He was the man

Robert Crawford

  • Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and his Work: Vol. III: The Tragic Years, 1939-72 by A. David Moody
    Oxford, 654 pp, £30.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870436 2

Can anyone read a biography of Ezra Pound without feeling unsettled? The persistent anti-Semitism; the eager support for Mussolini; the pain and waste of the incarceration, first in a US military detention centre resembling Guantánamo, then in a Washington facility for the insane; the lasting damage done to people in his family circle; the powerful egocentrism at the heart of all this: the most dire aspects of Pound’s history trouble the reader. Yet Pound’s life is also one of the greatest stories of 20th-century poetry. His generosity to other writers, his zealous energy, his gadfly intellectual brilliance and, most important, his remarkable poetic ear make him unignorable.

His biographers know the looming problems, and have found different ways to prepare for them. Noel Stock, whose 600-page Life of Ezra Pound (1970) was the first full-scale account, mentions in his opening chapter that Pound’s father, Homer, worked as an assistant assayer in the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Stock points out that in the 1890s the young Ezra ‘mixed with the assayers and drank in stories about “gold bricks”, which he still remembered in 1944 when he wrote his pamphlet on the “Economic Nature of the United States”’. Pound was still alive when Stock was writing, and assisted him; Stock doesn’t mention at this point that in 1944 Pound was broadcasting from Rome for Mussolini’s radio service and had come to be seen as a traitor by the US government. In 1988, 16 years after Pound’s death, Humphrey Carpenter called Chapter 3 of his thousand-page Life of Pound ‘Suburban Prejudice’, a phrase used by the elderly poet to describe anti-Semitism in a conversation with Allen Ginsberg. Carpenter quotes from an 1892 newspaper report published when Pound was six and living in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which mentions a local inn announcing that ‘hereafter no Jews will be taken to board there’; he also cites a Jenkintown contemporary of Pound’s who maintained that such prejudice was ‘always round-about’. Early in the first part of his three-volume, 1500-page Portrait of the Man and His Work, A. David Moody, in a section of a chapter also entitled ‘Suburban Prejudice’, cites the same story, but points out that in the summers of 1902 and 1903 Homer Pound and his wife let their house to ‘Mr W.B. Hackenburg, president of the Jewish Hospital Association’. Clearly Pound’s parents ‘would take Jews as tenants’.

All three of Pound’s major biographers begin with an evident and inevitable awareness that Pound’s is a stingingly complicated life. Moody’s is the fullest account likely to be written; his third volume, ominously subtitled The Tragic Years: 1939-72, goes beyond any predecessor in its detailed attention to Pound’s downfall. The completion of this large-scale survey gives readers a chance to stand back and appraise again one of the 20th century’s most influential poets.

Overall, the proportioning of Moody’s biography is misguided. In this new third volume he devotes more space to Pound’s last decade, during which he wrote and said little, than he gives in Vol. I to Pound’s first twenty years. It’s worth bearing in mind, for example, that he was born at the end of a century when hundreds of American institutions had enjoyed the right to issue their own banknotes, when many foreign currencies had been regarded as legal tender in the United States, and when the struggle to regularise the money supply was not yet concluded. The Philadelphia Mint, where Homer Pound worked for forty years measuring silver and gold, was at the centre of a currency system still in flux. Moody has almost nothing to say about this, though he does give us lengthy accounts of Ezra Pound’s later preoccupations with paper money, gold and competing economic systems. Homer Pound was also a religious teacher. He helped found two churches in Pennsylvania and became president of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour, ‘a nationwide group that was zealously promoting a socially enlightened form of Christian action’, according to J.J. Wilhelm’s The American Roots of Ezra Pound (1985). Moody quotes Wilhelm, but doesn’t tell us anything more about the society, though its late 19th-century influence seems to have been global, and it was around this period that the young Presbyterian Ezra first ‘made his profession of faith’. Moody passes over all this too quickly in a section entitled ‘Homer’ that occupies less than a page of his first volume. In the biography of a messianic poet anxious to convert the world to his doctrines, and intensely committed to the search for spiritual truth, this religious background deserves more attention. Pound may have turned against Christianity, but for much of his life he was looking for – and even sought to be – a saviour.

Moody learned to write biography as he went along. His third volume is better presented than its predecessors, which have too many short, subtitled sections within the chapters, giving the appearance of a classroom textbook. Moody has a background in academic literary criticism – his earlier books include an admirable study of Eliot (1979) – and each volume of his ‘portrait’ intersperses long critical discussions of the work with biographical summary. Certainly there are other biographies that operate like this, but the consequence is almost always a loss of narrative drive. Especially in his first volume, Moody struggled with how and when to introduce people. His solution was to mention them briefly in the main text and provide lengthy footnotes (in addition to his endnotes) that gave more detailed potted biographies: functional, but hardly elegant.

In Vol. III, however, there are fewer subsections and clunky introductions: artistically, Moody has hit his stride. Yet his overall stance towards his subject remains problematic. ‘He was in his own way a hero of his culture,’ Moody wrote of Pound in Vol. I, ‘a genuine representative of both its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions.’ Leaving aside the question of what Moody may mean here by ‘his culture’, to grant Pound heroic status from the outset is unwise. Moody nowhere says that Pound read Thomas Carlyle, but Carlyle’s notion of a church of literature taking the place of the Christian Church, and his emphasis on the importance of ‘The Hero as Poet’ (with Dante as the foundational example) and ‘The Hero as Man of Letters’ (culminating in the bardic example of Robert Burns), surely underpinned Pound’s deep and lasting sense of his vocation as a preacher, teacher and poet. Despite his modernism, Pound was a product of 19th-century assumptions and cadences; Moody’s acceptance of him as a Carlylean ‘hero of his culture’ takes for granted assumptions better investigated with some scepticism. Though Moody does provide examples of Pound’s decidedly unheroic side – his anti-Semitic pronouncements, his dismissive attitude towards his legal son, his callous treatment of women – he sometimes seems to be doing his best to get the poet-hero off the hook.

A striking example of this comes in the third volume when, on his return to Italy in 1958 after his release from the mental hospital in Washington, Pound is photographed arriving in Naples ‘with his arm stretched out in salute – a “fascist salute” in the eyes of an American journalist, and in the minds of Pound’s detractors ever since’. Moody maintains that ‘to the unprejudiced eye there is no “fascism” in Pound’s genial expression, and the salute – try it – might be simply a natural gesture acknowledging a person or persons some way off.’ Well, it might; but I think someone less wedded to the notion of Pound as hero may feel that at this point making any gesture that could be mistaken for a fascist salute was just about the stupidest thing Pound could have done.

Tenaciously and – in the absence of evidence to the contrary – convincingly, Moody implies that one of Pound’s earlier biographers, C. David Heymann, ‘made up’ an account of Pound being photographed at the head of an Italian neo-fascist parade in 1961, and ‘did invent an interview’ with Pound. Moody points out elsewhere that when the Beinecke Library at Yale completed its purchase of the Ezra Pound Archive, a promise that a ‘Center for the Study of Ezra Pound and his Contemporaries’ would be established was ‘not kept’. There is a sense throughout that Moody wants to right wrongs done to Pound. His dedication of the third volume to Pound’s resolutely loyal daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, may be taken as an acknowledgment of her scholarly generosity, but it also indicates that Moody could have done more to guard against charges of partiality.

He makes it clear that in the summer of 1939 Pound was ‘using the arguments and the language of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda’, though he tries hard to argue that there is some ‘evidence of [his] struggling to correct himself’. Pound, who had lived in Italy since 1924, was convinced he was upholding the principles of the American Revolution, which seemed to him to be aligned with the Italian fascist state’s opposition to usurocracy. America’s modern government had betrayed the country’s ideals, not least its economic ones, but he, its saviour-poet, author of the 1933 ABC of Economics, knew how to put things right. In 1940, a year during which Pound and his wife, Dorothy, tried to get to America, Pound expected that the Führer’s forces, having reached Paris, would soon arrive in London. ‘With the Hitler interview of 14 June,’ Pound wrote, ‘the continental war aims are once more made clear in their essential fairness and, for a victorious army, their mildness.’ As Moody notes, 14 June 1940 was the day Paris fell to the German army; four days earlier Mussolini had brought Italy into the war.

Having already approached and met Mussolini, Pound was keen to convince the Italian authorities that he was just the man to promote a better understanding of fascism in America. Convinced that the writings of Confucius would benefit the fascist state, he also wanted to translate his work, drawing on a partly intuitive sense of Chinese that he’d picked up after inheriting, decades earlier, the papers of Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar of Chinese and Japanese culture. One of the fascist intellectuals he courted thought Pound a man with ‘a disorderly mind’ who ‘tries to take on economic and financial questions about which he has some rather fantastic notions’, but he was soon given a job by the propaganda section of Rome Radio. ‘Whoever is unwilling to fight at this moment is no poet,’ he told a Rome newspaper, as he stepped up his battle of words.

Pound sought advice from the Berlin-based Nazi propagandist William Joyce (an Irishman known to his British enemies as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’) about effective broadcasting techniques. Maintaining he was the authentic voice of ‘United States heritage’, he made clear his particular opposition to ‘Churchill and company’, who represented ‘usury … tyranny, oppression, greed, unrestricted exploitation of humanity’. By late 1941 he was arguing that America should not enter the war to save a British Empire already corrupted by ‘the Jews in London’. The following year, broadcasting twice a week ‘in accordance with the Fascist policy of intellectual freedom’, which meant he was not ‘asked to say anything … against his conscience or anything incompatible with his duties as a citizen of the United States’, Pound continued to argue that America must mobilise against ‘the Yidd’ and ‘the Kikes’. He also recommended that his audience read Mein Kampf. Though he never presented himself as an enemy of America, Pound knew that people there regarded him as one. His old friend William Carlos Williams called him ‘Lord Ga-Ga’, and Pound told an Italian friend in 1941 that ‘I see by a Chicago rag that I am “charged with fascism”.’ By mid-1943, some time after the United States had entered the war, Pound had heard that he’d been indicted for treason.

Moody cites US Department of Justice files which show that Roosevelt himself named Pound as one of several ‘Americans in Europe who are aiding Hitler et al on the radio’. ‘Why,’ Roosevelt asked his attorney general, ‘should we not indict them for Treason even though we might not be able to try them until after the war?’ Pound was detained by American forces in Italy in 1945. ‘I am not anti-Semitic,’ he told an interrogator, and ‘I distinguish between the Jewish usurer and the Jew who does an honest day’s work for a living.’ He went on: ‘I think that Hitler was a Saint, and wanted nothing for himself. I think he was fooled into anti-Semitism and it ruined him.’ That same day Pound described Hitler to an American reporter as ‘a Jeanne d’Arc’.

Not long afterwards, at the age of 59, Pound found himself in a maximum-security cage in a Disciplinary Training Center (Moody calls it ‘a concentration camp for the US army’s own criminals’) near Pisa. His cage, open to the elements and brightly lit at night, was one of a row of such structures. Their floors, roughly six feet square, were concrete slabs. On the sides of Pound’s cage heavy-gauge wire mesh had been replaced by reinforced lengths of the welded steel matting used in the construction of aircraft landing strips. Some wire mesh jutted up from the concrete floor, offering the possibility of suicide. Pound was allowed six blankets and a bucket; he also had a Chinese book and some toilet paper. Psychiatrists who examined him noted that he had reported a ‘spell’ during which ‘he had great difficulty in collecting his thoughts,’ but he showed ‘no evidence of psychosis, neurosis or psychopathy’ though he complained of ‘claustrophobia’. They did, however, register that ‘prolonged exposure in present environment may precipitate a mental breakdown.’ Pound kept talking ‘about theories relating to money’ and defended his ‘broadcasts on the Italian radio as the right of free speech’, contending that ‘he was not treasonable.’ There was ‘no evidence of hallucinations or delusions’.

*

In his cage, Pound worked on what became The Pisan Cantos, part of the vast Cantos project that he worked on for more than four decades, and whose origins may lie even further back, in his student days. The son of the mint assayer wrote in some ‘College Notes’ about ‘gathering ore from every literature in the world and smelting it to fusion and to gold in that great flame’; abandoning a formal curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania he committed himself to studying only poetry, plotting an epic ‘ORBI CANTUM’. As The Cantos developed they swallowed up material from world literature and can sometimes read like a scrapbook of favourite snippets. Pound was a compulsive anthologist throughout his life, but The Cantos were also biographical in inclination. He sieved biographies, letters and accounts of those he considered great men – whether John Adams or Confucius – to produce poems with distinct overtones of hero-worship. In politics this tendency led to his admiration for Mussolini, and even to that view of Hitler as ‘a Saint’. While caged in Pisa in the closing days of the war, he set to work on a series of poems which, grounded in Confucius, also involved a sense of himself as broken hero: ‘As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill/from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.’ There is a certain bare nobility in those lines, as there is in some of the other passages in The Cantos that are often quoted, particularly the earlier, Depression-era Canto XLV that eloquently denounces usury – ‘usura’ – and manages to withhold the anti-Semitic spite which frequently accompanies his thinking on that topic. But the lines in The Pisan Cantos immediately preceding the ‘ego scriptor’ passage show that Pound is continuing in the most desperate circumstances his sometimes hectoring, supposedly truth-telling campaign to justify himself:

… the spring of their squeak-doll is broken
and Bracken is out and the BBC can lie
    but at least a different bilge will come out of it
       at least for a little, as is its nature
can continue, that is, to lie.

As so often in The Cantos, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here, but the astonishingly diligent Carroll F. Terrell in his 1984 Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (a work of more than 800 double-columned pages, longer than The Cantos themselves) explains that the ‘squeak-doll’ is Winston Churchill, who resigned as prime minister on 23 May 1945, two days before being invited by George VI to form a new government; and that ‘Bracken’ is Brendan Bracken, wartime ‘boss of the British Ministry of Information’. Working on his Pisan Cantos, scribbling on toilet paper and inside his ‘Chinese book’, Pound kept up the battle he had been fighting in his radio broadcasts. Shot through with lyricism and flights of polylingual associative brilliance, The Pisan Cantos also contain much rambling and rant.

The rant can be energetic; the problem is the rambling. Though he may have come close to mental breakdown, Pound (as the evidence in Moody’s biography confirms) did not become insane. Instead, he gave way to a propensity familiar to readers of some of the earlier Cantos and sounded off in the style of a mad professor:

Mr Joyce also preoccupied with Gibraltar
       and the Pillars of Hercules
not with my patio and the wistaria and the tennis courts
or the bugs in Mrs Jevons’ hotel
  or the quality of the beer served to sailors
veder Nap’oiiiii or Pavia the romanesque
        being preferable
and by analogy the form of San Zeno the
  columns signed by their maker
   the frescoes in S. Pietro and the madonna in Ortolo
e ‘fa di clarità l’aer tremare’
as in the manuscript of the Capitolare
Trattoria degli Apostoli (dodici)
‘Ecco il tè’ said the head waiter
in 1912 explaining its mysteries to the piccolo
with a teapot from another hotel
but coffee came to Assissi much later
    that is, so one cd/ drink it
when it was lost in Orleans and France semi-ruin’d
thus the coffee-house facts of Vienna
  whereas Mr Carver merits mention for the
cultivation of peanuts,
arachidi, and the soja has yet to save Europe
    and the wops do not use maple syrup

Canto LXXIV

The poetic lineation here, as so often in Pound, is enlivening; and it may be possible to make sense of the passage with recourse to Terrell’s Companion, which helpfully explains that ‘as food shortages developed during the war, Pound tried to persuade a number of bureaucrats that Italy should start cultivating peanuts,’ and that ‘Mrs Jevons’ hotel’ was probably ‘an inn Pound stayed at in Gibraltar’. But reading such passages is like being locked in the Senior Common Room with Professor Up-Himself: a far better fate than being locked in a cage in Pisa, but not something many people would choose to endure for long.

Donnishness (a more corrosive feature than the challenge of difficulty) is a problem at the heart of modernism. Certainly the allusive method of the earliest Cantos, like the allusive method of Ulysses, was as vital to the writing of The Waste Land as Pound’s astute, non-narrative and highly ethical editing of it. The Waste Land maintains a sense of emotional pressure and verbal intensity throughout, along with variations in tone and tempo – but then it runs to a total of 433 lines. When Eliot wondered if it should be longer, Pound shrewdly warned him against it, pointing out that Eliot had already written ‘the longest poem in the English langwidge’, and so should not ‘try to bust all records by prolonging it’. His intervention helped make The Waste Land the modernist poem par excellence, while Pound’s failure to take his own editorial advice meant that in The Cantos he tried to sustain the allusive method over a work about sixty times as long. As a result, very few people read The Cantos right through; even those paid to do so tend to skip. Like those other impressive modernist monsters, Finnegans Wake and In Memoriam James Joyce, The Cantos are best encountered in judicious extracts.

In The Pisan Cantos and elsewhere, Pound constellates a vast collection of allusive snippets around the sometimes scarcely perceptible thread of his life-story. Caged and abused, but still messianic, he is convinced he can save the world with his teachings if the world will only listen. Moody shows that even after his arrest Pound made a plea for permission to ask Truman via cable to be allowed (as ‘FENOLLOSA’S EXECUTOR AND TRANSLATOR OF CONFUCIUS’) to negotiate ‘peace terms with Japan’; another of his requests was to talk to Stalin and ‘meet him in Georgia’. As usual, Moody charitably tries to make sense of Pound’s behaviour:

Objectively considered, those were crazed fantasies; subjectively, however, they were play-acting with a purpose. Pound was trying to take control of his situation, and to determine how he should be perceived – not as a traitor, but as someone who could advise the world’s leaders. For over a decade he had done his best to advise Mussolini; in 1939 he had attempted to advise Roosevelt; so now he would naturally seek to address Truman and Stalin.

A less charitable interpretation would be that this was a further manifestation, taken to an absurd extreme, of the self-importance that had characterised Pound from his youth. Moody, whose first volume was subtitled ‘The Young Genius’, cites William Carlos Williams remembering how the 17-year-old Pound ‘had to be the big guy. He had to tell everybody.’ Pound’s parents seem to have encouraged this trait in their only child: he was their hero, and became his own. ‘There isn’t a darn thing that boy of mine don’t know,’ Homer Pound told Max Beerbohm in the 1930s; for much of his life, Ezra Pound seems to have thought so too. ‘I want to write before I die the greatest poems that have ever been written,’ he told his parents. Talent and determination led him to work with and be staunchly generous towards Williams, Yeats, Eliot and many other poets, musicians, artists and intellectuals; but acting as if there wasn’t a darn thing he didn’t know also produced his economic and political theories, his baggy Cantos, his conviction that he was the man to be entrusted with sorting out world politics, and, ultimately, his downfall.

It seems quite probable that, had the law taken its course without the intervention of Pound’s stalwart literary supporters, he would have been found guilty of treason and faced execution. He maintained that he had not committed treason, and Moody seems ready to go along with his technical defence. But in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the world faced up to the consequences of the Holocaust and counted its dead, it doesn’t seem likely that an American jury would have regarded as anything other than a traitor a fellow countryman who had regularly broadcast propaganda for a fascist government in an enemy country, while denouncing Roosevelt and Churchill and calling Hitler ‘a Saint’. Certainly, Pound’s American publisher and James Laughlin thought it unwise to risk a trial. Laughlin worked with a legal team to have Pound found unfit to plead on grounds of insanity. Other friends and supporters, including Eliot, took the view that this was the course of action most likely to keep their misguided friend alive. It was a pragmatic decision.

*

Moody makes a convincing case for Pound’s sanity. He seems to think Pound could have been defended successfully against the treason charge, but this is debatable at best. Though senior psychiatrists may have colluded in pronouncing Pound mad, Moody provides evidence that other (often more junior) staff disagreed. He sets out the courtroom arguments in great detail, showing that some reporters felt ‘the Government’s attorneys were letting Pound get away with treason.’ Eventually found unfit to plead, Pound spent 12 years in St Elizabeths Hospital for the insane, managing to play the parts of both lunatic and heroic poet-sage.

At times Moody’s account of Pound’s ‘Tragic Years’ presents a life more dramatic and moving than the bulk of the work. But Moody makes it clear that, while he was in St Elizabeths, visited by the great and good (some of whom, including Robert Lowell, wrote about his plight with deep insight) and attracting acolytes, apprentice-poets, journalists and hangers-on, Pound continued to bring damage to his circle. Since marrying Dorothy Shakespear in 1914, he had had affairs with Nancy Cunard and Olga Rudge; the latter had given birth to Pound’s daughter, Mary, in 1925, and Dorothy had given birth to Omar (Pound’s legal, but probably not biological son) in 1926. While Pound was in St Elizabeths, Dorothy lived in poverty nearby so that she could visit him constantly; most of the time Olga waited in Italy – but Pound fell in love with one of his admiring young visitors, the artist Sheri Martinelli. ‘He had one hand on my breasts & one eye on me,’ she recalled, ‘& one hand on Ovid’s Metamorph & one eye on th’book & his mouth on mine … dear Educational Gramps.’ Pound, who was attracting more and more ‘students’ to his ‘Ezuversity’, then fell in love with the young Texan poet and anthologist Marcella Spann, whom he wanted to marry, and who accompanied Pound and Dorothy back to Italy on his eventual release in 1958.

In his seventies and eighties, after his relationship with Spann petered out, Pound lived with Dorothy, then for the last ten years of his life with Olga. Dorothy remained married to him and, as a result of an American court ruling, continued to exercise control over much of his literary income. Reading about Pound’s physical and mental ordeals in St Elizabeths and after is a painful business, but so is reading about his relationships. Moody describes in some detail the understandably fractious dealings between Dorothy Pound and Olga Rudge, but has nothing to say about what happened to Marcella Spann after her relationship with Pound ended. Spann was an important muse in his final Cantos, though with characteristic ruthlessness he revised his drafts so that she often vanishes or morphs into Olga Rudge. ‘Let those I love try to forgive/what I have made,’ he wrote. By this time, for all his messianic zeal, he had accepted that ‘one dies without saving the world,’ and alternated between fearing with regard to The Cantos that ‘I cannot make it cohere’ and hoping that his great anthological assemblage had produced ‘A little light, like a rushlight/to lead back to splendour’. Though he claimed that the many quotations in The Cantos were linked by ‘musical themes that find each other out’, overall there is a lot of truth in his view that the huge poem was ‘a shop-window full of various objects’; he had ‘picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make … a work of art.’

If we take a step back, and refuse to reduce Pound to an argument about anti-Semitism, it becomes clear that his greatest poetic achievements were bound up with translation. That is where his Imagist aesthetic came from: poems with the telling brevity of classical fragments and the delicacy of Tang Dynasty lyrics. His most perfect book, Cathay, published in 1915, is the most beautiful volume of translated poetry in the English language. It is also – as Chinese scholars may have realised more fully than Western ones – a milestone in cultural relations between the Anglophone world and Chinese culture. However inaccurate, however problematically refracted via Japanese culture, Pound’s versions of Chinese poems recast from Fenollosa’s manuscripts are (controversial) classics of the poet-translator’s art. They both preface and outdistance his larger-scale attempts to bring together Chinese and Western culture in The Cantos as part of a grand vision of world literature. Perhaps such a generous sense of poetry as an abiding global phenomenon is better communicated through an assembly of a small number of shorter pieces than by knitting together a plethora of bits of works, as The Cantos tries to do. Originally included in Cathay, Pound’s translation of the Old English poem ‘The Seafarer’ is a masterpiece too. Pound was also one of the finest poets of the First World War. His lines from ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ state as powerfully as Wilfred Owen or Eliot an enduring apprehension of waste:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilisation,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Had Pound died shortly after writing those lines and editing The Waste Land, it would have been so much more straightforward to acknowledge his gifts. Moody’s large-scale biographical and critical appraisal is obliged to spend so much time on the half-century of life after 1922 that the best writing of Pound’s long career can seem overshadowed by the drama of his participation in the Second World War and its aftermath.