“Pound’s anti-Semitism is a distressing topic,” as James Laughlin says in Pound as Wuz, a collection of his formal and informal reports on EP, mostly from 1934–1935, when he studied in the poet’s “Ezuversity” at Rapallo. A fan to begin with, Laughlin became Pound’s publisher, impresario, friend. He has never doubted that Pound was a major poet, an indelible presence, a man for the most part of great force and charm. The quality of Laughlin’s affection for the poet has withstood every challenge to its continuance. He regrets having to bring up the matter of his friend’s anti-Semitism, but it is already up; there is no point in being dainty about it. He remarks that the citizens of Rapallo, even after the war, didn’t resent Pound’s fascist activities: “Noi siamo tutti stati fascisti: We were all fascists,” a newspaper editor acknowledged. Still, after a few embarrassed pages Laughlin settles for the verdict he received from Dr. Overholser, chief psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, where Pound spent eleven years under constraint: “You mustn’t judge Pound morally, you must judge him medically.” Pound suffered from paranoia; as Laughlin says, he “could not control himself.” Besides, and for what the evidence is worth, some of Pound’s friends—Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg, Heinz Klussmann—were Jews. At the first decent moment, Laughlin puts the topic aside and proceeds to happier themes, Pound’s translations, his “Canto 74,” the “lighter side,” his hoaxes and doggerel.
The question of Pound and the Jews was an issue long before February 13, 1946, when a jury decided that he was of unsound mind and therefore unfit to plead in a case of treason. But it was not a matter of much public concern until 1949, when the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress awarded him, for The Pisan Cantos (1948), the first Bollingen Prize. Many liberal intellectuals denounced the Fellows, and insisted that Pound’s anti-Semitism and fascism could not be separated from a judgment of his work. Irving Howe spoke for many when he declared that Pound, “by virtue of his public record and utterances, is beyond the bounds of our intellectual life.”
Robert Casillo refuses to let the matter rest. It is not enough for him that nearly everybody regards Pound as a rabid fascist. He wants to stage the trial that didn’t take place, and to charge Pound with far more than the nineteen counts of treason contained in the indictment of November 27, 1945. He believes that “the Pound cult and the ‘Pound industry’ have produced an ingenious body of critical writing in which Pound’s anti-Semitism has been arbitrarily discounted, ignored, in short, repressed.” His book is an attempt “to investigate in a thorough, systematic, and truly serious fashion the relationship of anti-Semitism and fascism to Pound’s poetic techniques and language, his cultural vision, and his politics.”
The easy part of Casillo’s argument is that Pound’s anti-Semitism developed in four stages. It started as a common suburban prejudice of Pound’s youth in Idaho and Pennsylvania; became more intense when Pound, on returning to the United States in June 1910, adverted to the scale of Jewish immigration and the influence of Jews in public life. The third stage “extended roughly from the late 1920s to the late 1930s and was marked by ambivalence and equivocation culminating in violent and open hostility.” Pound’s obsession with usury and his cult of Mussolini are associated with this period. In the fourth stage, we hear his broadcasts on Radio Rome, his references to Jews as vermin, his praise for Hitler, who “wiped out bad manners in Germany.” As for the “late and famous recantation” in which Pound confessed his anti-Semitism to Allen Ginsberg—“All along that spoiled everything”—and the mea culpa in the fragmentary last Cantos, Casillo doesn’t take these seriously or offer a priest’s forgiveness.
Thus far, nothing new. What is new in Casillo’s book is not a portrait of Ezra Pound but a description of a mentality, a certain type of being that Pound is supposed to exemplify. Casillo believes not only that anti-Semitism is the unwobbling pivot of Pound’s life and work but that virtually every attribute that benign or otherwise misguided critics have regarded as innocent is a particle of Pound’s anti-Semitism:
This is true of many Poundian beliefs and values which critics do not generally consider fascistic, and which they prefer to treat separately or else apolitically—Pound’s anti-monotheism, his reverence for the concrete and natural manifold, his emphasis on hierarchy, his suspicion of abstraction and transcendence, his glorification of myth and ritual, his agrarianism, his patriarchy, his anti-feminism, his solar religion, his abhorrence of usury, to give only a few examples.
The last phrase is not a joke. Casillo’s typology has far more constituents than these at hand. Pound’s type, we are told, is “solar,” “logocentric,” “phallocentric,” “primitive,” “pagan,” “hierarchical,” “medievalist,” “voluntarist,” and “eugenicist.” Such is the tyranny of Casillo’s adjectives that each demands separate analysis and an elaborate theoretical excursus. There is frequent reference to Sartre’s study of anti-Semitism, an influential essay on the subject by Adorno and Horkheimer, and René Girard’s meditations on the scapegoat. But Casillo’s rhetorical procedures issue with remarkable insistence from his sense of a destined theme for which he alone is qualified. The rhythm of sequential adjectives dominates the book. Pound’s hatred of Jews is described in the same form: he hates them, apparently, because they are monotheistic, “abstractive,” speculative, usurious, ungenerative, syphilitic, nomadic, obscurantist, and unconscious. These attributes, in turn, are explicated separately. The concepts proposed in the analysis—Nature, History, Race, Usury, Luxury, Sacrifice, and so forth—are isolated for emphatic report. Casillo’s entire book is a filing system in which cross-references establish Pound’s guilt not only substantively—he said this, he did that—but by association with the guilt of established villains.
A cross-reference to Voltaire has this consequence. Pound is known to have admired Voltaire. Voltaire hated Jews. Therefore Pound hated Jews. Intellectually, Pound associated with unsavory characters, so whatever they thought, he thought. Hitler, Mussolini, Thaddeus Zielinski, Leo Frobenius, Alfred Rosenberg, Charles Maurras, L.A. Waddell, Gioacchino Volpe, the Italian Futurists, Remy de Gourmont, Allen Upward: whatever sinister information may be found in their files is transferred to Pound’s. Even if he didn’t consort with one or another of these Jew-baiters, a general imputation of kinship is still potent.
Here is an example. One of Casillo’s chapters is called “Bachofen and the Conquest of the Swamp.” The point is that Pound, speaking of Jews as slime, resorted to the imagery of swamps and bogs. So did Hitler, Rosenberg, Maurice Bardeche, and Maurras. But the most omnivorous images of swamp life are to be found in Johann Bachofen:
Though Pound gives no indication of having read him, Bachofen belongs here because no one has defined more thoroughly the significance of the swamp in the Western imagination as a combined symbol of matriarchal, Near Eastern, and hence “non-European” culture…. Because we are dealing not so much with historical truth as with the myths which inform Pound’s perception of it, Bachofen remains most useful.
But Pound’s prejudices, in the Cantos, don’t coincide with Bachofen’s, except in the commonplace sense that he admired Greece and Rome, revered Confucian China, thought of the clear line as an attribute of form, and took pleasure in the emergence of form from an undifferentiated matrix. He made a fuss about Mussolini’s draining of the Pontine Marshes, but if you want to convict him of a prejudice about Near Eastern space it is sor-did to associate him with Bachofen’s notion of demonic hetaerism, and the law of what Casillo calls “self-generating sexually promiscuous matter, locked in perpetual and incestuous self-embrace.”
Some other parts of Casillo’s case are matters of interpretation that lend themselves more readily to discussion. Canto 40, for instance: it starts with an attack on Pierpont Morgan and other robber barons, ridicules Victorian junk-treasuries, and ends—“Out of which things seeking an exit”—with a partial translation of The Periplus of Hanno. The Periplus is an account of a voyage in which the Carthaginian navigator Hanno, about 470 BC, founded seven towns on the shores of Morocco. The passage comes not a moment too soon in a canto that is otherwise pretty arid; at least it gets away from the clutter. But Casillo won’t allow the narrative to stand; the only thing he can do with a story is attach a moral to it. In Canto 40 “Mussolini should be substituted entirely for Hanno.” The Canto is a celebration of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (which it, in fact, anticipates). In lines that I am unregenerate enough to love—“12th day rose the woody mountain / with great soft smell from the trees / all perfumes many-mingling”—Casillo finds evidence of Pound’s phobia about mixed smells:
This realm of “softness” resembles that referred to in the radio broadcasts, which “calls to the basic laziness of the mind, the basic softness of human organism…entangles… (men) because of their inconsequentiality, their inability to see the connection between one thing and another.”… Pound evokes this confusion in olfactory terms. The jungle’s “soft” exhalation is an indistinct combination of odors represented by sound values unusual in Pound…. Pound was apparently repelled pelled by olfactory confusion and by bad, unknown, or mysterious smells.
So am I. I like to know what I’m smelling. One would need to have a tin ear to think that “with great soft smell from the trees” deserves this drubbing.
The trouble with The Genealogy of Demons is that Casillo admits only one idea, and in the end he is possessed by it. He is also disabled by his vocabulary. Logocentric, phallocentric, solar: these are swearwords, hopeless for thinking with; they imprison in stereotypes anyone—even Jacques Derrida—who resorts to them. Their effect on Casillo is to force him into the attitudinizing, the mythical rigamarole, that he diagnoses, however belatedly, in Pound.
Casillo’s seriousness of purpose is beyond doubt if not, in the event, beyond question. Pound’s attitudes and values are matters of consequence, and not only for the repute of poetry. The Genealogy of Demons at least raises a difficult question: not “Were Pound’s convictions rotten with fascism and anti-Semitism?”—the clear answer is “yes”; but rather: “Is it possible to write seriously of Pound in a style other than Robert Casillo’s?”
I have been looking at some earlier and current styles of writing about him. Some of the early commentary on Pound takes him as a symptom of what goes wrong when a poet dislodges conceptual thinking in favor of loose association and revery: this is Yvor Winters’s complaint in The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943). Pound then becomes “a barbarian on the loose in a museum.” Or, more recently, of what goes wrong—this is Frank Kermode’s argument in The Sense of an Ending (1967)—when a poet lets his fictions of apocalypse and renovation congeal into myths, and acts upon them. Kermode agrees with Dewey that “even aesthetic systems may breed a disposition towards the world and take overt effect.” All the more reason, then, that a poet should keep his fictions mobile and heuristic. It is dreadful to see them become myths, because then “people will live by that which was designed only to know by.”
On the whole, the first generation of Pound’s readers, Winters’s contemporaries, were determined to save the poetry by discarding everything in Pound that seemed to stand in its way. Eliot did this by claiming that he had no interest in anything that Pound said, but admired the further possibilities made available by his ways of saying it. R.P. Blackmur loved in Pound’s early poetry “a pitch or condition of speech almost without reference to its particular content in a given work.” Pound then became like Cavalcanti, Arnaut, Gautier, Marlowe, Greene, and Herrick, “all of whom strike the living writer as immediately useful in his trade, but in no way affecting the life he puts into his trade.” Allen Tate, one of the Bollingen committee, had little sympathy with the view “that Pound’s irresponsible opinions merely lie alongside the poetry, which thus remains uncontaminated,” but he still held that Pound “had done more than any other man to regenerate the language, if not the imaginative forms, of English verse.” So it became possible, and it still is, to write about Pound’s poetic language as if it somehow survived every impediment, distraction, or confusion with which he seemed willfully to confound it.
James Longenbach writes under this assumption in Stone Cottage, as he did in his recent Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past.* His theme in Stone Cottage is the relation between Pound and Yeats, and its consequence in the development of their different and perhaps rival styles. The three winters they spent together in Stone Cottage (1913–1916) made common ground between them, for a time. They occupied themselves with readings in occult lore, they fenced, they argued about diction, style, and the Japanese Noh. Pound’s Three Cantos and Yeats’s Per Amica Silentia Lunae are the culmination of those winters, “at Stone Cottage in Sussex by the waste moor,” as Pound warmly recalls them in Canto 83.
Longenbach’s account of the relation between Pound and Yeats, during and after the Stone Cottage winters, is far more detailed and intimate than any previous version. He emphasizes the fact that while Pound’s studies in Chinese and Japanese forms of expression made a lasting impact upon Yeats’s dance-plays, Yeats’s occult interests had far more influence upon Pound than Pound was willing to admit: “Everything Pound and Yeats studied at Stone Cottage was chosen for its esoteric value: Noh drama, Chinese poetry, western demonology, even Lady Gregory’s folklore.” In Yeats’s company, Pound “reinforced his belief in the esoteric aspects of the symbol.” These occult readings, according to Longenbach, gave Yeats and Pound “a justification for the antidemocratic attitudes of literary modernism.”
I don’t follow Longenbach’s argument at this point. I can’t see how an interest in occult lore necessarily leads to illiberal political sentiments, or accompanies them. Here, as often elsewhere, Longenbach is inclined to exaggerate, making a partial disclosure take the place of a comprehensive account of the matter.
I am far more readily convinced by one of Longenbach’s later arguments about modernism, that our general sense of it is still the one we have received from Yeats. According to this account, the true modern tradition comes from Pater, wilde, D.G. Rossetti, and the poets of Yeats’s “tragic generation.” This tradition features a vulnerable art; it receives no sustenance from the public world which these writers scorned. The nearly inevitable mark of the tradition is the nobility of its defeat. Longenbach says:
Yeats’s version of the modern tradition was purely lyrical and private, eschewing the public mode of a Bennett, Kipling, or Shaw. It has become the most commonly invoked genealogy of modernism because Yeats passed it on to influential modernists; not only Pound but Eliot presented the genealogy in Yeats’s terms.
Longenbach then refers, convincingly, to Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1920) and Eliot’s “A Preface to Modern Literature” (1923).
These chapters seem to me the most valuable parts of Longenbach’s book, though it contains much detail of interest besides, including several hitherto unpublished poems and fragments by Pound and by Yeats. In the end, it becomes clear that just as Pound admired Ford Madox Ford but decided that the possibilities he disclosed were fulfilled more fully by Joyce, so he decided that the valuable element in Yeats’s symbolism was decisively active not in Yeats but in Eliot. Pound never lost his feeling for Yeats, but he allowed his interest in Yeats’s work to recede into fine occasions of friendship, often vividly recalled.
Another way of writing about Pound, as shown by John Tytell’s new biography, is to regard him as a force of nature, a phenomenon, to which considerations of ethics or morality hardly apply, or apply only by the way. The Yeatsian subtitle of Tytell’s book—The Solitary Volcano—is not meant to be taken too seriously, and it allows Tytell to present an acceptable if fairly standard account of Pound’s life and work: “He invested his faith in the Nietzschean idea of a Master Leader, Mussolini, whom Pound could advise in the Confucian tradition of savant-poet guiding his ruler.” But it is notable that Tytell, faced with such evidence as is amassed in Robert Casillo’s book, regularly dissolves the moral question by recourse to a natural similitude. “The strong opinions would become Pound’s volcanic tremors, and they became more central than The Cantos during Pound’s years in Rapallo.” Again: “Pound was always volcanic and, as such, responding only to deeply felt intuitive urges that would explode to the surface unpredictably.” Evasion, I am afraid; we are talking about moral, not geological faults. Tytell recognizes this from time to time, and he quotes offensive matter, including the letter in which Pound told Wyndham Lewis that the “yidd influence has never been anything but a stinking curse to Europe from A.D.1 to 1940.” But his inclinations are to make the most of the spectacular side of Pound. His Pound—an emanation, a subterranean force, a monster—is always beyond the reach of a merely moral judgment.
Admittedly, Pound himself did this, Or rather, he started doing it when he moved from Imagism to Vorticism in 1914. One of the saving features of Imagism is that the nearest version of an image is someone’s face. Looking at an object or a landscape isn’t the same act as looking at a face, but the human analogy persists, and keeps the act in the right company. For a vortex, there is no human analogy. To act in that idiom you have to stop looking at faces and start thinking of machines, impersonal whirls and energies. Something went wrong with Pound when he took that direction. I think he wanted to get away from the small fry, Richard Aldington, Hilda Doolittle, and F.S. Flint, and to join the big boys, Wyndham Lewis, Gaudier-Brzeska, Kandinsky, Epstein, without losing Ford Madox Ford, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, old and new acquisitions. I blame Wyndham Lewis, always bad company for Pound; he led him into violences and exasperations for which his own style, but not Pound’s, was already prepared.
Casillo refers to Pound’s “idolators,” but doesn’t name any. Perhaps he means Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, and any other critics who, taking rough with smooth, maintain a neo-Poundian understanding of modern literature and point with particular zest to a largely Objectivist tradition in poetry from Pound to Basil Bunting. These critics are adepts of the “nevertheless” device; confronted with Pound’s anti-Semitism, they concede that it is, in Davenport’s elegant formulation, “whacky.” Nevertheless they regard Pound as a great poet, a superb translator, master of several styles chiefly valued for their usefulness in the delivery of important matter, author of the Cantos, in which some of the best specimens of an otherwise forgotten past are recovered and made available. Pound, Picasso, Brancusi, Wittgenstein: each is seen as a center, a vortex. I am paraphrasing from Davenport’s “The Pound Vortex,” a chapter of his Geography of the Imagination (1981).
Casillo’s book, the most tendentious of those under review, appears at an awkward time. Archives of the Holocaust are being brought together under auspices now official and national: it is not a project for Jews alone. In Germany, historians are quarreling about the apparent incorrigibility of the Nazi past, some as if to ask, “Must we remain on our knees forever?” Casillo wants total victory in the case of Ezra Pound, a posthumous capital punishment. I am for half-measures. I don’t want to see the Furies coming. What can we say? Pound was a man of extraordinary vanity, and yet he was much loved. He was a tiresome crank, and he was, at his finest, a great poet. In several early poems, as later in “Mauberley” and many of the Cantos, there is a major poetry, a cadence at once powerful and just, in which we hear nothing but the music of achieved perception. Perhaps Eliot was right about him: a supreme craftsman, a maker, a translator. In the end, he did what he could, little and late as it was; in Canto 116:
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere
and in a note for Canto 120:
Let the Gods forgive what I have made
Let those I love try to forgive what I have made.
Is it enough? Not really, but no repentance is ever enough. Wouldn’t it have been an act of caritas if Paul de Man had made a clean and public acknowledgment of his anti-Semitic writings? Wouldn’t it be a relief if we could hear a simple truthful word from Kurt Waldheim, equivocations set aside?
Yeats’s sense of Pound still seems to me to imply nearly everything that can usefully be said. In the introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935 (1937) he wrote of Pound:
When I consider his work as a whole I find more style than form; at moments more style, more deliberate nobility and the means to convey it than in any contemporary poet known to me, but it is constantly interrupted, broken, twisted into nothing by its direct opposite, nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion; he is an economist, poet, politician, raging at malignants with inexplicable characters and motives, grotesque figures out of a child’s book of beasts.
Having said as much, Yeats quoted most of “The Return,” the poem I would still go to if I had any doubt that Pound is a master-poet:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
What this poem is about, I hardly know or care; or whose the “souls of blood” referred to a few lines later. Hugh Kenner says in The Pound Era that it is about “the mode of divine apparitions in poetry.” Or in life, where apparitions may mark the return of old loves, desires, admonitions. To me, the poetry is in the cadence, and the impulsions—I cannot think of them as other than personal, issuing from Pound’s experience at whatever imaginative remove—that make it at once wavering and moving.
June 2, 1988