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The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound

In the museum of modern literature no figure commands more space than Ezra Pound. Born in 1885 and dying at the ripe age of eighty-seven in 1972, he published his first book of poems, A Lume Spento, in Venice in 1908. My packed shelves hold almost thirty volumes of his writings—the early collected poems in Personae, the final one-volume collected Cantos of 1970, Pound on The Spirit of Romance, on Kulchur, on Joyce, on the classic Noh theater of Japan and the Confucian odes; Pound on How to Read, Make it New, the ABC of Reading; Pound’s literary essays and letters, his translations from the Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, French, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latin, love poems from ancient Egypt, Sophocles’ Women of Trachis. There are many more in general circulation.

Not in general circulation these days are the “money pamphlets” Pound wrote in Italian during the war and that were published in London by Peter Russell in 1950. An Introduction to the Economic Nature of the United States. Gold and Labour. What Is Money For? A Visiting Card. Social Credit: An Impact. America, Roosevelt, and The Causes of the Present War. These are full of fascinating material you are not likely to find elsewhere. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated after making a statement on the currency. Franklin D. Roosevelt was “a kind of malignant tumour…an unclean exponent of something less circumscribed than his own evil personal existence…. His political life ought to be brought sub judice.” Less difficult of access but definitely not in print is Jefferson and/or Mussolini: L’Idea Statale: Fascism As I Have Seen It (1935). The Government Printing Office put out the speeches in behalf of the Axis that Pound delivered before and after Pearl Harbor on the Italian radio for transmission to the United States. In 1973 Pound’s estate threatened legal action against me for quoting from these speeches in a magazine article, but they have been published by Leonard W. Doob as Ezra Pound Speaking.

The literature on Pound is enormous and swells every month. Much of it explains and justifies the Cantos by annotating them and reminds me of Joyce saying that he would be immortal because Ulysses had given the professors work for more than a century. Pound’s fellow poets from Yeats through Tate and Auden to Lowell and Jarrell were often indifferent to the Cantos. Yeats was baffled and irritated. Professors have no trouble. I write surrounded not only by reminiscences of Pound by H.D. and William Carlos Williams, by the letters exchanged with his future wife Dorothy Shakespear, by old biographies and a recent one, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey’s The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeth’s,1 by a book on Pound’s “distinguished American roots,” but by a spate of still more critical studies. The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Blossoms from the East: The China Cantos. Pound and Twentieth-Century Thought. Pound, Vorticism, and Wyndham Lewis. Translation after Pound. Pound and Dante. Pound and John Adams. Fugue and Fresco in Pound’s Cantos. And Hugh Kenner’s doctoral thesis, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, republished with a preface detailing how hard it was once to get people to read Pound intelligently.

Whether people now read Pound more “intelligently” is less certain than that modernism, which used to make history, has passed into history. It is indeed a museum, every scrap of which is now necessary to “Kulchur.” Pound was determined to be famous as soon as he reached Europe in 1908. He is now one of the dominating names in the history of the century. Artistic progress is measured in the academy by modernist canons.

Modernism was a historical moment from the end of the “bourgeois” nineteenth century to its collapse in the era of totalitarianism. It was not so much a movement as an upsurge of related energies in those wonderful years of illusion just before World War I. Pound, constantly telling his generation to “Make It New,” called it a disturbance and persuaded us that he was the center of it. From time to time he allowed the “Reverend Eliot” to share the limelight. When still in London just before the First World War he mocked “the deah English public for not understanding that a troika of Americans”—the third was Robert Frost—“were making all the trouble.” Later he identified modernism as a fundamental revolution in consciousness whose social correlatives were fascism—to the end—and bolshevism in its beginnings.

Pound saw parallels between his avantgarde activity and that of Lenin and Mussolini in the political realm. Mussolini and Hitler described themselves as artists who performed on history; the masses were their raw material. Pound said in 1927,

Lenin is more interesting than any surviving stylist. He probably never wrote a brilliant sentence; he quite possibly never wrote anything an academic would consider a “good sentence,” but he invented or very nearly invented a new medium, something between speech and action (language as cathode ray) which is worth any writer’s study.2

In Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935), his homage to Mussolini as the perfect ruler, he assigns Lenin to a secondary place only because Russia not having had a classical civilization Lenin was not able to conceive fascism. Being an artist “in a new medium, something between speech and action,” was Pound’s role when modernism lost its vital energy in the Thirties and the war. Pound, still the “disturber,” plumped for social credit and Fascism. His own conviction, never shaken in extreme isolation, was that he knew many things outside of art because he was an artist.

If ever man looked The Poet as antagonist of bourgeois civilization (especially in Latin countries, where the beard, the wide-brimmed black hat, the open collar, the walking stick, and the defiant look were familiar at anarchist congresses) it was Pound in the course of a career always full of uproar. There is very little of Pound’s personal life in his poetry; from it you would never guess his relations with Dorothy Shakespear and Olga Rudge. But his self-proclaimed persona is all over it. In a film, Ezra Pound: American Odyssey, centered around him not long before his death, he is picturesque as ever sitting in a gondola, still in his classic get-up replete with walking stick. Venice frames him exactly as he frames himself in Canto III sitting on the steps of the custom house on his arrival in 1908.

When you are not looking at Pound himself in this film, you are looking at Italy, its sunbaked towers and layers of terraces—Italy the classic land before Christianity which Pound invoked and celebrated so many times that Italy now seems more an extension of Pound than does his birthplace in Idaho or his youth on the mainline near Philadelphia. Pound always took all his associations along with him; that was his genius. He was a natural taker-over; when his mind didn’t, his will did. When Pound and Italy are not on the screen they are replaced by lyric passages from his work. The effect is extraordinary. Pound’s silky lyrics move across the screen as if they came straight from his mind. Filaments, fragments, as he liked to say “opaline” in their perfection, vibrant as air, give back the shock of the natural world in language that offers its homage to a world that will always transcend and elude language. This, though it is the story of Pound’s life, he of course did not believe until it was too late.

Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.
Light: and the first light, before ever dew was fallen.
Panisks, and from the oak, dryas,
And from the apple, maelid,
Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them,
And in the water, the almond-white swimmers.

A genius not least in his American gift for appropriating land not his own, gods distinctly not in the Protestant tradition, a language so far out of time that his very need to impersonate it is as impressive as his ability to do so. He recorded his translation of the Anglo-Saxon “Sea-farer.” You hear a cultivated, deeply musical American voice trilling his r‘s in the upper-class style of Theodore Roosevelt—an affectation that died out about the time Pound left for Europe. He recites his poem to the pounding of a drum at appropriate intervals, and is understandably intense. The wall-shaped alliterative consonants following each other in Indian file are themselves

Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs…
Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice- cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched out- cast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls’ loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead- drink.

Here, as always when Pound is the lyric poet in a state of grace—not repeating the same anecdote in the Cantos about Jacques Maritain, not bitching about the failure of the English to appreciate him, not railing at the fall of civilizations that would not have fallen if they had read Confucius and John Adams and the autobiography of Martin Van Buren—you feel, as you do when watching Pound’s lacy lines streaming across the screen, that his real genius was to identify with poetry itself, poetry without which men once never went to war, poetry as primal element, kin to nature as prose can never be.

No one of Pound’s generation in English, the modernists born in the “failure” of the last century and determined to remake the next, caught so rapturously as Pound did, from within, poetry’s genius for summoning up the beginning of things, the archaic as inception, the childhood of the race, the ability to look at the world as Homer did, for the wonder of creation:

God-sleight then, god-sleight: Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus, grapes with no seed but sea-foam,
Ivy in scupper hole.
Aye, I, Acoetes, stood there, and the god stood by me,
Water cutting under the keel,
Sea-break from stern forrads, wake running off from the bow,
And where was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk,
And thenthril where cordage had been, grape-leaves on the rowlocks,
Heavy vine on the oarshafts,
And, out of nothing, a breathing, hot breath on my ankles….

Seeing but especially hearing such words, one gets charged up, relieved for the moment from the unfelt emotions so often proclaimed in poetry, poetry too often written by people to whom, evidently, nothing very much has happened. The force of Pound’s lyricism suggests an extraordinary ability to possess and incarnate his classical reading. From this ability to assimilate, he has imagined as actions words he has taken off the page.

  1. 1

    Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

  2. 2

    Quoted by Josephine Herbst in “A Year of Disgrace,” The Noble Savage, No. 3 (1961).

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