Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 14, 2012

A Few Minutes with Ezra

Today’s tale is about the impressive power of the Internet as we know it, but it has a long back story. It’s not easy to know where to begin. I’ll start with a fact, and see where it takes us:

I once knew someone who had met Ezra Pound.

This is not the point of my story, but a place from which to begin.

All English majors and many students and fans of literature recognize the name: Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (1885 – 1972) was born in the United States, in the Idaho Territory (Idaho became a state in 1890), but he spent most of his life in England, France and Italy. Many people, in fact, don’t know he was an American at all, and merely associate him with the gang of international writers and artists who coalesced in Paris after the turn of the last century, described by Gertrude Stein as “that Lost Generation.” Pound had significant impact on the literary scene over many decades. Yet, despite his undisputed seat among the pantheon of the 20th Century’s most influential writers, he isn’t as widely read as many of his contemporaries, and I’m willing to bet that few of even the most dedicated students of literature have read his work to any great extent. Every English major can quote his best known poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by heart, as I will do now:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

(Okay, I had to look it up to determine that a semicolon ends the first line. But you get my point.)

One poem is certainly not enough to establish Pound as one of the prime movers of 20th-Century literature, yet that poem (over which he labored for a year, according to sources), is unquestionably his most widely anthologized and most familiar piece of work. (Make no mistake, my friends; one can reap a great deal of literary wheat while possessing only a handful of chaff. I’ve just done it, as can any second-year undergraduate in the better schools – especially those short poems.)

Pound was a prodigiously productive author, and one of the avatars of the modernist literary movement. During his long career, he composed massive works of great erudition (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, The Cantos) that drew upon both his powerful imagination and his deep reading in many languages. These works, however, one must admit, are daunting at best, impenetrable at worst to the ordinary reader (including me). He also established himself as a brilliant editor and publisher, championing the work of some of the 20th Century’s foremost writers, including T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford among many others. He earned a reputation as one of the leading influencers of early 20th Century literature.

During my graduate student days, one of my professors told us the story of how he, as a younger man, had sought out the elderly Pound, who was at that time retired in his villa in Rapallo, on the Ligurian coast of Italy. It’s a classic tale of the itinerant young scholar barging in to sit at the feet of one of the masters of the craft. It actually wasn’t a very interesting story, so I won’t bore you with it. But it was interesting to know someone who met the great poet.

I spent my undergraduate days at another school. In those ancient times (and perhaps it still is so), the English Department had a modest budget (called “the popcorn fund”) to defray the cost for professors to entertain (presumably) senior students for evenings of academic study and discussion in more intimate settings outside the classroom. The Counselor and I were present at a number of these highbrow bull sessions hosted by a few of the professors whose classes we attended. (Probably “popcorn” dated from an earlier, more innocent era, because one of the primary ingredients of the sessions I recall was dry sherry and whatever cheese one could acquire in the wilds of southwestern Ohio: stimulating ingredients in any recipe intended to evoke scholarly discourse.) On a couple of occasions, we were treated with one of the marvels of modern technology that a university library made accessible to knowledgeable faculty members: audio recordings of literary works read by the authors who had composed them.

Friends, please picture us there, seated cross-legged on the worn carpet in some professor’s rented house, bending our ears to the stereo phonograph, on which spun a vinyl record reproducing an actual poet’s voice reading his or her work. In a day before computers or iPods, before MP3 players or CDs, technology brought those voices to us, just the same.

On one of those halcyon evenings (no, I can’t recall in which teacher’s home it was), we listened to Ezra Pound read some of his own work. Pound, at that time, was either still alive or just deceased. He was one of the icons of modern poetry, though probably none of us knew his major work very well (nor, to this day, have I read — nor may I ever read — the Cantos). There, though, we heard that thin, high-pitched American voice with diction reminiscent of old recordings from our grandparents’ era, layered over with Pound’s pretentious “artistry.” And from that evening, more than forty years ago, I’ve always remembered those lines. I have a better than average memory for songs and poems, but even that’s unusual: remembering (most of) a poem I only heard once, forty years ago. The reason, without a doubt, was Pound’s over-the-top delivery. He was playing the role to the hilt; here was The Great Poet, reading His Work. His stylized and affected manner is meant to convey clearly that THIS is Great Art. Whether it is or not, only the listener can judge, but it certainly was memorable. It’s worth saying that Pound had read widely and translated work from the ancient oral tradition of Anglo-Saxon, so it’s fair to imagine that he saw himself in the long line of succession from the ancient bards.

Here is what I’ve remembered of the poem:

The thought of what America would be like

If the Classics had a wide circulation

Troubles my sleep.

The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.

Although I’ve never forgotten the lines or the impression they made on me, the fact that I didn’t know the title of the poem made it difficult to track down. Given the volume of Pound’s work, I’ve never been able to figure out where the lines came from or find them in print.

NOW comes the point of my story: the impressive power of the Internet.

This week, I typed into my browser, “The thought of what America would be like if the classics had a wide circulation.”

It was just that easy. There it was: the entirety of the poem, with a link to the recording Ezra Pound made, probably in 1958, and which I heard about a dozen years after that. It’s titled, “Cantico del Sole,” (Canticle to the Sun), 1926.

Impressive.

After many years, I can hear old Ezra’s voice again. If you’re curious, you can listen to this poem read by the author. I encourage you to do it, just for the sheer joy of hearing the old showoff strut his stuff:

CLICK HERE to listen

And here, is “Cantico del Sole:”

The thought of what America would be like

If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation…
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.

The Internet is a fascinating and awesome place, and this is one case I’m glad to have it. I can never sit in that room again with all those long-ago colleagues (except for The Counselor, thank goodness), but I’ve recovered a piece of the moment.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2016

Please assume that Mr. Pound’s estate or some publisher(s) owns the rights to the written and recorded versions and that they may not be distributed for any commercial purpose without express consent.

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