"A candid judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ"
I confess that the poet I find most moving, brilliant and technically perfect is Ezra Pound. The "Cantos" were the most ambitious poetic project undertaken by one person in about 500 years, and they're probably an ambitious failure. But within them is great poetry, once you pick it out from the bad history and worse economic theory. And even without the "Cantos," his early poems are lovely and disturbing, very old and very new all at once.
He's not the politically correct choice. The later Pound is a crank, but he had a right to be. He saw the best of his generation blasted and gassed in the trenches of World War I, and then once the war cleared the field, he watched mediocre but active minds grab all the prizes, the teaching posts and publishing contracts, often making their reputation by imitating Pound and others who stuck to their art and starved for it. After that war, he lived among a literary public so revolted by carnage that it turned its back on the heritage of Western Civilization (a term that, even now, has a faintly 19th century academic tinge). But that learning was at the root of all that Pound new. He arrived at maturity with the skills of a great poet, only to find his audience half-slaughtered, half-disgusted. So he wrote for the dead, for the generation that should have been, and for whatever hope he had that the future would find the path again.
And he sat shiva over the corpse of the literary tradition, to shoo away the vultures. One of the juiciest bits of lit crit I've read is Pound's review of Laurence Binyon's mediocre translation of Dante. Binyon was the older man, but Pound had been studying early Italian verse for 23 years by this time (1934), and he could afford to be generous. He starts by dismissing other critics of Binyon because their criticisms show that they know even less about Dante than the translator. Then he marks up Binyon's work like a freshman essay, often generously noting a well-chosen word, but rebuking swiftly and severely when the translator entirely misses the point of a passage.
"The younger generation may have forgotten Binyon's sad youth, poisoned in the cradle by the abominable dogbiscuit of Milton's rhetoric." (E.P. in "The Criterion" April 1934) He beheads the man, examines the head dispassionately and finds much to praise in it, then generously hands it back to him. He did not have to be so kind, and often, in later years, he wasn't. He loved Dante. He knew men and women who could write translations of Dante that would leap from the page, and knew they would have to borrow money from friends to publish, and that if they did, no one would sell the results.
But he also knew that we would be back to these things again. He must have known some god or goddess had given him a clear view of the landscape, and that there was more beauty in it than he could show the rest of us in a lifetime. Pound, 1885-1972. Louis Armstrong, 1901-1971. Both left their disciplines dotted with little signs that read, "dig here." Jazz musicians are still catching on to what Armstrong laid down in the '20s. I think Pound is terribly underrated as a translator, though this, too, is a minority opinion. He did not translate word-for-word, but idea-for-idea. Pedants find much fault with him, but I somehow feel closer to the original mind, whether it's Li Po or the "Seafarer" poet or Arnaut Daniel or Sextius Propertius, reading Pound's homage to them than I do reading a more linguistically accurate rendition by an academic with a tin ear.
His political and racial views are deplorable. I can deplore Pound's politics and still adore his poetic genius. It doesn't intrude or pollute to the degree that people who have never read him seems to assume it does. It seems to me to intrude less in his major poems, in fact, than it does with Eliot. ("Rachel nee Rabinovitch" ... "And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner" -- two of my favorite Eliot poems, by the way.) Anyway, I can get a lifetime of pleasure from John Lennon's love songs and at the same time deplore the way he treated the women in his life, and the art and the life hew a lot more closely in that case. If you write off everyone who was seduced by Mussolini in the 1920s and '30s, you throw out an awful lot -- Rilke, for instance. Fascism was one of humanity's disastrous wrong turns, but some essentially decent people arrived there by a trajectory that leads back through World War I, the 19th century, and beyond, and the path they took made it seem like a viable future at the time. You don't have to agree with them to understand them and accept their mistake. Italian fascism was brutal and criminal, but it was not the same thing as German National Socialism (or as French or Croatian fascism, etc.). At any rate, it is a very different thing to declare oneself a fascist in 1926 than it is to do so today, or any time after 1945.
And I don't recall hearing of Pound being praised by modern-day skinheads or his works read aloud at KKK cross-burnings. His devotees and followers have been decidedly un-fascist people like Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olsen, Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, some of the really generous souls of our time. I think Pound can be read safely by a modern, thinking person. Hemingway had him figured out: "Ezra was right half the time, and when he was wrong, he was so wrong you were never in any doubt about it."
I also don't agree with those who think Pound read "Finnegans Wake" and thought, "Gee, that's dense, but I bet I can write something denser." "The Cantos" were the culmination of a life of reading, thinking, and learning. They are obscure and complex not because the author set out to make them so, but because there was no other way to say what he had to say. And they reward the effort required to penetrate the tangle of sources. Any effort that leads you through the sumptuous gardens of Anglo-Saxon verse, Greek mythology, the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, and Chinese philosophy can't be a total waste of time. Pound had a bee in his bonnet about economics, but then perhaps he was performing an ancient and important poetic function in calling the attention of the people to this force. I don't think it's possible to under-estimate the role of money and debt in shaping the world of the 20th century. I'm just reading something by Christopher Hitchens (who has more than an ounce of Pound in him) wherein I find the statement, "We owe a great deal to the apparent elitists, such as Machiavelli or Houdini, who by studying arcane information and practice and then by making their findings public, contributed to demystification." At any rate, I don't find I can dismiss Pound because he wove his poetry from his own intellectual life any more than I can dismiss a poet who grounds his or her work on personal emotional experience or spiritual devotion.
The publishing house New Directions has done a heroic job of keeping Pound in print, with some 30 titles by or about him in its catalog. Probably the essential works are "Selected Cantos," "Selected Poems," "ABC of Reading," "Selected Translations," and "Literary Essays." After you get the feel of his whole corpus, you can safely read "Early Poems" for the experience of a great poet finding his style while imitating the excellent work of near and distant writers.
When I read Yeats, I see him bring the best of the 19th century over into the 20th. When I read Pound, I see him carry across the threshhold the best of the 25 centuries before that. Yeats died in 1939, when the 20th century was about to kill itself for the second time. Pound went mad trying to stop it. You don't have to take my word for it that Pound is the central writer of the 20th century. Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats all thought so. Not a bad trio to have on your side.