The Solitary Volcano: Four Lessons from the Life of Ezra Pound
"If a man isn't willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he's no good." —Ezra Pound
I’d like to share with you some lessons from this week’s Other Life podcast, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano. It’s based on a close reading of the 1987 biography by John Tytell.
The importance of having original, specific, educated, critical opinions. This was Pound’s greatest strategic asset. He was extremely well studied and had a variety of sharp, considered opinions. He was an aggressive talker who always made himself heard, and he was not afraid to give thoughtful critiques to older and more successful writers. Because his feedback was valuable, other writers wanted to keep him around (even if they disliked him). The best example is W.B. Yeats, an older and more famous poet, who disliked many aspects of Pound’s personality (he was candid in his letters that he thought Pound absurd and misguided in many ways), but Pound was a fierce and constructive reader of Yeats's work. So they were close friends for many years and Yeats was invaluable to Pound’s career, in turn. Listen at 18:07.
Once you have original taste (I), you need to bet on it. You need to take costly action to promote what you think is good. Pound was likely the greatest spotter of literary talent in all of the 20th century. But more importantly, he spent a ton of time, energy, and resources to help them win. About Joyce, for instance, he said: “He has written a novel, and I am quite ready to stake anything I have in this world that the novel is permanent.” The biography shows many times where he went far out of his way to get Joyce, Eliot, and others money and opportunities. As his “portfolio” of writers like Joyce and Eliot rose to the top, so too did his own cultural capital. If you think of Pound as a venture capitalist, he was the Peter Thiel of literary Modernism. Listen at 57:01.
The importance of high-intensity private friend groups (again). This is a recurring theme, but Pound’s case is very different than what we observed with the Beats, and in our podcast on Burroughs. And different from what we observed with Samuel Johnson's dinner club. Pound was much more aggressive; he was always trying to launch movements, win disciples, and take the world by storm. Imagism and Vorticism are the two main examples. When you look under the hood, it’s fascinating: They were basically branding exercises laid on top of private friend groups, with some theoretical gloss; I find them most revealing insofar as they show the limits of overly engineered "movements," and the far greater power of private, informal friend groups that organically bubble over into the public. Listen at 24:39.
The importance of refusing resentment and bitterness toward institutions that reject you. This was ultimately his downfall. The seed is sown at the very beginning of his career, and it's like this hidden, demonic, downward force that haunts him his entire life, ultimately bringing him to full-throttle Hitlerite Fascism. Listen at 01:09:01.
Ezra Pound in Venice (I believe)
Listen to the whole episode on the Other Life podcast—you can find it anywhere you get your podcasts.