Interview with Eva Hesse

Hannes Hintermeier  for  Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 06/08/2012


tr. by Roxana Preda

 Scene – Munich retirement home.

HH - When did you first engage with the poet Ezra Pound?

EH - The first time was in 1958 when I wrote a text called “Ezra Pound – against the currents of time” for Gerhard Szczesny’s “Night studio” on the Bavarian radio. It was about his position against the Americans joining the war – and about his role as helper of younger writers. E. E. Cummings, whom I was translating at the time, read the manuscript. He recommended I send it to Pound himself. It found Pound in a great depression and so I began a longer correspondence with him, which over the years grew to two hundred letters.

HH - At that time Pound had just been discharged from the St. Elizabeths hospital in Washington twelve years and a half after he had been accused of treason and declared insane.

EH - It was called “Institute for the Criminally Insane”. The situation there was awful. Though suffering from claustrophobia, he was put in a common room    with all other mentally ill persons. The light was on day and night. T.S. Eliot protested against it, but it didn’t help. In the course of our correspondence I asked Pound what he meant by a certain passage. He replied he meant this, that and the other thing. I replied to him insolently, as I was then, that if that was what he meant, then certainly he did not write it. The answer, in big letters, promptly came back: “Damn it – don’t translate what I wrote, translate what I meant to write”. That impressed me and I have always kept it in mind in my later work.

HH - Which must have been difficult in his case, since he found quotations from many fields of knowledge and included even ideograms in his poems.

EH - Pound differentiates among three elements of poetry, which translate to different degrees. Melopoeia, whereby the poem sound creates significance beyond the words’ meaning: that is often untranslatable, can be successful only through sheer luck. Phanopoeia, the power of language to create images – that, in Pound’s opinion can never go wrong, you only have to hold onto the precise picture. The third element is logopoeia “the dance of intellect among words” – language games which you can recreate. These were the three elements, which I was aiming at. That is not the same thing as translating prose, but people often don’t understand this dimension of language.

HH - The most famous part of the poem, The Pisan Cantos are proof of how closely life and work were knit together in Pound’s case.

EH - It is remarkable that he could work in such circumstances. He was locked in a cage illuminated by floodlights day and night. He was not permitted to speak to anyone. He was then over sixty. When he broke down, he was moved to a medical tent, he could go out at night into the medical compound, there he began to write again. From that point on, his soul was damaged.

HH - Where does your love for Anglo-American poetry come from?

EH - Besides Cummings I have translated T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Langston Hughes and a lot of other poets. It began when as a seven year old I went to England with my father who worked at the German Embassy in London [1931]. I grew up bilingual, though I was condemned to a year of complete silence – until I learned English. After a year it was better, I even won prizes for essay composition. But it was a difficult time for me because at school I always had to explain what Mr Hitler meant when he claimed colonies in Africa. But at this time I discovered English poetry. Lawrence Olivier read Shakespeare at the Old Vic and I caught fire. At school we also read Shakespeare with a dictionary for old words. But that he could become so alive – that was an important experience for me.

HH - Did you live in Germany throughout the war?

EH -  When the war broke out, I came back – and had to realize that I really liked the English criticism of Hitler. I hated the Nazi tone. And then went to school very irregularly. But that is too personal.

HH - Well then, let us talk about Ezra Pound some more.

EH - I realized very late that all his life Pound had suffered from his own trauma as I had suffered from mine, and that there was no link between the two. His trauma was the First World War in which a total breakdown of culture happened and where a lot of his young friends, whom he had himself discovered, died in the trenches. My own showed itself only after the Second World War when I realized how many people the Nazis had murdered. I could never overcome that. But my trauma is barely mentioned in Pound’s poetry.

HH - This is why he is so notorious – for his support for Mussolini whose side he took in his radio speeches.

EH - He had primarily the First World War in mind; this is why he wanted to prevent America’s participation in the second. He made efforts to talk to Roosevelt but the president naturally refused to see him. But it is of course true: he never dissociated himself from fascism. The sole meeting with Mussolini he has kept in a Canto – when the Duce tapped an edition of Pound’s poetry with his finger saying “Questo e divertente” – this here is amusing. [Canto XLI]

HH -  So where does this fascination with the man and his work come from?

EH - He won me over by not treating me in an authoritarian way – like everybody else did, beginning with my father. One could really criticise him with no fear. And besides, he was an exceptional poet. In the beginning I stood up for him without knowing his case really well. Then I came to know him personally in Brunnenburg, by Merano after his discharge – he ran after us as my husband Mike and I were hauling our heavy luggage down to the valley. He gave me a crumpled piece of paper. As I opened it on the train it read: “Don’t argue”. I expect he meant that I should not stand up for him in public – so as not to discredit myself for his sake. Touching and enigmatic.

HH - Luckily it was not the only meeting. He visited you in Munich more often.

EH - He was not interested in the city. But he wanted to meet my parents because he had read my father’s Fritz Hesse’s book “Das Spiel um Deutschland” [The Game over Germany]. It is about the pre-war period from the point of view of the German embassy. The Duke of Windsor plays an important role there. Historians have rejected the book because my father who was born and grew up in Baghdad was actually a storyteller who told his stories imaginatively.1 My father took Pound for crazy and I corrected him: Papa, if people will talk about you they will do so because he mentioned you. In Canto 86 he wrote “Eva’s pa heard it on the telephone” – he means the news of the Duke of Windsor’s abdication.

HH - You stood on the left side of the political spectrum and translated a man who until today has had the fascist label stuck on him.

EH - I have never identified with Pound but have always examined him critically. Besides, I have not always translated. In 1974 I published my book “Die Wurzeln der Revolution”  [The Roots of Revolution] where I analyse theories of money and state. Ezra Pound is not even once mentioned there. The years after 1968 fired my imagination; I made a mistake, however. I was wrong in my evaluation of Mao.

HH - In the last years of his life, Pound had all but stopped talking.

EH - He was very deeply buried in his silence. Also with his partner Olga he talked only the bare essentials. My last meeting with him was shortly before his death in Venice. In the restaurant, Olga ordered the food. When it was brought to the table he asked “What is this? Did you order this for me?” She hissed: “Yes Ezra, eat it!” When I was about to leave, Olga ordered a gondola to take me to the station. Pound came with me and in spite of his advanced years wanted to carry my heavy suitcase. He almost got into a fight with a porter at the station over this. But he did not say a word.

HH - You can hardly decipher anything and you need someone to read aloud to you – is this the highest penalty for an intellectual?

EH - I am nevertheless very choosy, don’t like novels, for that I’m too old. Recently I have listened to the whole Proust. Well, you may not lie down while listening otherwise you fall instantly asleep. He is not at all modern - if I had read him at the beginning of my career, I would have given up literature. I love philosophical texts and have unfortunately missed many authors. I am interested in the medieval mystics, church history. As Ernst Bloch once remarked, the church nevertheless has the merit of creating heretics.


 1. Fritz Hesse. Das Spiel um Deutschland. München: Paul List Verlag, 1953, translated as Hitler and the English by F. A. Voigt and published by Allan Wingate in 1954. The book was very negatively reviewed in Die Zeit (December 1953) and received a charitable notice in Der Spiegel (October 1954). A more extensive commentary focusing on Hesse’s errors of memory and imaginative embellishments about the Ribbentrop plan can be found in Klaus P. Fisher, Hitler and America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, 259-261. Hesse was quoted by Observer (6 September 2009) in connection with Hitler’s plans of invading Britain.