Critics generally agree that Pound was a strong yet subtle lyricist, particularly in his early work, such as "The River Merchant's Wife". According to Witmeyer a modern style is evident as early as Ripostes, and Nadel sees evidence of modernism even before he began The Cantos, writing that Pound wanted his poetry to represent an "objective presentation of material which he believed could stand on its own" without use of symbolism or romanticism.
Drawing on literature from a variety of disciplines, Pound intentionally layered often confusing juxtapositions, yet led the reader to an intended conclusion, believing the "thoughtful man" would apply a sense of organization and uncover the underlying symbolism and structure. Ignoring Victorian and Edwardian grammar and structure, he created a unique form of speech, employing odd and strange words, jargon, avoiding verbs, and using rhetorical devices such as parataxis.
Pound's relationship to music is essential to his poetry. Although he was tone deaf and his speaking voice is described as "raucous, nasal, scratchy", Michael Ingam writes that Pound is on a short list of poets possessed of a sense of sound, an "ear" for words, imbuing his poetry with melopoeia. His study of troubadour poetry – words written to be sung (motz et son) – led him to think modern poetry should be written similarly. He wrote that rhythm is "the hardest quality of a man's style to counterfeit". Ingham compares the form of The Cantos to a fugue; without adhering strictly to the traditions of the form, nevertheless multiple themes are explored simultaneously. He goes on to write that Pound's use of counterpoint is integral to the structure and cohesion of The Cantos, which show multi-voiced counterpoint and, with the juxtaposition of images, non-linear themes. The pieces are presented in fragments "which taken together, can be seen to unfold in time as music does".
Imagism and Vorticism
Opinion varies about the nature of Pound's writing style. Nadel writes that imagism was to change Pound's poetry. Like Wyndham Lewis, Pound reacted against decorative flourishes found in Edwardian writing, saying poetry required a precise and economic use of language and that the poet should always use the "exact" word, stripping the writing down to the "barest essence". According to Nadel, "Imagism evolved as a reaction against abstraction ... replacing Victorian generalities with the clarity in Japanese haiku and ancient Greek lyrics." Daniel Albright writes that Pound tried to condense and eliminate "all but the hardest kernel" from a poem, such as in the two-line poem "In a Station of the Metro". However, Pound learned that Imagism did not lend itself well to the writing of an epic, so he turned to the more dynamic structure of Vorticism for The Cantos.
Pound's translations represent a substantial part of his work. He began his career with translations of Occitan ballads and ended with translations of Egyptian poetry. Yao says the body of translations by modernist poets in general, much of which Pound started, consists of some the most "significant modernist achievements in English". Pound was the first English language poet since John Dryden, some three centuries earlier, to give primacy to translations in English literature. The fullness of the achievement for the modernists is that they renewed interest in multiculturalism, multilingualism, and, perhaps of greater importance, they treated translations not in a strict sense of the word but instead saw a translation as the creation of an original work.
Michael Alexander writes that, as a translator, Pound was a pioneer with a great gift of language and an incisive intelligence. He helped popularize major poets such as Guido Cavalcanti and Du Fu, and brought Provençal and Chinese poetry to English-speaking audiences. He revived interest in the Confucian classics and introduced the west to classical Japanese poetry and drama. He translated and championed Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon classics, and helped keep them alive at a time when poets no longer considered translations central to their craft.
In Pound's Fenollosa translations, unlike previous American translators of Chinese poetry, which tended to work with strict metrical and stanzaic patterns, Pound created free verse translations. Whether the poems are valuable as translations continues to be a source of controversy. Hugh Kenner contends that Cathay should be read primarily as a work about World War I, not as an attempt at accurately translating ancient Eastern poems. The real achievement of the book, Kenner argues, is in how it combines meditations on violence and friendship with an effort to "rethink the nature of an English poem". These ostensible translations of ancient Eastern texts, Kenner argues, are actually experiments in English poetics and compelling elegies for a warring West. Pound scholar Ming Xie explains that Pound's use of language in his translation of "The Seafarer" is deliberate, in that he avoids merely "trying to assimilate the original into contemporary language".
And then went down to the ship, Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and We set up mast and sail on that swart ship, Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward Bore us out onward with bellying canvas, Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess. Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller, Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea til day's end.“ ” from Canto I (1917)
The Cantos is difficult to decipher. In the epic poem, Pound disregards literary genres, mixing satire, hymns, elegies, essays and memoirs. Pound scholar Rebecca Beasley believes it amounts to a rejection of the 19th-century nationalistic approach in favor of early-20th-century comparative literature. Pound reaches across cultures and time periods, assembling and juxtaposing "themes and history" from Homer to Ovid and Dante, from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and many others. The work presents a multitude of protagonists as "travellers between nations". The nature of The Cantos, she says, is to compare and measure among historical periods and cultures and against "a Poundian standard" of modernism. Pound layered ideas, cultures, and historical periods, juxtaposing modern vernacular, Classical languages, and underlying truths, often represented with Chinese ideograms and as many as 15 different languages.
Ira Nadel says The Cantos is an epic, that is "a poem including history", and that the "historical figures lend referentiality to the text". It functions as a contemporary memoir, in which "personal history [and] lyrical retrospection mingle" – most clearly represented in the Pisan Cantos. Michael Ingham sees in The Cantos an American tradition of experimental literature writing about it, "These works include everything but the kitchen sink, and then add the kitchen sink". In the 1960s William O'Connor described The Cantos as filled with "cryptic and gnomic utterances, dirty jokes, obscenities of various sorts".
Allen Tate believes the poem is not about anything and is without beginning, middle or end. He argues that Pound was incapable of sustained thought and "at the mercy of random flights of 'angelic insight,' an Icarian self-indulgence of prejudice which is not checked by a total view to which it could be subordinated". This perceived lack of logical consistency or form is a common criticism of The Cantos. Pound himself felt this absence of form was his great failure, and regretted that he could not "make it cohere".
Literary criticism and economic theory
Pound's literary criticism and essays are, according to Massimo Bacigalupo, a "form of intellectual journal". In early works, such as The Spirit of Romance and "I Gather the Limbs of Osiris", Pound paid attention to medieval troubadour poets – Arnaut Daniel and François Villon. The former piece was to "remain one of Pound's principal sourcebooks for his poetry"; in the latter he introduces the concept of "luminous details". The leitmotifs in Pound's literary criticism are recurrent patterns found in historical events, which, he believed, through the use of judicious juxtapositions illuminate truth; and in them he reveals forgotten writers and cultures.
Pound wrote intensively about economic theory with the ABC of Economics and Jefferson and/or Mussolini, published in the mid-1930s right after he was introduced to Mussolini. These were followed by The Guide to Kulchur – covering 2500 years of history – which Tim Redman describes as the "most complete synthesis of Pound's political and economic thought". Pound thought writing the cantos meant writing an epic about history and economics, and he wove his economic theories throughout; neither can be understood without the other. In these pamphlets and in The ABC of Reading, he sought to emphasize the value of art and to "aestheticize the political" – written forcefully, according to Nadel, and in a "determined voice". In form his criticism and essays are direct, repetitive and reductionist, his rhetoric minimalist, filled with "strident impatience", according to Pound scholar Jason Coats, and frequently failing to make a coherent claim. He rejected traditional rhetoric and created his own, although not very successfully, in Coats's view.