Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Portrait d’une Femme

Ezra Pound

(go to the end of this blog for the text of the poem)

   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 limits across time and space. The goal when I began this was to create an anthology of my favourite poems, 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, when the truth is that it is usually the longer poems 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 (yes, the full anthology, once permission is granted, expands from poetry to prose as well; though in the best writing it isn't always easy to tell the difference); and even, had he written them before madness set in completely and undermined them, left 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. The blog allows me to riffle the shelves by hyperlink, and so I 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 at www.scribd.com/doc/46421363/Cantos-of-Ezra-Pound.

   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 any of his work. The cult of personality that regards fame as the highest virtue, after wealth, obviously. 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 are 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, 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” is interesting from the literary-historical point of view: the French influence, essentially symbolist, which Eliot is supposed to have introduced into England; this clearly pre-dates him. Eliot’s own famous “Portrait Of A Lady”, modelled on Henry James: again pre-dated. 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 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. She is less a woman than a warehouse of splendid, if useless, and ultimately ephemeral “things”, that middle-ground between the human being and the merely humanoid, automaton, robotic: the mannequin.

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.

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