Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era: FAQ
What is The Pound Era about?
“[H]ow our epoch was extricated from the fin de siècle.”1 A circle of writers and artists with Ezra Pound at its center: James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot. “They were born within a six-year span,” Kenner observes (PE, 551). How poems are made and how they work. How scholarship leads to new ways of seeing: Ernest Fenollosa’s ideogram, C.H. Douglas’s A+B theorem, Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations: “For Joyce’s was the archaeologist’s Homer” (PE, 44). The impact of World War I. The potential of vorticism, the tragedy of vorticism. Defending Pound.
What is the book not about?
Modernism. The word only appears twice in the book, both times in quotations. Kenner prefers “modernisms”: “There have been so many modernisms,” he writes (PE, 256). How Pound defined an era. (Joyce and Eliot were more influential, Kenner admits.) A more accurate title for the book might have been, The Pound Circle. But just “try changing ‘petals’ to ‘blossoms’” (PE, 187).
Why is The Pound Era important?
The account of Pound’s poetry. The close readings. The commitment to definition, distinction, explanation. Kenner’s virtuosity, even genius.
There are so many. The reading of Pound’s “The Beautiful Toilet” (1915) and Cathay (1915) as a whole:
Its real achievement lay not on the frontier of comparative poetics, but securely within the effort, then going forward in London, to rethink the nature of an English poem. It consisted in maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds. (PE, 199)
The account of how symbolism influenced Pound and Eliot in different ways:
Pound omits, omits, but knows what he is omitting and can restore on demand, but behind Eliot’s resonances there is frequently nothing to restore. […] Yet the Symbolist revolution lay behind them both. It allowed Pound to know that there would still be poetry for the reader who could not fill the ellipses back in, who literally, therefore, did not know what many words meant. Or even for the reader who filled them in wrong. […] By contrast, the characteristic mistake of Eliot’s annotators is to annotate at all. (PE, 133)
The account of Pound’s process in The Cantos and the importance of perspective and self-trust:
A poem about history, taking note of recurrences, could go on endlessly, like wallpaper, much as a minor literary tradition can go on permuting elements for decades, moon, June, soon, spring, sing. But as the Provençal tradition contained not only birds and loves but Arnaut, so a poem including history will contain not only elements and recurrences but a perceiving and uniting mind that can hope one day for a transfiguring vision of order it only glimpses now, and that in carrying simple themes to a massive simultaneous orchestration will achieve the poem’s end in discovering its own richest powers. Joyce saw Ulysses as a whole and worked at opening and closing episodes simultaneously; Pound hoped to become, while writing the poem in public, the poet capable of ending the Cantos. (PE, 376)
The reading of Williams’s “Poem” [“As the cat”] (1930), which culminates with an epic simile:
The surfer planes obliquely down a hill that renews itself at just the rate of his descent. But for encountering the beach he could glide eternally, leftward and inward and always as if downward, but never further down: always hung midway on the face of the wave. He shifts, precarious, through innumerable moments of equilibrium. And the wave bears him and there is no moving wave: the molecules of water move not forward at all but only up and down, their forward movement a pattern not a displacement, as his downward movement is no displacement but a pattern: on and on, self-renewing. So through mere words, renewed by every reader, the cat walks safely forever. Williams had achieved “Poem” by 1930. Its wave decades later is undisplaced, unspent, the poem thrown decisively into the language. (PE, 399–400)
And the many, many asides. To quote just one: “The O.E.D. […] is perhaps the 19th-century epic, as the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is that of the 18th” (PE, 366).
Should The Pound Era be a model for critics today?
No. Holding up The Pound Era as a model for critics is like holding up Ulysses as a model for novelists. The book is too virtuosic, too idiosyncratic—too good. “I want it as intricate as FLW’s Hollyhock House AND as light & open as one of Bucky’s domes,” Kenner writes Guy Davenport in 1963—and it is.2
Is that the only reason?
No. The book presumes deep knowledge of an untenably narrow canon. How many readers today will understand the claim that Eliot’s meditative poems make use of the “landscape and the past and the stance of Thomas Gray (‘… But of the old stones that cannot be deciphered’ …)” (PE, 553)? The book was written for readers of the first Norton Anthology of English Literature (1962), not the tenth.
OK, is that all?
No. The book is wildly irresponsible. Here is Kenner’s most extensive comment on Pound’s fascism and antisemitism:
Of Germany and Italy in those years we have two main sorts of general knowledge. We know about their repression of opposition, including the German race-mystique and the miseries inflicted on Jews; and we know about their foreign policies, Hitler’s obsession with expansion eastward, Mussolini’s dreams of African empire. In his preoccupation with their economic recovery Pound was barely noticing these matters, so he and his critics talked past each other for decades. How the Italian economy really worked, or might have worked but for military aggrandizement, seems an unexplored subject, and to what extent he took slogans for implementations, concepts for intentions, no one can yet say. (PE, 410)
Where to begin? The Jews as part of the German opposition? The Holocaust as a series of “miseries”? (Kenner also uses the word to describe Eliot’s first marriage and H.D.’s sexuality—“bisexual miseries” [PE, 176].) The hedges: “barely noticing,” “seems,” “no one can yet say”? Of course one can say! Later in the book, Kenner laments:
[I]t is a pity Pound’s distinction between the financiers and the rest of Jewry was not allowed to be emphasized while he was still in the habit of making it. Correctly or not, it attempted a diagnosis, and one tending rather to decrease than to encourage anti-Semitism. (PE, 465)
“[W]as not allowed to be emphasized”? “Correctly or not”? Discussing Pound’s wartime radio broadcasts, Kenner pivots: “The details are violent, the rhetoric disordered, the phraseology intemperate. The war was outrageous …” (PE, 465).
And then there’s the misogyny. Women hardly appear in The Pound Era, and when they do, Kenner is mercilessly critical. Only Sappho and Marianne Moore evade censure. Amy Lowell is the book’s villain. (“Not a mistaken theory, not a theory ridden too hard, not even ‘inaccuracy,’ makes Fir-Flower Tablets unreadable today, but Amy Lowell’s impregnable vulgarity” [PE, 298].) Discussing Richard Aldington’s contributions to The Egoist, Kenner suggests that they were “read chiefly by cranks, feminist and other” (PE, 279).
Is anyone even proposing The Pound Era as a model? These questions are certainly not “frequently asked.” Why approach the book in this way?
This issue of nonsite.org raises these questions. The book lends itself to a fantasy about literary studies—about a time when great critics wrote great books about great writers. These are also the questions I asked myself while rereading the book for this issue.
Isn’t Kenner’s evasiveness about Pound’s politics an attempt to protect—and respect—the autonomy of Pound’s poetry?
No. Kenner celebrates the connection between Pound’s politics and poetry. Praising Douglas’s Economic Democracy (1920), he concludes: “his words allow us to say that The Seafarer enhances the wealth of the community while two hours of wide-screen cinematic trash does not” (PE, 304). Praising The Cantos, he writes:
Again and again in the Cantos single details merely prove that something lies inside the domain of the possible. It is not necessary to prove that the possibility was ever widely actualized; only that it exists. What was done at Wörgl—once, by one mayor, in one village—proves that stamp scrip will work. What was done in San Zeno, once, on one column, proves the possibility of a craftsman’s pride in an unobtrusive structural member. And any thing that is possible can again be. The Cantos scan the past for possibilities, but their dynamic is turned toward the future. And they enumerate so many places, so many stones, so many buildings, because nothing is so irrefutable as a stone. (PE, 325)
Does Kenner ever criticize Pound?
When he does, criticism is an occasion for praise. He establishes the formula in the book’s first chapter, discussing Pound’s misreading of “newspaper facts”:
For 30 years it had been Pound’s Sisyphean lot to read and misread newspaper facts in the light of the archetypes with which his mind vibrated, never willing to concede a shift of dimension between crystalline myth and the polymorphous immediate. In St. Elizabeths he continued this habit. (PE, 15)
Later in the book, Kenner defends Pound’s “misjudgments,” identifying him with Odysseus:
Yet human misjudgment and the closed curve of human vitality which achieved power at last over the Cantos should not in their triumph obliterate the pertinence of his most radical decision: to experience the poem as he wrote it, himself committed to all of which he wrote, himself Odysseus actually en route. (PE, 379)
By the end of the paragraph, Kenner’s language is messianic: “The mind of Europe, again, had for some decades been adumbrating such a role for someone” (PE, 379).
How can the book be both great and irresponsible?
Not only is The Pound Era great and irresponsible—it’s great because it’s irresponsible. The book sees the world through Pound’s eyes, exemplifying his values. Kenner’s description of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska sculpting the “Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound” (1914) is also a description of Pound’s self-image and self-regard:
Gaudier’s eye explored the high temples, the long straight nose; the intent still eyes, whose color (green) did not concern him; the broad slash of a mouth, a little turning downward; the forelock and jutting beard; the fine cheekbones. (PE, 255)
Disinterested criticism would undermine that identification, and thus the book’s insights. The Pound Era is the autobiography Pound was never willing or able to write. It is a masterpiece of ventriloquism.
Should Kenner’s identification with Pound be a model for critics?
No. At its best, identification is a radical form of intentionalism. (Walter Benn Michaels discusses Kenner’s intentionalism in his contribution to the issue.) But identification as method has so many risks—most significantly, mistaking the poet for the poem as the object of analysis.
How does Kenner avoid this pitfall?
Pound himself. Reading Pound, the line between poet and poem is never clear. “The poem is not its language,” Kenner argues; “Hence Pound’s reiterated advice to translators […]: ‘Don’t translate what I wrote, translate what I MEANT to write’” (PE, 150). Kenner’s argument is correct: what Pound meant matters more than what he wrote. But how do we know what he meant? The words on the page are not sufficient. Pound’s historical context obscures as much as it reveals. Readers must see through his eyes—become Pound. I tried to make a similar argument in an essay about The Cantos that I co-wrote with Michael Kindellan: “Ultimately, the kind of reader the poem requires is not a philologist, but a psychic.”3 Kenner is that psychic. One could understand his commitment to visiting poets—the “visit as method” to adopt Oren Izenberg’s phrase—as a commitment to psychometry.
What should readers do with The Pound Era today?
Read it. It’s the best book on Pound—and perhaps the best book on a twentieth-century writer. It successfully made Pound matter to a wide audience. Many critics can competently criticize Pound’s “misreadings” and “misjudgments,” detail his contexts and influence, and interpret the words on the page. But only one is able to read Pound’s mind and illuminate it for the world.
NotesI thank Robert Spoo and Johanna Winant for feedback on earlier drafts of this FAQ, as well as the participants in the nonsite.org symposium on Kenner.