Homage to Ezra Pound

C.K. Stead

  • The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound by Michael Alexander
    Faber, 247 pp, £7.95, April 1979, ISBN 0 571 10560 2
  • Ezra Pound and the Pisan Cantos by Anthony Woodward
    Routledge, 128 pp, £7.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0372 2
  • Ezra Pound and the Cantos: A Record of Struggle by Wendy Stallard Flory
    Yale, 321 pp, £12.60, July 1980, ISBN 0 300 02392 8
  • Ezra Pound and His World by Peter Ackroyd
    Thames and Hudson, 127 pp, £5.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 500 13069 8
  • End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound with Poems from Ezra Pound’s H.D. Book edited by Norman Holmes Pearson and Michael King
    Carcanet, 84 pp, £2.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 85635 318 3

In 1949 when a panel of his fellow poets (including T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Allen Tate) awarded Ezra Pound the Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos there was an immediate and angry public debate. The reaction is not surprising and might have been worse had the texts of Pound’s wartime broadcasts over Rome Radio been publicly available. What is surprising is that the award was made to him and that thirty years later it appears to have been thoroughly deserved. Pound’s broadcasts contained naked anti-semitism and economic balderdash. His support for Mussolini in Italy was unwavering, even after the defeat. Canto 74 opens with ‘the tragedy’ of the death of Mussolini, who in the course of the sequence is bracketed with Manes, the Albigenses, and Pound himself, as heretic martyrs. In Canto 84, written during October 1945, Pound not only honours the memory of Mussolini (‘Il Capo’) and various dead Fascist ministers, but salutes the traitor premiers, Laval and Quisling, as they go to face their firing-squads.

The anti-semitism had got into some of the Cantos written during the 1930s: those historical compilations with occasional eruptions of myth and of ‘beauty’ which were a sort of educational guidebook for the reform of the West. But there is none of it, so far as I can recall, or very little, in the Pisan sequence. There is some grumbling about usury: but for the most part Pound’s politics exist there as ‘the dream’ (opening line) which has collapsed with the defeat of Fascist Italy; and the lack of any recantation, the firm if covert assertions of continuing loyalty (giving the date Fascist-style, for example – ‘Pisa, in the 23rd year of the effort’), which in 1945 might have marked him as incorrigible, at this distance seem, even to one who deplores the side he chose, acts of courage. Of all the things which make Pound extraordinary not the least is that he is a great writer – the only one writing in English – who lived through and recorded what it felt like to be defeated in the Second World War.

I concentrate for the moment on The Pisan Cantos because that seems to me, as it does to Anthony Woodward, Pound’s ‘greatest achievement’. Everything that had begun to go wrong with The Cantos – their obsessive, one-dimensional quality in that forced march the reader takes through Cantos 52 to 71 – is righted at Pisa; and if literature in English has things to thank the US Army for, one, surely, must be that, when they captured Pound in 1945 and held him prisoner for six months near Pisa (awaiting his recall to Washington where he had been indicted for treason), they deprived him of most of those books he had got into the habit of ransacking for ‘material’, and thus forced him to rely on what was retained, and to that extent processed, in his remarkable head. The Pisan sequence is in many ways more difficult than anything which precedes it. Its movement is so much the random movement of the mind, from distant memory to close observation, from reading to reflection, and through a great range of feeling – anger, despair, love, regret, remorse, amusement, in rapid transition. But his situation in the Detention Centre compound is a point of focus; and there is a marvellous particularity, and a unifying tone that is humane and accepting.

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