POUND IN THE WORLD
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Teaching Pound: Teaching “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Return”: A Case in Point

            by Mohammad Shaheen

 

Between 2005 and 2010 I taught five courses of modern English and American poetry to senior undergraduates of the English department at the University of Jordan. Eliot and Pound featured large in those courses, and the poems in focus were The Waste Land, “In a Station of the Metro,” and “The Return.” It was obvious that Eliot had greater appeal to students, at least in comparison to Pound. Every time a comparison was made between the two poets, discussion would at one point or another shift to Eliot, with Pound indefinitely suspended. When I realized that Pound could not compete with Eliot in one whole discussion, I started introducing Pound alone, giving students “no choice but to listen” to him (using Coleridge’s words in The Ancient Mariner).

To make the task easier, and hopefully successful, I made my choice out of Pound’s early poems such as “Piere Vidal Old,” “The River Song,” “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” “Exile’s Letter,” and part IV of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Students enjoyed the selected poems, probably due to what they found was the lyrical aspect, which, in fact, they expanded in their own way to make it at least agree with an a priori desire they already had for lyrical poetry. Yet when we moved to Pound’s imagism and to his two poems “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Return,” the response was different. The majority (I say the majority because some of them made very interesting remarks, which I shall come to later) approached the two poems with little or no grasp of the basic elements of imagism. The “Metro” poem, they thought, was meaningless, and at its best, an exercise in pure language. By comparison, “The Return” was more fortunate. In the consensus reading given by different generations of students, it was the image of a “defeated army.”

Two students advanced two exceptions from this standard. One of them wondered how the same Pound managed to write a simple, straightforward, lyrical poem (Mauberley IV), which the class found quite intelligible, and a totally incomprehensible poem (“The Return”), which vaguely and only vaguely reminded them of Mauberley. The link the student somehow established between the two was that the “defeated army” in the poem was driven to war through corrupt governments, which indirectly brought about its defeat, and inevitably led to its retreat, a synonym, students thought, for return. The “defeated army” image had its frame of reference to the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The other comment was by another student who, in reading the three poems, focused on the gradation of style in Pound poetry. She remarked that Pound moved from a state of intelligibility in expression as demonstrated in Mauberley to a form of unintelligibility as found in “The Return,” and in the Metro Station poem, which, she believed, is vaguely another image of a defeated army.

* * *

In February this year, I taught a course in Modernism to graduate students. One task I asked for in the final exam was an appreciation of “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Return,” assuming that the question cannot be attempted without tackling Modernism and imagism in Pound.

Seven out of the total ten students had already been familiar with the two Pound poems in question and they were among those who at one course or another inscribed the poems with the“defeated army” image. Somehow, those students were not embarrassed to advance a completely different version of the interpretation they once adopted. The two poems now expressed an image of a dignified army, returning every day to the squares of Tunisia and Cairo with responsibility and respect for the freedom fighters. Attempting to clarify the contradiction between the two readings: one student shifted the blame on Pound, who wrote a very ambiguous poem whose significance is made clear only by time and context. A counterpoint was made by another student, who drew upon what she learnt in a course of reader response theory, remarking that a correspondence between the author’s design and the reader’s response is not a positive thing, and it is neither to the favor of one nor to that of the other.

The three students, whose contact with Pound’s “The Return” was still fresh enough, came up with the notion that the poem had the immediacy of reawakening, uprising, resurrection, regeneration and the like, viewing it as a new state of being. They were illuminated by the emphasis the poem made on the present tense, and on the subject as pronoun. One student noted that the return, any return as such, is a process almost emancipated from the fatality of time. It is a kind of anthem beyond the mere rhetoric of language.

To demonstrate this, she coined two different versions of the two poems with the following introductory remark: This is how I (student) happened to read “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Return.” Here are the two poems as deconstructed by the student:

In a Station of the Metro

[On the above Station of the Midan Metro]

The apparition of these faces [rebels] in the crowd;

[Flags on a flat, round square].

 

 

The Return

See, they [the rebels] return; ah, see the tentative

Movements, and the slow feet,

The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

Wavering!

See, they return, one, and by one,

With fear, as half-awakened;

[ In the entrance gates]

As if the snow [flags] should hesitate

And murmur in the wind,

                             and half turn back;

These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”

                             Inviolable.

Gods of the winged shoe!

With them the silver hounds,

                 sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!

     These were the swift to harry;

These the knee-scented;

These were the souls of blood.

Slow on the leash, [line]

                 pallid  the leash-men [line-men]!

The above response to Pound is not unusual with the Arab audience. Shortly after the publication of “In a Station of the Metro,” Gibran, a most celebrated Arab poet in the West, ridiculed the poem and even wrote a parody of it, which he read to his beloved Mary, as they were riding a bus in New York.

Crowds in Washington Square are making their presence

On the winding stair

Upward to the second tier

Wheels are moving under shaking seats

Loaded with men and women.1

Gibran continued, adding to these lines and in sequential order, every detail of the scenery they were passing by, such as those of the library, museum, the arch, and others.

Gibran also commented that cubist poetry is similar to what Pound and Amy Lowell did, evaluating their practice as an attempt to generate life in details from here and there, details put together and reconstructed side by side. He further observed that the technique followed by them consists of repetition and recurrence. Gibran gave Mary another poem inspired by the locale, and this is what New York Central Park led him to contrive:

Green grass

Grows while it is green

Green trees

Greenness of the grass

Grass and trees are green

Greenness cover grass and trees.

(Gibran, 223)

Decades later, another leading modern Arab poet, Al-Bayyati, wrote a poem in appreciation, but in imitation of “In a Station of the Metro,” and the attempt was disastrous; for Al-Bayyati’s poem, which happened to carry almost the same title, turned out unfortunately to be a prosaic account of Pound poem.

Paris Metro

Ghosts as many as the grains of sand

Exhausted by the fever of meaningful and meaningless quest

And the everlasting Nay

Some of these ghosts go down, others go up from underground

Anticipating resurrection.

Some cry, swinging with hysterical laughter

Bark like a wolf

Covering their weary faces with their newspaper

Bidding farewell to the light of the day at its end

Addressing someone unknown in the darkness.

Some hallucinate in starvation, books under their arms

Not yet read.

Some play a tune, begging

Reciting poetry and starting in the infinite.

Some anticipate something far from realisation.

And the underground ghosts keep going down and up

In the black tunnel.2

(Bustan ‘Aishah, 25-26).

Al-Sayyab, whose poetry is considered a cornerstone in the innovation of modern Arabic poetry, translated only one poem by Pound, which is the “River Merchant’s Wife”; as if Pound appeared to be beyond reach.

* * *

Attempts to usher Pound into the literary scene of modern Arabic poetry have not stopped since the middle of the last century. Yousuf Al-Khal, himself a poet carrying the banner of modernism in Arabic poetry, corresponded with Pound in St. Elizabeths Hospital through Omar Pound, whom he befriended, and asked for guidance and help in his lifelong project of modernizing Arabic poetry. Al-Khal, who was a student at New York University at the time, had just founded the avant-garde journal Shi’r [Poetry] and offered to publish Pound in Arabic, which he did. Al-Khal translated the first Canto and published it in the first issue of his journal, followed by the translation of other Pound poems published in the issues that followed. Unfortunately Al-Khal’s sincere efforts to promote Pound in modern Arabic poetry were not, for some reason, successful.

* * *

I discussed Pound’s reception in the Arab world with Mahmoud Darwish, the most distinguished modern Arab poet. His immediate response was that Pound is not easily accessible, at least in comparison to a poet like Eliot, whose impact on modern Arabic poetry has been immense. Pound makes you feel disarmed, Mahmoud added, of any supplementary aid you may need in the way of deconstructing his poetic achievement. Mahmoud then went to a corner of his study, picked up a volume of his poetry titled Why did you leave the horse alone (his favorite collection, as he assured me), looked quickly at some poems (later on, I knew which poems they were), then put it down, and turned again to Pound poems. “In few words,” Mahmoud said, “Pound articulates my whole remorseless experience recorded in this volume.” What was that experience? When Mahmoud was about six years old, his family was forced by Israel to leave its home in Galilee, north of Palestine, to South Lebanon in 1948. After the family had lived as refugees for a year or so, they decided to steal across the borders and return home. I vividly remember how Mahmoud produced details of juxtapositions that Pound poems generated in him so as to articulate his experience. First, the event of the return itself. It suggested to him the dream of Eden and the fall of Palestine, which became separate while they were innocent refugees, aspiring to a return to their Eden. The journey would be conducted by Arab local guides, who were familiar with the mountainous rough passages and routes of Israeli patrols. Holding the Pound poems in his hand, he recollected the guide’s words used as instructions for safety, such as asking the group to walk “one and by one” and not to make any noise, or speak to each other: they could “whisper in the air,” but no more. By the time they arrived at Al-Birwah, Mahmoud’s home village, where “the horse” (referred to in the above mentioned volume) was left alone, not only the “leash men” were “pallid,” but the whole group led by the guide as well.

As they were resting, the guide mentioned to the group that the previous journey(s) he had made took him and the group(s) less time, that they were “quicker”: “[they] were the wing’d –with- Awe”; “the swift to harry,” “the keen-scented,” “the souls of blood”; unlike their group, who were “slow on the leash.” Mahmoud added that one particular scene of that harsh journey carved in his memory was the short break given by the guide to stop for rest by a little stream they suddenly identified through the wavering starlight reflected in its running water. “Now, only now, Mahmoud said, I can visualize people scattered on the bank of the stream. They were ‘petals on a black bough.’” The casual remark Mahmoud made was that Pound didn’t have to give his shortest poem in the English language a title; without one, it could have traveled around freely in time and space with a variety of titles generated by different situations.

Mahmoud Darwish further commented that the poor reception of Pound in Arabic is not just owing to the poet being inaccessible, as he had earlier remarked. It is essentially related to the conventional manner of approaching modern poets, with Pound at the top of the list. He observed that the long tradition of lyricism in Arabic poetry is one fundamental reason why Arabs seem to fail in accommodating modernism in poetry. This is what made Gibran lament that Pound should have seriously engaged in lyrical poetry in his youth, instead of wasting his time on what he thought was useless imagism. I think Mahmoud Darwish made a good point when he tried to find a rationale for the poor reception in the absence of drama as a genre in the Arabic cultural heritage: he remarked that Arab readers of poetry often tended to overlook the significance of the dramatic element.

Once I invited Cleanth Brooks to lecture on Eliot to my students at the University of Jordan. He began his comment on “La Figlia Che Piange” by saying that Eliot is like a skillful Hollywood movie producer. Some students questioned the analogy later on, wondering what a Hollywood movie, or any movie, has got to do with poetry, or with Eliot altogether.

Another interesting point Mahmoud Darwish made is what may be called “confusing privileges,” by which he meant the lack of balance between the privilege the poet has as an author, and what may be described as unearned privilege the recipient usurps in the interplay of the response process. For example, the fact that we can haphazardly identify an external contextual frame of reference to what Pound says, should not, by all means, mean that Pound intended or missed that reference so that the reader is left free to fill a gap deliberately made by the poet. The "image" in modern poetry is different from the "scene" in modern fiction. It is not a simple mediation. After all, and these are Mahmoud Darwish’s words, “Pound is a master of deviation from the norm, and the infinite readings created by the signified in his poetic language are simultaneously generated by the multiplicity of the signifier.”

* * *

On the visit which followed that memorable evening, I took a copy of the Cantos and a couple of Pound writings with a copy of Paideuma, which has my essay on Gibran and Pound, as a modest contribution to Mahmoud’s library, which was crowded with Eliot alone.

Shortly after Mahmoud’s death in Housten (August 2008), his relatives and friends went to his apartment. I noticed that Pound material was the only thing on that elegant desk he brought from his exile in Paris to Amman. An assistant student of mine, who was with us, commented on Pound spreading himself on that desk with great serenity: This is perhaps Mahmoud’s card to posterity!

 

NOTES

1. One wonders whether Gibran had on his mind Marinetti’s ‘Messina’ that famous cubist poem where the first person is dropped and punctuation is substituted by mathematical and musical signs. Here is the poem in translation:

Messina

Smoke of the volcano a call emitted from the volcano mouth deception of vegetation = alterations of the earthquake threat of a too perfumed garden spicy odour of danger dust + will + work + comfort + thoughtlessness of a nocturnal fertility = Messina.

2. See Shaheen, “Pound in Arabic, 399-410.


WORKS CITED

Bayyati, Abdul-Wahhab. 1989. Bustan ‘Aishah’ [the Orchard of Aishah]. Cairo: Dar Al-Shurouq, 1991.

Darwish, Mahmoud. Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? Trans. Mohammad Shaheen.London: Hesperus Press, 1995.

Gibran, Gibran K. Gibran under New Spotlights. Ed. Sayegh Tawfiq. London: Riad El-Rayses Books Ltd., 1990.

Khal, Yousef, ed. “Canto I” Shi’r [Poetry]. 1.1 (Winter 1957): 73-77.

Sayyab, Badr Shakir.  Al Sayyab. Selected Poems. Baghdad: (Unknown Publisher), (Undated).

Shaheen, Mohammad. "Pound in Arabic." Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship 6.3 (1977): 399-410.

 

 

APPENDIX:

 

الـعــــــودة (باوند)   The Return (Pound)
تَبَصَّرْ، يعودون، أهٍ تبصّر  

See, they return; ah, see the tentative

حِراكا وشيكا، وأقدامهم مبطئات،            Movements, and the slow feet,
تَعَثَّرُ في خَطْوِها، وتلوّح مرتابة،  

        The trouble in the pace and the uncertain           

         Wavering!                      

تَبَصَّرْ، يعودون، تَتْرى   See, they return, one, and by one,
على خشية، شِبْهَ يَقْظى   With fear, as half-awakened;
كأنّ على الثلج أن يتردّد   As if the snow should hesitate
ثم يغمغم في الريح   And murmur in the wind,
يرتد نصف ارتداد                                 And half turn back;
أولئك كانوا بأجنحة من مهابة   These were the Wingd-with-Awe,”
عواصم                                 Inviolable.
وأرباب خُفّ مجنّحَةٍ   Gods of the winged shoe!
معها أكلُبٌ من لجين   With them the silver hounds,
تَشَمَّمُ مدَّ الهواء                                 Sniffing the trace of air!
وآهاً، آهاً   Haie! Haie!
أولئك كانوا السوابق عند الإغارة عبر المدى                These were the swift to harry;
وكانوا العوابق عند الإشارة عبر الشذى   These the knee-scented;
وكانوا الرواغب عند هوى النفس حتى الردى   These were the souls of blood.
فهون المَقَادة   Slow on the leash,
إن رجال المقادة قد أصبحوا شاحبين                                  pallid the leash-men!