The following text is a transcript by D.B. of Jonathan Bowden’s lecture to the 33rd New Right meeting in London on June 11, 2011. In editing this transcription, I introduced punctuation and paragraph breaks. I also deleted a couple of false starts, added the first names of some figures, and included full correct versions of the poems read. You can view the lecture at YouTube here. I found one name unintelligible and marked it as such. If you can understand it, please post a comment below.
Ezra Pound had a long life and was 87 when he died. He was born in 1885 and died on the first of November 1972. I’ll start by reading a poem that Pound wrote about the First World War and its effect on that generation, which was known as “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” and was written in around 1920. Part four of these interconnected stanzas that make up the work:
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,
learning later . . .
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria, non dulce non et decor . . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in 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.
That’s one of the more powerful and direct poems, or part of an overall poem, written by Pound who was highly disillusioned by the Great War and the slaughter which eventuated. Indeed, it led further to his break culturally with this country, which he lived in from about the turn of the 20th century.
I think to give the talk some spine it’s best to adumbrate and look at the chronology of Pound’s life. You have the birth in the United States to an establishmentarian family with Republican political connections, a quite prosperous family, in the 1880s. You have the move to scholarship and to study English literature and medieval literature in particular, an obsession with the troubadour tradition and the poetry of the late Middle Ages and a certain suppressed, erotic and or other currents in European art. You have the move to Europe and teaching, at polytechnic and various rag-bag institutions, the writing for small magazines and small poetry journals, the befriending of almost every poet and or artistic intellectual who came to prominence during that period, Pound being a sort of unofficial clearing house and university for culture. The disillusionment in the wake of the Great War. The returning to the Continent thereafter. The living in France from 1921-25 and subsequently Italy from 1925 until 1945. The gradually increasing political radicalization throughout the late ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. After all he was living in Mussolini’s republic.
After 1945, imprisonment by the American authorities, the option to execute Pound for treason to the American republic as designated, the option of life imprisonment, both of which were very real possibilities. Don’t believe the rather tendentious and journalistic comment of the present time that says that Pound was really in no danger, the Americans would never have put one of their foremost poets to death. It was a very real prospect, of both execution or life imprisonment, probably a slightly greater prospect of the second. In the end, of course, he was institutionalized at St. Elizabeths mental hospital between 1948 and 1958. He then returns to Italy in 1958, through to the end.
So you have that spine of the life, which given that it was quite a complicated and diverse life, is best to keep in mind.
Why is Pound regarded as an artistic revolutionary? Why is he inescapable from poetic modernism in the 20th century? Why hasn’t he been dumped and binned because of his political affiliations? The reasons are essentially his concern with purity in language and the belief in the consolidation of literary forms and the compression of ideas into a smooth and unemotionally slithered diction which he called “Imagism” and which was to affect most of the poets of his era including W. B. Yeats, who he befriended, I think Olivia Shakespear who was a flame of Yeats had a daughter called Dorothy who he later married. Pound was always rather complicated in his emotional and private life entanglements. He essentially had two families. He sort of had a mark I wife, Dorothy Shakespear and a mark II wife, Olga Rudge and had children, Omar and Mary by both. There are also various other mistresses as well.
Pound once boasted that he’d been in Paris for three months and had not yet acquired a mistress when he already had quasi-bigamist relations with two women and two family groups. So this is the sort of attitude that he had in this area to which in some ways might not have given a great deal of importance because artistic, cultural, intellectual things always came first to Pound.
It’s important to realize that the culture that grows up after the Second World War is completely distant to the culture which existed before it. Poets were “rock stars” and were treated as such in the immediate pre-war period. Their doings, their mistresses, their outrageousness, their living against the conventions of bourgeois society were all considered to be integral to the poet’s art.
Pound advocated a revolutionary poetics that gradually grew upon him from the first decade of the 20th century on and was associated with poets like Hilda Doolittle, better known by her initials H. D. Virago published Hilda Doolittle’s poetry, Amy Lowell, and various other people. He was also associated throughout the century with very, very major writers who would later campaign against this execution and imprisonment, whatever they thought of his political affiliations, people like Robert Frost and, above all, Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway’s very planed-down, minimalist style, this sort of adoption of a Shaker diction in literature–Shakerism being an American Protestant cult where everything is simplified down to concrete essentials. They are most famous for their furniture. Shakers used to dance with each other rather than have sexual intercourse, which is why their sect died out!
Pound was very much a product of the Protestant north of the United States and remained, in a sense, a proud Yankee of independent birth and tradition. Many of his political positions are actually based on preceding incarnations of the American republic, and this becomes increasingly evident during his life and during his work. The middle and latter stages of his career are dominated by the Cantos, which is an enormous poetical book, published in a series of stages and including fragments which were published after 1969 as a sort of addendum to the same.
Now, the Cantos of his middle and late career are the books like Cathay and so on, are part of his early period but what you see in all of his work is a concern with purity of tone, purity of pitch, solemnity and dignity of diction, the planing down of language, and in some ways a slightly Eastern use of Western language which led him to explore Chinese and Japanese literature at a time they were virtually unknown outside a tiny Siniological specialties in specialized university departments.
Pound’s poetry is very academic at one level and visceral at another. Philip Larkin once criticized Pound in a post war way by saying he made poetry out of literature rather than out of life, and it is true that Pound’s poetry is fiendishly difficult. The Cantos explores 15 languages, multidimensional realities, the idea of a hell that we’re all in, a group of people that wishes to transcend that and find, if you like, a terrestrial paradise, and enormous amounts of political and economic lore, particularly in relation to the Social Credit theories of Douglas that transfixed from Pound the 1920s onwards and led him to believe that solutions to Western economic privation in the ’30s were ready and were to hand.
Now, Pound basically believed in a sort of cultural organization. He believed in telling people what to write, how to read, what they should be reading. He managed to make sure that many of his associates were published and were put into galleries. He was extraordinarily important in the launching of the career of Wyndham Lewis and in later theoretical and linguistic terms, taken by W. B. Yeats. He launched a large number of poetical magazines which wouldn’t have existed without him, and major works in the 20th century would never have been published without Pound either as an editor or as a midwife, or as a publisher’s assistant or as even somebody who paid for the thing to be published in the first instance. “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot and most of T. S. Eliot’s early poetry. He believed Eliot had modernized himself and got rid of romantic and what Pound considered to be effete diction. He planed-down language to a modernistic absence of excess and would not have been published without Pound’s intervention. Ulysses by James Joyce would also would maybe probably not haven been published without Pound’s intervention. Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr would probably not have been published without Pound’s intervention. So Pound was extraordinarily important in fostering other talent.
Artists are extraordinarily reluctant to support other artists because they’re always involved in competition with each other, and there’s a degree to which Pound was very unusual in his underground university attitude towards culture. This also went with his anti-democratic or elitist views. Pound basically believed in the absence of what has come to pass. He believed in a hostility to mass society, to mass entertainment, to mass infotainment, for the pop-culture which emerged in and around the second war but was preceded by the jazz age in the 1920s as a sort of precursor of same.
Decadent mass culture, in a sense has three variants, the 1890s, an upper-class version of it, the 1920s, a bourgeois version of it and a blow-out period after the excesses and privations of the Great War and thereafter, and the 1960s when these mass counter-cultural energies become both mass bourgeois in orientation and also become proletarianized.
So what had actually has occurred, Pound opposed from its inception. Pound believed that artists and writers and intellectuals and those associated with them had a mission to raise the level of the masses and to raise the level of mass culture. The artistic orientation of culture was a mold that the jelly of society should be made to fit. This led him in opposition to the idea that life is economically based, and that all that matters is economic preferment, and that material good and material success is all that’s important. And of course, during this period the rise of commercialism which now accedes to a totalitarianism and is all around us was that which Pound and other writers of the Right or the radical Right laid into.
Pound was part of a generation that believed that Europe was dying and will either continue down to death or would be reborn. He hoped for the latter, and he saw in Mussolini’s time of politics an adoption of the mechanisms and modalities of Social Credit.
Now, Social Credit is an alternative set of economic theories, put forward by Major Douglas. Some compare it to Keynesian economics although Keynes violently repudiated that. The criticism of both Douglas and Keynes, that their systems are inflationary, was held by Douglas of Keynes and Keynes of Douglas! Interestingly, these are not just theories because there is an attempt to implement these theories. In Alberta there was an attempt at a Social Credit regime. Social Credit ideology cannot just be dismissed as fanciful, beyond Left and Right posing and a desire to put poets in charge of the national economy. I remember the Nicaraguan Sandinistas put a poet in charge of the national economy after they achieved power in that small, Latin American society. The economy subsequently collapsed. Hostile critics in The Economist and other journals blamed this on putting a poet in charge of the national finances. The Sandinistas blamed it, of course, on widespread sanctions which the United States was then inflicting on a tiny, impoverished Latino society.
Nevertheless, Social Credit is, in all probability a reasonably acceptable sketch for an alternative type of economics. Pound invested it with holy writ and really did believe that there was the prospect of building a Social Credit society where money served the consumer and served the producer and the middle man based on usurious, interest bearing profit without work or prior motivation, could be cut out. This drew Douglas in a minor degree and Pound in a much more lurid, and extravagant, and artistically extreme way into what we might call politely the rejection of philo-Semitism. In Pound’s case this became more and more lurid and more and more extreme as the ’30s and ’40s continued.
Pound was a brave man and was prepared to suffer for his ideas and was driven to a certain extent, if you consider that he was, in many ways a one-man dynamo because he contradicted the establishment in to which, in a minor way the United States, he’d been born himself. On most major fronts in the 20th century he opposed the literary and cultural values of the pre-Second World War era and post first war establishment. He opposed neo-Edwardianism and traditional romanticism in verse and sought for a modern alternative. He opposed economic and social doctrines which were widely prevalent at the time. He had a look for certain forms of authoritarian socialism in socialist and alternative magazines like The New Age which he wrote for in the second decade of the 20th century edited by the occultist or occult-interested writer A. R. Orage. He explored ideas of reevaluation and currency reform and economic transformation of Western society, to get rid of the merchant or to get rid of the trader and to get rid of the banker and to get rid of the financier as the major arch or linchpin for that which existed. It’s not that these societal models and roles didn’t have any veracity whatsoever, it’s that Pound believed that they should not be central to a culture or a civilization otherwise the values inherent in a culture will rot away.
Usury which is a term he sued to describe this kind of debt- based finance capitalism, which is the system that prevails, which is the system which has worked/not worked, which has staggered on through the 20th century with current crises, seeing off its state socialist, authoritarian socialist, and in some respects its social democratic rival models.
How realistic the models were and are is difficult to determine. Probably Douglas’ solutions would be inflationary as neo-liberal and libertarian and laissez-faire economists, re-directed and come around again via the Austrian school and the Chicago business school, would attest. But there is a degree to which these theories have never been properly applied, and even if Keynesianism is a diluted or differentiated version of Douglas’ ideas, these ideas were used to pilot the Western economy through most of the ’50s, most of the ’60s, and most of the ’70s. They then fell into disuse and were upturned by the Thatcher and Reagan economic and political revolutions, or partial revolutions, of the 1980s.
Pound lived until ’72 and advocated maximal reform in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Pound was the most politically active poet since William Blake. In an average year he wrote a thousand letters to various administrators, statesmen, and senior politicians. He was always berating politicians, and he always sought personal contact with them. Just as with the artistic community when he arrived as a young student American immigrant in and around the latter years of the first decade of the 20th century, Pound went directly to source. If he wanted to meet the putative Imagists like Amy Lowell and Hilda Doolittle, he would go and do so. If he wanted to meet W. B. Yeats and become his secretary he would go and introduce himself and offer his services as a putative amanuensis. If he wanted to meet revolutionary artists like Wyndham Lewis, he would go and do so.
There was a cafe/bistro run by a Hungarian restaurateur in New Oxford Street called the Eiffel Tower which was the restaurant where they all used to meet. After Imagism and Amy Lowell’s sort-of cannibalization of that idea, Pound moved away from that and towards a different conception of art called Vorticism which he developed in association with Gaudier-Brzeska and Wyndham Lewis. They used to meet in the Eiffel Tower, and there’s a well-known painting of the Vorticists with Pound in the corner with a cravat and earring and the usual sort of post-Raphaelite look if you want to put it in that way, Lewis dominating the whole group with his enormous Spanish sombrero and cape, and various other artists and writers who were associated with that tendency of opinion.
Blast!–which was meant to be aggressive rather than passive and was meant to be expressive and anti-romantic–didn’t really survive the First World War but was an enormous magazine with pink covers and modernistic abstractions and militaristic themes on the cover and was as big as the London phone directory. It was an enormously thick volume in which various tendencies were blasted or alternatively blessed.
Now, Pound became the most notorious poet of the 20th century through a concatenation of forces. Certainly, on the 26th of July 1943 he was, in absentia, indicted for treason by the American government, and this was for broadcasts which he made for Mussolini on state radio. The Italians were reluctant to allow Pound on the radio. He had to fight for quite a long time until “they allowed me near that damn microphone!” as he would have said. When Pound got into the studio, Pounds’ voice was quite peculiar. The BBC occasionally play some of Pound’s cylinders, I suppose or pre-33-and-a-third sort of 78 recordings, cylinder type recordings which were taken down by the University of Pennsylvania which was the listening station of the United States government to foreign broadcasts.
Hoover ordered a special file to be created on Pound, “this traitor” who he intended to deal with after the Second World War. The passion that the Pound case involved is difficult to understand in contemporary terms. Arthur Miller wrote a long article in which he speculates upon the tortures he would like to see inflicted on Pound prior to execution, and this was published in the published prints. The emotions which were generated by “the traitor Ezra” who was described by Miller as “worse than Goebbels” and “who knew how to appeal to every American strand and prejudice.” Most of these broadcasts were never heard. But they were certainly heard by the American elite and by the American cultural elite.
The irony is that Pound had so many friends, culturally from Hemingway down, that he was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress immediately after the Second World War, which caused absolute outrage in the United States and led one congressman to describe it as “giving a prize for a man who uses words as maggots.” So America has always dealt with those who it believes to be treasonable in a very straightforward way, primarily by stringing them up and by a “rope party” as it is called. Pound fell just short of such a rope party. Had it not been for his lawyer campaigning for an insanity plea immediately post war, he’d have probably faced life imprisonment and had it not been for the enormous number of prominent artists and writers, people like William Carlos Williams, people like e. e. cummings, people like Robert Frost, people like Ernest Hemingway, many of whom had no time for Pound’s political views. If it had not been for them campaigning on his behalf, he could well have had a much stickier end.
Pound broadcast until the Americans invaded Italy after Operation Torch which saw the organized landings in Sicily and the Southern toe of Italy and general movement of the allies up against German and Italian troops, aided and assisted by partisans, most but not all of whom were communists. Pound was arrested by partisans, and he slipped a copy of Confucius or a small volume of Confucius’ thought–extremely socially conservative Chinese thought which had always influenced Pound, both poetically and politically–into his pocket. He probably expected to be shot. The partisans had killed the Mussolinis a day or two before. But interestingly the partisans seemed to know who he was and knew that American intelligence wanted to interview him.
The interesting thing is that he was released initially, into the care of his family, and was then taken back into American custody. The second phase of American custody was the most climactic because in Pisa, he was put in the “death cells” as they were called. The death cells were six-foot-by-six-foot steel cells. Pictures exist on Wikipedia pages devoted to Ezra Pound, and they’re worth looking at if people have a minute to bring them up. He had little water, few toiletries, there was no belt allowed, no shoelaces allowed–threat of suicide, through the bars of the cage.
These penal colonies and these death cells were primarily pursuant to struggles within the United States army, particularly racial and political struggles. Whenever the United States has gone to war prior to the accession of civil rights in the late 1960s you have struggles with all American armies. It goes without saying that the bulk of the prisoners in these maximal and ultra institutions for infractions of American rules and military disciple would be African Americans, many of whom were on death row, waiting to be hanged by the U.S. Army internally.
It is not an accident to suggest, as certain black nationalists in the 1960s would have suggested in the United States, that many African American troops were at war with their own army and their war, from their point of view was not against Germans or against Japanese or against Italians or against people who were fighting along with the Axis powers of other nationalities but was primarily against the U.S. government. Most African Americans always oppose American wars abroad by virtue of the fact they regard, like Obama’s wife, their own country as the chief enemy.
Pound was put in this cell for two-and-a-half weeks and gradually either went partially mad, or did go mad for a short period. He was in extreme heat. He was denied all cultural stimulation. The guards were told not to talk to the prisoners. The only individual you could communicate with was the chaplain. There is a lot of evidence that Canto 86 was started in the Pisan cells, because he started the Pisan Cantos, one of the most famous sections of the Cantos overall, in the death cell, which shows a mental resilience and a commitment to culture even in the harshest conditions where he either faced insanity, death, being left in the death cell until there was literally nothing left. It was only when he was interviewed and assessed by a psychiatrist that he was taken out of the death cells and put into medical confines. He was then interviewed by J. Edgar Hoover’s personal representative who’d opened a file on him in 1943 pursuant to the treason trial which would occur.
The attempt by his literary friends to have him declared insane was essentially a ruse or a cultural route that was adopted primarily to save his sanity and his life. Whether Pound crossed the line into partial insanity at certain times, at St. Elizabeths where he was incarcerated in a mental institution for ten years, between 1948 and 1958, is difficult to determine. Certainly, Pound was driven, and he once said that Wyndham Lewis, his old friend, was pursued by the furies. But Pound himself was in certain respects a man who was pursued by the furies.
The Cantos, which is as thick as a telephone directory, which is published by Faber and Faber in Britain, is a strange work because it has no ultimate plot or overall structure, rather like Pound’s work, which tends to be a cluster of heightened images, often pared down, involving enormous cultural resource of language where one idea suggests another one, somewhat effortlessly, and where you, rather like with Blake, realize that an internal world, an internal sound-scape in language, a visual world in many ways, and a highly cultured one is being illuminated in tropes and in artistic configurations. That’s the only way really to read Pound.
It doesn’t have an obvious narrative sense. It all associates with a need for renewal in culture, the extraordinary importance of the troubadour, the high medieval and classical tradition of the ancient world, the importance of culture to be raised over money in all areas of national life, the importance of the past in the present and future, but the commitment to the future and the commitment to an explicitly modern future, but not the modern future that we live in now. Pound’s growing disgust at the forces which he believed held back art and civilization and were planning for a new war.
One of Douglas’ ideas, much more radical than Keynes in this respect, is that a debt laden economy which needs endlessly to spend in order to produce and then clear more and more debt which in turn will be spent through in a circular way leads to war. He believed that the control of economies by bankers and financial capitalist institutions and the subordination of industrial and agricultural productivity to same will lead to war, what the extreme Left in the 1960s called the welfare/warfare state. These are sorts of statements which were made by Marxist and Frankfurt School intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse in books like One-Dimensional Man, in the late 1960s.
Now, radical Right and extreme Left share certain assumptions or share certain ideas if they radically critique finance capitalism, in particular, and the nature of the contemporary economic order. Pound was never an orthodox conservative and was essentially opposed to liberalism, except in the humanistic sense, except in the sense of a wide and deep educatedness. Other than that, he was opposed to liberalism in politics and believed in enlightened aristocracy and rule by the talented few. He was opposed to liberal enlightenment views in culture because he believed in a culture-bearing strand or elite which is fed down into the masses and tried to raise them up to the level they could reach given their natural aptitudes and abilities. And he was also opposed to money choosing the politicians that one has.
In most Western societies you have two blocs, as everyone here knows, one representing bourgeois electoral power, one representing working-class electoral power. They occasionally overlap in the center, but they basically vie with each other to manage the system best as boards, but increasingly are powerless in relation to money which seems to determine their ideas, their foreign policies, and even the personnel who run these parties. It is increasingly difficult to say whether contemporary politicians actually run these societies, the Left-wing concept of the ruling class that doesn’t rule, the sort of rudderless ship, a the system is a process in and of itself and developments which occurred after Pound’s death.
What he critiqued in the 1930s, particularly with the Roosevelt administration which you could argue that by the New Deal had moved to Keynesian demand management and to certain forms of radical economic activity and initiative, very unusual for an American regime, which might be to Pound’s liking. But Pound saw a poisonous relationship between the United States and the rest of the planet. While not, strictly speaking, an isolationist, Pound was a European American in the most radical of senses. Pound believed that American culture was an extension of European culture, not the other way around, and he also believed that Americans should contribute to Europe and to the glory and continuity of European culture as represented by the still living and extant cultural spaces of Italy and Greece.
A romantic of the European south, Pound believed that the task of great writers and intellectuals was to lead people and was to instill in people a belief in the glory of their civilization, something almost all contemporary artists have given up on.
Pound remains uniquely controversial in 20th-century letters and no matter how many little magazines he founded, no matter how many poets he led to being published, no matter how many artists he got into galleries, no matter how important his own work, the politics he became associated with is what has doomed him in the eyes of the culture-bearing strata, although there’s a degree to which although modernism in letters, in the English language at any rate, cannot exist without him. There is a degree to which Pound remains cardinal to the poetical experience in the 20th century. This is why any modern literature course in any British or American university or further afield has Ezra Pound as a key item within it. But Pound can only be talked about in hushed tones and in tones which attempt to apologize for his past, liberally, revisionistically explain away his past, or honestly confront his past as in John Tytell’s biography of Pound, without necessarily belaboring the criticism too much, because academics can get away with a certain specious objectivity.
Tytell’s book is quite interesting actually because it is a liberal confrontation with Pound which doesn’t duck the political questions at all. He also wrote a book on the Beat generation. One of the most famous biographies of Pound of course is written by Eustace Mullins, the quite well-known Right-wing currency reform advocate, alternative economics, conspiracy theorist, and American writer in the post-war era. These friendships Pound had with John Kasper, and with Eustace Mullins would be held against Pound and were indeed used as a way to prevent him from leaving St Elizabeths mental hospital until 1958.
Ernest Hemingway always campaigned for Pound’s release, gave him a thousand pounds on the moment he got out of St. Elisabeths and went back to Europe. When Pound returned to Europe, the first gesture he did when he got off the boat was to give, in front of waiting journalists who were there to receive him, the Fascist salute and said that “I’ve left America, and America is an insane asylum. Everyone in America is mad, so by leaving America, I’ve left an asylum!”
So, anti-Americanism didn’t begin with Pound, and it certainly didn’t end with him, and yet he would proclaim himself to be a proud American, loyal to republican and federalist ideas which go back to the founding of the republic. The belief in honest work, the belief in standards of family and behavior, the belief in a post-European culture and identity in the Americas, a belief in hard work, a belief in the frontier ethics, a belief in the lumberjack sort of ideal of the United States which is not corrupted and polluted by fiscal capitalism. In some ways he wants a simple, ruralist idealized U.S., which is like a machismo version of Little House on the Prairie. In fact there’s a degree to which William Pierce’s ideas toward the end about the sort of American he would like are very similar to what Pound advocated for his own society.
One of the very interesting paradoxes of contemporary life is that America is the most post-modern society, the most hyper-real society, the most fiscally based and fiscally driven society, the society that dominates all the others even to the degree that communist China and India, despite their new preeminence, are basing their models upon the American model. This society is so Americanized to the degree, with the sole exception of not speaking with an American diction and using technically the American form of English, we have become an America here. This is the fifty-first state without almost any doubt, and our culture is so seamlessly intertwined with that of the United States that it is even regarded as slightly blasphemous to say so because it is so ingrained that people accept that without thinking.
Yet, the most radical criticisms–by people like Lawrence R. Brown, Revilo P. Oliver, Francis Parker Yockey, Pound in his book ABC of Economics, How to Read and How to Write, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, and many of his non-fiction works–he wrote an enormous amount of journalism and an enormous amount of non-fiction prose to go with the poetry–all of these works are produced by Americans. It’s as if America has a radical cultural split between those who accept everything that Americanism is in its contemporary terms and those Americans who reject Americanism and claim to be the most American of all.
It’s important to realize that the most extreme indigenous, bluegrass, socially conservative politicians in the United States–people like David Duke and so on–are those ones that advocate the end of an American empire and isolation. Even more moderate and slightly more credible candidates to a certain extent like Patrick J. Buchanan. And one of these candidates always stands in every presidential election on the margins. They get 2% in certain states and so on. Most people who would otherwise vote for them vote Republican, given the internal ethnic balance and complicated politics of the U.S. per se, where the Republicans have become the repository for white votes. It’s quite clear, President Obama was elected because a third of the society, in one way or another, looks the way he does.
America has changed out of all recognition in the last 30 to 40 years, something which largely Pound didn’t live to see. But Pound’s predictions in relation to what would happen in the world–recurrent wars, recurrent crises, recurrent instabilities for international fiscal capital based on debt and usurious inheritance–is largely true now as much as when he talked about it in the 1920s and ’30s.
Pound was unusual in that as an artist he should have no right to talk about these matters about which he could be presumed to know little. Cross the margin, cross the line into politics. One thing about artists is that they will always choose radical or extreme political formulations if they cross the political line, because moderation doesn’t come naturally to them. Also, thinking is an end in itself politically, whereby one basically looks at a corpus of ideas and if necessary pushes the latent ideas within that system to the most radical margin or edge, is inevitable for people involved in artistic and intellectual life. This results either in the idea that people think intellectuals make incredibly bad politicians, and also a cult of anti-intellectuality amongst politicians, because if you thought out logically the semblance of logic that exist in your own programs you might be invited to adopt radical solutions that would make you unelectable or would not pass various liberal filters in the media and elsewhere when you are asked about your own opinions. Most politicians after all, lie about what their real opinions are, increasingly don’t have any, increasingly think that politics is a vehicle for themselves to get on and run against the interests of the people in the bloc that they were put there to represent in the first place, and this is considered to be normal politics .
Milliband is now re-engineering new old Labour to be a party which he is and isn’t proud to lead as he seats the liberal centrist votes that will bring Labour back. Cameron spent his entire time as an opposition leader denying that he was a Conservative and saying that he was an upper-class liberal chap with terribly modern ideas really that didn’t amount to much, that just happened to wandered into the leadership of the Tory party. This is how are contemporary politicians behave.
People like Pound are so extraordinary because they have no concern with that sort of tendentiousness at all, and this makes them either deluded idealists of the first water, from the perspective of practical men, or refreshing idealists who push the envelope and who believe the truth lies in the margins, believe that truth lies at the extreme, at the outlet in mathematics the arrow that crosses the circle is furthest out, and X, the point the line goes through the circle, is the most radical formulation of a proposition that you can have.
Now, Pound recovered gradually and used St. Elizabeths hospital as a sort of moral university. Most of his family, his two families, if you like, visited him there. A large number of writers and intellectuals visited him there. Wyndham Lewis one complained that “Your strategic initiative in taking up residence in a lunatic asylum is not healthy!” Although it was quite clearly the strategy which enabled him to survive and prosper in the post-war world.
I’ll read another poem which is about usury and which is a very famous poem, and I shall attempt to read it in the way Ezra Pound would have read it, which may, or may not, be amusing!
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luthes
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling.
stone cutter is kept from his stone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
nor was “La Calunnia” painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
Not by usura St. Trophime
Not by usura Saint Hilaire,
Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;
Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered
Emerald findeth no Memling
Usura stayeth the young man’s courting
It hath brought the young bride and her bridegroom
They have brought whores for Eleusis
Corpses are set to banquet
at behest of usura.
One thing that always works with Pound it to put it into an American diction because although it’s said the British and Americans are a people divided by the common use of the same language, there is a degree to which the poetry comes alive when you put it into that American diction. Just on a technical point, American language is often more archaic than British English, because it is more based on the Authorized Version, and it can at times have certain primal qualities. It’s no accident that a great number of the foremost writers in English, in our general language, have been Americans. But they’ve been Americans who have sought out the European destiny and believed that they should come here. Wyndham Lewis was Canadian born. Ezra Pound was a Yankee American. T. S. Eliot became more English than the English but who was of course an American by birth. For all of them there’s a large number of people, Amy Lowell, Anna [unintelligible—sounds like Campton], all sorts of other people, Djuna Barnes, Hemingway, and so on, of a slightly lesser sort. Hemingway is actually slightly interesting, Hemingway always supported Pound and Hemingway said “In a thousand years, if literature is still read, Pound will be there.”
When he was asked about his relationship with the segregationist, John Kasper and Ezra Pound–Kasper would later be jailed for the bombing of a school when there were no children there which was desegregated and who ran a radical right bookshop in Greenwich Village of all places! An area that’s open to alternative ideas.
One of the interesting things about the kind of radicalism Pound represented is that many people would have thought it was Left-wing for a quite a while, particularly the alternative economic ideas, the writing for socialist magazines like The New Age, and his association with Dorothy Shakespear.
When I was a young man I went to Paris for a couple of weeks, and on the left bank there is Dorothy Shakespear’s bookshop called Shakespear and Company, which is the most famous English-language bookshop in Paris. It’s a stone’s throw away from Notre Dame—I think it’s in the Fifth Arrondissement—and you can almost see the cathedral from the bookshop. It’s a very shambolic sort of bookshop, with books piled absolutely everywhere. It was run by a very aged, bearded Trotskyist in 1982 I think when I was there, and he said “You’ll be staying for tea?” because everyone who was there was invited for tea, and you went upstairs. So in a sense it retained its bohemian qualities which it doubtless had in the era of Dorothy and Ezra. No French books were sold there really. It was all in English. Kilometer zero, right in the center of the city. Shakespear and Company, kilometer zero, every book stamped with that particular marker, round cylindrical marker. A lot of the books even hail from the ’30s, by Miller, by Hemingway, and others are still on sale, some of them in original binding.
Now, Dorothy Shakespear’s Egoist Press and the journal The Egoist, which Pound helped her with, published Lewis’ Tarr. I think may have published Joyce’s Ulysses as well. So Pound was always at the forefront of the radical use of language, no more so than in the Cantos.
And with the audience’s indulgence and permission I shall now read the beginning of the Cantos. Pound is very difficult. Pound is very difficult to read, pound relies upon an education which almost no one is Western societies is now given, even at the most elite level. But my view is that is a wrong way to read Pound. Most people they come across in the third line a cultural association which they don’t understand, maybe from the classical world, and they think “This isn’t for me. I’m on the third line, and I’m already lost,” and they put it aside. In actual fact, my view of writers like him, who use other cultural forms to think through, it’s a shorthand for the own thinking, is not to be bothered about not getting the cultural reference, you continue with the work itself. So I would advise anyone to get Pound out of their local library and to have a look, liberals say, irrespective of the politics, and irrespective of the political radicalism.
It’s noticeable that nearly all political articles about Pound such as the excellent article in Kerry Bolton’s Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism doesn’t really concentrate on the poetics which is very difficult and very technical. Liberals would have loved it if there had been no politics at all and no political overlay.
Here’s the first part of the Cantos, Canto 1:
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.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day’s end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip
I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death’s-head;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and at the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the heards, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
“Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”
And he in heavy speech:
“Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
Going down the long ladder unguarded,
I fell against the buttress,
Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”
And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
“A second time? why? man of ill star,
Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
And I stepped back,
And he stong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions.” And then Anticlea came.
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:
Now, obviously that particular beginning of the Cantos is based on Homer and is based on a transcription or a literary transliteration of same. Many of his translations–from the Provencal, from the troubadour tradition, from Japanese and Chinese art, from medieval poetry, romance and courtly love poetry, and Anglo Saxon literature, for which he had a great love–were very important in an era where many of the great poets had moved away from translation.
Pound’s academic translations are still controversial. Many academics think he made many mistakes, and the translations are not literal, and probably in terms of language use that’s true. But certain Chinese writers have pointed out the extraordinary idiomatic quality of Pound’s translation, his ability to enter into the spirit of the artist he’s translating and do something called mimesis, whereby you actually ventriloquize and adopt their voice, so you leap dictions, and this led to his celebration of the ideogram.
In Japanese poetry there’s the concept of the haiku whereby you put things in so concentrated a manner, that really you compress a life or a momentous incident into four or five lines. It’s the idea of adding power through compression. Pound wants to have the power, due to the compression of the language which he’s used.
Now, Ezra Pound, a life, 1885–1972. I would say that Pound delivered up his entire life for what Western civilization should be. He chose the most controversial political side that was then in existence and which he could have chosen. He thought little for himself and thought only of the civilization of which he was a culture bearer. Pound is an example in a modern world of crass materialism and a levelling absence of distinction, particularly intellectually.
What is unpalatable about Ezra Pound is his opposition to the shibboleths that now dominate: the belief in equality, the belief in mass uniformity, the belief that certain ideas are out of order and cannot be accepted, the belief that certain political and cultural trends are so unacceptable that they shouldn’t even be discussed at the tertiary or university level. These are the things which Pound rebelled against all of his life.
The other interesting thing–in a period when someone who I’ve spoken about before, Bill Hopkins, who has died recently, approximately 83 years of age–is Pound’s link to the most eternally minded and important artists and intellectuals of his time. The radical right is regarded as a trajectory that has no connection with civility, or with art, or with culture. It is a tendency connected to thuggery in the mass mind and in the mass media mind. Whereas here you have exemplars of the civilization, people amongst the most significant individuals in their society who in the end, ended up put in the death cage, in an American penitential death cage for the views which he espoused as a free man on Italian radio
So Pound was prepared to die and was prepared to suffer for his beliefs. His weren’t the crazy views of an intellectual who thought he could put the world to rights. They were beliefs that he was prepared to die for. And if people are prepared to die for things, they are prepared to live for things.
The West is in a very rocky stage at the present time, and although there is some evidence Pound became very depressed at the end of his life, there is still hope and there is still a fortitude that exists here among Western people that a change in the next 20 to 50 to 70 years is possible.
My view is that one thing that people should always look at are the elite artists and intellectuals who have aligned themselves with European renewal. Educate yourself, read for yourself, read and make decisions for yourself, turn the television off, and look at this sort of material.
Ezra Pound is an example of Anglo-American intellectuality and poetic resourcefulness at a very high level. Even the critic George Steiner once said of Pound that he had an extraordinary ear, this ear for language. Pound believed that artists were the antennae of the race—the antennae of the race–and they were there to lead other people towards a greater understanding of what it is to be human, a greater understanding of what you’re going to experience before you die, when you wonder whether your life has been worth anything or not. These are the sorts of areas that Pound wishes to reach into.
So I would ask people to admire this man, not just because he had a political affiliation that people in this room would find much more acceptable than your average representative of Radio 4 culture, but also because he’s an elitist of the best sort and a mind of the best sort that we rarely see today. A polymath, who was unafraid, and he walked in a manner that led people to recognize that, irrespective of his Americanism, this man was a European. Here goes a man, here goes a great European American. I give you the memory of Ezra Pound, 1885–1972.
Thank you very much.
1. Probably referring to Mussolini as well as his mistress, Clara Petacci.—Ed.