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The 'solitary volcano'

Ezra Pound: Poet Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 A. David Moody Oxford University Press: 544 pp., $47.95

January 06, 2008|Jamie James | Jamie James is the author of several books, including "The Music of the Spheres" and the forthcoming "The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge."

After W.B. Yeats met Ezra Pound in 1909, he described him with a vivid, prophetic image: "There is no younger generation (of poets). E.P. is a solitary volcano." At 23, when Yeats met him, the American poet had already made a deeper mark than most of his elders in London. Pound had arrived there the year before with $15 in his pocket and a head erupting with extravagant aspirations. The novelist Ford Madox Ford, one of many writers whom Pound later championed, took this snapshot of him:

"Ezra . . . would approach with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring."

The image captures the poet's energy and irrepressible self-confidence as well as his capacity to be annoying, qualities he maintained all his life. Pound's flamboyant presentation belied his idealism and profound seriousness of purpose, supported by a prodigious store of learning. If his ambitions were grandiose, he had the talent and tenacity to realize them.

Born in Hailey, Idaho, and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pound was a brilliant, innovative scholar from the start. As an undergraduate at first Penn and then Hamilton College, he read far and wide in the classics, delving into literature far from the curriculum. At 27, Pound declared that he knew "more about poetry of every time and place than any man living" -- a claim made less ridiculous by being very possibly true. By then he had established himself as a leading theorist of revolutionary aesthetics and published a considerable body of artistic work, which only sporadically adhered to his grand theories.

In "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," the masterpiece of his London period, Pound wrote an ironic yet nonetheless apt epitaph of the poet he had been up to that point:

He strove to resuscitate the dead art

Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"

In the old sense. Wrong from the start --

No, hardly, but seeing that he had been born

In a half savage country, out of date;

Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn. . . .

Throughout his life, a chasm yawned between Pound the scholar and master craftsman, the worshiper of antiquity, and Pound the idealistic revolutionary and furious nemesis of cant -- which for him included just about everything that failed to harmonize with his ecstatic vision of aestheticism and personal freedom.

A new biography by A. David Moody, professor emeritus at the University of York, does a fine job of setting forth the many complexities embodied by the great contrarian's life and work. Moody purposes to create a comprehensive critical biography and succeeds admirably for the most part (perhaps inevitably, the book occasionally lapses into brisk chronological recitals of who went where and published what). He ends this first of a projected pair of volumes in 1920, when Pound left London for good, eventually to settle in Italy -- which has the delightful result of breaking off when the poet was at the height of his powers and before he began advocating unorthodox economic theories, which would lead him into a ruinous embrace of Mussolini.

By 1920, Pound had published "Mauberley" and his timeless, brilliantly original evocations of Augustan Rome and Tang dynasty China ("Homage to Sextus Propertius" and "Cathay"), and found the form for his epic masterpiece "The Cantos." Moody's exegesis of the early poetry sometimes strains to find interest in not terribly interesting work, but once Pound sails into the enigmatic, strangely beautiful seas of his mature work, Moody confidently peels away layer after exquisite layer of irony. His readings of the early "Cantos" are masterly.

If Moody's book accomplishes nothing else, it clearly establishes that by the time Pound had begun his tortuous, tormented connection with anti-capitalist economics, he had already created a body of work to match those of his literary heroes. Moody also explains why Pound's accomplishments never received the respect they deserved. That talent to annoy, united with Pound's puritanical intolerance of cant, alienated almost everyone in a position to help him. Yet even if he was an egomaniac, he was no narcissist. Almost the greatest of his talents was his ability to engage sympathetically, on a profound level, with other artists. Pound didn't so much champion his peers as take them by the scruff of the neck and shake them till they did their best.

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