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This academic essay was written by Hugh Cook in 1994 for the course 18.222: MODERN POETRY 1900-1945. The original assignment consisted of two tasks: (i) analyze the poem "The Garret" by Ezra Pound and (ii) write a poem of your own related to Pound's poem, with notes on how it was composed.
by Ezra Pound
The title of this poem is "The Garret". A garret is a room tucked underneath the roof of a house, and is the traditional haunt of an impoverished poet, since, in the days before the invention of the lift, the cheapest accomodation in any building was usually to be found in the uppermost storey. Through the title, then, Pound sets the poem in the cheapest of accomodations and suggests that he may be writing autobiographically as a poet.
The first line reverses the ordinary pattern of expectations by suggesting that we envy those who have more money than we do. The second line makes it clear that the "we" in question is the poet and a "friend". The third and fourth lines gives a reason for pitying the rich, since the rich are friendless. Since having friends is associated in the poem with having "no butlers", there is a suggestion that butlers are to be regarded as a regrettable imposition rather than a desirable asset.
"The Garret" appears in "Lustra", which was published in 1916 (Wynne-Davies: 813). Butlers were a feature of the lives of the rich in the England which Pound then inhabited, and the word "butler" economically locates the poem in the London which Pound made "his home during the period 1908-20" (Wynne-Davies: 813).
After four lines, a clear pattern is emerging. Pound does not specifically tell us that butlers are a regretable imposition, nor does he specifically tell us that his poem is set in England and makes reference to London society. Rather, he provides a bare minimum of data from which these things may be deduced. In particular, of all the words Pound could have chosen to refer the poem to English society, "butler" is perhaps the maximally resonant choice, since butlers are emphatically and usually exclusively associated with upper class English life.
The fifth line invites us to pity "the married and the unmarried", implying the whole world. Pound therefore differentiates himself and his "friend" from the rest of the world, but does not make clear the basis for this differentiation. This unresolved mystery has the effect of introducing an element of suspense into the poem.
Until now, this poem has consisted of direct unadorned statements in a conversational style bereft of metaphor or simile. However, the second stanza introduces a simile in which dawn is compared to the famous ballerina Pavlova. It is an image of delicacy: the dawn has "little" feet. It is also an image of wealth: the Pavlova of the simile is "gilded".
Given that the bare name "Pavlova" conjures up an image of elegance and grace, by writing of a "gilded Pavlova" Pound may be setting up resonances with the phrase "to guild the lily", meaning to unnecessarily overdo the business of adornment. By means of this lightly satirical twist, he may momentarily be making fun of an earlier poetic tradition in which poets tended to gush remorselessly when describing natural phenomena, particularly sunrise and sunset.
A brief snippet from "The Cotton Boll" by Henry Timrod (1828-1867) shows the kind of thing Pound was reacting against:Ye Clouds, that in your temples in the WestPound, having satirically ventured in the direction of this kind of lushness by invoking a "gilded Pavlova" then states that he is near his "desire", meaning his beloved. The mystery of the "we" which is differentiated from the rest of the world is now resolved. Pound is writing about himself and his lover.
See nothing brighter than its humblest flowers!
And you, ye Winds, that on the ocean's breast
Are kissed to coolness ere ye reach its bowers!
The resolution of this mystery refers us back to the first stanza, which indicates that all those outside this loving union are to be pitied. The remaining lines of the second stanza emphasise this, saying that life contains nothing better than the hour in which Pound and his beloved wake together. Pound characterises this time as one of "clear coolness", a very meagre gesture in the direction of poetic imagery.
This poem, largely bare of imagery, is nevertheless effective because of the contrast between the playful wit of the initial lines and the earnestness of the last four lines in which the poet states the reason for his pity of the rich. The shift in tone is marked by the poet's shift into the first person in line 8.
Similarly bare of imagery is W. B. Yeats's poem "When Helen Lived", which was written at about the same time, in 1913 (Yeats: 176). However, Yeats does make classical references to Helen of Troy (line 9) and to Troy itself (line 11). Yeats's poem also contains a literary reference to Christopher Marlow's play "Doctor Faustus", in which Faustus has Mephostophilis invoke a vision of Helen and declares, V.i.97-98:Was this the face that launched a thousand shipsPound's poem is free verse, using unrhyming lines of unequal length with no discernable metrical structure. Yeat's poem is also metrically irregular, but has a rhyme scheme which runs abacdefeghgh. Though the rhyme scheme is not regular, "When Helen Lived" is perceptibly a poem which rhymes. For most of the poem, Yeats also alternates a short line with a slightly longer one, once again moving the poem away from free verse and in the direction of conventionally structured poetry.
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Yeats's poem may be said to be slightly more conventionally literary than Pound's, but both poems are similarly economical in their effects, something best made plain by comparing the efforts of Yeats and Pound to the gush of a poem like Henry Timrod's "The Cotton Boll". The psychology of the Yeats poem, however, is radically different from that of Pound's effort. Pound, at least in "The Garret", is witty, poised and contented, whereas Yeats, using the royal "we", is speaking of his "bitterest hours" and of his "despair".
In summary, both Yeats and Pound are here writing in a direct manner which is only minimally poetic if judged against the conventions of an earlier age, but Pound has moved further toward a direct and almost antipoetical style.
(in imitation of "The Garret" by Ezra Pound)
Come, let us admit to our envy of the war-torn.
Come, let us be truthful and confess that we envy them their dramas and migrations,
By the punctilious impositions of the calender
To wake to the same change of sheets,
Radio teacups in the taxpaid afternoon.
Infusions of greys, Paquin's envy, greet Mogadishu to a cordite dawn.
And they are near their apotheosis.
Naught can match these
Asymptotic approaches to the limits,
These days of dying together.
How I Wrote This Poem
I began by getting a cup of coffee. I then invoked the aid of Mercury, patron of poets. (Appropriately, given that I was about to convert to my own purposes elements of another poet's style, Mercury is also the patron of thieves).
The strategy which instantly and effortlessly presented itself to my mind was to invert the values of this poem. Presumably, the thought of this strategy was prompted by the fact that Pound's poem is itself a reversal of expectations: whereas the rich are conventionally thought of as objects of envy, Pound makes them objects of envy.
Having conceived the idea of inverting the values of this poem, I thought that the obvious way to do this was to write a poem in which the rich envy the poor. Since the Todd Taskforce will shortly be reporting to the New Zealand government, and possibly recommending a 700% increase in fees so that the rich can pay 3% less tax, it occurred to me that the prospect of fees increases might be a good place to start.
However, on mature consideration (which accounted for the first half of the cup of coffee) I concluded that the remote manner of Pound's poem was not adequate to the task of a fiery denunciation of current trends in university financing. The essence of "The Garret", it seems to me, is that it does use deliberate distancing strategies which emotionally divorce the poet from the thing being discussed, which is an occasion on which he wakes up in bed with his beloved.
I then remembered how thoroughly I had been irritated by "Near Perigord", a childish piece of romanticising drivel in which Pound finds glamour in a military theme, writing:The tents tight drawn, horses at tetherThis kind of romanticising - "purple night" indeed! - indicates that Pound made no serious effort to get to grips with the nature of war, and certainly not with the praxis of war in mediaeval times. I have vague memories of reading a source dating back to mediaeval times which confronts the horrors of armed conflict by describing a knight in armour being fried alive as he struggles out of a burning building, and from a reading of the "Chronicles" of Jean Froissart (c1337-c1410) I have carried away the vivid and singularly unromantic image of the bread intended as the provisions for a group of hard-riding men at arms soaked by the sweat of their horses.
Further and out of reach, the purple night,
The crackling of small fires, the bannerets,
The lazy leopards on the largest banner,
Stray gleams on hanging mail, an armourer's torch-flare
Melting on steel.
As an oblique critique of Pound's infantile militarism, I therefore sat down and wrote a kind of parody of his romanticising of armed conflict, in which, seeking an incarnation of elegance suitable to substitute for the ballerina Pavlova, I borrowed from Canto LXXXI the figure of Paquin, a "Paris dressmaker" (Kenner: 133) whom Pound characterises as being possessed of "elegance".
Having written the actual poem, I then drank the second half of the cup of coffee, which was still hot, since to write poetry in another poet's style is one of the easiest and most trivial of feats imaginable.
Kenner, Hugh. (1972) The Pound Era. London: Faber and Faber.
Marlowe, Christopher. (1986) The Complete Plays. Ed. J.B. Sloane. London: Penguin.
Pound, Ezra. (1977) Selected Poems 1908-1959. London: Faber and Faber.
Timrod, Henry. (1873) "The Cotton Boll". In William Rose Benet and Norman Holmes Pearson eds., The Oxford Anthology of American Literature (1938). New York: Oxford University Press.
Wynne-Davies, Marion (ed) (1989) Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Yeats, W.B. (1988) Poems of W.B. Yeats (second edition). Ed A. Norman Jeffares. London: Macmillan Education.
Froissart, Jean. Chronicles. (Edition unknown).
This essay copyright © 1994, 2003