I Swear

November 16-22, 2015

Pound of poetry: Part 1

By Vic Fleming

The year is 1945. An American soldier on the outskirts of Rapallo, Italy, is approached by a gray-bearded gentleman. He asks the soldier to take him to the authorities. Someone recognizes this fellow as the one about whom Washington has been sending cables. Seize him! Don’t let him escape or commit suicide! He’s dangerous! He is, in fact, under indictment for treason. Has been since 1943.

This guy’s first name shows up in crosswords, clued as “Pound of poetry.” The answer is …Ezra. Ezra Pound, born 1885 in Idaho and reared mostly in a small town outside Philadelphia, Pa., was a leader in the Modernist movement in literature, circa. 1900-1965. He was not a great poet, in my opinion. And he wrote only one haiku, misnamed it, and broke virtually all the rules. This was 30 years  before the treason indictment.

In April 1913, Poetry magazine ran the following Pound work, titled “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition    of these faces    in the crowd   :   
Petals    on a wet, black    bough   .

The poem was about a 1911 incident that Pound wrote about in 1914: “Three years ago in Paris I got out of a ‘metro’ train … and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another…. I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, …. I could not find any words … as lovely as that sudden emotion. …

“I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch and say, ‘Mamma, can I open the light?’ She was using the age-old language of exploration….The Japanese have … the sense of exploration. They … have evolved the … short form [called] hokku.” As examples of this form, Pound cites

The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.
and
The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:
plum-blossoms.

Of the metro incident, Pound says, “I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it ….Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I [wrote “In a Station” as a] hokku-like [poem] …. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts, into a thing inward and subjective.”

His poem, plus the two he cited, were each rendered in two lines. Japanese rules would have called for three lines in this form. And for the poem to be about nature, for a season word (kigo) to be used, and for a syllable-count of 5-7-5. Plus, the poem, for a quarter century had been known as haiku, not hokku.

In fairness to Pound, these details were not widely known in America until after World War II. So, his ignorance is forgivable. Certainly, it had nothing to do with his getting charged with treason. To learn more about that, join us again next week.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.