We today tend to remember Ezra Pound (1885-1972) for the immense density and erudition of his work. Pound’s many preoccupations included Confucius, medieval China, Bertrand de Born, the Provençal period, ancient Egypt, the beauty of the Farsi tongue, and his fellow early twentieth-century modernists. Of course, we also remember many unpleasant things about the man, such as his dalliance with fascism and his descent into madness. On the surface, Pound might appear to have little in common with beatnik poets like Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) who joyously trashed literary traditions and constrictive forms. But these representatives of what appear to be distinct, if not mutually hostile, poetic trends may not be the bitter enemies we might take them to be. After all, for all his obsession with the past, Pound’s credo was “make it new.”
The poetic oeuvres of Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg protest, in their respective ways, the shallowness and materialism of the authors’ social environments, and the hostility toward creativity that they found to be prevalent in those environments. This protest often takes the form of accounts of the plight of an innovator or a group of innovators. Pound’s innovator is Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, an artistic experimenter and the eponymous character of his famous 1920 poem, while Ginsberg’s are, often, unnamed people who pursue sexual and sensual experimentation. In either case, these characters run afoul of the prevailing conventions and expectations of their society and are therefore marginalized and ignored.
Mauberley, Pound relates, “strove to resuscitate the dead art / Of Poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’ / In the old sense.” Poetry—artistic creativity—has become unfashionable and is no longer practiced. Anyone who ventures to practice the “dead art” is, to use Pound’s phrase, “out of key with his time.” The old meaning of “sublime”—aesthetically gratifying—has become obsolete. Yet Mauberley is “bent resolutely on wringing lilies from an acorn.” Apart from expressing Mauberley’s dedication to poetry, this line conveys two different possibilities: that Mauberley is determined to describe artfully the mundane aspects of everyday life, and that he has decided to develop new literary techniques while basing his work on familiar literary classics (the term “acorn” denotes a work that has become so familiar as to have lost its interest.)
Mauberley’s “true Penelope was Flaubert.” The figure he admires is a literary genius, which suggests the paramountcy of literary ability among his personal values. By use of the Penelope reference, Pound establishes physical beauty as a metaphor for literary skill, and when, in a later line, he tells us that Mauberley “observed the elegance of Circe’s hair,” we may infer that Mauberley is interested in appreciating, as well as producing, great literature. This appreciation comes at the expense of ignoring “the mottoes on sun-dials,” or refraining from paying attention to the practical consideration of time. Mauberley’s willingness to do this suggests what we have already begun to sense, namely that he has little concern for practical matters in general. As we read further, we come to see that Mauberley is not only unconcerned with practical affairs, but is largely divorced from that is going on around him. As Pound informs us, Mauberley is “unaffected by the march of events.”
In the next stanza, Pound conveys the conflict between Mauberley’s inclinations and the expectations of the society in which he lives. “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, / Something for the modern stage, / Not, at any rate, an Attic grace.” Western civilization in Mauberley’s day demands from its artists lifeless and ugly work that mirrors its own moral and spiritual degeneration—its “accelerated grimace”—and that is suited to modern tastes, or the “modern stage.”
What the prevailing order surely does not want is “the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze; / Better mendacities / Than the classics in paraphrase!” It has little use for the cerebral and introspective nature of poetry as Mauberley wishes to write it. Rather, “the ‘age demanded’ chiefly “a mould in plaster,” lifeless and imitative work that presents nothing unpredictable. Moreover, it must be “made with no loss of time.” What the society demands, then, is the type of product its industrial manufacturers readily provide: mass- and efficiently-produced literature, prose versions of the motion pictures that have come into vogue, tired, hoary poetry and fiction shorn of innovation.
Pound conveys the prevailing mania for the cheap and tawdry in a series of allusions. “The tea-rose tea gown, etc.,” Pound writes, “Supplants the mousseline of Cos.” This suggests that society’s ephemeral fashions have become more important to its inhabitants than artistic achievement—a view reiterated in the following two lines: “The pianola ‘replaces’ / Sappho’s barbitos.”
“Caliban,” Pound writes, “casts out Ariel.” In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, of course, Caliban and Ariel are servants of the wizard Prospero. Caliban performs tasks that require strength and physical power, while Ariel usually does jobs calling upon intelligence or cunning. In Pound’s vision, the unsophisticated, practical men of society have pushed those who indulge in intellectual activity to the margins, or “cast them out” of the important social positions and roles.
This mania is further conveyed in the following image: “We see [the beautiful] declared in the marketplace.” It is hard not to be struck by the irony of these lines. Men who run a market are concerned above all with commerce, a highly practical vocation, and their declaration of a new standard of beauty could not be less suited to their role. Pound’s vision, as this line indicates, is of a society where aesthetic concerns have been ruthlessly subordinated to the concerns of business. Merchants dictate what is beautiful.
The first part of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” deals not only with western civilization’s aesthetic decline, but also with its moral and spiritual crisis. Christianity, once the guiding faith of the society, has been supplanted by base materialism, itself a sort of perverse faith. “All things are flowing, / Sage Heraclitus says; / But a tawdry cheapness / Shall outlast our days.” The tawdry cheapness has become an immortal deity, resistant to the change to which all else is subject. Pound further develops the theme of the exaltation of the meretricious and the fall of Christianity in the lines “Even the Christian beauty / Defects—after Samothrace.” Consumer capitalism has perverted human existence, depriving it of the dignity and grace that Christianity imparted to it.
In other lines, Pound seems to suggest that a “tawdry cheapness” not only has supplanted Christianity but also mocks it: “Faun’s flesh is not to us, / Nor the saint’s vision. / We have the press for wafer; / Franchise for circumcision.” Instead of those holy Christian icons, society now accords homage to tawdry, disposable items like newspapers. Instead of the religious ritual of circumcision, it has established the institution of political freedom—“franchise.”
It is ironic that the iconoclasm of Pound’s poem should be mirrored in the work of a poet whose political and artistic attitudes were in some ways diametrically opposite those of Pound. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” appeared in 1956 and is set in America in the middle part of the century. The society described in “Howl” bears a striking resemblance to the one captured by Pound, though it differs in important respects. Like Pound’s, it is hostile to innovation and punishes those who attempt it, but these experimenters are, for the most part, interested in more forms of creation than just the artistic.
They are fascinated by the new: by new experiences and new sensations, artistic, political, sexual. Much of Ginsberg’s poem consists, in fact, of descriptions of wild literary, political, and carnal experiments undertaken by the “beats.” Their interest in literary innovation does not seem quite so obsessive as Mauberley’s, for their literary experiments represent only some of the adventures in the poem. Quite unlike Mauberley, they seem to value whatever is new and “improper,” and not solely innovations in art.
The unnamed protagonists of Ginsberg’s poem are “expelled from the academies for crazy and publishing obscene odes / on the windows of the skull.” It is perhaps in these lines that they most directly resemble Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, the rebel poet. Like Mauberley’s work, the “odes” fall afoul of prevailing tastes thanks to their nonconformist character, though unlike Mauberley’s poetry, the odes’ iconoclasm takes the form of obscenity. The beats also “howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,” and “scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the / yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.” In these instances, the literary activity is not necessarily iconoclastic, but perhaps suffused with more energy and passion than is normal. But these literary escapades comprise only a few of the adventures depicted in the poem.
At times, the iconoclasm of Ginsberg’s characters—in contrast to that of Mauberley—takes a distinctly political form. In America in the 1950s, nothing could express contempt for the prevailing political attitudes more explicitly than pro-communist agitation. Ginsberg’s characters, we learn, “burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism, / [and] distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square.”
At other times, the contempt for the prevailing standards of behavior takes the form of sexual adventure. In a society where few people regard homosexuality as legitimate, Ginsberg’s rebels “let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed / with joy.” When their sexuality does not take a forbidden form, it still verges on the manic, suffused with an uncontrollable energy. Ginsberg treats us to descriptions of wild and endless sexual exploits: “copulat[ing] ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer and a sweetheart,” “sweet[ening] the snatches of a million girls,” “scattering … semen freely to whomever come who may.”
But the characters’ loathing of convention and normality usually is manifest in still more explicitly antisocial—and often illegal—behavior. For instance, the dissidents “get busted in their public beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,” “bite detectives in the neck,” “[go] out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen nightcars.” Although such behavior violates the law, it does not strike Ginsberg’s characters as in any way immoral or improper. In their minds, they have committed no crime other than “their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication.”
Ginsberg’s characters are very much out of place in their dull and unthinkingly conformist society. The nature of the society becomes apparent whenever Ginsberg’s ragged dissidents run afoul of its authorities and are placed in an asylum. Such institutions always appear lifeless and bled of individual identity. Ginsberg describes a drug addicts’ rehab center as “Newark’s bleak furnished room,” and the dissidents present themselves at “the granite steps of the madhouse” and wander through “Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls.”
The values of the society seem to be symbolized in an image that appears in the midst of the descriptions of wild debauchery—the image of the “heterosexual dollar.” This image might convey the values that have come to be held by Ginsberg’s society, the values of capitalist thrift and strict sexual morality as traditionally defined.
It is curious, to say the least, that a disdain for prevailing tastes and attitudes unites Pound and Ginsberg. What Pound despises is his society’s obsession with progress (“the march of events”), which naturally entails disdain for activities that serve no practical purpose, such as the writing of poetry. Ginsberg, by contrast, is repulsed by the perceived repressive conservatism of his mid-century American society, by its lack of concern with progress. Conceivably, the artists might be more content if Pound lived in Ginsberg’s time, and Ginsberg in Pound’s. On the other hand, the “tawdry cheapness” Pound so strongly condemns in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” probably is no less visible in Ginsberg’s mid-century America, and England in the early decades of the same century might have recoiled in shock at a social and political radical like Ginsberg.
Finding Out More
For those who really want to understand Pound and the milieu in which he lived and wrote, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era is a feat of literary imagination and achievement–one of those unclassifiable works of literary exegesis that we could spend a lifetime reading and digesting. As for Ginsberg, he’s a bit more accessible and perhaps best taken in combination with other Beats and members of the San Francisco Renaissance like Kenneth Rexroth and William Everson. The former corresponded with Pound, and the latter is a tragically under-read poet.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).