25 SEPTEMBER 1976, Page 16

Pound for Pound

Peter Ackroyd

Ezra Pound: The Last Rower C. David Heymann (Faber and Faber £5.95) It is natural and just that Ezra Pound should baffle his critics. He is the greatest poet of the modern era, he was also a rabid anti semite who became either clown or traitor. The distinction, however, interests only biographers or liberals—the life is now unimportant and only the work remains. Mr Heymann concedes his special interest in the subtitle of his study, 'a political profile'. But although this suggests a unity of purpose if not of design, that obvious division between the life and the work is everywhere apparent and never resolved.

Pound was always possessed by the idea of himself. As a young poet he was no better than many of his contemporaries but, unlike them, he had an immense power of will which he was not slow to exercise. He was self-conscious enough to see himself as a cultural force, and he had determination enough to make himself one. His conspiratorial instincts gave him the authority with which to press the claims of Eliot and Joyce, while providing him the incidental pleasure of offending the literary establishment — then, as now, worthless. When he left London for a greener Paris, London ceased to be the literary capital of Europe and has never been since.

Mr Heymann deals with these matters carefully and well, but he is clearly more interested in Pound's sudden involvement with public affairs, and particularly with the simplistic doctrine of Social Credit. Pound assumed that he could extend his conspiratorial perceptions—he was always eager to discover the 'secret history' of human affairs—into political and social matters, but he failed. He was effective within a literary culture for one essential reason: he had a superb ear for the language, which he could instinctively trust and which always substantiated his judgments. But he had no such solid and incontrovertible perception in political matters, and his sharpness quickly degenerated into vituperation and, eventually, into a form of paranoia.

All the evidence which Mr Heymann has accumulated, from diaries and letters, suggests that Pound started to go 'mad' in the mid-'thirties when he was living in Paris. A poet goes 'mad' when he misjudges his tone, and then the language turns against him. Pound's pushy, pseudo-Western barbarisms had revalued the European tradition. There are a great many virtues in being practically self-educated when confronted by a literary establishment which, for all its learning, cannot tell a good poem from a bad. But that blunt and hectoring manner could not and did not work in political and economic affairs. Pound had turned without pausing from aesthetics to morals, and the same voice will not do for both. As long as he confines himself to the role of money and the elements of Social Credit, the collapse of his language is not immediately noticeable; money, for Pound, assumes much the same role as poetry—being an emblem of moral behaviour, a token of a nation's value rather than the value itself. But that same tone could not sustain his political and social concerns, where the moral life of a civilisadon is directly concerned. His vigour turned into rigidity, his sharp language into a monstrous rhetoric: a dung flow from 1913 and, in this, their kikery functioned, Marx, Freud and their american beaneries Filth under filth ...

From Heymann's careful documentation of the period before the War, it is clear that Pound was no mere eccentric dazed by events. From the beginning he was closely involved with fascism and quickly became one of its more ferocious publicists: 'What I am ready to fight against is having exEuropean Jews making another peace worse than Versailles ... Roosevelt is more in the hands of the Jews than Wilson was in 1919 . But you let the Jew in and the Jew rotted your Empire . . . I am not arguing. I am just telling you, one of these days you will have to start thinking about the problem of race, breed, preservation'. Thus Pound broadcast from Italy to the Allied nations. Mr Heymann has collected a great deal of such material, and a picture of Pound emerges as a sycophant, a selfpublicist, a bore continually bombarding the Italian authorities with absurd proposals, a collaborator whom even the Italians sometimes despised : 'It is an eccentric plan conceived by a foggy mind, lacking all sense of reality'. Even later, when the Allies were methodically destroying Italy, Pound saw the futility of his efforts but did not renounce his grandiloquence. He was, he said, 'the last American living the tragedy of Europe'.

All this persiflage neglects, of course, the paradoxically fine poetry which Pound was writing during these years, a poetry which will survive when the work of his saner and more respectable contemporaries has been forgotten. Although Heymann has written a conventional biography, Pound's language keeps breaking in. and a critical study ought to complement the political one. Here is a note which Pound wrote from the mental hospital, St Elizabeth's, where he was incarcerated :

grey mist barrier impassible (sic) ignorance absolute

anonyme futility of might have been coherent areas constantly invaded aiut 0

This is not even good verse and, more importantly, it was not meant to be. Pound had devalued speech by his constant rhetoric, and for a while language repaid him when he lost control of his words—he, 'the lord of his work and master of utterance'. His daughter Mary saw it clearly, and makes more sense of sonic of the Cantos than many critics: 'He was losing ground, I now see, losing grip on what most specifically he should have been able to control, his own wordy'. When Pound denied his vocation, when he became a traitor to himself, the aesthetic consequences were as inevitable and as severe as the public ones.

But Ezra Pound never lost his selfpossession. Mr Heymann, in the aftermath of Watergate, has been given access to Pound's FBI files and has come up with some inadvertent comedy as Pound faces his attorneys, judges and psychiatrists on his return to America as a traitor: 'He is abnormally grandiose, is expansive and exuberant in manner . . . he is, in other words, insane and mentally unfit for trial'. More stupidity froni a Dr Overholser: . . it is quite obvious that the man has always been unusually eccentric through the years. He has undoubtedly a high regard of his own

opinion . . It is the great merit of this book that Heymann brings together for the first time all of the official papers, and so gives a solid sense of the wall which was gradually being built around Ezra Pound. He was imprisoned in St Elizabeth's in 1946 and released, after a decade of protests, in 1958. He was then writing some of the outstanding passages of the Cantos; when he arrived in Italy from America, he gave the fascist salute. Then in Mr Heymann's phrase, 'the great silence descended the summer of 1961'. But Pound did not retreat into wordlessness before he had marched at the head of a neo-Fascist rally in Rome. The contradictions remain, and confuse the biographers.

But it is possible that Pound's frantic activities are merely part of his ceaseless, futile attempt to give his life the resonance and self-certainty which his language possessed from the start. The finest poet will, ideally, look for the symmetry between word and meaning, the ideal union which imparts 'meaning' to life, and life to the language. Poets are alone in their constant attempt to return to the paradisaical myth of that time when name and essence were one. That paradise haunts both Pound's life and his work. He had tried to bring the word and the meaning, the name and the object, together in an enormous synthesis— hut this is never possible in a world of

Spectator 25 September 1976

rhetoric and lies, of bad verse and worse Men. And so he abandoned speech, the message of that world, and made the best of a now broken language:

That I lost my center

fighting the world.

The dreams clash

and are shattered— and that I tried to make a paradiso