Ezra Pound – a stirrer up of strife – and my model for writing a Sestina.

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

I have been reading some poetry by the still contentious American poet Ezra Pound who is regarded as not only one of the fathers of Modernist writers but also as an anti-semite, a foolishly naive supporter of Fascism and an over-inflated egocentric. He, like the unpleasant but inspirational composer, Richard Wagner, may or may not have been a bad guy but he was undoubtedly a great artist. Besides his own revolutionary poems, especially the Cantos, he was also responsible for the publication of everybody’s favourite modern poem,  T.S. Eliot’s Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock and, equally significantly, the serialisation of the greatest modern novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the end, he was, if nothing else, a masterly poet.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been drawn to one of his earlier works, the Sestina: Altaforte where the future revolutionary Modernist draws his inspiration and finds his distinctly angry voice in a strictly traditional poetic form.

I have been trying my hand at the traditional forms of poetry hoping to increase my understanding and, hopefully, improve my writing. Well, I can only try. I started with some Villanelles, discussed in an earlier blog (type Villanelle into the search window above), and now I have moved on to the Sestina, a  formidable form where the poet uses six key words one of which has to end each line of a six line verse in a poem that has to have six verses and a three line epilogue which has to include all six key words. I know this might sound like a lot of over-complex nonsense but stick with it. Oddly enough it works. When you read a Sestina you don’t have to recognise the pattern but it works on you powerfully where the repetitions give a rhythm to the work in the absence of rhyme.

I was scared of trying this but once I had decided on my six key words, I was away and having fun.

Ezra Pound’s Sestina is printed below and you will see that he is being surprizingly obedient to the rules with the key words appearing in the strictly defined order throughout the poem and yet the piece has a wild 20th century ring to it showing that traditional forms can be bent to each individual poet’s voice.

As so often in Modernist poetry, a few explanations of the historical allusions help to make the complex understandable and it is well worth the homework. The Sestina was invented by the 12th Century French troubadour-poet, Arnaut Daniel so Pound looks to this period for his inspiration. The poem is about a medieval troubadour knight called Bertran de Born (c.1140 – c. 1215) who wrote political satirical troubadour songs called Sirventes and, as a knight, got involved in the various wars in France involving those troublesome sons of King Henry II of England, most famously King Richard I, the so-called Coeur de Lyon, the Lion Heart. Legend painted Bertran as a subversive troublemaker and he was included in Dante’s Inferno as one of the damned punished for ever as a provocateur by having to wander through Hell carrying his head as a lantern.
Here is one of Bertran’s satirical songs, you will see that Pound has taken his voice and blended it with his own. In the song, Bertran is singing to his “jongleur” or minstrel, Papiol who also makes it into Pound’s Sestina:

“We shall see battle axes and swords, a-battering colored haumes and a-hacking through shields at entering melee; and many vassals smiting together, whence there run free the horses of the dead and wrecked. And when each man of prowess shall be come into the fray he thinks no more of (merely) breaking heads and arms, for a dead man is worth more than one taken alive.

I tell you that I find no such savor in eating butter and sleeping, as when I hear cried “On them!” and from both sides hear horses neighing through their head-guards, and hear shouted “To aid! To aid!” and see the dead with lance truncheons, the pennants still on them, piercing their sides.

Barons! put in pawn castles, and towns, and cities before anyone makes war on us.

Papiol, be glad to go speedily to “Yea and Nay”, and tell him there’s too much peace about”.

Bertran de Born (c.1140 – c.1215)

So, after all the explanations which I hope were worthwhile,  here it is including Pound’s concisely ironic introduction:

Sestina: Altaforte

LOQUITUR: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife.
Judge ye!
Have I dug him up again?
The scene is at his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur. “The Leopard,” the device of Richard Coeur de Lion.

Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!

And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ‘gainst all darkness opposing.

The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”

And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace!”

— Ezra Pound (1909)

Ezra Pound was a magnificent performer of his own poetry – magnificent to the point of sounding crazed. Here he is reading the first part of this Sestina. His voice once heard is unforgettable.

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