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An Exchange on Ezra Pound

In response to:

The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound from the March 13, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Pillorying “the father of twentieth century English language poetry” has long been a major industry. But Alfred Kazin’s article on Pound (NYR, March 13) reaches, in its low moments, some heights of virulence.

I can set Mr. Kazin straight on one point because I was there and wrote about it first. He declares: “In St. Elizabeth’s, talking to Allen Ginsberg and invoking his old friendship with Louis Zukovsky, Pound charmed his audience with the disclosure that his anti-Semitism was ‘a suburban prejudice.”’ In fact, Pound did not meet Allen Ginsberg in St. Elizabeth’s, nor did he express any such ideas while there.

It was only a number of years after his release from the insane asylum—on October 28, 1967, in the restaurant of the Pensione Cici in Venice—that Pound said to me, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Russell “The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” I published an account of this conversation in The Evergreen Review the following year, later in the paper-back edition of my book Ezra Pound, a Close-Up. The audience was not a bit “charmed,” as Kazin sarcastically writes—I wasn’t, anyhow. I myself felt shocked—the light of the truth, as Pound had finally recognized it, being dazzlingly sudden.

Kazin more than strongly suggests that Pound was to blame for the 7,740 Italian Jews who died at Auschwitz. Were, then, such Communist poets as Eluard, Aragon, Brecht, and Neruda to be blamed for the crimes of Stalin? And could Kazin himself be blamed for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden?

With gratuitous malice, Kazin states that in The Cantos, Pound merely “pretends to sympathy” for persecuted Jews. Well, whatever Pound’s faults—fanaticism, arrogance, racial intolerance—pretence was not one of them. And, unlike the other above-mentioned poets, Pound came to recognize and regret his political errors—as in the conversation I reported in The Evergreen Review.

Moreover, Pound suffered for his political views as did none of these writers—first the three weeks in the US Army “gorilla cage” in Pisa (a sixty-year-old poet kept in an open cage with little shelter from sun and rain!), then thirteen year’s confinement in the hellhole of Saint Elizabeth’s. I often visited the poet there and can testify to the place’s horrors. When arrested by the US Army in 1945, Pound said “If a man isn’t ready to take some risks for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.” If for nothing else, Ezra Pound’s politics should be remembered for this kind of courage.

Michael Reck

Salzburg, Austria

To the Editors:

I had not thought to reply to Oliver Taplin’s “Homer Comes Home” [March 13, 1986]. It seemed rather late in the day, not to say millennium, to be urging Homer’s greatness But reading Alfred Kazin’s essay on Pound after Taplin, struck by the coincidence of attitudes in both pieces, one through impressive omission, the other through emphatic commission. I felt I must respond. Taplin is at pains to establish the fact that “A new surge of interest in the poems of Homer…has gathered pace during the last dozen years or so”—that is, among scholars. According to him, in midcentury only “outsiders,” John Cowper Powys, Simone Weil and Erich Auerbach, championed Homer. But, especially since this list is fairly miscellaneous, I am amazed that Taplin never mentions those literary lights who believed Homer the poet par excellence, said so in their criticism, illustrated it in their art: Yeats, Pound, and Joyce. Or does Taplin estimate them outsiders so much they never had any impact on anyone anywhere in the inside?

Not till 1973, Taplin tells us, did “one voice” stand out, that of Adam Parry. He recognized that, however crucial his father, Milman Parry, may have been in changing “the understanding of Homer irrevocably” by establishing the “Tradition” of oral poetry which composed the poem, in almost eliminating the individual poet (see deconstruction!), Milman was wrong and produced results “sterile and over-technical…discouraging poetic criticism.” The new scholars, following Adam Parry, now see that “Homer is reacting against his tradition instead of being its conservative product, that he derived his distinctive quality from having inherited and challenged the accumulated wealth of his bardic predecessors.” However, what this challenge came to apparently was not so much poetic after all but that Homer “tells of Greek defeats and lavishes attention and compassion on the Trojans.”

At last Taplin admits another possibly significant influence, the verse translations of Lattimore and Fitzgerald. Both, it happens, were poets attuned to modernism. Is Taplin unaware how important Pound was especially to Fitzgerald who considered Pound a chief model and mentor? Surely Yeats, Pound, and Joyce did more to improve Homer’s present status than any one else?

Kazin’s title impressed me at once. After all these years Pound still inspires “fascination and terror,” testimony to his persistent liveliness. But the first sentence suggests Kazin’s intention. “In the museum of modern literature no figure commands more space than Ezra Pound.” Whatever their fascination, Pound and modernism are overdue for relegating to the dead past. Given two such articles in one issue, one might be forgiven for wondering whether, beyond coincidence, the attitude of the Review is not reflected here—to wit, that Pound and modernism be ignored or, if dealt with, done so negatively, and that poetry itself be considered peripheral, inconsequential as it is in a modern industrial society.

To prove how much space Pound commands and to establish his own credentials, Kazin refers to the volumes of Pound on his shelves. Next Kazin, remarking the vast industry of Pound studies, names some. One misses works by Davie, Rosenthal, Bernstein, Bush, and others. And as far as modernism is concerned, I would recommend Jeffrey M. Perl’s recent judicious The Tradition of Return. These might have helped Kazin to a deeper understanding of the Cantos and of modernism as well. If he has read these books his imperviousness to their insights is particularly impressive.

Like other adverse critics of Pound not altogether unavailable to poetry, Kazin acknowledges Pound’s great lyric gifts and quotes some lyrical passages. He tells us that Pound’s lyrical power—Kazin seems satisfied with descriptions of it like “silky lines” and “lacy lines”—resides chiefly in his “associations”: “he always took his associations with him; that was his genius. He was a natural taker-over.” Then, lest we think this unmixed praise, “when his mind didn’t, his will did.” For he was a literary imperialist, “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.” Pound was very American, but not entirely—or maybe not sufficiently—so. He should, I take it, have been content to appropriate America and England, not also Greece, Italy, and China. Is it provincialism Kazin is advocating for poets? And was there something wrong or merely unmannerly (unAmerican) in Pound’s forsaking the Protestant tradition? Is there something sacred about it? Yet Kazin calls all this “genius?”

We learn that when Pound avoided obnoxious subject matter and reserved himself to lyricism, his poetry was fine. For 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.” This would seem to be praise indeed. But the reservation asserts itself in the allusion to war. Or Pound as a bloody sort, a theme which is central to Kazin’s argument. He never remarks Pound’s profound hatred of war, his powerful attacks on it in Mauberley, the Cantos and elsewhere. And if it would seem attractive of poetry to be kin to nature as prose can never be, we must remember that these are prose times remote from nature.

Kazin acknowledges that no one of Pound’s generation “caught as rapturously as Pound did, from within, poetry’s genius for summing 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.” However, lest we take this ability too seriously, Kazin assures us that it was not a direct look after all but mainly out of Pound’s classical reading. Or indeed looking at the world through Homer’s eyes. So even Pound’s lyricism is questionable? Kazin does not seem to realize that Homer was the culmination of who knows how many poets. Yet Kazin admits that “Pound did something amazing: he turned himself into a mythical creature…. The bard, the ‘singer of tales.”’ We might consider this a noble recovery of poetry’s great role, but aside from its being archaic (what has a bard from ancient times to do with us now?), Kazin maintains that it was “his genius for sound” that convinced Pound he was such a bard. With him sound over-whelmed sense.

Even as Pound had “an understandable affinity with was as his element,” he “was unable to understand a society that had lost all contact with poetry as its great tradition.” That loss was, I would say, exactly what Pound did understand and fought heroically against. Furthermore, Kazin fails to notice Pound’s success: his influence at least on poets and critics. Even Auden, who little resembled Pound, could say, “There are very few living poets, even if they are not conscious of having been influenced by Pound, who could say, ‘My work would be exactly the same if Mr. Pound never lived.”’ Nor does Kazin notice Pound’s making as much as anyone the vast enterprise of poetry possible today. Now even in the USA, whatever the indifference of the general populace and most of our intellectuals to poetry, one can admit to being a poet without flinching! But here we are at the heart of what concerns me: the relevancy of poetry to our time. Is it, like nature itself, exclusively for a distant age? Does Kazin applaud the inevitability of our society’s loss of contact with poetry? Since much of our society is not close to nature why should its language be?

Kazin does admit Pound’s impact. But it was suspect, if not pinchbeck. For Pound spellbound “acolytes” (no one, in short, worth taking seriously) by his “feats of association,” which “replaced contemporary realities with a web of learning.” At least Pound did have something beyond mere “sound?” Kazin recognizes “There was an extraordinary energy, a driving impulse; poetry was assuming powers lost in the nineteenth century to the great novelists.” For a moment he seems to appreciate what Pound was trying to do and to a considerable degree succeeding in doing. But, no, his Browning-learned style with his “zeal for violent types from Malatesta to Mussolini…reflected Pound’s harkening back to martial associations with poetry.” Might not Pound’s zeal be traced back not so much to the violence of these types but to his respect for them, however mistaken, as vigorous actors who used part of that vigor for the cultivation of the intellect and the arts and for the erection of great monuments?

What Pound apparently lacked was the “personal anguish” of Arnold and Eliot. In short, Pound should have not only stuck to his lyricism but employed it, rather than positively or actively, to express anguish before the troubles and failures of the modern world, especially his own. (So Kazin earlier seemed to regret, “There is very little of Pound’s personal life in his poetry; from it you would never guess his relations with Dorothy Shakespeare and Olga Rudge.” Whether one agrees or suggests that these relations are present, transformed appropriately into poetry, one might ask whether Kazin thinks the personal an essential ingredient of poetry.)

But Pound’s biggest mistake was his “fascination with the archaic and the unconscious.” Actually Pound despised the modern absorption in the self and the unconscious and sought to recover something like the unity of being he found in Homer, Dante, and other great poets. He believed in action, not self-defeating introspection.

Kazin stresses the unmodernity of modernism and the basic contradiction in it: “It is funny now to think of how resolutely antimodern (in spirit) high modernism felt itself to be—while it expressed itself, as Pound did, in telescoped history and in formally disconnected images that were distinctly novel.” Must a poet be uncritical of his age? The corruptions of international venture capitalism, our banking system, rampant materialism, conglomerate greed, abject mass society, and all the rest, it is plain what modernism was resolutely antimodern about. But does Kazin believe that Pound and Eliot in all their radical criticism failed to recognize their remarkable new techniques as not only thoroughly commensurate with but emergent from their particular times? What else did Pound mean by Make It New?

Certainly Pound, Yeats, and Eliot were dedicated to restoring some of the grandeur, vision, wisdom of the ancient Greeks, an antidote to the failures of the modern age. As Pound already said in 1918,

My pawing over the ancients and the semi-ancients has been one struggle to find out what has been done, once and for all, better than it can ever be done again, and to find out what remains to do, and plenty does remain, for if we still feel the same emotions as those which launched the thousand ships, it is quite certain that we come on those feelings differently, through different nuances, by different intellectual gradations. Each age has its own abounding gifts…. No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, conventions and cliches, and not from life. Yet a man feeling the divorce of life and his art may naturally try to resurrect a forgotten mode if he find in that mode some leaven, or if he think he sees in it some element lacking in contemporary art which might unite that art again to its sustenance, life.

And he sees in Daniel and Cavalcanti “that precision which I miss in the Victorians…. Their testimony is of the eyewitness, their symptoms are first hand.”

Yet Kazin tells us that “The ‘quotidian’ never got into the Cantos; perhaps there was no actual life around him for Pound to report.” Is Kazin unaware of the many quotidian poems in Personae, the quotidian in Mauberley, and in many parts of the Cantos, particularly the Pisan Cantos and the last, poignant Drafts & Fragments? He must be objecting to Pound’s successful metamorphosis of “actual life” into the stuff of poetry. As Pound said, “it is not until poetry lives ‘close to the thing’ that it will be a part of contemporary life.” Aside from the frequent splendid picturings of immediate landscape in the Cantos, are there not all the portraits in action of friends and not-so-friends as well as of crucial, dramatic moments?

But “Pound’s genius for the sound and arrangement of words that bring out the inherency of poetry did not extend to ideas.” Pound’s images, I would say, his metaphors, illustrations and their juxtaposition were his ideas. Here Kazin seems to be harking back to critics like Winters, Tate, and Blackmur. They also applauded Pound’s music, at least some of it, but deplored his ideas or absence of them, failed the very great ideal he set himself as a poet: the making of a concrete world reflecting the oneness of perception and conception.

Understandably the terror of Pound for Kazin and the rest of us, if we are honest, is Pound’s racism, the extremity to which the failure of all his immense efforts in his lifelong passion for improvement brought him, and the ideas that, alas, in his isolation at last prevailed over him. Kazin finds Pound’s late renunciation of his racism insufficient, shallow. “Pound charmed his audience with the disclosure that his anti-Semitism was a ‘suburban prejudice.”’ Kazin rightly says Pound’s anti-Semitism “cannot be shrugged away in judging his work.” But I would also say that the whole work cannot be shrugged away by Kazin’s judgment.

Seeing Pound much too one dimensionally, he is, I think, in danger of oversimplification and its rashness in the very way he accuses Pound. He ignores the silence Pound turned to in his later years as he admitted the terrible blunders he had made (“I lost my center/fighting the world.”), his excessive confidence in the word, his feeling that he had already said much too much. It is one thing to call Pound a racist and even “a defender of racial persecution.” It is quite another to declare him “indifferent to the obliteration of fellow artists.” With Pound’s hatred of war and what it does to mankind, including gifted young artists like Gaudier-Brezska, and especially with Pound’s ardent solicitude for the welfare of such artists, Kazin’s declaration misses him rather entirely. Who else gave of himself so unstintingly to his contemporaries?

And when one appreciates how crucial the health of art was to him for the health of society, one can well understand his passion. Richard Reid maintains in his recent brilliant dissertation, “It is essential to understand Pound’s belief that the correct and accurate word is at the root of justice itself, its fundamental measure, and that the word contains value only because or only inasmuch as it implies the ideal of justice.” The mot juste and justice do relate.

Kazin’s chief charge is that Pound and modernism had “turned against the humane spirit of pre-1914 Europe in which modernism began.” I am not sure what he means by “the humane spirit of pre-1914 Europe,” but if I do understand it I would have thought that it was just the best parts of that spirit that Pound and other modernists were fighting for. Finally, Kazin warns us,

…modernism…has threatened to take over the curriculum. Eliot’s prescription, that past literature should constantly be assimilated to the taste of the present, had led to a steady omission and distortion of actual history. Modernism must not become the only writer of its history…. Modernism is not our only tradition.

However much we concede that modernism is not our only tradition, we might wish that Kazin had mentioned other traditions with writers equal to Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce. But is it not somewhat light-handed, if not light-headed, to propose that Eliot prescribed past literature’s assimilation simply to satisfy the taste of the present?

Now it would appear that Pound and Eliot’s interest in the past was, not sentimental nostalgia, but a cover-up of their real designs on us and our time (as well as the past). Surely it is more accurate to say that, like Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Pound knew, if the past’s accomplishments are profoundly valuable, yet always in danger of being lost, so also the great works of the present are valuable to that past, necessary for its renewal. As for Pound and Eliot’s commitment to past literature, I repeat Taplin’s quotation from Milman Parry:

In the field with which I have been particularly concerned here, that of the literature of the past, unless we can show not only a few students, but all those people whose actions will determine the course of a whole nation, that, by identifying one’s self with the past…one gains an understanding of men and of life and a power for effective and noble action for human welfare, we must see literary study and its method destroy itself.

At the same time I might recall Taplin’s pointing out that Homer, a traditionalist, used that tradition for his own then modern artistic purposes and his understanding of the way things are. What happier way of respecting that past, of preserving its vitality?

For Kazin’s fairly wholesale dismissal of Pound I urge that he look again. Whatever their inadequacies, the artists of modernism can, I believe, take their place beside the major poets and artists of other great periods. The work that Kazin questions is, I would insist, larger, richer, much more alive at its best than most of our day’s art. We ignore this fact at our own very considerable cost. There are indeed things more important than all this fiddle, especially when the roof is burning. Nor do I believe that Pound’s increasingly frantic fiddling could have put out the fire. But it was precisely his concern for these more important things that made him fiddle so frantically. Furthermore, without a fiddler where would Troy be or Odysseus and all the other character? Artistic celebrations must be performed, essential stories relayed, that the wisdom and so the life of the race be continued.

Theodore Weiss

Princeton, New Jersey

Alfred Kazin replies:

Mr. Reck corrects me on one point. It was in Venice, not in St. Elizabeth’s, that Pound explained “the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” For the rest, I find Mr. Reck’s letter so wild as to be barely discussable. In the Cantos, and at some length in his celebration of “The Boss,” Mussolini, who first persecuted and exiled, then allowed his ally Hitler to deport and murder, thousands of Italian Jews, Pound alleged that “poor yitts” were suffering for the crimes of rich banker Jews. Apparently the latter deserved the Holocaust, but the “poor yitts” alone got it. (This is another Fascist lie.)

In the “money pamphlets” Pound wrote before the war in screaming hatred of the democracies and the Jews—pamphlets which Reck’s fellow guest at Venice, Peter Russell, published in London after the war—Pound accused the Jews of being the sole sinister force behind usury, the gold standard, the depression, etc. In his pro-Axis broadcasts from Rome (Pound seems also to have offered to broadcast for Hitler in Germany; he praised Hitler from Rome.) Pound on April 2, 1942 called for “a pogrom at the top.” Hitler had begun the war by charging that the Jews instigated it. Pound echoed Hitler: “Sixty kikes started this war.”

This is “suburban anti-Semitism?” Of the kind used to keep Jews out of country clubs? I said that Allen Ginsberg was charmed by Pound’s conversation. In private communications to me since my article appeared, Ginsberg made it clear (not that I ever doubted it) that he reveres Pound because his own belief in and practice of free association poetry owes so much Pound’s example. I don’t care whether Reck, Russell, and Ginsberg together were charmed or not by Pound’s sudden access to “the light of the truth, as Pound had finally recognized it.” Pound disembarking in Italy gave the Fascist salute as soon as he saw the crowd. A friend of mine sitting behind Pound and his daughter at a concert in Merano was astonished to hear them making loud vocal remarks about supposed Jews in the audience.

The greater part of Mr. Reck’s letter compounds hysteria with misrepresentation. I never said that Pound was to blame for the 7,740 Italian Jews who died at Auschwitz. When the racial laws were introduced into Italy, Pound turned his back on Jews he had known. I don’t know what Mr. Reck is talking about when he accuses me of “gratuitous malice.” Does he think that the Pound case represents some petty literary dispute? Nor in discussing Pound’s foul belief that “poor yitts” were paying for the crimes of rich “yitts” did I for a moment suspect Pound of showing sympathy for any Jews. And to say that “Pound came to recognize and regret his political errors”—like so many ex-Communist writers—is the most awful trash. If Pound believed what he said on his arrest in 1945—that he was ready “to take some risks for his opinions”—why did he not go to trial instead of pleading insanity and escaping into St. Elizabeth’s? Where he played tennis, regularly received hundreds of literary visitors? So much for the “place of horrors” and “Ezra Pound’s politics should be remembered for this kind of courage.”

Most of Professor Weiss’s lecture is familiar stuff, never more so than in the centenary celebrations. My essay was an attempt, amid the usual tributes to Pound’s genius and influence (both acknowledged by me and documented), to show some of the origins of Pound’s method and ideas in the history that brought about modernism. I wanted to show Pound as writer, critic, polemicist against the background of the age which he came to dominate in the minds of professors for whom “the modern” pretty much became the curriculum and the standard by which premoderns were accepted or dismissed. I noted the incessant Pound industry and especially, in the case of its “masterpiece,” Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, the astonishing defense of Pound’s political cruelty.

The “museum of modern literature” exists in the minds of professors who decade after decade keep annotating every last particle in Pound because they are curators, not critics. I don’t accuse them of “playing it safe.” They just can’t see beyond their noses. The Cantos, for all their occasional beauty, are in my opinion an essentially disordered work. The violent distortions of history, the scatalogical ugliness of Pound’s epithets for English literary enemies, Jews, etc., the idolatry of the murderer Musolini as a “twice-crucified” Redeemer eaten by “maggots” (the Italian people)—such violations of truth and art, of all that we have left of civilization in this century of totalitarian horror, mean nothing to curator types. And they have so little knowledge of history and of the actual texts Pound was ransacking that they are oblivious to the fact that in Cantos 62–71 Pound transcribes so mechanically John Adams’s texts that he includes the misprints in the original edition. And completely omits “the point” when he describes “the Boss” “catching the point before the aesthetes had got there.” And distorts actual history in Fascist Italy in the course of celebrating Mussolini’s “draining of the muck by Vada.”

One point I made about modernism was that while brilliantly “new” in technique, in the concentration of its technical resources, it was often quite archaic in inspiration and reactionary in its resentment of democracy, industrialism, the masses, etc. Professor Weiss reads this as an accusation that I consider poetry inconsequential and peripheral in modern industrial society. Professor Weiss accuses me of not noting “Pound’s profound hatred of war, his powerful attacks on it in Mauberley, the Cantos and elsewhere.” Here is a perfect example of the way curators ignore the actual historic circumstances surrounding their sacred object. Pound’s horror of the first World War in Mauberley and elsewhere did not extend to the Second, in which he was a propagandist for what Churchill called “the worst crime in human history.”

Pound’s “zeal for violent types from Malatesta to Mussolini” (as I called it) seems to Professor Weiss rather respect for “vigorous actors who used cultivation of the intellect and the arts and for the erection of great monuments.” About Malatesta the Poundians know only what Pound tells them. But what “great monuments” did Mussolini erect? Italian Fascists used to celebrate Mussolini exactly the way Pound did in the Cantos. Is Professor Weiss now echoing them?

Yes, I do believe that with Pound “sound overwhelmed sense”; I offered examples of this in my essay and can offer Professor Weiss many more. Yes, I did “notice Pound’s making as much as anyone the vast enterprise of poetry possible today.” But I think that Pound’s catch-as-catch-can method has been calamitous for people who have nothing to say in “the vast enterprise of poetry possible today.” Enterprise is just what a lot of it is. And finally, I am amused but not enlightened when Professor Weiss thinks he is refuting me by offering me still more bibliography. I am struck, however, by his failure to say anything about Professor Hugh Kenner’s rationalization of Pound’s Jew-hatred. And of what followed.

Oliver Taplin replies:

When I said “mid-century” I added “say between 1935 and 1970”: the omissions that Theodore Weiss complains of belong to the previous “chapter.” I agree of course that Yeats, Joyce, and Pound have been significant for the twentieth-century evaluation of Homer. On the other hand, the best recent poetry in my eyes rejects the “modernism” of Pound at least as much as it lionizes it.

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