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October 30th marks the birth of Ezra Pound (1885-1972), one of those giants of 20th-century literature who, thanks to the same quirk of copyright timing that affected his contemporaries and sometimes collaborators (no, no, not that kind of collaborator …) James Joyce and T.S. Eliot,  has a large part of his oeuvre freely available online. Project Gutenberg, to name but one source, has many of his early poems and translations, including his translations from Chinese and his apprentice masterpiece Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The Open Library also carries numerous essays and articles. You could build entire poetic careers out of one tenth of the inspiration and innovation on show at those two links alone.

ezra poundThat said, delving into those early works also spares readers both confrontation with Pound’s 1930s and wartime record as a Fascist sympathizer and collaborator, and with The Cantos, held by many, including Ernst Hemingway, to be his masterpiece, but if anything denser, more impenetrable and self-referential than Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The Cantos have long been slated for both structural incoherence as a body of work and incoherence on the smaller scale of the individual lines and passages, and there is still massive dispute over how much actual poetry – as opposed to casual and random jottings, thoughts in progress, prosaic reflections and notes-to-oneself – they actually contain. They are almost certainly better read as a guide to – and running commentary on – his thought, or a stream-of-consciousness essay, than as an actual epic poem or poem-cycle.

Pound’s defenders and promoters have made Pound the figure equal to or if anything greater than Pound the poet. Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era virtually recast the history of 20th-century English literature as footnotes to Ezra Pound. Others haven’t been so kind. Kenner was criticized for never really taking on the issue of Pound’s anti-Semitism, and very few have found Pound’s own half-apologetic admission that “my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything” as adequate. Signing your letters “Heil Hitler” or playing the court fool to Mussolini needs more than just self-deprecating admissions of suburban values. Given the amount of intellectual and artistic effort that Pound put into the later Cantos, you could hope for a more intensive dialog with his own record, and the outcome of his own ideas in his own life and recent history: Nothing like that emerges. Perhaps the reader who sticks with the earlier copyright-free works really isn’t losing out on that much after all.

 
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