Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fascism, elections, and poetry


A week ago I posted an 'Election Statement' from Titus Books, which advertised the launch, on the day after New Zealand goes to the polls, of my book of poems Feeding the Gods, and Bronwyn Lloyd's book of short stories The Second Location.

Titus' statement did not underestimate the importance of New Zealand's upcoming general election, nor of politics in general, but it argued that poetry and stories ought to have as much importance in our society as the more perishable literature produced by candidates and media pundits in the lead-up to polling day. At one point in its missive, Titus quoted the great and controversial twentieth century poet Ezra Pound's dictum that 'Literature is news that stays news'.

Farrell, a regular reader of this blog and an occasional commenter here, wondered whether Titus was wise to quote Pound:

Both books sound good. I hope to be [at the launch]. I winced though at seeing the foaming-at-the-mouth murderously-racist-fascist Pound being quoted in a plea for literature to be considered more important than elections. However much one can defend poems by fascists, as Richard [Taylor] so eloquently does, (but not poems like Yeats' notorious marching song for the Irish fascists), it is disappointing that Titus should be so blind to the world outside literary stylistic concerns as to quote Pound in a piece about elections. One could make the same point and draw inspiration not from the poisonous Pound but from the harmless Proust who lamented the fact that we don't get Shakespeare's plays delivered at our doorsteps everyday and keep the gossip and petty-crime for dusty volumes on the top shelf?

Ezra Pound has provoked controversy almost every time he has popped up at this blog. To his most earnest supporters, Pound is a man who almost single-handedly revolutionised poetry in the early twentieth century, modernising and dynamising its language, opening it to the influence of non-European cultures, and proving that it could compete, in length and in seriousness, with the modern novel. To his detractors, Pound is a talented writer who threw away his promise when he embraced the doctrine of fascism in the early '30s, and who discredited himself definitively by making hundreds of violently anti-semitic radio broadcasts from Italy during World War Two.

For many people, myself included, Pound is an awkward, painful figure, an object both of admiration and disgust. Back in June I posted about my conflicted feelings towards Pound, and about my arguments with Ted Jenner, a former New Zealand correspondent for Paidemua, the journal of Ezra Pound studies. Like Farrell, I find it difficult to enjoy Pound's epic poem The Cantos, where passages of undeniable beauty give way, with a suddenness that can be dizzying and nauseating, to rants about the evils of usurious Jews.

And yet I can't help feeling some affection for Pound: I owe, after all, some of the techniques which I use in my poems, and which I enjoy in the poems of my peers, to the innovations he made, in the face of the derision of the literary establishment and the contempt of mainstream society, a century ago. How can any modern poet completely disown Pound, without going back to writing like AE Housman or Tennyson?
Ted Jenner had little sympathy for my anxieties over Pound. In a comment he left under the post I made in June, he accused me of bringing politics too close to art:

Your comments on Pound betray the the bias of a doctrinaire socialist who cannot force himself to recognise that good poetry might be written by someone who expressed (yes, virulently at times) sympathy with causes such as Fascism and Anti-Semitism. And yet having known you for three years now, I do not believe you are of a doctrinaire nature. You do, however, evince blind spots in the case of two poets whose politics I abhor but whose poetry I admire, namely EP and Leigh Davis.

It seems to me that there is something a little doctrinaire about Ted's insistence, in this statement, that discussions about poetry, and by extension all of the arts, should be kept insulated from arguments about politics.

I remember talking with Ted about the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand, which prompted him to take to the streets with tens of thousands of other New Zealanders, and which eventually cost him a tooth. Ted lamented the way that Kiwi rugby fans completely disregarded the political system of South Africa, and believed that they could host a South African rugby team without giving aid and comfort to apartheid. "If Nazi Germany were still around in 1981 had a rugby team, I think many New Zealand rugby fans would want to host that team", he complained.

If it is irrational to keep sport and politics rigidly separated, isn't the 'art for art's sake' line that Ted uses to protect Pound from his detractors also quixotic? Pound himself saw The Cantos not as some abstract, self-referring work, but as an attempt to intervene in the world, and to affect the course of history. Shouldn't we take his intentions seriously?

I talked with Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books, yesterday about Farrell's comments. Brett didn't necessarily disagree with much of what Farrell had said, but he suggested that it would be a mistake to associate Pound completely with fascism. Brett pointed out that Pound's most influential work was done in the first decades of the twentieth century, before the demented odes to Mussolini and the denunciations of Jews. He suggested that Pound's notorious wartime radio broadcasts were the product partly of mental illness, and he argued that, in the late work he did after being released from an American psychiatric hospital and returning to Italy, Pound showed remorse for his anti-semitism.

It is certainly true that the sparely beautiful last pages of The Cantos contain phrases - 'my errors and wrecks lie about me' and 'I cannot make it cohere' are two famous examples - which suggest that Pound had realised the awfulness of the politics he had embraced in the 1930s and '40s. But there are also photos of the elderly Pound giving stiff-armed salutes.

It seems to me that we should not try to resolve the case of Pound, either by using his fascism to dismiss all his work or by rehabilitating him using a rhetoric of art for art's sake. He should remain an awkward, painful character, an example of the way that art can neither be reduced to politics nor removed from the influence of politics.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

20 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't it funny how much ezra pund and ted jenner resemble one another???????

5:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pund. pound.

5:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

People are complex and contracdictory.

William Carlos Williams was perhaps as great a poet and a friend of Pound. Williams was a doctor and worked long hours helping working people through their illnesses and delivering many children. (But he wasn't immune form peccadillos for sure) He concentrated on "the local". But he was far from being just a man who wrote of things or "for the people". The "No idea but in things" is a misquote misunderstanding really. He also celebrated the imagination.

He supported Pound while clearly disagreeing with his "madness".

He appreciated Pound's ability and his poetics etc but didn't agree with his politics.

And remember that Pound was brought to trial and when that happened many many writers came to his defense and he was put in a mental asylum. Williams Carlos Williams and Olson (who in fact was interested in Mao Tse Tung at one stage and involved in (US) politics also but very anti Pound;s politics) kept in contact as did the NY poet Louis Zukofsky who was Jewish and had been in the Communist Party.

And before the war Pound had helped many many writers to get published including Eliot and Joyce.

I think you're dodging Ted's point as he was saying (or implying) that great poetry can be written by poets whose politics are quite abhorrent to us. I have always had a big problem with Pound also. But Knut Hamsun (pro Nazi and anti US) and many of the Italian writers (poets,often great poets) were often fascist. The great writer Pirandello was close to Mussolini and so on.

For all we know Shakespeare* might have embraced Nazism. There is no correlation. His work was quite nihilist in his later dramas etc There is no necessity for great artist to be "good". Life just doesn't work out that way (and nor is that necessarily art for art's sake as Pound thought he was doing good - he thought that Western civilization and democracy etc had lead to the world wars and also he believed (deeply, with a passion) he was right that the Jews were responsible because of their practice of usury. That is what he believed. He had to stay true to hie beliefs and in that sense he was good. And honest. Perhaps more honest than many how supported the US and the British Imperialisms.

He was clearly anti-Semitic (probably far longer than Brett says and probably long after that ) He had been attracted to Social Credit.

His trouble was that he didn't really understand economics and politics or science. (He really believed in the Greek gods and myths though for example.)

Leigh Davis was involved in "high finance". (And I assume had a right wing politic but I cant be sure of that.) I believe but his poetry is highly innovative and has a lot of support from many who also support Titus Books.

*Shakespeare was obsessively concentrated in his life on making money and trying to rise in his "status". That is known because of the considerable litigation over dispersion of his own property etc he was involved in and the (very lucrative and successful) businesses he formed.

10:26 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I think you make some good points Richard. I suppose it's the question of *how* some writers with bad politics manage to produce great art which is interesting.

Eliot was an anti-semite and an incorrigible snob who supported facist movements in France and - I think - elsewhere, but The Waste Land is a great poem. Is it a great poem despite its author's beliefs, or (partly) because of them?

I think I'd agree with Michael Schmidt's argument that Eliot's extremely conservative politics, his disdainful view of the modern world and its inhabitants, and his conviction that the world was going to the pot in the early twentieth century, thanks to red raggers and suffragettes and other evil types, motivated him to find a poetic form which was capable of preserving those remnants of what he saw as Western civilisation - 'these fragments I have shored against my ruin' and all that - as well as surveying, in a panoptic and nastily parodic way, contemporary British society ('Hurry up please it's time!').

In other words, Eliot's conservatism made him a great innovator. There's a dialectical relationship between his bitterly reactionary view of the world and his revolutionary approach to art.

But this sort of explanation is not open to someone who takes the sort of 'art for art's sake' approach, which I think Ted is prone to lapsing into, when he's confronted with great poets who had dire politics.

4:58 am  
Anonymous grace said...

what a load of intellectual waffle.
what about saying something about the REAL world.

oh I forgot people like S and R don't live there

4:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

duelling words left unsaid in the library!
http://ecko4inc.wordpress.com/

8:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although some Eastern religious traditions argue passivity in the face of brutal force, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious traditions of the West all acknowledge the morality and justness of armed resistance when necessary.

12:58 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"grace said...

what a load of intellectual waffle.
what about saying something about the REAL world.

oh I forgot people like S and R don't live there"

Do tell.

2:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Cynthia Ozick, in her book of essays "What Henry James Knew", does a massive hatchet job on Eliot [she rightly points to the "influence of his life with his first wife and her influence on his work, fired or indirect]* but it is implied by all this (passionate critique) that he is or was a great poet.

'The Waste Land' and 'Prufrock' are two poems that I almost know by heart. I've known them since at least 1968.

I don't care about Eliot's politics. I read a bio of him and he seemed quite funny man (a droll, Laforgian figure) in his own way. Once protesting at length to a student who thought she recognized him that he wasn't T S Eliot the famous poet. [Beckett also denied he was himself at times I believe!]

I like the way he gave a big lecture about the differences between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare during the war. In his lectures etc there is almost no reference to war etc

Note, however, you will find from Joyce almost a complete refusal to take ANY notice of the war.

Except that being a dedicated coward he was (sensibly) terrified of any violence and was desperate to keep a) Well away from Ireland (and Irish politics and any violent nationalist activities) b) right out of war (he ignored news of the war) c) out of any employment except writing his books d) keep being able to cadge money and booze and eat well almost every night (as he did
until he died of an ulcer!)

There is no evidence Joyce was in the least bit interested in politics or "the people". Joyce was interested in himself - James Joyce. So who is the Bad Boy of Modernism?

Thus he was a true and honest creative artist.

Pound was "untrue" to the extent he tried to be "political".

There was nothing wrong with Pound or Eliot (or Joyce.) You may as well stop taking Wagner into account.

*She also attacks his big idea of the "objective correlative"
but I think she is unfair and misconstrues that idea somewhat. She is really saying that he is not as "impersonal as he seems in his work...

3:01 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But I think you are right somewhat in saying there is a strange dialectic between "fascist" thinking and the high creative.

It maybe, in Eliot's case, more that he sublimated his personal introversion, his breakdown etc

BTW I read 'Dart' by Alice Oswald. It is very good. Some parts are quite intense. [But not as powerfully so as those =qvlnt parts of Finneagn's Wake (A.L.P etc)] A lot goes on on in the Livy and Dart rivers! An intriguing idea. I will take interested in seeing anything else Alice Oswald publishes.

3:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted Jenner. What a freaky fucker.

10:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Scott, for giving Pound another run... and to both Richard and you for
fascinating musings on the literary achievements of people with some some seriously nasty ideas. You could add Celine to the list.
I wouldn’t put Joyce in their company though. Egotistical to the point of solipsism, certainly. Arrogantly annoyed with Ireland for daring to change after he went into exile, sure. Fascistoid, never.
The Jewish everyman, Leopold Bloom, does a heroic job of dealing to bigoted nationalism in his pub argument with the Citizen in Ulysses.
Joyce was not banned in Church-ridden Ireland for his attacks on Fianna Failish pieties, but the Nationalists would have hated them just as much as Molly’s soliloquy.

Farrell

11:23 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes I remember that incident. I call it the "biscuit tin incident". The Citizen is "one eyed" (Polyhemus) [..me, somewhere in a poem, "He was poly, though he had but one.." ] and he is indeed the (no blind in more than one sense) ) bigot. And indeed Bloom (symbolically Odysseus who is fleeing the Polyphemus who hurls rocks after him (the biscuit tin) represents life and hope perhaps...as does the yessing Molly: yes, I feel Joyce overall is perhaps more poetical (and I will contradict myself (like Whitman, who Joyce quotes via Wilde in Ulysses also!) hear a bit: he WAS, in a deep way, political) but I don't see Eliot as not...his (TS's darkness is from his personal feelings and personality)...Joyce personally was more out going...

He was NOT fascistic at all...but he was a great "bludger" (a term used by Phil Gogh tonight! He'd not have any Joyce's!)..

And Ulysses is also in the comic-satiric tradition of Swift's Gulliver's Travels and also.
Rabellais, Sterne etc Unquestionably a great writer.
Ted Jenner is also a great fan of Joyce.

And we can learn a lot, not just in terms of literature from Joyce.

In defence of Pound's strangeness (how could the writer of such wonderful poetry yet have such politics) Terry Sturm once quoted Joyce from his "Portrait of the Artist as Young Man" and the way language can be ambiguous. (..he cited Joyce's play with words as a child (recalled) ..."Apologise, apologise, pull out his eyes..." something such as that...so somehow Pound's writing was (often) "just" words...in love with words and "ideas" (but that is how the distortions can arise..cf. Yeats of "The heart fed on fantasy's grown brutal with the fare.." and so on...

But Sturm (who was a very good lecturer and tutor) dodged the issue a bit I think as I couldn't see that that was really relevant...

I think it just seems to be a fact that all kinds of people are creative and even add to out culture or Art whose politics we might find abhorrent.

I think that the "artist" cant really be "stable". It is perhaps a romantic notion, but the "great" writer seems to be protean to use Map's term of me.

While we are better keeping as positive as we can...there are "dark" issues...hmmm...

Protean. Odysseus wrestles with the shift shaping transforming form changing Proteus.

I feel it. I feel as if I have to be everything.

12:55 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Joyce hated violence and Ulysses seems to be a positive celebration. Bloom stands for the wandering Jew but he stands up against prejudice as Joyce depicts him.

Bloom is bloom.

12:58 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I haven't book by Celine but haven't read it...must do some time.

Wyndham Lewis (once part of Pound's group) came to regret his love affair with Hitler also.

1:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Greek] Os d'ot an aixi noos aneros, ost', epi pollin
yaian elilouthos, fresi peukalimisi noisi'
enth' eiin, i entha' menoiniseie te polla'--II. XV. 80

2:15 pm  
Anonymous Ted Jenner said...

Dear Skunk Hamilstein,
you persist in misunderstanding me. I am not using the arts for arts sake argument to defend Pound, but merely saying that your trouble appreciating the poet seems to be due to your own prejudices and political persuasions. I don't hold with arts for arts sake, nor did Pound. He spoke out against it quite often in his London years. I remember Hone Tuwhare was once warned off Pound and Eliot as reactionary writers. Then he read them and had no trouble admitting that he enjoyed their poetry. Would you have warned Hone off reading Pound and Eliot? I think you would have, and he would have been impoverished as a poet asa consequence.

By the way, I do wish you would stop using that photo of me screwing up my face at you. It was meant as a joke and now you are using it to prelude my arguments with your position on this blog, apparently to weaken my argument and present me as a 'crazy'; cf. 'what a weird fucker that Ted Jenner is' by anonymous. I can't imagine you posting a similar photo of yourself on your blog.

What fascinates me is the way that afternoon swim last December (the occasion of the photograph in question)still resonates with you and leads each time to a slighting of myself. Could it be that you are annoyed that i showed a little more alacrity than you at the prospect of a swim in a dark hole supposedly inhabited by a taniwha?

12:30 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

You're getting the wrong end of the stick, Ted - I wish to honour not slight you, both on the blog and in my latest tome! And the foreword to the book does warn folks not to expect literal truth in the notes!

It was good to see you yesterday and see that you are on the mend. Are you up for a screening of Paul Janman's film, either at my place or at Paul's place in Onehunga, in a couple of weeks' time?

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

On the subject of silly photos, check out these:

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.
com/2007/06/happy-birthday-maps.html

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.
com/2006/07/meet-new-rock-
gods.html

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.
com/2007/12/burp.html

Ted's been in good campany, then. But I will take that photo down, and replace it with something more professorial...

1:35 pm  
Anonymous ted jenner said...

Must admit to some uncharacteristic (?) irritation the other day when i posted my last comment on your blog, Scoot. I should have learnt by now not to go anywhere near you when you've got a camera in your hands! You're even more of a loose cannon with a camera than you are with a pen!

Further to Pound argument: I think you're forgetting that though usury plays quite a large part in the Cantos, insults against Jews, usurious or not, are comparatively rare, and Pound even blacked out passages that insulted Jewish financiers and bankers - which explains the series of thick dark lines that appear in at least two places in the poem. I must admit, however, that this was no doubt at the request of Faber & Faber.

11:11 am  

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