To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jerome Rothenberg: Ezra Pound, the fascist temptation, and those who came after (some comments reprinted)

The following was in reply to Tenney Nathanson’s query – March 16, 1996 on the Electronic Poetry Center listserv – about my own statement that “the most telling impact of Ezra Pound's work was on poets who politically and morally might have been at the greatest distance from it.” To start with my own experience

– growing up when I did – the presence of Pound in the late 1940s was, to say the least, a bewilderment. I was stunned by much of the poetry, both by how it read (the language of it) and by what I heard it saying: anti-war and anti-capital and powerful too in its presentation of a way, a means, of approaching and hoping to shape the world through the poet's means, the poetry itself. I was about 16 years old at a first reading of him, and shortly thereafter – along with the reading – came the awarding of the Bollingen and the tremendous fuss that that stirred up (close to fifty years ago). With that we were aware also of the extent of Pound's fascism and, as became clearer over the years, the viciousness of the anti-semitism in his World War II broadcasts – a lunacy of language common to the fringe of homegrown fascists who were also in his entourage. My own first published piece of writing was a letter to the New York Post (a different NY Post at that time) in which I lamented what I thought had happened to Pound and what had become (as it still seems to be) a conundrum around the man and the work that the man had given us. There was a lot I didn't know then but knowing it would certainly not have made it easier.

I was never, in any sense, a Poundian, since there were too many other threads and lines coming into my awareness to allow a focus (in that sense) on any single individual. But the observation of Pound's impact – on myself and others – began shortly after that: the observation that those who were most significantly building on Pound's poetics and actual poetry were not the crazies and the fascist hoods of the John Kasper variety, etc., but poets like Kelly, Olson, Duncan, Mac Low, Blackburn, and before them the whole gallery of "Objectivists" or – from other directions – any number of European and Latin American writers – all of them (as I understood it) with a political and moral sense (coming out of World War II) that was strongly anti-fascist, strongly in opposition to the totalitarian barbarisms for which Pound (in the years of his fascist infatuation) had become a minor flunky. In their context Pound became, remained a vital force – the proof, through them, of what was right and germinal about him and the proof, conversely, of what was evil – and banal in Hannah Arendt's sense – in his succumbing to the "fascist temptation."

What Pound offered and in some sense made possible wasn't divorced from the political but wasn't at the same time tied to what became HIS politics. It was a demonstration of how the political – as history – could enter the body of the poem – how the poem could thrive on what Ed Sanders (many years later and clearly drawing on Pound) spoke of as "data clusters" defining a new "investigative poetry". I don't need to go on with this, I think, except to note that it was (as far as I can recollect) not the little fascists who learned from this but poets who by disposition and, I believe, commitment were looking for a way out of the fascist and totalitarian nightmare that had threatened to overwhelm our world. And there was also – stronger in Pound than in most other forerunners in the North American context – a sense that history and poetry could be redefined, opened up and certainly renewed, and that for this Pound himself (as Charles Bernstein, I think, points out in his Pound essays) was a stepping- stone, a guide to things that his fascist leanings would have finally precluded. He was clearly the most extraordinary translator we had by then produced – not only pointing to Albigensian Provence and to a sense of China speaking to the present, but (coming like Césaire and the other Negritude poets) from the likes of Frobenius, forming one of the links (but only one) to an African past as a pinnacle, too, of the creative human spirit. It is not to say that this was – all of it – of Pound's doing but that he helped to set much of it in motion – much of what, coming after him and (in some sense in spite of him) – became essential to our present work.

And, finally, I would point out what was – for myself and others – the lesson of Pound's failure – the lesson of the poet who had in the long run betrayed his poetry. It is a terrible thing to say and it is, I think, a terrible possibility that faces all of us. But it is Pound who also says it best, from the "pull down thy vanity" voice in Canto 81 to the still more telling voice (where he was already into his silence, depression) in Canto 116:

I have brought the great ball of crystal
                who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
         But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.

I can read this, anyway, as both a confession of failure (and of betrayal – of himself and us) and at the same time a triumph of whatever is there speaking through him. But not Pound alone – for which let me end, Tenney, by copying out (in what's already a long message) a poem by Julien Beck (of the Living Theater, etc.), a good pacifist and anarchist and anti-fascist, who I think loved all the poets that he mentioned in it. It's one too that Pierre Joris and I are happy to include – along with a number of others – in a section of manifestos for the second volume of Poems for the Millennium:

Julian Beck's "the state will be served / even by poets"

the breasts of all the women crumpled like gas bags when
neruda wrote his hymn celebrating the explosion of a
     hydrogen bomb by soviet authorities
children died of the blisters of ignorance for a century when
siqueiros tried to assassinate trotsky himself a killer
     with gun and ice
pound shimmering his incantations to adams benito and
     kung prolonging the state with great translation
     cut in crystal ...

[The complete text of Beck’s poem can be found elsewhere on Poems and Poetics, and I would call attention also to a series of my own poems, The Pound Project, also on this site. (J.R.)]


Charles said...

The Fascism of Pound and his bigotry sprang from his ideas about money. Now I am not defending his Fascism, but in honesty, Left poets found it expedient to praise Stalinsm. Popular Front writers refused-despite all evidence to the contrary-to link Stalin with crimes against humanity.

dante rosso said...

Julian Beck’s exposure of ‘The Brig” off Broadway is one of the most outstanding examples of art become threatening to the principalities and powers. He and Judith Malina were literally dragged off the stage by the coppers, where they had sequestered themselves behind the barbed wire cell of the play production and then were locked up in a “real” jail cell. This is ripe with implications for Pound, locked as he was in cage in Pisan, howling…

Beck’s appearance on “Miami vice” fantastic

Speaking of “howl” Ginsberg said, when hearing of pound’s death- “a great man”\

Fascism drew many of the poet gang of the times hung up on the “good ol days” Yeats, etc.

All recovering from shock of wwi
“a botched civilization”
“Eye-deep in hell”

A distinctly macho-man, who w/vortex, idealization of women and curious absence of real in his own recounting of life, his sycophantic psychopantic love of el duce and uncontrolled manic scapegoating, makes him ripe for Freudian analysis

I enjoyed this very much

WAS said...

The most surprising thing about this post is that a 16-year-old can have a letter published in a major newspaper about a poet. The real tragedy of Pound is that the world he envisioned for poets has been wholly co-opted, in large measure because of his anti-semitic disease. He foresaw our current global debt crisis in his economic writings, and outside of the anti-semitism they read like a political speech from Ron Paul. I doubt the thoughts about the world at large can so easily translate for any other literary figure of his time. It's a shame that generations of students blithely dismiss him because it's the path of least resistance.

heronbone said...

this, by the scholar Oliver Craner, is by far and away the best essay to be found on Pound's fascism.
can't recommend it enough.