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A. David Moody. Ezra Pound: Poet.
Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972.
Oxford. Oxford UP. 2015.

review by Alec Marsh

 

 

EP poet

 

 

What an achievement this biography is! To appreciate what David Moody has done, consider the problems of writing about the poet who really was the most interesting man in the world, even if he didn’t drink Mexican beer. Pound was not the best, not the wisest man perhaps, all too human, and almost, at times, a Fool, but all in all, surely Pound is the most interesting and problematic of poets!

Pound’s biographer has a delicate task; he must maintain his deep respect for the work, refrain from rushing to judgment on the man and yet assign praise and blame. If he seems too lenient to those many readers who wish an exposé of Pound’s indefensible politics and personal moral failures, the biographer is trying to cover things up; the censorious biographer on the other hand (and there have been several) is generally uninformed about the poetry, ignorant of the economics, and ever a scold and a philistine. Moody by contrast is a critic first; an expert on the poetry determined to present a responsible, nuanced view of Pound’s politics. He has a sympathetic understanding of Pound’s economics and the passions that attend them too. Pound was the most inquisitive, energetic, wide-ranging and politically active poet of his time. An adequate Pound biographer must be something of a polymath, able - as Moody is - to discuss Chinese versification and Pound’s translation practice, finance capitalism and its excesses, treason and the US system with a detailed appreciation of the worst of 20th c. history. Moody is determined to prove in this volume that Pound was neither mad, nor a traitor. With that agenda, no simple moralistic approach is possible. He’ll admit Pound’s anti-Semitism and occasionally conclude that Pound was not always in his right mind, so the cynical will call this a “limited hang-out,” but those who care about Pound can only admire Moody’s balance. It’s a high-wire act he’s managed through three highly readable volumes and decades of narrative; if Moody slips, he never falls. Overall, his is a brilliant performance.  No other biographer has had the competence or the patience to at least touch on every single canto, often in original ways. In Volume II, it should be recalled, Moody ventured on some lively contrarian readings, notably of cantos 47 and 51. He’ll try to do the same for Canto 72 here, finding dramatic ironies where others find agitprop. In this final book we have a full, deeply researched account of the last third of Pound’s life, especially of the St. Elizabeths period and after. If he does no better than others before him on the “St. Elizabeths cantos,” Rock-Drill and Thrones, for the first time we understand Pound’s relationship with Marcella Spann and thus the genesis and place of Drafts & Fragments in The Cantos as a whole; in fact, Moody proves they are integral to the poem, not a moving addendum.

Pound is the representative man of the 20th c. as well as its most ambitious poet. Like the tragic century he stands for, one admires and disdains him, loves and despairs of him, alternately cheering, deploring, condemning and some, at least, will forgive him. For the true Poundian, elation and nausea alternate. All of these feelings infuse Moody’s careful, compassionate, learned, yet ultimately frustrated account of this difficult genius. Pound’s occasionally great, fascinating, always vital poetry, his epic outlook coupled with his undeniable moral blindness - what Moody calls his “tunnel vision” - is hard to accept. We wish great poets to be sage-like “Masters,” but Pound seems, as Moody’s account moves on, a kind of holy fool like Lear, grown old before he grew wise. Richard Avedon captured this unsettling quality in those squint-eyed, artfully over-exposed portraits taken in William Carlos Williams’ backyard on the eve of Pound’s departure for Italy.

The arc of Moody’s narrative of Pound’s life, from “The Young Genius” to “Epic Poet” and tragic figure has meant some interesting and surprising decisions that are worth mentioning before plunging into those tragic years. One is Moody’s understanding of The Cantos as “the epic of the capitalist era” (Moody II 180), not, say, of the Fascist millennium. This means that the economics must be taken seriously even as the text is populated by historical figures who are mythologized. “It must be recognized if we are to get on,” Moody warns in his second volume, “that Mussolini is as much an invented or mythical figure in these Cantos as Jefferson, or Van Buren, or indeed as Odysseus” (Moody II 180). This judgment leads Moody to regard Cantos LII-LXXI, those intractable blocks of China and Adams cantos, as “the keystones” of the epic (Moody II xii).  For many, if not most of Pound’s readers, the morally complex Pisan Cantos, those of the tragic dream and the poet’s too rare introspection, are the poet’s highest achievement. The vertical axis of the poem is there. Keystones are not pinnacles - but they can be the basis on which a pinnacle is built. If we are to get on with Moody’s Pound, the importance of poems concerned with the problems of capitalism and good government as the bulwark against aggressive manifestations of capital—most obvious in global wars, ecological doom and vitiated culture—is fundamental.     

Shaping Pound’s life as a tragedy has been in the works since the beginning, stated on the first page of the preface to Volume I, where Pound is described as “a hero of his culture, a genuine representative of its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions…his poetry is prophetic, at once revealing something of the mystery of the contemporary money-dominated and market-oriented Western world, and envisioning a wiser way of living” through economic reform and Confucian wisdom (Moody I xi). That the poet was unable to apply this wisdom home, to himself and his family, did not stop him from recognizing Master Kung’s prescriptions as the “key” to world peace in a world of wars (74/441). When the tragic situation emerges early in Moody’s second volume, it is personal, not world-historical.  It has to do with Pound’s legacy to his daughter and Dorothy’s son. Pound was absent at Mary’s birth, so Olga used the name of her dead brother Arthur, killed in World War I, to fill out the birth certificate. Omar, on the other hand, was conceived in revenge by Dorothy to “cancel out the other child” (Moody II 71) with someone, still unidentified, in Egypt. Though not Ezra’s child, Omar was signed for by him at the American Hospital in Paris. Pound’s characteristic

dismissal or denial of “personal feelings” would go some way to explaining the predicament he had got himself into. In time it would prove to be the tragic flaw by which he would be undone in his private life. He had held the conviction - it had appeared fundamental to his constitution - that the individual should be untrammeled by social conventions or by narrow-minded laws. Yet he was now bound by law to recognize the child that was not his; while in law he could not be recognized as the father of his own child. The consequent inner conflict and his inability to acknowledge let alone resolve it, precisely because it was personal and subjective (Moody II 70).

For all of Moody’s efforts, some “personal and subjective” Pound is hard to get a handle on. Poets are most often thought of as introspective if not downright narcissistic personalities. Not Pound. The most interesting aspect of Pound’s lack of interest in his own “psychological innards” is that it suggests significant repression. By contrast, it’s easy to see his some-time colleague T. S. Eliot as a tortured soul, closeted, dirty-minded and beset by sin.  Pound however, only made errors: “my errors and wrecks lie about me” he lamented near the end, but if he suffered from guilt, it was only after he stopped writing when silence took him. Unless, of course, his fits of grandiosity were compensation for something hidden, even from himself, or his strange silence at his trial and his refusal to sustain any concerted attempt to get him out of quod is a sign of it. Much of “The Tragic Years,” is taken up with his travail in the psych wards. Those years are tragic because Moody is adamant about Pound’s essential sanity.

Pound’s early rejection of Christianity may have rid him of common neuroses as well as bourgeois proprieties—except the one insisted on by his wife of keeping up a stolid front to cover a companionate, probably sexless, and increasingly tense marriage. Dorothy Shakespear Pound still remains a mysterious personality, but warmth is not one of her qualities. Yet, her rather calculating reserve would seem to be one of the things that attracted Pound to her; intimacy was not one of his needs. Olga Rudge knew that about Pound when she decided to have Ezra’s child, but was driven to rage and the edge of despair by what she felt was Pound’s indifference to her and his willingness to keep up appearances for his wife’s sake. He tried to convince Olga that he was “’NOT interested in personal feelings, neither his own nor those of others.” In a rare first person letter, he wrote her once “I do not care a damn about private affairs, private life, personal interests…” (Moody II 70). He loved her, but needed to be reminded, sometimes by her desperate letters, to tell Olga that he cared. The private life interfered too much with the work of poetry, which was understanding and reforming the world, not self-analysis.

 In the event, neither Mary, nor Omar received much parental care from Ezra, Dorothy or Olga. Fostered out, they seem like creative projects, once born to be raised and perhaps best handled by others. Pound’s supposed political “treason” remains a lively debate amongst Pound scholars, but the treason started at home and had nothing to do with national politics. It was all personal, and for that reason, repressed.

“The Tragic Years” begin with this domestic treason. The immediate result is the stuff of melodrama, not tragedy, but no less stunning for all that. We learn that on Pound’s return from his quixotic trip to the US to stop a second world war, he found Olga “fed up” with an on-going situation where the wife’s child by another man was passed off as legitimate, while the true child of the husband “had not even legal status” (Moody III 3). Evidently worried that their secret would out, Ezra and Dorothy then informed the elder Pounds, who lived right there in Rapallo, by letter (!) that the grandchild they had cherished as their own for fourteen years, Omar, was not Ezra’s child. Homer and Isabel were stunned by this gross deception practiced upon them to preserve Dorothy’s reputation. Named as correspondent in Bride Scratton’s divorce case in 1923, Pound had no public reputation to protect and Homer, at least, knew of Mary, though Isabel Pound did not—and wouldn’t for some time. The elders were so dismayed with the deception as to their supposed grandson that they threatened to return to the States. Only the war prevented it.          

If Pound is the tragic protagonist of the “Tragic Years” then Dorothy personifies his antagonist. She put up with a great deal, it’s true. Her loyalty to her husband, which is famous, might better be called possessiveness. Later on, in the competition between herself and Olga and their respective children, Dorothy used her power as the legal wife to try to disinherit Mary, put her own son in Mary’s place and to keep most of Pound’s money for herself, routinely letting only a pittance of Pound’s earnings go to his daughter in direct contravention of Pound’s wishes. The first exhibit in “The Tragic Years” is Pound’s will, written, witnessed and signed June 17, 1940 (Moody III 18). In it we read that Mary was to inherit all manuscripts, published and unpublished, author’s rights and was after age 18 to be Pound’s literary executor. The will says that Dorothy understands and accepts these conditions; she will inherit the furniture and artwork. Nothing could be plainer about Pound’s wishes—and they didn’t change. A decade later, as Pound’s “Committee,” Dorothy did her best to subvert this will and impose a new one, claiming Pound’s over-all incompetence. Unaccountably, Pound did nothing about it, not even when back in Italy, where it was well known to others that the “Committee” had no power.

If Pound is a tragic figure, we need to know two things. First, was he insane or not? Madmen are sad, not tragic. Intertwined with the sanity issue, of course, is the unanswered question of Pound’s treason, for which he was indicted but never tried. His trial was for his sanity, not his loyalty. The jury, in Moody’s persuasive account, was happy to take the recommendations of four psychiatrists that Pound was not competent to understand the charges against him nor participate in his own defense. More curious is the attitude of the government, too obviously relieved to be spared a trial that in Moody’s judgment they would have been lucky to win. Yet, the biography seems to offer plenty of damning evidence to the contrary; Moody shows that Pound was more important to the RSI’s propaganda efforts than has been thought—much more in line with Ezra’s own estimation of his value. If he steered the Republic’s message towards his own concerns, as Moody argues, so much the worse. Regardless, there can be little doubt that the insanity defense was a bad mistake. Julian Cornell, who seems to have been serving Laughlin’s interests, not Pound’s, has a lot to answer for here. But so does the poet. Pound made no attempt to plead for his competence and seems to have played an elaborate charade along with his keepers at St. Elizabeths for almost thirteen years brazenly faking exhaustion whenever his periodic psychological interviews required; the “Pound Show” Moody calls it. The doctors, who knew that Pound was essentially sane, played along; Dr. Overholser lied steadily to the DOJ, Cornell misrepresented things in his memoirs, and James Laughlin, seeing that he could only sell Pound’s books if his star poet was mad, not bad, promoted Pound’s insanity for all it was worth. Anything was better, it seemed, than for people to think Pound a traitor, Fascist, and - that kiss of social death in post-war America - anti-Semite (Moody III 248). “The ultimate explanation of Pound’s being denied justice, of being shut up indefinitely in St. Elizabeths, and his now being declared incompetent to speak for himself in any way: the reason was not insanity, it was Laughlin’s longstanding and no doubt well-founded fear of the outcry against the anti-Semitism in Pound’s economic propaganda and above all in his Rome radio broadcasts” (Moody III 249). Despite the purgatory of her life in Washington, Dorothy went along too, chaperoning her husband with his admirers, keeping their Fascist faith and anti-Semitism alive while skimming the cream of his earnings—anything it seems to keep Pound for herself. Altogether, there was a genteel conspiracy to keep Pound locked up where he’d be out of trouble, though trouble found him anyway. Nobody seems to have thought much about Ezra Pound, a sane man locked up with the mad in view of the iron dome of the capitol, year after year after year.

Yet Pound hardly helped himself. Moody is unable to explain why Pound acquiesced to the next phase of the plan—evidently hatched by Laughlin and Cornell—to deprive Pound of his legal personhood and remand all of his affairs to the Committee of Dorothy. Her English solicitor, Laughlin and others evidently saw their best chance of profiting at the poet’s expense was to deprive him of his rights. For all his assiduous diggings, Moody can shed no new light on the poet’s acceptance of this deplorable development, which tragically skewed the rest of his life. Pound did not argue for his essential sanity, did not demand a trial on the charges against him. We still do not know who exactly decided to withdraw the petition for habeas corpus of February 1948, although the request came from his “Committee,” Dorothy—but at Ezra’s request? Her decision? Moody can only tell us “the motive remains a matter for speculation” (Moody III 270).  When friends like Louis Dudek wrote the plain truth about Pound’s essential sanity he was told on no uncertain terms to “SHUT UP!!!” by Pound himself. A frustrated Archibald MacLeish wondered if Pound wanted out at all. Even after his release, April 18, 1958, Pound stayed three weeks at the hospital.

Pound’s mental and emotional survival at St Elizabeths must have had something to do with his uncanny ability to shut out distractions—especially emotional and personal ones. He told Denis Goucher about the effort it cost him—nine long years between cantos (Moody III 345), although Pound was otherwise productive, completing his extensive Confucian translations.  Moody is struck by Pound’s “capacity for taking no notice of the blindingly obvious…his disconnection between the obvious reality and what is urgently real to him” (Moody III 72). In 1944 Pound showed a “sublime disregard” for how the war was going for the Axis, “being totally possessed and driven by his conviction that he alone understood” its true nature (Moody III 81). By May 1945 he was sure the RSI had flopped for failure to follow Confucian principles (Moody III 83). A rare late scrap of self-examination scrawled at Martinsbrunn clinic during his protracted attempt to die reads: “Telescope is totally blind to everything save the spot it is focused on. Week’s agony to get that trope to illustrate my total blindness/ AT moments” (qtd. Moody III 480).

A pattern of what might gently be called moral obtuseness follows Pound’s behavior throughout his life. If it had remained merely personal, as with the deception of his parents, it would be bad enough, but, of course, it is most apparent and least forgivable in his hard  (“I have been hard as youth these sixty years”) and too often inhuman politics. Having co-authored and vetted a vicious segregationist pamphlet for use by his acolyte John Kasper and his radical faction to derail school integration in Virginia and Tennessee in 1956, Pound told insiders and evidently believed that a segregationist stance was necessary cover for the monetary reforms he contemplated with which to save the nation. Commenting on Virginians On Guard! and John Kasper’s terroristic campaign (which was inaugurated by cross burnings in front of the houses of those Pound and Kasper blamed for Brown v. Board of Education) Moody considers “the tunnel vision which had enabled Pound to see in Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism only those features  which he could endorse. It had always been his habit to take notice only of people doing something that positively interested him, as he told Mary on one occasion, and not to ‘look for their iniquities etc.’ ‘May be inhuman of me,’ he confessed, with the implication that it was just one of those things that could not be altered.” (Moody III 385-6). Mussolini, Hitler and Kasper were great doers, to be sure.

One plausible reason Dorothy was content to leave Pound locked up was to keep him away from Olga. The dreadful experience of the three of them shut in together, starving, up at Olga’ place in St. Ambrogio during the last year of the war in a crucible of hate, must have steeled Dorothy’s resolve not to slip back into the alternating arrangements they had maintained through the 30s and early war years. However, Pound’s confinement did not isolate him from adoring women. Pound carried on a marvelous correspondence with Ingrid Davies, revealing a deep and sensitive knowledge of sex and love - no wonder women were drawn to him! And Dorothy had to look on as Ezra fell in love with the bohemian Muse, Sheri Martinelli in 1954; “the new honey-pot girl” as Dorothy jeeringly called her (qtd. Moody III 312). Moody’s take on this relationship—that Pound was “joyfully in love with her for a time” (Moody III 312) is refreshing. Most biographers disdain La Martinelli as a beatnik kook with drug and alcohol problems. All true, but she knew her role as muse, which she had played before with figures as diverse as Anatole Broyard and William Gaddis and would play again with Charles Bukowski. Sheri was a powerful inspiration to the poet, as Moody shows. Pound’s interest in Martinelli lasted till 1957, when she was supplanted by Marcella Spann, a lovely and earnest Texas school-teacher who would accompany him back to Italy.  Pound fell hopelessly in love with her, both knowing and denying that a life together was impossible. A virtue of Moody’s sympathetic assessment of these major relationships is that he shows their powerful influences on The Cantos

Moody is the first biographer to have Marcella Spann Booth’s papers and memoir at his disposal. He gets a great deal out of them. From canto 106 through Canto 116 one senses her presence, most often as Artemis, but in canto 116, by name. The draft portion of Drafts & Fragments is essentially hers. We can finally fold those last cantos wholly into the poem and into Pound’s life. The biographical approach under Moody’s direction is never more illuminating than in chapter 15, “A Final Testament,” which keys the composition of the last cantos to his doomed and desperate love for Marcella and his fitful resistance to old age and the machinations of his scheming wife. Of canto 118 Moody writes that there Pound was “attempting to integrate his feelings about Marcella, and about Dorothy’s possessiveness, with his vision of justice…” (Moody III 452); he finds “two closely related cantos, 110 and 113 grow tense with opposing forces” (Moody III 453) as stories of “lovers kept apart.” Once in Italy they seem lovers on the run, Pound even proposed marriage. Threatened, almost desperate—we see her complaining that she can’t intercept Pound’s letters--Dorothy contrived to send the girl away. Moody:

Pound was in love with Marcella but bound to Dorothy, and there was no way he could get free so long as he remained in her keeping. But then he would not or could not do anything effectual to get himself free of the Committee—[his lawyer, Robert] Furniss remarked that he seemed always to veer away from the subject. In St. Elizabeths he had waited passively for others to get him out, and he had maintained his morale while he waited. This was a different situation, one which touched him to the heart, and there would be no way out.” (454).

Mary told me once that if Marcella had stayed, “we would have had a few more cantos.” They ended by Moody’s reckoning in August 1959 as Pound found himself powerless to protect his lover or himself. Marcella was sent packing in September; the poet returned to Brunnenburg refusing to eat, hoping for death, living in a twilight of silence, to be resurrected, almost literally, by Olga, who estranged since an untimely visit to St Elizabeths, was called in to bring back the starving poet from the brink of death in 1962.

       Can we call Pound a properly tragic figure? Moody’s narrative argues that we can. Pound has certain Lear-like qualities to be sure, although the domestic tragedy Moody gives us reminds us more of Eugene O’Neil than Shakespeare. Posing Pound as tragic can’t help but recall us to the scene in Judge Laws’ court in February 1946, when Pound decided to stand mute rather than defend his sanity, radio broadcasts, and his patriotism. Had he spoken up about his beliefs and forced a trial that no one wanted, he would have commanded a tragic stage, but he stood silent. No one can blame him for taking what he thought was the surest route towards saving his life and regaining his freedom, but it was not a tragic hero’s way. And, if Moody is right, he missed the chance to clear his name and vindicate his activity during the war. If Moody is wrong, then Pound avoided a heroic martyr’s fate. Instead he was remanded to a mental institution—Soviet style.   

Moody’s is by far the best researched, keenly judged, and in every sense comprehensive life of Pound we are ever likely to get. Altogether it is a crowning achievement for a very distinguished critic and scholar. Are there flaws? Let’s say that Moody’s emphasis on Pound’s personal tragedy, loss of liberty and “legal personhood” to his calculating wife and publisher, tends to paint Pound as naive, trusting, credulous. Moody’s Pound is a poet with a mind on higher things—his poem, his utopia, his paradise, his loves. In the face of injustice, selfishness and squalor, Moody’s Pound seems a kind of Holy Fool copying from a pile of arcane books.  Others will judge Pound’s situation differently; they will see a dedicated fascist asset, an intransigent political prisoner who maintained his extremist politics despite his confinement, confounding his keepers while training and encouraging a cadre of Rightist radicals under their very noses, a group that Moody, following Pound at his most disingenuous, calls “the kindergarten.”  In fact, the school of young activists sitting at the poet’s knee at St Elizabeths became with Pound’s encouragement, inspirations for the American far-right to this day. He didn’t create them, but in directing their studies and educating them up to his agenda, Pound empowered them. Neither a tragic Lear nor a Holy Fool, Pound was all poet and a discerning radical economist, an idealist who lived like a perpetual graduate-student, never quite seeing that the people he betrayed the most were those closest to him. The “tragic years” were the tragic, turbulent times that his Cantos express like nothing else. He tried to be a man, not a destroyer, but like too many men, he was both.