Pound, whose faith in poetry as a force to make something happen was constant and remains invigorating, began his career with poems that realize that possibility not through injunctions to act or imperatives to civilize, but through informing his reader’s “fundamental disposition towards the world.” Though he is opposed Pound ideologically, John Dewey’s phrase for appreciating how Pound’s achievement as an inventive craftsman might be aligned with his aspiration as an ethical thinker.
Along with Eliot, Pound’s early innovations occur along two axes: pronouns and the copula. For poetry to challenge our disposition towards the world, it needs also to challenge the disposition of language towards the world, and in English, disposition is limited by the potentially treacherous attraction of “to be” in any phrase and by the slippery indeterminacy of pronouns. Thanks to the former, the world ossifies and endures; thanks to the latter, singular and plural are confused, speakers obtrude themselves, and audiences are coerced.
The background for Pound, Donald Davie explains in Articulate Energy, can be found in Ernest Fenollosa’s work on Chinese poetry; for Fenollosa, a verb in poetry should effect a transfer of force; the English “to be” often fails to do so; it makes nothing happen. Pound’s entire career, from the imagist period to the later ideograms of the Cantos, is an attempt at reviving the transfer of force in English poetry, from one image to another, from one historical era to another, because those forces really exist in the world, and because observing them, and presenting them, has implications for how we live in the world. His difficult fascination with violence, in “Sestina: Altaforte” or in the Malatesta Cantos, or in his tragic political failures, speaks to the technical problem: impact, force, violence, effect, change, determination, will—these words are clues for seeing what Pound wants to make happen between lines and within lines.
But rather than look at a poem about violence, look instead at a poem about remaining in place, patient and passive:
The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter
After Li Po
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.
Translation offered–R.P. Blackmur suggests–Pound the opportunity to free himself from some of his own preoccupations with the shape of the world and to focus on the shape of the verse; the technique could operate on content provided by another.The verb to be, not counting the continuous/progressive verb form, appears three in the poem. In the first line, “While my hair was still cut” and, in the last verse, “The paired butterflies are already yellow with August,” the temporal “while” and “already” presses against the verb’s stasis. And the most beautiful “to be,” “I desired my dust to be mingled with yours,” embraces the prospect of unchanging eternity: “forever and forever, and forever.”
Elsewhere, though, each sentence is a declarative insisting on activity ; the world changes, she changes with it, force is passed to and fro; promises are made; she pleads softly, “please let me know.”
Is it just a re-writing of Tennyson’s “Mariana” or “Tithonus” (“They hurt me | I grow older” especially recalls the latter, in its abrupt rhythm also: “Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave”) ? There too the verbs do remarkable work, and Tennyson was no less of a craftsman than Pound. Is it not just a truism that strong poets will work their verbs hard and work them well?
Yes, and no; the verbs in Tennyson’s poetry are a source of tremendous power, but Tennyson does not put them on display like Pound does (was Christopher Ricks really the first critic to notice that Ulysses contains no verbs in the future tense? Apparently so). Pound anchors each line to a verb, and each line stands as a declarative; the effect is for us to feel that the breath of the lazier alternative: the verb “to be.”
What’s more, whereas Tennyson’s poetry is a record of passive endurance in the magnificence of surrender (a justified surrender, the poems make us feel), Pound’s is in fact, because of the integrity of each declarative in a line, a record of small affirmations, and subtle but decisive actions; forces transferred outwardly, measure by measure, movement by movement, change by change.
Finally, the pronouns: here, the genre is comparable to Tennyson’s poetry, since the verse-letter (Pound’s form) is a tradition behind the Victorian dramatic monologue (Ovid’s Heroides, for instance); the full modernist exploitation of pronouns, discovered by Eliot and made public in 1919 (“La Figlia Che Piange” is examplary), and later taken up by Pound, is not present. But whereas Tennyson’s pronouns in “Tithonus” and “Mariana” (and elsewhere) eviscerate agency while insisting on first-person consciousness—or at the very least relentlessly register the intolerable and unchanging dependency of the speaker on another, Pound’s pronouns demarcate the changing boundaries of a world, defined by the changing relationship between the speaker and her husband; they are placed so that we can perceive how the force of her feeling towards him alters over time, until the penultimate line, when, embedded in a conditional phrase, the first-person and second-person are brought together: “I will come out to meet you.” Far from the imploring and deluded end of Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” hers is a heroic offer, its strength of purpose realized in the poem’s technique.
This is a(nother) terrific piece of work.