FORGOTTEN BOOKS #20: THE POUND ERA By Hugh Kenner

Hugh Kenner, once considered one of the great literary critics (now forgotten), wrote an amazing work on poet Ezra Pound (nearly forgotten). The Pound Era is completely unique. It’s part biography, part intellectual history, and part literary analysis. Readers of this great work learn about the culture of the early 20th Century, the literary scene, and Ezra Pound’s influence on the ethos of the time. Kenner brings his vast knowledge of literature, philosophy, sociology, and psychology to bear on Pound and his era. This classic work is well worth rediscovering, reading, and pondering. I highly recommend all of Hugh Kenner’s works, but The Pound Era is in a class of its own.

14 thoughts on “FORGOTTEN BOOKS #20: THE POUND ERA By Hugh Kenner

  1. David Cranmer

    According to the sometimes reliable Wikipedia: The critic Hugh Kenner said of Pound upon meeting him: “I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the center of modernism.”
    Interesting quote and I find Pound intriguing though I disagree with much of his politics. He’s still a colossal talent that shouldn’t be forgotten. I recommend reading Hemingway’s take on Pound in A Moveable Feast and it’s second only to his infamous thoughts on F. Scott.

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      You’re right about Pound being a colossal talent, David. But he was also nutty as a fruit cake. Kenner captures the whole, bizarre story in THE POUND ERA.

      Reply
  2. Patti Abbott

    As a history major in college, I wanted to go on to study intellectual history. A Moveable Feast is my favorite Hemingway book. Hemingway trashed everyone including Sherwood Anderson to the extent his reputation never recovered. Read the reissue of Scott Berg’s Max Perkins for more on this stuff.

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      I almost became an intellectual history major, but turned to business and education instead. But I never lost my love for intellectual history and THE POUND ERA is a sterling example of one of the classic books in that field.

      Reply
  3. Jim Perrin

    I think for anyone interested in modernism The Pound Era is a must read, and it’s highly entertaining and informative, full of fresh, vivid insight. What is also good about it, and it’s as seminal as Pound himself, is how Kenner brings to light and discusses so many of the personalities that Pound was involved with, such as Eliot, Lewis, Joyce, Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, Yeats, et al. Even Nancy Cunard, he just knew everybody worth knowing.

    For instance, I didn’t know of Eliot’s view that all literature, and all art too, forms a simultaneous whole, an idea derived from the “Tradition and the Individual Talent” essay in Selected Essays, 1917-1932. Kenner titles the chapter he presents this idea in in a marvelous way, “Space Capsules,” implying the individual artist is in touch with and can affect all art we have a record of. The artist, realistically, as time traveller, touching ancient masterpieces, such as the Altamira cave paintings, altering them because he or she can change our perception of them. Thought is all, the space capsule. the way out of the modern labyrinth, ole hall of the double-ax, with all its superabundant, apparently insurmountable complexities. Free yore mind, and you know what they say in the movie “Platoon.”

    That’s real time travel, and I believe it, which makes the fake, artificial and highly contrived time travel of the English novelist Colin Wilson in “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which he, Wilson, bragged about as being the definitive time traveller story, look like pulp fiction, your maiden aunt’s idea of time displacement, and thoughtless and self-indulgent as well. Oh well, each to their own version of tripping thru the time zone.

    But that’s just an example of the thought-filled and worthwhileness of The Pound Era, which like Ezrauniversity, is either a kind of museum, of the muses, or an education in itself. Indispensible, a great read. If I had only ten books to take to the moon with me, this would be one because of its inexhaustibility of thought, insight, and useful, relevant ideas.

    Thank you for reading this,

    Jim Perrin

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      You make plenty of good points, Jim. Ezra Pound remains a complex figure in 20th Century literature. Some of his work endures. His economic theories are interesting, but flawed. Pound, in his own words is “news that stays news.”

      Reply
  4. Jim Perrin

    George, thank you for your kind comments, let’s continue the discussion.

    First, I’m embarassed about a couple of mistakes, and I will try to keep this short, as I know your time is valuable. Sure, it’s “Ezraversity” not “Ezrauniversity,” heavens I can be a little dull-witted and rather immelodious. Definitely not le mot juste! And, of course the chapter in TPE is “Space Craft,” not “Space Capsules.” You were actually more than kind not to point these obvious errors out. Sorry, try to do better.

    In this regard I can’t help but think of Ez’s comment in I guess Polite Essays and definitely in From Confucious to Cummings that a measure and trace of a culture’s and country’s health and well being is how effectively the language is being used. Without it, he says, the generals cannot command, the judges cannot judge, the preachers cannot preach, and most certainly, the writers cannot write. It is a holy office, the writer, as JJ writes, and to demean the good King’s English is truly some sort of moral crime I believe and worthy of jail. Because writers violate a sacred trust when they do not write well. And shame on them when they don’t. So hang that head Jim!

    I myself keep a list in my head of writers that abuse language, make, specifically a subject verb agreement error, and so far my list is 4: Wyndham Lewis, p 108, Men Without Art, Carl Sagan, p 4, The Dragons of Eden and also Jacob Bronowski in the Ascent of Man, p 24, and an Oxford don, Jeri Johnson, on p 204 in The Cambridge Companion to JJ. I feel like a do a public service to point these out.

    What would it look like for a Nobel winner in lit to begin his acceptance speech in Stockholm with. “We be very happy to receive these these days”? So Nobel laureates can’t give acceptance speeches either. And, don’t forget, The Dragons of Eden won the non-fiction Pulitzer Prize. What’s the world coming to?

    I agree with all yu say in your short missive. I know I’m already running over, so I’ll try for just two more quick comments. First another sterling attribute of TPE is on p 34 when HK notes how JJ’s “Eveline” is not, as is noted on the notoriously inaccurate Wikipedia, a matter of a paralyzed, scared girl missing the opportunity of her life to get out of the drudge situation she’s in. Rather, she intuits, couldn’t verbally express her fears if you asked her, that “Frank” is an ironic name. As HK points out readers of the Irish Homestead in 1904 would know there is no packet to Buenos Aires. And HK also appropriately points out that noted JJ scholar and villa owner throughout Europe Anthony Burgess in Re: Joyce makes the same one-time reader mistake as the Wikipedia. Good shot. Sometimes being an expert is just a name, a title, like the Pope. Or writer, professional or otherwise.

    Lastly, before I drive to distraction with my length, I have a comment on those who assail EP for his political opinions, which they rightly should, to some degree. But shouldn’t it be for all, and my example is Thomas Pynchon who, after praising MF Beal, author of Amazon One, about the Weathermen, in Gravity’s Rainbow now has people like the ace bomb thrower the Kielsguhr kid in Against the Day. To me it’s like the Turner Diaries that helped convince Timothy McVeigh to kill innocent men, women and children. TP advocates strongly Anarchism, complete with violence. While he sits in his comfortable home in New York enjoying getting his thru the system, like Hemingsay. I consider him, TP, an immoral writer, justifying the means for the ends, but nobody ever takes him to task on it.

    What do you think? Thanks for the opportunity to chat,

    Jim

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      Jim, I think you’re right about Ezra Pound as an essayist. I find Pound’s essays thought-provoking. My interest in Pound centers around his translations and his economic models. Sadly, Pound’s actions during WWII have colored his legacy, both personal and literary.

      Reply
  5. Jim Perrin

    Well, George, thank you for your reply. I would be interested in a few comments about his translations and economic theory, of which I profess ignorance. I know his translations, like practically everything he did, are controversial due to his rather free form, his effort to make them beautiful and poetic to us at the expense of a literal transcription. But isn’t this the case for every translation?

    I know even less about his economic theory, such as the “social credit” thing, but I like the idea because it reminds us that the subjects of poetry and art are everything within experience, no limitations as to what you can say or dishcuss, free speech for artists, and therefore, everybody. And I like the idea of him taking it, the subject, on also due to the famously dull nature of econ. I found the econ class in college I took to be actually one of the most interesting classes I took. So there, it ain’t so, which Ez reminds us. He should be given credit for the mere attempt.

    If Ez is saying that everybody that can work and wants to has a right to a job, same as free speech and property, I agree, particularly in these hard times. It’s that basic because duh without money life is impossible, at least for me because I haven’t learned to live off the land in the mountains yet, and I doubt I ever will. It’s like a rope around your neck without a job, which I currently don’t have. It’s murder pure and simple, and curiously the only two guys I know–along with Vonnegut in “Good-bye Mr Rosewater”– of that consider a person as a mere money-making entity in toto, which is what we are, are EP and Marx.

    It’s criminal and a crime not to have a job, something, digging ditches, but I don’t know who to sue or ask the police to arrest due to violation of my rights, civil rights having been uncivilly taken away. So I would be intrigued as to what you have to say, or think about what I’ saying. Perhaps I’m off base, perhaps people who lose their job or can’t get one do deserve to die, it’s survival of the fittest and I must not be fit enough, natural law and the law of the jungle.

    Lastly, I have to sit up and pay attention that EP is not the only guy one can charge with immorality, which one surely can, and another guy that could possibly be accused of that is Thomas Pynchon, who clearly and repeatedly advocates violence, relishes in it, wallows in it. He makes assassination romantic and righteous. He glorifies it though no one seems to notice. It’s OK. My point would be all should be judged the same. And EP was just immoral in his political opinions. With TP it’s right there on paper, making it worse, I think, because now we have what I believe to be heinous and evil masquerading as art.

    I had a perfessor, John Krafft by name, a good German name, seig heil mein fuhrer, editor of the famed Pynchon Notes, agree in email correspondences upon questioning (or interrogation, if you choose, George, sorry) that, heck, he felt the same way, if one doesn’t like a politico, and by inference anybody, blow him or her away. Well, fine and good, it’s free speech, not criminal behavior to advocate violence, but do you agree, could you support any person or group that advocates such?

    I could not, not believing the ends justifies the means, never will agree with that. I’ve known too many people like that and I, to say the least, do not respect them as some sort of self-serving motivation inevitably pops up, not very pure or thoughtful people in my opinion. They are simpletons (in my perhaps purblind pitiful view). And kinda, sorta evil and frightening, at least they scare me. Yes, old, ancient, scholerly John Krafft scares me, I’m terrified of the man because he’s amoral and admits it. Chills. Shivers.

    There’s been certainly no comment on TP I’ve ever heard or read that takes him to task, so I can only suppose people justify it as art. EP is not OK. TP is. I beg you to differentiate them. What’s the diff? Next email, I promise I’ll get off my TP bee in my bonnet and get back to that great book TPE.

    Thanks for the chance to chat,

    Jim

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      Without getting into the complex economic thought of Ezra Pound, Jim, I can say Pound insisted everyone had worth. His social credit scheme was one way to recognize that belief in a real and material fashion. Kenner does a nice job explaining the entire economic project, much better than I can. As for advocating violence, I must disagree. Violence rarely solves anything. Negotiation and compromise are what generally solve problems. Violence appeals to many people because it seems like an easy solution. That’s why countries resort to the War Card so quickly. But as we’ve found out in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, violence doesn’t deliver on those easy promises.

      Reply
  6. Jim Perrin

    George, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree everyone has worth, and I appreciate your interpreting ep that way for me. It cannot be said enough that ep had a heart of gold beneath a gruff exterior, give one the shirt off his back. As I am fond of thinking, there would be no jj without ep’s aid in getting a portrait published. As Joyce stated,he owed pound everything. If there were a prize for advancing the cause of 20th century lit, he ‘d win it. Not a selfish bone in the bod.

    I have. A .mixed report this missal on TPE. And EP, but I think the positive coms out on top, as it always does with good books. First, the part on sound in ” mots el son” is interesting, especially 86-90. I never thought about how important separating words is, to make them clear and distinct. HK uses the excellent example of symons “I am the torch she saith” which EP quotes in the. Cantos (as we know, as Arthur saiith). So good job. Anyone listening to a foreign language knows words there run into each other. And good that EP can alliterate in “the seafarer,” as Symons line actually does too, as another way to sonorate. As HK says on 86 ” nothing but artisticness gathering up (sic) its skirts.”. Wonderful, if you can cut words and repeat at the same time.

    Second I have a small complaint for both HK and EP (actually Canto 20) on p 112. HK translates “quasi tinnula,” in canto 20, as “little bell” while we can prefer Terrell’s “as if ringing.”. And HK likes EP’s “sound slender” from the same canto, same section (close reading, more needed). But EP repudiates a prime imagist tenet of his, that there be no misplaced adjectives, such as “mosses dank” (why he hated Milton, as we know). Doing this, stilting an adjective, does repeat the s/nd pattern in a subsequent phrase, but woudn’ t it also be repeated if the adjective was placed before the noun? (makes no sense)

    Sound slender is just the opposite, drawing attention to itself as it does (to no effect); it’s a thick sound. And HK goes along, brilliant he says. I disagree, but quasi tinnula, despite HK’s translation, is the thing it says it is, more than making up. And learning, because of EP and HK, that the Latin for bell is tintinabula, again the thing it says it is, is another plus. Who could not be for art gathering its skirts, in both prize epic poems and the commonest of everyday words: quasi tinnula, from Catullus’ girlfriend’s voice (I am the torch) and tin tinnabula. Accurate rendering of reality as well as good sound: many women do have bell-like voices, female quasi tintinabula (but don’t tell them that unless you want to get slapped or you are Catullus or a Provençal troubadour).

    The Cantos, and TPE, are about sex (but don’t tell anyone, especially a young person, that EP and HK are using sex magick, like Alister Crowley). AC and EP both believed that artistic endeavor was actuated by a semen-like substance secreted through the male body (but tell no one, it would just make matters worse for EP’s already damaged reputation).

    The echoes of meaning, sexual or,otherwise, through the binding of language, by natural observation, scientific method even, are excellent in both TPE and EP. Who says it doesn’t cohere (except in the tiny, discrete particles we are discussing)? It coheres through natural observation.

    What do you think George? (God bless)

    Jim

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      Jim, I’ve been spending part of this summer reading Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (Library of America). If you don’t have this edition, you really should look at it. As much as I love Pound’s Cantos, my admiration of Pound’s translations and other poetry is growing. Much of the work in this volume bears rereading (and rereading!).

      Reply

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