Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pound: The Image, Necrophilia, Women

[Here's a paragraph from Daniel Tiffany's Radio Corpse in which he discusses the way Pound assumes a female role in his book on Gaudier and "The Limbs of Osiris" - this is where i got the idea of the image as transvestisizing language. Much of the book is about what Tiffany sees as Pound's attempt to erase his own Decadence and necrophilia - first through Imagism and then through more extreme means:]

"Changing gender, as a poetic device, also exposes Pound to the illicit pleasure of being visited or haunted by *images* (an experience that always enacts the return of a dead or lost object). Hence, one is "haunted" by reality when one receives images, instead of making them. The pleasure of receiving images is illicit, in part, because Pound associates feminine passivity with Decadent poetry. As he sees it, the masculine values of "technique" and pragmatic action are constantly threatened by the death-obsessed and hedonistic instincts of the feminine. Whenever the male poet assumes the voice and body of a young girl, he succumbs not only to the passivity of death but to the passivity of the image (which institutes the servitude of idolatry). He denies on the other hand, what Pound views as the active character of the male body, and therefore allows himself to be inhabited by ghosts (a pleasure that derives, essentially from a denial of corporeality). Yet he also extinguishes his intellectual powers, as Pound sees it, by mimicking the girl's absorption in materiality (a sacrificial pleasure that trnaforms not only the Image, but the poet himself, into an eroticized corpse). Thus, by assuming the place of the unutterable feminine name, the poet runs the risk of becoming either a live dwelling for the spirits of the dead, or a corpse. He succumbs to a force that is essentially passive and a pleasure that is not ony irresistable but fatal to the explicit aims of his poetry." (131)

It's fascinating how this struggle remains a powerful force in American poetry - Pound's anxiety/fascination with femininity, death, decadence. The anxiety about poetry turning into a "wax museum" is essentially a fear of decadence (criticized of course as "kitsch"). I think the valorization of the "real" community of "real" people in "real" spaces (as recently discussed on the Harriet blog) can also be seen as part of this anxiety about death and decadence. I view Ron Silliman's anxiety about excess, translation and "softness" and his desire for a "hard", pragmatic, technical poetry as an inheritance from Pound.

I think this also speaks to a number of recent conversations about necrophilia, corpses, women and images on this blog.

I think of the Patti Smith book I quoted below as the opposite of Pound... The opposite of Silliman... And this is also how I obviously see the "Gurlesque."

(Important to note: One of the things that makes Ron endearing is his love of Project Runway etc.)

Here's Ford Madox Ford's description of a young Pound, the Pound Pound had to cover up and try to erase (also from Tiffany's book):

"Ezra had a forked red beard, luxuriant chestnut hair, an aggressive lank figure; one long blue single stone earring dangled on his jawbone. He wore a purple hat, a green shirt, a black velvet coat, vermillion socks, openwork tanned brilliant sandals... and trousers of green billiard cloth, in addition to an immense flowing tie that had been hand-painted by a Japanese Futurist artist."

And of course the anxiety of decadence is at the heart of Steve Burt's "New Thing": As Jon Woodward makes explicit, it's a poetry opposed to "candy surrealism." Excessive, decadent surrealism. So we need to become more thingy than Imagism, than objectivism.

Now I thnk I know what poetry Jon means and I don't really like that either, but not because it's "Candy" or "soft" but becuase it isn't soft enough!

It also makes perfect sense that Burt should advocate for this stance in light of his repeated attempt to erase Sylvia Plath from American poetry, as Plath's maybe the great American modern poet of openly embracing the necrophilia of decadence, of daringly invoking kitsch (she's afterall the poet who speak with a vocal prosthesis in Jed's wax museum). I'll write about that soon.


Blogger Ron said...

I was unaware that I felt anxiety about excess, translation and "softness" or that I had all that much desire for a "hard", pragmatic, technical poetry. I wouldn't recognize that guy in the mirror if I saw him.

I do think poetry should be as well written as prose. And I generally think of myself as being on the same side of the street as Patti Smith. The big difference would be that my family left the Catholic Church around 1920, so that wasn't something I had to get over...

Perhaps you mean Robert Silliman Hillyer.... ;-)

4:25 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Much of your criticism is based on technical correctness, on standards, on poets having "good ears." Just the fact that you dismiss poets as "soft surrealists" suggest this tendency. Again, I don't defend those poets; it's your charge against "softness" (I assume in favor of "hardness") that I take note of.

I have written about this tendency in your criticism frequently(because I think it's very indicative of a lot of contemporary American poetry discussions). If you're interested there is a lot of material on this blog.


8:19 PM  
Blogger Jon said...


I appreciate the attention but I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing. I don't equate "cotton candy" with "excessive," and if Steve Burt goes on to make that equation in the rest of the essay, it has nothing to do with me. The critique, as structured, is his. I had been reading a Breton biography at the time I wrote the sentence you quote, & was struck by the chasm between the fistfights he and his pals started in service of their revolution of consciousness, vs. the neo-quirk post-undergrad "surrealist" writers (among whom yours truly ca. 2002) who felt no higher ambition than to introduce into their poem a random duck or octopus, for examples.

My phrasing (soft-surrealist) seems to have overlapped clumsily with a hard/soft (pure/decadent) dialectic which is interesting but which I wasn't trying to make reference to. My feelings about that dialectic are like yours, I think -- to the extent that the excesses & awfulnesses of some of my recent work have (it would seem) prevented that work from being published.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I am pretty sure we have similar thoughts about the poetry - it's the rhetoric that I was interested in. That is to say, I'm not interested in duck poetry, but the reason the dismissals of the duck poems are given an anti-decadent cast (even by myself,l should admit, in some entries on this blog). I mean mostly I'm interested in these negative protrayals (kitsch, wax museum, hipster, soft, candy etc) because they are meant to steer poets away from something, and that something I am very interested in.


10:50 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Hi Johannes -- that makes complete sense. Looking at what I wrote, it sounds a little defensive -- sorry about that. I truly appreciate your ongoing dissections of these ideas -- as I maybe implied, they've had a head-on impact on what I'm writing lately.

12:36 PM  

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