Personae by Ezra Pound

File this under the category of things I shouldn’t say aloud. Opinions I’ve been crucified (metaphorically) for having. I don’t like pie. Or free jazz. I don’t care for The Beatles. Salinger irks me. Not a fan of Junot Diaz. Still trying to figure out what is worth reading in Whitman. And Pound.

First section – untitled, “The Tree” to “Au Jardin”

“—the thing is banal.” Pound says to Williams of the fourth poem in Personae, and so far as I can tell it could stand to be said of almost all of the poems. Full of uninterestingly recycled Yeats and Swinburne, on trite and anticipatable themes, and in relatively flat language, I just don’t see what the point is. The composition seems studied, for certain, but that honed nature of it makes it soulless to me. As though these poems were composed by following formula, but all came out empty. What really surprises me about these is the diction, the “thy” and “-eth” and “-est” tacked on everywhere. Seems to be an attempt to elevate the relatively boring flat language into poetic diction, but sounds to my ear false and archaic, a gesture without substance. Also the occasional inverted syntax, which in other poets I don’t cringe at when it seems absolutely necessary for the rhythm and rhyme scheme. But here it just comes off twisted to no end. I mean, clearly it is to an end, its to some conforming impulse to either rhyme or meter, but it seems unnecessary, like some kind of affectation intended to make the lines sound more poetic. “But drink we skoal to the gallows tree!”

Ok, so it’s pretty clear by now that I’m not a fan of Pound. At least, not his own poetry. His translations, sometimes, are fabulous. Sometimes. The ones in this section are just more of the same, and this time in full on ABAB rhyme!

And as the book progresses a few interesting phrases start popping in. It’s almost as though reading all the unpublished (and dare I say unpublishable) poems that a poet has to write through to get to the occasional great one. There is, I allow, an occasional great one, but drowning in the sea of banality and tortured lines it’s hard to see.

I think part of what irks me is all the bombastic praising of idealized women – women that are merely their beauty, a mirror upon which Pound can reflect his verse. The simplistic praise, stuffed with hyperbole and poetic cliché, is clearly meant to evoke the ideals of courtly love. But why? I don’t understand why this would seem an interesting thing to do. It seems as though women, nature, heroes, dead poets, are just poetic themes that can be selected and composed upon without any kind of specificity or actual engagement. Foils for “prettily composed” but essentially empty verse.

I’ll admit the possibility of me mis-reading satire and parody as serious poetic intent. In fact, reading them aloud (a few, just to see), they seemed quite funny. Whether or not that’s their intent, and unfortunately I suspect not.

And this thing about it being revolutionary because he was breaking away from strict metrical form…it reminds me a bit of the Lyrical Ballads. A breaking without actually breaking. Pound returns to the very subjects (courtly love, Nature, Heroes, etc.) that the Lyrical Ballads broke away from, but without the meter. It seems strange, this backwards and forwards gesture.


This is where things get a bit more interesting for me. The strangeness of “A Girl” (which evokes the Apollo & Daphne myth to me), and the density of “The Seafarer” are far more interesting than anything that’s come before.  The shift in tone, in subject isn’t all, it’s a shift in the density and sonority of language. It makes me almost revise my earlier harsh condemnation.


And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.

This might seem like wisdom poetry of the lowest common denominator – in fact, many of the online interpretations I glanced through treat it that way: life goes by taken for granted, we can’t hold onto life, life is too short, too fast, etc. But that’s not what this says to me.  Not that we the readers ought to examine our own lives and make sure we’re ‘using our time fully.’ Here I find a genuine expression of wonder at the expanse of the world – the terrible excess of possibility, the expanse of life. Which may be is only a slightly different reading. Maybe I just like the image of the mouse in the grass…

Ok, so I couldn’t get through the rest of it. I tried, tried, tried, but found myself half of the time bored and half of the time offended by his sexism, misogyny,  inexcusable exoticizing reduction of other cultures, and self-important condescension. I’m glad to be leaving this fascist jerk behind, though I’m sure I’ll have to return to him again, someday. Like Whitman.

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