Henri Cartier-Bresson took many portrait pictures during his life, but his wife, Martine Franck accompanied him to just one — probably atypical — portrait session. It was that of the poet Ezra Pound in Venice in 1971, a year before his death at 87.
Cartier-Bresson used all the space within the frame to create a balanced form. The poet's head-sized fist balances his fist-like face. The lightness of the chair and that burning bush of hair is balanced by the empty darkness. HCB's ability to create such balance is all the more remarkable given his well-known refusal to crop an image.
“There was a tremendous, heavy silence,” recalled Ms. Franck, herself a photographer. “Pound didn’t say a word. He just seemed to condemn the world with his eyes. We were there for about 20 minutes. I stayed to one side. I huddled in a corner. Henri took seven pictures.”
What Pound felt is impossible to know. Years earlier, he had been interned for mental illness, and in 1960, he lapsed into long periods of depressive silence and stopped writing. And yet, in the image selected by Cartier-Bresson, Pound’s wild hair, burning eyes and tense hands seem to speak volumes about an old man raging against the dying of the light.
"In a letter of the year 1914, the poet Ezra Pound tells his correspondent that it took him ten years to learn his art . and another five to unlearn it . The same year saw the tentative publication of three cantos for a "poem of some length" that was to become, though nameless and abandoned, the longest poem in English . . . prominent among whose denumerable traits were a lexicon of compositional tropes and a thesaurus of compositional strategies that tend to converge in a reconstitution of Western poetics.
Since it has been widely asserted that art can be neither taught nor learned, that it is a gift from Jehovah or the Muse, an emanation from the thalamus, or a metabolite of the gonads, we may pause to wonder what Pound, a failed academic and life-long scholar of diverse literatures and arts, meant by the verb to learn . . . let alone unlearn. In the same letter, Pound himself is obliquely illuminating ; he had begun, he says, around 1900, to study world literature, with a view to finding out what had been done and how it had been done, adding that he presumes the motive, the impulse, to differ for every artist.
A few years later, in the essay How to Read, Pound diffracts the roster of poets writing in English into a hierarchic series of zones, of which the most highly energized comprise 'inventors' and 'masters' . The essay, like most of Pound's prose writing of the period, is addressed primarily to other (presumably younger) writers it is permeated by Pound's highly practical concern for what might be called an enhanced efficiency in the process of 'learning' an art . We need not look very deeply to find, inscribed within the pungent critical enterprise that extends and supports his concern, a single assumption : that one learns to write by reading . Moreover, one learns to write mainly by reading those texts that embody 'invention', that is, the vivid primary instantiation of a compositional strategy deriving from a direct insight into the dynamics of the creative process itself."