“The artist is always beginning,” Ezra Pound once wrote. “Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a ‘finder,’ one who discovers.” Readers of Poems and Translations will be able to follow, for the first time in a single volume, a poet whose career moves through a series of beginnings and re-beginnings—perhaps Pound’s most distinctively American trait.
In his first published book of poems, A Lume Spento, the Pound of 1908 is still very much a late nineteenth-century poet, steeped in the archaisms of the Pre-Raphaelites. A mere four years later, in Ripostes, he has reinvented himself as a modernist proponent of “Imagism,” before moving on, in rapid succession, to the avant-garde aesthetics of Vorticism and translations from the Chinese (Cathay), the Japanese (“Noh” or Accomplishment), the Provençal (Arnaut Daniel), and the Latin (“Homage to Sextus Propertius”). Each of these forays into new identities and new languages constituted, as Pound himself explained, a “search for oneself,” which entailed “casting off complete masks of the self in each poem.”
The title Pound chose for the first comprehensive collection of his shorter poems in 1926 was, significantly, Personae—Latin for “masks.” Whether writing in the form of Browningesque dramatic monologues, medieval canzoni, satirical epigrams, Confucian analects, or Sophoclean tragic choruses, Pound in his poems presents us with a medley of masks whose multiple and contradictory features helped shape the face of American poetry in the 20th century.
In his dedication of The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot paid homage to Ezra Pound as “il miglior fabbro”—that is, “the better craftsman”—Dante’s term for the Troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel. Pound remains a vital ancestral presence in the lineage of American modernist and post-modernist poetry. The list of his descendants includes not only William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Olson, but also the Beats and, more recently, the Language Poets—all of whom in their own fashion learned their craft from his work while observing his central imperative: “Make it new.”