Scenes of Ezra Pound Wandering Through Venice and Reading from His Famous Pisan Cantos (1967)

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.

via Ubuweb

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernest Hem­ing­way Writes of His Fas­cist Friend Ezra Pound: “He Deserves Pun­ish­ment and Dis­grace” (1943)

Read Ezra Pound’s List of 23 “Don’ts” For Writ­ing Poet­ry (1913)

Rare Ezra Pound Record­ings Now Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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