Modernist Poetry via Ezra Pound’s The Cantos
The old men’s voices, beneath the columns of false marble
The modish and darkish walls,
Discreeter gilding and the panelled wood
Suggested, for the leasehold is
Touched with an imprecision. . . about three squares;
The house too thick, the paintings
a shade too oiled.
And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi
Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion,
Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things,
And the old voice lifts itself
weaving an endless sentence.
We also made ghostly visits, and the stair
That knew us, found us again on the turn of it,
Knocking at empty rooms, seeking for buried beauty;
But the sun-tanned, gracious and well-formed fingers
Lift no latch of bent bronze, no Empire handle
Twists for the knocker’s fall; no voice to answer.
From Canto VII by Ezra Pound
Modernist Poetry is a style of writing which consists of two common features. The first one is a technical innovation which lets the use of free verse in poetry. The second one is an escape from the Romantic style of an unproblematic self and instead a movement through a directly addressed, equally unproblematic ideal reader. The questioning of self and the innovations in this new type; modernist poetry consists of two terms that are closely interconnected. The displacement of the poet himself is done via the usage of new techniques as collage and visual poetry. These new techniques are mostly applied not for the sake of their own existence in a poem but for possible questions which are waited to be appeared in the mind of the reader without taking into consider the true nature of a poetic work. These changes are apparent not only in poetry but also in music and art, simultaneously.
If we look back in history, we can see clearly that modernist poetry comes out in the beginning of the twentieth century with the help of the Imagists. Like many other modernist poets, these ones also write in reaction towards Victorian poetry. However, modernist poets see themselves as the investigators who look back the best works of poets in earlier times and other cultures as well. Their outstanding idols are mostly Greek literature, Chinese and Japanese poetry, Dante and the medieval Italian poets like Guido Cavalcanti and lastly English metaphysical poets.
After this background information given above, it is better to have a detailed look at the characteristic features of the modernist poetry to understand it better. The most common feature of modernism in poetry is its shift of emphasis on self-reference of poetic language to the very modern version of a crisis of language. We can also define it as hunting for an overall coherence of the language. The other one is the rising doubt about the probability of identifying an outstanding single, unified voice of modernist poetry.
If the turn comes to the great variety of American modernist poets, the Dadaist and surrealist works of Gertrude Stein, the imagist poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and Amy Lowell, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land can be given as the leading examples. Moreover, Vachel Lindsay’s fantastic, fully public, democratic poetry, William Carlos Williams’ universalizing regional poetry, Langston Hughes’ black poetry and Harlem Renaissance’s other blues writers are all striking figures of the movement.
However, among all these figures of the time, there stands one who is called as the major figure of the modernist movement in the first half of the twentieth century; Ezra Weston Loomis Pound. He is mostly known as an American expatriate poet, critic and intellectual. He studied at University of Pennsylvania where he met William Carlos Williams and transferred to Hamilton College. In 1908, he settled in London and had a generous friendship with William Butler Yeats. If we look at his literary background, it is apparent that from 1908 to 1914 his poems reflect the struggles to gain clarity, precision and a direct conversational expression.
According to him as the major figure of the modernist movement, a modern poet should recapture the vitality of the myths which are ancient, s/he also should pursue a dialogue between past and today by speaking in the shape of different historical personalities. Pound’s obsession with the past ancient works, his dying for awakening the ghosts of the history: ‘‘The Spirit of Romance’’ (1910) foreshadows T.S. Eliot’s argument in ‘‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’’ (1919). The language in his first poems is rather antiquated and obscure as Ford M. Ford says all poetry should have the economy and precision of prose.
Furthermore, Pound’s own contributions to poetry significantly begin with his standing for Imagism which is a movement in poetry that derives its technique from Chinese and Japanese poetry. That new movement stresses the importance of clarity, precision and the economic usage of language. However, his imagism turns into a doctrine which is heavily indebted to the Symbolist- Impressionist way of thinking into an anti-Symbolist and anti-Impressionist area. So, the image can be defined simply as a direct treatment of the object either subjective or objective as Pound says; ‘‘to compose in sequence of the music phrase, not in sequence of a metronome’’. In other words, the image is a fusion of intensity and discipline, an equation for an emotion but not the verbal metaphor of a ‘thing’. Thus, the image can be described as a conceived content which does not provide a territory waiting for being explored. It is ‘a new focus’.
To highlight the importance of the usage of this ‘new focus’ and to get the crucial point better, Pound’s The Cantos worths being analyzed between lines. For Pound, writing The Cantos is a lifetime project. It is an incomplete poem in 120 sections, each of which is called as a ‘canto’. And Canto VII is one of the most difficult early cantos through which Pound gets into echoes of the classical and Renaissance world. In this section, he contrasts their forceful vitality within the words ‘‘fin de siècle languor’’ which he takes refuge in eclectic reading and residence in Mussolini’s Italy. Pound goes around empty rooms thinking of Henry James who acts as a Virgilian guide to him. We, here have a description of a man; ‘‘great domed head’’ and quotations from Dante with a reference to his manner of talking; ‘‘weaving an endless sentence’’ which Pound, himself is also doing. Many of Henry James’ characters are attached to the vitality of Italy and here Pound states how the decor of the world is overdone and left behind with its heavy paneling, dark oil paintings and false columns. That section has so touching, excellent words; ‘‘old men’s voices/ a shade too oiled/drinking the tone of things/ found us again’’ and some which are less; ‘‘touched with an imprecision/ buried beauty’’. Overall, there exists a falling tone through repetitions and a tired emptiness in surroundings. The rhythms in that section are similar with those Pound created for his another work but here, they are a little quieter. Many of the irregular lines just seem by this way; in fact they have their own patterns within themselves.
Our main concern here is the Imagist technique of having image served as content. At this section, we can realize four initial themes: a disembodied reference to ‘‘old men’s voices’’ which refers to memories of Henry James, passages of description associated with ‘‘old men’s voices’’ and a description of Pound’s own visit. Just by combining these simple themes, Pound makes his reflections a part of American refugee life. We are given ‘‘old men’s voices’’ drifting from the heavy setting which is possibly a direct reference to France or England, possibly Flaubert’s Paris and reminds us/Pound James who loves Italy so much and has spent extended times in Venice. James also gives way to his/ ‘‘an old voice weaving an endless sentence’’. We/Pound have also made ghostly visits to empty rooms which remind us James and his love of Italy.
Pound has the scene ‘speak’ to represent specific images in our minds and hardens a sense of objective reality through these images. Rhythm is ‘composed by the musical phrase rather than the metronome’. Because Pounds wants these rhythms to be part of characterization. The technique reminds us what a novelist does. However, the consecutiveness through flashbacks has been disregarded to gather past and present. And drawing characters stand for Pound’s own views. Though it seems as if an unsupported opinion on one side and privacy on the other, Pound is very successful at blocking it.
To sum up, we can get a conclusion by positive and negative aspects of Imagism. At the positive side; freedom to experiment, ignoring the traditional restrictions of verse, omitting the unnecessary, precise images, extended quotations and rhythmically beautiful passages can be counted. On the other hand, the negative sides are; randomness, the danger in usage of all historical characters as representatives of one’s own ideas (like Pound does) and open-ended nature. Anyway, what should always be kept in mind is that; meaning comes out of the play within images.