Ezra Pound was the godfather of the modernists. James Joyce, the reigning Titan, said that “Nothing could be more true than to say we all owe a great deal to” Pound: “I most of all.” Unlike T.S. Elliot, who is better remembered for his poetry than his criticism, it was Pound’s critical faculties that made him such a seminal influence among his peers. Like some omnipresent deity from Olympus (apparently a mountain near Pound’s birthplace in Hailey, Idaho), he had his fingers in everything and everybody’s business as a kind of jovial dictator and boss vivant.
Collected here are some of the early works of the mature Pound. No juvenilia sullies the mix of poetry and prose. As a poet Pound was always interested in translation—from the Anglo-Saxon, the Chinese, and other languages—and the surprising discord and serendipitous harmonies to be heard when poetry crosses borders. So here we get Pound’s wonderful “Seafarer,” one of the oldest poems in the English language, rendered in modernist (if not exactly “modern”) English, and “Liu Ch’e,” “a wet leaf that clings to the threshold” separating the placid, nature-loving philosophy of Chinese poetry and the speed-obsessed futurism of the early twentieth century. Also here are three of the earliest Cantos.
Among the prose are a good number of important essays which show Pound’s wide-ranging intellect and depth of reading. Pieces on Whitman, wisdom poetry, medieval troubadours, and contemporary schools of creative thought still make for great reading. Pound as a historian of little magazine and independent publishing is indispensable. Especially important, and worth repeated readings, is Pound’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” which “was practically finished by the late Ernest Fenollosa” though completed in Pound’s own inimitable style, part deep scholarship, part fragmentarian, and part child of wonder.
This collection is well edited by Ira B. Nadel, who supplies an informative introduction, a chronology and many pages of notes that illuminate Pound’s often obscure (then as now) references. More than any movement in the history of literature, the modernists challenged the dominant paradigms of Western culture. The modernists failed to fundamentally change anything, and were instead first co-opted by the mainstream (changing the face of advertising forever) and then, more recently, ignored and cursed as obscurantists. But for the progressive or radical who wants to think outside the box of artistic and cultural constraints, the early Pound is necessary reading.