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Ira B. Nadel, Ezra Pound: A Literary Life (New York, Palgrave Macmillian, 2004, $49, 95, 224 pages, ISBN 0-333-71486-5)Gerardo Del Guercio, Independent Researcher.


Ezra Pound’s influence on twentieth century literature is the framework of Ira B. Nadel’s Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. Various exiles from America to France, England and Italy were prompted by ideological clashes with the body politic that ultimately contributed to the stylistic innovations that define Pound as a pioneering writer. The Cantos are Pound’s self-reflexive dialogues that chart human civilization from the Classical era to the contemporary world. Nadel’s biography examines the development of Pound’s aesthetic and how experiences with different cultures shape an art form. My review will argue that Pound’s exiles are what gave his works such a broad international character. Nadel’s book is part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Literary Lives series and is meant to offer accounts of the lives of the most canonical English-language authors.  

Ezra Loomis Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885. Frequent moves from Idaho to New York, Jenkintown and Wyncote “may have implanted the constant sense of activity and action that would define the young poet’s life, who, until he settled in Italy in 1924, was a restless resident of Venice, London and Paris” [13]. Pound’s familiarity with numerous cultures would soon become imprinted in his writing. Wabash College gave Pound his first teaching position. Pound was soon released from Wabash for having housed a reputed prostitute. Banishment from Wabash College was Pound’s main motive for his departure to Europe in 1908. Pound’s voluntary exile followed a trend of mass exodus by other American artists including Hilda Doolittle, William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot.    

Venice, Italy was Pound’s first place of exile in 1908. Pound soon discovered that Venice inspired “a new artistic confidence” [34] expressed in “Almo Sol Veneziae” and “San Vio.” “A Lume Spento” embodied other influences Pound found in Venice in the forms of “medieval literature of southern France and British literature from roughly 1840-1900, especially Browning and the Pre-Raphaelites, plus early Yeats” [35]. The Spirit of Romance was published with the intent of situating the roots of medieval romance in a Classical Roman framework by connecting it with Medieval European literature. During this period Pound suggested that “poetry must be ‘objective,’ renouncing the excessive use of adjectives or dysfunctional metaphors: it must be ‘straight talk’” [45]. The Venice years inspired The Pisan Cantos and the idea that esoteric theories draw heavily on the “Image and interest in the occult” [65]. Italy encouraged Pound to structure the major works that would eventually classify him as a literary icon, largely because Europe allowed him the opportunity to develop a public persona.

England became Pound’s home from 1914-20. Vorticism engulfed Pound’s thinking at Stone Cottage where he followed the early Vorticist cadre of Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. Nadel notes “Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism influenced their aesthetic which celebrated abstract formalism and dynamic nature of creativity. A Vortex was the creative energy within the artist, ready to burst forth” [67]. The Vortex therefore implies that an artist presents a gorgeous ensemble on the surface but that the energy lies below. The artistic impulse then becomes the momentum. Pound applied Vorticism to The Cantos by producing an arrangement of imagery and recurrent metaphors that maintain a poem’s unity. T.S. Eliot claimed that Pound’s verse was “always definite and concrete, because he has always a definite emotion behind it” [79]. Eliot’s statement connotes that Pound’s poetry is a rhythmical dance leading to intellectual discovery requiring an active reader. The active reader is one that has a solid understanding of poetry but wants training nonetheless. Among the important works composed by Pound while in England was “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.” Pound’s poem claims that writing must have a social purpose. Mauberly, Pound’s protagonist, is vexed by an inability to modernize caused by a decline in English social values—the same cultural deterioration that led Pound to Paris, France from 1920-29.  

While in France, Pound compelled Harriet Shaw Weaver and Sylvia Beach to publish the complete version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. After constant revisions, Pound submitted the final copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” for publication. The Dial awarded Eliot a $2,000 honorarium for the poem. Pound preceded with The Cantos adding a reflection on the “structural journey of Dante” [96] and “clarity of image, precise terminology and unity of thought and object.” France inspired Pound to sustain an authoritative narrative voice that would use canonical leaders such as Sigismundo Malatesta, Sam Adams and Mussolini to reunify a fragmented world history. By conflating past and present Pound created an echo effect that reflected the repeated nature of historical events.

Mussolini’s fascist regime “coincided with the political, cultural and ideological identity Pound projected on the Italy of the past and his plan of immediate literary action in the present” [117]. Pound made Rapollo, Italy his home starting in 1931 for the reason that England and France were interfering with his poetic pursuits. Confucius’ theory that “the surface does not contain the meaning” [119] became fundamental to Pound’s philosophy. The enigmatic Confucius manifests in Pound’s Canto XIII: “If man have not order within him / He cannot spread order about him.” The external persona is then an expression of one’s inner-self. Incorporating hieroglyphics and Chinese inscriptions in The Cantos presented the notion that a text  be identifiable with its writer. Nadel explores my latter point by citing Marjorie Perloff’s term ‘Poundspeak’, or the “associative rhythm mixing an American twang with the inflated voice of an aesthete” [124]. According to Pound, such coherence is possible only under fascists rule. Ezra Pound’s stance on social practices agreed with Mussolini’s government. I argue that Pound’s form attains unity by fusing a conglomeration of fragmented ideas. According to Pound, humanity can flourish only once political practices that were successful in the past are united and applied in a contemporary context.                                              

The Rome Radio Broadcasts were a turning point in Pound’s career. Radio writing provided Pound with a means of mass communication that allowed him to state his thought to America while residing in Europe. Between January 1941-44 Pound aired “over 120 speeches on short wave radio broadcasts from Rome to the US” [147]. Pound’s message was clear: America should avoid participating in World War II. The broadcasts soon sounded fascistic, racist and anti-American, resulting in Pound’s arrest. Judge Laws transferred Pound to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane because he was deemed mentally incapable of standing trail. The release of The Confucian Odes generated great debate concerning Pound’s sanity since “they were organized as marvelous but how could one be mentally capable of translating and publishing but not be brought to trail” [168]. Authorities liberated Pound on April 18, 1958 ending a near twenty-year imprisonment.

Returning to Italy was not easy for Ezra Pound. H.D. reminded Pound of his stay in America by releasing End to Torment. Pound’s age and feebleness accompanied by difficult personal dilemmas did not diminish his imagination. Upon completing The Cantos “Pound’s life at last seemed to reach some stability” [176] but the silence that would characterize his last years had begun. An attempt to discover coherence and paradise was a goal Pound never attained since his ideal was always corrupted by some external force. The Cantos, Drafts & Fragments do not propose a resolution—they reconsider “a series of crucial ideological foundations for the poem, notably fascism, anti-Semitism and the idea of paradise” [185]. Poetry must therefore be humanity’s savior. Pound remains a prominent literary figure in the postmodern era for his mark on later twentieth century writers Timothy Findley, Bernard Kops, Julián Ríos and C.K. Stead. Ezra Loomis Pound died at 8:00 pm on November 1, 1972.        

Ira B. Nadel’s latest study Ezra Pound: A Literary Life is a concise analysis meant for researchers of the modern period. One problem that I encountered with Nadel’s book were the several topographical errors. Here are a few examples: the double use of the word “closer” on line 17 of page 153; the use of a comma to end a sentence on page 152, line 16; and the use of a period instead of a comma to separate Voltaire from Stendhal on line 18 of page 137. Such inaccuracy impedes the fluidity of the audience’s reading. The general editor of the Palgrave Macmillan’s literary lives series, Richard Dutton, could have easily corrected these oversights by revising the topography more astutely. Furthermore, Nadel’s text simply repeats what past scholars have already examined about Pound. Although Nadel’s research is accurate, his book is definitely not innovative.           

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