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At the Borders of Ritual and Realism:  Notes on a Modernist/Post-Modern Production of Ezra Pound’s Elektra

E. Teresa Choate – Professor of Theatre, Kean University
Karen Lee Hart – Associate Professor of Theatre, Kean University
Dean Casale – Associate Professor of American Literature, Kean University

 

This past October 2015, Kean University Theatre presented a daring and bold version of Sophokles’ tragedy, Elektra. Translated and adapted by Ezra Pound and Rudd Fleming in 1949 and not discovered until 1981, it has seldom been performed. This production contemporized the play by staging it, as the Program describes, in an alternative ‘Time and Place’ to ancient Greece: “Mid-twentieth century after the War, Mycenae, in what once was Greece, (or is it an insane asylum in America?) in a world blasted.”  Underscoring Elektra’s themes of madness and imprisonment, this production combined the post-war, post-apocalyptic wasteland motifs of modernity with the ancient family drama of the House of Atreus, in which the central, classical issues of betrayal, vengeance, and fate are explored.

Our panel, At the Borders of Ritual and Realism: Notes on a Modernist/Post-Modern Production of Ezra Pound’s Elektra, aims to describe and analyze this production from three distinct, yet interrelated, perspectives.  Dean Casale, who served as dramaturge, will address the challenges and richness of Pound’s translation, concentrating on its unflagging colloquial diction, it imagist poetry, its lapses into transliterated Greek, its intense characterization of Elektra, its difference from other more conservative treatments (even recent translations like Robert Bagg’s) – all in the interest of expressing an existentialist world-view that strangely parallels Sophocles’ tragic skepticism. E. Teresa Choate, the director, will situate Elektra in context of its 1987 premiere and then address how her production approach and staging worked to capture the troubling immediacy of Pound’s treatment and vision.  Karen Lee Hart, the costume designer, will focus on the scenic, costume, lighting, and sound design of the production, explaining the modern/post-modern aesthetic that the production sought to evoke. Archival photographs and production footage will illuminate how production elements served to make this modernist text current and immediate for its 21st century audience.


Translating the Odyssey: Andreas Divus, Old English, and Ezra Pound’s Canto I

 Massimo Cè (Harvard University)

 

In this paper I will present a close reading of Pound’s translation of the beginning of Odyssey book 11, which takes up most of Canto I. For his translation Pound makes systematic use of a Latin prose translation of the Homeric text by the Renaissance scholar Andreas Divus. The literalness of Divus’ transposition of Homer, which makes his version an ancillary crib rather than a free-standing translation, has generally led critics to disregard Divus’ importance for Pound’s project and treat him as a mere window onto Pound’s real source-text, Homer.

A fresh analysis of the intricate ways in which Pound exploits Divus on a number of levels, including lexicon, syntax, and meter, will show that this assumption can no longer be sustained. Rather, as will be demonstrated by a close comparison of the Greek and Latin texts with Pound’s version, Divus’ rendering of Homer, not the Homeric text itself, should be regarded as the central intertext for Canto I. Once Divus’ importance for Pound’s poetic practice has been established, I will revisit the debate surrounding an additional set of stylistic features in Pound’s poem drawn from a separate literary tradition, that of Old English.

It will be sketched in my conclusion how Canto I integrates these two distinct literary gateways, one Latinate or Romance derived from Divus, the other Germanic or Saxonist with an idiom stemming from Old English verse and specifically adapted from yet another translation, Pound’s The Seafarer, to forge a fundamentally anti-classical version of the central poet of the classical tradition, Homer.

 

‘Pawing Over the Ancients’: Paradigms from H.D. and Ezra Pound for a Filmic Reframing of Homer

Andrea Eis, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

 

My pawing over the ancients . . . has been one struggle to find out
what has been done . . . and to find what remains for us to do . . .

— Ezra Pound

 

My own ‘pawing over’ has been a search for what has been done not only by the ancients, but also by modernist writers who excavated the past. Their work reverberates with intriguing paradigms for my film work. The translations, “creative mistranslations,” adaptive retellings, and stylistic adoptions of Greek literature by H.D. and Ezra Pound offered me conceptual, aesthetic, and structural pathways for developing a filmic approach.

From H.D. and Pound, I learned about the creative freedom of retranslating, retelling, restructuring, and reframing accentuating the relevance and resonance of ancient writings, and, as Pound hoped for himself, opening up the possibilities of what remained to do. I became intrigued by an image in Book 23 of The Odyssey depicting a momentary reversal of the characteristic motion/stasis of Odysseus and Penelope. This unusual role-reversal, in which Odysseus waits for Penelope to finish her own ‘journey’ and return to him, is described with a photographic immediacy that has Imagist echoes. This became a catalyst for engaging with the male-centric yet female-observant journey of Homeric narrative in a short, experimental art film, Penelope’s Odyssey. I rejected the traditional dialogue and action of narrative filmmaking as well as the Hollywood emphasis on spectacle, epic battles, aggrandizement of male egos, and relegation of women to the sidelines in one-note, off-key characterizations. Among the specific influences for my filmic form were H.D.’s hybrid textuality and mythic permutations, and Ezra Pound’s direct rhythmic “aesthetic of glimpses.”

In Helen in Egypt, H.D. expands on the ancient fragment of Stesichorus’ Palinode (“That story is not true…[Helen] never went to the city of Troy”) to serve her own purposes. She injects hermeneutic prose into the poetic flow, in a personal, authorial, but only sporadically omniscient voice that explains or contextualizes, repeats or revises, questions or approves the poetic lines that follow. The prose is essential and ancillary, correlative and independent, yet seamlessly interwoven into the poem’s overall impact. In one prose passage, H.D. suggests a conundrum for the reader to work on regarding Achilles’ interaction with Helen, supplying some options.

Achilles himself might be thought to lose stature by apology. Can he apologize?

Or does he bargain, in a sense, play for time?

In the first-person dialogue that follows this prose passage, Achilles speaks for himself.

No – I spoke evil words,

I forget them, repeat them not;

only answer my question,

how are Helen in Egypt

and Helen upon the ramparts

together yet separate?

H.D.’s variations in technique, purpose, and emotional tone in her hybrid form enabled new considerations of content, as she elaborated outwards from the fragmentary spur of Stesichorus’s words. Charlotte Mandel notes filmic vibrations in H.D.s hybrid form that parallel how, when we watch a film, “a certain conscious intellect stays alive . . . interpreting, analyzing, drawing conclusions or demanding answers to the succession of images.” The fabricated commentaries that introduce the year-sections of poetic visual form in my film create modulating frames that range from the didactic (“Penelope recounts what Odysseus told her…,”

“Telemachus…complains to Athena”) to the sarcastic (“Her suitors will be no match for her,” “Penelope has her moments”). Homeric quotes, with their book and line numbers carefully specified, ground the perspective in the ancient source material, while suggesting meanings for the images that follow, without elucidating them in spoken dialogue.

My translation of the passage from Book 23, not seen in an intertitle until nearly the end of the film, stops Odysseus textually, while the visuals that follow give Penelope the freedom to wander.

She moved into the glow of the firelight,

Face to face with Odysseus.

He sat very still,

Leaning against the great pillar,

Looking down.

Waiting for what his strong wife would say.

The Homeric passage is bracketed with an explanatory voice – before: “Penelope ponders her twenty years of waiting/while Odysseus waits for her” and after: “waiting/for Penelope.” The year-title intervenes (Year Twenty Ends/Waiting), and Penelope starts to wander, mesmerizing the viewer to wait for her as well.

While H.D.s epic poem offered paradigms for my textual conjunctions of content and form, Pound’s Imagist propositions of “direct treatment, economy of words, and the sequence of the musical phrase” offered me paradigms for my visual passages. Hugh Kenner characterizes Pound’s method as an “aesthetic of glimpses” – quick rhythmic gazes honing in on what Pound called “luminous details” of the material world, influenced by Greek poets, in particular Sappho and Ibycus (and perhaps found in Homer’s momentary stoppage of Odysseus as well). American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, also strongly influenced by Ezra Pound and Imagism, noted that in her own approach to film “intensification is carried out not by action but by the illumination of the moment.”

Pound could slow the flow of experience into a compelling impressionistic instant. Kenner uses a photographic metaphor when describing Pound’s Lustra poems: “the eye’s shutter captures faces and gestures.” In his poem “Shop Girl” Pound parallels Sappho’s vision, in Fragment 1, of a the arrival of a whirring, wing-whipping sparrow:

For a moment she rested against me.

Like a swallow half blown to the wall

With that irresolute “half,” however, Pound allows for the suggestion of the bird’s continued movement even as it has been stilled. For me, Pound’s photographic phrasings became exemplars for a visual, filmic poetics of Penelope’s experience. In my film, Penelope’s gaze is edited into rhythmic embodiments of experience and gesture rather than delineations of events, focusing similarly to Pound on the vividness of the ordinary and detail in the generic.

From the words Homer offers up for Penelope, from his half-impressions and side glances, I distill emotions and extract thoughts, translating them into another form, embodying them visually. I make my own meaning out of Penelope’s twenty years, recontextualizing Homer for my own aesthetic and conceptual purposes, as he did with years of earlier stories, and as H.D. and Pound did with their own Greek sources. With my film, I actively offer my viewers the same option.

Penelope’s Odyssey (2015, 14 minutes) can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/135511862.

 

Reading Pound’s Homeric Line in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

Sara Dunton & Dr. Demetres Tryphonopoulos
Brandon University & University of New Brunswick

 

Encountering the ninth line of the opening poem of the Mauberley sequence—ἴδμενγάρτοιπάνθ᾽ὅσ᾽ἐνὶΤροίῃtoday’s reader will certainly turn to scholarly annotation for enlightenment. But to what degree can translation or gloss reveal the depth of allusions held within this single line of a poem written nearly a century ago? Surely, Pound expects the reader to recognize how this line works rather than expecting her/him to translate it. After all, the Sirens are telling Odysseus here something of which they have heard but he, himself, has lived through. Of course, twenty-first century readers and editors are too far removed from what Peter Nicholls identifies as “the cultural matrix Pound clearly felt he shared with his readers, a matrix grown by accumulation from centuries of reading and commenting on the Bible and the Classics” (11) and, thus, they miss the point. Pound transposes Homer’s line not only to align Mauberley with Odysseus, but also to draw attention to the act of translation. In so doing Pound intends to negotiate with his reader a new understanding of Homer: the point is not to simply seek an accurate translation but to translate desire into a narrative which is, in this instance, being emptied of its original meaning and reinvented for the twentieth-century. This paper focuses on Mauberley’s Homeric line with the view of explicating Pound’s dexterity and considering how he uses original passages which, if they have to be literally translated, lose their function and readerly power. The fact that his original audience had knowledge of the classics and classical prosody was important but did not prevent Pound from complicating his readers’ task.

The central concern of this paper is the subtle yet potent omission of one word from the line Pound “borrows/translates” from The Odyssey. Here Pound does far more than evoke a learned text: his gesture constitutes a complex “phraseological adaptation” (Machacek 526) that subverts the prosody of Homer’s text and undermines the narratives of Odysseus and Homer to situate his modern Mauberley in their midst. This paper employs prosodic analysis to demonstrate the complexity of Pound’s “allusive habit of mind” (Nicholls 11); in so doing, it prompts reconsideration of the concept of translation and allusion in modernist works. Pound deploys prosody itself as a hermeneutic tool to layer meanings meant to be unearthed by industrious readers; but he also effectively uses translation as a narrative tactic, as a language of its own. Habits and processes have always determined scholarly practices, just as they have poetic practices; perhaps it is time, following Mauberley’s lead, to “resuscitate the dead art” of translating and explicating allusions for the complex and ironic praxis that it is as Pound practices it.

_________________

Works Cited

Machacek, Gregory. “Allusion.” PMLA 122.2 (2007): 522-36. JSTOR. Web. 8 December 2015.

Nicholls, Peter. “The Elusive Allusion: Poetry and Exegesis.” Teaching Modernist Poetry. Ed. Nicky March and Peter Middleton. Basingstoke, Eng: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. 10-24. Print.

 

Gates through Time: Modernist Translation and the Historicity of Poet

George Varsos,University of Athens

 

The connection of Ezra Pound to Ancient Greek poetry, via translation in the strict sense of the term or other forms of rewriting, has of course been extensively studied. The contribution I am proposing will concentrate on the Cantos with a theoretical question in mind: what do Pound’s translations tell us as to how antique poetic works persist through historical time? Can we link his poetic practice to related theoretical paradigms in literary and translation studies?

I intend, at first, to briefly revisit Pound’s ways of defining the specificity of literature and the function of translation. I will examine how he tends to disengage literary language from cultural conditions and how this involves “more sense and less syntax” as a basic translation strategy. I then propose close readings of passages from the Cantos where fragments of Greek texts occur: Canto I (focusing on major differences with respect to other English translations of the Odyssey especially with respect to the course of Ulysses’ voyage, the configuration of the souls and the phrasing of Elpenor’s request) Canto XXIII and Canto XXXIX.

Pound’s poetic practice exposes the original as a field of acutely enigmatic signification in ways that do not always match what he has presented as his method or principles (interpretative translation, ideogram model, speech cadence, narrative flow). I will argue that, in so doing, Pound undoes our usual categories of analysis of translation studies, such as foreignizing as opposed to domesticating strategies. More pervasively, he destabilizes philological premises that postulate substantial ties between a given literary work and the socio-historical settings of its emergence or reception. Pound’s translation can thus be effectively linked to the work of theorists of literature such as Walter Benjamin and, from a different standpoint, Gilles Deleuze, who probe how literary works resist cultural conditioning as they run though time and how they thus acquire their distinct historical momentum marked by semantic indeterminacy and manifold transformation.

I also intend to refer, in passing remarks, to aspects of my translation of Cantos I-XXX into Modern Greek, including how my work has affected my reading of Homer.