BOOK IN FOCUS

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

review by Kevin Kiely

 

 

 

EP poet

THE POUND ERA HAPPENED ALRIGHT


David Moody’s Ezra Pound: Poet III maintains the methodology of previous volumes, filtering life events with parallel exegesis of cantos, individually and as a group. However, his reviewers maintained the tainted image of the poet: Marjorie Perloff (TLS): “there can be no doubt that Pound was indeed a Fascist” and “It is Moody’s contention that Pound’s ‘fascism’ was somehow not the real thing, it being, in Pound’s mind, no more than a doctrine in keeping with the American Constitution, a document the poet staunchly defended. Hisidée fixethat both world wars were ‘caused’ by the wrong monetary policies – by the usurious practices of the evil Jewish bankers – was supposedly in line with Thomas Jefferson’s attack on bank credit.” Denis Donoghue (Irish Times) utterly rejects Pound because he sees him as being “egotistical to a nearly impossible degree.” Alexander Adams (Spiked Review of Books) is among those who can half-heartedly abide the poet: “In Moody’s first two volumes it is hard to like the impetuous provocateur and Jew-baiter; in the last volume it is hard not to feel sympathy for a man broken by his own arrogance and by a miscarriage of justice.” And Louis Menand, while reviewing volume I in the New Yorker, evaluated Pound’s life as a whole under the umbrella of Fascism, stating that in the “Pull down thy vanity” fragment, where Pound seemed at his most contrite, he was really addressing the American Army (“Half black half white”): “the prisoner is raging against his captors. Pound laments, but he does not regret. The Pisan Cantos is a Fascist poem without apologies.” On The Cantos Menand remarked: “the poem kept metastasizing meaning, a Vortex battening on itself” and concluded that “Kenner’s title was deliberately ironic: the point of The Pound Era is that a Pound era never happened.” Such confusion proliferates, but of course the Pound Era happened all right. Meanwhile, Moody’s three volumes contend with Stock, Carpenter and Wilhelm, depending on whom you rate as valid biographer.

The “difficult” parts haunt from well before Carpenter’s biography of 1988. Moody attempts to allay the ghosts of the poet’s fascism and anti-Semitism and largely avoids the Dorothy-Olga-Mary domestic scene. Omar is hardly more than a footnote. Domestic confusion reigned in May 1944: Olga’s hospitality to Dorothy and Ezra at her Casa 60 in Sant’ Ambrogio meant a higgledy-piggledy set-up of husband, wife, and mistress. Olga could not abide Dorothy’s “incredible meanness.” Dorothy, on the other hand, after having moved with Ezra’s mother, found her apartment “a mild purgatorio compared to the HELL of No 60” (86). Carpenter heard Olga reflect on the situation in 1983: “we were all civilised people.”  Of course, but husband, wife and mistress under one roof?

Moody’s second volume closed with the poet’s surreal visit to America in 1939. Difficult it is not to howl with laughter at Pound cavorting with politicians explaining the history of banking, interest, and money, and hoping to stop America from entering the war. Carlos Williams recognised that “the man is sunk, in my opinion, unless he can shake the fog of Fascism out of his brain” (II 309). Moody chooses as a motto to the third volume the remark of Henry A. Wallace, US Vice-President (1941-5) who was actually kind: “I do not think that he intended to hurt the U.S.A. But I do think that he operated in a different world from most of us.”

The central thesis is the substantive issue of “anti-Semite-Fascist” stated in the preface: “his being perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when in truth he was neither” followed by “his moral offence, the anti-Semitism of which he was guilty” (xiii). This is qualified in a dangerous statement about the poet being made a scapegoat: “the extra-judicial guilt of his anti-Semitism, and for this he was justly condemned, and unjustly made a scapegoat for the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, and for anti-Semitism endemic in his society” (xiii). Moody is trenchant that Pound was not insane and that a trial by jury “should have found him not guilty as charged.” He clamours against the loss of “justice” and his subject’s “endless persecution” and “if one must use labels, ‘Confucian’ would be nearer the truth than ‘Fascist.’” (“As for ‘fascist,’ that is no longer fit for any responsible use” (xiv)). I disagree: “Fascist” does hold currency linguistically in neo-fascism and its cults and groups in both America and Europe and further afield.  

Moody absolves his subject whose aim was “to fight alongside Fascism, as a true American and for a reformed United States” (29). Anti-Jewish broadcasts were “his worst error, not the treason that was not really treason, but this failure of intelligence, of judgement, and of humanity” (53). Moody’s plea is for the poet’s confusion in wishing to establish Confucian order, “the civic sense for the construction of an empire” (83) – on the other hand, Mussolini “had not followed Confucian principles thoroughly enough” (83). This all reads emotively stilted. Mussolini’s historical legacy is vile. You cannot ever make a plea that Pound was made a scapegoat for the Holocaust.  

Moody as trial judge biographer has an engaging tone: “it is possible for a mind subject to a paranoid complex, such as Pound’s anti-Semitism became, to be otherwise sane and creative” (xiv). Contentiousness could hardly be more contentious. Moody’s get-off scot-free plea is based on the poet who in captivity “kept working at his epic subject, the struggle for individual rights and responsibilities and for civic justice” but “was never freed from the custody of his devoted and unrelenting wife”; denied the “rights of a free citizen, the right to his own money, the right to make a will.” Many are quoted in support. Robert Lowell: he had “no self-pity, but more knowledge of his fate than any man should have.” The defence runs replete with apologetics “identifying and confusing the practice of usury with Jews and Judaism for rhetorical effect”; “the error was bringing him near evil” (9). And more so “assigning to Germany, in 1939, the function of purging Europe of its ‘semitic microbes’’’ (9). Laughlin insisted “I cannot tell you how it grieves me to see you taking up with [anti-Semitism). It is vicious and mean” (11). Pound insisted that “America’s place is OUT of this damn war” (15).

The biography has good narrative pace despite the necessary interruptions made by commentary on the Cantos. EP’s hubris emerges with his employment by Rome Radio. From January to December 1941 his broadcasting for the Ente Italiano Audizione Radiofoniche earned him “nearly $1,000” (30). Pound was fully persuaded by Mussolini’s idea of “a civilization of labor” (31). In January 1942, he was granted permission to “remain in Italy for the duration of the war” by the Italian Supreme Command.

Meanwhile as an American, he felt that Roosevelt and Churchill were waging “a war against an honest concept of money” (32). Moody observes that Pound “hardly mentions the actual events of the ongoing war” in his broadcasts (33) and laments “the awful waste of Pound’s gifts” (33). On the Holocaust, Moody comments: “in September (1941) the first trials of gas chambers were carried out at Auschwitz. Pound would have known nothing about that” (43); “the BBC mentioned gas chambers in December 1942” (49). The broadcasts are unnerving, loaded with echoing innuendos (April 1942) such as “don’t start a pogrom. That is not an old style killing of small Jews.” In January 1942, meeting an American journalist for lunch, EP declared: “I believe in Fascism.... and I want to defend it... I want to save the American people.” What could be clearer?

Moody admits that Pound recommended the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf “as useful reading” (50). Writing to Williams, he declared “their origin [the Protocols] is not the point/it is their diagnosis of what has (now) happened that makes ‘em educative” (51). The footnotes declare the Protocols a “false document.” EP’s pathological obsession with “money” resonates through EPP III: a broadcast written for Germans recommends “the second part of Faust where Goethe touches upon gold and the Mephistophelian invention of paper” (72). The remedy for Usury is to “combat the expressed opinions of the Anglo-Saxon-Jewish-Yankee press” with the works of Brooks Adams, Arthur Kitson and (Willis) Overholser (77).

Fascism resounds through Cantos 72 and 73. 72 is a dialogue with Marinetti making Pound more fascist than the fascists. After he is detained, he wants “to negotiate peace terms with Japan via its embassy at Saló” (105). Moody sounds dismayed that Pound “could not gauge, however, the depth of routine prejudice with which he was eyed by the intelligence services of the United States and of Great Britain. To them he was clearly and simply an indicted traitor who had gone over to the Fascist enemy” (105). The biography in his defence strains to find exoneration in Pound’s words “I distinguish between the Jewish usurer and the Jew who does an honest day’s work for a living” (112).

The Pisan Cantos are the leading document Moody holds up in Pound’s defence. Their composition “between 18 June and 2 October” (134); 3,400 lines in “about one hundred days” with “the concluding canto, with the date “8th October” in its first line... added as a sort of winding down in his last weeks in the DTC.” Exoneration is granted by the biographer despite “a passage of fifteen anti-Semitic lines...hints at a Jewish conspiracy against ‘the goyim’” (143).

Quoting Justice Jackson of the Supreme Court in Cramer vs. United States, 6 Nov. 1944: “if there is no intent to betray, there is no treason” (164), Moody adds “one wonders if the Justice Department” were “simply going through the motions in presenting such a flimsy indictment” (178). Cornell is brought in as substantiating biographical witness: “they regard Pound’s case as rather a mild one of its kind” (172). “Pound was being called upon to answer for opinions expressed in just seven broadcasts”—Moody declares that “Cornell had not only silenced Pound” but “was covertly betraying him” (181). “He had come to damn Pound, not defend him” (182). Overholder (Winfred) is shown in cahoots with the attorney “warning Cornell not to ask a question which might bring out evidence that would throw doubt on the finding of insanity, the finding Cornell clearly wanted. He was offering himself as Cornell’s accomplice” (204). For Moody it was “theatre of the absurd performed as straight courtroom drama” (205) with a three-minute jury verdict of “unsound mind” (216) making the poet “Overholser’s prisoner” (218) and “permanently under his care” (220).  He relates the verdict as follows: “they declared him insane because he would not admit that he was guilty, an opinion worthy of Stalinist justice” and cites Pound’s “free speech without radio free speech is as zero” (227).

Moody sets up the long road to freedom well; the incarcerated life, contacts, and the cavernous St Elizabeths lock-up plus the open-secret and “double aim to the Laughlin-Cornell strategy: to avoid trial, and to get Pound out of the hell-hole” (241). This horse sense saved the day, but not for Moody.

The 1947 motion for bail was refused and revealed the Poundian Catch 22: “there was no way of having him declared sane after all and letting him stand trial.” The Bollingen Prize controversy brought official focus on how an insane poet could write or have friends. Overholser remarkably comes across as a Harvard man in excelsis: “I think it highly unlikely that there will be any substantial improvement in his condition, which is a singularly deep seated one” (269). Laughlin knew the release would mean “a trial and unfavourable publicity”; Eliot “does not want to accept freedom on any terms that are possible” (271). Robert Fitzgerald (co-conspirator, as it were) reviewed the Pisan Cantos as “evidence of his illness” (278). However, Laughlin and Cornell responded that while “illness” “might neutralize the charge of treason, it also meant that Pound must have been insane when writing The Pisan Cantos” (278). Richard Eberhart more clearly saw to the future with which those who forgive Pound agree: “fifty years will remove the politics and leave the poetry” (279). The Bollingen Committee were of the same mind voting ten in favour out of the twelve with Karl Shapiro against: “I am a Jew and cannot honor antisemites” (283). Fully understandable. Even with Confucius and Women of Trachis in print, Overholser is heroic in the epic story, maintaining his position within the Poundian Catch 22: “we have no evidence that he has done any productive literary work during his stay in the Hospital” (305). Overholser deserves a posthumous medal for patronage to poetry. 

Meanwhile, in 1953, the poet was still able to write to Olivia Agresti on Hitler: “Adolf clear on the bacillus of kikism... but failed to get a vaccine against that.” This is card-carrying Nazism. Moody agrees that “this is the insane complex at its most twisted and deranged” (332) and has to exonerate himself showing that for Pound, Hitler’s “right idea about money eclipsed those atrocities.”

Family matters make a rare appearance: Pound sent money to Boris in Rome from Isobel Pound’s estate sums of $1,670 and $2,600 to buy the land around Brunnenburg Castle. Olga’s arrival at St. Elizabeths meant confronting Ezra’s love for La Martinelli who recounted the incident: “she waved the parasol over me, but never did bring it down” (368). Olga’s departure and return voyage must have been in despair.

By 1957 Overholser covertly and overtly loyal to his poet, told the Bureau of Prisons that Pound was “still mentally incompetent to stand trial or to consult with counsel” due to a “psychotic disorder, undifferentiated.”  Definitely deserves that posthumous medal. The release meant seeking “to quash the long-standing indictment” (421) and whence the return of “mental competence”? There is no statute limiting “the time when a person may be indicted for treason” (422). Catch-22 within a Catch-22.

After the insane situation in St Elizabeths, Moody concludes in less than seventy pages with hints and glimpses of familial disharmony, as well as “self-debasement which is another form of egotism” (465) according to his lifelong minder wife. The rest was all silence as the poet responded to the assassination of JFK; “believed the day would come for European unity” (478) and praised HD’s Helen in Egypt as “the real epic” (479). Self-immolation, if not remorse, had set in.

Unfortunately, the poet’s final wishes were not adopted. “Nobody can contest my right to being buried in my birth place my bust by Gaudier as grave stone.” It was to be Hailey, Idaho in view of the Sawtooths. Moody sees it as “a rhyme with President Lincoln’s funeral progress through the States as memorialized by Whitman” (496). It could be done and have Pound’s reputation re-focused as the poet who had a lover’s quarrel with America. America itself was legally lenient, if you consider the historical moment. Executing Pound? Condemning him to the penitentiary system in the 1940s had there been a trial? St Elizabeths and Dr Overholser were the best of all possible worlds if you examine the legal situation. Moody will have none of this. The biography indulges in wish-fulfilment of the poet going to trial. John Amory in England had his day in court for treasonous broadcasts. Counsel attempted seeking a plea of insanity. It failed. Amory was hanged. Lord Haw-Haw was executed for his broadcasts. Any 1940s jury would have unanimously declared Pound guilty. The hero who emerges with the poet is the Virgilian Overholser.

 

WORKS CITED        
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Adams, Alexander. "Pound: Poet and Political Prisoner." Rev. of Ezra Pound: Poet: Vol. 1. The Young Genius, 1885-1920, Vol.2. The Epic Years, 1921-1931, and Vol. 3. The Tragic Years 1939-1972, by A. David Moody. Spiked Review of Books (Oct. 2015). Web. 3 Jan. 2016. Free online.

Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character. The Life of Ezra Pound. New York: Delta, 1988.

Donoghue, Denis. "Ezra Pound Poet, Vol. 3. The Tragic Years 1939-1972 review: rhyme and treason." The Irish Times, 30 Jan 2016. Web. 15 May 2016. Free online.

Menand, Louis. "The Pound Error." Rev. of Ezra Pound Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work. I: The Young Genius, by A. David Moody. The New Yorker 84.17 (June 9, 2008): 123-27. Free online.

Moody, A. David. Ezra Pound: Poet: Vol. 1. The Young Genius, 1885-1920; Vol. 2. The Epic Years, 1921-1931; Vol. 3. The Tragic Years 1939-1972. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007, 2014, 2015.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Ezra Pound dans la poubelle.” Times Literary Supplement, 4 November 2015. Web. 8 June 2016.