Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Portrait d’une Femme

Ezra Pound

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea.

London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you - lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind - with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work,
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of different light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that’s quite your own.
Yet this is you.

One of the many reasons for publishing these monographs and short critiques as a blog, rather than as a book, is that the physical book has singular limitations, even while the content of the book is free to travel without boundaries or borders across time and space. 

The goal, when I began this, was to create an anthology of my favourite poems, and maybe some prose fragments (yes, the full anthology, once permission is granted, must expand from poetry to prose as well; though in the best writing it isn't always easy to tell the difference), the ones I had most enjoyed teaching in school, the ones to which my students had most frequently responded in a positive manner, the ones that had influenced my own writing, or become a part in some very personal way of my own life. 

But in that old-fashioned anachronism the paper book, an anthology must inevitably become an anthology of shorter poems, and definitely prose fragments, when the truth is that it is usually the longer pieces which work the most deeply on the heart and mind. Given the space, I would have wanted to include the whole of Dante's Trilogy, Byron's "Don Juan", Wordsworth’s "Preludes", Eliot’s "Wasteland", Milton's "Paradise Lost", Rilke's "Sonnets", any one of several Browning monologues, "The Song of Songs", two or three "Canterbury Tales" Whitman's "Song Of Myself", most of Proust and much of Faulkner, Patrick White... and even, had he written them before madness set in completely and undermined them, leaving them unfinished, the whole of Pound's "Cantos". 

The Internet is already an anthology, in that it contains everything in the world, somewhere, in some form, usually binary. Changing this from paper book to blog allows me to riffle the shelves by hyperlink, to include by proxy whatever I may wish, and so I am now liberated to encourage you to take on the enormous challenge of Pound's "Cantos"; you can find a paperback copy through the publisher New Directions, or in pdf format here.

Pound is one of those instances that occur throughout literature and the arts, where the name is known by everyone, where everybody's Hall of Fame is guaranteed to include him, but almost nobody can tell you a single fact about his life, nor has ever read, can even say the name of, any of his work. The cult of personality that regards fame as the highest virtue, after wealth, obviously - though mere celebrity, mere affluence, can often substitute. 

There are many strong arguments for a re-evaluation of Pound: as a literary catalyst; as a pioneer of modernism; as a precursor of many, perhaps finer poets who came in his wake, and swam further; as the thread that drew us back to both the orientals and the troubadours. This latter especially, as important as Garrick and Coleridge rediscovering Shakespeare, or Eliot the Metaphysical poets.

Pound's persona may well be better known than his opus, but for all the wrong reasons: the vital editorship of Eliot and the discovery of Ford Madox Ford, for example, are generally ignored or overlooked, while the rabid and despicable anti-Semitism, the "Haw-Haw"-ish rantings per pro Mussolini, the final imprisonment for treason and the ensuing collapse into insanity (or was it perhaps the other way around?), all this headlines the biographies, generally as a pretext for side-stepping the enormous complexities and obscurities, the occasional genius of his poetry. I emphasise the word "occasional".

The "Portrait", which is one of those occasions, is interesting from the literary-historical point of view: the French influence, essentially symbolist, which Eliot is supposed to have introduced into England and which clearly pre-dates Pound. Eliot's own famous "Portrait Of A Lady" too, modelled probably on Henry James' story of the same name: again pre-dating Pound. But Pound is not drawing a Portrait of a Lady in anything like the same manner as the James, the Eliot. 

This splendidly aristocratic, fin de siècle, Edwardian woman of indeterminate age is characterised, not by physical appearance nor by personality, but by the material objects she has accrued: manifestations of someone else's intellectual life, souvenirs of her experience of other people's culture. She is less a woman than the curator of a warehouse of splendid, if ultimately useless, and ultimately ephemeral "things", that middle-ground between the human being and the merely humanoid, automaton, robotic: the mannequin (I wonder if Pound also had Proust's Mme Vinteuil in mind as a role-model?). 

And why is it so? Because she has not created any of these things herself, merely married or inherited rich enough to be able to acquire them. The manifestation of a poet's intellectual life is the poem, as an artist's is the painting, an architect's the building, a craftsman's the carved table or the rood screen, the iron gate or the planted garden. But hers are merely "trophies", proofs of her wealth and the breadth of her experience, and that wealth is valueless, that experience is meaningless, Pound insists, because she has played no part in their creation. Simply, they are an Edwardian equivalent of selfies, hung on a wall above a fireplace like the captive head of a fox or deer. "No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, Nothing that's quite your own. Yet this is you." Yet this is you.

All this surprises us, not for what it has to say about the lady, or by inference about bourgeois civilisation in the universal, but for what it does not say. Because the title - a conventional title for a conventional subject - suggests that Pound's account is going to be a paraphrase of the human face and form in language, when in fact he tells us absolutely nothing about either of these; we don't even know her age, though the second line - "London has swept about you this score years" - might be an indication; but equally she could be forty, or eighty, and moved to London twenty years ago, and this is what he means. 

The opening two words are the key: "your mind". Convention, and expectation inferred from convention, shattered before we start. Pound the modernist, applying 20th century psychology through Art, not merely offering his own version of a traditional way of doing things. A mannequin with a mind is still a mannequin - which is why it matters not a jot how old she is, or what she looks like, how she dresses, whether she is tall or short, fat or thin, black or white, gay or straight. She is the universal mannequin. She is what she represents, in Pound's mind as well as in her own.

This, then, is a portrait of the inner being (yes, the inner being, not just her inner being: a universality, allegorised through the personal), the "Sargasso Sea" not yet wild, as in Jean Rhys' 1966 version - but reading the Pound today the connection is inexorable, even if he wasn't thinking of Jane Eyre and had some completely different intent: something else about Bermuda, something else about the algae sargassum, or just a neat poetic way to say "Atlantic Ocean" without sounding like a weather forecaster, or the agent of one of those cruise ships that this "Lady" no doubt spends a lot of time on. And no doubt I could go to a biography, a study-guide, or websearch the darned thing - but the reading of a poem should surely be, at first experience, a matter of direct apprehension, without a dosent or an audio or a booklet to inform about the detail.

The language throughout is challenging in just this way, some of it perhaps already affected by Pound's descending madness; but where the poem becomes really challenging, to publishers and casting directors anyway, is in determining how best to translate the language and the inner portrait into a cover design or a dramatic presentation, because, whether Pound likes it or not, that is going to happen, and she is going to look like somebody. So the two book covers I have chosen for illustrations here, one for the Henry James, the other for the T. S. Eliot, neither of them looking remotely like my image of Pound's lady. There is the Klimt as well, chosen because it too carries the title "Portrait of a Lady" (and is it possible the design of the James cover was deliberately modeled on the Klimt? they are extraordinarily comparable), equally beautiful and equally interesting, but just as unlikely to be the person Pound was thinking of. 

The illustrations compel the enigma to become specific, and somehow this undermines the poem, forcing it into a single image where it started out as universal - just as every TV drama or movie based on a book must do. I am tempted to delete the illustrations on this page and leave you with nothing but the enigmatic lady of the poem, and your own direct apprehension. But I will definitely leave the mug-shot of mad Ezra, because in the end there is always that portrait, that enigma, too.

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