Monday, January 17, 2011

The Surround-Drowned Sound of Pound

Every so often I read a piece by an admirer of Pound's, like D.S. Carne-Ross or Hugh Kenner, and they quote a line or two and leave me momentarily convinced that Pound is a very great poet. For instance, Kenner quotes -- in Rhyme: An Unfinished Monograph, which I've been tumbling passages from all day -- the remarkable line
quick eyes gone under earth’s lid

And Carne-Ross quotes this even better bit from a translation of Horace --
Land where Liris crumbles her bank in silence
Though the water seems not to move.

(The first line is a lovely sapphic.) But when I go back and read the passages these lines come from, they're invariably spoiled by their settings; the first is part of a tiresome rant in Mauberley and the second is from this:
thick Sardinian corn-yield nor pleasant
ox-herds under the summer sun in Calabria, nor
ivory nor gold out of India, nor
land where Liris crumbles her bank in silence
though the water seems not to move. 

Somehow it's much easier to see how good the last two lines are without the rest of this otherwise pedestrian passage. I don't have a very satisfactory explanation for this, but a tentative hypothesis is that the problem has to do with pacing. All the best Pound passages are slow -- in particular they have a higher fraction of stressed and/or long syllables than most verse, they're often spondee-heavy -- but this is not true of Pound's writing in general. For instance in the passage above, here are my counts of actually stressed {total} syllables per line:

1{1}, 4{10}, 4{13}, 3{11}, 5{11}, 3{9}

If you started at "land" you would simply assume this was a slow deliberate passage and appreciate it accordingly, but the previous two lines are very light on actual stresses, so you enter the payoff lines moving at altogether the wrong speed, and barrel through them without noticing how good they are. (Though obviously this doesn't happen to Kenner.) Something else that's wrong with Pound's poems is that the voices are never compelling, the diction never quite comes together. Put this together with the structural deficiencies and I think one can begin to understand why Pound's poems are usually less than the sum of their parts.

Pound's insanity probably helped his later writing. The more disjointed a poem is, the more closely it approaches the sum of its parts. Usually this is a bad thing but in Pound's case I think it helped.

No comments: