New Selected Poems and Translations
by Ezra Pound
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
October 30, 2010, marks the 125th birthday of that utterly original American voice, Ezra Pound. Pound is equally renowned as poet, translator, essayist, and champion of previously unknown works. Included in the latter category would be the long poem "The Wasteland," by his good friend T. S. Eliot, which we'd not have today without Pound's tremendous efforts as an editorial midwife. So, there's much to celebrate on this august anniversary. Not least of which is the newly released New Selected Poems and Translations edited by Richard Sieburth and published by New Directions.
New Directions has consistently kept Pound in print for generations, publishing the first Selected Poems. Why the new edition, then? For one thing, Sieburth's labor of love is heavily annotated, a first in a volume this size. Pound is a notoriously difficult poet (as a friend said when I told him of this book, "Pound? You really have to work at him!"), and incorporates into his poetry countless allusions, both classical and contemporary, plus draws on a hefty vocabulary of ancient and foreign languages (including Italian, Medieval French, and Chinese) in order to make his point.
And a point there always is. Though sometimes that point is overtly political (and many of Pound's political poems are of a uniquely nasty flavor), his work also explores the nature of poetry, as well as its role and importance in human life and society. As he puts it in "Canto LIII,"
Tching prayed on the mountain and
wrote MAKE IT NEW
on his bathtub
day by day make it new
Experimenting with form and voice and drawing from myriad sources, Pound not only made it new, he created a body of work of breathtaking beauty, by turns majestic and sprightly, funny and solemn. Ezra Pound funny? Take this poem, "Ancient Music," as an example:
Winter is icummen in, New Selected Poems and Translations
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham,
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
, a volume that dwarfs its predecessor, goes light years towards providing an overview of the enormous breadth of Pound's work. It includes a hefty selection of early pieces, the entirety of the two splendid long poems "Homage to Sextus Propertius" and "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," and a mighty blast from the poet's masterwork The Cantos
What really stands out in this book, though, are the annotations. If, like me, you've always been intimidated by Pound's famously difficult language, take heart -- reading Sieburth's notes makes it much easier to approach the master in all of his glory. They are extensive and fascinating and provide true depth in discerning the original meaning. Sieburth obviously knows his stuff and proves very capable when it comes to sharing it with those of us who haven't made a life's work of studying Pound's writings.
Another real plus to this volume is the material in the appendices, which includes two introductions to earlier editions, one by T. S. Eliot and one by American poet John Berryman
. I found these highly illuminating and would recommend reading them before tackling the book as a whole.
In fact, I find that trying to read Pound cover to cover is a daunting task. Much easier and more rewarding would be to dip in and sip a little here and there; find something intoxicating, and run with it. Even with Sieburth's excellent notes, there's much that can feel over one's head, but it's more than worth an enthusiastic try. After all, this is the man who wrote "In a Station of the Metro":
of these faces
in the crowd:
on a wet, black
Happy Birthday, Mr. Pound.