EZRA POUND AND DESMOND O’ GRADY
Much has been written by eminent critics on Ezra Pound’s relationship with William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. We have, amongst other sources, an account by James Longbeach of Pound remembering the three winters (1913-1916) he spent living with William Butler Yeats at Stone Cottage near the village of Coleman’s Hatch in Sussex: specifically, he recalls sitting in the second floor of the cottage and hearing Yeats chant his poetry in the room below – the chimney carried the Irish poet’s brogue from fireplace to fireplace -. When Pound wrote these lines in the ”Pisan Cantos” at the end of World War II, he looked back to those Stone Cottage years as an idyllic time ”before the world was given over to wars.” Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (1988).
We also have Joyce admitting “But for him, I should still be the unknown drudge he discovered’’ and Beckett hugging Pound one night in a Paris Café. Those three greats would be more than enough to lay sufficient claim to a strong Irish connection with the American poet and critic. But what is not so well documented and missing from the excellent, Spanish orientated, Homenaje A Ezra Pound (1985), organized by the poet José María Alvarez (despite numerous setbacks and published in a commemorative edition by the Consejería de Cultura y Educación of Murcia, Spain) is the Pound/O’Grady relationship and, for what it is worth, the connection of Olga Rudge, Pound’s companion for half a century, with Limerick, Ireland.
The poet, translator and teacher Desmond O’ Grady (1935-2014) was born on the dark edge of Europe (the poet’s description), in Limerick, beside the River Shannon. We first met through an introduction from his brother Tommy in the early 70s on one of his yearly visits home. On one such visit, I put the idea of a special issue of The Stony Thursday Book, dedicated to his work and he answered me by scribbling on a piece of paper ‘up old stony batter for the same old stony joke’. I took that to mean yes and later discovered he had been paraphrasing some lines from his poem The Stony Joke.
In the summer of 1977, we met in rooms overhead Jack Hassett’s, known as The Angling Cot, formerly Quilligan’s and now known as Costelloe’s, in Limerick. The interview went smoothly as I had prepared the ground well, read what needed to be read (most of O’Grady’s work, some of Pound’s ABC and a tepid sprinkling of the Cantos), researched my questions and checked on relevant links. One of those connections was Ezra Pound, whose photograph O’Grady had presented sometime in the late 60s or early 70s to Eamonn Gleeson, the then proprietor of the White House Pub in Limerick, where it used to hang beside a poem of mine called Pound Devalued in Whitehouse (title by Seamus Ó Cinnéide), which I wrote in 1975, concerning a visit by Robert Graves to the said establishment; an account of which appeared in the local paper The Limerick Chronicle and written up by Ó Cinneide. But that’s another story.
In the course of the interview, I put some questions to O’Grady on his relationship with Ezra Pound. The following extract, taken from the original interview (The Stony Thursday Book (1978) and later published in a revised version for Patricia McCarthy’s Agenda (2003), whose founding editor, William Cookson, was an erudite, lifelong supporter of Pound and his work, throws some light on the Pound/O’Grady relationship:
Before moving to Rome, he [O’Grady] stayed for a year with Dom. Eugene Boylan, a Cistercian abbot, on the monastic island of Caldey, off the coast of Wales. There, he planned his second book Reilly and began translating from the Irish. On moving to Rome, he worked in the British Institute and, on 9 July, 1958, on his arrival in Naples, he met Ezra Pound who had been in prison since 1945. Pound had read Chords and Orchestrations, which O’Grady sent to him in America. The first cheque for his poetry O’Grady ever got in his life came from Ezra Pound from the mad house in Washington for Chords and Orchestrations. He wrote to him asking for a poem for an anthology that he was editing while he was confined. O’Grady sent Pound a translation of Raftery’s work
Mise Raifteirí an file,
Lán dóchas is grá,
Le súile gan solas,
Le ciúnas gan chrá…
It is one of the most difficult poems in the Irish language to translate in its purity, its direct active statement:
I’m Raftery the poet.
My eyes stare blind
I’ve known love, still hold hope,
live in peace of mind.
Weary and worn
I walk my way
by the light of my heart
to my death’s marked day.
Look at me now,
with my face to the wall,
playing for people
who have nothing at all.
from Raftery The Poet: Trawling Tradition (1994).
He knew Pound very closely by correspondence. They wrote to each other several days a week while Pound was locked up. Afterwards, when he came back to Europe, they saw each other, more or less, every day in a very friendly way, nothing to do with the public. Pound would ask O’Grady to comment on whatever he was working on so ‘What he did for young people when he was a young vigorous man, he expected me now to do for him as an ageing man.’ Apart from that, Pound became his master. He was the man he learned to write from. He taught him his craft. Pound had translated Anglo-Saxon into English for the first time. He had made Anglo-Saxon available to the modernist English. He translated the Latinos and the late Renaissance Italians, and afterwards, the Chinese. Those three particular attitudes towards a making of art, of translation, had a profound influence on O’Grady’s work.
And this is evident when one considers O’Grady’s contribution to the translation of poetry found between the covers of his Trawling Tradition: Translations 1954 – 1994, University of Salzburg (1994). It is here the reader will find testimony to Pound’s maxim ‘make it new’ in everything O’Grady touches. There are translations from classical Greek, Chinese and Arabic; medieval Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Arabic, Irish and Latin; Renaissance Irish, Armenian; Modern poetry by Arab poets and poets from Austria, the Baltic, Croatia, The Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Spain and Turkey.
I also believe O’Grady’s translation work meets what the critic Hugh Kenner wrote about Pound’s approach to translation in his introduction to The Translations of Ezra Pound, London, 1953, and quoted by the Spanish writer Carlos García Gual at the Homage to Ezra Pound in Venice, 19 November 1985:
Translating does not, for him, differ in essence from any other poetic job; as the poet begins by seeing, so the translator by reading; but his reading must be a kind of seeing.
If he doesn’t translate the words, the translator remains faithful to the original poet’s sequence of images, to his rhythms or the effect produced by his rhythms, and to his tone.
Insofar as he is faithful, he does homage to his predecessor’s knowledge of his job, his success in securing from point to point the precise images and gestures to embody a vision which is neither his property nor that of his translator. Pedantry consists of supposing that the importance of a moment of thought or feeling lies in the notation somebody else found for it. The Poundian homage consists in taking an earlier poet as guide to secret places of the imagination.
It is advice that O’Grady surely applied to his rendering of the Welsh epic The Gododdin, attributed to the poet Aneirin who lived in the second half of the sixth century.
In his preface to the translation, O’Grady writes:
My purpose in making this English version of The Gododdin was to make a classic masterpiece (from an ancient European language) available to readers of poetry who may not have heard of it but might enjoy it.
While studying old Welsh language and literature at Harvard University under Professor Charles Dunn I was introduced for the first time to Aneirin and his poem Y Gododdin, as a text to be translated aloud weekly in class. To render this exercise more satisfying to myself I worked up some stanzas into modern English free verse. Enthused, I later finished a version of the whole poem. [ ] To make the spirit of the poem ‘read’ as modern English verse I dropped all names of persons and places as impediments, dropped rhyme and repetitive line-runs, switched lines about to sustain urgency, and superficially Anglo-Saxonise my language to tighten or tune the drum of each stanza. One major license was to drop the fixed margin of the original and indent. Hence, the typographical physiognomy of my poem. Thus every stanza had its own shape or form like a figurine or vase and the whole poem became a collection of figurines. Then it was done.
The opening ‘figurine’ serves as an example of O’Grady’s stamp on the poem. Whenever I read The Gododdin, I can clearly hear his voice and that of its originator, as though in the background. O’Grady’s achievement in this work was to create his own original poem and that, precisely, is what he learned from Pound, which he, in turn, passed on to me – ‘the paired disciplines of personal translation and original composition’.
exquisite with man instinct
backbone in battle
many a horsehand high
galloped game thoroughbreds
thick manes streaming
broad shields tiptipping rhythmically
Swords blue bladed.
Flash of the golden spurs
gold embroidered the garments.
What anguish between us?
I praise you!
It’s wrong that such friends
should end in the claws of ravens.
Ezra Pound would have approved of the work and, no doubt, the result. I believe O’Grady’s approach was to ‘make it new’ while keeping faith with the use of
precise images and gestures to embody a vision which is neither his property nor that of his translator and taking an earlier poet as guide to secret places of the imagination.
The poem was published by Liam Miller of Dolmen Press, Dublin (1977) in a handsome, seventy-eight-page, hard cover edition, with ink paintings by Louis Le Brocquy. It caused quite a stir in literary circles in Ireland and firmly established O’Grady as a translator of excellence. Pound would have been generous in praise (as he had been with so many others, including Joyce, Eliot, Beckett) for his one-time apprentice and amused to learn that Olga Rudge’s mother was an O’Connell from County Limerick, the same County as O’Grady.
Anne Conover, in her book Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound, Yale University Press New Haven & London (2001), acknowledges that the
Poet Desmond O’Grady of County Cork, Ireland [O’Grady had moved to Kinsale by then], suggested Olga Rudge—the woman who had the last word in The Cantos and in Pound’s personal life—as a subject worthy of a biography.
That alone would qualify O’Grady as a candidate for inclusion in the Irish linkage with Pound but at the end of the day it his work as a poet and translator of poetry, for which he acknowledged Pound, that makes him a major figure.
That her acts
Her name was Courage
& is written Olga.
These lines are for the
Whatever I may write
in the interim.
The Cantos (fragment 1966)
Madrid, April 23, 2001/revised 2021
John Liddy, born in County Cork but raised in Limerick, is a poet whose collections include Wine and Hope/Vino y Esperanza (1999, Archione Editorial Madrid), Cast-a-Net (2003, Archione Editorial Madrid), The Well: New and Selected Poems (2007, Revival Press). Most recent book is Gleanings (2010, Revival Press). He co-founded The Stony Thursday Book with Jim Burke and edits occasional issues. Liddy lives in Madrid and is recently retired. He worked as a teacher/librarian. He also runs the annual poetry festival An Tobar/El Manantial, along with Matthew Loughney and the Embassy of Ireland.