Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile
Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile, by C. David Heymann, New York: Viking, 1976, 318 pp., $12.50
In 1908 Ezra Pound arrived in London determined to set literature and literary trends "in order." His demands were simple. Poetry must be tight and brief—"at least as well written as prose." It must have precise expression (le mot juste) and exactness of rhythm. To accomplish this, he championed two major schools of literature. He forced West to meet East by pioneering the translation of Chinese literature and by introducing the art forms of Japanese Noh drama, tanka, and haiku to England. He discovered and nurtured such obscure writers as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and Rabindranath Tagore. When compliments and threats, persistence and outbursts could not move editors to publish these authors, he set up his own magazines and did it himself. He exerted major influence on "established" writers, even to the point of becoming personal secretary to Yeats. And when lack of money threatened Joyce or Eliot, he used this influence to get them funds, even though paying his own rent was often a tenuous affair. This, of course, was in addition to coediting numerous magazines, compiling anthologies and writing his own critical studies, articles, translations, and verse—of which he managed to put out almost a book a year. As William Carlos Williams put it, he "lived the poet as few of us had the nerve to live that exalted role in our time."
But Pound lived other roles as well. The political radical. The political victim. The disillusioned recluse. And it is often the most controversial rather than the most important of these roles by which Pound is labeled and remembered. Although Heymann's book is subtitled A Political Profile, I disagree. I do not feel that I have read a political profile but the profile of a "human being," with all the complexities that those words imply. As for me, the role of poet is Ezra Pound. That is his greatness and his importance. C. David Heymann portrays this poet accurately, with perspective and empathy. With equal skill, he portrays the other Ezra Pounds.
There is a slightly older Ezra Pound whose letterhead bears a motto by Mussolini: "Liberty is a duty not a right." This is the man consumed by economics and politics, a vociferous advocate of fascism and anti-Semitism. It is this Ezra Pound who delivers the famous wartime Italian broadcasts, "Europe calling, Pound speaking," that will ultimately destroy him.
And there is Ezra Pound the victim, the political radical who chose the losing side and was arrested as a traitor upon Italy's defeat. As victim, he was for three weeks caged in an open kennel two paces by two paces in size, until he collapsed from exposure and was taken to a medical compound. His trial for treason was a farce without allowing even the pretense of a defense. The outcome was a 13-year commitment to an insane asylum. There, amid schizophrenics and mongoloids, he wrote much of his important literature.
And finally there is the man who, because of the tenacious efforts of men such as Hemingway and Archibald MacLeish, was released and so retreated to pass the rest of his life in self-imposed isolation. This is the man who said: "I have lived all my life believing that I knew something. And then a strange day came and I realized that I knew nothing, that I knew nothing at all. And so words have become empty of meaning.…"
Heymann's book is a well-written, well-documented, well-developed, and eminently fair profile of a man who "stormed" London at 24 and died six decades later, isolated, disillusioned, and very tired. The book includes accounts of the author's meetings with Pound, photos taken by the author and never before published, Pound's letters, and legal documents surrounding the trial.
But for me, the most important issue Heymann addresses is: "Can a work of art stand outside the life of the man who created it?" Can Pound's literary genius and immense contribution to art ever be independent of his controversy? Or can one simply accept Pound as multifaceted without one facet marring another? In 1949, despite tremendous protest, the Bollinger Prize Committee resolved this question by awarding the prize, not to Pound, but to "Pound's work," thus separating the art from its creator, rewarding one and trying to ignore the other. In the early seventies, however, when Pound was nominated for the Emerson-Thoreau medal, the committee voted against Pound because of his former political positions. He was not to be granted the recognition given to so many of his proteges. He was, indeed, an exile.
Ironically, this is the title of one of the small literary magazines published and edited by Pound—The Exile. There were only four editions, the first published in the summer of '27, the last in the fall of '28. The Exile was a product of Pound's transition from poet to politician (for want of a better word). And, as such, it is interesting on several levels.
One level is simple literary memorabilia—complete with the pleasure of reading young unknowns such as Hemingway and William Carlos Williams. On another level, it is typical of Pound's approach to literature—that strange atmosphere of well-directed chaos and delight in flaunting tradition. The Exile contains much of the early Ezra, once described as the world's last troubadour. More importantly, however, it is a magazine of transition, of the period during which Pound turned from art to politics and began the course of events that would have him die an exile from his homeland and his chosen world of art.
In the editorial comments that conclude each issue, of The Exile one can watch the psychological shifting of Pound's values and emphasis. In my own melodramatic way, I think of it as a requiem to the Pound that conquered London and delighted me when I was young.
Ms. McElroy is a free-lance writer specializing in poetry and literary criticism.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Ezra Pound".