Anyone interested in Ezra Pound should read Jonathan Morse’s depressing but enlightening essay The Startle Reflex: Some Episodes from the Lives of Ezra Pound’s Language (from Jacket 34, October 2007). He starts off with a visit by Louis Zukofsky to Pound in St. Elizabeth’s (the Washington loony bin into which Pound was placed after WWII in lieu of execution for treason) and Pound’s report on it to a correspondent, and plunges into the morass of Pound’s crazed notions about Jews: “But the word ‘Jew’ was a preemptive significance. It filled the cell of Pound’s mind with horror and silenced the echo of the violin.”
More: for Ezra Pound, by the time he had reached St. Elizabeths, the word ‘Jew’ was experienced with a fully developed history of its own. It wasn’t just a defined sound with an immediately understood meaning; it was the trace of a number of meanings, slowly developed over time. In fact, we may learn to read Pound better if we think of that development as a verbal complex generated in response to a new word, and deployed by the same linguistic mechanism that brings forth poetic language itself. Specifically, the pair of phonemes that sound out the word ‘Jew’ may have functioned for Pound as an index, in Charles Sanders Peirce’s sense of the word: ‘A rap on the door is an index. Anything which focusses the attention is an index. Anything which startles us is an index, in so far as it marks the junction between two portions of experience. Thus a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was. But it may be expected to connect itself with some other experience’ (‘Logic as Semiotic’ 108-09).
Pound never read Peirce, so far as I am aware, but the ‘luminous moments’ in The Cantos — those flashes of detail whose part in the poem’s great design is to signal that our sense of the numinous has acquired one more meaning — do function as indices. When he was writing poetry, Ezra Pound seems sometimes to have experienced words directly, without reference to their immediate denotative contexts. That is why some of the most vividly realized images in The Cantos are pure sound effects, like the circular saw in Canto 18 (‘whhsssh, t ttt’) or the loom in Canto 39 with its shuttle moving back and forth and its harnesses moving up and down: ‘thkk, thgk . . . thgk, thkk.’ Such words perform their work of meaning by evoking with a sense impression, not denoting with another word. The context of these evocations isn’t the locality of the sentences or paragraphs in which they are imbedded; it is the whole historical lexicon of language as such, in all its complex harmony. In that harmony the saw’s sound functions as an index, marking one of the moments when Pound’s incantation, ‘Make it new,’ has embedded itself in the sound structure of a new language, the language of economics. (Pound translates the saw’s economic onomatopoeia himself in the next line: ‘Two days’ work in three minutes.’) The sound of the loom in Circe’s palace is an index, too; it is a reminder of Penelope and the home to which Odysseus must return if his wife’s fabric is to be completed and western civilization is to have a written history. In general, it may be useful to consider Pound’s ideogrammic method as a way of moving through poetic space in a saltatory way, from index to index.
There’s much more about poetry, influence, and madness (“a single magic word, Roosevelt, possessed the power to transform Ezra Pound from a lord of language to a gibbering, shrieking lunatic who couldn’t stop raving until he jammed his thumb into his mouth and bit down hard”); it’s not pleasant reading, but it helps ground our understanding of a great poet in his appalling context. (Via wood s lot.)