Harmony, Space, and Images

Ezra Pound and Music

“Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He helped poets, painters, sculptors and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble” (Hemingway 110).

That’s how Ernest Hemingway described the American poet, critic, editor, and dynamic personality Ezra Pound, one of the foremost literary figures in Paris in the 1920s.  It seems Pound was everywhere in Paris in the early 1920s. He introduced and brought together many of the Paris literary figures, edited their works (most notably, Eliot’s “The Waste Land”), and helped define and shape the tenets of literary modernism and imagist poetry. He is less well-known, possibly rightfully so, for another of his interests: Pound was a musician, composer (of questionable talent), and musical critic. Although music may seem simply a side interest of Pound’s, inspired by the intermingling of artists and artistic genres in the early days of modernism, Pound’s musical musings likely impacted and shaped his basic ideas on modernist poetry.  Indeed, in his 1913 essay on Vorticism, he quotes the 19th-century English literary critic Walter Pater: “[A]ll arts should approach the conditions of music” (Pound “Vorticism”). Pater wanted art to elicit an emotional response without necessarily spelling out a narrow story. Pound, too, hoped literature can achieve without excessive narrative, but he took this idea one step further to critique even music that is rendered over explanatory through excessive sentimentality.

In 1924, specifically, Ezra Pound wrote three essays on music: one on the composer George Antheil, one on harmony (which was published in the Transatlantic Review) and one on William Anthling, the pen-name he used to publish the Musical Supplement of the Transatlantic Review. Though specifically about music, each of the essays also reveals basic beliefs about poetry and all arts .

In “On Harmony,” published in the Musical Supplement of the third issue of the Transatlantic Review, Pound explains his rather abstract views on harmony. Pound believes that music should not be sentimental and that melody alone should not be relied upon. His views are similar to and likely influenced by his other contemporary music critics, such as Jean Cocteau, who breaks away from traditional interpretations of poetic beauty in music, saying, for instance, that “the nightingale singes badly” (Cocteau 8). By itself, the melody of a nightingale, a traditional symbol for poetry and poetical song, is not high art. Pound writes:

“The element most grossly omitted from treatises on harmony up to the present is the element of TIME. The question of the time-interval that must elapse between one sound and another if the two sounds are to produce a pleasing consonance or an interesting relation, has been avoided” (Harmony 9).

Pound emphasizes space and rhythm rather than melody and pitch. He goes so far as to say that any pitches can be used as long as the proper space connects them:

“A sound of any pitch, or any combination of such sounds, may be followed by a sound, or any combination of sounds, providing the time interval between them is properly gauged; and this is true for any series of sounds, chords, or arpeggios” (Harmony 10).

Pound’s emphasis on the space between notes points to the relation and connection that must be made in those spaces. Whether or not a rule adopted by musicians at the time, Pound’s view on harmony seems as if it also could apply to imagist poetry.  Pound and others began pioneering the imagist movement toward the end of the first decade of the 20th century. Imagist poems are free verse and attempt to relate messages through very specific and often very concise images. Possibly the most famous imagist poem by Ezra Pound is the two-line “In a Station of the Metro:”

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.”

The short, rhythmic poem is composed of three specific images: a metro station, a crowd of faces, and petals on a wet branch. Pound claims to have originally written a much longer poem to express his feelings in the metro station and then took months to refine it down to these two lines. As in Pound’s idea of a good work of music, this poem relies heavily on the juxtaposition of images, or, in the language of “On Harmony,” the “space” between and around images. The three images alone mean nothing independently of one another—the station, faces, and petals mean little independently, but by juxtaposing them beside each other, Pound provokes a connection. He implies that there is a relation and causes the reader to interact with the images in order to experience the connection. Someone reading the poem might choose to see the faces as beautiful but short-lasting—the beauty of ephemeral and delicate wet petals will soon fade, just as the faces one sees in a crowd, no matter how beautiful, may never be seen again. Another reader may think more morbidly of the short nature of human life—healthy faces, too, will wither like petals on a wet bough. Different readers will interpret the poem in a number of different ways, but the point is that the charged images are set in motion only when the reader begins to interact with them. Pound, although wanting the reader to interact, does not however leave too much up to interpretation. Every word and mark is carefully chosen. He, for example, sets the tone with the unusual word “apparition,” and the unique language establishes a space or environment where these different images can come together in harmony. His actual spacing between words also equate different images. Both “faces” and “petals” are followed by descriptive prepositional phrases. And though they come one after the other, they are separated on two lines and by a semicolon. Pound entices readers by the literal spaces between his words and mental spaces between his images.

We can look at the same phenomena in other of Pound’s short poems such as the three-line Alba:

“As cool as the pale wet leaves / of lily-of-the-valley / She lay beside me in the dawn.”

Again, the space that connects the idea of the woman and the leaf is what creates the poem’s intrigue. The reader must actively attempt to feel and imagine the connection Pound insinuates. The contrast of the images, makes the insinuation poignant. The sensory image of cool, pale, wet leaf sets the tone—as a particular phrase of notes would set the key and mood—and the following image gains meaning due to its placement next to the first. The woman lying down speaks in a new tone when placed in connection with the leaf, specifically a delicate lily-of-the-valley. Her action takes place in the past tense, but the poem ends with “dawn”—all these ideas affect the tone, the feel, and  could be thought of as the space around and juxtaposition of the images.

Pound wants music that elicits a reaction. He doesn’t want the music or the poem to over-explain, to indulge in sentimentality, to be too obvious. He wants to convey truth through images that the reader will feel rather than instantaneously understand. Ultimately, Pound sees poetry and music as one world, or of two different ways of achieving the same thing—eliciting authentic emotional reactions.

Works Cited

Albright, Daniel. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago, Ill: U of Chicago, 2000. Print.

Cocteau, Jean. “Cock and Harlequin: Notes concerning Music :.” Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2015.

“Ezra Pound.” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, n.d. Web. 24 July 2015.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Movable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, with Supplementary Notes.” Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2015.

Pound, Ezra. “Vorticism.” The Fortnightly Review. N.p., 25 Aug. 2011. Web. 20 July 2015.