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Pound foolish

June 13, 2008 |  5:45 pm

Bad economics, bad politics and bad poetry: Do they all go together? This Louis Menand article on Ezra Pound raises that question. Starting with the important insight that Pound "desperately did not want to be misunderstood," Menand tries to figure out why the poet failed so spectacularly in that project, producing a vast library of barely readable verse that is rapidly fading from cultural memory.

You may be familiar with the cramped and crabbed story of Ezra Pound: dynamo of High Modernism; indispensable mentor and door-opener for James Joyce, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost and many others; editor who saved The Waste Land from its (allegedly) bloated limbo; and not incidentally, crazed fascist, anti-Semite, enthusiastic traitor to his country and wartime propagandist for Benito Mussolini. Few have resisted the temptation to turn him into a type of the Troubled Genius, a great poet laid low by his demons. I say he was an empty poet whose demons go a long way to explaining his emptiness.

Here's an interesting take on why the lifelong Cantos project failed:

The seed of the trouble lies in what most people find the least problematic aspect of the Imagist aesthetic: the insistence on “the perfect word,” le mot juste. This seems a promise to get language up to the level of experience: artifice and verbiage are shorn away, and words point directly to the objects they name. Language becomes transparent; we experience the world itself. “When words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish,” Pound wrote in 1915. This is a correspondence theory of language with a vengeance. We might doubt the promise by noting that in ordinary speech we repeat, retract, contradict, embellish, and digress continually in order to make our meaning more precise. No one likes to be required to answer a question yes or no, because things are never that simple. This is not because individual words are too weak; it’s because they are too powerful. They can mean too many things. (“Palace in smoky light”: could this be Buckingham Palace in the fog?) So we add more words, and embed our clauses in more clauses, in order to mute language, modify it, and reduce it to the modesty of our intentions. President Clinton was right: “is” does have many meanings, and we need to be allowed to explain the particular one we have in mind. In “The Cantos,” Pound became the prisoner of his own technique, and he must have found his poem unfinishable (he never did end it) because he couldn’t control the significances his images unleashed.

Minus the gratuitous defense of President Clinton, this is a very clever analysis. But the problem is more than technical. The personality you can piece together from Pound's writings is spiteful, churlish, vehement, humorless though sarcastic, and surprisingly unintelligent; when I read his stuff I detect very little of the charismatic, perceptive personality his peers described. (There is an evident antic disposition and a taste for full-bore invective which I guess could pass for a kind of energy in person.) I think this goes beyond the temperament attributed to Neal Cassady, for example: a great talker and catalyst for other writers who was unable to get a lick of that personality down on paper. Pound got plenty of a personality down on paper, but it's a completely unlovable personality.

In theory at least, the quality of your output is not correlated to your quality as a human being. But what if the bigotry, the bad verse and the fascism were all bound up in a certain, well, stupidity about the way the world works? In another recent piece on Pound (not available online), Frank Kermode devoted some time to Pound's famous malediction against usury, citing it as evidence of anti-Semitism. He might have mentioned that it's also bad econ. Condemnation of lending at interest is an old tradition, but by making the case in detail, Pound actually reveals how vacuous it is:

with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour

with usura the line grows thick

with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling
Stone cutter is kept from his stone
weaver is kept from his loom 

Even accounting for the antique phrasing, this is actually a description of what happens without usura. If he couldn't appreciate the way the industrial-age trend toward readily available credit helped create a multi-century boom in production of food, housing, textiles and even cultural products, then the king of Modernism didn't know much about modernity. August Bebel may have been wrong when he said anti-Semitism was the socialism of fools (socialism is the socialism of fools), but he understood that both are expressions of disinterest in what gets produced by a modern economy.

All of Pound is like that: His work is heavy on revitalizing the past or building some dynamic new futurismo, but it shows no appreciation for the present. He's encyclopedic about the culture of his time, but he never goes beyond an adolescent condemnation of everything ("The English Rubaiyat was still-born in those days"), to provide any reason why we should keep following him. You can write difficult literature and still satisfy your small but fanatical fan base, but a reader does have the right to expect some reward for attending to your every mental belch.

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