A Conversation With Omar Pound
When Artful Dodge was beginning work on its special section of writing from the Middle East, I was fortunate to meet Omar Pound, perhaps the most significant translator of Persian and Arabic classical texts since Edward Fitzgerald started on the quatrains of Omar Khayam. Pound, son of another gifted translator named Ezra, has so far contributed two collections of his translations: an anthology, Arabic and Persian Poems, published in 1970 by Fulcrum Press in England and New Directions in the United States, and a rendering of fourteenth-century Persian writer Obeyd-i-Zakani (‘Ubayd Zakani)’s political-comic allegory, Gorby and the Rats, published in London in 1972 by Agenda Editions. In the following interview, Pound explores his interest in these two literatures, their origins in pre-Islamic nomadic life, and above all the importance of an anthropologist’s eye for detail when it comes to translating a literary text. The fruits of his own attention to the cultural as well as the linguistic translation of literature has resulted in a body of adaptations into English that is vivid and natural-sounding to the American reader. Wrote Basil Bunting in the preface to Arabic and Persian Poems: “Omar Pound has detected something that Moslem poetry has in common with ours. He make it credible. He make it a pleasure.”
Pound also is a dedicated teacher; he has served as the headmaster of an Arab school in Morocco, and has taught at the College of Art and Technology at Cambridge University, as well as in schools in Boston and Princeton, New Jersey. In communicating his witty and erudite views on literature, Pound displays a fervent and likable energy. We are pleased to present this interview along with three of his translations from the Persian as an introduction to this new literary terrain for us at the journal. Omar Pound has come to us telling strange tales of strange lands, his stories vivid and precise as jewels, as pungent as spice — a caravan of riches. —Daniel Bourne
Daniel Bourne: What initially drew you to the classical literature of Persia and the Middle East?
Omar Pound: At age fourteen I wanted to go into Oriental languages because it was something different. I started learning Chinese but had no recall memory so I shifted to my second choice which was Persian. Actually, Persian’s an Indo-European language, very much easier than Arabic, which is a Semitic language. Since I had to learn to use an Arabic script to learn Persian, I was already on my way to learning Arabic , anyway. In any case, I like the contrast between the two literary styles. The Persian is more mellifluous, mystical. The Arabic is quite concrete.
DB: How strong of an influence do you think pagan Arabic poetry had on the literature after the start of Islam?
Pound: Of course, a lot of the pagan poetry wasn’t written down until well into the Islamic period. It’s as if Shakespeare were being written down now for the first time. Pre-Islamic poetry was memorized, and each poet had his own memorizer, his own reciter, called a rawi, and in due course the rawi added his own poetry to the recitation. Some of the poetry from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries wasn’t written down until the nineteenth century. So you’ve got a good long gap there. That’s why talking about texts is funny in a sense. And yet the Arabs were always very, very proud of being accurate about them.
DB: Do you think any tension arose between the pagan Arabic poetic tradition and the tradition after Islam?
Pound: I suppose in a way it’s like pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian. In the pre-Islamic stuff, the Bedouin poetry, you get a period of darkness, a period of ignorance. But the technique is there. Then it’s the period of poets who were converted to Islam, and of course, their poems are full of religious fervor, going off to battle for Islam. Only later do you get into extraordinary poetry. But I wonder whether the real distinction is not between pre-Islamic and Islamic, but rural versus city. I mean, the distinction between the poetry of the Bedouins and the poetry, let’s say, of Damascus or Baghdad, the poetry of the courts, of a different sort of social pattern. That distinction might be more significant. The subject matter changes. The imagery changes. Inevitably as you move from being nomadic to city life the whole poetic tone changes. I suspect that the city poetry, from one point of view, becomes more superficial or artificial, but on the other hand, it just becomes different. Like the difference between John Dryden and John Clare. Another unfair comparison, don’t you think?
DB: Once the poetry “went into town,” was there an eventual looking back toward the country?
Pound: This is the tale of the town and country mouse, isn’t it? I think there was an idealization of Bedouin life. And while some authors were always making fun of classical Arabic Bedouin poetry, there were others who did their best to imitate it. There’s an idealization of the dignity of the Bedouin, and there’s also a scoffing at his ignorance. I think you have this problem in any literature. You have the fellow writing about the country — somebody who’s lived in town all his life — romanticizing about the country, and then you get the realist. For instance, the lat eighteenth-century English poet Crabbe. I can’t remember the title of the particular poem of his, but it paints the real reality of the country, as opposed to a poem by somebody from the big city going out there and seeing all the birds and bees and not seeing the savagery of rabbits being caught in traps. You get detail, and details vary from culture to culture as they did between nomadic culture and the city life of Damascus and Baghdad. I always pay attention to details, and in this I am perhaps closer to an anthropological bent than a literary one. For instance, how many tent pegs are used. There are records of the number of poles different tribes of American Indians used for their teepees.
DB: Do you have any contact with the ethnopoetic movement in the United States, like Jerome Rothenberg and so on?
Pound: The truth is, quite candidly, I’ve never even heard the man’s name! No, I work things out in my own way, and tend not to read much poetry. I tend to read old manuscripts.
DB: I ask because in this movement anthropology and poetry are very much linked together just as in your translation work from old Persian and Arabic, except their focus is more on the exploration of the American Indian and the related oral tradition.
Pound: The reason I like anthropology is that I like to use its precise detail in poetry. You have to know the specifics of the world you are translating from. Sometimes these things can be extrapolated, but I prefer to go back to the details themselves. It brings things to life. Also — and here I’m not just talking about the translation of Arabic poetry — if you’re writing or translating a poem that’s dealing with the mysteries, you’ve got to be as matter of fact as possible. Every word has to be clear or the mystery just floats away into nothing.
DB: While we’re on the subject of detail, you mention in your introduction to Arabic and Persian Poems that in the quasida oral tradition of early Arabic poetry the audience would not let a poet get away with either inaccuracies of observation or departure from the genre’s strict meter. My question is, were these poems really that perfect in form and content? It seems to me that in a poem of that length there would have be some breakdown in observation or rhythm.
Pound: Well, if there are inaccuracies the poet is probably not a good one, and, yes, I suspect that the poem wouldn’t have been acceptable. But, then again, somewhere around 1400, Arabic poetry became sterile because poets didn’t break out of the mold. The same thing happens in English poetry at the end of the eighteenth century. After Pope and Dryden the writing becomes so formalized that English poetry at the end of this period was just atrocious. It only came back to life with Wordsworth diving into the middle of what constitutes a line or a poem, and just saying, well look, let’s start all over at the beginning. This didn’t happen in Arabic poetry until the nineteenth century. I suspect it’s tied up very closely with politics and the printing press, which Napoleon introduced to Egypt early in the century.
DB: So due to the deterioration or achieved decadence of this early form, there was a sort of dark ages until the nineteenth century?
Pound: Yes. This is a question that Toynbee raises: Why did everything in Islamic culture just seem to suddenly come to an end about 1400 and not revive until 1900? It’s an enormous question. Of course, you’ve got the same thing happening in English literature, have you? What happens between Anglo-Saxon poetry and Chaucer? There’s quite a lot actually going on in vowels and so forth, but you do have a vast period of dullness. But, after all, you have to go to bed and sleep until morning sometime. All civilizations have to do that. They have to have their cup of coffee when they get up and then they have to get going again. Every culture has its peak working hours.
DB: I know that Ezra Pound felt that he was at the end of the dark ages in English literature.
Pound: Well, I think that all poets and all people think it’s the end of the world, don’t they? I mean, it really may be now! Nuclear doubts and so forth. I admit though to a slightly mystical point of view. All manner of things shall be well, though in what form they shall be well I don’t know. If you worry about what’s going to happen and it doesn’t happen, that’s a waste of effort. There’s not so much one can do about it. That doesn’t mean a sort of Hindu or Buddhist aloofness entirely. It’s just a far more practical — though I’m not sure you can be totally practical — way of getting with things, and you go on with them whether the ship’s going down or not. Maybe that’s a rather too optimistic point of view. Though you can go down with the ship optimistically, I think. You can also be more worried that we’re on a normal voyage — but not enough stores have been taken on board by the sailors.
DB: I noticed in a biographical directly, Contemporary Authors or some such place, that you had listed your politics, “nil,” and your religion, “nil.”
Pound: I consider myself fundamentally a mystic. I’ve read a lot of Islamic mystical poets and a certain number in English and I find myself attracted to it. I like to feel that one of the essences of poetry is to be able to look over the next range of hills. I don’t want to be continually looking around at the world in the valley. I want to see what’s ahead of me. It may be sunrise or it may be sunset. There may be Canadian geese flying over. There may not.
DB: Or missiles.
Pound: Or missiles, yes, exactly. Or it may be a witch on a broomstick. Even saying one doesn’t have a religion is an acceptance of the mysteries of life, and I think acceptance of mysteries gives one a sense of wonder. I don’t think anybody can be a poet if they don’t wonder. I think they might as well go home and just stick to cooking. Still, there’s a wonder to cooking, so that may not be the right thing to say. But somewhere along the line there’s got to be a sense of wonder. And without being stuffy, I think one also has also got to have a sense of the sacred. An awful lot of poets who have great reputations for twenty or thirty years then become unimportant because they lack a sense for either. I feel this very strongly.
DB: Going back a few more centuries in time once again, do you feel that change in Arabic and Persian poetry has been less than that in Western literature?
Pound: (low whistle) I don’t know the answer to that one. Change — are you talking here of content, or are you talking of style?
DB: Both, I guess.
Pound: Well, one of the changes that has happened to Persian poetry is due to the influence of twentieth-century French and English poetry. I’m not sure that it’s been a good influence entirely, because only the things that were totally familiar or totally alien ended up being absorbed. These are the things one finds ultimately interesting, and there’s this big gap in the middle that no one bothers with. Let’s go in reverse here a bit, too. There is a genre in Arabic which is basically rhyming prose. It’s like Finnegan’s Wake and was being done a thousand years ago. Thus, the Arabs were already dealing with this supposedly twentieth-century thing very extensively. They’ve got all sorts of genres compatible with those of the twentieth-century. We all re-adapt. Like the return in English to alliteration that came from Anglo-Saxon poetry. There’s more interest in that now than there is in end-rhymes. It’s all perfectly valid. I guess all this doesn’t quite answer the question.
DB: Basically, I’m asking that if you took a nineteenth-century English poem and an English poem from the fourteenth century and then compared the differences between the two poems with the same span of centuries in Persian or Arabic, would there be a greater range in the poetry in English or in Persian or Arabic?
Pound: You might have to put things in a completely different sequence.
DB: So the growth might not be linear then?
Pound: It might be a different type of growth. you’re trying to define in an absolute manner what you mean by growth — like taking an Aristotelian type of logic and trying to superimpose it on a non-Aristotelian system.
DB: That’s the type of answer I’m looking for.
Pound: That’s the best parallel I can give you, I think. You’ve got to start and build up your criterion from within the culture itself and not superimpose it. It’s like superimposing Latin grammar on English.
DB: So the whole idea of change and growth in the Arabic tradition and the Persian tradition would be different than—
Pound: Yes. I think there are probably parallels, and parallels of the terms “growth” and “change” would exist, but they would have to be defined somewhat differently. Also, in the psychological structure of classical Arabic and Persian poetry is rather different from the Western way of looking at things. It’s a complicated question. One can sense these things but not pin them down.
DB: You mention in your introduction to the Persian work in Arabic and Persian Poems: “The deliberate avoidance of originality bores us in the West, but then originality in poetry is a Western concept, alien to the Persian — in whose poetry people are never individuals but universals, stylized beings (the lover, the beloved, etc.).”* When you translate from this tradition, do you try to make adjustments to adopt poems to Western tastes when, especially in American literature, specificity is almost a first principle?
Pound: The basic problem in any translation work is language, but, then again, ultimately it’s the least important barrier. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding something about the culture and the history, being able to write of it, being able at the same time to think poetically — you can always get somebody to help you with the literal translation or you can use a crib. I would say that anybody who wants to translate has to be able to write well in English.
DB: Well, I’ve noticed, looking at some translations from Polish to English done by other Poles that the work tends to sound a bit too brittle. The grammar and the intellectual meaning are there, but no music, no spark and flow.
Pound: Because the translators have primarily a passive knowledge of English from reading. Yes, that’s right. I also feel very strongly that I should be able to look at a translation and not know whether it’s a translation or an original poem. I mean, if it’s obviously a translation, it hasn’t done its job. I want the translator to put it into English idiom for me. And the translator has to make these decisions. Nobody else can. For instance, sometimes I use Western names, sometimes I don’t. Since most Arabs are named after the village they come from, their family, or their trade, in one or another of the poems I’ve put down equivalent English names. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I do it just to get the feel. These alterations are not quite adaptations, but they are definitely experimental. But there’s no use transmitting a lot of obscure allusions from Arabic poetry that are meaningless to the English reader.
DB: When you translate, do you make a distinction between American and English readers?
Pound: I get torn between those because I have lived with both. The idioms I use are English, up to a point, but I do listen to the people I am around, and in my actual everyday speech I use quite a lot of American idioms. But I draw a distinction between idiom and slang. Slang dates itself so quickly that I don’t use it. It’s a waste of effort. On a rare occasion when you have cabdrivers talking or some sort of war story, you’ve got to use slang, but it’s going to date your work nevertheless. I try to choose things that aren’t self-destructive in terms of time as much as I can. There are those who want to get things that are absolutely contemporary, but these things become out of date so rapidly.
DB: Do you have any qualms about being a single translator trying to handle all these different voices? Do you sense in your translations that there’s a certain voice in this poem, a certain voice in that one?
Pound: Well, one of my main criticisms of my own style is that I don’t distinguish enough between me and the individual poets. They’ve become a rather conglomerate voice. But I do distinguish between the Arabic voice and the Persian one — which is a very noticeable difference. You’ll find much more lilt and flow in the Persian translations, and a stark, tough quality in the Arabic. That’s quite deliberate. I did translate a poem of Aramea Hussroh’s (a poet in Delhi) and tried to do it really in his style. I think that came out well. But in general this is a problem: Do you seek your voice or do you seek the voice of the original?
DB: You said before that you have used English names for translating family names.
Pound: Yes. In one of the earliest poems I used the word “Baker” rather than the Arabic word that also originated from that occupation. I find that sort of transformation perfectly acceptable to myself and I think it makes the poem more palatable to the reader. Let’s be brutal about it — and novices won’t like this attitude — but one does manipulate one’s reader all the time. People don’t like to think about that. They think it’s cheating, but that’s what literature is all about. You try to get your reader to think in a particular pattern or direction — you’re putting a ring in his nose and leading him around, really. Every word and syllable is leading the reader in a certain direction. A lot of that is unconscious on the part of the writer. Subconscious. Some of it’s quite deliberate.
DB: Having read a certain amount of East European writing I felt that surrealism in that part of the world is something more “organic” to their experience and less of a literary pose than in the West, especially in French literature. What is your perception of the role of surrealism in classical and modern Arabic and Persian literature? Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine and I were walking down a street in Warsaw one day, and he said something that reminded me of Franz Kafka: “Just the other day I was trying to buy a train ticket and they had to look something up about my fare in an old, brown-paged book. Every time they turned a page it would rip apart in their hands, but they still kept on looking.” In a way, when we in the West read Kafka, we think, my, look at his imagination, whereas, if you have actually experienced the state-of-the-art Central European bureaucracy, you begin to view Kafka as more a realist than a surrealist.
Pound: Well, I would have thought that the use of all those images was just an observation of fact. On he whole, I would not call that surrealism. I think I always tend toward something that I can understand, and by and large, I don’t really understand surrealism. I want the story and images to make sense to me. I want at least a sort of psychological sequence that I can understand, or that can be reconstructed into English. So, on the whole, I would not call this surrealism. Although you can consider realistic images surrealistically. I would rather consider the precise details of turning those pages — how the hand is held, how the top righthand corner of the page crumbles more readily, how some pages are torn about three-quarters of the way along the righthand side because some people turn the pages from the bottom. I would just look at the whole thing in terms of an essential part of being accurate. It would never occur to me to think here in terms of surrealism.
DB: I guess that the surrealistic element — what arises when both human experience and human language come under unexpected pressure — occurs when Kafka extends this workaday world into a portrait of a universe in which every human action involves the turning of a brittle page.
Pound: I suppose what I really want to say is that great poetry must have great vision. Whether you like the vision or not has nothing to do with it. Poetry is like photoelectric cells that only function when they’re aimed towards the light. If you think of a poem as being a photoelectric cell, reporting most vigorously when direct towards the light, you know you’re not going to get much reaction if you point it down a well. Obviously, some people prefer pointing it down a well. But I’m not especially interested. I daresay that’s why I don’t go for “The Waste Land.” I don’t think Eliot sees far enough.
DB: So what happens in the paintings of Bosch—
Pound: He’s a wicked one.
DB: Anyone just glancing at his work would say, “Here is surrealism in embryo. He’s ahead of his time.” But there is also a shared realism in his art that was in the air during his lifetime. The extravagances of life and death. But he more than the others consumed his own paintings in the communal symbols of gargoyles perched on the cathedral, symbols of both sacredness and decadence.
Pound: Are you putting forth the notion that some of the minds in a certain epoch are so individual that they portray something individual and not something that is of the epoch itself?
DB: I guess I’m saying that they do both.
Pound: Well, then I would say that Blake never portrayed his epoch, he only portrayed a quality of himself. To me that’s what makes a great artist. There are indeed arguments about Bosch. Is he using symbols that weren’t well-known at the time? Are they emanations of Bosch the individual? I’m not sure. Was Bosch using common Medieval creatures from the bestiaries and the metaphysics of the period, or were these figures real just a part of his imagination? I don’t know the answers. But to get back to your question concerning surrealism in regards to Arabic and Persian poetry, all I can say is that this literature, like all literatures, has its limitations of period. But great poetry will always supersede the language, the subject matter, and above all, the interests of the period in which it was written. The classic example of this is in music. Why is it that Così Fan Tutte wasn’t ever really performed until the 1930s? That’s one of Mozart’s best operas. I guess all things have their cycles.
DB: And you can turn that the other way.
Pound: Why was so-and-so…
DB: …famous during their age.
Pound: Yes. Really unimportant people were tremendous heroes during their period. Time hadn’t judged them yet. This is why I’m profoundly skeptical of things that are popular in their time. And yet one can be wrong on that as well. You can’t make a judgment either way on that basis, but I certainly would wonder about things that have become unduly popular during their time. They too often have topical value but not longevity.
DB: That’s a problem. I know that there’s a danger dealing with contemporary Polish poetry and probably in dealing with Middle Eastern poetry. I know that some of the things that are—
Pound: —topical don’t go any further than that. Yet there are some people who can write about topical subjects and incorporate them into a work that is enduring. They can see over the hills, maybe not even consciously. On the other hand, you have the relentlessness of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus — can the audience take it? What this leads me to is wondering whether Shakespeare’s humor at the end of some tremendous tragedy isn’t almost chickening out, just patting the audience on the back and saying, well, things are not quite that bad. So that they can go away and not feel like they’ve been thrown down a well.
DB: Might that just be Shakespeare leading the reader along by the nose?
Pound: I haven’t thought this out at all. Sophocles and Shakespeare both have their own ways of reassuring the reader gently after having given them the most ghastly show. But Dr. Faustus is relentless. No let-up there at all. I wonder whether it isn’t too powerful for an audience. I don’t know what questions this raises and I certainly don’t know what answers there are. I’m simply thinking here. When I ask questions, I really don’t want anyone to answer. I’m just trying to pose the question for myself.
DB: It’s a good question. I would say it has something to do with the fact that Marlowe died such a young man, and Shakespeare—
Pound: —lived on much longer.
DB: Lived on to be a bourgeois.
Pound: Marlowe never got to see over the hills. He never got to turn the photoelectric cell towards the light. Maybe my question changes from now on. That’s a very interesting point. It really is.
DB: Here is something of interest to me and, I think, to other translators. In the notes to our translation of Gorby and the Rats you mention that there were already three previous translations in English. I take it you felt these were unsatisfactory for one reason or another.
Pound: Well, I didn’t find them till after I’d done mine actually. And I ignored them. They’re really awful — no vitality, no life to them at all. They were just pussyfooting.
DB: A fellow translator of mine, Leonard Kress, has run into this situation translating a long Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz, written by Adam Mickiewicz around 1830. It’s the last example in European literature of a true epic poem. The existing translations are either stilted or in prose — though I guess Donald Davie did a translation in the ’50s that might be better, but I haven’t seen it. Anyway, the sections of Leonard’s translations that I’ve read seem to be done in very good modern English, even with rhyme and meter, but subtler. So far, though, he has run into resistance from Polish scholars who think that since Pan Tadeusz has already been translated into these charming rhymed couplets, why translate it over?
Pound: I know it has been said somewhere, but you have to retranslate a work every 25 years or so. For each new generation.
DB: It’s also a matter of the translator being a poet himself. Were the other versions of Gorby done by poets?
Pound: No. One of them was written in prose even. No, they were done by people who couldn’t hear what they were reading. You have to re-create the thing.
DB: Does having parallels like Belling the Cat and Pier Plowman help in translating a story like Gorby and the Rats?
Pound: Well, I had almost finished Gorby and was going through Belling the Cat, which is from about the same period as Piers Plowman. I found three lines of prose that went almost word for word into poetry. And so I used them. Why not? It wall sheer accident.
DB: I know that the whole idea of “belling the cat” was something that I discovered in cartoons when I was five or six, long before I ever heard of Piers Plowman or English literature.
Pound: That’s the freshness! All these rats and mice trying to capture the cat. I have no hesitation in writing about animals. It doesn’t bother me. Time doesn’t bother me either. Sequences of time shifting back and forth into different epochs doesn’t disturb me in the slightest. I try to keep stuff differentiated chronologically, but I don’t go out of my way. And I have no worry whatsoever about animals making funnies out of philosophical comments. I’m sure that comes from my Islamic reading and from Arabic and Persian equivalents of these sorts of fables and Sanskrit stories. Also, I’ve noticed in a contemporary piece I’ve been working on that it’s easier to write about human psychology or human motives by putting them into an animal — far less emotional strain — than it is to put them into a human being.
DB: Yes, but on the other hand, Galway Kinnell has said that the reason there has been so much animal literature lately is because people are afraid to talk about humans.
Pound: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. I just think it’s a bit easier. And it’s more fun. I suppose the reader can distance himself if he’s basically chicken and doesn’t want to reveal that this is like any sort of experience he’s had. He can always say, the hedgehog said or the rabbit said.
DB: Another way this crops up is not so much a comic use of animals, but a tragic use. You know, the roads are covered with dead animals.
Pound: Well, here’s where the distance probably makes it a bit easier to write. The distance probably improves the writing.
DB: What do you think of Turkish poetry?
Pound: I don’t read Turkish but I’ve read some translations of modern Turkish poetry and I think, probably, that it’s the most interesting of all the Middle Eastern poetry. They’ve broken away from the past since Kemal Ataturk shifted to the Roman alphabet in 1923 or whenever it was. I’ve seen some modern Turkish poems that I thought were excellent and could be appreciated in any culture. I’ve got one line in my head. “Some died. Others made speeches.” That’s a political statement that can be applied anywhere, at any point in history. There’s a sharpness and austerity to modern Turkish poetry. I suspect that if somebody’s really interested in Middle Eastern poetry they might find more in modern Turkish than in anything else. I know a Turk at Princeton and I’ve thought once or twice of the possibility of us getting together to see if there’s something worth doing. I would have the general cultural background. He’d have the language. And I’d also have, I hope, the English to mash it into shape. Some of that poetry is very incisive. And all its political intensity seems to rise above the particulars and refer to things wider than that.
DB: In this issue, we’re publishing a poem by Nazim Hikmet in which he does just that. It starts out: “When on the horns of my oxen the world whitens.” There seems to be a lot of modern Middle Eastern poetry — mainly Arabic and for obvious reasons Palestinian — that describes the land as if it were a woman. Hikmet does that, too. But there’s a sense of joy in it. Everything he does, each of the labors he performs, is an expression of his love.
Pound: Hikmet, of course, is well known. But I suspect that if somebody really wanted to work at it there’s a lot of stuff from other Turkish writers. Some of it’s in the ’30s, some in the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s all there.
DB: I was talking to some Arab students of literature recently. They seem to think that the most vital work being done within the Arabic right now is by Palestinian writers.
Pound: Yes! I think it’s because the Palestinians are under the most emotional stress and strain. What they feel is so strong that it naturally has to come out on the printed page. They’ve been driven out of their land and they feel it. That’s the strength of this type of writing. That is, of course, also its weakness. Concomitantly it’s too emotional. I mean it’s the poetry of all refugees of all periods of history.
DB: Maybe what would make it better poetry would be a certain sense of the reality of this particular time and place.
Pound: Oh, I think all Palestinian poetry is very precise about a particular refugee camp. But, anyway, I’m sure there are Palestinian points of view, they have the tendency to go on too long. They have only one subject, which might as well be said simply. Perhaps that’s another problem: you’ve got to shift your subject. Of course, there are lots of subjects within the Palestinian situation — the brutality, the romantic longing for the homeland, and also the frightful everyday reality — all valid, but I can’t see a Palestinian stepping outside and writing something else. On the other hand, the fact they they don’t is perfectly defensible. After all, seventeenth-century poets were writing about church and state because it was such an important topic in their eyes.
DB: Hayden Carruth has written that one of the problems with American literature is that we’re not going beyond poems about grandmothers and storm windows. he calls writers who dwell on these topics “escapists.” We do indeed seem to be most comfortable describing the minute details of everyday life, or very personal things.
Pound: I suspect you bring up this question because it’s one that bothers you. Any questions we raise tend to be ones that interest the inquirer, and the response is almost incidental. If I were asking you questions, I would touch upon the very matters I’m battling over. But just let me say that the everyday things that touch on the impersonal are probably very valid. I think you could write a very political poem about a storm window. I could almost image that as the title of a political poem. “Storm Windows.” I mean, can’t you? You know, they are put up at certain times of the year, and sometimes they’re just screwed in and sometimes they’re affixed permanently. I mean, it goes on endlessly.
*(London: Fulcrum Press: 1970), pp.23-4.
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