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21st Century Canto: Sounding Out Pound

I began my first week by discussing Ezra Pound and translation. I very much hope that this will lead some new readers to have a go at translating, to get past worrying whether or not they can hold a long conversation in another language before at least trying to get something from a poem in that language.

Listen to a YouTube recording of a poet reciting a poem in their own language. Then see if you can find a song version of the poem, but bear in mind that this can lead to perils: Pound himself worked long and hard on setting the poems of Italian poet Cavalcanti, contemporary of Dante, as a kind of opera, and Pound believed in bringing out as much of the poem as possible using music. Most composers will happily be unfaithful to a whole poem when setting it to music, and produce a wonderful tangent to it, an insight into an aspect of it, or just a very good song in its own right. Pound tended to have no patience or forgiveness for composers who did that.

Nevertheless, be that composer yourself. Enjoy getting the wrong impression, so long as you get some impression. And so long as you consider that all poets in all languages are tuning words and working with the sounds, the cadences, of words. Yes, some also come up with some terrific dramatic structures, and some great “images” (by which we mean we get an image from the way that it has been framed in language, the way it appears before our eyes at just the right speed and disappears likewise).

But never forget sound. A poem is made up of a pattern of sound. That pattern does not have to be on a repeat. Consider how one person will dislike the musical tastes of another: “that’s too repetitive”, “it doesn’t have a tune”, “it’s got no passion” etc. Now, disassociate those musics from the social type you think listens to it, and just hear it. Notice if you want it to repeat more, or repeat less. Now consider whether or not, when you write a poem, you make the sound pattern come around quickly, because you can see that you’re losing some of your audience. Don’t necessarily stop. You may be making a kind of music that others will love.

I noticed this very strongly while listening to a Chopin piano recital last month. In the car, I play a lot of pop. I don’t listen to “classical” music that often. I noticed at the Chopin recital that I would hear a run of notes make a passionate pattern. I immediately wanted it to repeat. But it didn’t. The pattern went somewhere else, sideways, running with one aspect. Part of me wanted to be a snob towards it, and then part of me wanted to be a snob towards music that repeats too “easily”. What I’d rather do is notice that I’m a snob, and be a little more experimental.

I say all this because it helps give me an insight into this essay by Pound:

and particularly this line:


“Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g. Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk Songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shakespeare – if he can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence. Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.”


Pound is saying that even if we do not produce a perfect translation when we read a line in another language, we are hearing language used differently. I think he asks too much, or is too fanciful, when he suggests that we can step completely away from the meaning of our poems. This is why I recommend playing with translating (which Pound did, in his own work, case of do as I do and do as I say). So that we can approach hearing a poem primarily as sound, or composed primarily to achieve an effect of sound.

Having done that, let’s go back and make sure we’re not just being silly. I say we. I mean me. But it’s very interesting to see what state we get stirred into when trying to make a sound pattern work with language. Because there is no neutral language. This is not to say that everything means something, nor to subscribe to the idea that everything is a Freudian slip (I suspect that Pound was being bullish to ward that off).

Above all, recognise when a poem is making a different sound from the ones you’re used to. And don’t be a snob about it, see if you can make that kind of sound work with a poem whose meaning you like. See if you can make a poem that makes a pattern like a piece of music you like. Work with sound.

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Image Credits:

Image: Edge of a 35mm film print showing the soundtracks. The stereo optical sound strip is located on the right, with waveforms for left and right channels.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons