Here’s more of our “Before they were Modernists” series, another by Ezra Pound from his 1908 pre-Imagist collection A Lume Spento. “And Thus in Nineveh” is a curious short poem, kind of a humble brag where the speaker starts right out saying “I am a poet” but then goes on to assess that craft in a mixed manner.
In the following lines the poem’s speaker, perhaps Pound himself at this point in his young life, takes the personae of a poet in the ancient middle eastern city of Nineveh and makes these claims:
Poetry does not belong to the speaker. I at first took this as a reference to poetry being inspired by the muses, where the poet’s job is as an attentive transmitter of that, but on further reflection I think he’s claiming more that to be a poet is a sort of civic job.
The populace’s attention to poetry is mixed. They will celebrate a poet at their death, they seem to sort of expect poetry to be around, even plentiful, but in the auditorium where poetry is sung, they might just doze off.
“Surely someday the citizens of Nineveh will recognize the sublime beauty of your ironic yet rootsy banjo sonatas.”
Other poets are judged to some degree to be better than our speaker. The poet’s humble-brag makes a show of agreeing with that, those better poets are more subtle (perhaps not as vigorous and direct?) and their song has a “wind of flowers” (literally, flowery, all fragrance and filigree?) while our poet’s work is “wave-worn” (sturdy and long-tested).
And in a final claim, the poet says that the reason he’ll be remembered in the end is that his poetry is more full of life and experience than those “better” poets.
In summary, the poem claims that the true poet, or at least Pound’s expectations of himself at this point early in his career, has a calling, a job he’s been asked to do by a culture that may not consistently pay attention to his efforts. If he perseveres, he will only get his due appreciation at death when his efforts will be summed up.
The language is deliberately archaic again (Pound is still under the pull of the Pre-Raphaelites) and it’s distanced in another way by being set in the exotic Middle East, quite possibly in ancient times. This too may be part of the Pre-Raphaelite influence: Middle Eastern scenes and Biblical stories were a common subject for the painters in that movement. Why were the two particular proper names chosen? I’m not sure. Nineveh is legendary as an ancient city, but not the only choice there. I thought of Nineveh as the city that the Biblical prophet Jonah was supposed to go and speak to when he chickens-out and whale-belly-ins. If Pound thought of that too, then it could be more subtext for the idea that that poet personae should persist in heeding his calling. Raama is also a name mentioned in the Bible.
“You using prophets for bait? I’ve been having good luck with leaches, I’ll stick with those.”
I myself went through a period in my youth when I elevated the writer’s profession into something between prophet and preacher. That has a clarity, a purity, that is far too simple. However earnest and self-aware Pound was when he wrote this, what attracted me to it now much later in my life was the idea implied in the middle of the poem: that art’s job is asked for by a culture that knows somehow its value while commonly forgetting that.
Maybe there’s a new level in the final couplet of today’s poem? By persisting in working on art we are as deluded as an intoxicated person, we see our work through “beer goggles,” and all possibilities look more beautiful then, than in the cold light of day. We “drink of life as lesser men drink wine.”
Foolish? Well, so be it. This is the fool we choose to be.
The musical setting today is a languid mix of guitars, fretless bass, and vibraphone. The player to hear my performance of Pound’s “And Thus in Nineveh” is below. The full text of the poem can be found here.