Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Conversations with Ezra

As a wedding gift, a friend from Pittsburgh gave me and Michelle a first edition of Cantos 96-109 by Ezra Pound. It’s a lovely book: red cloth bound with gilt titles along the spine. Plus, it came with the original dust jacket. The only flaws, from a collecting standpoint, are the name of the original owner and a small triangle of paper missing from the dust jacket.

For me, having such a book is a bit of an anomaly. Of all the books I own, only this one could be sold for more than the price of breakfast at a diner. I collect books, of course, but only because I read and because I find the idea of selling my books a little unsettling. In fact, I’d rather that the bulk of my library sits, stacked in boxes, in the basement until a safer time when more bookcases have encircled my desk.

My wife, on the other hand, has a number of marvelous books that, if times turn Dickensian, we could auction on eBay, and maybe, just maybe, find enough money for a mortgage payment or two in a PayPal account. She has a signed first-American edition of a novel by Perez-Reverte—my favorite mystery writer. As a Salinger fiend, she also has a first edition of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and a copy of the New Yorker in which “Zooey” originally appeared. Plus, I’m certain her collection contains numerous other minor jewels—valuable and lovely as garnets—that I haven’t yet discovered among the thousands of books we own. I just hope I notice the value of such a book before I read it with my customary level of abuse.

To me, books are not, typically, objects of reverence. Instead, a well-loved book can be well-worn, bulging with dog-eared pages, scrawled with marginal notes, and deformed by a cracked spine from leaving the dear object face down and open on any number of surfaces throughout your house. Indeed, by the time I finished reading Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, the novel was essentially unreadable to anyone but me. And I adore that book.

Now, I’m not advocating a pogrom against the novels and poetry volumes of the world, but I do think that, particularly when you are young, it is difficult to imagine that the "masters" who constitute the "canon" of "Western" literature ever stared into a cupboard while wondering what in the world they should eat for breakfast. It’s difficult to imagine someone like Shakespeare pacing his study in consternation, wondering if the hyperbole in a certain sonnet isn’t just a little too silly. It’s hard to picture Emily, solitary in her study, mulling over the one rejection letter that convinced her not to pursue the publication of her lovely little hymns. Yet, they all led ordinary lives—just like the rest of us. Even someone like Rimbaud, who retired from poetry to smuggle arms at an age when I was still studying physics, led a life whose ordinary moments, like lingering in a chair reading, far outpaced the extraordinary. For me, knowing this makes it easier to sit down at desk and scan my brain for the precise word or a particular image. I can work to overcome the myriad doubts about whether I’m talented enough, disciplined enough, or simply lucky enough to make poems that might touch someone. I simply think—whether or not it is a minor delusion—that these objects I’m making are a small part of that history. They are missives from a particular mind, at a particular place, and at a specific moment in time.

In graduate school, I wrote a poem that used Pound’s seminal imagist poem, "In a Station at the Metro" in the epigram. In the body of the poem, I took that haiku-like image and contradicted it. I’m still not sure if my poem is any good; nevertheless, I was shocked by the reaction one or two of my peers had. They were both impressed and almost awe struck that I’d "take on" someone like Pound. And yes, Pound was a phenomenal poet; he was also a fascist, and by the end of his life, a frequent resident in mental health wards. Yet, even if he’d been a model patriot who tithed his earnings to the poor and frequently spoke, radically, in favor of minority rights, I wouldn’t hesitate to contradict him—if it served the purpose of a poem. Like I said, he ate breakfast too.

Like the work of Pound, my poems may not be philosophically rigorous enough to withstand simple logic, but I try, sort of. And reading Pound’s Cantos helps me remember my goals and provides a sort of caveat against ambition that leaves the reader behind in search of "making it new." Frankly, I wish I had another copy of the book, because there are moments when despite the lyricism, the poems annoy me deeply with their elitist ambition. Worse, there are moments when the poems make me feel ignorant, and curse that I never learned Greek or Chinese. I wonder, at such moments, where’s the German? And in such moments, I believe it might be fruitful to throw the book across the length of my office because, as Pound must have known, a poem is something that you, as a reader, must encounter and interact with, and I’ve yet to find a reader who was masochistic enough to enjoy the sinking feeling that he’s not smart enough to "get" a poem. Indeed, except in rare moments where the lyricism of his work transcends the confusion, I hate the fact that I have nothing to inscribe in those margins. Still, it is a lovely book, just not the type I’d like to write.


Post a Comment

<< Home