Ezra Pound’s Poetry, Memory Backup-Files, & Finding Yourself In Words You Can’t Understand
“The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” – Hippocrates
I can’t remember who he is – this man who I am supposed to call “me”. It’s as if my heart were a book, and a good-many of the pages have been torn out, then replaced by others that tell a completely different story.
I’ve been sitting by a fake-woodstove in our garage reading Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos,(1) while I drink a new malbec wine, and feel the glare of Bruce Lee as he stares at me, knowingly.
Me: “I don’t remember who I am.”
Bruce: “What is ‘I’?”
The last two years of my life have been a study in upheaval. I’m not one who is unused to such turbulence, but there is only so much preparation a person can make for a Tsunami. Once the wave hits, you are bound to watch much of your life wash away into the dark-blue depths of the sea, never to return, destined to fade into distant memory.
Welcome To the Campus Of Hippos, Where Education Is Always Plastic
Ezra Pound has always been one of my favorite poets. Along with Eliot, Yeats, Neruda, Rilke, and Basho, Pound has burrowed himself deep into my psyche. Years of my life have been spent reading, studying, and shamelessly intimidating his work.
Most of your memories reside in the hippocampus, and this part the brain is remarkably plastic. Unfortunately, it is also overly sensitive to stress. When you go through sustained “hard times”(2) your neurons in the Campus of Hippos begin to atrophy – you lose memories.
Just how bad this situation is correlates with how bad the situation was – if you get my drift.
This helps to explain the phenomenon (that I’m sure you can relate to) of – after a hard, prolonged period of time – not being able to remember things (part of your life) as well as you used to, that were once always on the tip of your tongue.(3)
And yet, this experience is rarely permanent, thanks to the massive redundancies of the human brain (backups of backups). These backups exist, I’m sure, to provide a measure of safety in the highly-likely event that bad-times will happen periodically.
So while the old destructed neurons may be lost for good, you are more than capable of creating new ones to take their place. And since the information is something you can restore from a series of rather-groovy backups, the new neurons are sure to be packed with similar memories. How close these new memories are to the old ones is hard to say – and something for us to ponder, given the unreliability of memory as-is.
The point, is that as I sat here reading Pound, my mind was flush with (quite random) memories from the last two decades of my life – a life I lived on the other side of the country, far afield from the one I live now.(4)
It is as though the words on the page were able to scurry through my brain, to find all of the disparate chunks of information needed to reconstitute my old memories, and store them into a new file only just created specifically for this purpose.(5)
Poetry: Evidence Hell Exists
I hate poetry… because I love it.
Poetry has such a low barrier to entry (you need only to be able to write the words of your own language) that it is perhaps the most populated of all art forms. Therefore, the percentage of poets who are even tolerable, let alone decent is a number approaching zero.
And yet, among all the arts, the best poems from the best poets has provided my soul with its longest-lasting nourishment.
A World Without Glitter – Oh My!
Poetry may be the hardest of all art forms to get right.
If Art is the act of communicating what it feels like to be human (it is); then music, film, and theater certainly have the upper-hand. They combine all the tricks of neurological-stimulation, plus some. Prose-fiction and the visual arts come close for their own reasons.
But poetry (particularly that of the non-epic variety – and certainly Haiku) is so devoid of trickery that one is forced to rely on the essence of human experience, and to the most powerful appeals to Mind, to get ones audience to FEEL anything at all.
I’ve never felt that Ezra Pound was the best of the 20th-Century English poets – Yeats and Eliot are.(6) But, he was certainly the most adventurous.
Unlike the “Beat” poets, who were the literary equivalents to a punk band, Pound (like Picasso, in the visual arts) was a highly trained, and well-studied poet. He didn’t eschew the need for practice or knowledge, but rather understood that in order to forget something, you must first have learned it.(7)
Mastery vs Punk-Hicks
“Learn, so that you can forget.” – Zen saying.
Our culture now is a Punk-Hippie-Hick culture that wants to avoid – at all cost – what it takes to learn the “basics”, go beyond them, and develop true Mastery. We want results NOW, and can’t take the idea that to be good at anything WORTH getting good at, it will take a long time.
I am Pro-Punk ideology insofar as we allow ourselves to be free of the “letter of the law”, in favor of the “spirit of the law”, or even to develop better spirits for better laws. However, that is only possible when you actually learn how to play your fucking guitar!(8)
Universal Creole & The Entropy Of Translation
“The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.” – Ezra Pound
Whenever I pick Pound back up, open to a page, and begin to read, my first reaction is always, “What the fuck is going on?” It’s dense to put things lightly. He is the (unintentional) progenitor of an idea I have been promoting that I call Universal Creole – I will explain this in time, don’t worry!(9) – and that means he’ll include Kanji characters, Ancient Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Southern-American dialects, and others into his poems without a second thought (and without translation).
He always claimed that you did NOT need to know the translations of these words in order to “get” his work. The enjoyment had nothing to do with that. And to a degree, I think he was right. He just didn’t pull this off quite as well as Eliot. Then again, he took it further than any other poet in history. And there is some reason to believe that if we DID understand as many languages as he did – and at the level he did – we wouldn’t find this weird at all, but rather natural… even poetic!
Our ignorance may be the limiting factor in our enjoyment. And I applaud someone for not pandering to the ever-decreasing education level of Americans.
Despite my (apparent, but not conclusive) criticisms of Ezra Pound’s poetry, I love it. I have gotten decades of enjoyment out of it. I always find more to love the more I read through it. And I simply love the way he turns a phrase.(10)
Finding The “I” Through The “Eye”
I don’t know who I am. I don’t mean that to be flippant, but in the classically metaphysical sense. But I do know that part of what I am attached to – enough to give the name “I” to – is a collection of my memories about this person called “Nick”.
Among the fondest of my memories is – oddly enough – doing nothing but reading poetry.
The pages upon the book in my heart may be new, but the writing is quite familiar.
Now go lift something heavy,
- Any mention of Pound is bound to bring up his involvement during WWII on the wrong side, his eventual imprisonment for treason, and his potential racism. The trouble is that there is the perpetual problem that EVERYONE in pre-modern western culture (post-1970 or later) was a racist on some level (the world over, not just white people), a xenophobe extraordinaire, and a political moron believing in ideas that were truly bad for the human race. How many great writers and artists were pro-communism despite the horrors of the Soviets? I don’t have any grand illusions about Pound as the unique case of anti-racism. And there is little doubt that he went nuts at some point – right around the time he was broadcasting for the Fascists. However, these quotes by him lend some credence to the idea that he was finding a way to deal with it on some small level. “Race prejudice is red herring. The tool of the man defeated intellectually and of the cheap politician.”, OR, “One should not make the battle line on the edge of race”, OR, this quote from the Jewish poet Louis Zukofsky about Pound, “I never felt the least trace of anti-Semitism in his presence. Nothing he ever said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the ‘Goy’ in whom a residue of antagonism to ‘Jew’ remains. If we had occasion to use the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Goy’ they were no more or less ethnological in their sense than ‘Chinese’ and ‘Italian.” Are these conclusive? Hardly. But they are something interesting to ponder. We are forced to deal with these issues constantly. Jefferson (of all Americans!) owned slaves, for fucks sake. Caesar was a mass murderer of Germanic tribes. And, the Old Testament is FULL of stories of rape, murder, incest, slavery, and genocide on the part of the GOOD GUYS who we’re supposed to be learning positive life-lessons from?!. By these accounts, Pound was rather mild. That is NOT to excuse whatever idiotic views he may have had, or who he associated with. But it is to put things in proper perspective. Humans are shit, and it takes little to bring that out. Thus the need for practice, education, and non-emotion-based reason. [↩]
- that horribly ill-defined, yet horridly well-understood term [↩]
- I have always found the expression “tip of your tongue” rather interesting, and highly visual in a cartoon sort of way – imagining tiny books upon my tongue full of information in a language I can’t read. [↩]
- I love my life now. But it took a lot to get here. And, I certainly don’t want to repeat the process. [↩]
- It should be made clear that I don’t imagine that I’ve literally lost the memories I’m thinking of for the reasons I just suggested. Who knows why! I only relay the information about the Campus of Hippos as an image for its own sake, and because I find brains fascinating. [↩]
- In my opinion, and my opinion is right. [↩]
- Yes, I was once a college kid who read Howl, On The Road, and Naked Lunch (many times). But, none of their shit lasted. By the time I was past 25, I’d lost all interest in their brand of poetry & writing. Their profound lack of depth – like that in most modern music – makes sustainability impossible. In a word, it becomes boring. [↩]
- At learn how to TUNE your guitar, for the love of the Tao. [↩]
- At it’s core, Universal Creole is what I want us all to speak and write. Like Spanglish, but bigger and broader. Translation is subject to entropy – loss of meaning. If another language has a word that is more full than the translated version in our language, don’t translate, just use the original (e.g., we don’t translate “samurai” or “Zen”, we just use the Japanese words for them). Over time, I believe that humanity will do this without any forcing. We will all speak a hybrid language, developed via a process of natural evolution. I have a ton more to say on this topic. Stay tuned… [↩]
- As a writer, that last bit about turning-of-phrases is essential. I have spent my life studying exactly that, and reveling in the masters of it. Pound is certainly one of them. [↩]