Ezra Pound and the wrath of Ted
It seems I just can't please Ted Jenner. After I wrote about the Tongan philosopher and classicist Futa Helu last year, Ted e mailed and phoned me to register his disapproval at some of the comments my essay had made about Heraclitus, and about the ancient Greek academy. As one of New Zealand's foremost scholars of ancient Greek texts, and a particular expert on the gnomic texts of Heraclitus, Ted was someone I had to listen to carefully.
Ted is also an expert on Ezra Pound, and he called the other night to tell me he was very irritated at some of the remarks I had made about Pound in my essay 'Crossing the Plains', which was published on this blog last year and has been republished in revised form in the latest issue of the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief. My text is an account of a car journey across the Hauraki Plains, one of the least picturesque and therefore - for me, at least - most interesting regions of New Zealand, but it finds the time to mention the poetry and politics of Pound. I was too cowardly to talk to Ted in person, but after Skyler fielded his call the great man explained to her that he was upset by my essay's comparison of The Cantos, the epic poem Pound spent fifty years writing, to the messy and sometimes ugly antique shops of Paeroa, the little town on the eastern edge of the Hauraki Plains.
Like Heraclitus, Pound's work exists only in fragments. But where Heraclitus' texts are fragmentary because so much of his work was lost in the centuries after his death, Pound's are deliberately fractured. As a young man moving on the Bohemian fringes of the London literary scene before World War One, Pound invented a new way of composing poetry. Influenced by the Cubist painters and by his eccentric understanding of the Chinese ideograph, Pound stopped filling his poems with linear arguments and narratives and instead began to juxtapose fragments of imagery. Here is the complete text of the 1913 poem 'In a Station of the Metro':
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough
Pound forces our minds to leap from a crowded Paris railway station to the branch of a peaceful tree, and to consider the relation between these two images. After Pound's innovation, much of the poetry of the later half of the nineteenth century suddenly seemed long-winded and affected.
At about the same time that he was liberating other poets, Pound was imprisoning himself in fascist ideology. After he moved to Italy in the early '20s, the poet began to praise Benito Mussollini, and to rant about usury, that ancient obsession of anti-semites. Pound spent World War Two giving increasingly incoherent lectures in praise of Hitler and Mussollini, which the Italian authorities dutifully broadcast by radio to his native America. After the war he was deported to America and kept for a dozen years in a mental hospital, before emerging and returning to Italy. Through all of these years, Pound worked away at The Cantos, a poem which attempts to use the technique he had discovered before World War One to explore and elucidate human history. Juxtaposing scenes from Confucian China, revolutionary America, Napoleonic France, and dozens of other eras, The Cantos has been called the greatest long poem ever written, a dangerous anti-semitic polemic, and a fearful mess.
Ted does not in any way share Pound's fascist politics. In conversation with me he has defined himself as a non-Marxist socialist, and he is proud of the broken tooth he suffered on a protest against the Springbok tour back in 1981. While conceding that parts of The Cantos are ruined by Pound's politics, Ted still finds many stretches of beauty and wisdom in the poem. I'm not sure if I can agree with the second part of this judgment: while there are undeniably pages full of resonant phrasing and luminous images in Pound's poem, they all too often give way to explosions of bigotry and to demented raves. The poem's passages of beauty seem to me like the leafy countryside which surrounds some of Hitler's old death camps: how can their beauty be enjoyed, when it sits so close to evidence of something so sinister? I'm dismayed, as well, when I see that a number of contemporary neo-Nazis, including New Zealand's own Kerry Bolton, cite Pound as a political inspiration.
Although I find it difficult to celebrate The Cantos, I can agree with Ted that Pound was one of the most important and influential of all twentieth-century poets. Even if Pound's writing ceased to find readers, his influence would remain, because the technique that he showed off in poems like 'In a Station of the Metro' has become a part of the way we think as well as the way we write. Back in the '60s, Marshall McLuhan noted that the modern newspaper, with its many separate stories juxtaposed with one another, resembles the sort of poem Pound pioneered. In the internet era the hyperlink frequently operates in a Poundian way, by making our minds leap suddenly from one piece of information to another.
Most of today's poets are instinctive Poundians. The first entry in the new issue of brief is a poem called 'Stutter won't' by Sarah Bogle, an undergraduate student in law and English at the University of Auckland. I first met Sarah almost a decade ago, when she was in her early teens, and when her mother, who is a well-known Auckland trade union activist, dragged her along to a political function held at the house where I lived. In those days Sarah haunted a website where fans of Harry Potter would publish unofficial prequels and sequels to JK Rowling's tomes; I remember her working on one of her own Potter novels. I'm not sure whether Sarah has ever read Pound with as much fervour as she read about Potter, but 'Stutter won't' shows a certain grasp of the technique Pound invented:
remember lips like
and hair, words on paper-pillow, scrawled, untidy...
remember, underwear black like the caves at Bethells
remember trees behind glass - palms scratched from climbing them...
When Sarah writes 'underwear black like the caves at Bethells' she brings together two images - one of them suggestive of intimacy and domesticity and comfort, and the other drawn from the wild west coast of Auckland, with its wave-gouged cliff-faces and fatal rips and uninhabited horizons - and asks us to hold them both in our heads, and to consider what they might mean together. 'Stutter won't' has some of the same quality as 'At the Station of the Metropole'.
I'm not sure if these words of measured praise for Pound will placate Ted Jenner, but I'll soon find out: he's writing a reply to 'Crossing the Plains' which he intends to submit to Hamish Dewe, who is guest editing the next issue of brief.