15 February 2005 - Tuesday

MCP: Ezra Pound

I completed this reading assignment:

"Portrait d'une Femme"
"The Return"
"A Pact"
"The Rest"
"In a Station of the Metro"
"The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
"Lament of the Frontier Guard"
"The Temperaments"
The Cantos I, II, VII, and XIV
Here are my reflections:

"In a Station of the Metro" astonishes me. Pound described this two-line poem as his third attempt to capture the overwhelming emotion generated by seeing a succession of beautiful faces at a metro station in Paris. The verse astonishes me because it merely couples one brief image with another; it is not even clearly a simile or metaphor, only a comparison of simple sights. I focus on the contrast between petals (presumably of a light color) and their black branch; perhaps Pound was startled to find lovely faces in the dullness of an urban underground.

"Lament of the Frontier Guard" seems very still; the image of the North Gate is quiet and subdued. The war seems far away, as it might to sentinels at a gate before it is attacked, but the poet speaks in retrospect; the guard has already been overcome. The despondency in the image reflects a very modern attitude toward the destruction; there is no hint of purpose or nobility, and even memory will fade. Perhaps this is why Pound chose such an ancient foreign war as a topic. Without any stake in the outcome, the modern reader in the West needs only to feel the brutality of the loss. I have only one thing in common with that frontier guard: mortality.

The adaptation of ancient myth in Cantos I, II, and VII, blending with more recent history and even modern life, reminds me of a theory of language that was first introduced to me by Northrop Frye. According to this theory (as I recall it now), language has passed through three major stages: metaphoric language, in which we rather unconsciously speak of abstracts as if they were concrete (instead of referring to love, for example, we might tell stories about the god Eros); metonymic language, in which we consciously refer to abstracts as equal to concrete things ("love conquers all"); and descriptive language, in which we avoid abstracts as much as possible and confine ourselves to the world of the senses ("they kissed").

I thought of this system because I am aware that Pound paradoxically emphasized the need for intensity and clarity even while using some very obscure language. To me, Pound's elaborations on myth represent part of a redefinition of our way of looking at abstracts. Instead of writing stiltedly of ephemeral concepts, he presents images that, taken together, lend themselves to a flexible perspective on life. He compiles particulars; on the surface, at least, the worldview emerges from the the details rather than details from the worldview. Each allusion or bit of narrative stands on its own, with the poet presenting little overt judgment of its value.

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