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Transatlantic Crossroads: Ezra Pound’s 1933 Active Anthology

Charlotte Estrade
p. 123-132


Cet article envisage l’analyse d’un recueil poétique édité par Ezra Pound en 1933 (Active Anthology) en tant que carrefour. Cette anthologie–carrefour littéraire où coexistent des horizons géographiques divers du modernisme anglo-américain reflétant l’ébullition poétique du Londres du début du XXème siècle––sera d’abord replacée dans la pratique éditoriale poundienne. Lieu de convergence poétique, mais aussi de divergences et de différenciations par rapport à d’autres poètes et d’autres types d’anthologies, elle se présentera en fin de compte comme une transition et une étape dans sa mobilisation parfois agressive pour une meilleure visibilité de la poésie moderniste, ainsi que la formation d’un certain lectorat à une poésie expérimentale.

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1Anthologies can easily be imagined as crossroads, that is, as places where poets meet, both in the literal sense since the anthology is first and foremost an object, a book, and in an immaterial sense: the poets are only present through their poems. In their relation to time, anthologies are also ambiguous objects, both crossing time barriers to pass on the flowers of literature as the Greek etymology suggests, but also freezing, at a certain moment in history, what is considered the best of literature. Editorial trends, which may be characteristic of certain periods of history, can also betray the historical context of particular anthologies, and the sometimes subversive choices of their editors. Ezra Pound’s Active Anthology, published in 1933, is particularly interesting when reflecting of the notion of crossroads.

2The first step in the following comments will be to show in what sense Pound’s anthology can be thought of as a crossroad. Indeed, Pound’s cosmopolitan Active Anthology is a place where the paths of various writers meet and their literary productions are gathered. Secondly, underlying tensions will be underlined, in an attempt to show that the anthology is not just a matter of meeting with others, but also of meeting against other people or poetic practices, especially in the modernist period when some poetic stances were particularly virulent. Besides, in a literal crossroads, roads converge to a centre but in doing so, they avoid other junctions and also lead away. Finally it is the very problematic proliferation of Pound’s anthologies that will be addressed, in order to suggest a different model. Indeed, if a crossroads is the main meeting place of various paths, it seems that multiplying crossroads undermines their very effect and their potential monopoly. Instead of the concentration that the image of the crossroads implies, the multiplication of anthologies solely with Pound as editor decentres the process. Pound’s 1933 Active Anthology might therefore be more relevantly analysed as one junction among a larger, historically and geographically specific web, complex or network of artistic enterprises meant to forward some poetic ideas.

The Active Anthology in context

3At first sight, Ezra Pound’s Active Anthology may be called his most accomplished anthology: it comes after a series of others and Pound has already experimented with various forms of publishing and editing ventures. In 1914, he had published the famous Des Imagistes, followed, in 1915, by the Catholic Anthology and, in 1932, by a lesser-known anthology entitled Profile. The Active Anthology is the longest anthology so far in Pound’s career. In the meantime, in 1920s, Pound (then mostly living in London) got a solid experience of editing and publishing. Acting as European contact for many American magazines, Pound became foreign editor of the Little Review in 1917, foreign correspondent of Poetry magazine in 1912 and The Dial in 1920, and he also promoted Ford Madox Ford’s transatlantic review in the 1920s. At the same time, Pound published articles about music and economics in the British New Age. In 1921 and 1922, Pound worked with Eliot on The Waste Land and this is just one of the many writers Pound managed to get published, along with James Joyce or Basil Bunting.

4Therefore, the publication of the Active Anthology in 1933 can be read as the culmination of his efforts. Indeed, being published by the respected Faber & Faber’s, where Eliot had been working since 1925, entails a higher respectability, if not canonization of texts now said to belong to the high modernist period. Pound’s 1933 Active Anthology materializes, in a more complex form, his work of two decades and it seems that the poet literally provokes crossroads, which are often centred on his own poetic corpus (the Active Anthology includes fragments of Pound’s Cantos, chosen by John Drummond and commented by Louis Zukofsky). The huge bulk of his correspondence with editors, publishers, and writers in preparation for this anthology can be compared to paths and exchanges meant to produce a visible object (the anthology), which gathers poets from different horizons.

5After the Active Anthology, more will follow. The 1934 ABC of Reading presents a series of literary exhibits (Pound 1934, 106-42, 172-88) from Chaucer to Whitman, after a long poetic reflection that constitutes half the book and cannot therefore quite be called a preface. As the following comments will show, Pound’s prefaces in general are always polemical, provocative and sometimes arbitrary in their choices or explanations. In 1954, Pound returns to the anthology format with Shih-Ching: The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, and in 1964 with Confucius to Cummings, edited with Marcella Spann. Pound’s anthologies therefore, underline two possible ways of conceiving anthologies: they are either focused on contemporaries and on capturing the most experimental poetry of a specific period or, on the contrary, they provide an overview of what is chosen as the best of literary history.

6By 1933 and with the Active Anthology, Pound has adopted a very specific editorial style for this particular type of collections. Indeed, it is in this anthology that Pound’s enterprise is most clearly visible. As John G. Nichols has shown (Nichols 2006, 170-6), Pound’s Active Anthology, in its editorial interventions and stance, is half-way between mainstream and coterie anthologies of the time. Mainstream anthologies were increasingly catering for both general and academic audiences, and provided an important editorial apparatus, with notes, introductions or prefaces, and biographical notes on authors. Coterie anthologies, on the contrary, were published by small publishing houses, were avant-garde projects and provided no, little, or subversive editorial guidance, thus forcing readers to focus on the texts themselves and, Nichols argues, overtly engag[ing] questions about how to read modernist poetry (Nichols 174). If one is to compare the anthology with a crossroads, and the readers to paths leading to it, then the range of roads thus converging towards the anthology is restricted or expanded (on purpose) through the editorial choices. Through the very way they present the text, editors (and poets) are addressing a particular readership ready and willing to engage with difficult or bewildering texts. This readership, of course, is in part constituted of fellow writers and artists already aware of such poetic projects and experiments.

7Pound’s 1933 Active Anthology, contrary to Des Imagistes and Catholic Anthology, provides an introduction and some notes, although not in the conventional sense of the term. It is both innovative and didactic in so far as it includes a voluntarily polemical introduction, provocative, metapoetic comments and what Pound calls Notes on Particular Details at the end of the book. The very title of the section signals its oddness and this final piece reads like fragments of a poetic agenda.

Converging roads

8Pound’s Active Anthology really is a crossroads towards which centripetal forces converge: the anthology brings together various geographic horizons and creates or reiterates poetic alliances.

9Considering Pound’s anthology in terms of crossroads is legitimate, first on the grounds of the spatial dimension that is attached to it. Indeed, it constitutes a portable shorthand for a more recognizable and tangible crossroads, both in time and space: literary London at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, London (and Paris and New York to a lesser extent) is the literary, modernist crossroads par excellence, the birthplace of Anglo-American literary modernism and its forerunners such as Imagism and Vorticism. The notion of convergence or a meeting place is well captured in William Roberts’s painting The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915, for example, which serves as a cover for Peter Brooker’s Bohemia in London. Indeed, this representation of a gathering of poets and artists meeting in order to discuss the Vorticist agenda of the magazine Blast illustrates the type of crossroads London was at the beginning of the twentieth century. The presence of many American exiles (many of them artists) in London at the time bears proof of the attraction of London, which Pound also called the intellectual capital of America (Brooker 62). Despite the mobility or nomadism of many representatives of Modernism, some places and collective works enable to record recurrent efforts to collectively produce new art. Indeed, modernist art is to be thought of in terms of transatlantic and European exchanges.

10This is obvious in the choice of poets published in Pound’s Active Anthology, where the purpose is openly transatlantic and European, and which gathers cosmopolitan poets. The Active Anthology brings together American Ernest Hemingway, living in Paris at the time of publication, Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting then living in the Canary Islands, Irish Yeats, e.e. cummings translating French poet Aragon, and American T. S. Eliot then living in London and who had become a British citizen in 1927. Ezra Pound himself was then living in Italy and the anthology also features American poets Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and George Oppen.

11The transatlantic bias of this anthology, mostly composed of poems by American authors but published in London, was present right from the beginning of Pound’s original project. As Barry Ahern notes, Pound at one point considered titling his anthology ‘The Active Element: A Collection of poems unfamiliar to British readers’ (Ahern 3). The crossroads provided by the anthology is therefore meant to create a bridge between mostly American authors and a British audience or, in the case of Bunting, to bring a British poet to the nation’s attention. Indeed, some of Bunting’s poems in the Active Anthology are visibly Northumbrian, such as The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer and Gin the Goodwife Stint while others reflect his international interests, such as Chomei at Toyama or Villon. The geographical dimension of the anthology is therefore crucial and explicitly underlined. Let us note in passing that Pound’s other anthologies also reflect his cosmopolitanism through their places of publication, from London to New York or Milan. Although some have argued that this cosmopolitanism is limited, sometimes arbitrary in its choices, and excludes, for instance, some more peripheral parts of Europe despite their interesting development of other forms of modernist art, the term is still valid, considering the broad range of Pound’s interests in the literature of many centuries, from Provençal to Anglo-Saxon, Chinese or French.

12Editing an anthology is a means to federate shared poetic programmes and ideas. If a crossroads is the materialization of the place where various paths lead and intersect, then the anthology is the crystallisation of poetic strategies and manifestoes. Very often, the texts published in Pound’s Active Anthology had appeared in less famous publications, in modernist little magazines which were publication outlets for experimental poetry and had a limited readership. One of the reasons for the near-absence of editorial intervention in the 1914 Des Imagistes, for example, is that the imagist poetic programme had already been explained in A few Don’ts by an Imagiste in Poetry magazine the previous year, in March 1913. In the same way, two decades of publications in various journals precede Pound’s Active Anthology, which therefore comes to confirm poetic choices or trends. The crossroads therefore needs to be envisaged as the most visible point in a web or a network of modernist publications. It is also part of Pound’s strategy to tirelessly promote those poets he thought deserved it.

13Retrospectively, the Active Anthology gathers poets now recognized as the leading figures of poetic modernism. The association of Eliot, Pound, Williams, Hemingway, Zukofksy and Marianne Moore is now a common one, perpetuating the trend set in the 1915 Catholic Anthology which gathered Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Williams, and T. E. Hulme to name but the main contributors. The regular recurrence of anthologies thus perpetuates and re-instates poetic alliances, reaffirmed all the way to the 1964 Confucius to Cummings anthology.

14The associations in these anthologies were poetic of course, but also financial. Literal and geographic crossroads are generally places where commercial activity is at its highest. The anthology works along the same lines: it is the occasion for some poets to get a publication and a means of living. As Nichols points out, [b]y the 1930s, Pound realized that [mainstream] anthologies targeting college audiences made large profits (Nichols 173). Pound’s avowed aim was to make sure some could get a much-needed income and to encourage promising poets, notably Basil Bunting. Pound makes it clear at the very beginning of the Active Anthology and states: I am presenting an assortment of writers, mostly ill known in England, in whose verse a development appears [...] to be taking place, in contradistinction to authors in whose work no such activity has occurred or seems likely to proceed any further (Pound 1933, 5). The idea is reiterated at the very end of the volume: Pound specifies that he has selected poets on the basis of what he judges to be their capacity to progress or develop any further (Pound 1933, 253).

15Although the anthology is a virtual crossroads and not an actual place, Pound conceives of this type of publication, precisely, in spatial terms. In his ABC of Reading, he draws a parallel between going to an art gallery to look at paintings and opening his book to read and come in close contact with the texts (Pound 1934, 23). The anthology is literally a place, materialized by the book, where poetic styles and poets’ geographic origins are brought together under one roof.

16So far, the picture that has emerged is that of the anthology as an object where ideas and people converge and are represented together for common poetic purposes and shared marketing opportunities.

Centrifugal forces

17Yet the unified finished product that the anthology constitutes hides the tensions inherent to its composition. The danger with the anthology is to be lastingly associated with authors whose poetics other writers might not share in the long run. When answering one of Pound’s propositions to participate in a collective work in 1915, Eliot replies cautiously. In a letter dated 15 April 1915, Eliot writes: How much is implied by the word Alliance? Is the alliance anything more than for the purposes of the manifesto? Of course I don’t know the work of any of these men myself, but that doesn’t matter. But I should like to know in what way this is to be promulgated and how followed up (Badenhausen 9). In this letter, Eliot underlines the potential underlying conflicts or tensions that the collaborative and unitary aspects of a crossroads might imply.

18To (come a)cross is to meet but also to confront. A modernist rallying call, the anthology is also done against others. Indeed, it seems that Pound’s assertion, at the end of the Active Anthology, that it has a particular and limited aim and that it is not meant to compete with others (Pound 1933, 253) should not be taken at face value. Indeed Pound is well known for his aggressive dynamism (and sometimes language) when it comes to publishing texts he believed to be at the centre of not only aesthetic, but also of social and cultural matters that he believed to be not only his concern but also applicable for the general good of society. Through these anthologies, it is the very education of readers which is at stake and readers are at the heart of his preoccupations straight from the beginning of the preface. Commenting on his disagreement with Eliot regarding their audience, Pound writes:

[Eliot’s] contempt for readers has always been much greater than mine, by which I would indicate that I quite often write as if I expected my reader to use his intelligence, and count on it being fairly strong, whereas Mr. Eliot after enduring decennial fogs in Britain practically always writes as if for very feeble and brittle mentalities, from whom he can expect neither resilience nor any faculty for seeing the main import instead of the details or surfaces. (Pound 1933, 9; Pound 1973, 389)

19The convergence or the exchange, through the anthology, of poets’ texts and readers’ appreciation is questionable and the poet-editor’s choices are often ambiguous. In particular in Pound’s case, his editorial choices are part of a political programme which also has a didactic intent, which is confirmed in later anthologies, in his ABC of Reading for example.

20Besides, Pound’s anthologies cannot be considered outside the context of publications of other anthologies which, in his view, are always reactions to ignorant readers or bad poetry published in the mainstream press. Indeed, after Pound’s Des Imagistes, Amy Lowell and Richard Aldington published their own imagist anthologies. These publications, therefore, are reactions against one another to forward particular aesthetics and set their poetic trends against that of others.

21Pound’s Active Anthology also opens on a very quarrelsome note. Paradoxically, the book is to go against some people’s wishes: in an easily recognisable style (both regarding typography and polemical tone) Pound states that he wishes to print poems Britain has not accepted and in the main that the British literary bureaucracy does NOT want to have printed in England (Pound 1933, 9). The idea is reiterated a few pages later when Pound pities Eliot for having been surrounded by a horrible and microcephalous bureaucracy which disliked poetry. Pound also opens the anthology with the remark that F. V. Morley at Faber’s had originally asked him to write a fifty-page preface on contemporary poetry, which is followed by Pound’s comment: I shall therefore write a preface mainly about something else (Pound 1933, 9). So despite partly adopting the format of mainstream anthologies which included prefaces, Pound’s introductory comments are openly polemical and do not give referential elements. Indeed they raise questions about their own readership, the reception of poetic works and the acceptance of new poetic forms into the literary canon.

22Far from being objective or neutral, Pound’s anthologies are always openly conceived in polemical terms. In 1934, a year after his Active Anthology, this is how he presents his ABC of Reading: the book may be considered as a controversial pamphlet summarizing the more active or spiky part of the author’s earlier critical skirmishing, and taking count of an enemy (Pound 1934, 11). The vocabulary Pound uses in this particular sentence resonates with his fascist allegiance (and, to some extent, paranoia), which was well-established in the 1930s: Pound met Benito Mussolini in 1933.

A transitional crossroads?

23Eventually, Pound’s Active Anthology constitutes a very specific type of crossroads. It is a collection of centrifugal forces where poets, editors and readers are gathered, with experimental poetry as the rallying element. Yet the anthology is also a form of confrontation or a place of friction where poetics and purposes are defined in opposition to other poetic ideals and practices.

24One cannot but notice the proliferation of Pound’s anthologies, which can be accounted for in two ways. The first reason has to do with the specific historical context: while little magazines had a more restricted circulation, the anthology grants a better visibility to poets and a better circulation of their works before considering collections of complete poems. Secondly, in keeping with his poetics of the vortex, Pound reiterates a dynamic ideal of good poetry which he shares with Eliot: Mr Eliot and I are in agreement, or ‘belong to the same school of critics’, in so far as we both believe that existing works form a complete order which is changed by the introduction of ‘really new’ work (Pound 1933, 9). One recognizes the main idea that Eliot had already expressed in the famous essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. The idea of literature as a living whole that is changed with every new work demands regular anthologies to compile and rearrange the best of literature. In the process, Pound’s aggressive strategy also furthered the development of some prominent literary figures.

25Each crossroads that a Poundian anthology constitutes, therefore, is a gathering of poets that also provokes tensions. It is these productive frictions that enable many new poetic routes to be taken, in order to be collected and assessed again regularly. The Active Anthology had a limited success: Conrad Aiken, reviewing it in Poetry magazine in August 1934 legitimately called Pound a propagandist of his own verse, and thought the poems in the book were too Poundian (Nichols 181). T. S. Eliot himself, who was in America while the volume was being assembled, thought the volume tripe except for the preface (Ahern 4). However, Pound’s regular production of anthologies also shaped (and still questions) reading habits, while promoting many fellow poets.

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Ahern, Barry, Active Anthology, The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia, Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Adams, Stephen J. eds., Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2005, 3-4.

Badenhausen, Richard, T. S. Eliot and the Art of Collaboration, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Brooker, Peter, Bohemia in London: The Social Scene of Early Modernism, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Nichols, John G., Ezra Pound’s Poetic Anthologies and the Architecture of Reading, PMLA, 121 (1), 2006, 170-185.

Pound, Ezra, ed., Active Anthology, London: Faber and Faber, 1933.

—, ABC of Reading, New York: New Directions, [1934] 2005.

— ed., Catholic Anthology 1914-1915, London: Elkin Mathews, 1915.

— ed., Des Imagistes: An Anthology, London: Poetry Bookshop and New York: Boni, 1914.

—, Praefatio Aut Cimicium Tumulus, Selected Prose 1909-1965, Cookson, William ed., New York: New Direction, 1973, 389-400.

— ed., Profile: An Anthology Collected in MXMXXXI, Milan: John Scheiwiller, 1932.

— trans., Shih-Ching: The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

—, Marcella Spann eds., Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, New York: New Directions, 1964.

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Bibliographical reference

Charlotte Estrade, « Transatlantic Crossroads: Ezra Pound’s 1933 Active Anthology », Caliban, 33 | 2013, 123-132.

Electronic reference

Charlotte Estrade, « Transatlantic Crossroads: Ezra Pound’s 1933 Active Anthology », Caliban [Online], 33 | 2013, Online since 09 December 2013, connection on 28 July 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Charlotte Estrade

Université du Maine.

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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