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Words Of Wisdom From Ezra Pound (For Those Of Us With Social Media Fatigue)

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Fed up with the endless triviality of the internet culture? The letters of an early 20th century poet offer unexpected consolation, and even motivation for how to conquer it. In his own day, Ezra Pound was vexed by a problem many of us can sympathize with: there was a lot to read, but most of it was dreadful. As a poet who felt surrounded by ignorance in the states, he launched into a sort of self-imposed European exile in 1909. From London, Pound ranted relentlessly through letters to whomever might listen, which often meant fellow writers or editors. He bemoaned the publishing establishment of his day, along with the broader American attitude which he saw as the root of the problem.

A century later, those of us who regularly scour the web in search of something worth looking at can relate to Pound’s exasperation. Great stuff is out there, with more being created all the time. But it can feel impossible to find when navigating the mindless morass of popular content, seemingly churned out with the sole aim of going viral. Thus, we can find a surprising relevance today in Pound’s words from a very different era, as shown in some of the most blunt, arrogant, incredulous—downright brilliant—excerpts from his vast correspondences:

To an editor of a literary publication, after repeated attempts to invite Pound to contribute

I think you have done too much harm, as assistant editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, from year to year pouring poison into or onto the enfeebled or adolescent American mind.

This may be Greek to you. I have no proof that you or [the magazine’s Editor] EVER make the faintest effort to understand anything whatever outside your own set of fixed ideas and conveniences. Your weekly never opens up to what I consider decent opinion or sound criticism. You accept the worst infamies of American imbecility and superstitions without a murmur, or without any persistent effort to clean up the mess.

Strongly worded then as it is now, “American imbecility” might just be the mot juste that’s been wanting for the endless swath of ephemera which clutters the feeds we rely on to stay informed: self-absorbed selfies, crass viral videos, or trivial click-bait articles.

For context, Pound was a modernist: part of a new brood who perceived the post-Romantic literature that had carried over from the eighteen hundreds as decadent and mediocre, pandering to the tastes of an audience content with old ideas and recycled forms. He could find hardly any innovation or experimentation in what was being published, the Saturday Review being just one of the many perpetrators. Add in prohibition-era censorship and you have, as Pound described it, a willful ignorance seeping into every aspect of American culture:

To film critic and curator Iris Barry

…America will never look anything— animal, mineral, vegetable, political, social, international, religious, philosophical or ANYTHING else— in the face until she gets used to perfectly bald statements.

To John Quinn, June 1918

The present international situation seems to me to be in no small measure due to the English and American habit of keeping their ostrich heads carefully down their little silk-lined sand-holes.

¨American imbecility¨ was a harsh indictment. But these “bald statements” were used to invoke self-examination and open up the conversation to new ideas. Instead of resigning to the same old thing, Pound spoke up, often and loudly, when forced to sift through sub-par material in search of something worthwhile.

Pound wasn’t merely pointing out problems without proposing solutions. In addition to creating avant-garde poetry in his own right, Pound worked in London as foreign editor for Poetry Magazine, a progressive U.S. literary review. As he explained his goal with Poetry:

To film critic and curator Iris Barry

The main thing being to have enmagazined some mass of fine literature which hasn’t been mauled over and vulgarized and preached as a virtue..

This mass of fine literature supposedly saves one from getting swamped in contemporaneousness, and from thinking that things naturally or necessarily must or should be as they are, OR should change according to some patent schedule. ALSO should serve as a model of style, or suggest possibilities of various sorts of perfection or maximum attainment.

Pound succeeded in having “enmagazined” a group of young, experimental writers: names such as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and James Joyce, all of whom Pound discovered or helped bring to light.

Pound’s inexhaustibility was key to the part he played in ushering in the modernist movement. He’d developed a set of principles through his rigorous, self-guided education in classic, medieval, and traditional East Asian writing (“I resolved that at thirty I would know more about poetry than any man living,” he wrote of his formative years). Selections from his correspondence with Poetry’s editor during his stint with that magazine show his resolve:

To Poetry Editor Harriet Monroe

If one is going to print opinions that the public already agrees with, that is the use of printing ‘em at all? Good art can’t possibly be palatable all at once?

To Poetry Editor Harriet Monroe

[W]e can and must be strict and INFALLIBLE and the more enemies we make, up to a certain number, the better…

And he wasn’t kidding when he talked about making enemies. Pound had a greater vision in mind which drove his decisions as an editor:

To Poetry Editor Harriet Monroe

Any agonizing that tends to hurry what I believe in the end to be inevitable, our American Risorgimento, is dear to me. That awakening will make the Italian Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot! The force we have, and the impulse, but the guiding sense, the discrimination in applying the force, we must wait and strive for.

To Poetry Editor Harriet Monroe

We’re in such a beautiful position to save the public’s soul by punching its face that it seems a crime not to do so.

Radical in his own day, today Pound’s approach sounds downright antithetical to the way most things are published on the web. The most followed publishers and personalities pander to whatever seems to be trending at any given moment, hoping for likes and affirmation. This approach usually leaves us with a cheap laugh or a vaguely comforting relatability (think “X things only Y group can understand”), but little that might challenge how we see the world or leave us feeling enlightened. Even in the sliver of the web dedicated to serious ideas, editors are under the constant pressure of search algorithms to publish popular, sharable stories with headlines that beg to be clicked. As if popular opinion wasn’t hard enough to go against in the newspaper era, now the very technology which enables ideas to spread seems to be calculated in its favor.

Having moved to Paris the 1920s, Pound started to sound a bit more jaded with that pesky thing, the public taste. He attempted to launch a crowd-sourced effort for arts and letters he called Bel Esprit (here readers of Hemingway’s A Movable Feast may recall his sympathetic mention of Pound in a sort-of literary cameo).

To fellow modernist poet William Carlos Williams

There is no organized or coordinated civilization left, only individual scattered survivors…

Only those of us who know what civilization is, only those of us who want better literature, not more literature, better art, not more art, can be expected to pay for it. No use waiting for masses to develop a finer taste, they aren’t moving that way.

Sobered and less idealistic, this was an appeal to fellow writers and enthusiasts for direct help in the continuation of quality literature. It was an effort for content for the consumers, funded by the consumers. But despite tireless effort, the Kickstarter predecessor proved to be ahead of its time, failing to seriously take off. Bel Esprit was his last elaborate scheme aimed at upending the publishing industry. Pound began a long retreat from the spotlight, moving to Italy to focus on his own poetry. Yet his later reflections reveal that he never lost his will to challenge those deeply-engrained biases:

To literature professor Felix Schelling

I have never objected to any man’s mediocrity, it is the idiotic fear that a certain type of mediocrity has in the presence of any form of the real.

Today Pound’s critiques go mostly unacknowledged, his legacy having been largely discredited due to his fascist sympathies during World War II (a whole other story). But there’s something in the young Pound, the optimist who envisioned an American renaissance, which seems sorely in need as we fumble through the tectonic shifts of the web on our culture and media habits. The internet is still in its early days, after all. Its on us to speak up about how we want to see it ultimately shaped. Here we might again find a use for Pound’s vehemence, courage, and incredulousness in the face of willful ignorance. And we can borrow from his own words when needed, for example as he wrote:

To fellow modernist poet Basil Bunting

I don’t expect, in the end, to have introduced ethical novelties or notions, though I hope to light up a few ancient bases. TC mark

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