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 to respond to them as a single, continuing enterprise, the project of an erratic, divided, buffeted but finally coherent lifetime, the fruit of Pound’s intense and persistent attention to the world around him. Attention: no word recurs more frequently in Hugh Kenner’s admirable new book: “God is concentrated attention; a work of art is someone’s act of attention, evoking ours; there have been great feats of attention.”
The difficulties of reading The Cantos are not, in my recent experience, so extreme as they are often said to be. It would be absurd to pretend that the poem is self-contained, self-sufficient, or that its proliferating allusions are self-explanatory. But it is more self-contained than it looks when you look only at fragments of it, and its allusions are often explained by their contexts, or by their repeated appearances in changing contexts. “It is Pound’s peculiarity,” Noel Stock writes in Reading the Cantos (an insidious title, since the book is really an invitation to stay away), “to think that because he knows something therefore we know it too.” Pound does write at times as if he thought this, and when he does his poem is not working. But for most of the time, it seems to me, it is Pound’s peculiarity to be able to make us know what he knows, to let us into his world of allusions and to make us feel, once we are there, that we have been there a long time.
He gives us, that is, the culture he wants us to have. To a great degree one learns the language of The Cantos by reading The Cantos. I should say, before I go any further, that I am far from being a Pound scholar, that I can read neither Greek nor Chinese, and that I miss as many classical allusions as the next man. But with The Cantos as with Finnegans Wake, for most of us it is not a question of understanding everything (although that would be nice) but of understanding enough—enough for the work to exist for us, to be something more than inert marks on a page.
Our readings of The Cantos are likely to remain incomplete, then, and the poem itself is also incomplete because Pound abandoned it. But there is more. The poem is not only unfinished, it is in one sense unfinishable. Pound, like Proust, like Musil, was a man who discovered at the mid-point of his life a work that would occupy him until he died. Which is a way of saying he had started a work he would never finish, had invented a form which his whole life would feed but which only his death could close. Yeats wrote of Pound that he gave the impression of not having got all the wine into the bowl, and Donald Davie (in Ezra Pound: The Poet as Sculptor, 1964) comments that this may have been the effect Pound wanted. Davie goes on:
If he is sure that there is more to his subject (more perhaps to any subject) than he got out of it, or ever could get out of it, if he believes that all the wine never can be got into the bowl or into any bowl, then, like Michelangelo leaving some portion of stone unworked worked in his sculptures, the poet will deliberately seek an effect of improvisation, of haste and rough edges. For only in this way can he be true to his sense of the inexhaustibility of the human and non-human nature he is working with….
Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn thought a modern work impossible, because its closure would be an infidelity not so much to the world’s inexhaustibility as to its inherent, encroaching chaos, and Pound himself wrote, as if in anticipation of Dr. Faustus,
Art very possibly ought to be the supreme achievement, the “accomplished”; but there is the other satisfactory effect, that of a man hurling himself at an indomitable chaos and yanking and hauling as much of it as possible into some sort of order (or beauty), aware of it both as chaos and as potential.
Some sort of order. Leverkühn’s creator made works so finely, so perfectly closed that their closure is a mockery, an acknowledgment of the chaos only seemingly held at bay. Joyce ended Ulysses on a monologue that clearly could have gone on forever, and ended Finnegans Wake on an unfinished sentence that continues on the first page of the book: a circle, closed but infinite. And Proust, Pound, and Musil, as I have suggested, embarked on works that would last out their lives, that would embody the chaotic and the inexhaustible by miming the world’s prolixity. I am not suggesting, of course, that this is what Pound, Proust, or Musil themselves thought they were doing, but I am suggesting that this is the direction in which their puzzling, half-understood intuitions were pointing them.
the wind mad as Cassandra who was as sane as the lot of ‘em
It is important that we should not deceive ourselves about Pound’s political career, that we should make of him neither an innocent nor a monster nor a madman. The texts of his broadcasts from Italy during World War II (two full transcripts are to be found in Julien Cornell’s The Trial of Ezra Pound, 1966; a number of excerpts are given in William Van O’Connor and Edward Stone’s A Casebook on Ezra Pound, 1959) make very unpleasant reading, and will come as a shock if you have been expecting to hear a harmless crank preaching strange doctrines.
Every hour that you go on with this war is an hour lost to you and your children. And every sane act you commit is committed in homage to Mussolini and Hitler…. They are your leaders however much you think you are conducted by Roosevelt or told by Churchill. You follow Mussolini and Hitler in every constructive act of your government….
You are not going to win this war. None of our best minds ever thought you could win it. You have never had a chance in this war….
Roosevelt is described as mentally unstable and frothing at the mouth, Stalin as “not wholly trusted by the kikery which is his master.” We hear of Mr. Squirmy and Mr. Slime feeding it to us “right over the BBC radio, and every one of the Jew radios of Schenectady, New York and Boston.” “And Boston was once an American city,” Pound adds.
Pound had an Italian announcer preface his twice-weekly talks with a statement to the effect that he had not been asked to say anything that went against his conscience or that was “incompatible with his duties as a citizen of the USA.” He was silent for a month after Pearl Harbor, then took up his talks again. He was plainly sincere in his belief that the war was unnecessary—that all wars are unnecessary—and he was speaking very self-consciously as a native American, even to the point of adopting a rustic accent. Hugh Kenner, I think, does the best that can be done for Pound in this respect, describing what must have been Pound’s intentions in those days, and also what became of them. They were “almost routinely betrayed at the microphone as the persona of a folk Isaiah slipped into place, denouncing.”
The mention of Isaiah is disingenuous, though, a tacit disclaimer of Pound’s anti-Semitism, and Pound’s talks seem to me several degrees nastier than anyone sympathetic to Pound has allowed himself to suggest. Kenner remarks that Wyndham Lewis always brought out the worst in Pound, and Mussolini and his men obviously did the same. Kenner goes on to speculate about the “long-term psychic damage” inflicted on Pound by G. W. Prothero, who closed the columns of The Quarterly Review to him, thereby cutting off his income. Here I can’t quite follow: many people go short of money without taking their revenge on the world in quite the way Pound did.
But then this softheartedness about starving artists and writers marks Kenner’s book throughout, is the one small flaw in a brilliant, fascinating, and otherwise altogether satisfactory book. The Vortex died, the men of the Vortex separated, worked alone, and Kenner keeps asking us to shed tears over this. I can’t see what Pound, Joyce, and Eliot might have done together that they didn’t in the end do alone. Lewis, perhaps, was a real casualty of the breakup, but Kenner’s perspective on the whole subject is very strange. Gaudier-Brzeska, aged twenty-three, goes off to World War I to die. “This was the sort of thing,” Kenner concludes, “that made Pound feel that something was wrong with the system.”
The Pound Era is partly cultural history, partly what it says it is, the portrait of an age. But mainly it is a special kind of biography of Pound: Pound’s times seen from the point of view of Pound’s preoccupations. This is a fine place of vantage, and I merely want to quibble about the occasional slippage of focus it causes, as when Kenner tells us, taking Pound’s cue, that World War I was fought in defense of Culture, fought
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books,
as Pound put it in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The lines are funny and bitter, since Pound knew what philistines the English were (and are), but they hardly constitute a considered historical judgment. Taken as if they did, they become the literary man’s view of history, which was all too often Pound’s own, and in which books and statues, broken, battered, or whole, loom abnormally large, in which politics becomes a bad novel and the social world not worth taking seriously unless you can take it over.
But wasn’t Pound crazy, after all? He suffered terribly in his cage in the detention camp near Pisa, when the American army picked him up at the end of the war. Four psychiatrists found him unfit to stand trial for treason shortly after. There is evidence that throughout the Thirties Pound had been losing touch with the world increasingly, in more senses than one. But was he really insane?
The issue is nicely expressed in a letter from Julien Cornell, Pound’s lawyer, to Mrs. Pound, written in January, 1946, and in which Cornell tried to explain to Mrs. Pound that although the doctors who had seen her husband had found him paranoid, she would, when she saw him, find him very much his “usual self.” She didn’t, quite, find him his usual self; he was far more distraught and incoherent than he had been before that summer in Pisa. But the point remains. He was insane by some definitions and not by others, and had foreseen the case himself long before in a poem called “Sub Mare”: “It is, and is not, I am sane enough.”
His diagnosed insanity may have saved his life, since it saved him from being tried for treason, but once there is no life left to save it should concern us less. It is irrelevant to any consideration of Pound’s poetry, and it is nearly irrelevant to any consideration of his political misdemeanors, since all kinds of sane people shared not only Pound’s political sympathies but his chosen targets and forms of rhetoric (“dirty gang of kikes and hyper-kikes on the London gold exchange firms”).
The Bollingen Prize committee, in 1949, solved the Pound puzzle by separating the man from his work and giving the work the prize: a victory for the New Criticism. The Council of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, deciding last summer not to give the Academy’s Emerson-Thoreau medal to Pound, did just the opposite: amid all kinds of protestations of piety about the quality of Pound’s poetry, they refused to consider the poetry at all and concluded that a man who had done what Pound had done in his civil life could not be honored. It would have seemed, a letter to the New York Times suggested, as if the Academy had been proposing Pound as a model, as a man to be emulated.
This seems to me arrant nonsense, as well as being chicken-hearted, and a phrase in a letter the Academy sent out to its members, which was subsequently quoted extensively in the press, brings us nearer home. Memories of the holocaust, we learn, are so “prominent” that it would have been tactless to give the medal to Pound. Lest we forget…. But if we are that worried about forgetting, we have forgotten. Or to put that another way, if a committee of the Academy could recommend Pound for the award, and if it could seem, on a preliminary canvass, that the Council of the Academy would accept this recommendation, then the second thoughts which finally won the day are by definition fake thoughts, scruples cooked up out of an abstract sense of duty, not there until reminders were furnished that they ought to be there.
Irving Howe, in an impressively honest piece in World in October, inadvertently gave this game away. It is not a question of forgiving Pound, he wrote—and indeed it is not, and not just because we have no right to speak on behalf of the silenced six million, as Howe says. We have no right to speak on the subject at all. Who are we to forgive or not to forgive Pound? Not a question of forgiving, then: “It is a matter of remembering.” Memories of the holocaust, it seems, are not prominent enough, and if we had honored Pound we should have been admitting this. That was why he couldn’t have the medal.
I confess, though, that the question still bothers me. I think Pound should have had the medal, and I think pretending to remember the horrors of thirty years ago is worse than forgetting. I think there is something gruesome even in remembering so hard. But I feel very uncomfortable with what seems to be the only alternative, represented with gay insouciance by Christine Brooke-Rose in her book on Pound: it’s all water under the bridge, and who cares about those old battles and atrocities. “I feel certain that to the best and most serious part of the younger generation…these issues are as dead as the religious wars….” Whether remembering seems gruesome or not, and however hypocritical the Council of the Academy may have been in its tortured timidity, the dead surely ask us to be more faithful than that. We owe much more than that to the past.
But then Miss Brooke-Rose, who lives in France, shares the French passion for living only in the fashionable present, and her book is full of this year’s (well, last year’s) top intellectual designers. She assures us that no one speaks about genres and subgenres in literature any more: “modern criticism speaks simply of ‘a text.’ ” She also writes on occasion as if Pound’s chief merit were to have anticipated the activities of Tel Quel. But such complaints are unfair. Her book is irritating in many minor ways, but so helpful, alert, and intelligent that the irritations don’t really matter much.
She takes a long, close look at Pound’s work, and makes a better case for Pound as a poet than anyone except Kenner has ever done. It is true, as Kenner himself says, that Pound has been late in getting the kind of critical attention that Eliot and Joyce got more or less from the start for The Waste Land and Ulysses, and that this lack of a continuing critical tradition affects The Cantos, makes them a different poem, makes them stranger than they ought to be: “an intensely topical poem has become archaic without ever having been contemporary.” But Pound’s critics are catching up, and it is hard to think of a twentieth-century writer who has been better served. Certainly the two books under review do him proud, and along with Davie’s book, with George Dekker’s Sailing After Knowledge (1963), and with Kenner’s own earlier Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951), make up an exceptionally useful body of interpretative work.
that his feelings have the colour of nature
Both the Bollingen committee and the Council of the Academy insisted, in their different ways, on separating Pound’s life from his work. If we put them together it is not hard to conclude that Pound’s virtues, both as a man and as a poet, outweigh his vices. But only prize committees need to make such calculations anyway, and a more important question remains. Do Pound’s political opinions mark his poetry, and if not, how does his poetry manage such a miraculous immunity? In 1949, voting for Pound for the Bollingen Prize, Allen Tate wrote that he had
…little sympathy with the view that holds that Pound’s irresponsible opinions merely lie alongside the poetry, which thus remains uncontaminated by them. The disagreeable opinions are right in the middle of the poetry….
“Right in the middle” seems to me an exaggeration. But the “disagreeable opinions” are there, and we can’t wash our hands of them as blithely as Miss Brooke-Rose does. For her, form and content are indistinguishable, and when Pound’s ideas are shaky his poetic language is shaky too:
For that is my point: when Pound’s views are vulgar, so is his language, when they are not, it is not. Everything collapses together.
Now it certainly is true that Pound’s tone slips whenever his angrier, shallower emotions take over, but the principle obviously won’t work in any general way. Think of Rilke, who manages to express some very disagreeable sentiments in moving and eloquent terms. Or think of Milton, of whom Miss Brooke-Rose says that “insofar as his notions were petty or banal or anthropomorphic his language suffered and insofar as they were humane or generous or perceptive it did not.” This is patently untrue, and as a matter of fact the principle won’t work even for Pound all the time. Suppose we stop scanning The Cantos for open Poundian dogma and look at a passage which is not, apparently, anti-Semitic or treasonable, but which carries, nevertheless, a very unpleasant message—and is beautifully, firmly written, with the full authority of Pound’s mature talent. Canto 30 begins:
Compleynt, compleynt I hearde upon a day,
Artemis singing, Artemis, Artemis
Agaynst Pity lifted her wail:
Pity causeth the forests to fail,
Pity slayeth my nymphs,
Pity spareth so many an evil thing.
Pity befouleth April,
Pity is the root and the spring.
Now if no fayre creature followeth me
It is on account of Pity,
It is on account that Pity for- bideth them slaye.
All things are made foul in this season,
This is the reason, none may seek purity
Having for foulnesse pity
And things growne awry;
No more do my shaftes fly
To slay. Nothing is now clean slayne
But rotteth away.
Obviously one can exaggerate the political implications of these lines, published in 1930. One can take the medievalizing tone as setting the whole thing at a distance, one can see that Pound is wittily reversing Chaucer’s “Complaint unto Pity,” and one may take him to mean false pity, sentimentality. But Artemis really is singing about hunting and getting rid of foulnesse and things growne awry, and she makes no distinction between pity and false pity. The tone of pastiche seems to me to lend authority to the song, rather than to undermine it. Within a few years Pound was to write that “Usury is the cancer of the world, which only the surgeon’s knife of Fascism can cut out,” which corresponds closely enough to what Artemis is saying. In other words the frame of mind represented so eloquently here fits well enough with fascism, whether it happens to be linked historically with fascism or not, and I think the frame of mind could be recognized for what it is in any historical context. It follows perfectly from Pound’s notions of the need for order in the world too, even from his theory of the hard, clear, poetic image, “free from emotional slither,” as he put it.
I don’t mean to say that Imagism or Confucius leads straight to fascism, or that anyone who admires Pound’s poems or critical writings is a secret Nazi. I admire them a great deal myself; and dislike emotional slither; and enjoy hard, clear images when they can be had. But I do mean to say that a fierce enough dislike for emotional slither, if not balanced by other, sufficiently weighty considerations, can lead you into the company of people who may not be too scrupulous about how alleged slitherers are to be dealt with; and a great deal of slaying of things described as evil may ensue by people who are wicked indeed.
These beautiful lines, then, render an ugly sentiment, and Pound himself clearly came to see this. The lines are not included in the selection Pound made from The Cantos in 1965, and the later Cantos are full of references to pity which seem to evoke, in order to take back, just this passage and all it stood for in Pound’s life. He has been a “hard man in some ways,” he tells us, “hard as youth sixty years.” He has held that “energy is near to benevolence,” he says, explaining his mistake. And then referring directly back to Canto 30 and the surgeon’s knife, trying to rescue something from that moral wreck: “pity, yes, for the infected, / but maintain antisepsis.” He quotes Yeats as saying that the truth is in kindness, and his old mentor Orage as insisting that “the basic was pity.” He writes French which seems sheepish, self-conscious, as if his repentance just wouldn’t come out in English:
J’ai eu pitié des autres
probablement pas assez, and at mo- ments that suited my own con-
And again, later, and less casually:
J’ai eu pitié des autres. Pas assez! Pas assez!
The last line on the last page of the most recent printing of The Cantos digs up the dream that Pound knew he had betrayed at a major moment in his life: “To be men not destroyers.”
But again, it is Pound’s achievements, not his remorse, that should concern us now. His ugly ethic of purity, repented of or not, is really there in The Cantos—not right in the middle, perhaps, but not off in some margin either. Fortunately, there is a lot more in Pound, in The Cantos; more than enough to balance the ugliness, and in particular there is what Kenner means by attention. Pound has the most extraordinary respect for things as they are, out there in the natural world, before they are arranged or interpreted by the human mind. Indeed the mind, for Pound, is merely the place where the world takes refuge, is stored, “in the mind indestructible.” “How is it far if you think of it?” he asks repeatedly, meaning not that distance is all in the mind but that the mind can defeat distance by remembering things, by respecting them enough to revive them whole in memory.
He is, in an odd sense, a nature poet, and Donald Davie has a fine chapter on this subject. If we compare him with Wordsworth or Yeats, we can see that he cares for the physical universe, for the exact configuration of a cloud or a wave, in a way that is quite alien to them. He is looking at things in their quiddity (“Quiditas, remarked D Alighieri”), while they are looking for emblems, symbols, correspondences.
“O World!” said Mr Beddoes.
sd / Santayana.
Davie speaks of a “quality of tenderness,” “an attitude of reverent vigilance before the natural world.” Pound himself writes, “it is not man / Made courage, or made order, or made grace,” and we can find his tenderness, the signs of his patient attention to the universe, on almost any page in The Cantos. In Canto 2, for example:
Glass-glint of wave in the tide-rips against sunlight, pallor of Hesperus,
Grey peak of the wave, wave, colour of grape’s pulp….
In Canto 47:
And the small stars now fall from the olive branch,
Forked shadow falls dark on the terrace
More black than the floating martin that has no care for your presence….
In Canto 78:
The shadow of the tent’s peak treads on its corner peg
marking the hour. The moon split, no cloud nearer than Lucca.
In Canto 110:
bare trees walk on the sky-line….
In Canto 113:
a partridge-shaped cloud over dust storm….
Even Artemis’s complaint can be heard as the voice of nature berating us for our sentimentality, regretting the human contamination we have introduced into her animal and vegetable world. This doesn’t make her song any more likable, but it does connect it to the rest of Pound’s preoccupations. His inhumanity was the inhumanity of nature herself, the inflamed, cruel face of a goddess with many other faces. His mind, like all our minds, was a varied and intricate region, and we should see it, as Pound keeps reminding us, as a mind “entire.”
It is significant that when Pound was encaged in Pisa, a man of sixty learning humility the hardest possible way (“not arrogant from habit / but furious from perception”), he reached his simplest, most human conclusion by means of an identification with a panther. A panther in a cage, Pound says, knows there is nothing we can do for him:
green pool, under green of the jungle,
caged: “Nothing, nothing that you can do.”
And Pound continues, almost formally, almost biblically:
Nor can who has passed a month in the death cells believe in capital punishment
No man who has passed a month in the death cells believes in cages for beasts
There is even a vision of a social order in The Cantos, a glimpse of a state ruled with tolerance and wisdom, and while I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the importance of this vision in the poem, I think it does provide an answer to Artemis, whereas Pound’s constant and affectionate attention to nature tends simply to drown her and her song.
And Kung said “Wan ruled with moderation, In his day the State was well kept….
George Dekker takes ruling with moderation to mean not ruling too much, and Pound, like many other people, thought he saw a quick route to such a society: a short spell with the dictator until the new freedom was born. “If a man have not order within him,” we read in the same Canto, “He can not spread order about him.” Pound did not have order within him, and saw no order about him; thought such orders could be created by fiat, by a heroic act of the will. They can’t, as Pound found out to his cost. Perhaps they can’t be created at all. But then they still stand as dreams, and Pound’s Confucian kingdom, a glimpse of a complex, humane, precisely balanced world, will remain long after Pound’s irate activities on behalf of Mussolini are forgotten.
And he said “Anyone can run to excesses,
It is easy to shoot past the mark,
It is hard to stand firm in the middle.”
And they said: If a man commit murder Should his father protect him, and hide him?
And Kung said: He should hide him.
And Kung gave his daughter to Kong-Tch’ang Although Kong-Tch’ang was in prison.
Pound Notes June 14, 1973