In 1939 Ezra Pound inaugurated the practice of poets recording their own work for the Woodberry Poetry Room with a rendition of “Sestina: Altaforte” that remains one of the most frightening (and peculiar) performances in all of modern English-language poetry. It’s so bloodcurdling a performance—accompanied by shrieks and a kettle-drum—that Pound wanted access to it restricted, lest the poem induce young Harvard men to commit acts of war. (The sanction was lifted years ago.)
Just as Pound liked to integrate and outdo his masters on the page, he liked to trump his peers and predecessors in the arena of recitation. Pound got his style of performance directly from William Butler Yeats, for whom EP served as a kind of secretary, student, friend and confidante. Yeats chanted his poems, and the two sound like cousins when the recordings are compared. As Yeats remarked in a recording made around the same time as Pound’s, he was determined to read work aloud in a way that put great emphasis on the rhyme, “and that may seem strange,” he said in understatement, “if you are not used to it.” As it happens, Yeats himself got this straight from William Morris, who’d complained about the way someone had read his work aloud. “It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble,” Morris said to Yeats, “to get that thing into verse!” “Well,” Yeats commented, upping the ante, “It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”
Juxtaposed with the sestina, it’s Pound’s lesser-known recording of “Cantico del Sole” that remains my very favorite. Listening to it, one is surprised to find how calm, how wry and sane, and how wise Pound sounds. And it ends with a moment preserved forever: the gentle, knowing laughter of those in the room with him. It changes the way one thinks about Pound, and it changes the way we might think about the poem, so easily overlooked on the page. Despite borrowing a title, and little else, from a poem by St. Francis of Assisi, the main allusion in the text is to Luke 2:29 in the Vulgate and its translation in the Authorized Version of the Bible: “Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant, / Now lettest thou thy servant / Depart in peace.” It’s a poem that advocates peace, not war, and it sounds like it, too.
The poem I’ve bookended with Pound’s is by one of modernist poetry’s greatest (and strangest) thinkers, Laura (Riding) Jackson. In this recording, she sounds a bit, to the contemporary listener, like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers film; but don’t let that fool you. There was a time when poets (and others) were schooled in elocution and rhetoric as well as the classics, and this produced a precious speaking style that is now extinct. Any pretentiousness aside, it’s worth noting that bookishness is a hallmark of the modernist poets (see the last line of Riding’s poem!), and both poems are the work of angry, sermonizing autodidacts: that’s part of their charm. In her recorded introduction to the poem, “Troubles of a Book,” Riding takes umbrage at the poem’s having been included in a book of light verse, and she was right to complain. There is real darkness in the poem, as there is in Pound’s; perhaps, as she says, it’s in the nature of books to have an “essentially tragic nature.” You might assume that, like Pound, Riding would have wanted books to go out into the world like servants, enlightening the Gentiles, so to speak; but she was more precise than he about this. She once famously took John Ashbery to task for claiming to be influenced by her books, and she took Robert Graves (to whom she had been married) to task for the same thing. She felt that some people took her ideas while failing to “assimilate their import,” as Ashbery delicately puts it. Frustrated with poets and poetry, she eventually quit writing poems. Was this poem a harbinger?
Its arguments are complex; you’ll need a copy of the poem to follow along as you listen to get the gist of them (and it’s worth it). The first “trouble of a book” is to be “No thoughts to nobody,” which is a far cry from Assisi’s or Pound’s ambitious proselytizing. The phrase calls to mind more remote and solitary intellects, such as Emily Dickinson (“I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?”) or W.S. Graham (whose notebook poems were published under the title Aimed at Nobody). In her poem, books “build word for word an author / And occupy his head / Until the head declares vacancy / To make full publication / Of running empty,” which resonates with Dickinson’s “Publication -- is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.” What’s interesting for my purposes, though, is her lines about what she gives as the second thing on her list: “The trouble of a book is secondly / To keep awake and ready...” Here, it’s the book, not the reader, whose slumber is troubled: “Torn between hope of no rest / And hope of rest...” the pages “doze.” Sermonizing? That’s the third trouble of a book.
There’s no departing in peace for Riding, and Pound, as we know, ended his days in silence. But we live in an age, as it turns out, in which the classics have gained wide circulation. This is thanks to the ubiquity of e-books and the mobile devices which make them so “open to passing fingers.” After all, as Riding puts it in the conclusion of her poem, the trouble of a book is “chiefly / To be nothing but book outwardly; / To wear a bunding like binding, / Bury itself in book-death, / Yet to feel all but book...”
Perhaps the classics are, at last, unbound.
Don Share is Senior Editor of Poetry magazine. His books include Squandermania (Salt Publishing), Union (Zoo Press), Seneca in English (Penguin Classics) and most recently a new book of poems, Wishbone (Black Sparrow), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions). His translations of Miguel Hernández, collected in I Have Lots of Heart (Bloodaxe Books) were awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and Premio Valle Inclán. He has been Poetry Editor of Harvard Review and Partisan Review, Editor of Literary Imagination and curator of Harvard's Woodberry Poetry Room.