Pounding away

An Immortality

Sing we for love and idleness,
Naught else is worth the having.

Though I have been in many a land,
There is naught else in living.

And I would rather have my sweet,
Though rose-leaves die of grieving,

Than do high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men’s believing.


-Ezra Pound


There are any number of reasons why TS Eliot would claim that Ezra Pound was the greatest poet of the 20th Century. To my mind, we can include the humility of  a person like Eliot not wanting to claim title to such an honor himself. Pound had no such compunction. I heard an interview with Pound where he claimed that by the thirteen (I believe it was) he’d decided to become the greatest American poet and that by twenty, the greatest poet of his age. The debate rages to this day about whom lays claim to that title. Eliot, whose English humility prevented him from choosing himself, would naturally quest for the greatest poet who was not himself. So, at the very least, if we think Eliot is the greatest poet of the 20th Century, we know he thought Pound was the second best poet.

Beyond this rationale, we can argue another point in favor of Pound. Eliot is read more often than Pound. As opposed to making Eliot more eligible for the title of greatest poet, hear me out about the opposite. As an historical average, never more than three percent of humanity regularly reads poetry. It has a small audience base. Pound is notoriously dense and obscure and difficult. In the Cantos, he wrote poetry to the history of Western man. Poems about medieval love and lore; about people few today outside of very learned historians would remember. This is part of his charm, in fact, and a part of my argument.

Pound went so far into the profession of poetry that, after he invented a style out of whole cloth, he pressed on and delved deeper. He never stopped moving forward. Pound wrote and wrote and wrote until there were so few who could read or understand him that he became an obscurity to all but those who shared his craft. If you read his Cantos, you will find need of several European languages as well as an understanding of written Chinese, for example.

Eliot was great. Eliot is more popular. Eliot is eminently more readable and understandable. If greatness is determined by these factors, Eliot wins without debate. But if we allow to vote only those qualified to have an informed opinion, we can at least admit the possibility that Pound will win. Viewed through this lens, I find Eliot’s choice of Pound as the greatest poet of his century to have the ring of a concession, not just humility. Knowing his craft, he can see in Pound’s writing things that mere readers cannot.

I would agree with Eliot. There are those who do and there are aficionados.  When those who do choose the best among them, we should take them at their word. They know, in a way we cannot, how challenging and difficult it is, what they are judging.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.