No student of modernism, no lover of modern poetry, can avoid Ezra Pound, or the problem that is Ezra Pound. Although a notorious and enthusiastic booster of Mussolini’s Italian state during the Second World War, Pound’s influence over the shape and character of American literature in the early 20th century always seems to trump his regrettable, if not particularly surprising, politics. T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.D.—all are deeply indebted to Pound. His attempts to bridge Eastern and Western aesthetics are profound, and his own poetry, informed by his devotion to Chinese poetics and immersion in the European canon, comprises an often brilliant, generally intimidating body of work.
Over the course of five decades, during each of Pounds’ various phases—as literary impresario, language scholar, editor, and deeply controversial weirdo—he was hard at work on what became known as The Cantos, a long, loosely connected series of poetic chapters in English, Chinese, Italian that were published at various times in various forms. Pound’s travails as the author of this long and exceedingly difficult series may be the reward of a fool and his folly (as his colleagues thought) or the rocky, lonely path of genius, unappreciated in its time. I’m not sure I would recommend him as the latter, but I’ve often found not only his politics, but also his deliberate obscurity a stumbling block. And yet, there may be no substitute for hearing poetry read aloud, sometimes best by its author, who knows every nuance. At the top, hear Pound read “Canto I,” built of classical models on Anglo-Saxon scaffolding. Directly above, Pound reads from a chapter published almost ten years later. His voice is more ragged and quavering, and he rails against usury, a theme close to his often anti-Semitic economic theories. You can hear dozens more recordings of Pound, made from 1939 to the year of his death, 1972, at the Penn Sound archive. And also over at UBUweb.