Ezra Pound: Poet. Vol 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920
by A David Moody
544pp, Oxford, £25
There's a blur near the centre of 20th-century literary biography: lives of the two greatest modernists are missing. Or at least not fully present. Peter Ackroyd and others have done their best to get round the prohibitions of the Eliot estate, but we still lack a properly detailed, intimate account. Problems of a different kind have delayed a full and scholarly biography of Pound, despite the best efforts of Humphrey Carpenter and others. Pound's life is so vast in its energies, so richly international in its reach and so bedevilled by controversies that it has taken more than 30 years - since Pound's death in 1972 - for A David Moody's book to arrive on the scene. The first volume of this grand opus is a significant event.
The two-part structure of Moody's book recalls RF Foster's tremendous life of Yeats (also published by Oxford), and the two narratives often combine to good effect. But where Foster, especially in his more relaxed and dynamic second volume, manages to combine the story of Yeats's inner life with his career on the public stage, Moody adopts a more objective approach. His prose is more obviously driven by the need to get the facts straight and to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of the poems, than by curiosity about psychological motives and personal characteristics. It means the book has an air of slightly detached efficiency - which is no bad thing, except that it makes Pound himself seem a touch remote. We see the blaze of his firebrand energy; we marvel at his generosity to writers of whom he approves; we admire his astonishing powers of self-driving; but we rarely feel these things on our pulses.
It's a compelling story all the same. From his respectable suburban beginnings, through his schooling in a small military academy at Wyncote, north of New York, and his immersion in foreign literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, Pound devoted himself to poetry with extraordinary devotion and ambition. Even his earliest poems, which come trailing clouds of decadent glory, experiment with the large-scale structures that would eventually find their apotheosis in the Cantos. Equally striking is his determination to position himself as a rebel, whether he's dealing with social conventions or poetic traditions. He wanted to "make it new" as soon as he made it at all.
Or at least he tried to make it new. Bolstered - as he would be throughout his life - by patrons and protégés such as Hilda Doolittle and Katherine Heyman, he began by talking the proto-modernist talk much better than he walked the walk. Dante, Villon and Browning all helped to shape his theories about how to drag poetry out of the late-Victorian doldrums, but the actual language of his early verses, in A Lume Spento (1908) for instance, is still slurred by its archaism and gilded gorgeousness.
Pound himself held the provincialness of America partly to blame, and after a brief but turbulent time at Wabash College in Crawfordville, Indiana, he travelled to London looking for greater freedom - and more publicity. It was a journey that Robert Frost would take a few years later, hoping for similar rewards, but whereas Frost found supporters and a stable audience almost immediately, Pound had to wait and struggle. It was partly his own fault. Although he delivered a strong and immediate blow to the styles of the old world, made friends with Yeats and gathered round him a community of kindred spirits (the Australian poet Frederick Manning, the publisher Elkin Mathews, Dorothy Shakespeare, the daughter of Olivia, whom he would eventually marry), he was still more effective as a provocateur than as a writer per se. The general reaction to his work was well summarised by Edward Thomas, who wrote warmly about Personae in January 1909, then changed his mind when Exultations was published in September of the same year. By common consent, there was too much noise about Pound and not enough substance; too much referring and not enough originality.
Like many revolutionaries before and since, Pound drew a good deal of energy from opposition, but he could see that some of his critics had a point. His theories about poetic renewal were still running ahead of his practice - partly because of the difficulties he found in reconciling a recognisably modern idiom and subject matter with the need to retain a sense of "mystery". Yeats helped to guide him towards finding a balance, as did Ford Maddox Hueffer (later Ford) and (by the early 1910s) Alfred Orage, the editor of the New Age. The influence of his reading among French medieval poets, and of emerging imagist contemporaries such as TE Hulme, was even more decisive. In the months leading up to the first world war he finally became more nearly the Pound we know and most admire - wonderfully braced in his translations (of "The Seafarer", and the Cathay sequence), and much more sharply focused on the here and now in his own work.
Much more effective as a poetic mover and shaker, too. Although the outbreak of the war meant his audience had better (ie, worse) things to think about than poetry, it also galvanised him with a new sense of urgency. As Moody says: "He had called for slaughter in a war without truce, meaning it metaphorically. The real thing seemed to him the final stupidity of the world he had wanted to destroy, a mindless murdering contest between detestable 'teutonic atavism' and 'unsatisfactory Democracy'." Blasting and blessing alongside Wyndham Lewis and other vorticists, acting as foreign correspondent for Harriet Monroe's Poetry, commissioning for the New Freewoman, Pound rallied others as furiously as he goaded himself to embrace "the point of imagism" - which was to recognise emotion as the primary energy in poetry because only emotion "causes a pattern to arise in the mind". When writing to his friend Alice Henderson he explained that this emotional energy could only be released by writing in a compressed style which preserved "the austerity or economy of the speech". It was a version of theories he had always held dear. Now, hideously dramatised by events in France, they finally became the reality of his writing.
Although Pound had always exploited his role as an outsider, Moody rightly emphasises that he scorned the "impotence" of "the mere aesthete" and believed "the serious artist" must engage with "the powers of the world" in order to act as a part of its "intelligence". In spite of his achievements during the early years of the war, it was often a period of frustration for Pound. He had "very little power of any kind", his audience was small, and he was worried that his poetic missionary work would centre him "in propagande" rather than new work. This meant that as the decade drew to a close, signals about his future as a writer were distinctly mixed. On the one hand his reputation seemed to be in decline, and his impatience was leading him to formulate political and social views that would later elaborate into the anti-semitism for which he became notorious. On the other hand, he had met Eliot, was about to meet Joyce and was writing more distinctively than ever. Fittingly, one of the best poems from this period, "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley", is an obituary for his young self - the self he had spent the previous 20-odd years escaping: "He strove to resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry; to maintain 'the sublime' / In the old sense. Wrong from the start . . ."
But right in the end. Moody's book ends shortly before the publication of Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses, both of which Pound helped to bring into the world, and both of which marked the beginning of a long-sustained modernist triumph. It also leaves Pound himself in possession of the early Cantos, which would eventually become his master-work. Moody has led us to this crucial point with admirable skill as an organiser of material, and clear good sense in his role as a critic. If we sometimes miss the sound of Pound's heartbeats, the disappointment does not deter us from eagerly looking forward us to the next volume.
· Andrew Motion is poet laureate.
The Guardian, Saturday 17 November 2007