Misunderstanding Ezra Pound


The Roots of Treason by E. Fuller Torrey. McGraw-Hill, 1984. 339 pp.

The Genealogy of Demons by Robert Casillo. Northwestern University Press, 1988. 463 pp.

The American Ezra Pound by Wendy Stallard Flory. Yale University Press, 1989. 230pp.

Even in a supposedly enlightened age, superstitions abound concerning literature: one of the foremost being that no poor judgment can stand the test of Time, that posthumous reputations are uniformly just. For proof of the contrary, one need look no further than Ezra Pound. This American poet, recognized by his contemporaries as a master, and singularly influential on the course of modern poetry, was subjected to a malicious criticism only after his death. And this is, perhaps, what is genuinely surprising: that one of our great poets has been more mistreated in death than in life, and by the gossip of his descendants.

This gossip, masquerading as criticism, has focused on Pound’s fascism, his antisemitism, and his alleged insanity. The academic criticism on Pound, especially, has often substituted extra-literary condemnations of the man, and his life, for analysis of his literary achievements. That certain opinions exclude their holder from polite society is unquestionably true, and deserved. That the criteria of polite society should be used to exclude one from the canons of literary taste is another matter altogether, and not one to be seconded only for the sake of social (not to mention political) correctness.

Now it cannot be disputed that Pound held fascist and antisemitic views: this is a biographical fact. One encounters his praise of Mussolini and his condemnation of the Jews in his letters, his radio speeches, and his prose. Further, it must be conceded that Pound’s views were maintained for so long, in the face of so much contravening evidence, that they were not merely irresponsible, but amounted to a kind of immorality.

Yet in what sense is this biographical fact important to the reader? For the basis of the poet’s reputation is his poetry, and not his life. Do we judge a particular work of art to be immoral because of the author’s immorality, or the immorality of his other works? To do so would be to predetermine our response. No, the work of art must be judged solely on its own merit, which requires an objectivity often to be effected only by its isolation.

Now I take it for granted that a work of art can be immoral. Nor do I think a convincing argument can be made that moral criteria must be, a priori, excluded from artistic judgment, though their inclusion there is not always applicable. Such criteria cannot help us when confronting Alice In Wonderland, though they are absolutely necessary before Crime and Punishment. The purely aesthetic reading of literature, that central tenet of the Art For Art’s Sake movement, is not a permanent value of literary criticism; it was, however, a necessary reaction to the purely moralistic criticism of the nineteenth century under which artists as diverse as Swinburne and Blake suffered.

Moral criteria should intrude into literary criticism only when moral issues intrude into the contents of literature. Quite simply, the degree to which Pound’s fascist and antisemitic opinions should enter into literary judgment is the degree to which they enter into his poetry. Now such opinions appear in Pound’s poetry only in his later work, The Cantos, and there very infrequently. In an epic poem stretching some 800 pages there are, if one compiled the passages, perhaps three or four pages of objectionable material. The immorality of his verse is, after all, demonstrably slight.

Why Ezra Pound has become, in spite of this, “the scapegoat of modern poetry” as Karl Shapiro called him, is an interesting story too lengthy to continue here. Suffice to say that Pound has been chosen by critics as a kind of token sacrifice from the pantheon of Modernist authors who held sinful and reactionary views (a list which includes W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Filippo Marinetti, and Ferdinand Céline to name a very few). Thus, while the Céline of Bagatelles pour un massacre has been disregarded for the Céline of Mort à credit, just as the Eliot of “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” has been ignored for the Eliot of Ash Wednesday, a very different protocol has been used concerning Pound’s literary reputation. The author of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Cathay has been buried under his radio speeches and letters so that his name has become synonymous, in many minds, with the worst crimes of the twentieth century.

His name does not deserve this fate. In fact, it has taken a systematic misrepresentation of Pound’s poetry to achieve his infamy. This has not been the project of hack journalists or Gertrude Stein fans but, incredibly, of Poundian scholars themselves. It must be admitted that some academic scholars were highly uncomfortable with Pound’s canonical position in American letters, for the sole reason that he held fascist and antisemitic views. Their critical assaults, therefore, were conducted with little pretense of objectivity, which was unnecessary in such a campaign, since those who dared to object could be branded easily enough as ideological compatriots of the poet.

A strange dichotomy now pervades literary criticism. In an age that disowns the Catholic Index and the obscenity trial, that embraces every scandalous work from Petronius to Leautréamont, The Cantos almost singularly retains its evil reputation. And while such worthless novels as Les 120 Journées de sodome trumpet their author as “a writer whose originality of thought and language warrants his being given a permanent high place in French literature” (to quote an entry in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia), The Cantos is vilified as “a fascist epic in a precise historical sense.” The latter book, however, contains only a few, scattered lines of ideological filth.

And that is the real problem. Pound’s reputation as the poet laureate of Nazism cannot be supported by reference to his poetry. Even the critics busy condemning Pound seem to know this, since they so often make references to objectionable comments found in his letters or his speeches, while ostensibly reviewing his literary achievement. Wendy Stallard Flory, in her book The American Ezra Pound, often gets confused this way:

Most problematic, even preemptively so, is the matter of Pound’s antisemitism. His work cannot be addressed in any unqualified way until this issue is examined in full…Further, it is likely to be far more of a consideration for those whose outrage at Pound makes it impossible to take him seriously as a poet…the antisemitism of the radio broadcasts has kept so many potential readers from engaging with Pound’s poetry in an unequivocal way or even at all…

It need hardly be added that Flory never explains exactly how the antisemitism “of the radio broadcasts” disqualifies the poetry. The underlying assumption is simply that it does, and must. All reasonable people will understand this to be so, since they are the ones too outraged to even read the poet. So, in her knowing way, Flory agrees to take up all of the reader’s objections and explain the poet as best she can.

It also need hardly be added that Flory isn’t doing Pound any favors. Flory’s book is, in fact, an attempt to save him for these readers by showing that he was one shade better than a monster. One chapter includes an extended comparison between Pound and Adolph Eichmann! The reader will now understand, supposedly, that Pound was quite moderate, when properly measured against the other beasts of the age, and give Personae one more try. One can safely assume that Ms. Flory’s tactics are tongue-in-cheek, for it is hardly believable that any reader, not even the imaginary ones that this critic has written her book for, would be drawn to read Pound after such “favorable” comparisons.

Unsurprisingly, these imaginary readers who were so outraged that they could not even approach Pound’s verse turn out to be other critics. This is undeniably true for two reasons: Pound’s radio broadcasts from Rome were never heard by the American public, and the transcripts of those broadcasts were unpublished until 1978, six years after his death. Thus, Flory worries that this ideal, outraged reader will dismiss Pound based upon speeches they have never heard, since those who bothered to purchase and read the broadcasts were almost exclusively scholars. There can’t be more than a thousand copies of these compiled transcripts (entitled “Ezra Pound Speaking“) in existence, and most of them are gathering dust in research libraries. That any reader actually approached Pound through the radio speeches first, and then gave up on the poetry, is a ludicrous idea.

Still, Flory is considered a moderate in the world of Poundian criticism, by attempting to apologize for him. And never mind the novelty of the apology. The Journal of Modern Literature was perversely correct when it commented that “The Pound who emerges from Flory’s readings is a much more humane and sympathetic figure than is to be found in most criticism of the man and his work.”

More sympathetic and humane, at any rate, than E. Fuller Torrey’s The Roots Of Treason, the most egregious example of biography one can imagine. Doctor Torrey is no less than a psychiatrist working at the very same St. Elizabeths Hospital where Pound was incarcerated thirteen years for “insanity.” Thus, this psycho-biography is full of the kind of authoritative diagnoses reserved, more usually, to God:

In current psychiatric nomenclature his would be called a narcissistic and cyclothymic personality disorder, which encompasses people who are highly productive, unusually creative, hypersexual, have inflated self-esteem, require constant admiration, lack empathy, often take advantage of others, and respond with rage when criticized. Many politicians, corporate executives, and entertainers fall into this category.

Ah yes, those “unusually creative” corporate executives and politicians! And Torrey has this to say about Pound’s incarceration at St. Elizabeths:

For someone who had been indicted on nineteen counts of treason, Pound could have done much worse. The hospital sits on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital, its spacious grounds covered with flowering trees planted by an early superintendent with arboreal interests. In 1946…the hospital had is own laundry, bakery, fire department, library, auditorium, gymnasium, and tennis courts. It wasn’t Harvard, but neither was it Leavenworth.

One senses more in this paragraph than an employee making sure his hospital gets some good copy, one senses an annoyance at all those rival biographers who so graphically described the horrors Pound was subjected to while confined to its “spacious grounds.” Torrey wants the reader to know that this was one very swank madhouse, and that Pound was granted special privileges in it, though how much this meant to the poet amid the constant screaming at night, while padlocked in his tiny cell, would be difficult to gauge. Such fine surroundings, Torrey assures us, ensured that “St. Elizabeths…rivaled London in being his happiest years as well.”

The Roots Of Treason is helpful, however, for the light it casts on the question of Pound’s sanity and on Dr. Winfred Overholser, an eminent and enlightened psychiatrist, who saved the poet’s life. It was Overholser who convinced the other psychiatrists assigned to evaluate Pound to judge him insane, and who got the poet transferred to St. Elizabeths, where the doctor presided as superintendent. It is an heroic story, for the doctor was able to single-handedly protect the poet from standing trial, on charges that were punishable by execution, against the diagnoses of three Army psychiatrists, and almost the entire psychiatric staff at his own hospital.

Dr. Torrey is, of course, disgusted with his predecessor for obstructing justice and harboring the poet. He wishes that Dr. Overholser had been discredited as a traitor and that Pound had hung for his infamous “radio treason.” Poundian scholars thus divide, largely, into two camps on this issue: the one finds the poet a sane and terrible man who should have stood trial, and the second finds him a strange and insane poet who should have been locked up in a psychiatric ward long before 1947.

Such biographies find their sorry match in several commentaries on The Cantos, written by those who would turn Pound into the Lord Haw-Haw of poetry. They range from the silly to the stupefying, and Massimo Bacigalupo’s The Forméd Trace is a model of the former kind of criticism. In the preface, he informs the reader that, if his critical position must be known, “I will say that I concur with R.P. Blackmur’s statement of 1934 that Pound ‘is neither a great poet nor a great thinker.’” Having dispensed with the pleasantries, he then suggests:

In many ways the Cantos belong in those shops that sell swastikas and recordings of Mussolini’s speeches, for they are, among other things, the sacred poem of the Nazi-Fascist millennium which mercifully never eventuated.

Reading through Pound’s epic poem, one not only wonders how the poet played Virgil to the Führer, but falters into bemused silence before an imaginary picture of Hitler, at a night rally, raising The Cantos above his hand and exhorting the troops to build the thousand-year phantastikon. The reader will, in fact, search vainly through 815 pages for the Nazi-Fascist narrative, stumbling instead on two cantos written in Italian, as well as a few dozen nasty lines, scattered mostly in the middle, throughout the Pisan Cantos. God knows what they have made of the preceding 422 pages. Such a search is rather anti-climactic, and I pity those readers who buy the poem in anticipation of the dark pleasure of reading “the sacred poem of the Nazi-Fascist millennium.”

Indeed, the continuing publication of books such as The Forméd Trace proves mostly that no large constituency of readers, even among academics, is familiar enough with the poem to recognize obvious critical fabrications. Perhaps most incredible, though, is the beginning of Bacigalupo’s acknowledgments: “I am grateful to Olga Rudge and to the late Dorothy and Ezra Pound for their friendship and some suggestions…”

For sheer ingenuity of spite, however, no critic has yet approached The Genealogy Of Demons by Robert Casillo. This book is exactly what its author hoped it would be—a compendium of the various denunciations of Pound, in which no critical apparatus, or fashionable strategy, is allowed to go unused. Sartre, Lacan, René Girard, Derrida, and Freud all get thanked in the introduction for helping Casillo handle Pound; their theories, along with all “the modern social sciences,” have helped to lay bare, among other sins, Pound’s “pervasive phallocentrism.”

Lest the naive reader be indifferent to such charges, Casillo then proceeds to explain why Pound must be exposed by the most “unflinching” criticism:

Indeed, by a careful selection of Pound’s statements one might present him, as have many critics, as a misunderstood apostle of benevolence, justice, and humanitarianism. One might do the same for Adolph Hitler, a writer whom Pound resembles as much as he resembles any other.

Indeed! Pound does not resemble Eichmann (the comparison that Flory uses, in a book that Casillo castigates as a real apologia) so much as the great leader himself. One might be initially surprised to know that the author of Personae bears the greatest stylistic resemblance to the author of Mein Kampf, but such are the Eleusinian mysteries that Casillo offers to share with us. Nor is this passage an aberration. On the contrary, Casillo seems positively enamored with the comparison.

It would not be too inane to conjecture that, very soon, other critics will provide us with similar couplings of Pound with every other Nazi high official. Why not Himmler and Goring too? And what were Goebbels’ views, exactly, on meter? Or did he prefer vers libre when rhapsodizing on the Final Solution? In fact, everything about Pound conspired to make him a fascist, according to this author:

Pound’s anti-monotheism, his reverence for the concrete and natural manifold, his emphasis on hierarchy, his suspicion of abstraction and transcendence, his glorification of myth and ritual, his agrarianism, his patriarchy, his anti-feminism, his solar religion, his abhorrence of usury, to give only a few examples. All of these taken together form a typical, mutually reinforcing fascist constellation.

This could be called the “scorched earth policy” of criticism. In fact, Casillo is so intent on getting his man that his blanket condemnations form an inadvertent apology for the poet. After all, if virtually every one of Pound’s beliefs and values led him to fascism, what else could he do?

But lest the reader mistake Casillo’s book as simply good, old-fashioned hatred masked through the thin veil of ill-digested popular psychology, or the sound and the fury signifying “phallo-centric” envy, the author clarifies what exactly is at stake:

The Pound cult would probably not have attained its present proportions if the liberal critics, instead of merely condemning and ignoring Pound’s poetry for its overt ideological evil, had fully elucidated the intimate relation between his poetry and politics. This strategy, had it been carried out in the years following the Bollingen controversy, would have prevented any facile and sophistic apologetic dissociation of Pound’s poetry…But the liberal critics, by at once condemning, ignoring and failing to explain Pound, have unwittingly fostered other critics’ attempts to turn him into a cultural god.

The critical conspiracy against Ezra Pound has nowhere been more openly acknowledged than here. Casillo wants “liberal” critics to tie the poet’s political views to his poetry, so that if one wishes to read him, it will come at the cost of general disapprobation. The Hitler comparison is important in this endeavor; the goal of Casillo’s book is to make the figure of Pound as “questionable” as that of the Fuhrer. This passage is not only a call to arms, but also a conspicuous bit of self-praise, for Casillo has written the book that exemplifies this new and much needed “liberal” criticism.

And hard though it might be to imagine, Casillo wants to see even more of these examinations of Pound’s politics, though he has left little room for “further elucidation.” After all, what tactic has he not already tried? Still, Casillo has not been disappointed. The 1980’s and 1990’s have seen a flood of articles appear on this subject, usually in a tone so shrill with moral dismissiveness that such lesser book-length ignominies as William M. Chace’s The Political Identities of Ezra Pound & T.S. Eliot and Paul Morrison’s Poetics of Fascism seem temperate by comparison.

One need not be seeking tenure to sense a groundswell here: Casillo’s “new school” not only enlarges Poundian criticism, it dominates it. The political Pound has completely subsumed the poetic one, at least for all academic intents and purposes. And while a steady stream of articles continues to discuss and deplore his views, his contributions to literature are largely ignored, or made to suffer the guilt of association. This “new school” of “liberal” criticism is the exact opposite of the former New Criticism: rather than the autonomous work of art, we have art infected by biography, anecdote, personal letters, comments reported third-hand, and the like.

Such practices lead, invariably, to a miscarriage of criticism, as here. Few literary figures, of any era, have suffered such a crowd of pernicious critics. Indeed, no major literary figure of this century has been more mistreated. But the time has come to condemn those critics who have so patently demonstrated an ability to fabricate plot and particular, and an inability to distinguish literature from other written material. Their errors have been summarized magnificently by Stephen Vizinczey. In a postscript to his review on Heinrich von Kleist, commenting on a letter that he had received from a university professor who questioned the excessive praise of Kleist in light of his character, Mr. Vizinczey wrote:

But even if Kleist had written innumerable diatribes against the French and even if he had eaten two of Napoleon’s corporals every day for breakfast, this wouldn’t detract from the importance of his masterpieces. There is a kind of academic philistinism which equates literary greatness with good behaviour and thereby produces a pathetic crop of university graduates who are intimately familiar with the real or imaginary faults of great men without having the slightest idea why these men were great or why they matter to us.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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