Saturday 24 June 2017

What did the Greeks do for Ezra Pound & Should we Care?

I spent half the week in Philadelphia giving a public lecture on that city’s most famous poet at the annual Ezra Pound International Conference. I never actually liked much of Pound’s poetry; his famous Cantos are crammed with allusions to other poets so dense that you need a literary encyclopedia to make sense of them.  And then there were his silly hairdos and the fascination with Fascism.

Questionnable Coiffure
But Pound did almost single-handedly free poetry from the rhetorical verbiage and conventional verse forms of the 19th century, stress the importance of crystalline imagery, and introduce the idea of verse libre and singable verse, verse cantabile. This makes an aural impact by careful handling of vowel sounds. He cannot be written out of the history of aesthetics however hard some, repelled by his politics, have tried.

Pound is Hellenic Maiden Second from Left
I argued that the primary reason he was able to invent a whole new kind of lyric song was his experience performing in the chorus of a Greek tragedy by Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris in 1903, at the age of 17. This meant learning off by heart nearly 300 lines of limpid lyric poetry which sounds, when sung or spoken out loud, very like much of Pound's most beautiful, melodic lines, e.g.  ‘Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes’, or ‘In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.’

'ecstasies of emotion'
Pound as Hellenic Maiden made an impression which his friend William Carlos Williams regarded as hilarious, ‘in a togalike ensemble topped by a great blond wig at which he tore as he waved his arms about and heaved his massive breasts in ecstasies of emotion’. Hilda Doolittle, however (better known as the poet H.D.), developed a crush on cross-dressed Pound and thenceforward spent most of her life imitating or translating Euripides.

Poster advertising the  Play
I believe that the older Pound was in denial about the importance of Euripides to his own development because Euripides was associated, through his popular translator Gilbert Murray (co-founder of the League of Nations which became the UN), with the liberal and humanitarian causes which Pound came to despise. I also learned on Tuesday that Pound corresponded with fellow-Modernist-of-dodgy-politics T.S. Eliot in an excruciatingly racist parody of what they regarded as the diction of African American people (although they called them by another, less respectful name).

The Messenger spoke Greek skilfully & was talked about for years
Which all goes to show that the Classics lurk beneath stones where nobody has suspected them (like the form and sound of Modernist free verse) and do indeed belong to everyone. This includes august poetic types I personally would rather not hang out with, even at such a monumental performance of my very favourite Greek play.

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