Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The last of the Ovidians & the larger scheme of things

I wasn't an English major, but back when I was in college, the rap on Ezra Pound was that his hyperallusiveness was a form of coercion consistent with his legendary Fascism. "At least the quatrains ran on time," we joked. No doubt a great many readers of The Cantos have been, will be resistant to Pound's including and rewriting history so relentlessly. Yet as Richard Sieburth explains in the note to his forthcoming edition of EP's New Selected Poems and Translations, one of Pound's "signal contributions" to twentieth-century poetics "was of course to have erased any easy distinction between 'primary' composition and 'secondary' translation." Sieburth makes the case as follows:

Perhaps the last major poet in the Ovidian tradition, Pound sees the "magic moment" of metamorphosis as defining the mystery at the core of all metaphor and all translation - the elusive persistence of identity within change. The French critic Antoine Berman memorably defined translation as l'épreuve de l'étranger - that trial or ordeal or test of the foreign through which a language must pass before returning to itself at once renewed and estranged. Cast as a translation of Book XI of the Odyssey (the so-called nekuia or "descent" episode), Pound's opening Canto enacts precisely this kind of transformative encounter with the other. As the wandering Odysseus meets with the prophet Tiresias in the kingdom of the dead to receive instructions as to how to accomplish his nostos or return home, he is visited by a procession of eloquent shades from the archaic Greek past. The prosody of Canto I is similarly haunted by the revenants of tradition- Homer's pulsing hexameters, Andreas Divus's streamlined Renaissance Latin translation, the alliterative Anglo-Saxon drum-beat of "The Seafarer" - all now returning as spectral echoes within the modernist soundscape of Pound's own epic-to-come.

In our current age of triumphant Anglo-American monolingualism, this willingness to welcome the foreign into his English remains Pound's most attractive legacy. His first-time readers may be annoyed or intimidated by all the "tags" or quotations from the Greek, Latin, Provençal, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese that float like some much mnemonic flotsam and jetsam upon the textual surface of the Cantos, but Pound was optimistically convinced that they could easily be navigated. "Skip anything you don't understand and go on till you pick it up again," he wrote a young correspondent in 1934. "All [this] tosh about foreign languages making it difficult. The quotes are all either explained at once by repeat or they are definitely of the things indicated. If the reader don't know what an elefant is, then the word is obscure. [...] There is no intentional obscurity. There is condensation to maximum attainable. It is impossible to make the deep as quickly comprehensible as the shallow."


In the end, after all the dust settled, Pound hoped that his poetry would simply be judged by the fineness of its ear. In a rare late interview, he broke his silence to observe to Pier Paolo Pasolini: "They say the Cantos are a hodge-podge; not so: it's music."


Pound's optimism goes hand in hand with Eliot's notion that poetry can communicate before it's understood - though it's worth noting that Eliot omitted Homage to Sextus Propertius from his 1928 selection of Pound's poems - now so wonderfully updated by Sieburth - on the grounds that it was "not enough a translation" and "too much a translation" to be intelligible to the average reader!

There's naturally, inevitably, lots of push-back against Modernism these days, almost enough to overtake the fashion of being revulsed by the so-called confessional poets and/or the ghost of Robert Lowell (not the same thing). Yet permutations of EP's methods are still powerfully in use. I've already noted the phenomenon of letting source materials make the poetry; yet I wonder, too, the extent to which the salutary burgeoning of bi- or multi-lingual poetry can be seen as a live and heartening extrapolation, too, viz Kristin Naca's wonderful Bird Eating Bird, among many others.

But only heartening only to a point. Though our native tongues may be vibrant in our homes and in our poems, they are under attack in the schools. For years, bilingual education in the primary school curriculum has been opposed. And now, our institutions of higher education are cutting departments of foreign and classical languages, as has most recently been the case at SUNY Buffalo. As Michael Hoffman put it over the summer:

"Schools and schoolchildren ditch languages like there's no tomorrow. Just as we've become adept at finding the shortest and the quickest and the most economical, so we can sniff out anything that's not a doss. 'Grammar? Pronunciation? Different alphabet? Spelling? Accents? Umlauts? Ooh, no thanks – don't fancy that.' The 'fascination of what's difficult' may be Yeats, but it's a long time since it's had much pull as an idea. Modern languages have become, in the awful semi-euphemism 'twilight subjects' – you study them on your own, after school's out."

In a sense, the defects and virtues alike of Pound's poetry and way of thinking owe something to his studying on his own. And if studying on our own is going to replace great chunks of the deteriorating curricula in our educational institutions, we'd better start weighing the costs and benefits of auto-didactic learning.

Let's face it - ours is the age of the average (or less-than average) reader. Yet as I was falling asleep over the Aeneid last night, I heard some folks on the CBC radio program Ideas talking about how we now, by necessity, live in a time of incrementalism: big movements in politics have failed us - which, on the other hand, means that there's an opening for individual people - reading... thinking... acting... learning other languages and cultures - to accomplish powerful things on a small scale; if so, this, too, will have risks and benefits in the larger scheme of things.


Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Scholars ponder poets and the point of their poetics.

Poets ponder Being and the poetics of its point.

מבול said...

I mentioned this post in a comment at Tom Bray's Scarriet - with respect to the diminution of the comment stream here which I think is universal on the blogosphere and due to Facebook.