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Pound uses other people

People are much more familiar with the idea of found poetry now than in any of the centuries before Pound. The idea, though, that poetry is not made up of one’s own expression but of incorporating the writings of others is an old one.

In previous centuries, it was common for published writers to expect that their readers knew the literature of another language, usually of Latin and/or Greek. One sees this in English poetry and prose from the dawn of the printing press. One sees it in translations like Gavin Douglas’s Aeneid or Golding’s Metamorphoses (which Pound points us to, student and guide of great translation that he is). One sees translators who weren’t working with the routine modern assumption, that the translation was for people who can’t/won’t try to learn another language, not for people to read and pronounce on what Kafka, say, or Derrida, “think”, from reading their work only in an English version. No, instead, readers were using the English as, if anything, a way to refresh their Latin or Greek. To compare. (This gets very challenged as a writer-reader contract by Pound’s use of Chinese, and suggests that he had at least as much fun with NOT assuming a reader’s knowledge of the original, too).

Certainly, in my case, Basil Bunting’s translations from Horace taught me how to look at the Latin original, with the Latin I learned badly at school from 13-16 years old, and start to see how it had been put together. I don’t have the learning to be able to verify, though, what I since have read Horatian scholars say: that Horace was himself working with Greek models, from Greek poems, to make his poems in Latin. Going back to Latin because of Bunting did help me, though, to try to dip into Latin poetry and see if the surface of one Latin poem seemed different from another, if Horace had “a style”. And I felt he did. Perhaps what seemed and felt different was a more Graeco-Latin surface.

I say all this as a way of coming around, eventually, to how Pound uses other texts. But I need to digress further, first. To bring out a thought I’ve been developing, that has been influencing the kind of argument I’m making. I say I could detect Horace’s “style” despite not being fluent in Latin. (The only language I even roughly can read with some sense of most of the meaning is French, and I can’t do it with hearing spoken French: maybe to get the sentiment, a bit, but not the detail, and thus probably the sentiment in the way that people in patronising bad romantic relationships say they’ve got the sense of you but are actually looking for the lover as a kind of pet…)

This sense of being able to read “for style” only applies to literature in slightly understood languages, and in using material in a jargon I don’t know well, or from another historical period of English. And the sense is honed, by at least getting something or something that can be bluffed with, and not despairing just because I can’t get everything: a very Poundian autodidactism, aided by a Poundian method.

That method is to use a commonly repeated rule Pound made about 3 kinds of writing. It is normally applied by writers, and to reading as part of literary criticism or the theory of writing. I was reminded of it when one of my heroes, poet Bill Manhire (whom I observed when I lived in New Zealand and was a postgrad in the department he taught in, but I wasn’t taught by him and was too shy to say much of a hi) kindly met me for coffee last week, and we were discussing Pound. And here I find that he comes up when I google these 3 Pound methods:

I’m going to use the 3 theories, briefly, as a justification for selfish reading, for skimming in the Poundian way (and Pound was a skimmer, for all that people treat him as if he were a professor working at an expert and comprehensive level).

When skimming the great beach of writing, it isn’t just painful chance that makes me stub my toe on Horace and pay attention. It can be recognising the music is different (influenced by Greek). Or one can see that there is a great ability with depicting the way the world looks luminous and meaningful to us only on occasion, not say as it looks every day (very possibly because we’re in a drama at the time, not intending to look, not calm). Or one can see logic.

But, when I look at how Pound looks through archives, and bookshops, as he did, I see these 3 skimming principles. I think he does want us to have, at least, a wiki entry sense of lots of his source texts. Nevertheless he remains ambivalent about whether it’s all Greek to his reader, or all Chinese whispers (I use these phrases with some sarcasm). The more one looks into the Cantos, the more one sees how Pound shows he himself got into another poet through his or her particular gift with the music of the language, just as much as he just got a hit off the language itself.

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