Monday, May 11, 2009

A Pound of Flesh

In 2005, a rather good film was released to wide acclaim called Diarios de Motocicleta, or The Motorcycle Diaries. It was a dramatization of a journey across the length of South America by Ernesto Guevara, better known to history as "Che" Guevara. This trip helped to shape Guevara into the Marxist revolutionary we all know, or think we know. Many observers, appalled by the popular cult of Che, attacked the film for contributing to the widespread misconception of him as a lover of freedom and hero of the downtrodden; when, in fact, he happened to commit and to inspire various atrocities in the name of Karl Marx. In the film's defense, it makes no attempt to whitewash Che, since his political activism was still many years off when the film's action takes place. And I am a little puzzled at critics of Che who point at his actions during the Castro revolution in Cuba as proof of his bad character. Exactly how do they expect revolutionaries to behave - especially the ones who are committed to radical social change? As the saying goes, you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

I can sympathize with the critics of the Che cult in one respect when I look at the persistent cult of Ezra Pound. Put in historical perspective, Pound (1885-1972) was an important member of the vers libre movement in early 20th-century English poetry - a movement that included T.S. Eliot. Of Pound's poems themselves, Randall Jarrell pondered if a knowledge of all of the obscure languages and references in them would make them any better as poetry. (1)

Whatever the answer, if anything contributed most to the general hatred and suspicion of modern poetry, it was the work of Pound and his minions. As George Orwell put it, "poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of 'Sunday-on-a-weekday.'"(2) In his long career, Pound veered from poetry that is ultimately impenetrable (intentionally, since their meaninglessness is less obvious) to poetry that sounds like Carl Sandburg on hash.

It may sound strange, but I feel certain that Pound's reputation would have a more honest appraisal today had he not been confined to a mental ward for twelve years for his support of fascist Italy during World War II. One indication of my certainty came on 14 February 1949 when Pound was awarded the very first Bollingen Prize for Poetry. The judges who awarded the prize to Pound included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell. They issued the following statement on the occasion:

"To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would in destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest."

The Bollingen judges' objectivity was admirable, I suppose. No mention is made of Pound's guilt or innocence. Aware that their choice of the Pisan Cantos as the finest book of poetry for 1948 would cause controversy, they merely side-stepped the issue by appealing to the perception by which a scoundrel's work can be deemed inviolate.

In 1945, when U.S. military leadership were threatening to shoot Pound if they should capture him, George Orwell, who never cared for Pound's poetry either, observed: "If Ezra Pound is caught and shot by the American authorities, it will have the effect of establishing his reputation as a poet for hundreds of years." (3) The authorities thought better of shooting Pound, but declaring him "insane" at his treason trial not only excused his pro-fascist stunts but had the unfortunate effect of turning him into a victim and thereby arousing sympathetic interest in his poetry.

On the occasion of the Bollingen Prize, the periodical Partisan Review published a number of remarks about Pound, among which was one from Orwell:

"I think the Bollingen Foundation were quite right to award Pound the prize, if they believed his poems to be the best of the year, but I think also that one ought to keep Pound's career in memory and not feel that his ideas are made respectable by the mere fact of winning a literary prize.

Because of the general revulsion against Allied war propaganda, there has been - indeed there was, even before the war was over - a tendency to claim that Pound was 'not really' a fascist and an antisemite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years. Some time ago I saw it stated in an American periodical that Pound only broadcast on the Rome radio when 'the balance of his mind was upset,' and later (I think in the same periodical) that the Italian government had blackmailed him into broadcasting by threats to relatives. All this is plain falsehood. Pound was an ardent follower of Mussolini as far back as the nineteen-twenties, and never concealed it. He was a contributor to Mosley's review, the British Union Quarterly, and accepted a professorship from the Rome government before the war started. I should say that his enthusiasm was essentially for the Italian form of fascism. He did not seem to be very strongly pro-Nazi or anti-Russian, his real underlying motive being hatred of Britain, America and 'the Jews.' His broadcasts were disgusting. I remember at least one in which he approved the massacre of East European Jews and 'warned' the American Jews that their turn was coming presently. These broadcasts - I did not hear them, but only read them in the BBC monitoring report - did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic. Incidentally I am told that in delivering them Pound used to put on a pronounced American accent which he did not normally have, no doubt with the idea of appealing to the isolationists and playing on anti-British sentiment.

None of this is a reason against giving Pound the Bollingen Prize. There are times when such a thing might be undesirable - it would have been undesirable when the Jews were actually being killed in the gas vans, for instance - but I do not think this is one of them. But since the judges have taken what amounts to the 'art for art's sake' position,that is, the position that aesthetic integrity and common decency are two separate things, then at least let us keep them separate and not excuse Pound's political career on the ground that he is a good writer. He may be a good writer (I must admit that I personally have always regarded him as an entirely spurious writer), but the opinions that he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil, ones, and I think that the judges should have said so more firmly when awarding him the prize."

While it is perfectly possible for a great poet to be a contemptible human being (Bertolt Brecht is a good example), it does not do poetry or humanity any good to pretend that the one cancels out the other. Now that Pound has been dead for more than three decades and readers can encounter his work in ignorance of his political antics and his "hospitalization," perhaps his work will find its proper position in anthologies and History of Literature surveys.

(1) Jarrell's views on the "Pound Affair" can be found here:

(2) "Poetry and the Microphone," 1943

(3) "In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse," 1945

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As your friend Orwell once said, "Where's the omelet?"