I took three courses with Professor Tallman at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the early 1980s. Tallman passed away in 1994, but his contribution to the local literary scene and in particular to the poetry scene was and still is legendary, or at least it is among the literati. I have already written about Tallman, although rather obliquely and sentimentally in my 2010 essay, “Why Nobody wants a new Vancouver Art Gallery or gives a ratsass about Photoconceptualism.” In fact, that essay was dedicated to him and discusses in detail his influence not only on the poetry scene in Vancouver in the 1960s and 70s but also on the current visual arts scene and cultural scene in general.
I wrote this essay on D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound for him in an introductory poetry course that he taught at UBC in 1982. This is one of the first essays I ever wrote for him. This is also the only one that I was able to find in my mother’s basement. It’s not a great essay, but it’s not a bad essay, neither. It’s just a nice little essay. It’s still a nice and easy read 32 years later and not at all academic per se. I’m publishing it here more to get Professor Tallman’s comments recorded for the digital record than anything else. Nothing ever dies on the Internet. Incidentally, Professor Tallman really loved my essay and gave me an “A” and ever since that day, we got along famously. Here are his comments on my original essay:
“The word for this that comes most readily to mind is “brilliant”. You bring a twin force of perception and thought to bear. That womb guess is wonderful. But it all is — intelligence working at a much more than “½ watt rays” intensity. Now, then, there, those double spaces. [The original essay was hand-written and single-spaced.] An Excellent 1st Paper.”
Surrey, British Columbia. June 29, 2014
D.H. Lawrence’s “Piano” and Ezra Pound’s “Medallion”: Two poems that look back in time in search of refuge and remembrances of things loved and lost.
Written for Dr. Warren Tallman, Department of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. November 1982.
It is human nature: to run far away from your fears and problems, though you can never really escape, but, for a moment, you may seek refuge in the past. This is true for both D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound who seek refuge in the past. For Lawrence, the return to the past is fleeting and emotional. But for Pound, the return to the past is prolonged and intellectual. Whereas Lawrence’s return to the past in “Piano” is motivated by a yearning to recapture innocence, security, and the curiosity of childhood, Pound’s return to the past in “Medallion” is motivated by a yearning to recapture the tradition of Homer and of the Classicists.
Quite obviously, the memory of the closeness and love of Lawrence’s mother evoked by the singing woman causes Lawrence both pleasure and pain. He knows he cannot reverse the clock, yet it is his true desire to do so. The more he reminisces, the more pain, and the less pleasure he feels. This is why the poet uses the word “betray.” That part of him which longs for his childhood betrays his manhood. Clearly, the simplicity of childhood is preferred over to the complexities of adulthood, but the conflict within Lawrence goes beyond the tension between past and present, innocence and experience. I ask you, is the wish to return to “a mother who smiles as she sings; to the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside; to the cosy parlour” really not the wish to return to the womb? Do you not see that the “cosy parlour,” which provides warmth, protection, and an environment where child and mother are united, is analogous to the womb?
The desire and need to recapture the bond between child and mother go beyond mere escapism, however. It is true that Lawrence’s mother is a source of warmth and love, but more importantly, she is also a source of poetic inspiration and refinement and, evidently, Lawrence’s poem in particular and his art in general. Among those familiar with Lawrence’s oeuvre, there is a consensus that he was fixated with his mother, which some have argued, is best exemplified, if not exposed in his 1913 novel Sons and Lovers. This poem, “Piano,” was written just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and may be a condensed version of his novel, and a more telling example of his ‘mother fixation.’
Similarly, the woman with the “clear soprano” in “Medallion” the last mini-poem in Pound’s long poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” also stands for culture, but the culture she stands for is a culture more about glitz and shiny veneers than about substance and soul. Femininity, humility, good taste, some of the attributes usually associated with a woman of culture and class, are not to be found in Pound’s woman. Ostensibly, Pound’s complaint is with the post-war years after the Great War. The poem was written in 1920. The woman in “Medallion” may, from Pound’s viewpoint, be an unwanted symbol of her times and the dawning of the Jazz Age in the 1920s.
The definition of a medallion is a large medal usually given as a prize for outstanding achievement in sports — the Olympics come to mind. It is also sometimes given as a prize to award outstanding achievement in non-sports events, too, but it is always given out after a contest or competition. A medallion is also usually very ostentatious. If the woman in “Medallion” is glassy (“Luini in porcelain!”); if the woman is gaudy (“Honey-red, closing the face oval”); if the woman is snaky (“The sleek head emerges”); if the woman is devilish (“The eyes turn topaz”); and if the woman represents the culture of her times, then, certainly, it is a culture that is decorative, decadent, degenerate and demonic.
Is the woman in Pound’s “Medallion” a symbol or a parody of the crass capitalism that would make the 1920’s the most affluent and debauched decade in American history? Is she a real prize, something that we should cherish or is she ersatz, a parody of the real prize that cannot be taken seriously? Is she really the new Venus (“Anadyomene”) of her times? No, the woman in “Medallion” is probably not Pound’s Venus or Helen of Troy, for that matter. Of course, Pound’s true Venus is by Botticelli, his true Helen of Troy is by Homer. What Pound desires to do is “to “resuscitate the dead art/Of poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’/In the old sense.” But in order to do so, Pound must go back into time.
As we have seen, the past is a period of creative energy for both Lawrence and for Pound, but here the similarities end. “Piano” is written by a poet who places high priority on emotion, blood, and instinct. “Medallion” is written by a poet who places high priority on intellect, eclecticism, and academicism. In other words, “Piano” is wish fulfillment: Lawrence wants to live the present in the past. “Medallion,” on the other hand, is wishful thinking: Pound wants to live the past in the present. And the differences do not end here.
Lawrence is an Englishman, and he writes like one, too. The tendency of the English to think in sentences is revealed in “Piano,” a poem that closely resembles prose. Pound, the American, on the other hand, thinks in phrases. For this reason, “Medallion” seems more verbal, and more spontaneous. In fact, “Medallion” is a dramatic monologue. Indeed, much of our difficulty in trying to understand the poem stems from this fact. For many of us who have enough trouble understanding ourselves, the task of trying to comprehend the dramatic monologue of a man as complex as Ezra Pound seems impossible. Not exactly humble, but egocentric, it may very well be Pound’s intention to be difficult, to write “poetry of the classroom” as William Carlos Williams has accused him of doing. I suspect that this has something to do with the obscure references in “Medallion,” and throughout “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” it must be said.
However, and more likely, the difficulty in comprehending Pound is due to the fact that Pound is fighting what Lawrence is practicing in “Piano”: convention. Pound, the iconoclast, if not the maverick, is using a technique called vorticism. For example, “King Miho’s hall,” “Anadyomeme,” or “Luini” (Bernardino Luini) are nouns which imply a meaning outside their own meaning, and which cause the reader to spin off associations connected with these nouns. Hence, Pound’s approach to language is intellectual and associative. Furthermore, practically all of Pound’s allusions in his poems are classical and therefore the reader is forced to go back to a time of classical antiquity and myths in order to understand the poems. Needless to say, if Pound had it his way, the reader would remain there in classical antiquity forever, as that was where Pound was happiest and where he would like us to join him.
To say that “Piano” is straightforward and conventional is not to say that Lawrence is the lesser poet. Indeed, Lawrence is very much the craftsman “in the old sense.” Lawrence’s consistent use of the soft vowel “o” throughout “Piano” gives the poem its unity and resonance. In fact, the mood or atmosphere is very well developed in Lawrence’s poem. “Softly in the dusk,” and “Sunday evenings at home” contribute to the poem’s melancholy and reflective quality. Furthermore, it seems Lawrence writes long sentences that do not want to end anymore than Lawrence wants to end his “flood of remembrance.” It is as if rivers of sentences flow over with emotions which are overcoming him, until he is drowned by his own sorrow in the end.
In the tradition of classical poetry, both Lawrence and Pound are very, very meticulous, but with Pound it can sometimes be too academic. To explain, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is like a jigsaw puzzle: you really have to analyze the words and phrases carefully in and of themselves and also as part of a larger whole before you can see the entire picture and understand the larger themes and psychological gestalt of not so much the poem, itself, but of the mind of the poet. This is the key to understanding Pound. His poems are not so much finished products as they are in flux, as if the poet’s mind is at work and on display, in the moment, now! In this respect, Pound’s approach to poetry is similar to Chinese poetry, which he read and admired and emulated.
For many, Pound may be too innovative and too experimental and maybe even too oriental (too inscrutable?) to be easily understood or liked. And like a jigsaw puzzle, no word in “Medallion” is unnecessary; every word is exact, or else it would not fit. Again, this attests to Pound’s intellectualism, which tends to make his poetry meticulous, if not academic to the average reader. Lawrence was, of course, the more accessible of the two and is actually better known as a novelist. With different personalities and different backgrounds and different intentions, both Lawrence and Pound go back into time: the former to return to the metaphorical womb, the latter to return to a mythical culture. Although the differences between Lawrence and Pound are enormous, both have achieved poetry of the sublime.
Here are the 2 poems:
Luini in porcelain!
The grand piano
Utters a profane
Protest with her clear soprano.
The sleek head emerges
From the gold-yellow frock
As Anadyomene in the opening
Pages of Reinach.
Honey-red, closing the face-oval,
A basket-work of braids which seem as if they were
Spun in King Minos’ hall
From metal, or intractable amber;
The face-oval beneath the glaze,
Bright in its suave bounding-line, as,
Beneath half-watt rays,
The eyes turn topaz.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.