Richard Avedon: Ezra Pound (1958)
I - Background
Costa più della Divina Commedia
It seems that Ezra Pound was in a chemist’s shop one day in the 1930s, in Rapallo, where he lived at the time, and he saw that they had American toilet paper for sale. The chemist was, however, rather indignant at the fact that the toilet paper cost more than a local edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy which he also had in stock. Pound saw this as the ‘epitaph on Anglo-Saxon civilization’ – a stunning illustration of the difference between what a thing costs and what it is worth. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had led many people to question orthodox economic theories, so Pound was not alone in being fascinated by the subject, but (characteristically) he took it further than most. The founder of Social Credit, Major Douglas, was Pound’s first mentor, but the train of thought which started there led eventually to a conviction that Benito Mussolini, Italy’s man of destiny, was the only world leader who could really reverse the mess that Capitalism (or, as Pound preferred to call it, Usura [usury]) had made of the world.
‘But who was Ezra Pound?’ I hear some of you asking. Born in 1885, in Hailey, Idaho (though he spent most of his life in Europe: first London before and during the First World War; then Paris in the twenties; then Italy during the thirties and throughout the Second World War), it would be no exaggeration to say that Pound was probably the most influential English-language poet of the twentieth century. Not the best, mind you – that would be an impossible value judgement – but the most influential. Beginning around 1910 with his fellow Imagists, Pound helped to revolutionise English poetry and bring it into the modern era. After the war, when Paris was the capital of International Modernism, Pound was at its centre along with writers like James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Among his closest friends and colleagues he counted William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot and even the magisterial W. B. Yeats, undisputed ‘king of the cats’ among contemporary English poets. And if Pound had stuck to poetry, all might have been well. So, at least, his friends thought.
Since perhaps 1903, Pound had been working on a ‘poem of some length’ to be called The Cantos. Loosely modelled on Dante’s divina commedia, it was to be a ‘poem containing history,’ and it seemed to be loose enough to contain almost anything that Pound chose to put there. Even now it is not a particularly easy poem to read, and the various instalments which he published between 1924 and 1940 had taken it only up to Canto 71 of an eventual 117.
In Italy, then, during the war, as a supporter of Mussolini and critic of the arch-usurers Churchill and Roosevelt, Pound wrote and broadcast on behalf of the Axis powers. Among many other things, he wrote two poems in Italian, entitled, respectively: Canto 72: Presenza [or ‘Presence’] and Canto 73: Cavalcanti – Corrispondenza Repubblicana [‘Cavalcanti – Republican Dispatches’], and published them in the Fascist newspaper Marina Repubblicana on January 15 and February 1, 1945. Pound was close to a mental breakdown at the time (worried for the safety of his family, among other things), and when he finally went to give himself up to the invading Allied forces, he was surprised to be told that he was regarded as a war-criminal, and that he would shortly be facing charges of treason. In the meantime they shut him in a cage.
Back in Washington, Pound’s old friends and colleagues were trying to think of a way of saving him from the death-penalty, and the solution they came up with was to have him declared insane. Most people think that poets – especially modern ones – are nutty anyway, and it was not difficult to find examples of crazy ideas in Pound’s wartime propaganda ravings, so he was duly shut up in a Mental Hospital near Washington. There he stayed for the next twelve years. During this period Pound published two new instalments of his long poem, among many other works. The interesting thing, though, was the numbering of the new cantos: there was an unfilled gap between the ‘John Adams’ Cantos (1940), Nos 62-71, and the Pisan Cantos (1948), Nos 74-84.
The subject was, understandably enough, a sensitive one; so there the gap stayed in all editions of The Cantos until 1987, fifteen years after the poet’s death. The Ezra Pound Estate (he has a surviving son and daughter, as well as many literary trustees) sponsored, for copyright reasons, a private printing of the two Italian Cantos in America in 1973, but this had a very limited circulation. Only when the world of scholarship began to reveal more and more details of the missing sections in Pound’s masterpiece were his publishers (New Direction Press in New York and Faber in London) allowed to include them, in Italian – without translation or notes – in an appendix to the fourth collected edition.
II - The Poems
So what, you may ask, is so shocking about these poems? The answer is, I am afraid, quite a lot. To summarise, Canto 72 begins with the poet being visited by a number of ghosts - first the Futurist poet Marinetti; then the librarian Torquato Dazzi; then Ezzelino da Romano, a character from Dante’s Inferno; and finally the Roman Empress Galla Placidia - all of whom insist that he sing of the origins of this ‘guerra di merda [shitty war].’ The style ranges from a parody of Dantean invective to lyrical grace, and the politics, though extreme, are arguably subordinated to the ingenuity of the poetic invention. Canto 73 is simpler in form and, as we shall shortly hear, more dubious in status. The framework of the poet speaking to ghosts is kept, only this time the spirit is that of Pound’s old favourite Guido Cavalcanti – a rather fierce fourteenth-century poet, contemporary with Dante – who praises the actions of a patriotic peasant girl who leads a group of Allied soldiers to certain death.
To give you some idea of the controversy, let me quote three opposing opinions:
By the end of the year  he had written Cantos 72 and 73 in Italian ... Full of vigor and images, exalting his old friends F. T. Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, who, true to himself and his ‘interventism,’ had gone to fight in Russia ... Idealism and heroism were by no means all on the side of the partisans. Babbo [‘daddy’: Pound] was infected by a desperate fighting spirit and faith. It is hard these days to define that faith or that spirit; it no longer seems a component of the air one breathes. (de Rachewiltz, 1971, 197)
Cantos 72-73 of 1944 ... are certainly a tour de force, bearing all the signs of Pound’s energy, though his command of Italian is not really up to verse that one can take seriously (given that even in English he can be unintentionally funny); and the misjudged politics of the broadcaster are much in the fore throughout. However, all poetry requires a certain suspension of disbelief and of schoolboy tendencies to snicker - and the spectacle of the old sculptor hewing off his bit with the usual conviction in the scarcely mastered tongue is well worth watching. (Bacigalupo, 1984, 70-71)
Canto 73 ... is, to say the least, unappetizing. It tells the story, which Pound must have gotten from a newspaper clipping, of a ‘heroic’ young Fascist girl scout, ‘una contadinella, un po’ tozza ma bella’ (‘a little peasant, a bit chunky but beautiful’) who leads a company of Canadian soldiers into a minefield and they are all blown up ... What a sad and tragic poem, considering what Pound once had been. I see it as a sign of incipient dementia. (Laughlin, 134)
Mary de Rachewiltz, Pound’s daughter, who has supplemented her own translation of The Cantos into Italian with a translation of these two into English prose, is the most enthusiastic – but her recommendation extends only to the comment that they are ‘full of vigour and images’. Besides that, the two poems serve mainly as a pretext for her last-ditch defence of the bona fides of the Salò Republic: ‘Jactancy, vanity, peculation to the ruin of 20 years’ labour seemed to be over. Mussolini had drawn up a new program, clear and strict’; though she does admit that ‘the dream of the ideal republic had materialized too late and under bad auspices’ (de Rachewiltz, 1971, 196).
Massimo Bacigalupo, a distinguished commentator on both English and Italian literature, adopts a more patronising tone: ‘Pound’s ... command of Italian is not really up to verse that one can take seriously (given that even in English he can be unintentionally funny)’. It is odd that the footnote included in support of this contention cites, first, a ‘hilarious parody of the Cantos’ in James Joyce’s Selected Letters; and, second, a ‘superfluous apostrophe ... in Canto 72, line 49 (“un’altro tono”)’ - an error which has in fact been removed from the 1987 edition . It would be churlish to doubt Bacigalupo’s sensitivity as a judge of the language, but it is rather disturbing to find that he is unwilling to commit himself by providing examples of Pound being ‘unintentionally funny’ in either tongue. After all, as he so boldly admits, ‘all poetry requires a certain suspension of disbelief and of schoolboy tendencies to snicker’. Later in the essay, however, Bacigalupo descends more to cases - giving reasons for his reactions to each of the two cantos:
If the canto fails, it is because of its historical misconceptions and its adventitious language - the latter, however, quite a feat of control so far as Pound is concerned. (More care than is usual with him seems to have been expended on the form, local and overall.) Structurally speaking, Canto 72 is certainly integral to the poem. (1984, 78)
It is amusing to speculate how language can be both ‘adventitious’ [‘extrinsically added, not essentially inherent; supervenient, accidental, casual’ - some of the definitions supplied by the O.E.D] and ‘quite a feat of control’ at the same time, but we can perhaps give Bacigalupo the benefit of the doubt on this point. Canto 73, though, seems to him less ‘integral to the poem’:
The emotions appealed to, the tawdry rhetoric of the “fine boys,” the fireworks of the carnage, are immature to say the least, though perhaps no more (or less) objectionable per se than the shoot-out in any western. To expect of the sixty-year-old writer a feeling less callow seems to be out of the question - his fondness for violence is of a piece with his uncritical celebration of the sexual instinct, and his aestheticism may have blunted him to ethical considerations.(1984, 79)
Or perhaps not:
However, these are problems that beset the Cantos in their entirety and make them the flawed but unintentionally instructive works they are.
‘Perhaps ... ultimately aesthetic and ethical perceptions are one and the same’ (Bacigalupo, 1984, 79). Perhaps, indeed. One cannot help but feel that Bacigalupo is having his cake and eating it too in this passage. Pound’s ‘fondness for violence’ is ‘no more (or less) objectionable per se than the shoot-out in any western’ - which doesn’t, pace some media commentators, sound terribly objectionable; and it is, anyway, ‘of a piece with his uncritical celebration of the sexual instinct’. Now, how did that get in there? Certainly Pound had some eccentric theories on the nature of love and love-making, but it is hard to see how they can apply to this particular canto, with its emphasis on ‘carnage’ and death. Bacigalupo is ready with an answer, though. ‘The sexual overtones’, he says, ‘are explicit throughout the canto (there are three references to the girl’s heftiness, and other terms of endearment)’ (1984, 79). It is, again, hard to see what is so ‘objectionable’ about describing the ‘contadinella’ as ‘un po’ tozza, ma bella’ (if such a rule were to be applied rigorously, most European love-poetry from Dante to Goethe might also be seen to be tending towards ‘uncritical celebration of the sexual instinct’). In short, this is an accusation so general as to be virtually meaningless.
There is indeed something rather abhorrent in Pound’s hymning the casual slaughter of the Canadian soldiers - and his identification of them as rapists does not do much to palliate the offence (Bacigalupo is probably right to dismiss Barbara Eastman’s attempted explanation that ‘Pound chose the theme of the raped girl with the safety of his teenage daughter in mind’ (1984, 78). Nevertheless, it is hardly worse than John Skelton’s poem on the Scottish defeat at Flodden (‘Gup, Scot,/ Ye blot’ ), or Aleksandr Blok’s Bolshevik hymn ‘The Twelve’, or - for that matter - Shakespeare’s ‘uncritical celebration’ of violence in Henry V. It is perhaps preferable to the latter’s treatment of Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1. In short, one suspects that Bacigalupo’s disappointment in the two cantos (like de Rachewiltz’s enthusiasm for them), boils down in the end to a matter of partisan politics. It is Pound’s lack of ‘historical consciousness’ (1984, 79) which makes him most indignant. Since Pound is (at any rate on the surface) one of the most ‘historically conscious’ poets of the twentieth century, one is forced to interpret this as yet another – again, perhaps justified – reaction to Pound’s failure to see through the Fascist régime before it was too late.
James Laughlin’s remarks might be taken as an extension of this position. ‘I see it as a sign of incipient dementia’ combines neatly the two halves of Bacigalupo’s condemnation of the ‘immaturity’ of the ‘sixty-year-old writer’ and the monomania of ‘the old sculptor hewing off his bit with the usual conviction’ (a veiled reference to the ‘ego scriptor’ of Canto 76? (Cantos, 639)). Luckily it appears to have been a temporary condition. The Pisan Cantos (1948) were still to come at this point, and whatever one’s opinion of their unity as a poem, there can be little doubt that if they, too, represent ‘incipient dementia’, then we want more of it, not less.
It is probably unfair to scrutinise the verbal detail of these three passages so minutely, but I am merely trying to demonstrate the existence of a set of motivations for these apparently objective assessments hidden behind those announced by their authors. As I have attempted to argue, taking a position on the ‘poetic merit’ of these cantos has become tantamount, through a sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, to committing oneself to an opinion on Fascism itself. Hence the basic agreement of Bacigalupo, Laughlin, and Pound’s most recent biographer Humphrey Carpenter (‘there is nothing even faintly ambiguous about the political stance of this canto , but its support of Fascism and the Axis seems mild by comparison with Canto 73, the second of this Italian pair’ (639)). Hence, too, the disagreement of Mary de Rachewiltz.
Bacigalupo’s is the most extensive of these accounts, and he himself – in passages already quoted – acknowledges the two cantos to be a ‘tour de force, bearing all the signs of Pound’s energy’; Canto 72 ‘is certainly integral to the poem’, its ‘language ... quite a feat of control’, and even the faults of Canto 73 are ‘problems that beset the Cantos in their entirety and make them the flawed but unintentionally instructive works they are. If they were only to teach their readers this lesson, that would be accomplishment enough ... That they occasionally move us and delight us can hardly be denied’ (1984, 79). Extracted thus, these remarks could be used in any publisher’s blurb – and yet in context, as we have seen, these positive aspects are advanced only to be qualified at once by a barrage of ideologically motivated (or perhaps, to use Bacigalupo’s own term, ethically motivated) reservations.
It seems to me perfectly reasonable, almost fifty years after the composition of these poems, to lay their polemic status finally to rest. I see no necessity at all to emphasise my own abhorrence of Nazism or Fascism in order to justify my temerity in taking an interest in Pound’s Italian cantos. Too much, I would suggest, has been said about that already - like the identities of “Mr W. H.” and the “Dark Lady” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets or the case for the non-existence of Homer. It is not that these questions are valueless or uninteresting, it is simply that it is time to let the poems speak for themselves. Or, more to the point, to shift the argument onto the merits of various forms of translation – whether it is feasible to echo the form as well as the meaning of the original work in a case like this, or whether prose remains the appropriate medium.
III - Foreground
For reasons which I am sure you can guess, the Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust are opposed to the dissemination of English translations of Cantos 72 & 73. In our most recent printing of the Cantos we were permitted to include the Italian text, but not an English version … I was down in skiing in New Zealand, at Ruapehu and Mount Cook, in 1934. I have fond memories of Timaru beer.
I bought a copy of the new edition shortly after it came out, and was very curious to read the new cantos. Having done Italian at university, and especially read a lot of Dante, I thought that I could interpret them better than most. Purely for my own interest, then, I set to work and produced a verse translation of the two Italian (or ‘Fascist’) cantos. Having done so, especially as I had had to annotate the poems in detail in order to be sure of their meaning, I thought I would investigate the possibility of publication. I knew that I was unlikely to be successful, but thought it would be interesting to see what the situation actually was. I accordingly wrote to James Laughlin, Pound’s American publisher and one of his close friends, enclosing a copy of the translation, and received the above, very cordial, reply.
That seemed to be that, but a month later I heard from Mr. Laughlin again:
If you have received the latest number of PAIDEUMA, you will think me quite mad because there you will find Massimo Bacigalupo’s translation of 72 & 73, with commentary … Since the ‘cover is blown,’ I take the liberty, on behalf of the Trustees, to withdraw objections to your project.
So far so good. Having written to Faber, Pound’s British and Commonwealth publishers, and received confirmation of Laughlin’s imprimatur (as long as no claims were made to ‘world rights,’ I submitted the version to some Antipodean literary magazines. As I half-expected, though, Laughlin’s tolerance was based more on fond memories of 1934 and Timaru beer than on actual conditions in the world today.
Most (though not all) of the rejections I received expressed enthusiasm for the translation itself, but it was made clear that anyone associated with the publication of such a work ran the strong risk of being typed as an incipient fascist! As my brother put it rather eloquently in a recent letter:
It might get you good and hated ... But it should definitely be attention-grabbing. ‘Fascism comes to NZ.’ ‘Jack Ross for the new National Front leader?’ ‘In our panel today, we have two members of the Ku Klux Klan, the precentor of the High Church of Innsmouth and the fascist poet Jack Ross.’
You can’t win, in other words. Even people who like Pound are, understandably, not too keen on this side of his achievement – and yet I believe that the poems have genuine merits despite their lack of political correctness. They are certainly interesting.
So, in conclusion, this particular piece of Poundiana is unlikely to be issued ever again in any publicly available form. If the idea of owning a ‘banned work’ appeals to you, then here it is. I have also thrown in a translation of Rimbaud’s bitter and brilliant early poem ‘Les Poètes de Sept Ans,’ which seems to me to be in keeping with the spirit of disgust and extremity informing Pound’s wartime writings. You have been warned. Caveat emptor. Per me si va nella città dolente …
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- Auden, W. H. Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1979.
- Bacigalupo, Massimo. ‘The Poet at War: Ezra Pound’s Suppressed Italian Cantos.’ The South Atlantic Quarterly 83 (1984): 69-79.
- Bacigalupo, Massimo. ‘Ezra Pound’s Cantos 72 and 73: An Annotated Translation.’ Paideuma 20 (1991): 9-41.
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- Ross, K. M. Letter to the author. 15 May 1997.
- Skelton, John. The Poetical Works. Ed. Alexander Dyce. 2 vols. 1843. New York: Garland P, 1965.
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- Toynbee, Paget. A Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante. 1898. Rev. Charles S. Singleton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.
- Twain, Mark. Roughing It and the Innocents at Home. London: Chatto, 1918.
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- Yeats, W. B. Poems. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Ezra Pound’s Fascist Cantos (72 & 73) together with Rimbaud’s “Poets at Seven Years Old.” Trans. Jack Ross. [ii] + 42 pp (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 1997): 37-46.
Jack Ross: Pound’s Fascist Cantos (1997)