The Pound Error - The elusive master of allusion

Ezra Pound turns up five times in Peter Gay’s big survey of the modern movement in literature and the arts, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy”—once in connection with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which Pound edited), once as the author of an anti-Semitic sentiment (one of many), and three times as the originator of the slogan “Make It New” (which suits the theme of Gay’s account). Pound’s poetry and criticism are not discussed; no reader of Gay’s book would have any idea of what his importance or influence as a writer might be. Gay’s is a commodious volume with a long reach, “From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond”; still, a handful of passing references seems a sharp decline in market value for a writer who was once the hero of a book called “The Pound Era.” 

Pound’s aspirations for literature were grand. He believed that bad writing destroyed civilizations and that good writing could save them, and although he was an élitist about what counted as art and who mattered as an artist, he thought that literature could enhance the appreciation of life for everyone. He was vain and idiosyncratic, but he had no wish to be a prima donna. No doubt Eliot, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore would have produced interesting and innovative work whether they had known Pound or not, but Pound’s attention and interventions helped their writing and sped their careers. He edited them, reviewed them, got them published in magazines he was associated with, and included them in anthologies he compiled; he introduced them to editors, to publishers, and to patrons; he gave them the benefit of his time, his learning, his money, and his old clothes. “A miracle of ebulliency, gusto, and help,” Joyce called him. It’s true that he was flamboyant, immodest, opinionated, tactless, a pinwheel of affectation; he made people crazy and he became crazy himself. Gertrude Stein’s description of him is frequently invoked: “A village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” In his devotion to the modernist avant-garde, though, he was selfless. “A bombastic galleon, palpably bound to, or from, the Spanish Main,” Wyndham Lewis wrote about meeting Pound. “Going on board, I discovered beneath its skull and cross-bones, intertwined with fleurs de lys and spattered with preposterous starspangled oddities, a heart of gold.”

Pound’s own work, on the other hand, has had a difficult reception. The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past. A great deal of Pound’s poetry therefore takes the form of translation, imitation, allusion, and quotation. He is trying to breathe life into a line of artistic and intellectual accomplishment, but it is a line of his own invention—a “tradition” that includes, among others, John Adams, Confucius, Flaubert, the Provençal troubadours, and Benito Mussolini. Not, prima facie, a canon. This means that to understand what Pound is doing you often need to have read the same writers, studied the same languages, and learned the same history that Pound read, studied, and learned (or rely on the commentary of a person who has). This is especially the case with the work on which he spent fifty-four years and staked his reputation, “The Cantos of Ezra Pound”—“a cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length,” as he once described it. So it is very easy for the average underprepared reader to get Pound wrong, and he desperately did not want to be misunderstood. Opacity and ambiguity can be deliberate effects in modernist writing: sometimes the text goes dark, reference becomes uncertain, language aspires to the condition of music. In Pound’s case, though, any obscurity is unintentional. Clarity is the essence of his aesthetic. He sometimes had to struggle against his own technique to achieve it.

There is another problem with Pound, which is that he was a Fascist. The term gets abused freely in discussions of modernist writers, a number of whom were reactionaries—Gay calls these “the anti-modern modernists”—and some of whom were anti-Semites, but very few of whom were actually Fascists. Pound is one of the very few. His obsession with the Jews (there are some anti-Semitic passages in his early prose, but nothing systematic) dates from his interest in the views of the founder of the Social Credit movement, Major C. H. Douglas, around 1920. (Social Credit was an economic reform movement aimed at the elimination of debt—hence Pound’s attacks on usury and on Jews as moneylenders and financiers of wars, a classic type of anti-Semitism.) Pound’s infatuation with Mussolini dates from a concert given by Olga Rudge, a violinist who was Pound’s longtime mistress, at Mussolini’s home, in 1927, where he came up with the idea of enlisting Mussolini as a patron of the avant-garde. Six years later, Pound had a private audience with Il Duce, at the Palazzo Venezia, in Rome, and presented him with a copy of “A Draft of XXX Cantos,” which Mussolini graciously acknowledged with the remark “Ma questo è divertente” (“How amusing”). Pound concluded that Mussolini had an intuitive grasp of the significance of his poetry.

In 1941, Pound began delivering broadcasts from the Rome studios of Ente Italiana Audizione Radio, attacking the Jews, Roosevelt, and American intervention in the war. The broadcasts continued through the Allied invasion of Italy, in 1943. In 1944, he wrote two propagandistic cantos—which are known as the Italian Cantos, and which were for many years omitted from the New Directions edition of the complete “Cantos”—praising the Fascist fighting spirit. In 1945, he surrendered to American officials on a charge of treason and was imprisoned in an Army Disciplinary Training Center north of Pisa. He was brought to the United States, but, thanks to the intercession of friends and of Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, in Washington, D.C., he was spared a trial, on psychiatric grounds (although he never received a specific diagnosis). He spent twelve years in St. Elizabeths, where he acquired a number of disciples, including John Kasper, a segregationist associated with the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell. In 1958, the indictment was dismissed and Pound returned to Italy. When he walked off the boat, in Naples, he gave the Fascist salute.

Pound’s politics are not incidental to his achievement. Italian Fascism is integral to “The Cantos,” and the section called “The Pisan Cantos,” which Pound composed in the Army Disciplinary Training Center, at a time when he had every expectation of being executed, is, formally, an elegy occasioned by the death of Mussolini at the hands of Italian partisans (“Ben and la Clara a Milano / by the heels at Milano”). Like most classical elegies, it is as much about the poet as about the departed; it is suffused with memories, and spiked with anger at the indifference of the world. It won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, and although the award was (and remains) controversial, “The Pisan Cantos” is the finest thing that Pound ever wrote. It’s the one place in his work where his learning is fused with genuine personal feeling.

Parts of “The Pisan Cantos” have been read as a recantation:

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
I say pull down.

This may sound repentant, but it is not the poet speaking to himself in the second person. The lines are addressed to the American Army (“Half black half white”): the prisoner is raging against his captors. Pound laments, but he does not regret. “The Pisan Cantos” is a Fascist poem without apologies.

A. David Moody does not deal with the political side of the Pound problem in the first volume of his biography, “Ezra Pound Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work” (Oxford; $47.95), because he takes us only to 1921, the year Pound left London, first for Paris and then for Rapallo, where he lived until he surrendered to the Americans. Pound was born in 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, a fact useful to English satirists, whose ridicule Pound abetted by occasionally speaking and writing in a kind of homemade cowboy/Yankee drawl. But Pound was not really a Westerner; he spent less than two years in Hailey, where his father, Homer, briefly registered mining claims. The family moved to New York and then to Wyncote, near Philadelphia, which is where Pound was reared and educated. Homer worked in the Philadelphia Mint; Pound’s mother, Isabel, was a New Yorker. Pound spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania, then transferred to Hamilton College, graduating in 1905.

Pound came to Europe in 1908, when he was twenty-two, after getting kicked out of the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. (Later in his career, he several times applied to Penn to receive his doctorate on the basis of work published, but was turned down.) Pound resisted the philological approach to literature that he was taught at Penn, since philology considered itself a science and above critical judgment, and Pound was consumed with a passion for critical judgment. He thought that the whole purpose of studying the past was to discover the principles of good writing—“the search for sound criteria,” he called it—and his early poetry is a kind of creative philology, consisting largely of promiscuously free translations and reanimations of the literature of half a dozen expired traditions: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Provençal, medieval Italian, eighth-century Chinese, and fourteenth-century Japanese. (After decades of frustratingly under-edited New Directions reprints, virtually all of Pound’s poetry and translations, apart from the “Cantos,” are available in a single Library of America volume, expertly edited, with annotation, by Richard Sieburth.)

Moody’s book is a biography more of the work than of the man. Pound’s love affairs, friendships, and quarrels and the intellectual and artistic culture within which he operated are mentioned, but they’re not endowed with much explanatory power. Moody treats Pound as a poet whose primary concern was writing poetry, and his pages are devoted mainly to patient, intelligent, and prudently sympathetic readings of the contents of the twenty-one books Pound produced between 1905 and 1920, beginning with “Hilda’s Book,” which he wrote for his girlfriend Hilda Doolittle (later the poet H.D.), and ending with the work he called his “farewell to London,” the self-deprecating satire “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Given the enormous variety of Pound’s production in this period, Moody’s gloss is elegant: he thinks that Pound (with a little help from his friends) grounded poetry in the everyday. He did this in two ways. He campaigned, as a prolific and bumptious critic, against the aesthetes and the Symbolists—the avant-garde of the late nineteenth century. And he formulated an aesthetic that was intended to preserve poetry’s privileged status, but without the Symbolist’s mysticism or the aesthete’s cult of the beautiful. Pound took the merely poetical out of poetry. He did not believe that (in the words of the preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) “all art is quite useless.” He thought that poetry had a kind of power. He believed, Moody says, “that ‘the perfect rhythm joined to the perfect word’ would energize the motor forces of emotion and will and illuminate the intelligence, and that the result would be more enlightened living.”

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