The Pound Era
A ZBC of Ezra Pound
Shall two know the same in their knowing? You who dare Persephone’s threshold, Beloved, do not fall apart in my hands.
Down, Derry-down/ Oh let an old man rest.
Ezra Pound, aged eighty-seven, died in the night of November 1, 1972, released at last from a long, agitated silence (“but the mind as Ixion, unstill, ever turning”). For ten years, haunted by despair, contrition, or some other, nameless, more complicated sentiment, he had spoken very little. “I ruin everything I touch,” he told an Italian journalist in 1963. “I have been mistaken, always…I have arrived at doubt too late….” He thought The Cantos were “botched,” and confessed to Allen Ginsberg (in a conversation reported by Michael Reck in Evergreen Review) that his worst mistake had been “that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.”
The drafts and fragments of the late Cantos, published in 1969—Pound himself appearing at Hamilton College, his old school, to autograph copies, to sign his good-by to his great, ruined poem—are full of cries of helplessness and repentance:
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.
what do I love and
where are you?
That I lost my center
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered—
and that I tried to make a paradiso
(Notes for Canto 117 et seq.)
But while, such feelings deserve all our respect, and while the writing deserves our admiration, it is a mistake, I think, to let Pound go out on this elegiac, remorseful note, with a whimper not a bang, in just the way that an earlier, fiercer Pound had insisted was not for him:
yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper, with a bang not with whimper….
Pound’s errors and wrecks, in other words, need to be answered by his achievements, not by his apologies, however heartfelt, and I, for one, am not convinced that The Cantos are botched. They are flawed, certainly, and on occasion simply impenetrable. They contain appalling lapses of tone and they are full of strange, often disagreeable obsessions. Yet in their final effect they seem to me to belong unmistakably with Ulysses and The Waste Land, and to be all the more impressive for being so uncomposed, so angry and tender and dishevelled—for daring to appear in public in such disarray.
Certainly they won’t hold the world together, as Pound hoped they would. But then neither will any other poem, and The Cantos, flaws, disarray, impenetrability and all, do hold themselves together well enough for us…
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