(from American Literature: A History—by Hans Bertens and Theo d'Haen; Routledge, 2014)
The driving force behind the renewal of English-language poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century was Ezra Pound (1885-1972). As of 1908 Pound spent most of his life in Europe, first in London (until 1920), then in Paris (until 1925) and finally in Italy.
For Pound the writer was the guardian of language: his task was to keep it sharply honed. Great liteature to Pound was 'simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.' Pound was resolutely international in orientation, and for him all of the world's literature(s) formed one organic body. What was important to him, then, was to distinguish between what from this enormous mass was worth preserving, studying and teaching, especially to other, younger writers, and what was not. This explains why Pound spent so much of his time and energy on didactical and theoretical essays, as well as on composing anthologies. It also explains why his entire life he continued to be an avid and prodigious translator—or 're-creator', as some of his critics prefer to call him because of his very idiosyncratic views on translation—from Italian, French, Greek and Chinese. In the end, these very same principles also underpin Pound's magnum opus The Cantos.
Pound started his poetic career around 1905 as a rather traditionalist epigone of the English decadent poets and the earlier Pre-Raphaelites, Robert Browning and the medieval troubdours. In a dramatic monologue, Pound has an Italian or Provençal troubadour open a window upon his era. However, via these 'personae' he also voices his own opinions. A brilliant example of this technique, as well as of Pound's translation and re-creation methods, is the long multi-part 'Hommage to Sextus Propertius' (1917), in which he uses the Roman poet to lambast the England of World War I.
In London Pound got to know the English writers Ford Madox Ford and T. E. Hulme. From them he borrowed the idea that a poem should be a dry, hard language object, and that the language of poetry should depart 'in no way from speech, save by a heightened intensity'. For Pound this meant that a poem should dispense with all unnecessary elements. The result was a movement that Pound himself in 1912 baptized 'Imagism', and which saw a poem as 'planes in relation', as the juxtaposition of images. The meaning of an Imagist poem results from the relationship that the reader discerns as obtaining between these images. The classical illustration of this theory is Pound's own 'In a Station of the Metro':
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;Pound uses a semicolon at the end of the first line, thus leaving the two images unrelated in the work itself. It is left to the reader to discover, or to posit himself, a relation between the two, or not. With a colon the poem would have amounted to a simple affirmation: these faces are like petals, etc. With a full stop, the images would necessarily have remained separate. A simple comma would have made the second line a non-restrictive appositive to the faces in the first line, and would thus again have enforced a specific relationship betwen the two lines. Early in his carreer Pound became acquainted with the theories of the American orientalist Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), positing that Chinese characters were ideograms, stylized reproductions of the objects they represented. For Pound this meant that in Chinese writing characters were linked to one another through association and not, as in Western languages, through grammatical constructions indicating the precise relationships obtaining. Most of these ideas have since been discredited by scholars of Chinese, but for Pound they furnished the basis for his own associative poetic technique of juxtaposition and of planes in relation. For instance, the two lines that make up 'In a Station of the Metro' contain no verb, which reinforces the effect also invited by the use of the semicolon we pointed out before: because there is no clear grammatical relation between the two lines it is left to the reader to forge his own interpretation.
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound's investment in Imagism as a movement was short-lived, as he quickly moved on to what he called 'Vorticism', a loose avant-garde circle around the Magazine Blast (1914-15). In many ways, though, Pound's idea of Vorticism simply entailed a further development of Imagism, as we can gather from his own definition that the image is 'a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can and must perforce, call a VORTEX, form which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing'.
As of 1915 Pound started looking for ways to apply his Imagist principles to the writing of longer poems. In techniques that were also becoming very popular in other arts—collage and montage, the juxtaposition of fragments, often consisting of truncated quotations from other earlier works, sudden temporal and perspectival shifts—Pound saw possibilities to extend his principle of 'planes in relation' to larger units. The first work in which he successfully applied a number of these techniques was 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' (1920). At the same time he also again made use of a persona. The result was an ironic and bitter reflection on Pound's own literary career until then, and on the London literary scene upon which he was at the verge of turning his back at that very moment. Pound's most ambitious, and most voluminous work is The Cantos, an epic of 116 cantos, upon which he started work on 1915, and which remained unfinished at his death in 1972. In his ambition to encompass all of human history, culture, and literature he roamed across languages, literatures, continents and ages. Mixing original lines with quotations and translations from the most diverse sources, The Cantos creatively practiced what Pound also advocated in his didactic and theoretical writings, and his anthologies. Although clearly meant as an epic in the line of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the Divine Comedy, and frequently directly quoting or alluding to these predecessors, Pound's Cantos lack the overall consistency and unity of plot of Homer's and Dante's works. Needless to say, this is deliberate on Pound's part. Just as Eliot would do in The Waste Land, so Pound too in his Cantos wants to stress the fragmentation, the brokenness of his contemporary world, the ruin of a civilization instead of, as he and Eliot saw it, the unity and triumph embodied in these earlier epics.
In The Cantos, as in all of his poetry, Pound aimed at the simultaneity of all passages, all quotations, rather than the linearity of the classical narrative poem. By thus giving his epic a 'spatial form' Pound shows himself an exemplary modernist. Another modernist organizational principle Pound consistently adhered to is the recurring use of terms, characters and settings as 'leitmotifs', the associative resonance of words and contexts via what Pound himself called 'logopeia'. Notwithstanding his exemplary application of what have come to be considered as mainstays of modernist technique, or perhaps because of the extremes to which he pushed them, critical opinion as to the final success of The Cantos varies widely. Whichever position one assumes, the fact remains that with The Cantos, as with his other, earlier work, Pound contributed significantly to the liberation of English—and especially American—poetry from the formalist straitjacket it largely found itself in at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. He also did so by serving as mentor to younger poets, as indefatigable editor of (little) magazines, as coiner of avant-garde theories such as Imagism and Vorticism, and in the case of the older Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) as his part-time secretary while at the same time bringing him into contact with for instance Japanese poetry and theater, thus aiding him to change from the poet of the Celtic Twilight and the Irish Renaissance into the High Modernist poet we now know Yeats as.
One particularly famous part of The Cantos consists of The Pisan Cantos (1948). These cantos refer to the period when Pound, whose ideas on economics and politics were as idiosyncratic as they were in literature, and who was a staunch supporter of the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini, at the end of the war was imprisoned for treason. These cantos strike a strongly personal and even confessional note, signaling a break with the Eliotian doctrine of 'impersonalism' in which the poet hid behind a persona or a mask, and as such are often considered as a prelude to the Confessional poetry that in the 1950s and 1960s, with the poetry of John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, would become the dominant mode of American poetry along with Beat poetry.