Wallace Rice



Mr. Ezra Pound and "Poetry."

(To the Editor of THE DIAL.)


Literatur: Rice
Literatur: The Dial
Literatur: "1913"


Our national aphorism, "Some things can be done as well as others," may be, as Mr. John A. Hobson has pointed out, a great asset in material affairs, but when it is acted upon in matters of art its value grows doubtful. We have dramatic enthusiasts ignorant of the art of acting, amateur stage managers unable to manage, compilers of verse without judgment, editors who have never before edited, all seeking to uplift masses eager to learn, yet all placing stumbling-blocks, through their own lack of standards, in the way of those earnestly aspiring to the heights.

Though no one can quarrel with literature in its highest form, nor with any periodical devoted to such a cause, one must regret that "Poetry" is being turned into a thing for laughter. No one need offer any particular criticism of the earlier work of Mr. Ezra Pound; it is as he prefers it. But with the practical identification of "Poetry" and Mr. Pound one may pick a very pretty quarrel, since it involves not only a lowering of standards, but a defense of the thesis, unusual in "A Magazine of Verse," that poor prose must be good poetry. Take this from the April number:

"O my fellow sufferers, songs of my youth, a lot of asses praise you because we are 'virile,' we, you, I! We are 'Red Bloods'! Imagine it, my fellow sufferers – our maleness lifts us out of the ruck. Who'd have foreseen it? O my fellow sufferers, we went out under the trees, we were in especial bored with male stupidity. We went forth gathering delicate thoughts, our 'fantasikon' delighted to serve us. We were not exasperated with women, for the female is ductile. And now you hear what is said to us: We are compared to that sort of person who wanders about announcing his sex as if he had just discovered it. Let us leave this matter, my songs, and return to that which concerns us."

Is this anything but prose? and dull prose? Is it interesting, except to psychopathologists and students of barbaric survivals in the twentieth century? Does it reveal a personality, or hint at work one would like to know better? "But," some of Mr. Pound's admirers have answered, "it has subtle rhythm." To which the obvious reply is that English poetry has no subtle rhythm, nor can it have until its ictus, the strongest and most insistent in the history of speech, becomes subtle. The technical problem of English verse is largely the variance of rhythm, but the variances, again, are seldom subtle. The subtler rhythms in English literature are in its prose; and, it may be added, if subtlety implies difficulty of immediate discernment, the worse the prose the more subtle its rhythm.

Take an instance from another source:

    "When Narcissus died,
The pool of his pleasure changed
From a cup of sweet waters
Into a cup of salt tears,
And the Oreads came weeping
Through the woodland
That they might sing to the pool
And give it comfort.

    "And when they saw that the pool had changed
From a cup of sweet waters
Into a cup of salt tears,
They loosened the green tresses of their hair,
And cried to the pool,
And said:

    " 'We do not wonder that you should mourn
In this manner for Narcissus,
So beautiful was he.'

    " 'But was Narcissus beautiful?'
Said the pool.

    " 'Who should know better than you?'
Answered the Oreads.
'Us did he ever pass by,
But you he sought for,
And would lie down on your banks
And look down at you,
And in the mirror of your waters
He would mirror his own beauty.'

    "And the pool answered:
'But I loved Narcissus
Because as he lay on my banks
And looked down at me,
In the mirror of his eyes
I saw my own beauty
Mirrored.' "

This is not an unusually beautiful example of vers libre. On the contrary, it is Oscar Wilde's "The Disciple," which its author called a "poem in prose." And it is prose – poetic prose assuredly, but prose. Wilde did not write it as it is written here, in what might be called Jerked English, any more than Mr. Pound wrote the previous specimen with the lines run together. Wilde knew his to be prose and wrote it accordingly; Mr. Pound believed his to be poetry and so wrote it. Certainly "The Disciple" is the more poetic of the two.

But whether a given literary composition is poetry or not, does not depend upon the manner in which the [371] type is arranged on the printed page. If this were so, the printer would be the poet, not the writer. When Mr. Pound's various examples of what he considers poetry are printed as prose, they are prose. In contrast with Wilde's in any form, they are prosy prose.

Mr. Pound's admirers insist, however, upon the essential originality of his recent writings, and say that in destroying the conventions of rhyme and rhythm he is expanding the province of poetry. It is possible that, following the manner of Whitman, he is aiding in the fixation of a third form of literary expression, prose in form, poetic in content. But surely, after Macpherson and Whitman, that is no claim to originality.

One of Mr. Pound's defenders has said in words what "Poetry" has been teaching by implication, that "formal rhythm is not necessary to poetry." Such a statement involves complete confusion between two significations of the word poetry. We speak with propriety of a sermon, an essay, an oration, a novel, a prose drama, indeed of any work of art, as "poetic," meaning thereby that it arouses in us emotions similar to those excited by poetry.

But poetry, like every other Art or art, is concerned with form as well as substance. It is the metrical arrangement of words to express beauty, Poe's "Music plus Idea," and formal rhythm is as essential to it as to its sisters by birth, Music and the Dance. To deny that is to deny poetry, alone among the Arts and arts, the possession of a technic, reducing it forthwith below the level of literary prose, which unquestionably has technic; it will be recalled that Walter Pater refused through life to write poetry because it confused this. And it is to deny the technic of ascertained metre unchallenged through thirty centuries. In this sense alone Mr. Pound's work is original.

The attitude of "Poetry" toward poetry is that of Mrs. Mary Baker G. Eddy toward Medical Science. Yet, if poetry have no technic and, left formless thereby, is at one with illiterary prose, why devote a magazine to it? Every newspaper, programme, advertisement contains similar English – and English quite without false pretence. As has been pointed out, technic qua technic possesses charm for the cultivated mind. It is hardly too much to say that nothing atechnical has survived in any Art. Reduced to its simplest terms technic is knowing how – the experience of the ages manifesting itself in practice. Moreover, within the canons of the art there is perfect freedom; without, the baldest enslavement to every passing fad and fancy – as here.

Remember that youth essaying his first poetic flights draws strength for his wings largely from the greater poets who precede him and leave him heir to their powers. Every beginner imitates, and one familiar with his predecessors has little trouble in naming the sources from which he chooses his forms of expression, if not his thoughts. It is not until he has outgrown this period of unconscious assimilation and attained his own manner that he is worthy the name of poet. For, as Mr. Pound has observed, "Any donkey can imitate a man's manner."

In the April number of "Poetry" there are a dozen examples of Mr. Pound's work. Much the larger part of them are prose, like the one cited. The origins of all are evident. Whitman at his prosiest accounts for much, and in one Mr. Pound insists that he and the older bard have one sap and one root. There are touches here and there of MM. Maeterlinck and Albert Mockel, and something of Mr. W. B. Yeats. Nor should Stephen Crane be forgotten. The last instance is Japanese in content, though without the beautiful definition of the Japanese form. In other words, Mr. Pound's lines are derivations, experiments in the manner of a novice, searchings after individual expression without attainment. His roots are far back in the traditional past, inevitably.

If one searches for originality of thought, it is not here. Whitman had something to say and said it; Mr. Pound is still occupied with youthful Bohemianism and impudence. His intense egoism, too intense to carry self-confidence with it, is apparent. The power of self-criticism implied in a sense of humor is lacking. A care for syntax has gone the way of other traditions. One of his efforts has the ring of Mr. Roosevelt before a vice commission. Feeling for words and for form is slight. Imagination is in abeyance. The Song of Solomon fathers the most poetic of his work in style and substance. Thought is everywhere tenuous and capable of compression in statement, and the philosophy is uncertain. Some of the lines seem written for indecency's sake, which is more than those contending for "art for art's sake" ask for. Most objectionable is the familiar attitude of the charlatan, announcing that his is the only cure, and that those disagreeing with him are the real quacks.

But Mr. Pound may be left to the court of appeal the years will hale him before, if he survive. Many young men write verses, or wish to, and are impatient at the restraints which lack of technic imposes. If one of them lives to attain full poethood, the verses of his artistic adolescence meet with one of three fates: they are suppressed, they are completely rewritten, or they appear in his published works as juvenilia – itself an apology for their survival.

The case is different with the magazine which has chosen to employ and exploit this young man. It has been able to do this consistently only by a supercilious dismissal of the great tradition of English poetry, using "traditional" as a term of contempt. And there is so much for it to do by a maintenance of the standards. We have seen the tradition expanded by men dead only yesterday, – Swinburne and William Vaughn Moody. Mr. Yeats has enlarged its boundaries by a little. The modern social feeling, the growing solidarity of women, the wonders of science are clamoring for poetic expression. Though there be no great poets among us, John Churton Collins has pointed out that from their lesser brethren "it is in some respects but a step to the work of the great poets of the next age." The editors of the usual magazines have their own standards, and many of the singers of the day know their best work to be at variance with these standards. It was hoped that "Poetry" would search out these poets and such poems, many of them of much significance and beauty.

So far there has been little done in these directions. The quest has seemingly been for the bizarre, for the astonishing, for the novelty for novelty's sake, even for the shocking. The paper of the magazine has been poor, the type that of the newspapers, the cover and form inadequate to the dignity of the cause, the proofreading heedless. The editor too seldom allows a number to go out without containing her own verses, though these show a steady retrogression from a once high standard. Her own sense of self-criticism in abeyance, Mr. Pound was bound to occur.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Dial.
A Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information.
Bd. 54, 1913, Nr. 646, 1. Mai, S. 370-371.

Gezeichnet: Wallace Rice.
Chicago, April 22, 1913.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Dial   online
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000052812
URL: https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=thedial







Literatur: Rice

Andrews, Richard: A Prosody of Free Verse. Explorations in Rhythm. New York 2017.

Beyers, Chris: A History of Free Verse. Fayetteville 2001.

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Ehlers, Sarah: Making It Old. The Victorian/Modern Divide in Twentieth-Century American Poetry. In: Modern Language Quarterly 73.1 (2012), S. 7-67.

Erkkila, Betsy (Hrsg.): Ezra Pound. The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge 2011 (= The American Critical Archives, 18).

Essig, Rolf-Bernhard: Der offene Brief. Geschichte und Funktion einer publizistischen Form von Isokrates bis Günter Grass. Würzburg 2000 (= Epistemata; Reihe Literaturwissenschaft, 267).

Martin, Meredith: The Rise and Fall of Meter. Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930. Princeton u.a. 2012.

Matthews-Schlinzig, Marie I. u.a. (Hrsg.): Handbuch Brief. Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart. 2 Bde. Berlin u. Boston 2020.

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Newcomb, John T.: The Emergence of "The New Poetry". In: The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry. Hrsg. von Walter Kalaidjian. Cambridge 2015, S. 11-22.

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Literatur: The Dial

Bains, Christopher: Le Paris d'Ezra Pound: utopie et exil dans les pages de The New Age et The Dial. In: Revues modernistes anglo-américaines. Lieux d'échanges, lieux d’exil. Hrsg. von Benoît Tadié. Paris 2006, S. 79-93.

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Literatur: "1913"

Asendorf, Christoph: Widersprüchliche Optionen: Stationen der Künste 1913 In: Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 38.1 (2013), S. 191–206.

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Bd. 3 (1973): Manifestes et témoignages.

Camelin, Colette / Berranger, Marie-Paule (Hrsg.): 1913: cent ans après. Enchantements et désenchantements. Paris 2015 (= Collection: Colloque de Cerisy).

Chickering, Roger: Das Jahr 1913. Ein Kommentar. In: Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 39.1 (2014), S. 137-143.

Dowden, Stephen D.: Vienna 1913: dans le vrai. In: Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 38.2 (2013), S. 452-468.

Emmerson, Charles: 1913. In Search for the World before the Great War. New York 2013.

Erhart, Walter: Literatur 1913. Zeit ohne Geschichte? Perspektiven synchronoptischer Geschichtsschreibung. In: Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 39.1 (2014), S. 123-136.

Hamburger, Michael: 1912. In: Ders., Reason and Energy. Studies in German Literature. London 1957, S. 213-236.

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