Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 - A. David Moody (2015)
PART FIVE: 1958-1972
18: AFTERLIFE OF THE POET, 1965-72
These were the years in which the poet fell into an impenetrable silence, at least in public. They were also the years in which he became more than ever a celebrity and the object of fresh honours—each one a fresh provocation to his implacable furies. These would always be bringing up the errant propagandist to blot out the poet’s contribution to humanity, and were never to be appeased by the humility and dignity of his silence. Yet the silence was creating a space in which the poetry could be listened to by those who had a mind for it.
It was announced on 4 January 1965 that T. S. Eliot had died at his home in London. There was to be a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, a ‘month’s mind’, on 4 February and Pound, ‘visibly shaken’ by the news, felt that he must be present. At the Abbey he was accompanied by Olga’s brother, Dr Teddy Rudge, since Olga meant to keep discreetly out of range of the press who were making much of Pound’s appearance there. After the service they went on to Valerie Eliot’s Kensington flat where Pound said little, moved about looking at photographs of Eliot, and sat quietly for some time. ‘On his own hearth, a flame tended, a presence felt,’ he would record in a brief tribute, with the afterthought, ‘Who is there now for me to share a joke with?’ They were booked on a flight back to Venice, but decided to go first to Dublin to see Yeats’s widow. Pound wanted to honour his shade too, having in mind, possibly, the blending together of Eliot’s voice—‘the true Dantescan voice’—with those of Yeats and Dante in Little Gidding. In Dublin he was observed ‘apparently lost in introspection’, but was also photographed ‘in conversation with Mrs Yeats in the Royal Hibernian Hotel’.
There would be another such moment of introspection at Joyce’s grave in Zurich in the winter of 1967. Olga had taken Ezra to Basel to consult a specialist at the Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik—the specialist prescribed antidepressants and promised Pound’s mood would lift with the spring—and they had gone on to Zurich in order to visit the grave. They found it in a corner of the cemetery, ‘a tomb without flowers, among others decorated with Christmas trees and wreaths with little candles, as is the custom there’, and ‘the names of Joyce and Nora nearly illegible on a stone hidden in the grass’. That near obliteration was what stayed with Pound, and not the rather literal bronze statue set up by Joyce’s admirers. In Horst Tappe’s photo blind Joyce listens for who is there, while Pound keeps his distance, standing quite still with his gaze fixed on the stone in the grass. One gathers from a letter he wrote to Dorothy when back in Venice that he was reading its illegibility as ‘a warning’ to ‘consider such things’.
The point of that letter to Dorothy was to communicate his considered wishes concerning his own grave:
I wish to be buried alone in Hailey, Idaho. I am considering this arrangement, which obviously will take some time. If I die before its completion, I wish to be buried temporarily in St Ambrogio, Rapallo, or in Venice. Olga to take charge of the arrangement. She knows my wishes.…Nobody can contest my right to be buried in my birth place my bust by Gaudier as grave stone. Some trees. The state of Idaho will provide suitable ground outside the town, with view of saw-tooth range. On the way to Haily the Gaudier head to be lent for exposition: Paris (Musée d’Art Moderne) London (the Tate) New York—Washington—Philadelphia—one month in each place. If properly managed this should pay the expense of moving head from Brunnenburg to Haily.
Thus the poet ordered his tomb. The arrangements—which were confirmed in a codicil to his Will dated ‘11th September 1967’—are at once fantastical and quite practical. He would end where he began, as if following Eliot’s East Coker to the letter, though without the Christian humility. There may be also a rhyme with President Lincoln’s funeral progress through the States as memorialized by Whitman. And then the grandeur of it, the timeless bust by Gaudier to mark his tomb with a view of the ‘immense row of mountains in the Sawtooth range’. There may have been something more. Such an arrangement would take out of play the most valuable single object in his estate—‘it should eliminate any future discussion among the young,’ as he pointed out to Dorothy. And that object being a representation of himself, to remove it in this way was as near as he could get to setting himself above the arguments over his estate. It would be a declaration, to his heirs particularly, of how he wanted to be remembered, not as a marketable property, but as having his real existence in the quite other realm of artistic creation and contemplation. 1
He was already becoming a living monument. In Sant’Ambrogio, down in Rapallo, in Venice, he could be identified simply as ‘Il Poeta’. Poets, musicians, literary people of all sorts and unliterary people too, would find their way to Sant’Ambrogio or to Calle Querini in the hope of being admitted to offer him their homage or to seek his approval of their poems and performances. To strangers whom Olga deemed worthy of admission he would say little or nothing; but his silent listening was more impressive than most talk, and there could be a compelling intensity in his eyes and sculpted features.
He would speak with friends and familiar acquaintance, but only when he had something pertinent to say, and as the critic Sister Bernetta Quinn remarked, ‘It is really very difficult to carry on a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak unless he has something to say.’ The poet and publisher Peter Russell, who had visited Pound in St Elizabeths and had published his ‘Money Pamphlets’, was the guest of Ezra and Olga in Sant’Ambrogio for several days in August 1964 and found himself falling in with Pound’s silences in a companionable way. There would be intermittent conversation. ‘Are you writing poetry now?’, Pound asked, and after Russell had answered, he said, ‘I liked some of the things I read in Washington.’ This was said not so much to praise them, Russell felt, as to tell him, ‘Don’t underestimate what you did when you were younger.’ Russell ‘felt a great kindness in him’ at that moment. He asked which contemporary poets Pound liked, and was told without hesitation, ‘I like some of Lowell’s things’; then, when Russell mentioned Santayana in connection with Lowell, ‘You wrote an article on Santayana, didn’t you?’ Russell realized ‘that Pound’s memory was excellent, and that neither essentials nor details escaped him’, with the important qualification, ‘if they interested him’. At the same time he noticed that Pound ‘didn’t seem to pursue any subject further than the brief exchange of first observations’. When others were present he would listen attentively to what was said, ‘but would rarely say anything unless it was to correct an impression, or to add something omitted’. Though brief, these remarks ‘were always coherent, grammatical and complete in themselves’, while often requiring ‘further explanations which were not to be forthcoming’.
Guy Davenport, who had been visiting shortly before Russell, noted a striking example of that. Over dinner at a local trattoria ‘the old poet broke hours and hours of silence to say, “There’s a magpie in China can turn a hedgehog over and kill it.”’ He had learnt that from ‘“Giles’s Dictionary”’, he admitted, but nothing more. It was only next day, and with the help of Miss Rudge and his friends, that Davenport connected the remark with the ‘Hedgehog and Fox’ fragment in his translation of Archilochos—Fox knows many tricks ‘and still | Gets caught’, while ‘Hedgehog knows | One but it | Always works.’ He had given Pound a copy of the book and this was his mischievous way of acknowledging that he had read the translation.
In fact he had read it aloud to Olga, and Davenport learnt that he liked to read to her in the evenings—the current book was Sartre’s Les Mots, just out. At Olga’s prompting Pound read for Russell from the Confucian Odes, ten or so of them one evening, ‘with plenty of effects, though no exaggerations—many changes of tempo, many varying tones of voice, shifts from the lyric to the colloquial and the proverbial or didactic’. Russell ‘felt that he was fully in control both of his voice and of the contents of each poem’. What then was his problem in conversation? Pound offered an explanation on another evening after he had read some things from the Cantos: ‘I just can’t put two thoughts together and then manage to get them out…can’t make the words on my tongue,’ and ‘By the time I can say it, the moment’s passed.’ Russell decided that his problem was with converting ‘thought into speech’. It seems likely, however, that before that it was a difficulty with formulating what was in his mind, a difficulty in the thought process itself. Being unable to ‘make the words on my tongue’ was apparently a consequence of that, since he evidently had no difficulty reading aloud what was already formed and written out. What had happened was that his genius—that genius for finding and rhythmically uttering words charged with meaning—had left him.
Yet his genius was still palpable to others and publicly honoured; and there was power in his mere presence. In 1965 he was Gian-Carlo Menotti’s guest of honour at his Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi. Le Testament de Villonwas being performed as a ballet, with the singers in the orchestra pit—Pound’s reaction to this curious transformation is not recorded, but then it was a festival of music, theatre, and dance. The programme that year included Verdi’s Otello, Britten’s Abraham and Isaac based on the Chester Mystery Play, and Leroi Jones’s Dutchman—the ‘two worlds’ of the festival were Europe and the Americas. There was also an international poetry fest bringing together Stephen Spender, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Pasolini, Pablo Neruda, and a contingent of Americans including Allen Tate, Charles Olson, John Wieners, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti’s first sight of Pound was in a box above the stalls at the back of the theatre, ‘still as a mandarin statue…a striking old man…lost in permanent abstraction’. To John Wieners, seeing him from the stage where he and some other poets were about to read, ‘His eyes were like stone. They pierced me from a distance. I felt I was in the presence of a god and afraid to look.’ When it was Pound’s turn to read, Ferlinghetti recalled, ‘Everyone in the hall rose, turned and looked back and up at Pound in his booth, applauding…and Pound tried to rise from his armchair…and could not.’ The applause went on until a poem was put in his hand, and after at least a minute a voice came out,‘frail but stubborn’, and the hall went instantly silent. He was reading Marianne Moore’s translation of La Fontaine’s ‘The Grasshopper and the Ant’, in which the Grasshopper, having sung through the fair weather, asks to share the Ant’s store now winter has come, and the Ant says, ‘“A singer! Excellent! Now dance.”’ Then he read Robert Lowell’s ‘imitation’ of Dante’s meeting in hell with Brunetto Latini, his old master who taught him ‘how a man becomes eternal’, and who bids him now, ‘“Give /me no pity. Read my Tesoro. In | my book, my treasure, I am still alive.”’ ‘The voice knocked me down,’ Ferlinghetti wrote, ‘So soft, so thin, so frail, so stubborn still,’ and as ‘the thin, indomitable voice went on’ he went out of the theatre ‘into the sunlight, weeping’. Pound read at the Festival every year until 1971, his almost whispering voice the ghost of what it had been but still deliberately articulating the weight and duration of each syllable in a way that let the rhythm carry the meaning. That ghostly voice is still alive on the recording of his reading from the Cantos at Spoleto in 1967, a reading which was for Robert Duncan ‘a beautiful model of delivering the meaning direct, not directed’.
A dynamic young publisher in Paris, Dominique de Roux, had decided to make Pound better known in France. He had commissioned translations of The Pisan Cantos and ABC of Reading—these would be the first volumes of the Cantos and of Pound’s prose to be translated into French—and he was also preparing, in his ‘L’Herne’ series of ‘dossiers’, two sumptuous volumes containing translations of his writings, ‘témoinages’ by friends and others who had known him, and interviews, essays, and commentaries. De Roux proposed to launch these for Pound’s 80th birthday, 30 October 1965, and invited him to be his guest in Paris for the event. Pound arrived at the Gare de Lyon on the 21st with Olga, and was welcomed there by de Roux who had organized in his honour a ten-day programme of interviews, dinners, receptions—through all of which he would maintain a near absolute silence. He was seen at Brasserie Lipp and Les Deux Magots, and all Paris, de Roux claimed, was talking only about Pound. Paris-Match devoted an issue to him; Le Figaro littéraire gave him a whole page, L’Observateur two pages; France-Soir and Paris-Jour carried features. All this media attention went on in spite of the journalists having only photos to show from their interviews, and the television presenters having to talk over shots of the silent poet. He appeared on one live show, Lectures pour tous, responding to all the hosts’ questioning with ‘a fearful silence, staring back hard at the camera’, until declaring suddenly, ‘in a voice from the catacombs, “Le silence m’a choisi,”’ ‘silence has made me its own.’ On his birthday de Roux invited a few carefully selected guests, among them Alain Robbe-Grillet and Pound’s old friend Natalie Barney, to join them for dinner in his apartment. The latter’s birthday gift was an immediate visit to Greece.
The famous meeting with Beckett, in which the master of theatrical silences was upstaged by the poet who was beyond speech, took place two years later, when Pound was in Paris for the publication of ABC de la lecture and Esprit des littératures romanes. Beckett invited Pound to a performance of Fin de partie (Endgame), and it was reported that Pound broke his silence to declare, ‘C’est moi dans la poubelle.’ Exactly what prompted him to place himself in Nagg’s dustbin remains a mystery. He called again on Natalie Barney, now 92, whose house in the rue Jacob appeared to Olga to be derelict, and they were seen as two shades walking silently through the unkempt garden, revisiting the Temple à l’Amitié.
Thanks to Miss Barney, he had seen the remains of some of the great Greek temples, Athene’s on the Acropolis, Apollo’s at Delphi, Poseidon’s at Sounion. There is no record of his visiting the sacred site of Persephone at Eleusis, but then his Eleusis, and indeed all of the Greece he had known and drawn on, was the heritage of the ancient civilization made new in his mind out of its myths and its epics and its tragedies. There is no knowing what he made of its physical ruins in1965. Apart from press notices of his presence, and some photographs, the only account of this visit is in an essay by Zesimos Lorenzatos, a Greek poet, literary critic, and translator—he had published a translation of Cathay in 1950. He received a totally unexpected call from Pound’s hotel on 4 November, telling him that Ezra Pound was there and wished to see him. He went to Pound’s room and found him standing before an open window with a view of the Acropolis. Pound simply looked at him for some moments, according to Lorenzatos’ account, then, speaking with great difficulty, said something about ‘breaking out of the cosmos’, and ‘“There must be a light…somewhere”’; and, after a silence, in a dramatic voice, ‘“the power of Evil!”’ Finally ‘he murmured in a husky voice and forming his words one by one…“Shrivelling, diminuendo…I am going down, down below…”.’ Lorenzatos could give no context to specify what might have been in Pound’s mind, and, taking his words to be wholly personal, found them simply ‘heart-rending’. But I wonder could Pound, who had been contemplating the Acropolis, have been thinking of Athene and of Homer and the ancient tragedies, and of the struggle of intelligence to rise above brute force and to achieve a sense of civic responsibility, and then been overcome by a sense of his own tragic hubris and fall in that perennial struggle. The broken phrases might be the ultimate condensation of a classic tragedy, with the protagonist brought down in the end to the revelation that the divine light must be sought in Persephone’s realm.
Lorenzatos appears to have made himself Ezra’s and Olga’s guide for their week in Greece, but Pound said nothing further of note. He found Delphi ‘“Marvellous!”’, and the immense prospect over the sea at Sounion beyond price. On the drive back to Athens he saw ‘the 3 fates’, three figures in black at a cross-roads. Otherwise he left just one definite trace of his visit, an inscription in a small book about Delphi which George Seferis presented to him when he had Pound and Olga to lunch at his home in Athens on 5 November. The inscription, under Seferis’s dedication of the book to Pound, reads, ‘This to Olga who got me to Delphi when no other force under heaven would have. E.’
She was indeed the force that moved him now—and ‘the sea in which he floated’. And Olga had the life with Ezra she had waited so long for, with never a regret for what might have been. ‘Why is it, in old age, dancing seems better?’, she wrote in her notebook. ‘We had a gramophone, dancing with Him to Vivaldi His idea!’ But he became dependent upon her energetic care for everything from travel arrangements to washing and dressing—to dressing in both senses, since she saw to it that he was always elegantly turned out for his appearances in public. There she was the discreet impresario, managing his appearances with the skills she had developed in looking after the practical arrangements and the egos of the world’s musicians at Count Chigi’s Accademia in Siena. Her idea was to keep him alive by having him go about in the world and maintain a presence in it. In Venice they went to all the concerts, to operas at the Fenice where they would be seated in a box, to the theatre, to lectures, keeping up with whatever was going on. He was a regular guest at events at the Cini Foundation. And they would travel at the drop of an invitation, to a performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion in Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, to the Premio Letterario in Rome where Pound was seated on the platform and Mary’s translation of a canto was read, to Sicily as guest of honour at a literary conference where he and Pasolini first met. One year, after hibernating in Venice, they went to France for a choreographer friend’s ‘spectacle during the Fêtes Jeanne d’Arc…three days in Paris, Orleans in May’; in early June to Rome ‘for two performances of Noh’; ‘then to Spoleto, where Gian Carlo Menotti has lent his flat to E. for the Festival for the last five years’.
Travel was her antidote for his depressive tendencies. There had been an episode in the winter and early spring of 1966 serious enough for him to be hospitalized in the University of Genoa’s Clinic for the treatment of nervous and mental disorders. On this occasion publicity was not wanted and he was registered under his doctor’s name as ‘Bacigalupo’. His leading symptom proved difficult to define, but seemed to be, according to the Clinical Report sent to the Director of St Elizabeths in Washington, ‘an involuntary difficulty in the initiation of movements; for example, when the patient began to walk, or to dress himself, he remained arrested for a while; but when the action started, it could be carried out without apparent difficulty.’ However the young psychiatrist put in charge of his case found that ‘Any attempt to help or force him to complete the action increased the motor arrest with presence of opposition and active negativism.’ He might have concluded, but did not, that the patient did not appreciate being treated like a dummy. He could find nothing wrong with him physically: reflexes, blood pressure, pulse, etc., all normal. As for his mind, ‘When addressed he looked perplexed, answering with a marked delay,’ but then ‘his answers were correct and coherent’, and ‘sometimes the precision and the correctness of his answers were astonishing’. But there was that ‘retardation of verbal expression’, and this appeared to him to be due to the patient’s having too much going on at once in his mind, with ‘ideas of self accusation and hypochondriacal delusions’ always pressing in. To the psychiatrist ‘It seemed as if’
the personality of the patient had always been on the autistic side, with a prevailing phantastic attitude and insufficient contact with reality…so that a psychotic-like situation came out (‘borderline patient’) permitting however, and perhaps encouraging, poetic activity.
That ‘seeming’ became apparent fact in his expert opinion, which took account also of a twenty-year ‘series of traumatic events, psychorganic involutional factors, and a melancholic attitude’, all this in order to explain ‘the present extreme autistic situation with almost complete psychomotor arrest’. He prescribed ‘general somatic therapies and antidepressant drugs (amitryptiline)’, but was obliged to record that ‘the psychic situation remained almost unmodified’. Olga thought the drug actually made Ezra’s condition worse, putting him altogether into a ‘a catatonic state’. After a month she telephoned Dr Bacigalupo and had him removed from the clinic. The experience can’t have done much to improve either Pound’s negative view of psychiatry’s ability to read the mind or his fear of its drugs. The only treatment he would respond to now was Olga’s endlessly patient care. She could never cure him, but she would keep him moving.
Robert Lowell’s impressions of Pound shortly after he had left the clinic were strikingly different from the psychiatrist’s. He saw him up at Sant’Ambrogio in late April, and wrote afterwards to thank Olga for her ‘courtesy and hospitality’. ‘I had a good talk with Ezra’, he told her,
though everything I said seemed fuzzy and platitudinous after the crisp carving of his scattered sentences. I tried to tell him he was about the only man alive who had lived through Purgatory, and come through white with a kind of honesty and humility. So, so—he was the most awesome encounter I had in Italy, and somehow wonderfully the same and wiser than when I used to go to St. Elizabeths.
‘So much owing to you’, he added, giving credit where it was manifestly due. Lowell also wrote to Laughlin, telling him that ‘The visit to Ezra was awesome and rather shattering, like meeting Oedipus—he said, “I began with a swelled head and am ending with swelled feet.”’ Lowell was evidently thinking of Oedipus seeking peace with his Furies and with the gods at Colonus as he went on, ‘He has a nobility I’ve never seen before, the nobility of some one, not a sinner, but who has gone far astray and learned at last too much.…No self-pity, but more knowledge of his fate than any man should have.’ But Pound had only said to him, when he talked of his having ‘had the courage to go through Purgatory’, ‘“Didn’t Frost say you’d say anything once?”’
On their own Ezra and Olga appear to have led a simple domestic life. From her notebooks one gathers that he would do his yoga exercises before breakfast, and that she would throw the coins for the I Ching hexagrams first thing every day. They might go out to lunch nearby, at a favourite trattoria, Montin or Cici, and would take walks along the Zattere beside the broad canal. Ezra read a great deal, slowly, and apparently with total recall of any book he had read. He played chess, with enormous concentration, and, according to Russell, ‘was still pretty good at it’. Sometimes he would cook supper, ‘Veal chops with fried eggs and a green salad was the usual menu.’ In the evenings he would read to Olga, sometimes from the Cantos for her collection of tape recordings. Their daily routine was probably much more of that quiet order than one is led to imagine by the accounts of visitors who saw them always in company. The company was important as a stimulus to Pound, and Olga encouraged old friends especially to visit, and they did. At the same time the two of them seem to have been content enough with just each other for company.
Pound clearly counted himself blessed to have been brought home after much wandering to his true Penelope—‘nostos to Olga | Olga’s fortitude’, he wrote on a scrap of paper. It may have been in 1967 that he wrote this tribute:
There is more courage in Olga’s little
finger than in the whole of my
That she wd. have saved me
from idiocies in antisemitism.
Determination to build up
my physical health & restore
mental balance, from the time
she took over , & got me into
—‘& trying day by day to keep my | mind alive’, he ended that note. On a Thanksgiving Day he wrote these lines for her—
& her name was courage
& she had pity for every living thing
& kept me alive for ten years
for which no one will thank her
her red head a flask of perfume.
And for her 75th birthday in April 1970 he wrote in her notebook,
If there was a trace of beauty in anything, she saw it.
For fine and just perception and a level gaze,
For courage in face of evil,
For courage in time of adversity,
If anyone ever deserved the spring with all its beauty, she did.
Those were private recognitions. There were a few public statements too, these discreetly restrained. The selection of Cantos he made in 1965 at the suggestion of Peter du Sautoy of Faber & Faber carried the dedication ‘To | OLGA RUDGE | “Tempus loquendi”’, as if declaring that it was time to speak out about her place in his life while saying no more than that. The volume of Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII (1969) was dedicated very simply ‘To Olga Rudge’, and the informed reader might think that the opening lines referred to her ‘quiet house’ in Venice. Beyond that, however, even though Marcella’s animating presence was concealed by discreet changes to the drafts she had typed up, there was no way Olga could be read into those cantos. The only explicit public tribute, placed at the end of the collected Cantos after Pound’s death, was the fragment of a few lines ‘for the ultimate CANTO’ dated ‘24 August 1966’—‘That her acts |…| of beauty | be remembered. // Her name was Courage.’ He would tell close friends such as Peter Russell that he now owed everything to her, and to her courage, and he would have intended that word to be connected with its root in ‘heart’.
In these years Pound was an object of constant media interest and scrutiny. One article which achieved a degree of notoriety was Daniel Cory’s ‘Ezra Pound: A Memoir’, published in Stephen Spender’s Encounter in May 1968. Cory had got to know Pound when he was George Santayana’s secretary, and also from renting an apartment at Brunnenburg from time to time in the early 1960s. In 1966 he visited Pound in Venice to gather material for his article, and put it to him that ‘we might say that the Cantos reflected faithfully the incoherence or fragmentary insights of the contemporary writer in a cosmopolitan milieu’. Pound’s response to this sophistical gambit was simply, ‘“It’s a botch.…I botched it.”’ He elaborated for Cory by telling him to think of ‘“a shop-window full of various objects”’, and then saying, ‘“I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make…a work of art.”’ Cory took this at face value, and there were many to whom it gave aid and comfort—here was the poet himself confirming their view of the Cantos. However, in an interview with Pasolini recorded in the winter of 1968, possibly after he had seen an advance copy of Cory’s article, Pound made a point of dismissing the notion that the Cantos’ ‘quotation after quotation’ were ‘chosen at random’. ‘They say they are chosen at random’, he said, ‘but that’s not the way it is. It’s music. Musical themes that find each other out.’ Beneath his now habitual self-deprecation and his readiness to confess ‘my notes do not cohere’, there was still a sustaining confidence in his art.
The declarations of failure were a symptom of his depression, and did not speak for his core convictions which remained constant. In 1970, in a brief introductory note for a new edition of Guide to Kulchur, he reaffirmed his struggle in that book and generally, ‘which was, and still might be, to preserve some of the values that make life worth living’. Another such note, this time written as a foreword to Selected Prose 1909-1965 and dated ‘Venice, 4thJuly, 1972’, administered a timely if oblique self-correction: ‘In sentences referring to groups or races “they” should be used with great care’. He had always known that, of course, only he had too often failed to practise it. He next wrote what some have mistaken for a recantation: ‘re USURY: | I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. | The cause is AVARICE.’ That was in fact no more than a refinement of language, since he had written, in essays included in that very volume, ‘it is not money that is the root of evil. The root is greed’; and again, ‘This ruin has its roots in the greed for lucre.’ If there had been a change in his position, it was only to concentrate attention upon the root cause rather than upon its effects.
The Allen Ginsberg vortex descended upon Pound for about ten days in October 1967, with Ginsberg chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ and mantras to the accompaniment of his Benares hand-organ, and talking of beatific mind-states and mystical drugs, and of his visions of William Blake, and of his and his generation’s debt to Pound’s ear for the natural language, and of what Williams and what Bunting had said in praise of his verse, and then he played him tracks of the Beatles, and Dylan and Donovan, and Pound attended impassively, listened through it all with exquisitely tolerant patience and goodwill. Ginsberg, for all that he was high on pot some of the time, really knew what he was talking about when it came to the way changes of rhythm and tone contribute to the clarification of perceptions, and Pound responded to that. But when Ginsberg, trying to explain ‘the concrete value of [Pound’s] perceptions manifested in phrasing’, invoked ‘the Paradise in the intention and the desire to manifest coherent perceptions in language’—then Pound demurred and said (in Ginsberg’s account),
The intention was bad—that’s the trouble—anything I’ve done has been an accident—any good has been spoiled by my intentions—the preoccupation with irrelevant and stupid things.
Ginsberg insisted, he had come, ‘a Buddhist Jew’, to give Pound his blessing because his perceptions had been clarified ‘by the series of exact language models’ in the Cantos, and would Pound accept his blessing, and Pound said, ‘I do’, and then,
‘but my worst mistake was the stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism, all along, that spoiled everything’.
And [Ginsberg] responded, ‘Ah, that’s lovely to hear you say that…’, and later, ‘as it says in I Ching, “No Harm”’.
On another day, talking about the problem of finishing the Cantos, Ginsberg asked, ‘Is your problem one of physical depression?’, and Pound told him, ‘The depression’s more mental than physical.’ Ginsberg’s last sight of Pound and Olga was as they were on their way to catch the vaporetto for the railway station—they were going to Padua to escape the expected November aqua alta—and Pound was walking energetically, ‘white raincoat flowing behind him, walked with speedy strength, slowed to climb small bridge steps to Salute’s platform and stepped up firmly, then with youthful balance stepped from the tipsy floating platform on to boatbus…’
A conjunction of events drew Pound to America in June 1969. He received an invitation, as a past Fellow of the Academy of American Poets, to attend its thirty-fifth anniversary meeting in the board room of the New York Public Library at which the annual Fellowship was to be awarded to Richard Eberhart. He had also been invited to attend the opening of an exhibition in the Library of the original drafts of The Waste Land on which he had worked in Paris in January 1922, and which had recently turned up in the Library’s Berg Collection. The third event, for which he had not received an invitation, was the conferring of an honorary doctorate upon Laughlin by Hamilton College for his services to literature. Laughlin had been discouraging, saying that the trip to America would be a terrible strain for Pound, but Olga had gone ahead regardless and they turned up unannounced in New York on 4 June. A call from the airport took the Curator of the Berg Collection, Dr Lola Szladits, by surprise—there was some problem with officials there and she was being called upon to vouch for Pound. They went to a hotel on 45th Street which Olga had known in the past and called Laughlin from there. But the neighbourhood was not what it was, the hotel was now a brothel, and when he discovered this Laughlin arranged for them to stay for a few days at his home in Norfolk, Connecticut. Grandson Walter, who was studying at Rutgers University, was called upon to drive them there the next day. They would now of course accompany Laughlin to Hamilton.
At the Academy of American Poets reception Lowell observed Pound seated ‘in a stately chair’ and ‘whenever a woman came up, he stood up and bowed’, so that finally Lowell said, ‘“For God’s sake sit down, Ezra,”’ and Pound, ‘“I’ve done nothing but sit down all afternoon.”’ When Marianne Moore was brought to him in her wheelchair Laughlin noticed the President, Marie Bullock, take them off to a side room and stand guard at the door. He looked in and saw Pound ‘talking to Miss Moore with animation’. At some point Pound went again to the Public Library to go over the Waste Land drafts with Valerie Eliot and elucidate his marginal notes for the ‘facsimile & transcript’ she was preparing. In a brief ‘Preface’ to her edition, written when he was back in Venice, he made no mention of his having had a hand in the poem, but wrote, ‘The more we know of Eliot, the better,’ though Eliot had said that his only reason for wishing the missing manuscript might be found was so that it could be seen how Pound had transformed ‘a jumble of good and bad passages into a poem’. But all that was nearly fifty years in the past.
Hamilton College had not panicked when informed at very short notice that Ezra Pound intended to be present at their Commencement ceremonies on 8 June. Professor Austin Briggs of the English Department was detailed to look after him—to have him to lunch, see that he was rested, and drive him to the ceremony. When Pound entered the hall, gowned and wearing his honorary doctor’s hood, he was given a standing ovation, rather upstaging Laughlin at whose side he was seated on the platform. Afterwards he was photographed, white hair standing out about his head, and silently shook hands but uttered no words. Briggs heard him speak ‘only twice: once, in reply to an enquiry as to whether he would prefer the white or dark meat of the turkey served at dinner, he replied, “I take it as it comes”; once, in parting, to Mrs. Briggs, to “apologize for the trouble I may have caused you”.’ He thought Pound’s deep silence ‘proud’, and that it came from power, not from his being at all broken. He struck him as physically strong too: when he had taken Pound’s arm to help him over a high step, ‘it was no withered branch—it gave back power’.
Laughlin made over his New York apartment in Greenwich Village to Ezra and Olga for the remainder of their stay, arranged dinner parties for them, and got hold of Lowell and others Pound wanted to see. With Lowell, Austin Briggs was told, ‘he talked, for five hours’. One day Walter drove them to Philadelphia’s Germantown to see the Heacock sisters who had been his earliest teachers, and who were then in a Quaker nursing home. Another day Olga flew to Youngstown, Ohio, to deal with property left to her by her father, and that day Ezra would not go out and refused to eat, afraid she might not return, though she made a point of flying back that evening. Reassured, ‘he was up early next morning to go with Walter to the Hans Arp exhibit at the Guggenheim’. Laughlin arranged for him to see George Oppen at New Directions’ office, and a few years later, after Pound’s death, Oppen recalled how it had gone:
Pound silent. Olga and the rest chatter to cover the situation. I didn’t want to chatter and stood up to leave. Jay says to Pound: Give George a copy of your book. Pound says—uninflected, low voice: How do I know he wants it. I walked over to Pound and held out my hand and said, I want it. I had stood close, so that Pound would not need to reach out. But Pound stood up and that brought us touching, or nearly touching each other. Pound took hold of my hand, and held on. I began to weep Pound began to weep.
‘Perhaps neither of us knew what we were crying about,’ he wrote, and then, ‘or, of course I do know. Every sincere or serious poet who ever met Pound has reason to have loved him.’
One American poet at least did not feel that way about Pound. Kenneth Rexroth. as one of the judges for the 1970 National Book Awards, made it his business to keep Drafts & Fragments off the list of poetry to be considered. The award for poetry went to Elizabeth Bishop for her Collected Poems, and she asked Lowell to receive it on her behalf. He reported afterwards to her that in his acceptance speech, after speaking of her deserving excellence, he had expressed regret that Pound’s good and possibly last book had not even been mentioned, and had then read Bishop’s poem on visiting Pound in St Elizabeths. As he sat down Rexroth said aloud, ‘“I announce that I sever myself from this antisemitic fascist performance”.’ But the master of ceremonies had instantly said, ‘I want to dissociate myself from anyone who could say what you’ve just heard was antisemitic or Fascist.’
The great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who had corresponded with Pound over the years, spent some hours with him in Venice in 1970, and found him ‘in high spirits and extremely genial’. They ‘went out to lunch together, crossed the Grand Canal in a vaporetto and walked and had coffee in St. Mark’s Square’. MacDiarmid had a sense, as they linked arms and walked, of ‘his strength and self-sufficiency’—‘He must have been frail, but he did not feel frail.’ His main impression was rather of ‘a surprising sturdiness and independence and a wonderful directness and simplicity’. Looking back, at a memorial symposium in 1973, he told the audience, ‘of all the men I have known (and I know them all over the world, I know poets from many countries), I loved Ezra Pound. I think he was the most lovable man I met and I was happy to know that my affection for him was reciprocated.’
In 1972 the august American Academy of Arts and Sciences, made up of the country’s intellectual elite from the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs, chose not to honour Ezra Pound. Among the Academy’s awards was the Emerson-Thoreau Medal, ‘established in 1958 to give special recognition to distinguished achievement in the broad field of literature’, taking into account the writer’s ‘total literary achievement’. The first recipients had been Robert Frost, then T. S. Eliot, and the most recent, in 1970, I. A. Richards. In January1972 the selecting committee recommended that the medal should be awarded to Ezra Pound. The chair of the committee was Leon Edel, and the other members were John Cheever, Lillian Hellman, James Laughlin, Harry T. Levin, Louis Martz, and Lewis Mumford (himself the recipient of the medal in 1965). Only Mumford did not support Pound—his preference was Henry Miller.
Serious dissent broke out when the recommendation was referred to the Council of the Academy in April. Of the twenty-four members present only one, Morton Bloomfield, a distinguished professor of mediaeval literature at Harvard, could be said to be a leader in the field of literature; and not one of them appears to have manifested close acquaintance with any of Pound’s writings, let alone with his ‘total literary achievement’. But that, it appeared, was not what they were there to talk about. One member of the council, Jean Mayer, who had been an officer in the French army in 1940 and a prisoner of war, opposed the award on the ground that while Pound was broadcasting for the Fascists, persons ‘potentially just as creative as he were being gassed and put to death by his friends’. Others suggested ‘that with memories of the holocaust so prominent, the award of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal to Pound…would be deeply offensive to many members of the Academy’. Daniel Bell, a sociologist, raised the discussion to the level of abstract principle, arguing that art could not, should not, be considered apart from morality. If it were, he declared rhetorically, ‘then the most despicable things, murder or torture, could be done in its name’. And while Pound’s aesthetic achievement might be great, his wartime broadcasts on behalf of Fascism, and the anti-Semitism ofsome of his Cantos, amounted, in his view, to advocating ‘a way of life that makes the world hellish’. On moral grounds then the award should not be made to Pound. It was a strong argument, relying on principle and prejudice and not at all on evidence and analysis, and after much discussion it prevailed. The award was vetoed, 13 to 9 with two abstentions. Apparently no one noticed that Bell’s line of argument effected exactly the separation it started out by forbidding, only setting aside the art and coming down on the side of morality.
Martin Kilson, a professor of government at Harvard and recently elected to the Academy, deprecated this show of moral outrage. ‘As a Negro’, he wrote in the International Herald Tribune in July,
I am as outraged about anti-Negro intellectuals as a Jew about anti-Semitic ones but such outrage is not a matter of intellect but of politics, and in evaluating an intellectual’s works I believe that short of the intellectual himself committing criminal and atrocious acts against humanity under the influence of his politics, his intellectual works should stand on their own.
The implication would be that it is the morality of the works that should be evaluated—but, as in the earlier Bollingen fracas, that was precisely what was not done.
When the nominating committee was invited to defend its choice to the council Laughlin felt personally put on trial for his support of Pound. And Harry Levin protested that the council’s ‘implication that Pound and his proponents were irresponsible aesthetes’ was ‘misleading, if not disingenuous’, in that for the committee’s members, as for Pound himself, aesthetics were necessarily ethical. ‘Pound, like his master Dante’, he declared, ‘is not only an artist but an impassioned moralist.’ He gave no indication, however, of exactly what his moral-aesthetic vision might have been.
The President of the Academy, Harvey Brooks, sent a statement in confidence to the membership in June, saying that while the Council had agreed without dissent that Ezra Pound was one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century, it had questioned other aspects of his career, specifically his ‘anti-Semitism and praise of Fascism, and his curious social and economic ideas, which might be explained on the grounds of incipient or acute mental illness’. That, one might have thought, was uncomfortably close to Soviet Russia’s way with its dissident intellectuals. Remarkably, Pound’s alleged treason to the United States appears not to have been an issue. The Executive Officer of the Academy wrote to Hugh Kenner, who was being offered membership, that Laughlin, Martz, and Levin had read and approved Brook’s statement; and that it was Laughlin who had asked that it be kept ‘confidential’ in order to spare the family further pain, ‘and because of Mr. Laughlin’s own relationship with the Pound family’. Kenner rejected the offered membership, finding it unacceptable that he should be thus honoured for The Pound Erawhile Pound himself was being dis-honoured. Some members resigned from the Academy in protest, among them Brooks Atkinson, Malcolm Cowley, and Allen Tate. Katherine Anne Porter returned the Emerson-Thoreau Medal awarded to her in 1962. And Dr O. B. Hardison, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, resigned his membership and defiantly invited Pound to give a reading at the Folger.
Hardison sent the invitation through Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, asking him to tell Pound that ‘he and the Trustees of the Folger Library were very eager to bring Ezra Pound to [the United States] and would take all responsibility to be sure he was warmly greeted and appreciated’. Fuller had got to know Pound in October 1970 while delivering a series of lectures at the Cini Foundation’s International University of Art—‘long lectures, half a day’—and ‘every day for a ten day period’ Pound was there in the front row. ‘He apparently cared a great deal about what I was saying’, Fuller said later, ‘and we did become very warm friends’. Fuller knew Pound’s work and was equipped, as America’s leading scientific and legal minds were not, to recognize and to value his lifetime’s effort ‘to make cosmos’. It was a rare meeting of creative minds, and the great thing was that Pound, who ‘was not speaking to anybody’, as Fuller said, ‘started speaking to me’.
Fuller spoke in a lecture in 1977 of their having thought together in Venice about the universe of fluid energies and the human consciousness of it: about the dynamic universe, self-ordering, self-regenerating, and with its own immutable and eternal laws; and about the human mind, capable of gradually coming to know this universe of which it was a product and a part. His talk contained history in the way Pound’s Cantos contain history, as stories of humanity’s advances in learning about its world, and of its wisdom and unwisdom in applying its knowledge. He was excited by the idea that our science has brought us into a possible new and sustainable relationship with the universe, if only we would understand its laws and its process and live accordingly. He did not underestimate the prevailing mentality, which holds it to be the natural order for financial and market values to rule the behaviour of individuals and nations and corporations, a mentality which he saw to be well on its way to wrecking human society and ruining our planet. He hoped the young would share his excitement at the new consciousness of the natural order of the universe that was becoming attainable; and he looked to ‘the young world’ to bring about the mental revolution needed to save society and the planet from destruction.
Fuller’s approach was by way of the cultural heritage of science, engineering, and architecture—it led him to the discovery of a hitherto unknown molecule of carbon, C60, and to the design of his geodesic dome, an integrity of patterned energies. Pound’s approach to conceiving the vital universe was by way of the cultural heritage of Confucian China, and of ancient Greek and Roman myth and tragedy, of troubadour poetry, and the poetry of Dante and Cavalcanti, and out of this came his ‘great ball of crystal’, his Cantos, another integration of patterned energies. Fuller spoke of our ‘spaceship earth’ held by the laws of gravity and motion in its relation to the sun, and of the solar system’s insignificance within even its own galaxy, let alone amid the billions of galaxies making up the universe; and then he spoke of all the energies of the universe streaming through us, a metabolic flow sustaining our solar-powered being, and glowing most intensely in the mind conscious that ours is the life of the universe. Pound had written of ‘our kinship with the vital universe’, and of the Light which is its life; in his Cantos he brought alive in the mind the powers named as Dionysus and Persephone and Circe, then turned to Cavalcanti’s light of intelligence that is love; in Pisa, starting over again, he wrote, ‘learn of the green world what can be thy place | In scaled invention or true artistry’; and always, from Confucian China, there was the imperative to respect ‘the abundance of nature’. The two approaches were different and complementary, both leading to an intensely moral vision of human existence. Both, from their different angles, were trying to guide humanity to the natural paradise that is for us to find our way to or to lose. To ‘make the world hellish’ was absolutely not what Pound was about. To be mindful of the universe, to mind it, was what he advocated, ‘to be men’ in touch with the heavens and the earth, ‘not destroyers’.
The two men met again and continued their conversation at Spoleto in June 1971. This year Pound read from Drafts & Fragments, and astonished everyone, Fuller would recall,
when at the poets’ performance in the theater, Ezra appeared on the stage with the other poets. When his turn came, he stood and read poetry of his own aloud. He had broken his silence. His voice was beautiful. The poetry was magnificent. His performance…was just what the whole cosmic level is about.
Fuller went on to Venice for a final talk with Pound in Calle Querini, and as he was leaving Pound presented him with a copy of Drafts & Fragments in which he had written,
To Buckminster Fuller
friend of the universe.
bringer of happiness.
There was no doubt a personal dimension to the tribute.
Igor Stravinsky died in Venice in April 1971 and was buried on the cemetery island of San Michele. At the memorial service in San Giorgio Maggiore Ezra and Olga had places of honour near the altar rail, and the mayor of Venice read Pound’s early Venetian poem ‘Night Litany’. When news came of Marianne Moore’s death in February 1972 Ezra suggested that there should be a memorial service for her, and Olga arranged for one in St George’s English Church. For this Pound read her poem ‘What Are Years?’, and read it, Peter Russell noted, with a clear grasp of the intricate syntax, and in a ‘dignified, grave yet neutral tone’ which allowed the full force of it to come over. Russell was inclined to apply the poem to Pound himself, thinking there could be ‘no finer epitaph for a great poet’.
That year Ezra and Olga heard Verdi’s Requiem at La Fenice, and saw Peter Brook’s festive A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was taken by yacht to Duino, immemorially associated with Rilke’s Duino Elegies. There was talk of his taking up the Folger’s invitation to read there. Then his birthday came round, his 87th, on 30 October 1972. He felt unwell, kept to his bed, but friends came and there was a cake with candles, and champagne. Next day his discomfort continued and in the night Olga called in a doctor who advised that he should go into hospital. Pound, refusing to be carried out on a stretcher, insisted on walking down the stairs and along the Calle to the ambulance launch. In the municipal hospital Olga and Joan Fitzgerald sat with him and talked through the small hours, and were with him through the next day, 1 November. In the evening Pound dozed off, and Olga, who in her own account was holding his hand, realized only when a nurse turned up the light about 8.00 p.m. that he had died in his sleep.
She made the funeral arrangements, as Pound had wished, with the help of Count Vittorio Cini, founder of the Cini Foundation. The service was conducted in the Palladian Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, to Gregorian plain chant and the music of Monteverdi, with the Catholic requiem rites in Latin led by the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery on the island, and the Anglican Office for the Dead read in English by the pastor of the English Church. The coffin was placed in a black, gilt-edged, gondola, and oared by four gondoliers in white and black to the island of San Michele.
The grave would be marked by a plain marble stone designed by Joan Fitzgerald, and carrying only the words in strong roman characters, ‘EZRA POUND’.
In Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique, which he bought in 1917, Pound would have read Plotinus’ last words, ‘to lead back what is divine in me to what is divine in the whole universe’. The last words of Pound’s last complete canto echo that,
A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.
Ezra Pound’s seal, three ancient Chinese small seal characters which when spoken might sound close to ‘Pound’, and which might be rendered as ‘keep the form of the love flowing from the heart’.
1 In June 1966 Pound had written to Dorothy: ‘you will agree with me that the Gaudiers are too important to be hogged in one place in view of the fact that they have opened a room devoted to Gaudier (permanently) in the Musee d’art moderne in Paris…they have the Kettle Yard collection donated by Ede, I feel it is only decent for me to present some important work and have promised to give the Embracers (marble) and a drawing (profile of E.P.)’ (Lilly)