Greenland snow and Ezra Pound

I once flew over Greenland and that aerial view of beautiful snowfields stays in my mind – Ultima Thule, the white lands in which an absence of colour and formal definition becomes a presence of intense light, tonal variation and indefinite forms. A strange subtle region of scribbled inclinations, indentations, ripples, serrations, stubbled wastes and delicate, almost misty, whitenesses upon which the eyes can’t find a hold.

Somehow, like the Greenland whitelands, Ezra Pound’s work is an unchartable region, and the long silence of his later years seems entirely appropriate – a wordless desert. What could be said, had been said. What more could he add? And what was the point of saying more, when there seemed to be so few who would listen, let alone understand.

After his long incarceration in St Elizabeth’s, Pound left America for Italy. Guy Davenport tells a story of how, one day, a few years after returning to the Mediterranean, Pound was sitting in his garden. Unlike the other days when he had sat and stared or read through familiar books and papers, he suddenly started typing on his old cranky typewriter. He began to write letters, something he had not done in years. He wrote a stream of them and they were despatched to various destinations. Within a week the unopened envelopes began to return to Pound’s home. If the postman had looked carefully at the front of the envelopes he would have noticed that they had been addressed to James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and W.B. Yeats – all of whom were long dead. It was as if even the dead were no longer interested in what Pound wrote. Or perhaps, it was only the dead who could answer Pound’s silence in their own eloquent way.

Scribbles in the dust

Pyrrho, the ancient Greek sceptic, started out as a painter. He, and I, can’t forget the fact that all our representations, theories and ideas are so much spit and pigment, scribbles in the dust, marks against oblivion – possibilities of the moment, rendered obsolete almost as soon as they are formed. All our utterances are little more than the eloquence of crows or gulls or bees about the hive. Very occasionally we rise to the compass of song, the melodic fluency of a blackbird, or robin, or nightingale. No matter what we say or write or think, we can do no more than throw a murmur into the air. Like a leaf or feather it may catch the breeze and be lifted high or fall to the ground. Whatever happens it will eventually join all other feathers and leaves trampled underfoot, becoming in time leafmould, soil, the compost out of which new growth emerges.

So also for opinions, ideas and theories, however lofty, they are all subject to the laws of gravity, the pull of conditionality and uncertainty, the necessity of ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘it seems’, or ‘it appears’ – never the certainty of ‘it is true’.

Likewise with decisions – all can be rationalised and confirmed as valid. Arguments can be mounted in support of this course of action and for the opposite course. One is probably no better, or no worse, than another. We can only act in the knowledge that we could have acted differently and our actions may well have been just as worthwhile or just as fruitless. To do something in the belief that we do the right thing, let alone the ‘only’ thing, is to believe the leaf or feather will never fall. To be attached to this belief is to be deluded – to defy gravity, to gobble like a turkey while thinking we sing like a starlight nightingale.