Ezra Pound on Tying Flies

The excerpt, found on page 45 (Canto LI) in the Fifth Decad of Cantos. The sections are numbered individually, and the page numbers are not consecutive, and there is no table of contents. You thought James Joyce was difficult.

A passage sparks a potential passion

by Teresa Mull

Ezra Pound is remembered for being many things—prolific poet, Modernist pioneer, anti-Semite, fascist, “intellectual crackpot.” “Fly fishing guru” isn’t usually included in the bewhiskered bohemian’s list of accomplishments, yet with his Cantos stacking up to nearly 900 pages, there are bound to be some revelations found within what Britannica politely summarizes as an “uncontrolled series of personal and historical episodes.”

One of the easier-to-decipher passages of Pound’s epic (it’s written in English, at least) describes how to tie two types of flies. Though I’ve cast my fair share of imitation insects into picturesque streams and rivers over the years, I’m ashamed to say that, until recently, I hadn’t bothered to appreciate the art of tying them.

In defense of my willful ignorance, though, consider that a lifetime ago, I briefly dated a fly-fishing guide who stashed his fly-tying materials in the corner of a spare closet. One day, ignorant me discovered a hunk of mutilated squirrel tail and half of a rooster’s neck (this guy also kept chickens) out of context, and that was enough to turn me off to the idea of fly tying until, well—last week. 

Charged with explaining Canto LI, I went to pick the brains of the experts at my local fly shop.

“I have a weird request for you guys,” I told an alarmed-looking pair of employees. They breathed a sigh of relief when I said I needed help analyzing a poem, and George told me they get “waaaaay weirder questions than that,” which evidently involve things related to mutilated squirrel tails and partially plucked roosters’ necks. 

“Blue dun; number 2 in most rivers”—the Blue Dun is a specific type of mayfly that Pound writes should be used on “dark days, when it is cold.” “Number 2,” I found out later from someone who spends his time “Blogging the Cantos” (God bless you!), is a reference to Charles Bowlker’s Art of Angling, which lists the Blue Dun in the second position on the book’s frontispiece. Excerpts from the book, it turns out, are the basis for this entire passage, which Pound lifted and pared down ‘til it was only sensible to people who tie flies. 

The “bewhiskered bohemian,” his very own self. The Cantos of Ezra Pound were published (sort of, in part, more or less) by New Directions Press in 1956.

“A starling’s wing will give you the color / or duck widgeon, if you take feather from under the wing.”  These lines refer to the types of bird feathers used to imitate this type of fly’s wings. 

“Do the fish really care if you take the feather from under the wing of the widgeon?” I ask. “Are they going to know?”

They won’t know, says George, but if you’re following a specific pattern, you should be consistent and adhere to tying it the same way, with the same materials, every time, just as you would follow the exact same recipe to a ‘T’ if you wanted your cookies to come out the same way with every baking.

“There are situations where fish get very selective,” he added, “and if you give them a bug that doesn’t look like the natural bug they’re eating, they won’t take it.” 

Pound:  “Let the body be of blue fox fur, or a water rat’s / or grey squirrel’s. Take this with a portion of mohair”—The middle part of this fly is “dubbed,” which means the abdomen is simulated by wrapping the hook with natural material, in this case, the fur of a fox, muskrat, or squirrel—“and a cock’s hackle for legs.”  This line advises wrapping a piece of feather from a rooster’s neck around the hook and configuring it so it sprouts in the manner of a fly’s legs. 

“It’s arts and crafts,” George tells me as we stand in front of rows of colorful feathers and beads and thread and wire and flamboyant Flashabou (tinsel—my new favorite thing) that puts Hobby Lobby to shame, “that’s basically all it is.” 

“12th of March to 2nd of April”—It’s time to switch to a different type of fly, Pound informs us, followed by another recipe, this time for a Green Tail: “Hen pheasant’s feather does for a fly / green tail, the wings flat on the body / Dark fur from a hare’s ear for a body / a green shaded partridge feather / grizzled yellow cock’s hackle / green wax; harl from a peacock’s tail / bright lower body; about the size of pin / the head should be.” 

This fly “can be fished from seven a.m. / till eleven,” at which time, a preferable sort of snack, the brown marsh fly, will appear and turn the “Granham”—an alternative word for a Green Tail Bowlker used back in 1854 that George and Co. hadn’t heard of—into second fiddle. 

Ezra Pound’s less-than-admirable behavior and viewpoints tend to overshadow the contributions he himself made to the literary world, but he’s still commended for having championed Hemingway, Frost, Eliot, Joyce, and other titans of early 20th-century literature. And clearly, his influence endures:  Because of this intriguing passage and the lively dissection of it George and the guys and I made, I was inspired to sign up for a beginner’s fly-tying class at the shop. Thank you, Mr. Pound (I think…). 

Teresa Mull didn’t think anything could be more complicated than analyzing Ezra Pound’s poetry, until she tried tying flies.