Selected Poems and Translations of Ezra Pound edited by Richard Sieburth – review

Nicholas Lezard welcomes a new Ezra Pound selection

A tricky one, the question of Pound; and yet also easy. The quandary resides entirely in his vile antisemitism and his treasonous Italian wartime broadcasts, and the bearing they have on his poetry, itself studded with lines that make contemporary eyes widen with astonished disgust. And when he made a retraction much later in life – "that stupid, suburban prejudice of antisemitism" – it was only in conversation, and that "suburban" hardly lets him off the hook.

Then again, as Michael Wood once put it: "it is impossible to take an absolute moral stand against a poet as good as Pound without deciding either not to read him at all or to read him only in terms of a moral judgment previously arrived at – no one who cares about literature, or in the long run about morality, can feel happy about these options."

Charles Olson was, in Christopher Ricks's words, "sickened and enraged" by Pound's prejudice, but that didn't stop him from visiting him regularly at the mental asylum he was placed in. "Olson saved my life," said Pound later.

For the fact is that Pound is important, and, when good, very good indeed. He more or less single-handedly invented 20th-century poetry, or modernism, or the kind of literature that is ambitious, intellectually and musically stirring, and often haunting. The opposite, in short, of the rumty-tumty-tum school of Betjemanesque doggerel which people tend to prefer in this country.

Of course Pound made poetic mistakes (although these are not as grave as his political mistakes); he hoped the Cantos would "hold the world together", and indeed in my hot youth I used to think that the works contained, in essence, all world history and literature; but they don't, and I suspect that very few people indeed outside academia have read every single one.

But they contain many, many lines of great beauty, and the 130-page selection in this handsome, splendid volume gives us a perfectly good idea of what they're like (although I looked for some of the more contentious lines and couldn't find them). They're also annotated, so the references and quotations from foreign languages which baffled readers when they came out, and completely flummox the contemporary brain, need be an impediment no longer. (Pound said they didn't matter anyway, and you could skip them until you came back to a bit you could understand.)

But there is more to Pound than the Cantos. There are the early works, reprinted in full here, which can sound very pre-modern indeed with their thees and thous, although with hints of what was to come both poetically and less palatably.

Then, as he progresses, the voice, which had always been assured, settles down to both great clarity and beauty. There are lines here which, once read, lodge in the head forever. This, surely, is what poetry should be all about. "The tree has entered my hands, / The sap has ascended my arms, / The tree has grown in my breast – / Downward, / The branches grow out of me, like arms." Or "The gilded phaloi of the crocuses / are thrusting at the spring air"; Or, famously, the poem "In a Station of a Metro", in its entirety: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough", which I didn't even have to look up. He could also be funny – see his parody of "Summer is icumen in", or "The Lake Isle" (where he longs for a tobacco shop, or "any profession / save this damn'd profession of writing") . . .

Then there are the translations, both assured and audacious (not literal, but literality is not their point), and the sustained rage of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: "All things are a flowing, / Sage Heracleitus says, / But a tawdry cheapness / Shall outlast our days."

This is now the definitive selection, which also generously includes the introductions written by TS Eliot in 1928 and John Berryman in 1949. Anyone who cares about poetry, never mind just Pound, should have it. Although the notes could have been easier to use, and there is no index of first lines.


Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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