Kulchur and Politics
Ezra Pound Made New

By Norman MacAfee | After Walt Whitman, chronologically, the next great American poet seems to me to be Ezra Pound C’05 G’06. He is the most original and fascinating of American writers. His life is a great romance. I am a leftist, and he ended up being a fascist. Yet I love him. (Someone said that Pound was so left he was right.)

Pound: Poems & Translations
Edited by Richard Sieburth.
The Library of America, 2003. $58.95.

Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos
Edited by Richard Sieburth.
New Directions, 2003. $13.95.

He should not have been confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. for 13 years, from 1945 to 1958, but it kept him from being shot for treason. As I read Richard Sieburth’s chronology in the Library of America edition of Pound’s poems and translations, I was grateful to learn that in 1955, Alberto Moravia, Eugenio Montale, and Salvatore Quasimodo petitioned the U.S. government to free him. The poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who called himself a “never orthodox Marxist,” reached out to him, in 1968, interviewing him for Italian television, quoting Pound’s translations from Confucius. Pound was ours, America’s, but the world’s, too. Every other year, Poundians from everywhere meet some place in the world that felt his mark: Paris; Hailey, Idaho; Beijing. Surely, Philadelphia, with its many sacred Ezra places—the Schuylkill River; Wyncote, where he grew up; Upper Darby, where he and two other young poets with names to come, William Carlos Williams M’06 Hon’52 and Hilda Doolittle CCT’09, wandered half in love; and all over the Penn campus—will one day play host, too.

Books good and bad have been written about him, but there is at least one great one, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, which gets inside the poetry and the poet to sometimes almost heartbreaking effect, amazing for a work of literary criticism.

Pound sang: and he was fun. He heard Ethel Merman and wanted her for the Madam’s part in his opera about Fran┴ois Villon, Le Testament. He saw a Fred Astaire movie in Venice during Mussolini, and tap danced along the canals in homage. And he had profoundly stupid blind spots, spewing at a performance of Fidelio that Beethoven’s syphilis had made the music unlistenable. Years later, in his confinement, I wonder how Fidelio, with its chorus of prisoners longing for the light, would have struck him.

Love is blind, and my love for Pound was at first sight, so I have had trouble remembering my first encounter of him. He went to Penn, too, at age 15 in 1901, transferred to Hamilton, where he received his bachelor’s degree, then came back to Penn for his master’s in Romanics. When I was at Penn from 1961 to 1965, I could not find an undergraduate course that taught his work. He was still embargoed. As I write this, I have begun to remember that an English teacher at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia mentioned that the title of his poem “An Immorality” had been purposely misprinted in an anthology as “An Immortality.” That the poem was about the triumph of carnal and other love and was censored surely won over my rebellious 17-year-old soul.

For many, for me as translator and poet, he is the greatest translator. Elektra the best play translation. Take your pick between The Seafarer or Cathay for best poetry translation. And best 20th-century poem? Well, it’s purposely not included in the new Library of America edition, but it is available from New Directions, his long-time publisher, The Cantos, the lifework, the great “poem including history.”

Pound keeps breaking the frame. It’s why radical poets love him. And the controversy! Finally in 2002, 30 years after his death, he was about to be honored with a place at the Poets’ Corner, near his great friends T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. I was happy. His daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, would come over from Italy and I would see her after 20 years. We would confer about how to get Pound’s second opera, Cavalcanti, produced. The little plaque in the Poets’ Corner would read: “Ezra Pound, 1885-1972/What thou lovest well remains/the rest is dross.” That from Canto LXXXI.

But some members of St. John’s congregation objected because of Pound’s anti-Semitism. Some were Jews converted to Christianity, and a few of these were Holocaust survivors. I wanted the plaque, to honor a poet I love. But my heart wasn’t in it. Pound’s anti-Semitism had been expressed, freely, over Italian radio. There are recordings and transcripts, and they are vicious and stupid and they were made as Jews were being exterminated. When the Cathedral decided against the plaque, I moved on.

Pound was an idealist. He believed in free speech. His great models, aside from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (and/or alas Mussolini), were the Proven┴al poets, whom Rome considered heretics for supporting the Avignon papacy. Pound must have felt that being from the blessed America of Jefferson, and knowing what he knew about the history of the world, he could freely express himself. He grievingly loved both America and Italy, and that they were enemies drove him mad, I think.

The anti-Semitism he felt was pervasive in the America of his youth and the Europe of his adulthood. He told Allen Ginsberg, in 1967 in Venice, “The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” Not a big enough apology, but a start, and Ginsberg, a Jewish Buddhist, blessed him for it.

And now all those two-dozen wonderful New Directions Pound books have been encapsulated into one Library of America volume. If he couldn’t be remembered in a place of worship, at the Poets’ Corner, it’s great for him to be in the Library of America, alongside Paine, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Henry James, Frost, Stein, and Dos Passos. The book itself is like all the other Library of America volumes. That’s the point. It’s light and portable, almost 1,400 pages. It’s indispensable. But don’t throw away your individual Pound volumes. The LOA Elektra is based on the scholarly Princeton University Press edition, not the livelier performing edition put out by New Directions. Sieburth includes only half of the Cathay poems that are contained in the New Directions volume of Ezra Pound: Translations. And the vibrant look of the ND volumes is gone, replaced by the LOA uniform design and typeface. It’s a loss with a poet whose look on the page is so important.

Along with the LOA Pound comes an extra gift, ND’s annotated edition of Pound’s greatest Cantos, The Pisan Cantos, written in 1945, while he was in the American military detention center near Pisa. Most poetry doesn’t need annotation, but The Cantos cry out for it. Pound’s breadth of references and, in The Pisan Cantos particularly, his often coded language (he was after all a prisoner awaiting trial and possible execution for treason), and the language of someone whose world was turned upside down—even the most literate and literary of readers need help with this material. It’s wonderful, for example, to have a note about this sublime line in Canto LXXIV:

“To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars”

Sieburth writes, most helpfully: “Deďoces, the first great ruler of Medes, built the city of Ecbatana in the sixth century B.C.; according to Herodotus it was encircled by seven rising concentric walls in a variety of colors.” He adds, more dubiously: “‘Dioce has been heard by some commentators to rhyme with ‘Duce.’”

Reading the Notes with the poem is a new kind of joy. Some of the mystery and mystification, which were originally among the pleasures of The Cantos, is gone, replaced, however, by knowing. Without the Notes, one had a choice: read the poem as though one were in the world with its many languages and many pasts, a world of ecstatic beauty and mystery of which one understood but little; or read it and search out the references … which could become a life work. Sieburth has given us many of the answers, and saved some readers years of research.

It is said that every poet writes only one long poem, starting with the first line he or she writes, and ending with the last. Pound: Poems and Translations, which attempts to be comprehensive, and chronological, gives us a great long poem to equal Pound’s greatest poem, The Cantos. This LOA life-poem starts with lines for a first love, Hilda Doolittle, composed at Penn when Pound was 20, and ends, 1,300 pages later, with words published in 1971, when he was 86.

First words:

“Child of the grass
The years pass Above us”

Last words:

“May the sound of the leaves give him peace,
May the hush of the forest receive him.”

Norman MacAfee C’65 has just published The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now (New York: Basic Books/Westview, June 2004). His opera, The Death of the Forest, to music of Charles Ives, is to premiere next year in Amsterdam, then tour to America.

 

ę 2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

 

 


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