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  • Pound's Transmissions:Typography, Phonography, and Notation
  • Daniel Matore (bio)

What typography could register, and what poetry was thought capable of notating, was susceptible to technologically charged optimism and technologically stimulated misgivings in the 1910s. Writing in 1918, Ezra Pound sounds a cautionary note as to what both poetry and music have the power to record:

Music is not speech. Arts attract us because they are different from reality; yet differ in some way that is proportionate to reality. Emotions shown in actual speech poured out under emotion will not go into verse. The printed page does not transmit them, nor will musical notation record them phonographically; but, for all that, a certain bending of words or of syllables over several notes may give an emotional equivalent.1

Pound's alliance of print literature, musical scores, and sound technology typifies a language where books and manuscripts are conceived as a form of recording apparatus. Pages, like antennae, transmit. Yet at the same time the very machinery whose lexicon has infiltrated how Pound talks about art threatens to automatize it, to make art mechanical. This simultaneous ingestion of and aversion to technological language is symptomatic of Pound's technological poetics, where poetry's proximity to machinery is enticing for a poet pursuing a program of radical reform but where a mechanical poetics is still eyed with revulsion.

Though he styled himself as a latter-day troubadour, thereby invoking a bardic freedom from print and paper, one of Pound's most enduring contributions to modernist literature was his pioneering experiments with typography, with the spacing, layout, and disposition of the page. Mimicking damaged codices and [End Page 351] fragmented papyri, Pound's early lyrics already acknowledge the ephemerality of oral poetry, and the troubadours whom Pound ventriloquizes, like Cino da Pistoia, are often senile and have forgotten snatches of their own songs. Rashes of ellipses dramatize the lacunae and omissions in those early poems, where the personae fail to preserve and transmit their own verse. These extensions of a Browningesque punctuation pre-figure the much more radical visual language Pound will develop in his lyrics of the 1910s and in The Cantos, where he elaborates a grammar of broken lines, unorthodox word spacing, and line spacing that later poets, like E. E. Cummings and Charles Olson, would see as the wellspring of the typographical experiments of modernist verse. The cardinal importance of Pound's typography to the history of modernism was that he was testing out visual devices that would become the stock repertoire of generations of poets, from contemporaries such as Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams, to the Black Mountain Poets and British modernists like David Jones, to the late-modernist verse of Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe, and J. H. Prynne. Experimenting with typography has become second nature to scores of contemporary poets, but this legacy of high modernism was chiefly bequeathed by Pound and his decision to break with the perennial conventions of the layout of verse. Although Pound did experiment with typeface and font size in works like his deluxe 1932 translation of Guido Cavalcanti's Rime, this article will focus on typography in terms of spacing, layout, and the splitting of the verse line—visual choices made by the poet rather than the printer and which Pound (like Williams, Moore, Olson, Marianne Moore, and other modernist poets) understood as part of a typographical poetics that they were themselves in control of. Pound's eminence as a poet comes not just from the fact that he broke the pentameter, as is so often reiterated, but that his typographical investigations question what a verse line is at all, as words and phrases are cut up and prized apart so that what Browning or Swinburne would have seen as a line is no longer sharply visible. Lineation stops being guided by meter and so becomes guided by the spatial imagination of the poet. As poets like Pound plot the design of their pages, typography and poetics become inseparable.

This article will argue that Pound's experiments with typography were part of an ambitious project to record and preserve the voice of the poet by inventing a complex visual language conceived...

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Additional Information

Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 351-373
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-27
Open Access
No
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