literally shaping the work of other players of the period, such as TS Eliot and HD.
Pound’s Imagism, which morphed into Vorticism after 1913, gave poetry in English its focus on simple, concrete diction and spare syntax, as well as its emphasis on strong visual imagery, which continues to this day.
In the early teens of the twentieth century, he opened a seminal exchange of work and ideas between British and American writers, and was famous for the generosity with which he advanced the work of such major contemporaries as WB Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, HD, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and especially TS Eliot.
Pound has been one of the most controversial; he has also been one of modern poetry’s most important contributors. In an introduction to the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, TS Eliot declared that Pound “is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual.” Four decades later, Donald Hall reaffirmed in remarks collected in Remembering Poets that “Ezra Pound is the poet who, a thousand times more than any other man, has made modern poetry possible in English.”
He is renowned for his remarkable knowledge of poetic forms, his experiments in style, and his interest in world literatures. He is best known for the group he founded in 1913, which he named ‘Imagism’, and for his long poem, The Cantos, which he began around 1915 and left unfinished at his death in 1972.
Ezra Pound was born in the small mining town of Hailey, Idaho, on October 30, 1885. The only child of Homer Loomis Pound, a Federal Land Office official, and his wife, Isabel, Ezra spent the bulk of his childhood just outside Philadelphia. His childhood seems to have been a happy one. He eventually attended Cheltenham Military Academy, staying there two years before leaving to finish his high school education at a local public school.
In 1901, Pound enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, but left after two years and transferred to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. By this time, Pound knew full well that he wanted to be a poet. At the age of 15, he had told his parents as much. Though his chosen vocation certainly wasn’t something he had inherited directly from his more conventional mother and father, Homer and Isabel were supportive of their son’s choice.
Young Ezra found and developed an early interest in the two worlds that would passionately shape him; poetry and politics. His first work, published in the Jenkintown Times-Chronicle, was about presidential candidate William Jennings Brian, who lost the election.
“There was a young man from the West,
He did what he could for what he thought best;
But election came round,
He found himself drowned,
And the papers will tell you the rest.”
-Ezra Pound, Age 11
Later in life, while working as an editor in Europe, he would recount the goals he had set out for himself (see excerpt below) and become legendary for his acquired skill and the ability to make master poets out of his protégés.
I resolved that at thirty I would know more about poetry than any man living… that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was ‘indestructible’, what part could not be lost by translation and — scarcely less important — what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated.
In this search I learned more or less of nine foreign languages, I read Oriental stuff in translations, I fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make me learn anything except this, or who bothered me with “requirements for degrees.”
Imagist & Vorticist movement
In 1908, Pound set sail for Venice. There he paid $8.00 for the printing of the first volume of his poetry - A Lume Spento (With Tapers Quenched). Pound then travelled to England to meet WB Yeats. He quickly became a literary success in London. The following year he met Yeats and became the dominant figure at Yeats’ Monday evenings.
Pound also came into contact with The English Review, which was publishing works by new talents such as DH Lawrence, and the author, painter and critic Wyndham Lewis. In 1911 Pound launched his campaign for innovative writing in The New Age, edited by the monetary reformer AR Orage. To Pound, the new poetry of the century would be “austere, direct, and free from emotional slither.”
The following year Pound founded the Imagist movement in literature. He was by this time already helping to launch the careers of William Carlos Williams, TS Eliot, Hemingway, and James Joyce. He had also become the mentor of Yeats, 20 years Pound’s senior and already world famed.
In remarks first recorded in the March 1913 Poetry and later collected in his Literary Essays as “A Retrospect,” Pound explained his new literary direction. Imagism combined the creation of an “image”—what he defined as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” or an “interpretative metaphor”—with rigorous requirements for writing.
In 1914 Pound started another more enduring movement that was to have a lasting influence on English culture, the Vorticist movement. The impetus came originally from a young avant-garde sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
A True Friend
What remains distinctly consistent in all his biographies was that he did not rise alone. He was fiercely protective of his friends and would recommend and get the most talented within his circle published. TS Eliot credits his work and ability to Ezra as do three other Nobel Prize winning Laureates, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. A difficult personality, he might have been, but he never gave any of his friends cause to question his loyalty.
His fashion sense
At the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to study in 1901, Ezra Pound contravened college convention by wearing flashy socks, something freshmen were forbidden to do; he was promptly thrown into a lily pond by second-year students (this earned him the nickname ‘Lily Pound’).
Shortly after Pound arrived in London in the early twentieth century, Ford Madox Ford described the young poet’s clothes: he ‘had trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend and an immense sombrero. All this was accompanied by a flaming beard cut to a point and a single, large blue earring’.
Major work- ‘The Cantos’
Ezra Pound is best remembered for his unfinished epic poem, ‘The Cantos.’ Mostly written between 1915 and 1962, the work contains 116 sections, each of which is a ‘canto.’ It is a mixture of satire, hymns, elegies and essays, covering different themes such as economics, governance, culture and memoirs.
TS Eliot once described Ezra Pound as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” While this quotation is often cited as praise for Pound’s preeminent translation abilities, it is worth noting that Eliot uses the word “inventor” rather than “translator.” Because Pound, a white man who couldn’t speak or read a word of Chinese, was not even necessarily attempting to faithfully recreate Cathay’s poems in English; he rewrote the poems to fit into American modernist aesthetics, bringing ancient Chinese poetry into his own place and time. Pound’s translations represented the most extreme form of domestication, a practice that theorist Lawrence Venuti called “a manifestation of ethnocentric violence.”
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