Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ezra Believe It Or Not Pound!

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Okay, gang, here we go. A defense of Ezra Pound!

As you may recall, I don't much like traitors or anti-Semitic hatemongers, and Pound was both. But, awkwardly enough, he was a great poet -- sometimes.

Not as great a poet as he started out to be. The young Pound was brilliant, innovative, and despite having a good education, an autodidact (great word, autodidact! It means "a self-educated man or woman") and a self-taught polyglot ("one who speaks many languages") as well. His life's work was The Cantos, many books of poems meant to form as a whole a sort of Divine Comedy for our time, a single all-embracing work that would sum up pretty much everything that mattered about the twentieth century.

What went wrong? Two things. One is over-intellectualization. Pound used to say he was writing for the Common Man (one reason why he scornfully spelled "culture" as "kultur"), but as time went on he kept raising the bar on how good an education he expected the Common Man to provide for himself (an undergraduate degree from Harvard certainly wouldn't suffice). A lot of the Cantos are so clotted, dense, and obscurely referential that even with a trot sheet, you can't follow ‘em. Not everybody read Chinese as well as Ezra.

The second thing that went wrong was that he began dabbling in Economics. Pound decided that he knew exactly what was wrong with the world economically and how to fix it. The problem was usury -- lending money at interest, rather than out of simple good will. Which led him into anti-Zionist conspiracy theory. (During the Middle Ages, usury was forbidden to Christians; still, people needed to borrow money and it turned out the sort of people who would lend money out of the goodness of their hearts tended not to have any to lend. So Jews were allowed to lend money; and since they weren't allowed to do a lot else, many got into finance. Thus, by the beginning of this century, any financial problems were the fault of -- all together, class -- the Jews.) Which ultimately led to him making hate-filled propaganda broadcasts (I was particularly struck by his suggestion that the war was going so badly for the US that butchers in NYC were selling "long pork") for Mussolini.

And yet -- again -- some of what he wrote was honest-to-gosh great poetry. How do we separate the man and the work?

As it turns out, Pound has the answer.

The Pisan Cantos, book six of The Cantos, was written in 1945 while Pound was in an American military detention center near Pisa. Shamefully, he was imprisoned for weeks in a wire cage open to the elements, and as a result suffered a nervous and physical collapse. It would take a colder man than I to say that this clarified his thinking. But here, from the heart of his suffering, come a few sane words:

PISAN CANTOS, LXXXI
by Ezra Pound

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee


To which I need only gloss that in classical Greek mythology, Elysium was the abode of the blessed after death, and hence poetically means any place or state of perfect bliss.

Tomorrow -- brace yourselves -- Tennyson!

All best,
Michael

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2 comments:

Markin said...

Tangentially to your comment re: Pound's over-intellectualization, I would offer that he became at times too self-consciously a Poet. The "clotted, dense" aspect of the poems strikes me as part of that self-consciousness. The "obscurely referential" aspect speaks more to the readers' intellect and knowledge.

I know I'm not expressing it well. I suppose one could short-hand it as the difference between writing to one's readers and writing to the critics. The self-consciously Literary figure writes to the critics, as I suspect Pound was guilty of doing in the clottedly dense stuff, in addition to his writing to an increasingly intellectual and educated audience. The two aspects are related, but I submit they are two separate aspects.

In the Canto you quote, Pound is back down to basics, not aiming at writing Great Literature but at actually communicating with his (ordinary) readers ... Perhaps: this one's important to him, it expresses his heart, and he needs people to understand it. And thus he gets back to actual great poetry.

Michael Swanwick said...

All absolutely true. And immensely ironic. Pound was originally and radically in favor of bringing poetry to the masses -- and yet many or even most of the Cantos are incomprehensible without the aid of extremely hard-working scholars.

Where the hell did he go wrong? It was economics that led him to being a traitor in WWII. But he'd already broken with the poet's commitment to communication. Did he really mean to limit his audience to people who (I'm oversimplifying here, I admit) were being paid to understand him? I've never read an explanation of this anywhere.