A review of The Life of Ezra Pound by Noel Stock must begin by acknowledging the phenomenal achievement of its author. It is comprehensive, detailed, forensic, appreciative, critical and illuminating, a massive achievement of analysis, research and insight. At around 200,000 words it is also a commitment, not for the fainthearted or for anyone with only a passing interest in either poetry or the history of the twentieth century. But it is also something else, something that, despite the magnificence of its scholarship, provokes this reader to focus on issues that are external to the text, itself. But more of that later: first, the book.
Ezra Pound was undeniably one of the greatest figures of twentieth century literature. Unlike his illustrious contemporaries and friends, however, Joyce, Eliot and Yeats among them, his name has seemed to slip from the mainstream since his death in 1972. I read his great achievement, the Cantos, when I was at college. I did not understand them. In some ways they feel less like a work of poetry than a lifetime achievement, a creatively conceived and sometimes over-presented commonplace book into which fell, in poetic form, a distillation, a reflection or sometimes mere mention of whatever disparate material that Pound obsessed over at the time. The Cantos were Pound’s creative life, but we must not forget the massive amount of other material, his journalism, music, prose and economics, for want of a more accurate word.
Pound was one of the founders and movers of literary and artistic movements: Imagism and the Vorticism among them. They were perhaps not the most enduring of directions. He was American but seemed more at home in England and then Italy, neither of which chooses to honour his achievements on their soil. But what is strongly felt about this man from the start is his conviction of, perhaps his obsession with his own genius. He was utterly sure he would contribute to the arts and perhaps even change their direction. He seemed to consider his legacy immortal, even before it had been created. He felt he was something new, original and enduring. And all this when apparently no-one even wanted to read his material, or formally give him time of day. And not only did he seem to deny his failures, he didn’t even seem to register them. The limitations were always somewhere else. In the early years, he thus seemed like a self-publicist, with is achievements acknowledged before they were achieved, like a modern self-published author who writes five-star, best-seller reviews of his own work. Nowadays, that surely would never do!
But eventually, perhaps by sheer dogged application alongside considerable talent, Pound received the recognition he thought he deserved, though perhaps never in our own contemporary, blunt instrument yardstick of success – sales. Certain academics loved him. Others did not. He himself had high hopes of a Nobel Prize.
Noel Stock includes copious quotations from Pound’s verse, always with critical assessment, sometimes with criticism. The Cantos were so far reaching in their intellectual coverage that it may appear from the outside that no-one without the full gamut of requisite skills would understand them. And given that these skills comprise, amongst other things, a knowledge of Dante and medieval Italian poetry, Confucius, Mencius and Lao-Tze in the original Chinese, troubadour songs in their original langue d’oc, Noh theatre texts in Japanese, Pound’s own experimental English, besides knowledge of the Classics and their metres, one might presume that there might be few modern readers of his work. This is probably accurate. But there is more to the modern shunning of Pound’s work than its overtly elitist intellectual demands. And it is here that this review needs to diverge from literature, poetry and indeed Ezra Pound, himself, to address the related concepts of fascism and racism.
The main reason why today Pound’s name remains passé is his espousal of fascist ideas and his overt antisemitism. He went to live in Italy. He regarded Mussolini as rather a good thing. In Italy at the time he was hardly alone in this belief. He adopted Hitler’s aggressive antisemitism because he was fundamentally opposed to capitalism, if it meant what he saw as a banking and economic system dominated by Jews, the foundation of this belief being a bank owned by the Rothchild family. He also took to broadcasting pro-fascist propaganda (in Italian and English) on radio during World War II.
Normally, my reviews are consciously detached. I try to review the book, not myself. Likes and dislikes are, to me, wholly nebulous and indefinable and even passing whims that are always less significant than considerations of communication or achievement of ends. In the case of The Life of Ezra Pound, the subjective “I” must be included, since our appreciation or not of this poet’s writing now seems to depend wholly on our individual take on his politics, despite his being be neither analytical or pro-active in his views, as this biography clarifies. In some ways, his politics were as transient as his current interests, as expressed in the meanderings of the Cantos. But what now can we make of Pound? Should we even try to understand him? Is dismissal the preferred option? I would say that he is worth the effort. Not the use of “I”! And this is not because I think Pound is a particular genius, overlooked or even readable. And I certainly do not see his actions as pardonable! And here I beg your pardon for making this book review become something personal, something about me and not about the book, but I assure you it is relevant. Please exit here if you are wary of the personal.
I remember in the recent past a well-known British television presenter saying on-air that the music of Wagner was not played in her household because of the composer´s antisemitism. I remember another celebrity saying that antisemitism was the flavour of Wager´s age, and that rejection of the composer´s work on those grounds alone ought to prompt a similar rejection of everything artistic or otherwise that came out of mid-nineteenth century German culture.
In the not too distant past I re-read Adam Smith´s Wealth of Nations. In my review I concentrated on those aspects of the analysis that might contradict the completely neo-liberal interpretation of the work. I was perhaps wrong to do so, but I wanted to challenge the idea that there is just one way to read Smith´s notion of free trade. Embedded within Smith´s thesis, however, are assumptions about human progress and worthiness. The Hindoo, the Mussulman and even the Catholic have their place in history and civilisation, but the heathen is judged to be a primitive sub-human. I do not recall Smith referring to ´The Buddhist´, but that may be my own failure of memory. In today´s politics, how many of the neo-liberal, perhaps neo-conservative supporters of their own notions of Smith´s concepts of free trade also regard those not associated with an organised great religion as both uncivilised and sub-human? And, given that the assumption appears to run throughout the work, should that alone disqualify Smith´s views on other subjects or his contribution to economics? Another position that almost dominates sections of The Wealth of Nations is that there is no economic activity that is or could be greater than the total that describes the state. How many of these same free marketeers would share Smith´s oft-stated revulsion of the very idea of a transnational corporation, which he regarded as necessarily market-distorting and almost automatically corrupt? This is recognized in antitrust and anti-monopoly legislation, but how often is this side of Smith´s work quoted? My point here is that we can choose to be selective, and usually do.
I am tempted here to introduce the composer Anton Webern into the argument. A member of the second Viennese School, Webern espoused the atonalism of his associate, Schoenberg. Webern was perhaps the artistic opposite of Ezra Pound, being prone to destructive self-criticism and a desire for an extreme succinctness of expression. But Webern, like Pound, thought that fascism might be more sympathetic towards “high art” to which he aspired than the mechanisms of capitalism that concentrated on what it could sell. He thus initially espoused fascism, eventually to his own and his associates´ cost.
After this considerable diversion, there is eventually a moral, and that is to beware anyone touting answers, especially those based on interpretations of the past in anything other than its own terms. Which brings me to Brexit! It might seem quite a jump, but it does follow. Trust me!
I have recent personal experience, albeit apocryphal, that suggests the prime motivation among the British working class leave voters who surely swung the referendum result was “getting rid of all the foreigners.” I use quotes to emphasise that this was expressed to me personally and verbatim, with stress on the “all”. I had just finished The Life of Ezra Pound and I felt immediately a strange yet strong link with Pound´s antisemitism, which was founded on nothing less than trying to find someone to blame.
Perhaps we should not judge Wagner, Adam Smith or even Ezra Pound using the moral perspective of our own time. For if we did that, and rejected any espousal of either racism or religious bigotry, how much of our human past would we retain? And, given the above Brexit opinion, is the moral perspective of our time significantly different from that of the 1930s, or even the 1850s, or 1770s or indeed any other time in our conflict-ridden blame game of history?
The Life of Ezra Pound is a forensic biography of a poet. It describes a life lived in its historical and cultural context. Like all books committed to communicating its subject, it is a masterpiece that takes the reader way beyond the confines of its subject and thereby achieves a permanent relevance. Revisit this past. We must never deny it existed or forget its consequences. But it reminds us that as individuals, communities and societies, there is no rule that precludes the repetition of error. And neither is there any rule that insists that a current moral ground need be any higher than any other existing folly, contemporary or past.