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.
Pound did something amazing: he turned himself into a mythical creature, the poet from ancient times. The bard, the “singer of tales,” which Pound in his genius for sound felt himself to be, has an understandable affinity with war as his element. Pound was unable to understand a society that had lost all contact with poetry as its great tradition. It actually declined to credit Pound with the sagacity he attributed to il gran poeta. As he grew more isolated abroad, especially after his removal to Fascist Italy in 1924, Pound’s talent for seeing life as literary myth augmented each year. He finally understood the vast indifference around him: a malignant conspiracy threatened civilization itself. As the crisis of the Thirties broke, Mussolini assumed a role in Europe he never could have assumed before. Pound rallied to him with the same pretentiousness and demonstrated a capacity for intellectual hatred that was his only intemperance. As he was himself a natural hero-worshiper, so he attracted acolytes by the force of his gift and his total fearlessness in instructing the “bullet-headed many” how to read, what to think.
What spellbound the acolytes were feats of association; they set up reverberations in his readers and replaced contemporary realities with a web of learning. There was an extraordinary energy, a driving impulse; poetry was assuming powers lost in the nineteenth century to the great novelists. The forever bristling Pound style in the Cantos—the Browning version he learned early—and his zeal for violent types from Malatesta to Mussolini in the heroic mold, condottieri, reflected Pound’s harkening back to martial associations with poetry. These were certainly not in the minds of poets contained by personal anguish like Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot. Arnold thought that the future of poetry was “immense” because it would ease the shock of Europe’s de-Christianization. Eliot in his journey from Prufrock’s conflict of the self to the healing by sacred places in Four Quartets practiced poetry as a medium of personal salvation.
Pound never understood such agony. He was no Christian. Poetry could still be primitive because “the gods have never left us.” With this he helped to establish modernism as a position marked by fascination with the archaic and the unconscious, disdain for the mass, a view of industrial society as nothing but a matter of mechanization. He was spellbound by the vision of an earlier world, supposedly more charged and radiant than ours, truer to the hieratic world identified with art by conservatives and sought for society by fascists. Pound boasted of his “American roots” that he “could write the whole social history of the US from his family annals.” From Italy in 1944 he defended Hitler and Mussolini by writing, “In 1878 my grandfather said the same things I’m saying now, but the memory of his efforts has been obliterated.”
Pound was unyielding in his scorn for those outside the magic circle of poetry. The force of his rejections was irresistible to some southern conservatives before they became Texas Republicans and to literary critics who had enough to do explaining Pound’s allusions to students who thought Virgil was some American’s first name. Katherine Anne Porter: “That falling world between 1850 and 1950. We have been falling for a century or more, and Ezra Pound came along at just the right time to see what was happening.” Hugh Kenner:
To give over all that: to recover the gods, Pound had called it, or to free (said [Wyndham] Lewis) faculties “older than the fish,” to achieve (Eliot) “the new, the really new,” which should be fit company for an Altamira bison, these had been the intentions of their vortex, dragging a dark world up into the light, forging an ecumenical reality where all times could meet without the romance of time, as jewelry perhaps Helen’s had hung around Sophie Schliemann’s neck for a photograph to be made by daylight, like Dublin daylight. An exactness of perception like an archaeologist’s.
Guy Davenport: The ancient cultures possessed critical tools superior to ours for analyzing reality. Our sciences begin to explain the mechanics of everything and the nature of nothing.
Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality which they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated…. The nearest model for a world totally alive was the archaic era of our own culture, pre-Aristotelian Greece and Rome.
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. Modernism arrived with the conquest of space by steamers, wireless, automobiles, airplanes, the appropriation of Africa and Asia by Western powers. If in 1853 Commodore Perry had not anchored his armed squadron in Tokyo Bay, Ernest Fenollosa would not have spent the twelve years teaching in Japan that left his literary executor Ezra Pound with an addiction to the Chinese written character. The acceleration that Henry Adams saw as the essence of modern history has defied all attempts at a science of history. Speedup is the motor of our century. It seems unbelievable now that the horse was still a basic means of locomotion and transport when the airplane was being invented.
Historical drive had by 1890 led William James in his Principles of Psychology to recognize a stream of consciousness. The obsession with consciousness as a basic flow intermixing non-successive periods in a person’s memory made it possible for “artists”—Dr. James was distinctly one of them—to record images of the external world as a personal recreation from within oneself. The crucial words in James’s Chapter IX, “The Stream of Thought”:
Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains…. So sure as this present is me, is mine, it says, so sure is anything else that comes with the same warmth and intimacy and immediacy, me and mine.
A student of the Cantos may well think that William James was reading Pound’s mind when he described such imperial confidence in anything that comes to mind. Actually William James was reading his own troubled mind, trying to liberate himself by accepting the flow as well as the data of consciousness.
The stream of consciousness gave privilege to the person immersed in that stream. Cubism’s juxtapositions justified themselves as rhythmic design. Myth ceased to be folklore personifying natural forces, became the past buried in the artist. Rilke: “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.” Eliot: “In using myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce’s method in Ulysses was “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
Modernism was a summoning up, a way of establishing order, with peculiarly up-to-the-minute tools that were too much in the spirit of the age to be recognized as such by those fleeing Pound’s “half-savage country” for “the spirit of romance.” Pound’s tool he still called poetry. Dante was always in his mind: the unifying figure whose journey through hell and purgatory up to paradise Pound saw as a model for his epic journey in the Cantos even when he forgot that it was supposed to make a similar point. Behind Dante was Virgil, behind Virgil Homer. Epic was a book as action (always a hope to Pound) unifying a race through the chronicle of its wars, sacred places, gods.
Did Pound begin the Cantos thinking he had the qualifications? Not altogether, but he felt himself to embody this affinity with poetry, with its fundamental tonality as a separate medium of speech. Poetry was literature. In the novel he could recognize only those who prized style above everything else, had strictness of intention like Flaubert, James, Joyce. The social application of the modern novel meant nothing to him. The great voices were authority. “With a day’s reading a man may have the key in his hand.” In treating the novel purely as art object, he was projecting poetic epic as the only true history.
This he failed to prove in his inordinate subjectivism. The fascination of Pound’s Cantos was to lie in its reflection of Pound’s mind; not what he brought together but what he was capable of thinking of from line to line. We are never so much in the Cantos as we are observing a performance. We join Pound’s mental flight even when we don’t follow his matter. As for the “matter,” his intentions are no help whatever. Pound’s mind was not structural in details but assimilative, lyrical, impatient. After some great passage he was always breaking off to introduce something he had read. Early on he told his father that the Cantos would constitute a “commedia agnostica” as against the commedia divina. He liked to stress the work’s analogy to musical structure, and its parallels with the “subject and response and counter subject in fugue.” There were to be three principal elements: “Live man goes down into the world of Dead. The ‘repeat in history.’ The ‘magic moment’ or moment of metamorphosis, but through from quotidian into ‘divine or permanent world,’ Gods etc.” (I like that “Gods etc.”) He hoped that “out of the three main climaxes of themes, permanent, recurrent and casual (or haphazard), a hierarchy of values should emerge.”
This was to be a modern epic, “a poem including history” that “encompasses not only the world’s literature but its art, architecture, myths, economics, the lives of historical figures—in effect, block letters, THE TALE OF THE TRIBE.” En route it would take in sixteenth-century Italian architecture, Provençcal lyrics, Confucian politics, medieval economic history—almost a dozen languages. Pound was going to show “ideas in action” and “things explaining themselves by the company they keep.”
The “quotidian” never got into the Cantos; perhaps there was no actual life around him for Pound to report. The Bible, Homer, Dante, even Milton, reflect the day-to-day life of a civilization. The greatest novels of Western civilization, from War and Peace to Ulysses and A la recherche du temps perdu, are easily called epics. Obviously what we get in Pound is something else. Jean Cocteau defined poetry as a separate language. The specialization of consciousness that the Romantics fostered, the journey into an interior world, attains in the Cantos the ultimate in self-absorption as the roller coaster of Pound’s mind plunges up and down into a world largely of his reading.
Starting from the Nekuia, the journey to the dead in Book XI of the Odyssey, we go from an ordered universe and comprehensive values to one in which everything coming apart is held together by the names and quotations flashing out of the stream of Pound’s references. A sustaining image is always water, that particular Greek medium. “Ship stock fast in seaswirl…grapes with no seed but seafoam…. Water cutting under the keel…. And the ship like a keel in a shipyard, / slung like an ox…in smith’s sling…. Fish-scales over groin muscles, / lynx-purr amid sea….” Pound’s ability to make a frieze out of so many quotations, invocations, imitations, to place an ornamented sculptured band within a cascade, is extraordinary. Who else would have thought of “lynx-purr”? Moving from the sound this makes to the picture, he is so pleased that his lynx is soon “purring” again—and typically for Pound, with less sense but just as much beauty.
From the outset we are in a world of names, great place names—Venice, Burgos, Mount Rokku between the rock and the cedars, Ecbatan, Plantagenet England—and of great names in this culture show of a museum through which an expatriate American is directing us. As Pound said in the Pisan Cantos remembering an aunt’s travels—and what a commentary on the captivity in which he remembered that—“But at least she saw damn all Europe.” Now Eleanor of Aquitaine swims before us, now Henry James—marvelous, marvelous!
The house too thick, the paintings
a shade too oiled
And the great domed head, con gli
occhi onesti e tardi
Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion,
Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things,
And the old voice lifts itself weaving an endless sentence.
By Canto VIII we are with Pound’s favorite art patron and brawler, Sigismundus Pandolphus De Malatestis, a hero to nobody in Italy but Pound. But to a passionate pilgrim in Europe, Malatesta is a dream, all action, a Renaissance Mafioso with a title. By Canto IX, whether out of homesickness or out of a desire to touch earth after so much museum fatigue, Pound gives us his self-parodying American colloquialism, “speech of the tribe” all right—
But tell him it’s no time for raising his pay.”
…Did he think the campaign was a joy-ride?
And old Wattle-wattle slipped into Milan
But he couldn’t stand Sidg being so high with the Venetians….
Later we get “pot-scraping little runt Andreas Benzi, da Siena.” Italy to China now. The Great Kung known to the barbarians as Confucius. Confucius say,
If a man have not order within him
He can not spread order about him;
And if a man have not order within him
His family will not act with due order; And if the prince have not order within him
He can not put order in his domin- ions.
Confucius, no Christian he, “said nothing of the ‘life after death.”‘ Pound for all the wisdom of the East does not tell us that Confucius was deemed impractical and not given office.
By Cantos XIV–XVI we are in hell with the English, who are there for demoting Pound after an excited curiosity about him—and for war profiteering. Proper names have been removed by the publisher, as they will be in LII about Jews in “the international racket.”
The stench of wet coal, politicians
………e and …..n, their wrists bound to their ankles,
Standing bare bum,
Faces smeared on their rumps, wide eye on flat buttock,
Bush hanging for beard, Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,
Addressing the multitudes in the ooze, newts, water-slugs, water-maggots,
Profiteers drinking blood sweetened with sh-t,
And the betrayers of language
the perverts, the perverters of lan- guage, the perverts, who have set money- lust
Before the pleasures of the senses….
Even the sky over Westminster is greasy. Writers, journalists, politicians, and press lords are all commingled in
The slough of unamiable liars, bog of stupidities,
the soil living pus, full of vermin,
dead maggots begetting live mag- gots….
We will meet maggots again in the Pisan Cantos—Italians who dared to kill “Boss” Mussolini and his girl Clara Petacci and hang them heads downward from a garage in Milan. (Adding insult to execution; Fascism was born in Milan.)
Shift to America, in XXXIff., as the classical republic. T.S. Eliot when fully settled in London explained that America had gone under ever since Andrew Jackson replaced John Quincy Adams. And, not as illogically as you might think, Eliot made a point on the anniversary of Richard III’s death by wearing a white rose. Pound was becoming so hipped on the currency question that he never saw the difference between John Quincy Adams and Jackson’s successor and ape Martin Van Buren. Pound had written before the Cantos, “I have beaten out my exile.” Coming from a “half savage country,” Pound felt he would redeem it by going abroad. But he had been “abroad” from the time he fell in love with Latinity and explained, “You cannot learn to write by reading English.” As the political sky over Europe grew menacing, he fastened on (selected) Founding Fathers as more Authority. From miscellaneous reading he shrilled to his private hell anyone he had sized up as an opponent on the currency question. In one of his money pamphlets Alexander Hamilton is suspected of being Jewish because he reminded Pound of Disraeli.
Writing about Jefferson and his epoch, Pound sought as always to be the historical dramatist. No one knew better how to pull the best lines from his reading. No one was so adroit at shifting and mixing the great voices of the past. Eliot in The Waste Land was haunting when he gave us a collage of actual voices. Thanks to Pound’s famous cutting, the poem sustains different moods, builds up to a denouement that leads us to expect the actual fall of civilization. Pound the master critic, the great practical critic, cut The Waste Land in a way that would have sent him screaming if anyone had proposed equal measures for the Cantos. (This would not have worked in any event; the poem is too diffuse.) Pound could only tolerate Selected Cantos. In the American History Cantos beginning with XXXI Pound simply cannot tear himself loose from his reading. And with his idées fixes about the influence of credit and the dominance of usury in modern economic life, he kept emphasizing every old quote he could dig up that pointed significantly in the direction of his wisdom—Ezra the giant-killer of economics, the Hercules cleaning out the stables.
Pound’s genius for the sound and arrangement of words that bring out the inherency of poetry did not extend to ideas. In his intellectual rage he was incapable of making the most elementary distinctions. Jefferson as president was forced to declare an embargo on American shipping during the Napoleonic wars in order to keep us from getting embroiled with both England and France. This measure was so unpopular in New England that secession was considered. Fascist Italy had so many unemployed that Mussolini attempted an embargo on emigration from the country. Pound likened Mussolini to Jefferson because both employed an embargo.
Pound was rapturous about leadership, thought everything he saw in Europe the great museum came from the top down. And so inter alia he enthroned the Adamses as the emblem of administrative genius. Details about the American experience escaped him. Rapallo is a very pretty town on the water but not in the main line even of European communications. Pound built up William Woodward’s biography of Washington and Catherine Drinker Bowen’s biography of John Adams as the last word on their subjects. He thought that the autobiography of Martin Van Buren had been deliberately kept from the people, and never understood that its eventual publication by the American Historical Association was a pious gesture toward an ex-president who was one of the shiftiest politicians of his day. Pound mistakenly conflated Jefferson with the Adamses, bitter antagonists for the most part. He thought the Diary of John Quincy Adams, the longest diary ever kept by a public man in America, had never been reprinted because of Adams’s views on the currency.
Given Pound’s equation of the Führer-Prinzip with wisdom and his being so far from home, it now seems inevitable that he should have fallen for Mussolini. Every Italian wall proclaimed Mussolini ha sempre ragione. Pound must have been the only inhabitant of Fascist Italy who thought Mussolini always self-possessed. “The Boss,” as Pound calls him because that is what his entourage did, opens XLI. This is based on Pound’s interview with the Boss, who affably responds to some bright sally Ma questo è divertente. Pound seems to have had better luck with the great man than other foreign visitors had. His office above Piazza Venezia was so vast that everyone had to walk an enormous distance to where Il Duce awaited you with folded arms and the famous scowl of mastership.
But he was the Boss, “catching the point before the aesthetes had got there.” What point Pound made is not disclosed: he shifts to
Having drained off the muck by Vada
From the marshes, by Circeo, where no one else wd. have drained it.
Waited 2000 years, ate grain from the marshes;
Water supply for ten million, another one million “vani”
that is rooms for people to live in.
The social achievements of Italian fascism existed mostly on paper. Thanks to the gifted engineer Arrigo Serpieri, the marshes were drained and wheat planted. This was urgent because there were so many unemployed that Mussolini had no trouble employing thousands for some fifteen years. This triumph is followed by a story of land speculators put in prison by the Boss, a story told by someone half Jewish, a “mezzo-yit” who is presumably one of the speculators. And now “‘Noi ci facciam sgannar per Mussolini’ said he commandante della piazza.” This is euphemistically turned around to mean “We would die for Mussolini.” That they certainly did. In the Twenties Pound admitted in a letter to Ford Madox Ford:
I tried a smoother presentation and lost the Metamorphosis, got to be hurley burley, or no one believes in the change of the ship. Hence mess of tails, feet, etc…
Re the double words, and rep. of cadence. The suffering reader is supposed to have waded through seven cantos already; MUST BANG THE BIG BAZOO a bit, I mean rhythm must strengthen here if he is to be kept going.
The “Big Bazoo” in the world crisis of the Thirties ending in war turned out to be usura and the Jews. Allen Tate was unfair when he said that the Cantos were not about anything. But to “include history,” Pound’s famous postulate for an epic, is not necessarily to describe it. The fascination of the Cantos, circling around golden bits of lyric landscape, lies in the journey up and down Pound’s mind, which for great stretches shows mostly his reading.
I can further say with safety there is not a crowned head
in Europe whose talents or merits would entitle him
to be elected a vestryman by any American parish. T.J. to General Washington, May 2, ’88.
…or paupers, who are about one fifth of the whole… (on the state of England in 1814).
What Emperor Alexander said to John Quincy Adams along the Neva…Sir Basil Zaharoff the arms salesman becomes “Metevsky”…then we have Joyce, Marconi, Jimmy Walker…August Belmont comes to America to represent the Rothschilds…Field Marshal Hindenburg at a concert is annoyed by the music of Mozart. Better not to ask why Charles Francis Adams appears as Charles H. Adams. Then, since Pound is never out for the count, the great passage, and very beautiful it is, in XLV:
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling.
My pleasure in these powerfully felt and beautifully structured lines is somewhat diminished by Pound’s fond belief that usury is always a conspiracy against the public by alien forces. In the United States of America, state legislatures have been abolishing anti-usury statutes at the behest of banks in the credit-card business; these offer employment to states that formerly prohibited banks from operating across state lines. Ordinary economic history interested Pound as little as the fact that Mussolini, despite vast numbers of the unemployed, wanted a 22 percent expansion of the population in order to give Fascist Italy more muscle in the rivalries of the century.
Pound in the midst of his campaign against usura did not forget the rivalries of poetry. Canto XLVI opens with the sour admission that Pound’s tale of usury, will not get through to the boobs, and if you think it will,
…or that the Reverend Eliot
has found a more natural language… you who think you will
get through hell in a hurry….
But we are in hell, for enter the Jews, Canto LII, sound the drums. Pound has been told that the Hebrew word for usury is “neschek” (neshekh). We cannot make out whose names have been blacked out on page 257 of the final collected cantos. But it is clear that somebody whose name ends in “sin” is “drawing vengeance, poor yitts…paying for a few big jews’ vendetta on goyim.” This is Pound’s response to Hitler, whom he was to praise in his broadcasts as having “ended bad manners in Germany.”
“Neschek” for usury, “yitt” for yid. Someone told him that the Hebrew language contains a word for weapons, chazims, which Pound took to mean knives. Rabbi Ben Ezra, as Conrad Aiken called him, never could resist sound clusters in a foreign language. Pound in this section manages to cover Gertrude Bell, the famous traveler in the Near East writing to her mama about England’s need to keep its pledge to the Arabs in Palestine. “Thus we lived on through sanctions,” refers to the League of Nations’s farcical protest against Mussolini’s rape of Ethiopia. And so on to
through Stalin Litvinof, gold brokers made profit
rocked the exchange against gold….
This refers to Maxim Litvinof, the Jewish foreign secretary of the Soviet Union in the Thirties, long out of favor even before Stalin made his pact with Hitler. In his last years, reports his English wife Ivy Low, Litvinof expected arrest and slept with a gun under his pillow.
Through “Stalin Litvinof” (presumably the same person)
…gold brokers made profit
rocked the exchange against gold
Before which entrefaites remarked Johnnie Adams (the elder)
IGNORANCE, sheer ignorance ov the natr ov money sheer ignorance of credit and circulation.
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 interna- tional racket….
(The rest of this section is blacked out.)
A dozen or more lines down Pound eases into one of his beautiful lyrics,
The green frog lifts up his voice and the white latex is in flower.
But when Pound’s mind operated at full steam under the pressure of his many hatreds, he uttered one of the most frightful lies yet perpetrated about the Holocaust. The “poor yitts” dismissed, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, massacred in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Norway, Denmark—are paying for the crimes of Jewish bankers. Hitler told the Reichstag in 1939 that the Jews would be massacred if “they” started the war. Pound pretends to sympathy for the “poor yitts,” but, unlike Hitler, he believes his own atrocity stories.
And now we have arrived at the Pisan Cantos. The war is over, and Pound in his cage is sorrowing over
The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders
Manes! manes was tanned and stuffed,
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
by the heels at Milano
That maggots shd / eat the dead bullock
DIGONOS, …but the twice crucified where in history will you find it?
At this point it would be funny to play Professor X and confront “this text for itself alone,” history being extraneous to literature (still!), except that literature like Pound’s itself writes history. But we cannot depend on Pound to describe rationally Mussolini’s ruin and his own as he sits in a cage at the US Army’s disciplinary barracks outside Pisa writing these lines on a table made for him by a black soldier awaiting execution.
Piero della Francesca included “their” landscape in his portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. How I wish someone could have painted Pound against the Italian landscape 1943–1945 as he sat writing that beautiful, much-cited passage,
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
What a landscape with figure that would have been! Italy in ruins, hundreds of thousands of soldiers dead in Sicily, Calabria, Crete, Greece, Russia. Of the 50,000 Italian Jews before the war (one for every thousand Italians), and this in the least anti-Semitic country in Europe, among people who still called Jews ebrei (Hebrews), 13 percent have emigrated, 12 percent have accepted conversion (often the price for being harbored by the Vatican). Out of the 8,360 deported to Auschwitz, 7,740 are dead. Fewer than thirty thousand will be found in Italy at war’s end. Among Italy’s leading exiles: Toscanini, Salvemini, Silone, Modigliano. Matteotti was murdered early in the regime, Gramsci allowed to leave prison for a clinic because he was dying. Mussolini: “This brain must be stopped from working.”
Europe, Pound’s great good place, everywhere in ruins. Yet Pound until his capture was blissfully out of it. He visited Mussolini’s “Republic of Salò” on Lake Garda, ringed by the Nazis who delivered him from a penal island. Pound even spouted his economic nostrums to Italian Fascists who must have thought him totally nuts not to be aware that the “social republic” was a joke and Mussolini doomed by the hatred of his people. Of course we are dealing here with some remarkably self-centered types. Mussolini was pouting that he would never go back to Rome so as to punish the ungrateful people for celebrating his ouster from office in 1943. Pound, despite warnings from friends, insisted on broadcasting Axis propaganda after Pearl Harbor, and, says Dr. Torrey in his book on Pound in St. Elizabeth’s, volunteered to broadcast in Hitler’s Germany. He never understood—or did he?—that what from his mouth would be excused by other writers could be understood by ordinary folk as encouragement to murder. At one point, said George Orwell, Pound chortled about “fresh meat on the Russian steppes.” On April 3, 1942, he called in a broadcast for
a pogrom at the top…. But on the whole, legal measures are preferable. The 60 kikes who started this war might be sent to St. Helena as a measure of world prophylaxis, and some hyper-kikes or non-Jewish kikes along with them.
In St. Elizabeth’s, talking to Allen Ginsberg and invoking his old friendship with Louis Zukofsky, Pound charmed his audience with the disclosure that his anti-Semitism was “a suburban prejudice.” Bewitched by words as usual, he also explained that no one named Ezra could really be an anti-Semite. Whether or not he always knew what he was saying—clearly impossible in such a lifetime’s flood of words—Pound was dishonest, and so were his defenders, when he finally claimed insanity as a reason for his actions. He got away with it.
Pound was a convinced fascist. The cruelty and death of fascism are an essential part of his epic and cannot be shrugged away in judging his work. Pound recognized his epic hero in Mussolini because fascism, like Ezra Pound, had few abiding social roots and was based on an impersonation, like Pound’s, of a mythic personage. Pound was a racist, a defender of racial persecution, indifferent to the obliteration of fellow artists. These were not personal aberrations but part of hierarchic beliefs into which he grew through long years of alienation from his country and from the people around him. Pound was a fascist in a period when everything turned against the humane spirit of pre-1914 Europe in which modernism began.
The growing tendency of our century is against that spirit. Nowhere is it more striking than in the museum of modern literature—where the curators of the modernist classics replay their authors as Pound replayed the epic poets.
In the masterpiece of the Pound industry, The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner offers a defense of Pound’s anti-Jewish writings and activity along the following lines. The Rothschilds defeated Napoleon. They were despised outsiders who sought to dominate and use those who had snubbed them. Such Jews resemble Sir Basil Zaharoff, the international arms salesman born in Turkey of Greek-Russian parentage, who is said to have hated the British all his life because a Britisher kicked him in Constantinople. (Strangely, Zaharoff established a chair at Oxford and was knighted.) “Hitler jailed no Rothschilds.”
I have never been as interested in the Rothschilds as Pound was, but Pound’s suggestion that “poor yitts” were paying for the crimes of the Rothschilds, which Hugh Kenner picks up, led me to look up the history of the family during Hitler’s war. Elie and Alain de Rothschild were on the Maginot Line and became prisoners of war. Louis de Rothschild was a hostage. Guy fought with the Free French. Philippe was arrested by Vichy at the request of the Nazis and eventually made his way to Spain, climbed the Pyrenees to join the Free French. Edmund was an artillery major in the Italian and North African campaigns. Colonel Victor Rothschild was an intrepid bomb-removal expert whose work earned him the George Medal from England, the US Bronze Star, and the US Legion of Merit.
Pound, in the words of Professor Kenner, thought that “the poor Jews whom German resentment drove into concentration camps were suffering for the sins of their inaccessible religionists.” Pound’s usual name for a Rothschild was Stinkschuld. This chamring name has been blacked out at the opening of Canto LII.
——sin drawing vengeance, poor yitts paying for——
paying for a few big jews’ vendetta on goyim.
This lunatic thesis is Pound’s. But what is Professor Kenner up to?
It is a pity Pound’s distinction between the financiers and the rest of Jewry was not allowed to be emphasized while he was still in the habit of making it. Correctly or not, it attempted a diagnosis, and one tending rather to decrease than to encourage anti-Semitism.
Kenner then defends Pound on the grounds that in 1938, when Pound wrote those passages, the concentration camps were “not yet committed to a policy of extermination. News of that policy, when it was instituted, no more reached Rapallo than it did most of Germany.”
To mark the fortieth anniversary of V-E Day, the president of the German Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker (his father was indicted for war crimes) addressed the Bundestag on the subject of “Hitler’s Legacy”:
At the root of the tyranny was Hitler’s immeasurable hatred against our Jewish compatriots. Hitler had never concealed this hatred from the public, but had made the entire nation a tool of it. Only a day before Hitler died on April 30, 1945, he concluded his so-called will with the words, “Above all, I call upon the leaders of the nation and their followers to observe painstakingly the race laws and to oppose ruthlessly the poisoners of all nations: international Jewry.” Hardly any country has in its history always remained free from blame for war or violence. The genocide of the Jews, however, is unparalleled in history.
The perpetration of this crime was in the hands of a few people. It was concealed from the eyes of the public, but every German was able to experience what his Jewish compatriots had to suffer, ranging from plain apathy and hidden intolerance to outright hatred. Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity? Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported. The nature and scope of the destruction may have exceeded human imagination. But in reality there was, apart from the crime itself, the attempt by too many people, including those of my generation, not to take notice of what was happening. There were many ways of not burdening one’s conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything.
The contrast between what History knows and what Pound thought he knew threatens the integrity of literary study if it reduces itself to apologia and to vicarious scorn for what the modernist masters scorned. Ever since modernism became academically respectable, it has threatened to take over the curriculum. Eliot’s prescription, that past literature should constantly be assimilated to the taste of the present, has led to a steady omission and distortion of actual history. Modernism must not become the only writer of its history, especially when puffed up with the antidemocratic and racist views of Ezra Pound. Modernism is not our only tradition. The museum of modern literature, like all museums these days enshrining the first half of the twentieth century, cannot show us all that we leave out and even deform in the name of art.
March 13, 1986