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On "A Pact"

Christine Froula

The ambivalence of Pound’s response to his poetic forefather Walt Whitman reflects his complex sense of his American literary heritage. As he was well aware, whatever he might say in explanation of Whitman would also in some measure define himself. While Pound recognized the authentic American eloquence of Whitman’s "barbaric yawp," the self-conscious craftsman in him winced at the "exceeding great stench" of Whitman’s "crudity," "an exceedingly nauseating pill" which he parodically exemplified as "Lo! Behold, I eat watermelons."

In his 1909 essay "What I Feel About Walt Whitman," his distaste for Whitman’s expansive self-singing struggles with an even more powerful conviction that Whitman "is America. . . . He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’" In the end, Pound subordinates the superficial quarrel with Whitman’s poetic means to the profound bond of their common origin and message. Whitman is to America "what Dante is to Italy"; "the vital part of my message, taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his"; "It is a great thing, reading a man to know, not ‘His Tricks are not as yet my Tricks, but I can easily make them mine’ but ‘His message is my message. We will see that men hear it.’"

from A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.

Hugh Witemeyer

Pound’s new style in Lustra was due in part to his reconciliation with Whitman - or more accurately, to his giving freer rein to the Whitman in himself. He had recognized (and suppressed) this aspect of his poetic personality since 1909, the date of his essay on "What I Feel About Walt Whitman." There he admitted: "The vital part of my message, taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his. Mentaly, I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a colar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both)." The image was apt, for he distrusted Whitman’s nakedness and considered him something of an artistic barbarian. "Now Whitman was not an artist," he declared in another mood, "you cannot call a man an artist, until he shows himself capable of reticence and restraint. . . ." Pound’s attitude toward Whitman was highly ambivalent.

The ambivalence is reflected in "A Pact," which registers Pound’s reconciliation with Whitman in 1913, but adds an important qualification: . . . the demand for greater conscious technique implied by "carving." Whitman broke the "new wood" of free verse, and Pound seeks to carve a finer product (with the chisel of absolute rhythm). Whitmanism is thus tempered with the ideal of "poetry-as-sculpture" which Pound took over from Gautier.

The result of this mixed acceptance was a curious hybrid form - the Whitmanian envoi. This form combined the democratic stance of Whitman with the artistic sophistication of the Troubadours, the vagabondism of the American open road with the vagabondism of the Provençal byways, Whitman’s democracy of the spirit with Daniel’s aristocracy of craftsmanship. Pound raised the medieval envoi to a satiric form by infusing it with Whitman’s scope and inclusiveness.

From The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewal, 1908-1920. Copyright © 1969 by The University of California Press.

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