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.

Pound received his award and then was very largely forgotten except as the extraordinary entrepreneur of literature who had disovered Joyce and Eliot. It was on his protégé (always loyal, it should be said) ‘Possum’ Eliot that the post-war world showered its blessings – many honorary doctorates, the Order of Merit, the Nobel Prize. Eliot was celebrated, studied, written about, endlessly cited (Delmore Schwartz wrote in 1949 of ‘the literary dictatorship of T.S. Eliot’), while Pound, released in 1958 after 13 years’ confinement, soon lapsed into the silences which are his final Cantos.

Two separate facts kept his reputation alive, however. One was that the best of the post-war poets in America, of varying persuasions and schools, all owed something to Pound in general and to the Pisan sequence in particular. Black Mountain, the Beats, the New York School, ‘confessional’ poets such as Lowell and Berryman: none of them are imaginable, in their various experiments and excellences, without the precedent of Pound. And, second, there were a few devoted but enormously able scholars, notably Hugh Kenner, but also (and strangely, considering his origins in the neo-Augustan ‘Movement’ of the Fifties) Donald Davie, who kept the subject respectable, the interest alive.

Michael Alexander suggests that ‘indifference and bafflement are today more common than hostility,’ and that may be so. But there has been some excellent work done on Pound recently: Richard Sieburth’s Instigations, Leon Surette’s A Light from Eleusis, and now Alexander’s manageably-sized study of the whole corpus of the poetry, and Woodward’s of The Pisan Cantos. My feeling is that Pound’s stock is rising, and that one reason for this is that time is helping us all to get over the enormous hurdle of his anti-semitism and his monetary obsessions, helping us to recognise that these were part of the madness of the time, and that the best of Pound preceded and survived the 1930s and the war when the worst of his follies occurred.

Anyone writing about Pound’s place in literary history must at some point think of throwing him into the scales against Yeats and Eliot. Alexander writes: ‘Indeed [Pound’s] writing is so frequently touched with greatness that only Yeats and Eliot seem of a clearly superior order among contemporaries.’ I can’t help wondering whether there is not a failure of courage in that, a wish to reassure, to appear ‘reasonable’.

Woodward approaches the comparison by means of negatives: ‘Each of the three poets had his endemic flaws as an artist, a flaw rooted in temperament and hence in life; Eliot’s a cerebral monotony, Yeats’ a too conscious eloquence, Pound’s an allusive incoherence. Each had his exalted poetic flights, and of the three I myself find Pound’s the most moving.’ That is very well said – not least the last sentence. In the end one ought to be able to recognise the various arguments for advancing any of the three above the others; and only the critic’s feelings as he reads will determine which of those arguments is the one he wants to employ or to listen to.

My feeling is that as social conventions, and conventions of language with them, free up, open out, give us more air to breathe, more space in which to move, Pound’s work seems less bizarre and strange, more alive, while Eliot’s seems to shrink and wither behind its collar and tie. Eliot’s early clerkishness was an anti-romantic gesture, a new freedom. His later clerkishness was something quite different – a retreat. The Waste Land is a great poem by two authors, Eliot primarily, but also Pound. Four Quartets is almost exactly contemporary with The Pisan Cantos, and the latter work is the measure of its lack of linguistic vitality.

Yeats, unlike Eliot, has a range comparable with Pound’s, and it would be easy to construct an argument in his favour. In fact, the two poets do it for us, Yeats congratulating himself in his very last poems on having brought ‘something to perfection’, Pound coming out of his silences only to say ‘my errors and wrecks lie about me,’ and ‘I cannot make it cohere.’ My own feeling about this comparison is that it cannot be divorced from a sense of the usefulness of Pound to the continuation of poetry itself. Yeats is one of those great and wonderful figures fixed in the past, in history. The problems he faced, both linguistic and ‘philosophical’, are not those which a poet faces in the 1980s, and consequently his practice, while being exemplary in general, can have no particular application. Pound, by comparison, was living, linguistically at least, in our present before it had quite arrived. In addition, I would be inclined to say that Pound’s dislike of the Middle Eastern monotheisms, which he thought fostered moral fanaticism, and his attempt to revive some sense of the older and multiple deities that belonged to the soil of Europe, still has more point and relevance than Yeats’s magic, or, indeed, Eliot’s.

There is a puzzle about Pound which critics deal with in different ways. It concerns the ‘personal’ element in his work. This brings us back particularly to The Pisan Cantos, which are often said to be more successful than earlier Cantos because here at last Pound, first person singular, emerges from behind the screen. Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era describes the form of The Pisan Cantos as ‘free-running monologue’. Leon Surette says their success depends on ‘the introduction of a single speaking voice’. Alexander describes them as ‘a directly autobiographical record’ and says the ‘continuous primary effect’ is of ‘conversation’. And Woodward writes: ‘In The Pisan Cantos the poet’s own self, having been largely absorbed into mask, pastiche and translation in earlier Cantos, for the first time appears on stage.’ All this is true and not true, and the sense in which it is not true is important.

Pound and his circumstances in the detention camp are at the centre of The Pisan Cantos and this is a change from previous Cantos. As well as the governing sensibility, which has always been there, his are now the experiencing senses, the observing eyes, the recording ears, the remembering mind. There is even from time to time the first-person singular pronoun (‘I have been hard as youth 60 years’) though as often as not it is in a foreign language (‘Les larmes que j’ai créées m’inondent’). But as soon as one reads the sequence alongside passages from Wordsworth’s Prelude, or some of Yeats’s first-person poems, or even a passage from Four Quartets like the one beginning, ‘So here I am in the middle way, having spent twenty years ...’, one is forced to recognise how fleeting that ‘I’ is in Pound, how extensively it is avoided.

It is not just a matter of grammar. Pound is at the centre but he refuses to construct a ‘personality’ or a ‘mask’.

Saw but the eyes and stance between the eyes colour, diastasis,
careless or unaware it had not the whole tent’s room

Who saw? It was Pound of course: but the grammar asserts that it is not who saw, but rather the seeing, and what was seen, that is important. If after reading the sequence one is disposed to credit Pound with courage, fortitude, resilience, that is not because he presents himself in detail and in a good light but because he, and his suffering where it shows, are a small item on a very large canvas.

Critical tact, therefore, is called for, if one is not to misrepresent the personal element in Pound’s poetry – and both Alexander and Woodward possess it. Wendy Stallard Flory does not. Her argument is that Pound’s Cantos is a poem ‘of an intermediate genre’ between a hero-epic like the Odyssey and an autobiographical epic like The Prelude. Pound ‘initially was determined to keep himself out of his [poem] as much as possible’. He didn’t altogether succeed in this, and the best of his early Cantos are the most personal. Finally with The Pisan Cantos Pound ‘stands forth in full view’. Flory’s method will therefore be to relate the poem to the man’s biography, which she says (strangely) will offer a ‘broader perspective’.

I have no particular complaint with what she finds more and less successful in the Cantos, only with her simple-minded explanations of how things succeed or fail and what they signify. Of Canto 39 she writes: ‘At first we see the poet in his home setting, at Olga Rudge’s apartment at Sant’ Ambrogio, but he is in an unsettled state of mind and the opening word of the Canto forewarns us of this: “Desolate is the roof where the cat sat ...” ’ That this should get into a book published by Yale University Press is an example, I suppose, of what can happen when academics talk politely to one another about literary matters without being answerable to a larger world, a general readership, something that might be called ‘common sense’. For the fact is (and any sensible reader will know it) we do not see ‘the poet’ anywhere in Canto 39, nor Olga Rudge’s apartment at Sant’ Ambrogio. ‘Research’ (or just reading) may lead us to suppose, on firm but not conclusive evidence, that Pound visualised the setting of Circe’s Ingle in Canto 39 in terms of Olga Rudge’s house at Sant’ Ambrogio – but that is quite another matter. It is a matter of interest, but it does not justify what Flory has written.

Once she has her method established and her nose down, Flory keeps going until she comes to the end. Resourceful as a scholar, she is insensitive to poetry and has nothing general to say beyond the immediate task, point by point. Woodward, by contrast, is remarkable for his ability to draw general critical reflections out of particular instances. His book is perhaps more muted, less energetic in its prose, than its subject deserves: but it is the closest and best study to date of what is probably the most admired section of Pound’s Cantos. Alexander’s book has similar merits and must, I think, replace Donald Davie’s first book on Pound (Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor) as the best broad survey of all the poetry. None of these books has the scope or importance of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era.

Peter Ackroyd’s Ezra Pound and His World brings together 111 photographs, drawings and other illustrations and offers a linking text summarising the poet’s life and literary career. The biography – inevitably, I suppose – draws heavily on the work of others, and cuts a few corners; and when I read that on his arrival in Naples in 1958 Pound ‘gave the Fascist salute to photographers’, and that in Rome in 1961 he was ‘photographed at the head of a neo-Fascist parade’, I wonder whether Ackroyd has checked on these ‘facts’ or merely repeated them from others. If they are true, I wish that these, rather than more familiar photographs, had been tracked down and used. But Pound’s life is an excellent pictorial subject, and Peter Ackroyd’s selection does it justice.

End to Torment contains a diary/memoir by the poet HD written during 1958 when Pound was about to be released. It seems to have been undertaken more for therapeutic reasons than anything else. It recalls her love affair (if that is the right description of their adolescent attachment) with Ezra. Very little is remembered ‘in fact’ but that little is surrounded with a huge aureole of tremulous emotion. Sympathy is called for, but I feel myself shrinking away from HD’s neuroticism. Perhaps Pound did too.

Pound’s poems written to her at this time (1905) – ‘Hilda’s Book’ – are reprinted along with HD’s memoir. Pound described his early verses, when Faber reprinted some of them in the 1960s, as ‘stale cream puffs’ and that description isn’t too unfair, though the best of them, done to a recipe from the early Yeats, show the young poet’s skill. The poems to HD were always cream puffs, but they weren’t always stale.