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Pound Notes

In response to:

Ezra Pound from the February 8, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

We can find [Pound’s] tenderness, the sign of his patient attention to the universe, on almost any page of The Cantos,” writes Michael Wood [NYR, February 8]. Unless language has lost all meaning, unless the word “tenderness” is meant to imply the kind of tender care lavished on the gas chambers, the statement by Professor Wood is incredible. In any case, how would he knows? He admits that he can read “neither Greek nor Chinese.” This would make about half The Cantos unintelligible to him. When we add to his discomfiture the fact that he “misses as many classical allusions as the next man,” it is a safe assumption that the vast bulk of the 20,000 lines of the 109 canticles that make up the completed Cantos are out of bounds to him.

Dr. Wood starts with a quotation twice removed from the original source when he tells us that Pound told something to Allen Ginsberg who, in turn, told it to Michael Reck who published it—in Evergreen Review. It so happens that I don’t believe a word of it. That is, I don’t believe Pound told Ginsberg that “his worst mistake had been ‘the stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.’ ” I don’t believe it because Pound never—ever—spoke that way, wrote that way, thought that way. After all, there is a body of work encompassing sixty years of effort in prose and poetry that tells us not only what Pound was, but what he was capable of saying—and his way of saying it. And words like “anti-Semitism” were just not part of his language. “A writer’s work is his autobiography,” Pound told the editors of Twentieth Century Authors.

I envy the temerity of those who, not knowing what the hell the sputtering comet out of Hailey, Idaho, was talking about, are able to draw meanings and conclusions from vagrant lines drawn out of the body of his text. I don’t always sympathize with the author who complains that he has been quoted out of context. Often this is a defense mechanism to conceal an acute embarrassment. But in the case of Pound we are invariably confronted with the singular line—the vapory allusion—to proffer evidence that Ezra Loomis Pound was, in sum total, at least a minor genius and at best a man of enormous literary influence, if not the greatest poet in the English language since Chaucer. Let’s see.

Beginning with Canto 2, Professor Wood dredges up a couple of lines about the “pallor of Hesperus,” and “the colour of grape’s pulp.” But the dread line, one that would foreshadow the cruel forgery embedded in Canto 52—“a curse cursed on our children”—is overlooked. Here is the way it reads in the later Canto:

Remarked Ben: better keep out the jews

or yr/ grand children will curse you jews, real jews, chazims, and neschek also super-neschek or the international racket

The next five lines are mercifully blacked out for fear of libel (or out of simple decency). So where’s the forgery?

The “Ben” referred to is none other than Benjamin Franklin who—according to a mephitic little pamphlet concocted by William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts—told this to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Only it didn’t happen. Charles Beard and Mark Van Doren ran down this infamy more than thirty years ago. But professors, at least, were then not too much impressed with the Silver Shirts, and the fact that the Nazi Handbuch des Judenfrage printed it as fact in 1936 did not impress itself on too many civilized minds. But Pound believed it and incorporated it in the body of a group of Cantos he called his “best book of poetry.”

In a brief letter it is not too easy to disembowel all the threadbare quotations Dr. Wood employs to embroider his review of a couple of books on Ezra Pound. I confess I find it difficult to make rhyme or reason out of the quoted line from Canto 98—“that his feelings have the colour of nature.” Whose feelings? What nature? Surely the writer is not obliged to make it too easy for the reader. Conversely, the reader is not obliged to make it too easy for the writer. Even if we dismiss as too harsh Edmund Wilson’s conclusion that The Cantos added up to “poetic bankruptcy”; or Robert Graves’ bitter disparagement of them as “sprawling, ignorant, and seldom metrical” indecencies; or we agree with Robert Gorham Davis that The Cantos failed “as poetry,” the selective quotations of Professor Wood take on a special innocence—or arrogance. What I am suggesting is that the quoted line above from Canto 98 is utterly meaningless and is employed to throw dust in the reader’s eye. The line immediately preceding it reads: “tse feng [Chinese ideograph] tso feng suh”; the line immediately following reads: “en [Chinese ideograph] ch’ing.”

Dr. Wood told us that he knows no Chinese, understands no Greek; but this Canto contains some thirty lines and parts of lines in Greek and 46 Chinese ideographs, and at least one telling reference to Mussolini without whom there would be neither compassion nor “tenderness” in The Cantos. And his quotation from Canto 74 takes a quantum leap in selectivity—“yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper, with a bang not with a whimper.”

No effort is made to explain the poet’s plight, no exegesis is offered for all the banging and the whimpering. But the admonition to Possum (Eliot) is to tell him (sadly) how good old “Ben [Mussolini] and la Clara a Milano / by the heels at Milano…the twice crucified / where in history will you find it?” Then follows: “yet say this to the Possum,” etc. Thus we are made aware that Pound is mourning the passing, the sudden topsy-turvy death—“by the heels at Milano”—of his mentor and patron saint, the real protector of our civilization—Benito Mussolini!

Surely there is much that is obscure about The Cantos, but the work is not so opaque as to defy all understanding. Allen Tate was wrong when he said of The Cantos that “they were about nothing,” even if they were “distinguished poetry.” They are neither. As an epic they tell the story of the misuses of Money by way of Usury throughout the ages, at the bottom (or top) of which stands “The Jew, Disease Incarnate,” as the title of one of Pound’s essays attests.

It is a pity that many of our younger academics find the text too impenetrable, the allusion too remote, the homework too hard. Thus an associate professor at Queen’s College told a class in modern English poetry the many references to del Mar in The Cantos could be interpreted as the “epic’s” concern for sea images. Really! But the base facts are that there once lived a real live del Mar, first name Alexander, who wrote a huge tome on coinage and money, who attracted the attention of papa Homer and son Ezra when he put into pamphlet form a lecture delivered on “Usury and Jews.” This, I submit, should have been the subtitle of The Cantos.

As noted above it is impossible to comment on all Dr. Wood’s quotations except to observe that his quotation from Canto 72 is a coup. It does not exist in the edition from which all his other quotations are taken. (I understand it exists, with Canto 73, in Italian, only it would come afoul even of our almost libel-free society if translated now.)

Finally, Professor Wood, not unmindful of Pound’s untender references to lowercase jews, tells us that the best way to remember the Holocaust is to forget it. Since the best part of his review is devoted to Dr. Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, I beg leave for a word or two on this over-rated treatise. One of the literary conventions—one, by the way which Kenner has copyrighted, it seems—is the disjointed metaphor or the vagrant allusion. For instance, on page 551 of his Era he writes: “Marius the Epicurean was published the year of Ezra Pound’s birth. Browning and Ruskin were active. Wagner was but two years dead, Jesse James but three.” Get it? Let me try my hand at it even if, in the process, it breaks my heart a little.

On the day in 1943 when Pound was broadcasting over the Rome radio, telling the allied troops that “every sane act you commit is committed in homage to Mussolini and Hitler,” that “no damn jew cares a hoot for law,” a little girl in a Nazi Death Camp was jotting down these words on a scrap of notepaper: “Now I must say goodbye. Tomorrow mother goes into the gas chamber, and I will be thrown into the well.”

Max Geltman

New York City

Michael Wood replies:

Mr. Geltman doesn’t believe Michael Reck and I do. Mr. Geltman thinks I am responsible for my colleague at Queen’s and I don’t. I’m not sure what else there is to say on such subjects. Other parts of Mr. Geltman’s letter are perfectly answerable but the answers, like the accusations, are trivial. The “dread line” in Canto 2, for example, refers not only to the Jews but to Helen of Troy; and the quotation which I mistakenly describe as coming from Canto 72 can be found, not in any arcane and evil Italian text, but in Canto 77—I hit the wrong key on my typewriter and failed to catch my mistake.

But one must, I suppose, respect Mr. Geltman’s rage, in spite of its stupidity and incoherence. It is virtually impossible, I think, to praise Pound without seeming to condone his excesses and ugly follies, without in one sense actually condoning them. No one in his right mind either likes this state of affairs or wants to lie to himself about it. Conversely, though, I think it is impossible to take an absolute moral stand against a poet as good as Pound without deciding either not to read him at all or to read him only in terms of a moral judgment previously arrived at—no one who cares about literature, or in the long run about morality, can feel happy about these options. There is a dilemma here, then, and an old one, which goes well beyond the case of Ezra Pound; not a Pound conspiracy and not a Fascist revival. Literature and morality are neither fully separable nor simply synonymous, and we have to do what we can with particular cases.

There is, however, nothing in Pound which is quite as ugly as the closing paragraph of Mr. Geltman’s letter. If fidelity to the holocaust means exploiting the memory of that child for the sake of a cheap, polemical pathos, then I’m all for forgetting.

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