The story of Ezra Pound’s mind cannot be told in plain and simple affirmations. Three twisted trees grow from this mind in all accounts: poetry, unavowable politics, and madness. They stand tangled and tragic in a strange, haunted copse that very few today will see as an holy trinity. The iconoclasts of today’s fanatical cancel churches do not need to come to burn this copse down – Pound was canceled decades ago, if in the more tolerant ways of the last years of the dying generations of literary scholarship. But still, no-one can stand at this decaying copse today without exorcising the ghosts of Pound’s fascist politics (if we accept that term for now), his anti-semitic furies, and his contempt for demotic culture.
‘All things are a flowing,Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
Sage Hercleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall outlast our days.”
Every critic or reader must ask, sometimes with shuffling feet and wringing hands, sometimes with deep remorse and wretchedness:
– Can we admire Pound’s poetry without shame for his politics?
– Can we excuse Pound’s treason as the price of his madness?
– Can we celebrate Pound’s genius without the stain of his disordered and unwanted ideas?
– Can we form one true, beautiful song from the great rambling fragments and documents of the Cantos?
It is almost as if Pound embodies the spirit of Antonin Artaud, in his archetypal madness, and the thought of Theodor Adorno that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Yet Pound did write such poetry in the Cantos; is it a record of barbarism or civilization or like all art, both? Daniel Swift works through the wake of Pound’s trial for treason and his madness, its reverberation in a circle of post-war American poets from the Ezraversity of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in his Bughouse: the poetry, politics and madness of Ezra Pound (2017). At times he moves us to look beyond the exorcised ghosts and find a way to come to terms with this great troubador. But his treatment never quite reaches to the greatest heights of tragic biography. As Peter Craven has written:
“The trouble is that The Bughouse is constantly outgrowing its own status as a work of interpretation without quite turning into the thing it might be – a biography which is also a work of intrinsic literary quality. What we tend to get is a kind of travelogue and personal journey into the environs of Pound’s incarceration.”Peter craven, “Old Master, Old Monster: The Bughouse by Daniel Swift“
Over the last month I have tried a new practice of focusing in depth on a single writer over a month, or however so long it takes, and Ezra Pound has been my writer of the month. I have long taken casual glimpses at Pound as if in a literary dream, as in my post Cantos from a Cage, and yet it has only been over this last month that I have made my way through many of the Cantos and Pound’s other better known longer poems.
In reading Pound’s Cantos I have found a shattered memory book of a loved heritage after a storm of destruction. The great fascination of the Pisan Cantos, in particular, is how they hold the story of his art, his beauty, his grandeur, his pettiness, his madness and his unawowable, yet not betrayed, politics.. Ira Nadel in Ezra Pound: a literary life (2004) writes:
‘The Pisan Cantos is Pound’s memory book decoding and recoding his past in a kind of quest for internal harmony in the face of destruction.”
The ordeal of detention in a metal cage on the plains outside Pisa, in the shadow of an imagined Taishan, makes Pound’s story that of an artist who has endured great suffering for indeed furious hatred. J.M Coetzee admired how Pound endured “exile, obscure labour and obloquy for his art”, and I in my more self-dramatising moments identify with the same struggle as an outcast and a wanderer out of temper with his times. And can we forgive Pound his political misjudgements – in these times when the degradation of the American republic is even clearer; when the collapse of our culture more imminent; and ostracism for errant words is the new black? After all, which poet of any political stripe ever really exercised sound judgement in matters of state?
But it is the fragmentary and documentary nature of the Cantos that makes it both an extraordinary testimony, and a strange and difficult text to read. It is a strange mix of visionary poetry, diary, reminiscences, texts of world literature, texts of daily life. Pound breathes beauty into all these fragments like the divine furies, or perhaps merely like the wind that will be how we all leave this life.
Donald Hall recalls meeting Pound in the late 1950s, and Pound greeting him with a declamation: “Mr Hall, you find me in fragments.’ (It is worth watching Hall’s vivid, loving and regretful recollection of his meetings with Pound that can be viewed here and here.) So Pound echoed the great nineteenth century essayist of America, Ralph Waldo Emerson – who Pound did inherit after all – who said, somewhere I have not recorded, “I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.”
In his latter years, after his return to Italy, Pound deliberately fell into a deep perhaps prophetic and willed silence. Perhaps he had lost the electricity that he had as a young man espoused as the true hallmark of great art. Perhaps he protected himself from further exposure of unsoundness of mind. Perhaps he created, ever the impresario, a supreme fiction of the poet prophet in exile from language itself. Yet still in the late Cantos, Pound would wander among dross and rants, then seemingly stagger out towards shafts of beautiful light. Here, to conclude this post, is the last will and testament of Ezra Pound from the last completed Canto of them all Canto CXVI:
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
Many errors,Ezra Pound, Canto CXVI
a little rightness,
to excuse his hell
and my paradise
As to why they go wrong,
thinking of rightness
And as to who will copy this palimpsest?
al poco giorno
ed al grem cerchio d’ombra
But to affirm the gold thread in the pattern
el Vicolo d’oro
To confess wrong without losing rightness
Charity I have had sometimes,
I cannot make it flow thru,
A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.
Thank you, il miglior fabbro. And good night, sweet ladies, good night.