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]