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  • Pound's 'The Garden' as Modernist Imitation:Samain, Lowell, H.D.
  • Adam Piette

Translation, for Ezra Pound before the First World War, was transference of energy. As was poetry: in an infamously cumbersome simile, Pound argued, in 1911, that words in a language were like steel cones charged with the electricity of cultural energy:

Let us imagine that words are like great hollow cones of steel of different dullness and acuteness; I say great because I want them not too easy to move; they must be of different sizes. Let us imagine them charged with a force like electricity, or, rather, radiating a force from their apexes – some radiating, some sucking in. We must have a greater variety of activity than with electricity – not merely positive and negative; but let us say +, -, ×, ÷, +a, -a, ×a, ÷a, etc. Some of these kinds of force neutralise each other, some augment; but the only way any two cones can be got to act without waste is for them to be so placed that their apexes and a line of surface meet exactly . . . This peculiar energy which fills the cones is the power of tradition, of centuries of race consciousness, of agreement, of association.1

Pound seems to be drawing on a semi-Futurist analogy for this crazy sci-fi machine, but he is partly using nineteenth-century technology to generate his model: the electric arc lamp. In the words of the 1911 Nelson's Encyclopaedia:

If a break be made in a conductor forming part of a circuit through which an electric current is passing, and the gap be not too great, the energy continues to pass. As it does so, some of the particles are torn away or disrupted from one of the ends and carried towards the other. Intense heat is produced, and owing to this some of the particles are vaporized and rendered incandescent, thereby producing a luminous glow between the ends of the conductor. If the transference of energy across the gap is continuous, so is this glow, which is called the 'arc', because it was first [End Page 21] observed between the two ends of a horizontal conductor, and appeared arched upwards.2

The negatively charged carbon end of arc lamps is cone-shaped, giving Pound the cone he refers to when thinking about the energy-collecting power of words. Words in a poem are charged by the battery cells or dynamos of tradition and association. The poet places the highly charged conic word close to its neighbour, both in touch across the 'line of surface' of the page, and switches on the current of cultural energy. The current flows between the words at incandescent heat, partly vaporizing the word, creating the 'glow' of the poem as illuminating power.

The incandescence produced is in proportion to the power of cultural energy being drawn upon, and that power is considerably increased if the cone-words are arranged to express what Pound was wont to call 'Luminous Details', precise and telling interpretative points from the past that illuminate the source culture. These details are what Pound sought to capture in his translations, and they form the principal force-field from which his poetry drew its power: 'These facts are hard to find. They are swift and easy of transmission. They govern knowledge as the switchboard governs an electric circuit' (Selected Prose, p. 23). The cone-words act as a powerful control mechanism for the transmission of the power of a foreign tradition, governing the energies latent in a source culture's knowledge system.

Pound's analogy is useful in three ways if we want to think about modernist imitations. First, it intimates the correspondence, in Pound's mind, between writing a poem in one's mother tongue and imitating foreign energies in translation: both rely on a broken circuit, a gap, and an incandescent, vaporizing transfer of energy. In the poem written in one's native language, the poet is thinking about the textual space between words as the essential circuit-breaking gap where the glow of energy-transference takes place – it is the line of surface of the white page which acts as the space between. In the imitation...


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pp. 21-46
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Archived 2009
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