Since my middle school years, I have considered Ezra Pound the greatest poet of the first half of the twentieth century. (Who might be the best of the second half I cannot say, though I could name some good ones.) Whether I like it or not, this choice inevitably ensnares me in Pound’s politics, his peculiar brand of fascism and his more sinister anti-Semitism. Never wavering in my youthful judgment, I feel it remains necessary to make an apologia which, while it has nothing to do with art, is required on ethical grounds.
Dramatic and disturbing as Pound’s history is, it has no place in the evaluation of his work. Though critics agree on little, I think there would be a consensus among all but a few non-literary hangers-on (perhaps a stray Catholic or two or a superannuated vulgar Marxist) that assessment of literary value has nothing whatever to do with the author’s ideas or even the text’s relation to a reader’s lived experience. While it is true that for millennia the poet was charged with a simple and direct teaching role, we moderns have learned to use art’s fictions more subtly to sniff our way toward a satisfactory vision. For both the old Aesthetes and the New Critics, and all the more for many post-structuralists, the poem must stand (or fall) alone, independent of any facts of the author’s biography. Most of us recognize the old trope of the poet as prophet as a rhetorical figure, useful to intensify certain sorts of statements. It would be an uphill battle indeed for anyone attempting to claim for the artist a privileged access to Truth.
Still, fascism is so recent and pernicious a movement that it is difficult for some to accept the general rule. Our reading of Plato or Isaiah is not impeded by the fact that they saw nothing wrong in slavery; we can relish any of a host of European Roman Catholic artists who would not have dreamed of criticizing the Inquisition, even when the church was known to be torturing and killing its victims. Apart from such unquestioned fascists as Céline, D’Annunzio, and Marinetti, there were countless semi-fascists and casual anti-Semites in the first half of the twentieth century: Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Even such an unlikely suspect as Gertrude Stein was a lifelong reactionary who thought Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize and adored Pétain, calling him the “George Washington of France” and translating his speeches, including the virulent anti-Semitic passages. Whatever she may have been thinking, has this anything at all to do with Tender Buttons?
So Pound’s politics, whatever interest they may hold for historians, psychologists, economists, or ethicists, shouldn’t matter in reckoning his literary value. So far as I am concerned, this principle is not restricted to the arts. If I require the services of a heart surgeon, I will seek the best qualified and most experienced individual. Should he also be a Republican homophobe, my choice would not be affected. The same is true of all expertise.
Indeed, though it does not exculpate the poet, his anti-Semitism seems largely a monstrously ill-considered pose. Pound’s economic and political views were primarily based in a revulsion against the acquisitive consumer society modern capitalism has produced. His Social Credit ideas were peculiar, and he consistently maintained Jewish friends. Even his feeble final volte-face, in which he called anti-Semitism a “stupid, suburban prejudice,” suggests the irresponsible flimsiness of his racism.
(I might add finally, more as proof of how far off track these inquiries into poets’ political allegiances can lead one than from any evidentiary claim that I myself have always been an anti-racist, active on the left. My wife is also half Jewish, though I am afraid that is through her father.)
Pound’s importance in literary and critical history is unquestionable, yet my fondness for him is, I fancy, wholly aesthetic. I echo Eliot’s celebrated dedicatory praise: just as Arnaut Daniel was for Dante, Pound is in fact il miglior fabbro. It is clear that, the analysis of literary value depends on an interaction between text and reader and, for this reason, cannot be “objective.” One reader finds a jewel in what to another might be tiresome and empty. Still, certain works have, over time, proven richer and more productive than others. It is clear that this judgment does not predictably rely on inherent qualities when some texts of little inherent interest, certain passages in the Bible, for instance, have gained depth and significance through many layers of careful interpretation.
I can only lay out my case on Pound’s behalf. Perhaps his categories of melopoeia and phanopoeia (bracketing logopoeia for cause) can make my case. Can any modern composer of free verse match the music in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley?
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.
As for images, one need not return to the early bits. Canto XVI, for instance, offers the following moments in a montage: “the road like a slow screw’s thread,” “[his eyes] whirling like flaming cart-wheels,” “flames patterned in lacquer,” “hell ticks, scales, fallen louse eggs,” “fish heaped in a bin,” and on it goes, an apparently inexhaustible fountain each term of which offers startling clarity.
Such exhibits could be endlessly extended, but to little purpose. The bulkiest chrestomathy could go no further than to specify my own reactions, without necessarily inspiring the like in others. Still every sensitive reader of poetry must agree that first-rate poetry obliterates biography and history, if only for a moment. When they return, as they must to salvage humane values, art’s terms are no longer in play. When, by that reckoning the poet must be condemned, the verdict has nothing to do with his art. And yet the art remains. And some will return to it, regardless the artist’s life. For those to whom the posies of the beaux arts make life livable (and the anthropological evidence is that this embraces all homo sapiens), all else can be, for a time, ignored.