Today is Ezra Pound’s birthday. Born in Hailey, Idaho, raised in Wyncote, PA, son of an assayer at the Philadelphia Mint, Pound became, in turn: a fledgling scholar of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Provencal poetry — trying to gather a tradition of verse in the Middle Ages that he believed had eluded both medieval scholars and especially modern poets; then, after he was dismissed from his teaching post at a college in Indiana for the impropriety of having an unmarried woman sleep in his room, a wild-haired, sombrero-clad poet and critic who deliberately set out to shock the genteel chamber-room audiences who would come to hear he and W.B. Yeats declaim their verse; then, a champion of modern writing, shepherding T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, H.D., William Carlos Williams, T.E. Hulme, Robert McAlmon, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Frost, George Oppen, Richard Aldington, and dozens if not hundreds of experimental writers into print; then, a pacifist in opposition to the First World War, who watched his friends, including the impossibly talented sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska (who sculpted Pound’s head, and to whom Pound dedicated a book, titled Gaudier-Brzeska), die.
Pound’s great poem about his young adult life, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’s “Ode Pour L’election De Son Sepulchre,” also happens to be, I think, THE great poem about World War I. Bear with me, because I’m going to quote sections IV and V in full:
These fought in any case,
And some believing,
pro domo, in any case…
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria,
non “dulce” not “et decor”…
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
fortitude as never before
frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
Gaudier-Brzeska had died, along with so many, and Joyce had nearly starved, for a culture that Pound felt no longer deserved them.
Unfortunately, Pound’s growing obsession with “usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places” would eventually consume him. He moved to France, writing letters to The Dial about the new experimental writing there, along with photography, architecture, and filmmaking, and eventually to Italy. He wrote extended essays and even a book-length tract on economics, how banks and munitions sellers and the liars who ran newspapers conspired against both the general public and men of real intelligence.
This is why EP is perfect for Matthew Battles and co. at Hilobrow; I can’t think of anyone who was a greater cultural elitist than Pound who simultaneously championed both popular culture (some of his essays on film, especially, are revelatory) and especially the simple lives of ordinary people over and against the economic and political elites who sought to hoodwink and exploit them. Pound’s poetry is rife with this tension. He could almost be called anti-high, anti-low, and anti-middlebrow. I actually think Pound was so influential that this remains today the stance of most poet-intellectuals, especially those who think of themselves as avant-garde.
By the twenties, Pound was already in the middle of producing his long elder poem, The Cantos. Early on, The Cantos sought to serve a function similar to that of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” or Joyce’s Ulysses, reconciling modern life and the new, direct, fragmented writing with classical learning and traditions. Pound in particular was trying to resurrect the epic, but as if Milton had never existed, taking his cues directly from Dante. The poem that would eventually become Canto I (in early drafts, it bats third) is an English translation of part of Andreas Divus’s Latin version of Homer’s Odyssey, transformed into Anglo-Saxon alliterative incantations and trochaic rhythms:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
So far, we’re pretty close to the text, reanimating something of the spirit of Homer (which Pound felt Divus understood, but had been lost in previous English translations). The end, though, breaks the fourth wall:
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.
In the Creatan’s phrase, with the golden crown, Aphrodite,
Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:
In rapid succession, we get a bibliographic aside, a return to translation, untranslated Latin texts, a final evocative image, and a transition that terminates in medias res. The poet who could write perfect pastiches of a dozen polished literary forms decides instead to snap them off and show you their jagged edges.
This is the way Pound tried to rediscover the epic, the form that he characterized as “a poem including history.” Pound wanted to literally include history — facts and people and places, and above all WRITING. He dug through archive stacks in Italy to find original material on Sigismondo Malatesta, a relatively unknown 16th-century Italian nobleman/general who briefly became the hero of Pound’s poem, and incorporated them wholesale into his verse. He did the same with letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, materials that he thought showed the corruption of the American democratic project (through the secret machinations of usurious bankers and politicians, naturally) while it was still in its infancy. For an alternative to the “old bitch gone in the teeth,” he looked to Asia, above all to Confucius and Japanese poetry and drama. Wealthy nobleman with an austere, humanist philosophy, a solid record of artistic patronage, and a flair for theatricality — for Pound, these were the perfect models.
In the 1930s, Pound’s paranoid method reached its summit. His politics were always contrary, and radical. After a brief flirtation with Lenin — which came to an end partly because of Stalin’s repression of poets and partly because EP felt that all Marxists fundamentally misunderstood the nature of money — Pound became a firm supporter of Mussolini and Italian fascism. Mussolini had his faults — but western democracy was a sham (WWI had proved that) and Mussolini liked and supported artists. Short of actually recreating the Italian renaissance or feudal China, Pound would take what he could get.
Pound’s fascism was simultaneously world-historical and deeply local. When he first came to Italy in the twenties, his innkeeper, who was a member of the Fascist party, intervened with the local bureaucrats who had denied Pound access to the Malatesta archives. These were men of action, who knew how to cut through red tape! Particularly for someone as obviously worthy as Pound himself! He met Mussolini and read some of his poetry aloud, in his famous faux-bardic sing-speech style (which was itself a pastiche of Yeats). “Very entertaining,” said Il Duce; Pound convinced himself that this was exactly the appropriate response.
As World War II approached, the Pounds grew nervous. They were classified as resident enemy aliens by the Italian government .Pound even sought asylum in the US or UK, but there was a problem. Pound’s wife, Dorothy Shakespear, was a British citizen, while he was not; what’s more, his lover and longtime companion, the violinist Olga Rudge, would not have been allowed to travel with the Pounds, nor would Pound’s and Rudge’s daughter Mary. (Dorothy had a son, Omar Pound, who was almost certainly not Ezra’s biological son, but that’s another story.) Nor would either country let Dorothy, Olga, or Mary travel without Ezra. Once again, bureaucracy had foiled him.
Pound then did something extraordinarily stupid. Instead of privately grumbling about the stupidity of his government, he took advantage of an invitation to broadcast his views on the radio. For the Italians, there was a clear propaganda value in having a prominent American writer denouncing the American invasion. For Pound, there was the illusion that he was taking real political action, and an audience in front of which he could perform. The broadcasts are a mess; Pound’s brain was always faster than his linguistic skills, and his Italian would slip, juxtaposed with long passages in English where he would perform in different dialects, as different characters — as if he were Orson Welles doing voices for a radio show. He would read poetry and rant about money and bankers and, increasingly, Jews. After the Americans had successfully invaded and captured Italy, Pound buried copies of his books in a neighbor’s yard. Then the American army arrested him for treason.
Pound was kept in a makeshift cell — really, a cage — along with various military prisoners, in Pisa, Italy. Some of them were captured officers in the Italian army, while others were American soldiers, mostly deserters. Pound, as an American traitor who had been collaborating with the Italian government, split the difference between the two. He was only able to keep with him a few possessions — a Chinese dictionary, and some notes he had been preparing for new Cantos.
But first, he had a different project. He felt his sanity slipping away. He had to understand what had happened to him — what had happened to everyone caught in the hairpin failure of European politics and culture. And he was legitimately afraid that at any time, he could be tried, convicted, and summarily hanged. He wanted to write down everything he knew, anything he could remember. Somehow he secured a pen; the first drafts of what would become The Pisan Cantos were written on toilet paper.
As he’d slipped into paranoia and prejudice, the Cantos themselves increasingly appeared to be a failed project. The Pisan Cantos redeems it. Instead of a failed epic about heroism, it becomes a heroic epic of failure — in particular, Pound’s failure. Freed from his archived arguments over the First Bank of the United States, Pound is able to reach deeper, into the archives of his memory, uncovering the piths and gists of Greek myths, Confucius, Ovid, and Dante — but also his physical memories of villages he had seen, women he had loved, stories Eliot told, songs Joyce would sing, jokes William Carlos Williams told him while they were still in college together at Penn. It’s a multi-vocal piece, almost a canon, where multiple threads overlap and intersect. Sometimes the strands are cued by simple graphic clues, indentation or stanza breaks, but more often left for the reader to disentangle (my quotes below lose some of this typographic subtlety — silly HTML). You read, and watch a man who is simultaneously at the height of his writerly virtuosity, and physically and mentally falling apart — and registering that he is doing so.
The most heartbreaking is Canto LXXXI. This is its conclusion.
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
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,
Pull down thy vanity,
Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.
“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
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.
But to have done instead of not doing
This is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
this is not vanity.
Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered …
In order to avoid hanging or prison, Pound was committed to the St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in New Jersey. There he was visited by writers, both old friends and young aspirants. Despite the end to which he seemed to come, Pound’s relentless experimentation, his championing of other writers, and above all his writings made him a hero and model to poets of the younger generation. To one of these, a young Allen Ginsberg, Pound confessed: “My worst mistake was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” He’d largely exasperated and embarassed his modernist contemporaries, who were willing to speak for his freedom but otherwise wanted little to do with him. For other poets, less young or radical, especially those who were politically moderate to liberal but conservative in their writing, Pound confirmed both the political dangers and inherent aesthetic insanity of modernist writing. The Pisan Cantos, on publication, would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948 — a scandal, even for such an undeniable book. It was the last great literary work of Anglo-American high modernism; within a year, a Poundian poet named Charles Olson would begin using the word “postmodern” to name what was on its way, in poetry, the arts, and the broader culture.
Pound himself lived until November 1, 1972 — just two days after his 87th birthday. For long stretches, he would not speak, only write. He even returned to Italy, to live with his daughter Mary, who had married Prince Boris de Rachewiltz. Mary’s mother Olga Rudge, the love of Pound’s life, lived with them, too, caring for Ezra and working as his secretary. She died in 1996, 100 years old. Mary, still living, helped secure Pound’s papers, which are now at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; she remains very much the keeper of the Pound legacy. Which is enormous — there’s a reason why former dean of modernist scholars Hugh Kenner titled his best book The Pound Era.
Happy birthday, Ezra. For all of your faults, which were real and deep, you gathered a live tradition from the air, and returned it to us. And that is not vanity.