Ezra Pound and Evil

Jerome McGann

  • The Genealogy of Demons: Anti-Semitism, Fascism and the Myths of Ezra Pound by Robert Casillo
    Northwestern, 463 pp, $34.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 8101 0710 4
  • A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound by Humphrey Carpenter
    Faber, 1005 pp, £20.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 571 14786 0

No English-speaking poet of this century has been the subject of as much biographical scrutiny as Ezra Pound. As in the case of Byron, Pound’s literary works and his personal life were deeply entwined from the first, and this condition of his poetry’s existence raises – as Byron’s work has always raised – serious problems for our ordinary understanding of what poems do and how they are to be read.

We are accustomed to drawing a distinction between the tale and the teller, in order to direct the reading of imaginative texts along purely ‘textual’ or intersystemic orders. This is difficult to do with Pound’s work. The Cantos is a poem which, like De Rerum Natura, lays claim to what many regard as the province of prose, not poetry. Both reach out to make contact with extra-textual materials and events. Besides the poem’s engagement with history, including personal and contemporary history, much of the Cantos involves quotation (more or less accurately carried out) of historical documents, scholarly texts, and various independent and otherwise integral materials (a musical score is included as the major part of Canto LXXV).

These kinds of material highlight the general problem: that the Cantos often violate the customary criteria by which we set poetry apart from prose. The problem is exacerbated by the repellent character of many of Pound’s factive and prose interests. In his case, the issue is stark: he was a supporter of Mussolini’s fascism and he was an anti-semite. Moreover, these interests were concretely located. Pound’s anti-semitism was not a vague or generalised antipathy: it was specifically and historically directed toward particular events, individuals and institutions.

Pound made these matters stand at the heart of his life’s work, inextricable from his larger concerns about history, culture and economics. Robert Casillo is therefore entirely correct to say that Pound’s writing raises ‘the problem of evil in literature’ in an especially clear way. ‘For it must be emphasised that Pound’s anti-semitism is quite different from Dostoyevsky’s and Eliot’s. Not only is it a massive and prevalent theme, but at a number of points in Pound’s poetry and prose it becomes so virulent that Pound hints covertly at the extermination of the Jews. This is a fact ... always to be kept in mind, for it would be difficult if not impossible to find a truly great work or writer in Western tradition embracing such acknowledged evil.’ No one before Casillo has raised this ‘problem of evil’ in Pound’s work in the context of such massive documentation and thoroughgoing scrutiny. The general shape of the situation has been no secret, however – Pound’s work is a problem precisely because it pushes these issues to the fore.

Given the presence of the fascist and anti-semitic ideas and materials, two ways of reading Pound’s work – particularly the mature work – have been followed. Pound’s virulent anti-semitism and his open support of Mussolini’s fascism defined these options. Of course, Pound’s work was a notorious sign of contradiction from the earliest years of his literary career in London. Nonetheless, the great divide does not begin to establish itself in his work until after the publication of A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), when Pound’s removal to Italy began to involve him in certain positive political commitments.

On the one hand, Pound’s poetry can be all but entirely dismissed as the vehicle of wicked and dangerous ideas. This argument often attacks Pound’s style – the artistic vehicle – as well as the ideas, observing a homology between what Pound writes and the ways he chooses to write. On the other hand, Pound’s work is defended, even exalted, by numerous readers, many of them among the most important literary figures of this century. According to the latter, a distinction must be drawn between Pound’s bad ideas (and bad writing) and his good ideas and excellent, innovative work in poetry.

Though they began earlier, these options established themselves shortly after the war, when the American culture industry was forced to make some decisions about Pound and his work. The controversy over the Bollingen Prize, which was awarded to Pound in 1949 for the Pisan Cantos, is the most obvious and convenient event for dating the critical polarisation. But that award was preceded by an event no less significant, if less public. In 1946 Random House announced that they were removing Pound’s work from the new edition of their Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry. Several writers protested this decision, among them Conrad Aiken and W.H. Auden – the latter going so far as to say that he would leave Random House (his publisher) if Pound’s work were removed from the anthology. The decision to remove Pound was (reluctantly) reversed by Bennett Cerf, the publisher of Random House. The Random House decision had the important effect of easing the Bollingen decision.

One further historical matter has to be recalled here. When the prize was awarded to Pound for the Pisan Cantos, an important new line of interpretation was opened for readers. This interpretation – a variant of the pro-Poundian line which separated the wheat from the tares in his work – saw the Pisan Cantos as the moving autobiographical record of a man reflecting critically upon his career, and even recanting his ‘errors’. The Pisan Cantos thus became the touchstone for distinguishing what in the Cantos seemed to have permanent value, and they emerged as the dominant sign of the meaning of Pound’s career: that it displayed a tragic curve. The great writer, the inventor of Modernism (il miglior fabbro), moved slowly but inexorably from the light into the darkness, and then, plunging into the catastrophe of his essential self, he passed into the final anagnorisis where he was forced to contemplate the fullness of the truth about his life and work.

These two new books on Pound will make it impossible to approach his work on such terms any longer. Neither Casillo nor Carpenter take one into a new way of reading poetry. But both have produced important books, and Casillo’s in particular will have a major impact on Pound studies.

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