Ezra Pound photographed in 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn
The “difficult pleasures” is a phrase not of my own making. It belongs to Harold Bloom, but I have chosen it anyhow, because it so nicely encapsulates my own experience with much of the literature that most people seem to find—as far as I can tell—arcane, remote, and even tedious.
Bloom’s formulation is both paradoxical and a little snobby. Paradoxical for the obvious reason that we don’t ordinarily think of pleasures as difficult; we expect them to be, well, pleasurable. Snobby in the positive sense, because it is rooted in Bloom’s faith—a faith I happen to share—in the value of studying the recently much-maligned “Western Canon”, that (in)famous parade of so-called Dead White Males, from Plato to NATO, which has been castigated for at least several decades by the very same Learned Academies that had hitherto striven so long to preserve it.
In my first year at the University of Winnipeg, I read the early 20th century poet Ezra Pound—most of whose work is most definitely a difficult pleasure.
Though his auspicious beginnings were later marred when he became bitterly and publicly anti-Semitic, Pound’s place in the Western Canon is by now assured. Ironically it was a canon he continually railed against, and which he also managed to bolster and transform. His importance cannot be underestimated: his aesthetic, even more than his poetry, helped to define what we now call Modernism.
Pound wrote an early essay which I never forgot, and which I dug up on the internet just today. It reads:
Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion…
(from Gaudier-Brzeska, 1916)
Pound goes on to say that he tried all day to work out a way of saying what he had felt, but without result. Eventually—he does not say when—he wrote a poem of 30 lines; but, unhappy with the results, he made a second attempt, some 6 months later, and cut it down to 15 lines. A year later still, he had boiled it down to a single couplet:
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.”
The title Pound provides for this couplet—“In A Station of the Metro”—gives the reader a place to put the image, and completes the work.
Pound wrote many volumes of verse that were vastly more “difficult” pleasures than this terse but extraordinary poem. However, “In A Station of the Metro” was by no means dashed off in a moment of inspiration, and it powerfully indicates his devotion to reworking this material over and over until it had become as compressed as his initial “sudden emotion.” This is the kind of persistency that marks the mind of one who wishes to encounter the complex simplicity of the difficult pleasures.
May we relish them together in Difficult Pleasures to come.
CRASH TEST DUMMIES
Pound’s words are quoted on 05 May 2016 at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/metro.htm,
DIFFICULT PLEASURES IS A LYRICIST’S DIARY, copyright 2016
All spelling and grammatical errors are owing to the malignant forces of a vast conspiracy, and not the fault of said diarist.