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.”