Steven G. Yao and Michael Coyle, eds.

Ezra Pound and Education.

Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2012.


Review by Reka Mihalka



“Universities vs. Education: A Promise”

Ezra Pound was notorious for dismissing universities as mere “beaneries” (as the present volume frequently points out), or institutions that are concerned only with the transference of existing knowledge rather than with the creation of new insights. Steven G. Yao and Michael Coyle’s volume is an almost three-hundred-page-long refutation of Pound’s harsh judgment. As uncharacteristic as it may be for a scholarly volume, the editors decided to accommodate not only academic papers, but also poets’ reflection on and engagement with Pound’s poetry (namely those of Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Bob Perelman) as well as students’ essays about Pound’s poetry, translations, and politics. The heterogeneity of the material on display is a confirmation that universities managed, contrary to Pound’s expectations, to stay in tune with the times by maintaining a creative exchange with living poetry and to help students map their own interests and voice their opinions (we can well imagine how Pound would have cherished such an opportunity!).

That a volume dealing with the relationship of Pound and education can (and bothers to) make this point is already noteworthy. However, from the perspective of the research community, it is more significant that after scarce and in-between studies of the subject, the present volume incorporates multiple perspectives approaching this pivotal aspect of Pound studies. So far, with the exception of a few monographs (e.g. Gail McDonald’s Learning to Be Modern: Pound, Eliot, and the American University andKathryne Lindberg’s Reading Pound Reading) most discussions of Pound’s relation to education have been relegated to biographies, individual essays, and encyclopedic ventures including celebrated titles like the Ezra Pound Encyclopedia and Ezra Pound in Context. At long last, we now have a collection of essays devoted exclusively to the topic that was undoubtedly fundamental for Pound. 

Even though the volume does not try to be comprehensive, a sufficiently wide range of topics is covered. In the first part of the book, entitled “Educative Affiliations,” Pound’s educational views are put in context. Reference points for comparisons include Emerson, the philological tradition, Cummings, Lionel Trilling, and Matthew Arnold. In the second section, Pound’s correspondence with the young editor of the college journal The Globe and with politicians is under scrutiny. In the last academic section, essays investigate diverse issues of the interrelation of poetics and education, including a survey of reading strategies of The Cantos, the topos of lynching and related imagery in The Pisan Cantos, and canon-formation. 

As the introduction to the volume supplies the reader with a concise summary of all the scholarly essays, I will concentrate only on a few topics that I personally found the most revealing. Therefore, this review is not meant to be an objective evaluation of the book, but a reader’s response to a few promising new directions of research. Subsequently, I will reflect on the following chapters in their original order: the philological tradition (Anne Birien), Pound’s relation to Cummings (Michael Webster), Pound’s interactions with politicians (Alec Marsh), a reading history of The Cantos (Peter Nicholls), and, finally, Pound’s intertwining roles as avant-garde poet and pedagogue (Alan Golding).    

Anne Birien’s study explores Pound’s paradoxical exasperation and fascination with the American education system. Birien’s explanation identifies Gaston Paris’s concept of philology as a major influence on Pound’s understanding of the role philology could play in the cultural renewal of a country. Paris, who, similarly to Pound, studied German, old French, Italian, Latin, and Provençal, also became an advocate of the comparative study of languages and literatures and stressed the potential in creative exchanges between cultures. He believed certain details in literature can be singled out as signs of innovation, and a collection of these distinct details would outline the development of literature. It is not accidental that most of these ideas sound familiar: Pound may initially have learnt about Paris through William Shepard, Pound’s professor at Hamilton College, but Pound also referenced Paris’s works in The Spirit of Romance, which was in fact dedicated to the French philologist. Birien’s convincing argumentation and insightful analyses help the reader appreciate the historical complexity of Pound’s stance towards philology. 

Michael Webster’s compelling essay outlines the changes in Pound and Cummings’s frienship throughout their lives. This is a story of how the former disciple, Cummings, came to realize Pound needed more guidance than he did, especially in terms of sound judgment and sympathy for other human beings. The essay outlines the diverse but ingenious strategies Cummings used to steer Pound back to what he considered a decent path, ranging from slyly and humorously side-tracking the conversation to covert chastising through literary references. Webster properly corroborates each of his claims with excerpts from the correspondence (or the lack of it: what is omitted from the letters is just as revealing as what is in them), rendering his text not only an enlightening but also a captivating piece of writing. 

Alec Marsh’s study focuses on the educational campaign Pound launched to persuade American politicians of his views between 1933 and 1941. Marsh compiles evidence from archival sources to show the extent of Pound’s engagement to reach decision makers (including the Roosevelts). Marsh argues that Pound’s aim with this project was to reconnect with his homeland and to (re)establish himself as an American authority figure and a local voice. Accordingly, he developed a rhetoric, often referred to as “Ezratic” or “murkn,” which was anti-Roosevelt in scope and loud, aggressive, and impatient in style. His campaign continued throughout his ill-fated visit to Washington in 1939, until mail correspondence was terminated with Italy due to the war. 

Peter Nicholls’s self-reflexive and thought-provoking essay in the middle of the volume is a gentle reminder to the academic community what the classic essay style is capable of today. In this avowedly personal account, Nicholls recounts the reception history of The Cantos. Considering the readership of the epic poem and their stance towards Pound’s poetry, Nicholls identifies the first or “hippy” stage epitomized by Allen Ginsberg as one that was willing the overlook the older poet’s ideological misjudgement (although this is not exactly the term Ginsberg uses) for the sake of the lessons learned about progressive poetics. The second phase in Nicholls’s view is a reaction against this approach, which rejects the notion that aesthetics may outweigh ethics. Referring to Massimo Bacigalupo, Nicholls argues that in the second phase the readers refuse to follow the poet-pedagogue and give voice to critical evaluations instead. The third phase, exemplified by Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, is a subversive one, in which the younger generation reads Pound “against himself,” (151) opening up the text where Pound wished to get closure through the “false certainties of ideology.” (151) Finally, Nicholls suggests that the third (or even the fourth?) phase could focus on the textuality of The Cantos, and hope to find complexity in language rather than ideas. What is peculiar is that there is a single adjective that recurs several times in Nicholls’s description of the phases involved in the reception history of The Cantos: nomadic. Symptomatically, though, the referent of the word changes according to the stages, referring at times to Jewish people (by Pound), to Pound and his work (by critical readers), and lastly to the subversive readership who set up their tent in this field of reference themselves. This semantic net may have been cast by the scholars of the fourth stage in their attempt to refocus the discussion on language.

Lastly, Alan Golding reads Olson and Pound side by side to shed light on the relation of avant-garde poetics and didacticism. Regarding Pound, Golding touches on a range of relevant topics including the unique mixture of professionalism and mysticism in the rhetoric of pedagogy and canon formation vs. literary history. Yet his analysis of the apparently opposing but in fact inseparable concepts of authority and error may be of special interest. Starting from an analysis of the relation between the text of “The Jewel Stair’s Grievance” and the pedagogical commentary to it, he proceeds to consider the position of authority in The Cantos. The nuanced readings of both Pound’s and Olson’s poetry yield fruitful comparisons and the references to Bob Perelman even warrant a smooth transition to the poetic section of the book. 

The book’s editors did a thorough job arranging the essays into coherent sections; and their merits in covering a broad spectrum of genres have already been mentioned. What may be worth considering for future volumes is the inclusion of cross-references to eliminate repetitions between essays. Additionally, the names of the authors in the page headings would be a welcome change to help the odd reviewers orient themselves in the book.