A Storm in His Luggage

C.K. Stead

  • Ezra Pound and James Laughlin: Selected Letters edited by David Gordon
    Norton, 313 pp, £23.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 393 03540 9
  • ‘Agenda’: An Anthology. The First Four Decades edited by William Cookson
    Carcanet, 418 pp, £25.00, May 1994, ISBN 1 85754 069 7

In a letter dated 22 January 1934 to his protégé James Laughlin, Pound makes passing reference to R.P. Blackmur, who had written a long unflattering essay, ‘Masks of Ezra Pound’, in an issue of the periodical Hound and Horn (which Pound renamed Bitch – Bugle). Next day he refers to it again – ‘24 depressing pages’. A year later there is an angry letter to Blackmur on the subject, sent, however, to Laughlin, perhaps to be sent on. Blackmur is accused of ‘placid and conceited ignorance’: ‘you pups who are born omniscient ... and utterly indifferent to FACT never never never will understand the need for data before assumption.’ Three years later there is a reference to Blackamoor; and in 1949 the article was still not forgotten.

Reviewing the first 30 Cantos Blackmur had argued that Pound was ‘neither a great poet nor a great thinker’ but rather ‘at his best a maker of great verse’. Attempting to explain and justify this judgment, Blackmur went on:

When you look into him, deeply as you can, you will not find any extraordinary revelation of life, nor any bottomless fund of feeling ... The content of his work ... cannot be talked about like the doctrines of Dante or the mental machinery of Blake ... It is not to be found in any book or set of books. Only in a very limited way can Mr Pound be discussed as it is necessary to discuss, say, Yeats: with reference to what is implicit and still to be said under the surface of what has already been said.

Is the ‘revelation of life’ which poetry offers necessarily ‘extraordinary’, or its fund of feeling always ‘bottomless’? Do Dante’s ‘doctrines’ or Blake’s ‘mental machinery’ explain the greatness of their poetry? Yeats’s ‘content’ has given his critics much to talk about; but does that talk explain his superiority (if he is superior) to Pound? Blackmur was saying in his own way what many have felt about Pound; and his difficulty, which springs in part from conscientiousness, does not make that view ‘wrong’, or untenable. But Pound’s work, which demanded such an effort of definition, had forced his critic back in the direction of an old argument about aesthetics, or Beauty and Truth. One can see that Blackmur will not tolerate an absence, or incoherence, of ‘content’; yet he writes awkwardly, as if he can hear a ghostly voice asking: ‘What is the content of a nightingale, or a Grecian urn?’

As for Pound: a man so isolated, so precariously placed, and at that time in his life so seldom written about seriously and at length, was hardly likely to be unaffected by this kind of attention. His brassiness has the hollow ring of insecurity. Perhaps we may thank Blackmur in part for the largely unfortunate increase in ‘content’ which the 40 Cantos written in the next seven years displayed.

Pound had come to intellectual consciousness at the time of Fin de Siècle aestheticism and its hearty aftermath, and perhaps half-shared Blackmur’s view that the early Cantos lacked a proper purpose beyond poetry. As if to prove himself no insubstantial, or substanceless, aesthete, he took more and more to stuffing his epic with political history and monetary theory which he persuaded himself could save the world from poverty and war. The problem with these Cantos (roughly 31 to 71 – though there are some beautiful exceptions) is precisely a reversal of Blackmur’s objection to those which preceded them: not that their ‘content’ cannot ‘be found in a ... set of books’, but that it can and, many Poundians believe, must be if the work is to be properly understood.

Pound’s experience in discovering and making known the work of Eliot, Joyce and many others, had taught him that the publishing industry was continually settling into predictable commercial patterns which could not cope with poetry or fiction that was in any way new, radical or unfamiliar. His way of overcoming this was to find converts who might start up a new periodical or small publishing house. When James Laughlin, a wealthy Harvard student thirty years his junior, visited him in Rapallo in the early Thirties, hoping to learn to be a better poet, Pound found little good to say about his writing: ‘No Jas, it’s hopeless. You’re never gonna make a writer ... do something useful ... Go back and be a publisher.’

The advice was brutal, and self-serving in effect, but it was right; and Pound backed it up by offering the names of writers Laughlin could help. New Directions (or ‘Nude Erections’ as Pound preferred to call it) was born. By 1936, when its first anthology was published, the names of contributors included Pound, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. For 35 years Pound advised, instructed, cajoled, abused, while Laughlin for the most part acted on the good advice, ignored the bad, and behaved with a degree of patrician independence proper to a man who was able to wait almost two decades for his company to trade at a profit.

The style of Pound’s letters to Laughlin, abrupt, cryptic, full of jokes, puns, compressions, is the off-the-cuff and off-the-record epistolary equivalent of the ‘presentative method’ of The Cantos. The compulsive habit of linguistic distortion can be irritating, but it is of great interest because it shows a mind always conscious of how unstable language is, how precarious, any one meaning lying always on the border of another, or others, to be pushed over by slight shifts of orthography or pronunciation. This is a consciousness increased by a good working knowledge of several languages, and by living in a country where one’s own is not the common currency. No one, to my knowledge, has made the parallel between Joyce and Pound on this point, Pound’s letters, like Finnegans Wake, creating a language of their own which makes sense as much by parodying English as by using it.

gotter bee KulchurUI. econ/and orthology iz kulchural but can’t monopolise the 70 fousand woidz. N.E.W. is going goofy I fink.

One of them Fenellosa’ Jap plays has been televisioned, as you say/KatUllus izza poek; all right. vurry good eggzesize fer young Jaz ...

Anyhow lez see the new muggerzeum

as fer Horse/trail/ier?? Gheez you are a glutton fer punishment ... or are you doin’ it to allay fambly suspicion??

If Hostrailia cd/sing Bach, muvver!!!

As fer Murdering the CareDRAWL ... waal no new england eXcent cd/be slushier than the british squeeze wot went over the rahdeOH from old Lunnon

  BUT mebbe it pays Possum’s rent

Yrz 15 ap.

Sazfakery –

also yr v-se improved

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I SURE dew agree re/Aiken. Eliot’s low saurian vitality ... when the rock was broken out hopped marse toad live and chipper after 3000 or whatever years inclaustration.

For anyone who prefers to concentrate solely on the negative side of the Pound ledger David Gordon’s selection inevitably offers material. Pound’s tone with those who were trying to help him was often rude and ungrateful, even when his situation was desperate.

you punks NEVER connect ANYthing withanything else ...
   do stir the mud in yr cranium

Am perfectly willing to pick the McSquish [MacLeish]
out of the garbage can when and or IF
   he ever has the decency to
want to be clean

Do you ever meet an ADULT? isn’t it time you began to consult one of that exotic genus/Very few specimens in this damnisphere but still not wholly extinct. Not that YOU ever revealed the presence of one to me.

The lot of you from Eliot
down
appear to suffer from mental paralysis.

Even for one who reads (as I do) this jitter and gabble with enjoyment, finding in it the life-energy of an engaging and talented man, there has to be the recognition that there are times when it serves only as camouflage for intellectual shallowness, irrationality, and injustice:

Measure of mental squalor is that there are still denizens of this dymmysphere with no gratitude to those who started warning in the 1920s/

   ruin of classic/educc// IF they had read Dant and Sophokl they wd/not stand FILTH at the top.

If he had been listened to, ‘Dant’ and ‘Sophokl’ would have been studied – and then what? The American people would not have elected Roosevelt? Douglas’s Social Credit would have saved the world economy? There would have been no need for war? Hitler and Mussolini could have gone on doing good? Here energy, instead of being ‘near to benevolence’ as in Canto 93, has become subterfuge, cover for prejudice and paranoia. It would be wicked if it were not so powerless to do harm. It is Pound’s nakedness that seems to absolve him. He is a Lear who never travels without a heath and a storm in his luggage. When he named Eliot ‘Possum’ it was in recognition of a cunning, a way with the world, which he himself entirely lacked.

Laughlin is patient with him, occasionally reproachful (‘we ... agreed ... it was tragic that you could not understand that we were both trying to do what we thought was the best thing for you’), seeming to accept that Pound’s abuse is meant jocularly; but there are times when he speaks with a brutal frankness, especially about how Pound’s politics in the late Thirties had alienated potential readers in the United States:

I must report to you that you are in great disfavour with your compatriots ... In most stores they refuse to stock your books ... I am afraid I must say that as far as I am concerned your present position makes it impossible to contemplate the Founders series with you at the helm. I mean, nobody would touch it because of your association with it.

As Pound’s monetary theory got tangled with anti-semitism and began to appear in his letters, Laughlin was frank and uncompromising:

I think anti-semitism is contemptible and despicable and I will not put my hand to it. I cannot tell you how it grieves me to see you taking up with it. It is vicious and mean ... Furthermore, in regard to the Cantos I will not print anything that can be fairly construed as an outright attack on the Jews ... I have at various times let myself slip into anti-semitic utterances but I’m ashamed of it and renounce them.

And when in 1957 Pound wrote to his old friend William Carlos Williams, telling him, ‘wars are made to make debt, and the late one started by that ambulating dunghill FDR has been amply successful,’ Williams, who had not forgiven Pound for siding with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, let him have it with both barrels (the letter is included in Gordon’s selection):

You DON’T EVEN BEGIN to know what the problem is. Learn to write an understandable letter before you sound off ... You are incapable of recognising what you mean to present and to hide your stupidity resort to name-calling and general obfuscation. Do you think you will get anywhere that way – but in jail or the insane asylum where you are now? Mussolini led you there, he was your adolescent hero – or was it Jefferson? You still don’t know the difference.

The image Pound promoted of himself as embattled purveyor of economic and historical truths which would have saved Europe from a second major war in the 20th century still persists, or at least passes largely unchallenged, among those who favour his poetry, while constituting the prime target for his detractors. This means in turn that the argument about him, insofar as there is direct engagement, still focuses on what Blackmur called ‘content’.

The real point surely is that a poet’s ‘doctrines’, ‘mental machinery’, ‘System’, or politics do not of themselves explain anything. The uniquely poetic element lies elsewhere, in a region which remains always elusive and ill-defined. When Pound uses his historical material well it is his compression, ebullience, linguistic economy and freshness which keep it alive. When he fails, again it is not the material but the use he makes of it which is at fault. He raids his sources, overloads his lines with examples, banging it down half-cooked like an ill-tempered and over-worked skivvy with a team of shearers to feed. What Pound needed throughout the Thirties was for someone to give him a message quite the opposite of Blackmur’s; to tell him, as Keats so bravely told Shelley, that if ‘Purpose’ was the God of modern literature, then it was time to serve Mammon.

There are moments in these letters when Pound comes close to a recognition that it is The Cantos’ exemplary energy, their grand affirmation, and not their doctrine, which matters:

in fak wot DO they say, over 40 years, and 40
vollums Ezept: Wake up and live.
                    very incomprehensible
in a Freudian era.

But for much of his life he seemed caught in a blind determination to avoid repeating the failures of those ‘aesthetes’ whose work had so appealed to him in his youth. It took the collapse of the ‘dream’, the defeat and murder of his hero Mussolini, his own cruel incarceration at Pisa, and (quite as important as anything else) the denial of books, so that what was available to him was what had been processed by memory, before The Cantos came back into proper poetic focus. The Pisan Cantos are, I suppose, as difficult as any; but they have artistic coherence and self-sufficiency. A steady and individual light shines through them. One might even describe their language by borrowing that famous phrase of the 1890s and say it ‘burns with a hard, gem-like flame’.

There followed Pound’s 13-year detention in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC; and then, only three or four years after his release and the joyful return to Italy, energy and confidence deserted him. He fell into the depression and silence of his old age, speaking only to declare his own folly and to reject his life’s work. In a letter to Laughlin he describes the failure of his mind:

/no memory to speak of/
                         no ability to register
either the pitch of a note, or remember sequence
of tones or notes in a tune.

It is of the greatest interest and significance that the loss of memory (‘mother of the muses’) and of musical sensibility are singled out as the crucial faculties now denied him.

In the late Fifties Pound corresponded with an enthusiastic young English reader and poet, William Cookson who, like Laughlin almost thirty years before, visited him in Italy and was encouraged to start a literary periodical. ‘Agenda’: An Anthology celebrates its first four decades, with a selection of work from some of the great Modernists who have contributed, along with many less well known poets and essayists. It is an impressive achievement by Cookson, and a further tribute to Pound. Included by way of acknowledgment of Pound’s part in it are two versions of Canto 115. Written when Pound’s powers were failing, they nevertheless contain lines which take us back to that pure poetic essence, that indefinable, unmeasurable, ineffable quality of beauty in language which, despite current denials by literary theorists of its importance, or even of its existence, is unmistakeable – as when the old poet describes himself:

A blown husk that is finished
          but the light sings eternal
a pale flare over marshes
      where the salt hay whispers to tide’s change.

Pound’s fault as a poet was to put too much trust in ideas and too little in that uncanny critical instinct which in his younger days had made him the great entrepreneur of Modernism. Now that we are at a new fin de siècle, in which the great ideological debate of the century seems to have exhausted itself, leaving a political and intellectual vacuum, it may be time for poetry to try once again to claim its own unique dimension.