Ezra Pound: One to be reckoned with

I begin with a review (published in the Times Literary Supplement 15/4/16) of Ezra Pound Posthumous Cantos edited by Massimo Bacigalupo (220 pp. Carcanet, £14.99), after which I will add further comments on the thorny subject of Ezra.

Ezra Pound was an Imagist, later a Vorticist (an Imagist animated, energized) who aspired to write a long poem – ‘really LONG, endless, leviathanic’. This was a contradiction he thought he could resolve by the method he called ‘presentative’. ‘Beauty should be presented, never explained.’ That’s why the early attempts to begin The Cantos that occupy the first 20 or so pages of this book were excluded and re-written – because they were explanatory, expository, discursive.

Hang it all there can be but one Sordello!
But say I want to, say I take your whole bag of tricks,
Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art form,
Your Sordello, and that the modern world
Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in;
Say that I dump my catch, shiny and silvery
As fresh sardines flapping and slipping on the marginal cobbles...

These sections, addressed to ‘Bob Browning’, argued at length (against ‘sulk[ing] and leav[ing] the word to novelists’) the case for ‘the long poem’. But Pound didn’t want to argue the case – he wanted to do the job, and so these opening Cantos were dropped.

What this collection offers are not strictly speaking posthumous Cantos, but off-cuts, deletions, passages removed from the on-going never-ending (except in exhaustion and defeat) work that was The Cantos; and on the other hand, passages which popped up in Pound’s notebooks, clearly related to the current work, but finding no exact place where they could be fitted in and made to look at home. They are, then, a mixed bag – but so are the ‘finished’ Cantos.

The book’s successive section headings show how we move with Pound from ‘London 1915-1917’, to ‘Paris 1920-1922’, to ‘Rapallo and Venice 1928-1937’; then ‘Voices of War 1940-1945’, ‘Italian Drafts 1944-1945’, and ‘Pisa 1945’. Section VII, ‘Prosaic Verses 1945-60’, is largely from his period in St Elizabeths Hospital for the insane (Washington D.C.) where he was committed for 12 years, thus avoiding a trial for treason; and finally ‘Lines for Olga 1962-1972’ from his final years with Olga Rudge in Rapallo and Venice. Those headings are also a reminder of how, despite his serious internationalism, and his commitment to history and to the received European culture, Pound’s poetry never escaped entirely from place, location, the immediate and particular, and the perceptions of the senses.

Pound’s scholarship was always amateurish, excitable, every discovery a gem he felt needed to be made known at once, fitted into the growing picture which, once grasped by someone like the President of the United States, to whom he more than once appealed directly, would save the world – economically, practically and spiritually. But that ‘presentative method’, which he was quite strict about imposing on himself, meant that nothing could be explained. There is a kind of purity (it could even be called innocence) about this, which works poetically, but can make The Cantos seem indeterminate and ineffectual. The discoveries are tossed before us without connecting material or explanatory argument. It’s as if he’s saying constantly ‘as I’m sure you’re aware’, or ‘you will recall’, as he puts down some obscure discovery from the dustiest archives. The nearer Pound was to a major library (the Vatican was a favourite) the drearier the Cantos became. The material on Sigismondo Malatesta, 15th Century lord of Rimini, intended for one Canto grew to four; American Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Van Buren, illustrating something economically ‘significant’ or politically ‘important’, choke the work like a dust storm in a desert. There are some beautiful reliefs from this tedious excess of fact (Canto 39, for example, and then 47 and 49); but as the years go by they become fewer.

During World War II Pound, still an American citizen but permanently resident in Italy, broadcast on behalf of Mussolini’s regime; and it is hardly too much to say that one of the greatest services the advancing US Army did to world literature was to put Pound in a wire cage in their Detention Centre at Pisa (pending trial in Washington for the capital offence of treason) and deprive him of access to books. He had brought with him (being Ezra) his Confucius in a bilingual edition; and he came upon an anthology of English poetry in a toilet block. Otherwise he was on his own. The Pisan Cantos are the triumph they are partly because he was all at once dependent on what was already contained and processed in his head (including memories of a rich literary life), together with what was going on around him – the talk of fellow-American inmates and camp guards, the flora and fauna, the skies and weathers, of the Tuscan landscape.

Professor of English and American literature at the University of Genoa, Massimo Bacigalupo, son of Pound’s physician in Rapallo and of an American mother, is uniquely qualified to write of, and to edit, Pound, who spent so much of his life in Italy, immersed in Italian language, life, culture and politics. In addition to supplying an introduction, and useful but discreetly brief notes for all sections, Bacigalupo has translated the drafts Pound wrote in Italian which have not been available in English except in scholarly articles – none of them as rebarbative as Cantos 72 and 73, the Italian Cantos which for a long time Pound’s executors would not permit to be published in English. (Canto 73 is the one containing Pound’s crowing account of the pretty young woman Fascist who led Canadian soldiers – ‘canaille’ he calls them – into a minefield, killing twenty of them and herself.)

In the present selection the Italian drafts are offered in both languages. Many of the same ideas, images and illustrations that appear in these were to reappear in The Pisan Cantos, which helps to explain why the latter came forth so readily, hand written after Pound was removed from the cage to a tent in the medical compound, and typed up at night when he was permitted to use the camp dispensary’s typewriter. The old obsessions, good and bad, are there – usury, the olive groves on that hill-slope above Rapallo, his historical touchstones (including Malatesta), and the darting back and forth between the dark present and its often luminous, or at least illuminating, past.

There is much less of the cranky Pound in this collection, less of the bore, the irrational anti-Semite, the savage, and much more of the aesthete, the man whose editorial skill turned The Waste Land (as Eliot said) from ‘a jumble of good and bad passages into a poem’; more in fact of the poetic Modernist. Sometimes the dark and the light come mysteriously together:

Now I remember that you built me a special gorilla cage
              and that the foetor of Roosevelt
                        stank through the shitpile that succeeded him

                        moon bright like water
                        water like sky
usury, monopoly, changing the currency

More often there is regret for folly, and gratitude to the women who had sustained him, as in these lines recording his return to his beloved Genoa after his 12 year incarceration:

The trees in mist hold their beauty
I have been a pitiless stone –
                                        stone making art works
and destroying affections.
Till suddenly the tower
                                        blazed with the light of Astarte
@ Genova the port lay below us
Miracolo di Dio
                    ch’amor riceve
                                    né la calunnia
                                                    né l’invidia te toca.

[O miracle of God who receives love, neither calumny nor envy touches you.]

There are many tributes to Olga Rudge whose patience outlasted his wife’s, and who was the companion of his final years; and the image comes and goes of that ‘salita’ – the hill path, through olive groves, from Rapallo up to St Ambrogio where Olga’s house figures in The Cantos as ‘Circe’s ingle’:

Flood & flame
thru the long years
                         by night & hill-path
great courage in frail frame
toughened by four decades
of climbing thru dark
                         on the hill paths,
knowing each stone
almost as if by name.
But against the mounting evils
she held the will toward good.
Her clear lucidity
that she saw the Duce with level eyes

The book under review contains essentially the same material as Bacigalupo’s Canti Posthumi published in Italian in 2002. It is a ‘selection from [...] abundant material based on criteria of quality, accessibility, and documentary interest.’ There is, then, an element of preference comes into the choices made. If you had read nothing of Pound and sampled this selection you might conclude that he was a nature poet, a love poet, a man with some significant and eccentric grasp of history, given to technical experiment in poetry; a loving man of extraordinary sensibility and finesse.

He was all of those things of course. He was also an exceptional literary intelligence, obsessive, and from time to time more than slightly mad.

That was the review published in the T.L.S. issue of 15 April 2016.

My interest in Pound’s work followed inevitably from my work long ago on T.S. Eliot. You can’t study Eliot without considering the hand Pound had in the making of The Waste Land and Eliot’s continuing loyalty and gratitude to the poet he called il miglior fabbro (the superior craftsman). You could not be a serious literary historian of poetry in the 20th century without making room for Pound; and in fact I would add that every serious poet throughout those years had to make some kind of accommodation with his poetry, his poetic theories, and his bossily brilliant critical writings. Yet the Fascist Pound, the Social Credit fanatic, the supporter of Mussolini, the wildly eccentric and madly opinionated letter-writer, and above all the anti-Semite, made it difficult, and sometimes embarrassing.

If you want to get a feel for the poetic precision and delicacy he was capable of, look at his translations from the Chinese, published as Cathay, and also in Canto 49; or his Latin translations, Homage to Sextus Propertius. In works like that the material comes from the poet being translated, and Pound’s presence is manifest in getting the language right, quite unaffected by his personal persuasions and obsessions. Of course there is a buoyancy, sprightliness, energy which are recognizably his – but that is in the language and is the best of Pound, while the crankiness is left at the door.

The wind bundles itself into a bluish cloud and wanders off

...with that music playing,
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high it was all over the heavens,
And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars, or rain.

Those lines are from Cathay; and from Propertius:

The twisted rhombs ceased their clamour of accompaniment;
The scorched laurel lay in the fire-dust;
The moon still declined to descend out of heaven,
But the black ominous owl-hoot was audible.
One raft bears our fates
                                     On the veiled lake towards Avernus
Sails spread on Cerulean waters.

As I say in the review above, there are vast boredoms in The Cantos; but there are treasures too, and you have to know where to find them. More than once I have read that massive work right through from beginning to end over several days, not stopping to puzzle over anything, taking it all as it comes, the good with the bad, just to get a proper sense of his ‘presentative method’ – where it works, where it doesn’t, and why. My one book on this subject, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (published in both the U.S. and the U.K., and which I still have not re-read since it appeared in 1986) is rare, or was at the time, in the sense that it tried to discriminate clearly between the good and the bad in Pound. Pound studies tended to be conducted by advocates. These good people, most of them serious scholars, usually employed as academics, attended Pound conferences where it was rare to hear a harsh word against ‘Ol’ Ez’, and where references to anti-Semitism and Fascism were muted or absent. Sometimes his daughter Mary de Rachewiltz was present; and once the conference was held at her castle in Brunnenberg. The atmosphere was always slightly defensive. Others (outsiders) who spoke or wrote of Pound were mostly detractors. There is, or there used to be, a wide gap in the middle between detractors and defenders, which in my book I tried to fill.

After a period in London and then Paris in the 1920s, Pound, who came from Hailey, Idaho, made his home in Rapallo on the Italian Mediterranean coast – a beautiful location, but somewhat remote from the world he wanted to be part of. I visited it first in 1972 when held the Mansfield-Menton Fellowship, and in the early 1980s when I was working on my book. I attended Pound conferences there and got to know Professor Massimo Bacigalupo, editor of the book reviewed above, son of Pound’s doctor and grandson of his pharmacist. The Bacigalupo family have had a series ofsmall yachts called Vagabonde I, II and III. Pound was taken sailing on the first of these and Massimo, a teenager at the time, remembers him well. Massimo lives up in the hills just above Rapallo, and commutes each working day along to the University of Genoa where he is Professor of English and American literature.

Pound had a kind of informal ‘son-in-law’ (or son-not-in-law) connection with W.B. Yeats, having married Dorothy, the daughter of Yeats’s long-time mistress (as she would have been called then) Olivia Shakespeare. In his officious and self-important way the young Pound had ‘taken the older Yeats in hand’, wanting to ‘modernise’ him as a poet. Yeats had allowed this just as far as suited him and no further. The influence was significant; but Yeats saw the dangers. With Pound’s help he worked on making his tone and language match the 20th century world, sweeping away the fin de siècle languors and Celtic Twilight vapours; but he always observed strict form and structure which was where he felt Pound was lacking. In his book A Vision (mentioned in an earlier post about the sonnets) he has a section written in Rapallo where he describes Pound as a man ‘whose art is the opposite of mine, whose criticism commends what I most condemn, and with whom I would quarrel more than with anyone else if we were not united by affection.’

At some time in the 1920s Pound began his long term association with Olga Rudge, though the marriage to Dorothy continued. So his life was lived, as he says somewhere, ‘between a door and a door’ – one door to his top floor apartment on the Rapallo seafront, the other up the hill at Sant Ambrogio, where Olga lived in a house that was partly a small factory for pressing olives. The long walking path up to it through the olive groves was (and is) called the Salita Sant Ambrogio. It’s a steep climb, with the view back to the town and the Bay of Tigullio growing more beautiful at each stage. The house that was Olga’s is now marked with a plaque that refers not to her but to Pound, and the road up there is named after him. A passageway on the seafront also records his years of living in the town.

Olga and Ezra produced one child, a daughter, Mary. She was bizarrely farmed out to be fostered by peasants in the mountains of the Italian Tyrol; but each summer Pound and Olga would come and take her on holiday to Venice. Mary has written a book about this extraordinary childhood, Discretions. I once had lunch with her and Massimo and Angela Bacigalupo in the Bacigalupos’ garden (see photograph) and afterwards she drove me, at breakneck speed, back down the winding road into town. I had brought with me a copy of her book which Kay and I had given daughter Charlotte in 1984 (then 17, now Charlotte Grimshaw), and I asked Mary, since it was a book about her poet father, to inscribe it. She wrote in it

Thank you Charlotte for reading,
and getting your father to read,
my “old” book.
Mary de Rachewiltz,
Rapallo, 14 July 1993.

The Bacigalupos’ garden above Rapallo. L-R: Professor Massimo Bacigalipo, Mary de Rachewiltz (Ezra Pound’s daughter), C.K. Stead, and Angela Bacigalupo.

When the war came Ezra made regular visits to Rome where he recorded his broadcasts in English. They were supposed to be in support of the Axis side, but were so peculiar and full of the kind of political-economic-historical material with which The Cantos are over-supplied, some Government officials wondered whether he might really be an American spy broadcasting in code. After the Allied invasion of Italy, Pound trekked north to the Tyrol to explain to Mary, now a young adult, about his marriage to Dorothy and his relationship with her mother, Olga. I’m no longer exactly sure what happened next, but at some point late in the war the Germans moved Ezra and Dorothy out of their seafront apartment and, lacking anywhere else to go, they moved in with Olga up at Sant Ambrogio. There are differing accounts of how this worked. They had very little money and lacked food. Olga records that they were ‘civilised’ in their dealing with one another; Mary says the two women hated one another. Pound was there when U.S. forces arrived. Partisans arrested him and handed him over to the Americans, with the consequences indicated in my review. So The Pisan Cantos were born.

Back in Washington and arraigned for treason, he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, and incarcerated. He was not insane of course; but the idea of executing a major American poet was an embarrassment, and Pound had to accept that he’d got off lightly. When The Pisan Cantos was awarded the Bollingen Prize there was outrage. Pound went on writing and holding court in his asylum ward and in the hospital grounds for twelve years, still pushing on with The Cantos, still making the same old mistakes. Released at last, he returned at once to Rapallo. As the ship entered the harbour at Naples he was photographed giving the Fascist salute. I suppose he didn’t want anyone to think he had softened or changed his ground.

I have sometimes sailed with Massimo Bacigalupo in Vagabonde III; and together we once hunted for, and found the site, in the countryside outside Pisa, of the U.S. Army detention centre where Pound was held. There is no sign of it now; but an elderly country woman told us how as a child she had seen the American prisoners and their guards behind the barbed wire and heard the shouted orders from the parade ground. In the distance we could see the Leaning Tower. It was here Pound began to learn humility, to recognize fault in himself, and to put it on record.

What thou lovest well remains,
                                 The rest is dross
What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
                    Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry.
The green casque has outdone your elegance.
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst ‘ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
                    How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
                    Pull down thy vanity
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity
Pull down thy vanity
                    I say pull down.

In his last years Pound lamented of The Cantos, ‘I cannot make it cohere’. He stopped writing, and for the most part stopped talking. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited him in Venice. In a hesitant conversation he told Ginsberg and his friend Michael Reck, ‘At seventy I realized that instead of being a lunatic I was a moron.’ He said his whole project had been spoiled by bad intentions. ‘But the worst mistake I made was the stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.’

Of The Cantos he said, ‘Basil Bunting told me there was too little presentation and too much reference.’ If I had read that at the time I was writing my book on him I might have used it as an epigraph, because it is the whole drift of my argument and analysis – that it’s the overweight of reference, of research, of ‘discoveries’, that swamps and conceals the wonderful clarity, the vision and energy, which nonetheless surface at intervals, and not only in the Pisan sequence.

Ginsberg asked whether Pound would accept the blessing of a ‘Jewish Buddhist’. Ezra hesitated, but then agreed, and was blessed.

In 1965, when T.S. Eliot died, Pound, who always referred to T.S.E. as ‘Old Possum’, came to London for the memorial service and was to be seen, old and wrinkled but still bright-eyed, scuttling in and out of Westminster Abbey where it was held. He asked, ‘Who is there now to share a joke with?’ By now the marriage to Dorothy was long over and he spent his last years with Olga who survived him. He died in 1972 and was buried in Venice.

– C.K. Stead

(This blog will also appear in my new book, Shelf Life: reviews, replies and reminiscences, to be published by Auckland University Press on 21 June, 2016.)