Tuesday, December 05, 2006

From One Old Coconut to Another

I checked out Ezra Pound’s Cantos the other day. I had read excerpts a long time ago, and didn’t understand them and didn’t like them. Mind you, I did not not like them because I didn’t understand them. I both did not like and did not understand. I thought, however, that age might have changed things. I had recently had dinner with a retired English professor who talked lovingly of Williams’ relation to Pound and H. D. at Penn, and had had coffee with a critic with a more peevish claim that Paterson was just a watered down attempt at the Cantos. After giving the Cantos another go, however, it seemed to me a high-class form of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t like it for the same reason I don’t like Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Roddenbery’s Star Trek.
In his autobiography, Williams is generous with Pound (even though Williams’ descriptions, contrary to his assertions, give us the sense that his dear buddy Ez was a bit of a nightmare). Yet, Williams' assessment of Eliot’s The Wasteland—“the great catastrophe to our letters” (146)—is more to the general point: “There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot’s genius which gave the poem back to the academics” (146). I would like someone to school me as to Pound’s place in this description: part of the work that staggered to a halt, or a return to the academic, Eurocentric tradition that Eliot saved from the trash heap? Perhaps both. In the Cantos, there are some interesting sea and sailing images, which I always like; spars against the vast blankness of the ocean remind us what poetry does, degree zero. Williams chooses the river, instead. And he gravitates towards the close at hand:

[T]he critics would have it that I, the poet, am not profound and go on with their profundities, sometimes affecting to write poems in their very zeal as thinkers. It all depends on what you call profound. For I acknowledge it would, in dealing with man and city, require one to go to some depth in the form for the purpose.
The thinkers, the scholars, thereupon propound questions upon the nature of verse, answering themselves or at least creating tension between thoughts. They think, and to think, they believe, is to be profound. A curious idea, if what they think is profitable to their thinking they are rewarded—as thinkers.
But who, if he chose, could not touch the bottom of thought? The poet does not, however, permit himself to go beyond the thought to be discovered in the context of that with which he is dealing: no ideas but in things. The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity. The thought is Paterson, to be discovered there. (Autobiography of WCW 390-91)

(Pound’s pet-names for Williams: My Old Coconut, Bull, Bullll, My Dear Old Sawbukk von Grump, Ole Son, WillYam, Willyum the Wumpus.)

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Blogger Jonathan said...

Pound was deeply involved in the creation of the Wasteland, part of its process of 'interpenetration and metamorphosis' as Eliot called it. The thing I find quite depressing about the Wasteland is that it is obviously influenced by so much. It is the 'obvious' part that bores me. I should think this is what the 'Old Coconut' Williams riled against also.

3:19 PM, December 06, 2006  
Blogger Joe Milutis said...

Way back in college when I read the Wasteland for Freshman English lit, and everybody was crooning over it, I had the feeling something was amiss. I just didn't like it, didn't like that it was dependent on so much reference. And I was probably the only one in the class who was reading both Latin and Greek lit in the original, so it wasn't like I was the barbarian at the gates, watching 3s Company on my lunch breaks and rolling my eyes as an over-earnest grad student tried to argue for the validity of literature. No. I was passionate for this stuff. But there was "great" literature which I just thought was not so hot. Same problem I've had with Joyce's Ulysses and I've read the whole thing twice (I like FWake because it devolves more into the language itself) even though I appreciate a lot of what Joyce is instigating. That's why I love Beckett--the purity, with referentiality like a light perfume--as Joyce's logical extension. And probably why you couldn't pay me to read DFWallace's _Infinite Jest_. For the longest time, I had a really bad idea of "modernism" because of this type of literary modernism (barring people like Woolf and Yeats who I loved early on) that is familiar to most. And of course, there was a lot of obligatory modernist-bashing in the 80s which I was influenced by. It was only when I was studying with Herb Blau in the 90s that I discovered that other modernism that hearkens back to the primal that Williams alludes to. Artaud is probably the patron saint of that scene.

4:07 PM, December 06, 2006  
Anonymous paul said...

Pound's positioning in relation to Williams and Eliot is something I've been gnawing on recently myself, so I really appreciate this post. I for one don't have any real answers, but I picked up a book by Pound's I'd never heard of before, "Guide to Kulchur," which, tho I've merely had time to browse and not yet read, seems to have more of the thrust and materiality of Williams' version of history found in "In the American Grain" and less of the brooding solemnity of Eliot. I need to read them together to see if this suspicion is confirmed, so I could be wrong.

4:20 PM, December 08, 2006  
Blogger Joe Milutis said...

tell me what you find, and if you have any juicy quotes, please post.

4:07 PM, December 09, 2006  

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