Charles Olson & Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths
Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile
“Olson saved my life.” Thus Pound in January 1946, in his first days at St. Elizabeths, appealing in terror at the prospect of losing whatever sanity remained to him. How that life was saved we can now know, thanks to Catherine Seelye, who has put the story together, mostly out of Charles Olson’s papers at the University of Connecticut. Her tact and scrupulousness are beyond praise, and the book she has made cannot be recommended too urgently—even (perhaps especially) to those who have no special interest in, or liking for, either Charles Olson or Ezra Pound. What to do in a democratic society with the errant or aberrant citizen of genius—this question, fumbled at or glossed over by everyone who has written on Pound’s case (jurists and psychiatrists as well as biographers and critics), is here posed more starkly, and explored more searchingly, than ever before. We might have guessed that Olson would do it, if anyone could….
And yet this probably is the first point to make. To take the force of this testimony that none of us deserves to evade, it’s not necessary to like either Olson or Pound, but it is necessary that we respect them. And it’s not always easy to respect the author of The Maximus Poems, disfigured as they are on nearly every page by solecisms and gaucheries, by arbitrary coarsenesses in diction, punctuation, syntax, lineation. This constant failure at the level of execution is counterbalanced, for those who are patient and sympathetic, by the audacity and grandeur of the conception. But for the moment, that’s not the point—which is rather that those who have been, legitimately or at least understandably, affronted by the pretensions of Olson as a poet should not therefore write him off as anything but what he was: an exceptionally earnest and magnanimous man, and a man moreover who knew, as few poets since John Milton have known, what the polity looks like from the point of view of those who administer it day by day. It’s because of this—the magnanimity even more than the political expertise—that Olson’s appalled and self-questioning reflections on Pound’s arraignment and incarceration make all others seem puerile at best.
By “magnanimity” the last thing one means is a willingness to forgive and forget. On the contrary Olson is to be praised in the first place for the relentless hostility with which he presses the charge home:
Pound can talk all he likes about the cultural lag in America…but he’s got a 200 year political lag in himself. It comes down to this: a rejection of the single most important fact of the last 100 years, the most important human fact between Newton and the Atomic Bomb—the sudden multiple increase of the earth’s population, the coming into existence of the MASSES. Pound and his kind want to ignore them. They try to lock them out. But they swarm at the windows in such numbers they black out the light and the air. And in their little place Pound and his kind suffocate, their fear turns to hate. And their hate breeds death. They want to kill. And, organized by Hitler and Mussolini, they do kill—millions. But the breeding goes on. And with it such social and political change as they shall not understand.
Pound’s admirers will protest at this, but they will be wrong. If they ask for proof, let them look into their own hearts. Do they not find there (I know I do) just that suffocation Olson speaks of? Just that panicky fear, always on the verge of turning into hatred until we shamefacedly choke it back? The Masses! How can we not fear them, and fearing them, how not hate them? Olson, in several ill-written but admirably honest verse-diatribes against MUZAK, proved that he knew that fear and hatred as well as any of us. For we cannot feel what we know we ought to feel—that the Masses are “just folks.” (It isn’t true anyway.) The fear and the incipient hatred are things that we impenitent elitists must learn to live with, not anything we can deny. For this is part of what “democracy” means, or has come to mean. And yet we haven’t come to terms with that. Which is partly what Olson meant when, linking Pound with Julius Streicher, he declared:
Our own case remains unexamined. How then shall we try men who have examined us more than we have ourselves? They know what they fight against. We do not yet know what we fight for.
That is as true now as in 1945, when Olson wrote it.
What Olson drives at in Pound is his fascism, not his anti-Semitism. Of the latter he gives horrific examples, which sicken him and enrage him (though as much in Mrs. Pound’s genteel English version as in Pound’s red-necked American). But he treats the fascism and the anti-Semitism as two separate heads on the bill of indictment; and this I think (again I speak of myself) is what most of us stopped doing long ago. We act as if the anti-Semitism comprehended the fascism—which would be true only if all fascists were anti-Semites (they aren’t), and if all anti-Semites were fascists (even less true). Hatred of Jews is something that the fascist is especially prone to, but it isn’t a necessary consequence of his fascism, and in any case it’s only a symptom, not the root cause of his disease. (In Italian fascism it showed up quite late, as Giorgio Bassani may remind us.)
When we denounce the anti-Semitism and let the fascism take care of itself, we are fastening on what is pre-political or sub-political, and refusing to get engaged on the plane of politics where, as Olson insists, we’re required to vindicate our own sorts of polity against the fascist sorts. What we gain by this is obvious: our own consciences are clear, and we’re no longer implicated. Or if we are implicated a little (since doubtless some Gentiles and even some Jews have anti-Jewish feelings that they’re ashamed of), the implication I would guess is altogether more manageable than what happens when—Jew and Gentile alike, black as well as white—the educated “elite” is forced to confront its feelings about “the Masses.” And Olson won’t let us squirm off the hook—for him the anti-Jewishness is symptom, not cause:
There it is. It stops you. You feel him imagining himself as the last rock of culture and civilization being swept over by a wave of barbarism and Jews (communism and commercialism), the saviour of more than the Constitution, the saviour of all that has been culture, the snob of the West. For he is the AESTHETE, as I had Yeats speak of him. All—his pride in his memory, his sense of the internationale of writers, painters, musicians, and the aristocrats, his study of form as technique (no contours, no edges, intellectual concepts, but rounding, thrusting, as a splash of color, as Yeats described his aim in the Cantos…) it is all a huge AESTHETICISM, ending in hate for Jews, Reds, change, the content and matter often of disaster, a loss of future, and in that a fatality as death-full as those for whom the atom bomb is Armageddon, not Apocalypse.
Again, Pound’s admirers will protest; and they will be right, in so far as Yeats’s account of the Cantos isn’t definitive, as Olson takes it to be. But the main thrust of Olson’s argument is unaffected, and it can’t be set aside: this great American poet (and Olson knows that Pound is all of that) was a fascist, profoundly, and no amount of talk about his affinities with Whitman will save him for democracy, nor will any attempt to treat his anti-Semitism as an unrelated pathological aberration.
And so another escape hatch that Olson slams shut upon us is the device of distinguishing between Pound-the-man and Pound-the-poet. The trouble with this maneuver is that it cannot help but demote poetry. And Olson will have none of that:
Can any man, equipped to judge, find Pound other than a serious man? Can any writer honestly argue with those who shall, do call him a crank? It’s no good, that business. Around his trial you will hear it again and again. Just one of those goddamned writers. They’re crazy. A Bohemian. There are writers who are such, but not Pound, despite all the vomit of his conclusions.
Pound was a serious man, and never more serious than when he was writing poetry; and his poetry drives toward just those unpalatable conclusions that Olson forces us to look in the face. If on the other hand, from some consciousness of our own immaculate rectitude, we follow Allen Ginsberg in giving Pound the kiss of forgiveness—and this is in effect what David Heymann does at the end of The Last Rower—it is poetry that we are presuming to forgive, not “the man” but “the-man-as-poet.”
How deep one has to go, to distinguish not the man from the poet, but “the-man-who-is-the-poet,” appears from a splendid essay Olson wrote in 1948, “GrandPa, GoodBye.” It is impressionistic? You bet it is impressionistic, and would we had more such “impressions”!
His power is a funny thing. There is no question he’s got the jump—his wit, the speed of his language, the grab of it, the intimidation of his skillfully-wrought career. But he has little power to compel, that is, by his person. He strikes you as brittle—and terribly American, insecure. I miss weight, and an abundance. He does not seem—and this is a crazy thing to say in the face of his beautiful verse, to appear ungrateful for it—but I say it, he does not seem to have inhabited his own experience. It is almost as though he converted too fast. The impression persists, that the only life he had lived is, in fact, the literary, and, admitting its necessity to our fathers, especially to him who had such a job of clearing to do, I take it as a fault. For the verbal brilliance, delightful as it is, leaves the roots dry. One has a strong feeling, coming away from him, of a lack of the amorous, down there somewhere….
Wait. I think I’ve got it. Yes, Ezra is a tennis ball, does bounce on, off, along, over everything. But that’s the outside of him. Inside it’s the same, but different, he bounces, but like light bounces. Inside he is like light is, the way light behaves. In this sense he is light, light is the way of E.P.’s knowing, light is the numen of him, light is his way….
Maybe now I can get at this business of amor as of Ezra, and get at it right. It isn’t a lack of the amorous, perhaps, so much as it is a completely different sense of the amorous to that which post-Christian man contains, to that which…the likes of Duncan, say, or myself may feel.
Of the likes of Bill W.? I am struck by the image of “fire” in “Paterson.” Maybe fire is the opposite principle to light, and comes to the use of those who do not go the way of light. Fire has to consume to give off its light. But light gets its knowledge—and has its intelligence and its being—by going over things without the necessity of eating the substance of things in the process of purchasing its truth. Maybe this is the difference, the different base of not just these two poets, Bill and E.P., but something more, two contrary conceptions of love. Anyway, in the present context, it serves to characterize two different personal via: one achieves its clarities by way of claritas, the other goes about its business blind, achieves its clarities by way of what you might call confusio.
This would be the point from which to look back at Olson, as Catherine Seelye wants us to, and to regard The Maximus Poems as embodying “the way of confusio.” Which would raise the further question whether this way, as practiced by Olson, and by Williams in Paterson, isn’t so unlike the ways of poetry as we have known it that to call their works “poems” merely confuses the issue. But that would be a strictly literary question; and it’s for raising quite other questions that this book is momentous and irreplaceable.
When Catherine Seelye told a friend what she was up to, the friend responded, “Oh dear, not another Pound book.” And she was able to reply, “No, this will be an Olson book.” C. David Heymann’s The Last Rower is “another Pound book,” and one we could have been spared. Heymann’s sole justification for writing what his publishers have the impudence to call “a major biography” is his having been given access to the FBI files on Pound—a scoop much trumpeted in advance publicity. But these files, voluminous as they are, turn out to reveal nothing of interest beyond the names of the Italian officials that Pound had dealings with, together with the fact that those fascists mostly found Pound and his broadcasts an embarrassing nuisance. To eke out this poor harvest, Heymann in his least excusable pages makes much of wartime collaboration with the FBI on the part of old associates of Pound like Williams, James Laughlin, MacLeish, Aldington, Zukofsky, and Cummings.
Eighteen months ago he whetted the appetites of readers of The New York Times Book Review by telling them that Williams and Aldington “inundated the FBI with letters from Pound.” Now he repeats the smear, though by his own account the inundation, so far as Williams was concerned, amounted to one postcard and two letters. And in any case, what were these US citizens supposed to do? Their old associate certainly seemed to be acting like an enemy of his country and theirs, while that country was at war. How could they in conscience refuse information to a national intelligence agency? What would Heymann have had them do? What would he have done himself?
However, on this as on other matters I’m prepared—though not without difficulty—to believe that what looks like malice is really muddle. For Heymann is so little in command of English prose that one can well believe his language makes him say things that he didn’t intend. In fact he can’t be said to command his style at all; it commands him, or rather it manipulates him. Nowhere in his book does he quite rise to the hilarious malapropisms of which we know him to be capable, as when he told the Times Book Review, “By way of amplification there are additional lacunae.” But on many pages he gets near to it. He believes that there are verbs “to agent” and “to expatriate” (intransitive), and he has a weirdly awful addiction to what used to be called elegant variation, as when Joyce is called “the Irish Nighttowner,” and Pound “the Great Bass,” and Eliot “the Missourian,” this last having enjoyed, incidentally, “one of the sterling literary careers of this century.” Is this the way of “confusio“? It looks like it. Mr. Heymann is a professor of English—yes, of English—at Stony Brook. If Pound were here to say, with savage elation, “I told you so,” how should we reply?
For the Record May 13, 1976