Ezra Pound is a problem for Modernist literary studies in the same way Martin Heidegger is for Continental philosophy: it’s impossible to deny the overwhelming influence of either figure—and impossible to deny that both were devoted anti-Semitic fascists from at least the 1930s to the end of their days. Heidegger kept his views mostly hidden in his “Black Notebooks.” Pound, on the other hand, became an enthusiastic mouthpiece. He publicly idolized Benito Mussolini, signed letters with “Heil Hitler,” and broadcast paranoid anti-Semitic hate speech on Italian radio in over a hundred propaganda pieces for the Axis powers during the war.
Pound was to be sentenced for treason in 1945 but was saved by an insanity defense promoted by Ernest Hemingway (who convinced himself Pound must have been insane to say such things.) After a stay in St. Elizabeth’s, Pound recanted, but privately he never changed. If he were a lesser poet, critics and readers might assure themselves they’d never read the likes of him today. But not only is he inseparable from literary history as an influential editor and booster (without Pound, no Eliot’s The Waste Land), but he is rightly recognized as one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century.
“Is it wrong to love a fascist?” asked Ash Sarkar in a take on the Pound problem that lists him among many “problematic faves, along with The Simpsons and Vybz Kartel.” The “vituperative” anti-Semitism of Pound’s later years finds its way into his later Cantos—the massive, unfinished, eclectic, erudite, and deeply obscure series of epic poems he worked on from 1915 to 1962. “Canto XLV,” notes Sarkar, “one of his many attacks on financiers, is suffused with antisemitic language and imagery.”
Canto XVI contains what Mark Ford calls “a characteristic specimen of Pound’s mimicry,” which Mussolini found “entertaining” during their first and only meeting. (“It’s my idea of how a Continental Jew would speak English,” Pound supposedly told Il Duce.) Such moments of racist mockery alternate in the Pisan Cantos—published in 1948 and written during the war—with elegies, economic and political theories, and archaic lines in which many readers hear echoes of blood and soil mythology. We may hear such an echo in Canto LXXXI, from which Pound reads above, over footage of him wandering around Venice.
Allen Ginsberg described Canto LXXXI as “a collage of Pound’s prison mental gossip (thinking to himself in prison, notating down… little nostalgic recollections of pre-World War I.)” There are, however, gestures toward more recent events. He refers to the “friends of Franco” in one line, for example, and Hélène Aji identifies Pound’s reference to Thomas Jefferson as an allusion to Mussolini. How did Pound himself square his nationalism with his cosmopolitan modernism? Literary scholar David Barnes speculates:
The writer would have seen no conflict here. Pound could easily switch from his Hitlerian fantasies to a recommendation of the kind of artists (Joyce, Marinetti) that Führer would have classed as “degenerate.” In his mind, the sharp lines of modernism seem to have been equated or even interchangeable with the totalitarian politics of Nazi Fascism.
Except it wasn’t Nazi Fascism that Pound mostly hawked—though he enthusiastically recommended Mein Kampf. It was the Italian original. Mussolini did not share Hitler’s extreme antipathy for modern artists. He too saw modernism and fascism as interchangeable, as did the many Italian artists he coopted as propagandists. Pound was not especially unique in such circumstances.
It’s not clear when this film footage was shot, but the reading was recorded in Spoleto, Italy during the summer of 1967. You can listen to the full recording above, and hear another version, and dozens more recordings of Pound, at Penn Sound.