Writing in the devil’s metres

Faber has just published an important new edition of Ezra Pound’s poems. How did this man of repulsi

"How do you account for Ezra?" W B Yeats asked the poet Richard Aldington over spaghetti one evening in the northern Italian resort of Rapallo. "Here is a man who produces the most distinguished work and yet in himself is the most undistinguished of men." Aldington had no answer, though he thought accounting for Ezra was even more complicated than Yeats's neat antithesis suggested. For all Pound's gifts, his work was often "abrupt and barbarous", yet in spite of his "throwing down of fire-irons and sputtering of four-letter words", he could be "a pleasant companion and the most generous of men".

That was in 1928, but the question of accounting for Ezra, despite a fury of critical exegesis, has not yet been answered. He wrote some of the most lyrical and innovative poetry of the 20th century. He promoted and found funds for many significant writers, most notably James Joyce, T S Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, but also a range of others, from Marianne Moore to Basil Bunting. An ardent exponent of the craft of poetry, both in person and through his criticism, Pound the editor skilfully wielded what his fellow imagist H D called his "creative pencil" - not least in his inspired slashing of Eliot's Waste Land. He was one of the driving forces in the emergence of Anglo-American modernism and has arguably had more influence than any other writer of his day on succeeding generations of English-language poets, particularly in the United States.

But there was a darker side to Pound. It wasn't just that he could be cantankerous, abusive and dangerously sure he was right - faults that Yeats was probably thinking of that night in Rapallo. The shadow that still hangs over Pound's reputation is that of his uncritical admiration for Mussolini and Italian Fascism, and the anti-Semitism that he embraced as the Second World War approached. He later acknowledged the error of his anti-Semitism: Michael Alexander, in a moving account of visiting Pound in the 1960s when he had fallen into silence and despair, suggests he had finally come to understand what Fascism implied. But that he had held these views, and that they entered into parts of the Cantos, the vast work he spent 50 years writing, cannot be denied.

Pound was born in 1885 in the frontier town of Hailey, Idaho - "a half-savage country, out of date", as he put it in his 1920 poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" - but grew up in Wyncote, a suburb of Philadelphia. He claimed he knew by the age of 15 that he would be a poet, and he and his fellow UPenn student William Carlos Williams read and criticised each other's work. His first book of poems was a collection of typed pages hand-bound for his then fiancée, Hilda Doolittle (later HD). One of those poems, "The Tree", is still the lead poem in the latest edition of Pound's Selected Poems and Translations, edited and annotated by Richard Sieburth. It is a poem about Daphne's transformation into a tree, an Ovidian metamorphosis that Sieburth sees as the core theme of Pound's writings and translations, "the elusive persistence of identity within change".

The two poets who most influenced the young Pound were Yeats, for the musicality of his verse and his visionary imagination, and Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues bring to life figures of the past. "Make it new" is Pound's best-known injunction, not, as it is sometimes taken to be, an exhortation to concentrate on the modern, but instead to rediscover the past so it can speak to the present. "All ages," he wrote, "are contemporaneous."

Pound developed in these early poems the practice of creating "personae" or "masks of the self": the voice of a figure from the past who at the same time enacts a version or aspect of himself. Initially, they were wandering Provençal troubadours; later ones, also often wanderers or exiles, include the Anglo-Saxon "Seafarer", the Chinese poet Li Po, the Latin writer Prop­ertius and Odysseus, whose voice (in Pound's translation of a Latin translation from the Greek) begins the Cantos by ritually calling up the souls of the dead.

Pound came to England in 1908 at the age of 22, nearly penniless and almost friendless, determined to find "Bill Yeats" and to learn all he had to teach him about being a poet. Though regarded as eccentric, he was taken up by salon hostesses and praised by established literary figures, including Yeats. He met other young poets and artists, among them T E Hulme, Wyndham Lewis and F S Flint, who were alert to the artistic changes going on in Europe. By his fifth book of poetry - Ripostes (1912), which John Berryman describes, in a fascinating essay republished in the new selection, as "the volume with which modern poetry in English may be felt to have begun" - he had found the finely honed, elliptical style that he called "imagist".

Imagism, which seemed to reject all established conventions of verse, disturbed his more conservative admirers ("devil's metres", said Yeats, though he for one didn't lose faith in Pound's poetry). But when Pound and Wyndham Lewis put together Blast, the iconoclastic, anti-bourgeois mouthpiece of the vorticists - the first issue of which appeared with disastrous timing just weeks before the First World War was declared - he moved beyond the pale, for many, as patriotism rose rapidly in Europe.

Although his poignantly beautiful volume of translations from the Chinese, Cathay (1915), was widely praised, Pound from then on found it almost impossible to publish his prose in Britain. Even Charles Elkin Mathews, the publisher who had first recognised his gifts as a poet, insisted on censoring his 1916 collection, Lustra. With the death of his friend and fellow vorticist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound became convinced that capitalism starved artists in peacetime and killed them in war, and that war was caused by the greed of bankers and their relentless usury. When in 1918 A R Orage, editor of the New Age, introduced him to C H Douglas and the idea of "social credit", he was set on the path which led him to believe that Mussolini's Fascism could establish an alternative to capitalism that would allow the arts to flourish.

Pound left Britain in 1920 for Paris, where he became interested in Dadaism and wrote an opera, but, dissatisfied once more, moved on to Rapallo in 1924, continuing to work on his epic, which he described as "a poem containing history", largely that of Italy, America and China. He became increasingly a proponent of Confucian order, though his own bizarre private life - he spent his days with his wife, Dorothy, and his evenings with the violinist Olga Rudge - scarcely reflected that. His admiration for Mussolini had been based on the conviction that Il Duce was against war, but even after the invasion of Abyssinia, Pound refused to see what was happening. When war broke out, he made his notorious, febrile broadcasts to America, trying to persuade the US not to fight the Fascists.

In 1945 Pound was arrested by the Americans and held at the prison camp in Pisa, spending some weeks in an open-air wire cage. Out of that experience came the wonderful Pisan Cantos - at once diary, memories, an evocation of the natural world around him, sorrow and vision. After he had been indicted for treason, found unable to stand trial for reasons of insanity and confined to an asylum, he was controversially awarded the first Bollingen Prize for the Cantos in 1949. He continued to work on the Cantos, still incomplete when he was released from hospital in 1958. They would never be finished, but the Drafts and Fragments contain some of his most moving lines as he struggled with depression, self-doubt and remorse, on the one hand, and, on the other, a conviction that there was a truth in his vision of a natural world of harmony and light: "A blown husk that is finished/but the light sings eternal/a pale flare over marshes/where the salt hay whispers to tide's change".

Sieburth's selection of the poems brings together early and late works, poetry and translations (though Pound's translations are always at the same time original poems); and his notes will be invaluable for readers in elucidating Pound's eclectic body of references. This publication suggests, and will undoubtedly aid, renewed interest in the work of this difficult, arrogant, agonised and superbly gifted writer.

Helen Carr's most recent book is "The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H D and the Imagists" (Jonathan Cape, £30)

“Selected Poems and Translations of Ezra Pound (1908-69)" is published by Faber & Faber (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt