Ezra Pound

By: Matthew Battles
October 30, 2009


In a wire cage in the Pisan sun at the end of the Second World War, the forces of chaos and order clashed for EZRA POUND (1885–1972) more keenly than ever. With the accusation of treason aimed squarely at him, and before the madness that had long lapped at his lyric burst its dams, Pound composed the Pisan Cantos. Perhaps it was the bounty of sunlight combining with the intractability of the cage that finally brought to a head the struggle between the Eleusinian and the Confucian, between fecundity and the fasces, between profusion and probity —

Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity …
The green casque has outdone your elegance.

In The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that Pound’s pernicious economic ideas had their origins in the poet’s commitment to an artistic economy — in which the plenitude of the imagination bears no mere interest but waxes comprehensively, even vegetally. That this might be the whole of economic life was Pound’s error; that something like the opposite reigns instead is our folly.


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What do you think?

  1. In “Zarathustra,” Nietzsche uses a few choice natural metaphors to describe something like the artistic economy you mention here. Zarathustra is compared to the sun, or a nursing mother, or a storm cloud — never taking, always “overflowing” with ideas, imagination, wisdom, insights.

  2. Pound was also English-language modernism’s most obsessive ranker of cultural products, which makes him an especially suitable subject for this site!

    “My worst mis­take was that stu­pid sub­ur­ban prej­u­dice of anti-Semitism.”–Pound to Ginsberg.

    In other words: My worst mistake was that stupid, MIDDLEBROW prejudice. No? Anti-Semitism as bad taste. A certain sociological precision coexisting with an appalling moral blindness…

  3. great post MB, and mr carmody’s is great too… we could argue about this all night of course, but my view is that EP polanski’d his way into St Elizabeth’s when a more authentic (and dignified) (and classical!) fate might have involved his suffering the full consequences of being on the wrong side, in the wrong cause, at the end of a world war. some hard time, at the least, instead of the life-in-death of the loony bin and the various questions begged by his “insanity”. i mean, WAS he bonkers? or was he just a titanic idiot at a moment when the stakes could barely have been higher? he may have made a rather inefficient arch-propagandist, but it wasn’t for lack of trying…

  4. Without a doubt, the whole Pound treason/insanity question is a dizzying, question-begging clusterfuck. Beyond which lies the utter & quite self-evident wrongness of Pound’s war. It’s there at the hard, fallen-sky reality of it that NickL’s keen take on Pound’s later apologia bites and sticks: to fob off his depravity as mere banality IN THIS INSTANCE was appalling blindness indeed.

    I think about the famous meeting of Celan and Heidegger whenever the Pound/Ginsberg audience comes up. In their very different ways, Celan and Ginsberg are utterly loving and understanding while simultaneously pointing their steady fingers at the rotten heart—two moments that stand in stark contrast to the larger campaigns to exonerate or rehabilitate or excuse these two eminences. Although their motives perhaps were highbrow, the postwar rehabilitators felt compelled to go middlebrow on behalf of Heidegger & Pound, offering defenses based on banality & insanity respectively…. While the two Jewish poets, each one a prince of poetic invention, knew and had the courage to offer the moral clarity of a cleanly modulated silence.

  5. well now i feel a bit shabby, for wishing a partisan’s bullet on EP when the more profound (and practical) response is obviously the all-seeing lovingness of ginsberg. the rehabilitators “compelled to go middlebrow” – that’s dynamite too: compare with mailer’s defence of jack abbott, when he (mailer) went mussolini-highbrow – “culture is worth a little risk.” etc

  6. There are limits though, and EP crossed them. He’s no hero, and he sounded no more insane than any other fascist, who all sounded quite rational within their insane and evil agenda. Check out some of these transcripts from his radio broadcasts:

    Nazism had an aesthetic as well as an economic and political agenda, the aestheticism of the chosen, the pure, the cheap read of ‘beyond good and evil.’ We have the same debate in visual arts about Leni Riefenstahl. Especially if any part of that agenda was reflected in, or central to, EP’s artistic project, I would say that boots him out of contention. Loving the enemy is not always (often?) appropriate, sometimes anger, condemnation – and prevention – are the correct (only?) responses.

  7. I want to believe there’s some difficult position from which we can hold Pound the person to account as we critically appraise his work on its aesthetic merits. As with Heidegger, there is some necessary tension in Pound’s legacy which cannot be reduced by appraisals of his status literary, psychiatric, criminal, or tortious. Moreover, it’s impossible to envision literary modernism in the 20th century without the prewar Pound.

    Pound’s poetry is consistently at its weakest wherever it’s most strongly tainted by noxious ideology. The radio transcripts, moreover, are foul business, ugly and venomous, utterly beyond redemption, deserving of condemnation and, yes, of punishment. But just as Pound’s prewar championing of Eliot and others cannot be blanked out, the Cantos do not deserve but demand a different accounting. It’s likely that Pound’s wartime sins occlude our picture of his prewar impact to an extent that distorts our casual knowledge of the cultural history of the early 20th century.

    I don’t think exclusion from the modernist canon is among the powers of any legal regime whose brief is the punishment of war crimes. Such things are both beneath and utterly beyond the reach of courts and governments, be they legitimate or corrupt. It’s self-evidently true in the case of our less ambiguous heroes, like Babel or Mandelstam; in the case of a public scoundrel like Pound, it seems to me, the same physics applies.

    Of course, we reach a point where the tension simply becomes too disturbing. I find Pound hard to read for that very reason. But that doesn’t diminish his cultural significance (which arguably came to and end when he went off the ideological deep end) or artistic achievements (which continued after he committed his crimes). In a way that’s damned frustrating, it underscores that significance—and reminds us that we’re dealing with primordial powers here among the muses; fickle, voracious, and unconcerned with our feelings, much less our fates.

  8. Don’t feel shabby, Winds! It feels cold to say it, but the partisan’s bullet & Ginsberg’s lovingness aren’t incompatible—not from the Angel of History’s perspective, at any rate.

  9. the other pertinent case is that of pg wodehouse, vilified by his old pal aa milne in particular for making (as a civilian POW) wartime broadcasts on german radio. an episode in a different key, but quite as tragic in its way as the EP saga – “the world fell” on the comedian no less than on the histrionic poet. i wrote about it – not very well, but at least informatively – here:


  10. if Ez were still with us…

    Canto 4032

    And then to ships, the white keel advancing
    La Sarah on Alaska’s height
    in a frenzy of truth,
    Or bold Sir Glenn, the King’s favourite, laughing richly at table,
    riding down foes on The Box

    (sandalled feet plash in the bright shallows,
    the keel biting sand…
    Forza Jack Bauer!)

    To whom the money? I? “Show me the money.”
    What spread’st below
    is muck, manure, a grandam’s compost
    hidden ‘neath heavy skirts
    coin of the realm
    the realm itself a smouldering dung-house



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