THE STARTLE REFLEX.

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.)

Comments

  1. Enlightening indeed. It continues to confirm my view of Pound, that there’s no there there, and any there you or others happen to find comes from yourself. On the whole I think I prefer Ludwig Plutonium, who at least no one has ever taken seriously.
    And no, Hat, that’s not a political judgment; it’s a judgment of the poetry.

  2. I have merely this to say: http://gregnog.com/joycepoundeliot01.html

  3. Interesting entry. When I was a little girl, my mother worked at D.C. General Hospital and was transferred over to St. E’s to help care for Mr. Pound. She found him completely fascinating, yet obviously a shell of the man he once used to be.

  4. Batroc ze Lepair says:

    Did you mean Archimedes Plutonium?

  5. She found him completely fascinating, yet obviously a shell of the man he once used to be.
    So it’s true! Even paranoids have some real people talking about them behind their backs.
    (Semi-seriously, perhaps someone professionally responsible for the care of a psychiatric patient, however notorious, may be among the few who should not make comments on them – outside of professional circles. Still, ’twas long ago, and the wretch is dead. Not so his poetry. Ars longa.)

  6. Archimedes or Ludwig has been known by both names.
    My vita is too brevissima to deal with a man who, in order to be sure that his poetry would not be understanded of the people, resorted to writing parts of it in fake Chinese.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    So it’s true! Even paranoids have some real people talking about them behind their backs.

    After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not coming after you!

  8. That’s right, David. Kissinger famously pointed this out.

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