Musical Authors: Ezra Pound (1)
One of the central concerns of the work of Ezra Pound is his attempt to bring poetry and music closer together. Of all the poets who have taken an active interest in music, Pound can be judged one of the most serious. Yet until a recent revival of interest, his musical compositions have been all but ignored since the 1930s. One reason for the neglect is possibly the fact that Pound had no formal musical training and couldn’t carry a tune.

A lack of knowledge never stopped Pound doing anything. “Pound never quite admitted that there was anything he couldn’t do,” says Guy Davenport. The poet William Carlos Williams put it this way: “He knows nothing about music, being tone deaf. That’s what makes him a musician. He’s a misplaced romantic. That’s what makes him a historical realist. And he’s batty in the head. That’s what makes him a philosopher. But, in spite of it all, he’s a good poet”. Pound just followed his art wherever it led him. Even setting aside the compositions themselves, there are other reasons to take notice of Pound’s musical activities. “Pound’s venture into music for literary reasons – poetic analysis, preservation, and, ultimately, popularization (the goal of all scholarship according to Pound) – is unparalleled”, says Margaret Fisher, who has published a detailed study of the two completed operas and reconstructed the fragments of a third.

Musical preoccupations first began to surface as part of Pound’s researches into the work of the Provencal troubadour poets, discussed in his series of essays The Spirit of Romance, published in 1910. With the troubadours, words and music were closely fused together, though in Pound’s day the musical element wasn’t widely understood. His three act opera Cavalcanti sets the word of the Florentine troubadour influenced poet Guido Cavalcanti to original music. Related to this is his exploration of the art of translation. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” said Robert Frost, but Pound believed that the essence of a poem could be discovered through translation – and enhanced through music. “I have been reduced to setting [Catullus and Villon] to music as I cannot translate them,” he said.

Is it worth listening to as music? Like the poetry, it can be forbidding on the surface. But American composer Charles Amirkhanian – who runs the Other Minds festival in San Francisco – thinks so. Repeated listenings reveal the arias from Cavalcanti to be “among the most compelling operatic arias written in the 1930,” he says. “It is regrettable that they have been kept secret for so long.”