Music of the swords

An archival exhibition of Ezra Pound’s poetry and audio recording underscore the battlefield of his legacy.

By Anita Lo '16

The Damon Krukowski: NOT TO BE PLAYED exhibit glowed in a pale sunset the evening that I pushed through the doors at the Sert Gallery at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The other visitors leisurely perused paperback collections of Ezra Pound’s poems, and the advertised recording of Ezra Pound reading aloud was not playing.

To my left was a blue Califone record player, but the vinyl was stationary, and the record player’s tonearm was disengaged; I assumed that there was some further mental preparation required before hearing this ominous poem. Being less knowledgeable of Pound’s poetry than I should be (except for the two-lined “In a Station of the Metro”), I picked up a copy of New Selected Poems and Translations and flipped to “Sestina: Altaforte.”

After a quick skim, I could already see how the poem had earned the nickname “Bloody Sestina.” With exhortations to “let the music of the swords make them crimson,” the battlefield Pound paints contrasted wildly with the surrounding clean walls of the gallery. Reading the poem through a few more times, I began to wonder what Pound had envisioned as he wrote it. 

The poem was first published in London in 1909, and 30 years later was read aloud by Pound as part of Frederick C. Packard Jr.’s Harvard Vocarium project. Though Pound himself commented that “technically, [Altaforte] is one of my best, though a poem on such a theme could never be very important,” he later worried that the poem might have a sinister effect upon audiences, sparking violence and inciting wars.

In the middle of the gallery, a terse letter from Pound dated October 31, 1955, authorized archivist and Guggenheim Fellow Norman Holmes Pearson to “do whatever he pleases re/or with records of any of my readings at Harvard save for the “Altaforte” which is NOT to be played, or transcribed.” The recording, however, was transferred from lacquer disc to magnetic tape before ending up on the cassette tapes (cassette tapes!) that were scattered around the room in glass cases, these duplicates bearing all of Pound’s readings except for “Sestina: Altaforte.” It wasn’t until the Woodberry Poetry Room digitized Pound’s recordings in 2006 that “Altaforte” could be widely played for audiences. Musician, writer and editor Damon Krukowski curated the NOT TO BE PLAYED exhibition around this now-accessible recording. 

My stroll around the gallery outlasted other visitors’ stays, and so when I turned the record player on and the vinyl began to spin, I slowly rotated the volume knob to the right. (Am I supposed to hear this ominous blank static sound, or is it simply not loud enough?)

I gently dropped the needle somewhere vaguely in the region of the center of the record, and Pound immediately reproached me in thundering tones. 

“You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music! / I have no life save when the swords clash.”

Having difficulty distinguishing between my own frightened heartbeat and the tremor of Pound’s voice echoing off the glass, I hurriedly turned the volume down. Pound continued with rolled Rs and throaty vibrato.

“But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.”

In the recording, lines were interspersed with what sounded like timpani and bass drum, and despite the lowered volume, Pound’s vigor did not dwindle. Seven violent stanzas later, the blank static sound came back.

I listened to the recording once more before leaving, this time committing myself to the loudest volume I could tolerate. (No one else was here, I reasoned.) I could feel my teeth vibrating with Pound’s every line, and by the end of the recording I thought maybe I could see the glass cases vibrating – trembling – as well.

The evening’s sunset had warmed to a dark pink, and the gallery’s white walls and floor reflected those hues back. With literal swordfights ringing in my ears, I turned off the record player, and Pound’s crimson beckoned me out the door. 

Damon Krukowski: NOT TO BE PLAYED will be on display through October 25. Additionally, electronic musician and composer Keith Fullerton Whitman will be performing Ezra Pound Redactions, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Sert Gallery. The exhibition is part of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts’ Agency for Critical Inquiry initiative that aims to foster a site for collective public learning for academic and Boston-area communities.