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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Uncle Ezra Homewrecker

Aggiornamento: 16 mar

A.K.Trevathan said that Ezra Pound “represents an extreme version of the role of expatriation within twentieth-century literature”. In everyday speak, Uncle Ezra, was top banana of the transplanted writers bunch.  He went all the way and then some, camping decades in Italy. Before dying in Venice in 1972, he said of the country of his birth, “All America is a lunatic asylum.” He left England irked at not having turned it into literary scorched earth. Why hadn’t the greybeards pressed his rabble-rousing to their bosoms? “Make it new,” he told them, but the accursed chimes of tradition drowned him out.

Pound is a  posthumous hero in Venice. His Easter-Island  head glowers in the Cini Art Collection on the isle of San Giorgio Maggiore and his wept-over grave on San Michele is often beflowered. However, the Italian memorial that truly reflects his hodgepodge of views is Casa Pound Italia (CPI), a talking shop of Fascist detritus that squeaks its confusion like Mighty Mouse into the Third Millennium, Viva il duce-poeta!

On arrival in London in 1908, Pound did the expat thing and lost the pulse of his  birthplace. Not that he ever got very intimate with Italy, the country of his eventual choice. He replaced it with a scrapbook of his skewered erudition, all drama, high art and heroism. Picking shiny cherries from the centuries, he assembled a patchwork fantasy. It was far from the place where Italians, ancient or modern, lived, and more a ginned-up “Thing of rags and patches” as sung by Nanki-Poo, the Wandering Minstrel of The Mikado.

The historicism of dear Ol’ Ez worked like this. Sigismondo Malatesta was a 15th-century ruler of Rimini. He supported the arts. Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922. Pound liked his condottiere allure and the fact that he promised to support the arts. In 1923 Pound published the Malatesta  Cantos, 8-11 in his river-long meander of a poem that would number 117 Cantos on 800 pages. He skimmed over the Rimini tyrant’s doings when not busy promoting art and ignored Jacob Burckhardt’s remarks. The historian had noted Malatesta’s “disinterested love of evil…of murder, rape, adultery, incest, sacrilege, perjury, and treason, committed not once but often.”

In 1921 Pound took his expat show from London  to Paris where 4 years of avant-garde exertions would play havoc with his nerves.  He then moved to the quiet of Rapallo, il Bel Paese as rest cure. From Italy, Pound kept his finger in the pie of modernist writing, for which he could claim to have lit the oven in London. Generous and domineering, he continued to edit and advise some of the most remarkable writers of the era. In his bromance with T.S. Eliot, Pound was Brer Rabbit while the the Missouri-born expat in London was Possum.

In his isolation at Rapallo, Pound brooded on Social Credit, the economic doctrine that had caught his fancy and on Fascism, the authoritative governance that he thought would best go with it. He fired violent missiles across the Atlantic on what those not always reliable ghosts, the Founding Fathers, actually had in mind a century and a half before. In Ezra’s psychodrama Thomas Jefferson became Benito Mussolini, John Adams, a help, Quincy Adams a hinderance, Martin Van Buren, yes, Alexander Hamilton, no, right down to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, whom Pound, his rhetoric gone rotten, called “that brute Rosefield” and “Franklin D. Frankfurter Jewsfeld.”

Pound embraced anti-Semitism that on a lucid Sunday he would call “a stupid, suburban prejudice” but for the rest of the week was his default rant. He heated up the century’s casual demeaning of the Jews to a genocidal temperature. In Pound’s radio broadcasts of 1941-45 from Rome during WWII, he attacked the United States head on, praised the Axis leaders and, in a word, by any standard, committed treason. His 110 scripts didn’t by a long shot substantiate his eventual claim that he had seen Fascism as an attempt at social betterment, simply another benign dream of utopia that failed. After his arrest he could still say:

“Hitler and Mussolini were simple men from the country. I think that Hitler was a Saint, and wanted nothing for himself. I think that he was fooled into anti-Semitism and it ruined him. That was his mistake. When you see the mess that Italy gets into by bumping off Mussolini, you will see why someone could believe in some of his efforts.”

The U.S. forces held Pound in a prison camp near Pisa in 1945. He surmounted a nervous breakdown there and wrote The Pisan Cantos (74-84), some of his best poetry.

The Pisan clouds are undoubtedly various

            and splendid as any I have seen since

at Scudder’s Falls on the Schuylkill

       by which stream I seem to recall a feller

settin’ in a rudimentary shack doin’ nawthin’

              not fishin’, just watchin’ the water,

        a man of about forty-five

        nothing counts save the quality of the affection

The language salad of The Cantos, which quotes from a dozen languages and includes Chinese ideograms, would not surprise some 19th-century book-reading Americans. It had after all been discussed among the Founding Fathers whether ancient Greek be adopted as the official language of the new republic. Libraries and college buildings of the day often had references to the great world cultures cut into their stone fronts. A town hardly bigger than a village might boast reminders of Maya Civilisation, Minoan Crete, Imperial China or the Pyramids at Giza. This was simply New World universalism. The United States had been born to Enlightenment values. But unlike France or England it had no weighty past to determine its relation to other cultures. The wide world and all its history was fair game for an American poet from Hailey, Idaho, born in 1885.

The inevitable question arises whether we can separate the man from the artist, his crimes from his artefacts. In Pound’s case, a library full of debate hasn’t produced a clear answer. But we can follow events. Pound was returned to the USA where he was declared not competent enough to stand trial. He would be confined, in no great discomfort, for the next 12 1/2 years in St.Elizabeths  hospital for the criminally insane, in Washington, D.C.

So much for the man, Ezra Pound. As for the poet, he had first published, aged 11, in 1896 in the Jenkintown Pennsylvania Times-Chronicle. His limerick took a swipe at William Jennings Bryan, who had just lost the presidential election.

There was a young man from the West,

He did what he could for what he thought best;

           But election came round;

           He found himself drowned,

And the papers will tell you the rest.

America couldn’t hold Pound. Young and arrogant,  he  found  the cultural air too thin, too remote from the universalism that filled his head. He sought high culture in London. To begin with, his efforts against the literary establishment were misconceived. He would explain in the  third person in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

For three years, out of key with his time,

He strove to resuscitate the dead art

Of poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’

In the old scene.  Wrong from the start--

No, hardly, but seeing he had been born

In a half-savage country, out of date;

Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;

Capaneus; trout for factitious bait;….

The age demanded chiefly a mould in plaster.

However, Pound’s bustling in and out of the British Museum, did create connections that would afterward make him central to what was new in the arts. He got to know everyone who would count from the heights of William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis down to the publishers of small but influential reviews.

Moreover, London was his first real taste of how universalism felt up close and not merely portrayed on the front of public buildings. There was already a lively interest in ancient Chinese poetry. Pound plunged into its study and was soon writing poems that re-worked 8th-century Chinese gems. He never claimed they were translations, knew no Chinese and depended on  sketchy cribs. But in these ancient lyrics of China he found what would lay the groundwork for modernism and kill off  Victorian poetasting for good.

19th-century poets had still been working with the Renaissance model derived from the Greek and Roman classics. The Chinese sidestepped the epic or heroic and spoke in whispers through images. They forsook decoration and aimed at verbal concision. Above all, their poetry had a music of its own and did without metrics. Pound believed that  their ideograms got closer to live experience than our words.

His own, A Station of the Metro of 1913 would point the way:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

It echoes his rendering of

Ts’ai Chi’h

The petals fall in the fountain,

     the orange coloured rose-leaves,

Their ochre clings to the stone.

After going sour on London the poet took his vers libre on a leash to Paris. When he had soiled that garden with his truculence it was the turn of Rapallo where he continued to oink like a pig while writing like some winged creature—don’t say angel— high over the farmyard of Italy.

Pound left what he called the St.Elizabeths bughouse in 1958. Influential figures had  obtained his release. But he was stripped of his rights of U.S. citizenship and ordered never to return. The man  of rancour and the  exquisite poet teamed up again to produce the old confusion. On his arrival in Naples, he greeted the press corps with a Fascist salute. From then on Uncle Ezra led seekers after coherence a merry chase. When he answered his door in Venice to admirers from afar, he would flash a broad smile and say, not hello,  but, “I’m senile.

In the morning he would be the same old Jew-hating, fire-breathing Nazifascist.  After lunch he was simply a depressed old man, craving silence and a nap without dreams. In the evening, between sessions of beating vehemence out of his 1930s drum, he would put the sticks aside and confess that nothing he had done had value and that no one had been more mistaken. A vice-chairman of  Faber and Faber met the poet in London in 1965. He asked Pound about publishing selective Cantos and thought the old man mumbled, “Why not publish them all?” But Pound spoke up and corrected him, “Why not abolish them all?

In the end we have the poems. They are more often than not free of anything vile. In the juggernaught of The Cantos, however, there is evidence of what Steven Willett called them, “the brittle, jumbled, inhumane, monomaniacal, and spiritually desiccated work of a very limited, but fatally authoritarian mind.”

On the other hand—and with Pound there are always two hands—“The Cantos”, says David Moody, “is a music of the whole mind at work.”   

Donald Davie added, “Anyone may be excused for deciding that life is too short for coming to terms with The Cantos: but if we make that decision we thereby disqualify ourselves from having any opinion worth listening to, about the poetry in English of this century.”

A middle course would be to go along with Basil Bunting’s, On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos:

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?

They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,

jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,

et l'on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.

Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round

if you want to avoid them.

It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,

fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

Unless you are a reader like Michael Alexander. He grew weary of Ol’ Ez astride his astral cracker barrel, chewing the rag with the super-refined and the odd demigod. Whether the man could be separated from the poet—who cared? Blowhard and aesthete together were brought down to earth:

Ezra Pound

Got around:

     He was born in Hailey

     But he was buried in San Michele

not the terzο cielo

but socially meglio.

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