Ezra Pound’s Fiery 1939 Reading of His Early Poem, ‘Sestina: Altaforte’

In this rare record­ing from 1939, Ezra Pound gives a pas­sion­ate read­ing of his ear­ly work about a war­mon­ger­ing 12th cen­tu­ry trou­ba­dour, a poem called “Ses­ti­na: Altaforte.”

The poem was writ­ten in ear­ly 1909, when Pound was an ambi­tious 23-year-old Amer­i­can liv­ing in Lon­don. At that time Pound was in the habit of spend­ing hours every day por­ing over books in the British Muse­um read­ing room.

“I resolved that at thir­ty I would know more about poet­ry than any man liv­ing,” wrote Pound, “that I would know the dynam­ic con­tent from the shell, that I would know what was account­ed poet­ry every­where, what part of poet­ry was ‘inde­struc­tible,’ what part could not be lost by trans­la­tion, and–scarcely less impor­tant what effects were obtain­able in one lan­guage only and were utter­ly inca­pable of being trans­lat­ed.”

In pur­suit of this goal, Pound “learned more or less of nine for­eign lan­guages.” Among those was Occ­i­tan, or Langue d’oc, the lan­guage of the medieval trou­ba­dours. Pound had become fas­ci­nat­ed with the trou­ba­dours while studing romance lit­er­a­ture at Hamil­ton Col­lege and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. One fig­ure who espe­cial­ly intrigued him was Bertran de Born, the late-12th cen­tu­ry noble­man, war­rior and trou­ba­dour who was immor­tal­ized by Dante Alighieri in Can­to XXVIII of the Infer­no as one of the sow­ers of dis­cord in Cir­cle Eight, con­demned to be hacked to pieces over and over again for his role in foment­ing a quar­rel between King Hen­ry II of Eng­land and his sons Richard II (the “Lion­heart”) and Prince Hen­ry. In John Cia­rdi’s trans­la­tion of the Infer­no, Dante describes the hideous fig­ure of Bertran, his head cut off for the sin of sow­ing dis­cord between kins­men:

I saw it there; I seem to see it still–
a body with­out a head, that moved along
like all the oth­ers in that spew and spill.

It held the sev­ered head by its own hair,
swing­ing it like a lantern in its hand;
and the head looked at us and wept in its despair.

It made itself a lamp of its own head,
and they were two in one and one in two;
how this can be, He knows who so com­mand­ed. 

Pound would even­tu­al­ly trans­late sev­er­al of Bertran’s sur­viv­ing poems, but he found it dif­fi­cult. He decid­ed first to write his own poem in the voice of Bertran, incor­po­rat­ing blood­thirsty images from the medieval poet­’s own verse and set­ting the new poem in the 12th cen­tu­ry Ses­ti­na form, which orig­i­nat­ed with the trou­ba­dours of south­ern France. In his essay “How I Began,” Pound recalls the com­po­si­tion of “Ses­ti­na: Altaforte”:

I had De Born on my mind. I had found him untrans­lat­able. Then it occurred to me that I might present him in this man­ner. I want­ed the curi­ous invo­lu­tion and recur­rence of the Ses­ti­na. I knew more or less of the arrange­ment. I wrote the first stro­phe and then went to the Muse­um to make sure of the right order of per­mu­ta­tions, for I was then liv­ing in Lang­ham Street, next to the “pub,” and had hard­ly any books with me. I did the rest of the poem at a sit­ting. Tech­ni­cal­ly it is one of my best, though a poem of such a theme could nev­er be very impor­tant.

The Ses­ti­na is a com­plex form with 39 lines (six stan­zas of six lines each fol­lowed by an envoi of three lines) all end­ing with one of six words that are grouped togeth­er in each stan­za. For “Ses­ti­na: Altaforte,” Pound chose the words “clash,” “crim­son,” “oppos­ing,” “rejoic­ing,” “music” and “peace.” The images of clash­ing swords and crim­son blood earned Pound’s poem the nick­name “Bloody Ses­ti­na.” It was the first of his poems to make it into Ford Mad­dox Huef­fer­’s pres­ti­gious Eng­lish Review. When Pound recit­ed the poem in 1909 at a gath­er­ing of poets at a Lon­don restau­rant, he report­ed­ly put so much pas­sion into his per­for­mance that “the table shook and cut­lery vibrat­ed in res­o­nance with his voice.”

That same pas­sion can be heard in the record­ing above, made thir­ty years lat­er when Pound was vis­it­ing Amer­i­ca for the first time in 28 years. It was record­ed on May 17, 1939 in the Wood­ber­ry Poet­ry Room at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. For dra­mat­ic effect, Pound accom­pa­nied him­self on a ket­tle­drum. To read the words of “Ses­ti­na: Altaforte” as you lis­ten to Pound’s voice, click here to open the text in a new win­dow. And to hear all of Pound’s 1939 record­ings you can vis­it the Wood­ber­ry Poet­ry Room’s online lis­ten­ing booth or go to PennSound, where you can hear those record­ings and many more by Pound.

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