BOOK IN FOCUS
Walter Baumann and William Pratt, eds. Ezra Pound and Modernism: The Irish Factor. Brighton: Edward Everett Root Publishers, 2017.
review by Roxana Preda
The new collection of essays Ezra Pound and Modernism: The Irish Factor is a proceedings volume that goes back to the 25th Ezra Pound International Conference (EPIC), which took place in Dublin in the summer of 2013. It was by all accounts a memorable event, keyed to a celebration of Pound’s relationship with Irish modernism. The celebrated Irish poet Seamus Heaney gave a welcome address recounting his personal education and understanding of Poundiana to almost a hundred participants. Poundians took a Joycean tour through Dublin and were delighted with the neoclassical beauty of the Trinity College campus that hosted the conference. After the event, some of them followed the traces of Yeats’ presence in Ireland: visited Sligo, the site of Lady Gregory’s house, the tower of Ballylee, and the graves of the poet and his wife, George, at Drumcliff. Apart from that, the conference had a focus on translation, with good reason: a second Italian translation of A Draft of XXX Cantos done by Massimo Bacigalupo had been published in 2012 (following the one by Mary de Rachewiltz, 1961 and 1985). It stood like a strong term of comparison to the first complete version of The Cantos in German, done by Eva Hesse and Manfred Pfister, published in a handsome bilingual edition by Arche Verlag also in 2012 and again in 2013. The Dublin conference also contained the seeds of books and projects which would come to fruition later: David Moody read his paper called “Doing Justice to Ezra Pound” (reprinted in this issue of MIN), a focused exposition of his ideas on the poet’s indictment for treason and incarceration. This was the nugget of Moody’s chapter “American Justice,” at the heart of his third volume of Ezra Pound Poet, which was to come out in 2015. As to myself, the 2013 conference was memorable because in it I first described to fellow Poundians the idea of a website called “The Cantos Project,” which would begin to take concrete shape in 2014 and start to be funded beginning with 2016.
These cross-currents of the Dublin conference can be felt in the selection of essays made for Ezra Pound and Modernism: The Irish Factor. The editors have included Heaney’s “Welcome Address,” which is delightful in its candour, and even more precious as it is the last text written by the poet before his passing away just a month after the conference, in August 2013. The editors have also given full attention to Irish writers: Yeats, Beckett, and Synge. Moreover, an important section of the volume is dedicated to translation. The selection of essays must have been tough to make: out of 84 papers presented, the editors, Walter Baumann and William Pratt, included just 16. This of course reduced the heterogeneity of topics inevitable in a conference and subsumed them to the editors’ perspective on modernism as a whole: this is the Kennerian idea that modernism is an international literary phenomenon revolving around Ezra Pound and born out of American and Irish writers living in exile. This perspective explains the main title of the volume, Ezra Pound and Modernism, as well as its underlying theoretical orientation. Since the turn of the millennium, Kenner’s definition has been challenged by the “new modernism studies,” which promote a much more inclusive, dispersed and non-hierarchical idea of modernism. Thus, The Irish Factor is not going with the newest academic trend, but is rather “old style” – it includes author studies following the course of a restricted number of poets in Pound’s circle, or else writers who reveal affinities with his work. Pound only seldom takes a central role, as just three essays (by Liebregts, Gery, and Creasy) are almost entirely devoted to his work. More often than not, Pound gives pride of place, or even haunts like a barely visible ghost essays dedicated to others: Yeats is particularly significant in the volume, with essays by Conover, Paul, and Ricciardi; Synge is the centre of interest in Walter Baumann’s contribution; Beckett takes centre stage in Ira Nadel’s article. Two of the essays focus on British artists, Desmond Egan’s on G. M. Hopkins and Brantley Berryman’s on Aubrey Beardsley. Moreover, the translation section devotes a lot of attention to the work of other writers: Ickstadt wrote on Eva Hesse's career; Epifania on Binyon's and Heaney's translations of Dante; Ferreccio on Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. The editors have done a very good job in channelling the topics presented into a structure that is coherent and flexible: from Pound to modernism as practiced by Irish writers, from his poetry to literature, translation and the arts, more generally understood. One can even go farther and say this is not so much a volume dedicated to Pound, but to the Pound era.
The first section, devoted to “aspects of modernism” is not aiming at a general statement, but rather at sketching the roles of important protagonists. In William Pratt’s view (“Defining Modernism: Technique Plus Critique”) these are T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, in this order. For Pratt, modernism evolved just from imagism (1912) to The Waste Land (1922), a poem which he considers to be the peak and supreme fulfilment of the movement. Though I know this argument well, I find myself in friendly disagreement with it. I think that by telling the story of modernism in this way, we cut it too short and do not give protagonists their due. For starters, in the history modernist poetry, 1923 was a year at least as important as 1922. It was in 1923 that Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium, Williams’ Spring and All, and Cummings’ Tulips and Chimneys came out. How are we going to write the history of modernism by excluding them? How can we say that after The Waste Land modernism went downhill, excluding Eliot’s later poetry and The Cantos? Why not say that after 1922, the modernism story just got even more varied and interesting?
It was in 1923 that Pound decided to gather his cantos published here and there into a volume. From spring till fall, he revised his early attempts, wrote new cantos, created a structure for a collection called A Draft of XVI Cantos, which was ready by November. He must have taken other decisions as well: he would turn his life around, no more occasional poems, no more journalism, no more helping others at the expense of energy taken away from his own poetry; these decisions went into effect in 1924. Rapallo was a quiet space which allowed concentration on his cantos, which unencumbered by other social and professional activities, began to pour out. Pratt deplores the fact that Pound never asked for Eliot’s editorial advice: Eliot’s editing would have made the cantos so much better by giving them a unity of theme, a distillation of good lines from the bad, and ultimately a telos, a conclusion (9). Judging by his correspondence, Eliot would have never presumed to do that, he would have considered it an insolence. He even admonished admirers who advanced the opinion that Pound had imitated him, writing to Edmund Wilson in January 1923: “It gives me great pain to have my work used to belittle that of Ezra Pound. It is not merely a question of friendship – or of my vast indebtedness to him – but of justice; I admire The Cantos very much myself, and I think that he never receives the recognition he deserves. And at the least there are unquestionably respects in which he is far more a master than I am” (L/TSE 2:11). Ten years later, Eliot had the opportunity to translate his admiration for the poem into action: he taught it at Harvard in 1933 and became its editor at Faber a year later. Apart from isolated passages which Eliot deemed impolitic or libellous, he did not intervene.
Both Pound and Eliot were building on personal intellectual experience, but that did not include the most technically innovative British poet of an earlier generation, G. M. Hopkins. Desmond Egan’s essay attempts to answer the riddle on why both poets were impervious to Hopkins’ metrical experiments and genius for the music of verse. Eliot could have valued the interweaving of religiosity and nature worship in Hopkins’ poems, yet he dismissed him in After Strange Gods; Pound read and copied “The Leaden Echo” yet does not seem to have read enough of Hopkins’ poetry to appreciate the older poet’s use of alliteration and sprung rhythm. In the 1930s, just when Hopkins was re-discovered, Pound was more impatient than ever with religion “muddling” the artistic impulse (28).
The third protagonist of early modernism as presented in the first section is Amy Lowell. Cheylan's essay is biographical and does not deal with questions of literary value, indeed does not quote any passage of Lowell's poetry. She points out that Pound regarded Lowell solely as a rich woman who could be a patron and fund imagism. He was also insulting to her at an infamous party in the summer of 1914. Amy responded by luring his imagist circle away from him and excluding his work from all collections of imagist poets she published in America 1915-1917. Cheylan’s essay, like so many on Amy, tell the story from her point of view, providing a sidelight on the literary history of imagism. But her story usefully includes how Pound himself felt about Lowell along the years, tracing his opinions of Amy and his interaction with her in his correspondence.
The editors’ approach to providing windows into Pound’s life and work continues in the next section of their collection, dedicated to translation. Ickstadt and Pfister’s essay (“Eva Hesse and the Adventures of The Cantos in German”) is not a commentary on the trials and tribulations of translating Pound’s poem into German, but rather a survey of Eva Hesse’s career as a critic and translator of American modernism, a biography we need and which took a long time in coming our way. Hesse understood Pound as a pivot of modernism, and like Kenner, did not restrict her critical attention to him but saw him in a world of contemporary writing. If for Kenner the important figures were T. S. Eliot and W. Lewis, for Hesse they were Eliot, Frost, Cummings, MacLeish, and Langston Hughes, whom she also critiqued and translated. This focus on relationships practised in translation and borne out by its work and results is continued in Giovanna Epifania’s essay on Heaney’s and Binyon’s translations of Dante and Pound’s support of the latter’s version of the Commedia. Her essay has a salutary combination of general statement with minute analysis on translation of passages.
I personally welcomed the look into the minutiae of text analysis, particularly in the two essays in The Irish Factor which I found most strongly focused on Pound’s work. The two essays I mean are Peter Liebregts’ article on Pound and Stesichorus in canto 23 and John Gery’s study of the concept of “jên2” in canto 93. Liebregts reconstructs Pound’s poetic practices, which interweave translation and composition: line by line, he shows how Pound quoted his Greek source, consulted the available Latin crib and the Liddell and Scott lexicon, interpreting the original text. At the same time, Liebregts reveals Pound’s processes of composition acting on the translated passage and subsuming it to the topic of the canto: transcriptions of fragments in the original, personal comments, omissions and interpolations – lines that do not seem intelligible at first, make sense when these processes are revealed and understood. A similar impulse lies at the heart of John Gery’s essay, dedicated to Pound’s understanding and interpretation of the Confucian concept of humaneness (“jên2,” pronounced “ren”) in his late work. It is interesting to note that Pound had first introduced the concept in canto 13, where by deriving the term from Pauthier’s French version, he had translated it as “character,” and assessed its role in the understanding of the arts: “And Kung said, ‘Without character you will/ be unable to play on that instrument/ Or to execute the music fit for the Odes’” (XIII/60). This initial understanding of the concept changed into “benevolence,” “compassion,” and “good nature” in the late cantos. Gery offers a potent description of Pound’s experience of exile, with its attending feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation: he persuasively argues that Pound found refuge in the literatures of cultures which were as far away as possible from his own. These were ultimately his home, and one that he offers his readers as a gesture of social (and ritualistic) benevolence.
Pound’s late cantos also play a significant role in Giuliana Ferreccio’s comparison between Pound and Walter Benjamin. She explores their affinities in their writing practices, conceptions of language, and theories of translation. In a similar impulse, Ira Nadel charts the correspondences between Pound and Beckett in a play of similarities and contrasts that brings more light into the silences and hidden emotions of both writers. In “The Irish Dimensions,” the third section of Ezra Pound and Modernism, we encounter very precious sidelights on Pound, provided by a focus on the Irish writers who were best friends, like Yeats, or who were just tangential to him, like Synge and Beckett. Anne Conover supplied a biographical view of the friendship between Yeats and Pound, dwelling on the final disagreement between them in 1930 and after. Relying on archival research, Catherine Paul went into great detail in the reconstruction of Yeats’ feelings concerning Pound’s opinions and poetry, especially The Cantos, which he found himself unable to understand or accept. An added Irish dimension is Pound’s erotic involvement with Yseult Gonne and the traces this deep emotion left in The Cantos - a story of 1917-1919 recounted by Massimo Bacigalupo.
The final section, on modernism and the arts has a much-needed article by Jonathan Creasy on Pound and old music in his London years, focused on the poet’s involvement with the chanting technique of Florence Farr and the performances and instruments of Arnold Dolmetsch. Ricciardi’s essay on Botticelli and Yeats is a very erudite addition to our understanding of the relationship between modernism and Renaissance art, throwing a welcome sidelight on canto 17. Berryman’s article on Aubrey Beardsley’s life and aesthetics provides a timely and very informative view of the cultural milieu that created the environment of Pound’s poetry in his London years.
The short survey I have provided in this review just intimates the rich and diverse narratives, analyses, critiques of this collection. I have found that each essay is a gem; each one is interesting to read for pleasure and instructive for the pen-in-hand professional. I found a lot to learn, whether from the erudition of Ricciardi, Liebregts, and Gery; or the incisive and sophisticated speculation of Ferreccio, Paul, and Nadel; the easy-going, but fact-laden story-telling of Egan, Bacigalupo, Conover, and Cheylan. Each essay included is a lesson for the professional, whether in factual narrative, analysis, or sheer power of persuasive writing. The Irish Factor is a book that we should all be grateful for and that belongs on the shelf of every serious student of Pound and his times.