Today I am reposting this reflection on the true heritage of Ezra Pound, Cantos from a cage, which I originally posted in April 2018.
I have borrowed from the local library, Daniel Swift The Bughouse: the poetry, politics and madness of Ezra Pound (2017) that tries “to make our peace, as best we can, with this difficult man” by telling the story of Pound’s salon at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital, where he was treated and detained in the 1950s after his trial for treason, in which he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity.
More than that I have resolved to make study in depth this year or this quarter of Ezra Pound, as part of a new habit of studying a writer in depth, and not always floating over the surface of things. So, I hope to learn to sing out of the cages of my life, some greater cantos.
Cantos from a cage
What thou lovest well remains,the rest is drossWhat thou lov’st well shall not be reft from theeWhat thou lov’st well is thy true heritageWhose world, or mine or theirsor is it of none?First came the seen, then thus the palpableElysium, though it were in the halls of hell,What thou lovest well is thy true heritageWhat thou lov’st well shall not be reft from theeFrom Ezra Pound Canto LXXXI
If modernism was a kind of Renaissance of this last century, as the critic Peter Craven intimates, then Ezra Pound is surely one of the greatest and most troubling figures of these dying generations, this botched civilisation.
His poetry reaches across cultures and centuries like a prophet in a tower. He is the great progenitor, whose heritage is stained by both his politics and his madness.
Overshadowing his poetic achievements – and the magnificent difficult music of the Cantos – are his failures as a man of judgement. Broadcaster for Mussolini. Convicted traitor, but spared by a sentence of insanity. Caged outside Pisa, where in the arid ruins of Europe, he sang the broken magnificent threnodies, the defiant laments of Canto LXXXI: what thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee.
Here is Pound himself reading from this most enduring Pisan canto. Unlike so many poets, Pound’s voice gives an extraordinary timbre to his lines, a shaking echo of suffering.
And then there is the great controversy of his stay in St Elizabeth’s lunatic asylum. Was he mad? Was he bad? Was his poetry the mind of poison or of greatness? Strange that Pound should not be a symbol of the language of madness in Foucault’s histories. Was the salon he kept an indulgence? Were the poets who gathered around him, and forgave him his misjudgements, naive fools, willing traitors, unwitting collaborators with the atrocities of antisemitism?
What do I learn from Pound? Neither acclaim nor ostracism can extinguish the voice. Neither tradition nor its breaking can constrain the voice. Neither madness nor politics can define the voice. Out of the cages of our lives, we sing our greatest cantos.
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.
Ezra Pound from Canto CXVI