My essay on “Poetry on the News” received a fine and various set or replies. Christian Leithart’s response includes a discussion of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the casual reader may have found the replies to my essay a bit like Gandalf on Shadowfax, galloping off in all kinds of directions, unpredictably and with neither hale nor farewell, having only the point of departure in common. To the contrary, I found a lovely pattern to the responses that I will allow to guide this, my final word on the subject.
Aaron Belz has offered a criticism of my description of Ezra Pound, particularly my dismissal of much of the Cantos as unreadable, and my perhaps counterintuitive assertion that the chief American representative of poetic high modernism should have remained nonetheless, in his tastes, beholden to the sentimental excesses of Victorian lyric poetry. For Belz, reading Pound and listening to him was a revelation that set him on his own poetic journey. In this we are alike. Pound was one of my first loves and, like many first romances, the aftermath was pitched with deep disappointment and a persistent tendency to look back with a wan expression, across the breach, to contemplate what had been and what might have been. Indeed I am afraid that what is likely to be my single appearance in Poetry magazine, a magazine that first became important because of Pound’s hand in it, is a letter on the poverty of Pound’s work as a poet coupled with a remnant fascination with what he tried to do. “The poet and critic was simply not as good as he pretended to be,” I state there, and yet “even the name ‘Pound’ still captures my imagination.”
Belz dilated upon Pound’s fascism, something that goes unmentioned in my essay and, on the surface at least, irrelevant to it. But if we look a bit closer, we see that it does matter, and that it has a meaningful connection to Belz’s claim, one that I partly go along with, that Pound’s poem is not lyric but something else. My discussion of Pound was chiefly to explain what he meant in defining literature, poetry especially, as “news that stays news.” If we push beyond the word “news” to the long-destination of news called “history,” we discover something important about his poetic project in the Cantos. The Cantos is a typographic poetic, one intended to be seen on the page almost as much as it is to be heard aloud. The words veer across the white space in unpredictable ways, in part to emphasize their materiality and visuality as print. Another way of understanding this aspect of the poem is that it is a poetic of space rather than time; like the visual arts, it occupies the space of the page independent, rather than in the service, of the temporal unfolding of the poem as language when we read it.
Why does this matter? Pound’s friend Williams, great American patriot that he was, thought of the modern age as a jazzy place of freedom; the real American must leave the past behind with all its fusty trappings. Pound had his own enthusiasms for the modern condition, but he saw it as rotten with usury.
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face
hath no man painted a paradise on his church wall
Thus he writes in Canto XLV. Pound shared with T.S. Eliot and many of his contemporaries a sense that the mass age was one of decline. Eliot critiqued “whiggery,” and Pound added to that idea “usura” as the chief cause. Whig history is the hypothesis that history moves in a straight line of progress: as time flies like an arrow and advances into the future, civilization as a whole gets better and better—which generally means freer and freer.
Eliot’s response to this linear temporal triumphalism was to deny history was a line at all. It was rather a circle, one advancing and growing, but also inevitably taking a turn back toward decadence and decay, until the whole thing starts over again. The Waste Land is his great poem of history as vertiginous cycles of despair. Murder in the Cathedral and Four Quartets are his great poems about the overcoming of history; history is itself a closed circle, but the transcendent light of God penetrates that circle with grace, disrupting it, transforming it, and saving it. History does not redeem itself, as the Whigs proposed; the time is redeemed by Christ, as the Church proclaims.
Pound had no such faith. As had Eliot, he undermined the linear, temporal understanding of history, and his alternative was also circular. As history unfolds, it repeats, both its moments of decadence, but also its moments—its luminous details—of greatness, heroic integrity (virtue), and, in a way we shall have to explain, theophany. The Cantos have a spatial form so as to undermine temporal form. Whigs say history is the unfolding of progress across linear time. The Cantos is a spatial poem “including history,” as its sometime subtitle indicates. It creates on the page a collage of fragments, some illustrating moments of grandeur, others of squalor. And so, we see, while on the one hand, Pound was concerned with the immanence, concreteness, and currency of the “news” as “new,” he was also concerned with permanence, with news that “stays news.” To attain any kind of permanence, he had to deny the Whig theory of temporal progress and conceive a spatial theory of history, history unfolding as a collage pattern rather than as a spoken narrative. On such an understanding, anything that has been could still be again. The past is itself but also the image of a possible future. History is not a story, but a tessellation of archetypes.
One of the earliest attempts to account for Pound’s ambitions was W.B. Yeats’s A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), which Yeats eventually included as a preface to his own work in the philosophy of history, A Vision. For Yeats, Pound’s poem moved like the fixed stars, and planets, and descended down to the unfixed condition of the earth. That is to say, it contained singulars that were never to be seen again, but also higher forms of being, higher kinds of events, that recur in regular cycles, the way a theme recurs in a “Bach fugue.” Thus, according to Yeats, the poem will disclose patterns of “archetypes” that allow us to make sense of history in terms of space without being dominated by time. Everything returns, but we have to learn to see the pattern to understand that.
Pound famously replied that Yeats knew no more about fugues than frogs. In this he was correct; Yeats was musically illiterate. Nonetheless, Pound doth protest too much. Pound could not have liked the spiritualistic spin Yeats gave to his poem, associating it with the quasi-astrological theosophy his own book would unfold like a geometrical prophecy of gyres. But Yeats was correct that Pound’s poem “including history” dealt chiefly in archetypes. In this Yeats and Pound alike were typical of their age, which would also give us Jung, with his archetypal psychology, and Spengler, with his cycles of history turning and turning. Like those two figures, Pound wished to give us a circular history, but one that was closed off from the kinds of transcendence hinted at by the theosophy of Yeats and argued for by the Christianity of Eliot.
Pound desired an immanent, pagan, and materialist theory of history, one that could confer permanence on history and literature without implying transcendence. Early in his career, Pound translated Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, which predictably interprets all love in terms of physiology: the desire for reproduction gives birth to an efflorescence of aesthetic forms such as, for instance, the iridescent wings of the dragon fly. Pound wanted beauty but on a material basis. He also wanted religion. And so, he came to advocate a form of classical polytheism, believing that for “the lack of gods (plural) man suffers, or let us say he very gradually impoverishes his mind by the elimination of irreplaceable concepts.” In the same essay, he condemns Eliot’s call for a restoration of Christianity, and explains antisemitism as “revenge on the race that has brought monotheism into general European circulation.”
Pound “believed” in the “gods,” but by this he meant simply that human beings are given certain ecstatic experiences of intensity, passion, and insight that can only be explained “conceptually” by taking the names of gods. Thus, the Cantos begins with an account of Odysseus going down the Underworld, the prototypical account of religious experience in classical literature. It follows with a scene from Ovid, where Dionysius reveals himself as a god to kidnappers who had mistaken him for a good hostage, and, in the third Canto, Pound himself sits on a flight of steps in Venice. The young American abroad, like a character right out of Henry James, suddenly realizes that he is in an ancient land that has been written over, and over, with the patterned events of history. Consequently, he explains, “Gods float in the azure air, / Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.” One way of reading the Cantos is as an exploration of what characters or conditions in the pattern of history make such moments of ecstasy possible. Those moments of ecstasy in turn serve to make great art possible, and Pound’s test of civilization was the quality of its art.
That is why he liked the Renaissance patrons of the arts, with their suspicions of neo-paganism, their deep pockets, and their concerns for quality. It is also why he admired Mussolini, whom he believed could command into being a new age that repressed capitalism and usury and respected the heroic virtue of art, of making. The poem is thus a theory of history that tries to establish how the news can stay news without becoming the Good News, the Gospel revelation that there is more to reality than what occurs within the closed circle of history.
The ambition here smashes a great number of things in hopes of rebuilding them on the immanent, concrete, and polytheistic lines that Pound thought were the recipe for civilizational success. Among those things is poetry. Many of the Cantos are either lovely or exciting in their imagery, rhythm, and sound. Many of them are not. But much as Pound’s cyclical theory of history was a true product of its time and so similar in content to that of many of his contemporaries, his sentimental standards for beauty were by and large Victorian, and remained so even as he tried to escape their pull.
There’s no question that Pound’s early work is shot through with Victorian poetic diction. Pound himself would denounce them as “stale creampuffs.” He spent the balance of his mature years trying to escape what he knew was “stale” but for which he never quite lost the taste. We see that in the “Usura” canto, with its archaism of “hath,” we see it in his images of theophany, which are almost all like Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Athena and Aphrodite. We see it most painfully in the Pisan Cantos when, held in a cage as a war criminal by the U.S. Military, Pound was cut off from his books and left with only his memory and his Swinburnian sensibility. Much of what results is lovely:
Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust[?]
This he asks, meaning, have we seen the archetypal patterns of history obscured by the surface of individual events? The most famous lines are these, which constitute a kind of rhetorical climax to the Pisan Cantos as a whole:
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be rest from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
Or is it of none?
First cam the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.
This is incantatory like much in Tennyson and rhetorically excessive like Swinburne. In a word, it is Victorian lyricism. In the same Canto (LXXXI), Pound says “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” but these lines are almost entirely in iambic pentameter, which is one reason they sound so lovely.
Pound’s bad conscience about his tastes explains a great deal about his career. He really had nothing to say in his early work. He loved poetry for poetry’s sake. The Cantos tries to correct that on a grand scale by drawing on history, economics, and Confucian philosophy. Pound tries to crowd the tabula rasa so that his poetry will not be a series of empty formal experiments. He does not just want to imitate newsprint; he wants his poem to be newsworthy. So also, the poem does attempt to smash Victorian aesthetics all to pieces, but they keep cropping up nonetheless. And, when they do, the poem is generally at its best. The result is a poetry loaded with conceptual bric-a-brac that winds up being just a grand theory about the historical conditions necessary for the writing of good poetry. Some things never change, no matter how much we try.
There are other, readable prosaic passages in the Cantos. Many passages however veer from English to Greek, Latin, and some of the modern Romance languages. In places, Pound drops Chinese characters on the page—many of them. If Pound could make the poem sing with his own voice, that’s wonderful, but most of us will be left unable to hear the poetry. This is primarily what I mean by the poem as unreadable; if you are a genuine polyglot, it will pose you no trouble, but most of us are not, and the poem is certainly not good enough in itself to merit the trouble of becoming one (though many, under the delusion, have tried).
Pound himself had almost no Chinese, as I understand it. The French philosopher Etienne Gilson memorably humiliated Pound, in the pages of The Criterion, by showing that Pound, who had once been a professor of Romance Languages, was not even much of a hand with Italian. But Pound’s Chinese came mostly from the cribs of Ernest Fenollosa, who did not know the language either. That did not stop Pound from dropping those characters into his poem, making the poem even more unreadable.
Once, as a college student, I was going to a Halloween party and intended to dress up as a disco dancer. I paged through the Cantos and found a beautiful Chinese character, which I then had a friend draw on my chest with a marker to create a fake tattoo. Years later, I asked a Chinese friend what that character meant. “Tea!” she said. “Tea?” I asked. “Tea,” she said. Of course. The character must have appeared in the Adams/Jefferson Cantos in the context of the Boston Tea party. I obviously do not know any more Chinese than Pound did. I sometimes think that the chief difference between his use of Chinese characters and mine is that I at least knew I was only wearing a costume.
Pound’s poetic project in the Cantos seems to have two origins then. One was to fill in the emptiness of his mind so as to give him something to write about. He is not the only writer to have gone in far-flung search of a subject. The other lies in his conviction that something had gone wrong with art and, beyond art, civilization as a whole. Scott Cairns offers some of the excitement of discovery with “what went wrong” to be found in Pound, only Cairns’ theory is better founded and more fruitful. He argues that the Greek words for “word” generally suggest a reality that stands at some remove from the word, which is a mere vehicle or sign. In contrast, the Hebrew word for “word,” “davar,” suggests the presence of the thing such that it remains an active source of power.
I agree that this distinction is illuminating. One conception of the word gives us an idea of words as mere vessels, conveying information about a reality that remains always at a distance; the other suggests the word as dynamic spirit acting in the world. One can hear the line of Archibald MacLeish that “A poem should not mean. But be.” The Greek conception of word entails signing toward meaning; the Hebraic word is in all its dynamic existential fullness.
I find myself a little suspicious of this etymology, at least when it is pushed too far. Both classical Greek and Roman, ancient Jewish, and Christian cultures were (and in our case, remain) commentary cultures. The original text is taken to have an inviolable integrity, even a sacred being, in itself. This must not be violated. And so, to enter into the depths of meaning must be done with reverence and without such violation. The technology that made this possible, in all those cultures, was the practice of commentary. The original text remains, but acquires interpretative gloss around it, and sometimes gloss upon gloss.
The reason behind this practice is that all these cultures had a clear conception of beauty. The beautiful form has its own existence and reality—indeed form is the reality of a thing, the Greeks will tell us in various ways. To know a thing is to see the form. To understand a thing is to enter into that form and to explore its mystery: the way in which it has bottomless depths with meanings standing-under the surface or, to use an inverse expression, a plenitude of meanings radiating out from the form. This vision led Plato to define beauty as the splendor of form. The form contains myriads; the word is a manifold presence not only of meaning but meanings; but to dissect or violate the form would be to destroy that dense polysemantic structure. And so, commentary emerged as a way to respect the saturated meaningfulness, the presence and depth, the form and splendor, of a text while also making more and more of that crowded mystery visible to the unlearned: those, that is, who cannot yet see the whole splendor of the form in a single glance.
What follows from this is that we have something like a unanimous tradition rather than a bifurcated one, That tradition tells us poems and other texts have a certain sacramental, or at least sacral, quality to them. It acknowledges that the poem has an existential integrity that is active, powerful, and mysterious, but that it in no way violates that mystery if we engage in interpreting it, explaining it to ourselves and others. Wonder begets wonder, mystery begets mystery, the more we draw out the splendor of a text by way of explication, the more we realize that there is still more to be discovered. The form remains bottomless, as long as our act of commentary respects that form’s integrity by staying literally outside of it. If this is the case, then it is possible for a text at once to convey information, that is to say, to have a definite content, and also to transcend that content as a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
We know in fact that this is the case. If a student reads a gloss or summary of a text without reading the text itself, we acknowledge the student knows things about the text, but does not know the text. When someone explains a poem to us, it leads us not to set the poem aside as something whose wonder has been eliminated by being transformed to science (knowledge). Rather, we return to that poem with new interest, the surpassing of one state of wonder leading us to still another state of wonder. This is true of Exodus, of the books of Samuel, and also true of Virgil’s Aeneid or Plato’s Phaedrus (where in fact this theory is first explored).
Why does this matter? All the texts I have just mentioned are lucid in a literal discursive sense, and yet this in no way prejudices us against seeing them as dynamic and mysterious, requiring endless study and commentary. Fearing that the West had somehow violated this principle as it cultivated the arts of abstraction and analysis, many modern figures sought to renegotiate their relationship with the word. Heidegger sought to do philosophy without abstraction. Pound conducted his experiments in typography, spatial form, and archetypes-without-transcendence. Gerard Manley Hopkins was perhaps the earliest figure to try to reconceive the practice of language so as to collapse the distinction between form and content so that the two are made a dynamic and inseparable unity in his poems. Hopkins wanted to restore to poetry the unmediated quality that makes the word an active power and attempted to do so by eliminating words as signifiers so that they could show forth as sacramental things (inscapes) in themselves (having haecceitas as he called it).
Heidegger’s philosophy, to some extent Pound’s poetry, and most certainly Hopkins’ are all valuable achievements that I would not wish to surrender. But each of them seems rooted in some variation on the kind of dualistic theory that Cairns gives us. For poetry in particular, I think this has unfortunate consequences.
If real poetry is said not to convey information but realizes an activity in the world, while all other uses of language clearly do convey information, then poetry becomes simply a special class or kind of language and not an obviously admirable one. That, by and large, is what has happened. For millennia, poetry was the art of verse, that is to say, the art that is made of verses (of meter and, in some cases, rhyme); such verses may bear a narrative, a lyric, or a philosophical content, they may draw on the whole range of rhetoric that is also used in good prose, but it is the refinement of that rhetoric, the refinement of every last syllable into meter, that makes poetry what it is. On this theory, poetry is not a separate kind of language, but merely a refinement of the language we already have, a formalization of it. It can have any kind of content, but that content is actualized in, and finally made one with, a perfection of form.
Theories of “something going wrong” with language lead us to think otherwise. Poetry ceases to be a refined form of speech and, in order to retain any sense of integrity or purpose for itself, is forced to become a peculiar kind of speaking. A kind of speaking that does not bear a content and so cannot tell us anything we can understand. It becomes a kind of active presence, a thing unto itself, but in the process it surrenders everything else. Such a theory has led many contemporary poets to write in fragments, isolated words and phrases, heaped together in a kind of unintelligible juxtaposition, on the assumption that, if poetry were to convey information, if it were to be something one could understand and interpret rather than merely experience as a kind of sensation of floating signifiers, it would cease to be poetry altogether.
One person might say poetry is not poetry if it does not rhyme. Another will say poetry is not poetry if it does not speak of love and roses. Still another will say it is not poetry if you can understand it. While I do not agree with any of these theses, I would argue the first two have more to be said in their favor than the third, and yet the third has pretty well won out in our age.
A friend of mine, who is a philosopher and so spends his days thinking about ideas and carrying on discursive arguments, also has a great love of poetry. But my poetry he has difficulty with. When he picks up a book of poems he wants some of what Remy Wilkins wants, and what Pound and Williams sought to realize, in the spare little lyrics of imagism: concrete images without commentary, things that appear but do not disclose in any direct or discursive way their meaning. What he wants, in that case, is poetry to restrict itself to being a special kind of language, one that gives a very specific, and, for most people, not very evident kind of pleasure.
All poetry involves vivid imagination, of course, whether in the literal realization of a thing or by way of the apt figure (metaphor) that makes the elusive and abstract suddenly imaginable. That is in part what Theseus explains at the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
But note that, for Theseus, the poet’s eye rolls everywhere. It does not restrict itself to refrigerator notes about plums that have been eaten, or a woman wandering in solitude in a public garden, or even to chickens by a wheelbarrow. The poet’s eye moves from the abstract to the concrete, from the strange back to the familiar, from the imagistic to the discursive, from metaphorical figures to philosophical argument, from passionate plea to didactic sentences, and every place in between. Some of our best poems are exhortations or occasional poems of praise, indistinguishable in their content from a fine speech or sermon, but made poetry by the form alone. Some of our poems do not just include history but actually tell it. Poetry will sometimes be all, or almost all, sensuous imagination, sometimes it will be “versified discourse.” It should be any and all of these things as occasion requires. It can only operate thus if poetry is essentially understood as a form, a metrical medium, rather than a particular and peculiar kind of language.
In eschewing much of what Pound sought to advance, I do not ask us to discard any good poetry. Any adequate theory of poetry will account for all good poems and for all the bad ones too. I ask us rather to recover poetry not as a bizarre, different kind of word that does not do anything our everyday words already do. I would have us recover a poetry that does everything other forms of language do already, but does it better, that is to say, in a more refined manner, in virtue of it being well measured as verse. With Christian Liethart, therefore, I want poetry to be able to be the bearer of important news. With Micah Mattix, I would have it be a “real medium of information.” With them both, I would also have poetry be “more referential than news—it gets at the root of a thing—and it is this deep referentiality, among other things, that makes it more of a thing in itself.”
My objection to Pound and the aspects of modernism that he represents is that it gave up too many of the things poetry has always done and should always continue to do in order to secure its position as a “thing in itself.” It became a thing apart, a thing defined more by what it was not and did not do (Pound is best known for his list of “Don’ts”) than by what purpose it served. That was unnecessary. As the definition of beauty as “form and splendor” indicates, every beautiful thing is already itself and already more than itself without ceasing to be itself, and this in virtue of its very being. That is the mystery of being, and the mystery of poetry, that our ancestors understood well, but which Pound and many others beside him mistakenly thought had been forgotten and needed—at great cost—to be recovered by a kind of division, bifurcation, and violence. Let’s recover the old news, for it is also good news for poetry and for ourselves.
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is also Poet in Residence at The Benedict XVI Institute, Poetry Editor for Modern Age, and Director of the Colosseum Institute.
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