Notes on Pound: Ezra Pound’s Philosophy of Poetry

March 20, 2013


Much of Ezra Pound’s philosophy of poetry is encapsulated in the following:

“Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, squares, and the like, but for the human emotions. If one has a mind which inclines to magic rather than science, one will prefer to speak of these equations as spells or incantations; it sounds more arcane, mysterious, recondite.”

-Ezra Pound

The above quotation can be mined for much Modernist philosophy of art, and can open us to an appreciation of Ezra Pound’s poetical vision. Summed up here is the path Pound treaded between mysticism and empiricism, exactitude and esotericism.

2. Inspiration and Myths

To begin with, one must examine what Pound meant by “inspiration” – more particularly, inspired mathematics – and its connection to “human emotions”.

In Pound’s work, inspiration is “delightful psychic experience” (Kellner, 23). Most of his poems are about such experiences, and the typical features of these psychic experiences are such as we find in the poem “The Tree”. The speaker of this poem finds himself suddenly transformed into a tree, and is able to “know the truth of things unseen before”. Such truth does not constitute of otherworldly knowledge, and is rather a new understanding of things previously perceived as “rank folly” by the “head”. Nevertheless, the experience of this newfound understanding is sufficiently transformative, such that it is able to put him in touch with the gods, bringing them “within/unto the hearth of their heart’s home”. The poem plays on a contrast of heart versus the head, showing how inspiration is an experience rooted in supra-rational emotion. The head reduces subjective, mythological truth to “rank folly”, and denies us the transformative experiences that gave rise to myths, the repositories of the universals of human experience.

In his critical work, Pound calls these myths “explications of mood”. Myths (and by implication, any inspired artistic experience) arise when “states of mind” take eternal forms (Kellner 25). These “explications of mood” and “states of mind” are emotions – which psychology terms, somewhat belittlingly, the “affective” content of cognition as known in psychology. Pound’s poetry is an attempt at capturing in words the shapes, so to speak, of emotional experiences. In his Imagist manifesto, he calls this “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”, and this ideal can be seen in poems like “The return” and “In a Station of the Metro”.

“In a Station of the Metro”, captures in just two lines that transient instant of looking at an amorphous mass of a flurry of people when each face is as though “apparition”. The image of petals on a wet, dark bough is a striking image that evokes a shifting transience: foliage of the tree shaken loose in the rain catching on the bough, only to slip off again, like the splashing of color on a smooth black surface.

Similarly, in “The Return” , the image of an uncertain, tentative return is evoked by the words and the prosody without any ready-made framing scenario. Stripped of all situational content, what remains is the sole experience/image of an anxious return in all its striking vividness:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

The enjambed lines (tentative/movements, uncertain/wavering) evoke the moment before the anxious footfall of someone returning to confront an unwanted reality. In this way, the poem embodies the movement it tries to describe, engaging in the act of transformation not unlike that evoked in the poem “The Tree”.

3. Transformation and Consciousness

Transformation is an important theme. Inspiration opens the poet up to metamorphosis-like experiences which allow him to participate in all being. In the poem “A Girl”, after the transformation into the tree is complete, the second stanza goes:

Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child – so high – you are,
And all this is folly to the world.

The experience of transformation is an experience of consciousness stepping out of the bounds of its own corporeal form as it participates with the being of another. This is an experience barred to the alienated soul of the 20th century dominated by positivist ideals of truth. Mythological truths, rather than providing any insight into the objective reality out there, put us in touch with the divine accessible only to the inspired consciousness. These truths provide transcendence to the modern soul, allowing it to participate in the being of not just the tree, but the moss on it, the wind blowing above it, the violets it carries, and the child who watches this in delight. In other words, the poet is participating in the soul of the world. As a critic notes: the transformation brought about by inspiration also puts us in touch with “the men of the past” (Kellner 24) – or what has been referred to as “spiritus mundi” (world-soul) by Yeats.

4. Contemplative Mysticism

The “moods” and “states of mind” are the emotions mentioned in the quotation, and only an “inspired” “equation” can capture these moments of ecstasy to create art that takes us outside of ourselves to participate in the experience of the poet (and through him, in the experience of world-soul). According to Yeats, artistic creation “call(s) down among us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we call emotions” – another way to describe the experience of being in touch with the divine. Yeats goes on to say something which can provide commentary on Pound’s Cantos, in which one finds not only rhythm, but also an overwhelming density of literary allusions. Yeats’ explication of the poetic experience is that it arises from a “prolonged” “moment of contemplation”, in which symbols unfold the mind as it participates it a moment of poetic “creation”. In the quotation we started with, Pound says that the equations must be “arcane, mysterious, recondite”; Yeats says something similar when he says that good poetry comes out of “the element of suggestion, or symbolism”, which is subtle and lends to innumerable meanings. The reason for this is to engage the reader’s intellect in the challenge of poetry, so that the reader is not just a passive admirer of beauty but participates in the “moment of creation”.

5. The Significance of Sense Experience

For all the mysticism of Pound’s thought, his theory of poetry remains firmly grounded in empiricism, upholding the centrality of sense-experience in his philosophy. The lines Pound takes from Guinicelli to preface his Canto LI “Shines/in the mind of heaven God/who made it/more than the sun/in our eye” (which Pound cites to the Tuscan poet Guido Guinicelli) are an expression of his endorsement of the Neoplatonic view that perception of Platonic “forms”, that is, transcendent Truths, can result from experience of material forms through one’s senses (Liebregts 217). Spiritual vision is not unlike the vision of the material world illuminated by the light of the sun – it is merely of a higher order, indicated by the words “more than”. Traditional Christianity, on the other hand, encouraged suppression of the bodily senses by disconnecting spiritual intelligence from experienced reality. But Pound, in both poetry and prose, resisted this, delimiting Truth within the “domain of experience” constituted of “data perceptible to our consciousness” (Kellner 26). This is what Pound means by his use of the word “exact”.

Works Cited
Liebregts, P. Th. M. G. Ezra Pound and Neoplatonism. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2004.
Kellner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. U of Nebraska Press, 1951
Poems of Ezra Pound found online at
Yeats. Symbolism of Poetry.


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