Gunshots in a private battle

Ezra Pound as Critic
June 23, 1995

If we were seeking authority for the proximity of modernist critical and poetic practices, we would most likely begin with T.S. Eliot's claim for "a significant relation between the best poetry and the best criticism of the same period". Less common would be Ezra Pound's earlier, and more useful, argument for the ways in which criticism "tries to forerun composition, to serve as gunsight".

It remains true that while we may nominate a place for Pound in the list of great 20th-century poet-critics, we tend not to use him as such, save on behalf of a general programme, usually non-poetic, that might yoke in an easy axiom along the lines of "there is no democracy in the arts". This situation is understandable: although Pound is an undeniably generous critic, his generosity is masked frequently by a tone that is acerbic, impatient and high-handed, refusing the patience of explanatory narrative (always, for Pound, an illusory affair) in favour of what he called "gists and piths" - largely uncontextualised gunshots in a private battle for civilisation. Pound's credo that "all criticism should be professedly personal criticism" stresses "professedly", a stress distinctively American, where criteria for judgement are analytically open rather than unquestioningly subjective. Here is the true grit of Pound's critical pronouncements and also, one suspects, the difficulty for their incorporation by the academy, since they are so insistently directed towards the work of composition itself - either in specific dicta (defining "beauty" as "aptness to purpose" or advising music as "excellent discipline for the writer of the prose", for example) or in those wonderfully pragmatic recognitions about literary history: "the sonnet was not a great poetic invention. The sonnet occurred automatically when some chap got stuck in the effort to make a canzone. His 'genius' consisted in the recognition of the fact he had come to the end of his subject matter."

For Pound, the act of criticism is an act of debate; but not a sinuous, discursive function of polite conversation - rather a contest, intemperately taking risks, offering innumerable hostages to fortune, following the American line of Whitman and Whistler in providing "points of departure" instead of "limits of circumscription". Action and use are his axes of reference in diagnosing what amounts to a critical hygiene, maintaining "the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself" within an effort of "getting the SUBJECT matter on to paper with the fewest possible folderols and anti-macassars". G. Singh's cleanly read monograph gives testimony to Pound's sense of criticism as a "struggle to find a terminology which will define something", a struggle that recognises the only "immoral" art as "bad" art - that failure to technique which falls short of "true witness".

Ian Bell is professor of American literature, University of Keele.

Ezra Pound as Critic

Author - G. Singh
ISBN - 0 333 59849 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £35.00
Pages - 176

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