Ezra Pound, Italy and The Cantos, by Massimo Bacigalupo, Clemson University Press, 346 pp, £64, ISBN: 978-1949979008
Ezra Pound is, perhaps, the most troubling of all the Modernist presences in Anglophone literature – a fascist and an unrepentant antisemite even after the Holocaust revealed the ultimate end of that obnoxious prejudice – yet he was a brilliant poet, a brilliant synthesiser of cultures and absolutely central to Modernism in English. Born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885, he came to Europe in 1908, first to Gibraltar as a tour guide, later to Genoa and then to London, where he lived for ten years. During his stay there he made the acquaintance of all the Modernist poets and was, by the time he left for Paris and Italy, already a significant figure in that literary movement. He arrived in Rapallo, Italy, in 1924 and lived there until 1945, when he was forcibly repatriated to the USA to stand trial for his wartime collaboration with the Italian government. While in London he was a hugely influential editor and critic and his influence would be continued from his base in Italy. His role in the work of Eliot and Yeats, among many others, is well-known, as is his furious proselytising on behalf of James Joyce, who said of him: “It is probable that but for him I should still be the unknown drudge that he discovered.” Eliot, in dedicating “The Waste Land” to Pound, called him il miglior fabbro ‑ the best craftsman (a quotation from Dante).
Ezra Pound, Italy and the Cantos comes from the pen of one of the foremost Pound critics. Massimo Bacigalupo grew up in Rapallo, Pound’s long-term home. His parents were friends of Pound’s and Bacigalupo himself would come to know him in what he calls his “complex and tormented final phase” in the postwar period when, as a broken man, he returned to his old ground. Besides literary criticism, Bacigalupo is an accomplished and multi-award-winning short-film-maker (the Turin Film festival dedicated a retrospective to his work in 2010) and many of the photographs included in the text are his; a prize-winning translator of, among others, Pound, Yeats and Wordsworth; and emeritus professor of Anglo-American literature at the University of Genoa. Bacigalupo’s personal relationship with the Pounds informs every aspect of his book and lends a more intimate air to his acute observations.
Had Pound, like Eliot, who was equally antisemitic and had fascist tendencies, confined himself to poetry we might remember him differently but it was his misfortune to fall under the spell of fascism and to be incapable of circumspection. Yeats, who admired the Blueshirts in Ireland, shared Pound’s contempt for democracy – indeed for the demos – his belief in an “aristocracy of the arts” and his contempt for the bourgeoisie. In the chaos that followed the First World War the idea of a political strongman was fatally attractive to many intellectuals. This is the context of Pound’s fascism, though I believe that antisemitism was the real poison in his blood. He correctly argued that “usury”, which we would call “finance capitalism”, would come to dominate Western society but believed it was a Jewish conspiracy and fascism was the cure. Not only does he argue that Jews are usurers but also very often the converse that financiers must be Jews, as in the case of the Scot John Law, who was controller general for France during the reign of Louis XIV. Pound calls him “Lawvi or Levi”, in other words, he guessed wrongly that Law was a cover for the Jewish name Levi – a classic antisemitic inductive error. He has the conspiracy theorist’s eye for detail, as well as his failure to grasp reality.
Pound’s biggest mistake was to make regular broadcasts for the fascist government of Italy during the war. These broadcasts, though never as targeted towards the Axis war effort as those of William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, who was eventually hanged by the British, were nevertheless rightly considered rank propaganda for an enemy power. Pound’s broadcasts mainly consisted of rambling attacks on “usury”, Jews and the United States as well as samples of his own poetry, but they were monitored in the USA and considered to be aimed at undermining morale. In 1943, he was indicted for treason in absentia. On capture he was detained in a “cage” in Pisa for some time and then repatriated to stand trial. Because of the influence of his friends he did not receive the death sentence but was committed to St Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital near Washington, where he remained for thirteen years.
Bacigalupo does not shy away from what he calls “the Pound vortex”, which, he says, “must be acknowledged in all its bewildering violence and historical dimensions”. Strangely, it is the Italian writers of the postwar Left who were most forgiving of his wartime stance. Pier Paolo Pasolini, for example, perhaps the most ferocious of antifascist writers and auteurs, was an admirer and there is a brief account here of a gentle and supportive interview he conducted with the poet in his final years. Carlo Izzo was another – scholar and translator extraordinaire of among many others Liam O’Flaherty – Pound referred to him as “my best translator”. Remarkably, considering that Izzo was a communist and a committed antifascist who married a Jewish woman and whose position at the University of Bologna was cancelled under Mussolini’s Race Law, the two men continued to correspond throughout the war years. In 1958, Izzo wrote sadly of Pound:
That he could have identified his world-view with that horror of doctrines that are among the most inhuman of all time, does suggest mental aberration. To say to an Italian Jew, on the day that Italy passed the racial laws that are so alien to the spirit of our civilisation: ‘I am sorry, but it is well done,’ is the act of someone not in his right mind. Six million of those ‘I am sorry’ wouldn’t have saved one of the six million innocents who were ‘Liquidated’. I remember this incident without rancour …
Elsewhere he remarks, having listed Pound’s greetings to Venetian writers, several of whom were Jewish, that “Pound’s antisemitism was almost ludicrously theoretical”. In a valedictory piece after Pound’s death, Izzo wrote revealingly of their correspondence: “I cannot say that I ever had with Pound a real human relationship, since he was so remote from reality, and conversed in fragments, sometimes somewhat childishly.” The latter, I suspect, is a reference to the strange pastiche of Pound’s letter-writing, full of jokey attempts at demotic accents like Dickens on a bad day, and verbal ticks and wordplays and a random mix of languages. But, at the same time he wrote that “Pound was essentially … il miglior fabbro”, echoing Eliot’s “Waste Land” dedication.
Another Italian writer who admired and worked with Pound was Eugenio Montale, a Nobel Prize winner, born in Genoa. He lived a considerable part of his life just down the road from Rapallo at Monterosso in the Cinque Terre. But Montale did not follow him in his admiration for Mussolini nor his antisemitism (he was antifascist, had a Jewish lover and had many Jewish friends). Montale was an acute reader of poetry in English and grasped the beauty of Pound’s work. Bacigalupo devotes a chapter to the relationship.
Of the later Cantos, Montale wrote that they contained “a flood of haikus, that, should most of the poem be destroyed, would be the marvel of posterity”, but equally he could say, in an article on Pound’s release from St Elizabeth’s Hospital that Pound was “generous in helping the young of his generation, yet remained indifferent to the misery of a mass of innocents herded to the worst of deaths in the gas chambers”. He was amused by Pound’s lack of knowledge of the works he championed and translated, in particular his translation of Cavalcanti, which met widespread criticism. He understood too, that Pound collected bright objects from literature and history, polished them and placed them in contrapuntal dialogue, a form of homage to the original, but he did not necessarily understand the objects he selected. Pound’s Italian was not perfect and he knew almost nothing of the Oriental languages from which he “translated”; nevertheless, he often achieved an intense engagement with the poets which a better linguist might not have achieved. Bacigalupo maintains convincingly that though Pound had a profound influence upon Montale, turning him from the more conventional lyricism of his 1925 collection Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) to the more modernist 1939 volume Le Occasioni (The Occasions).
One of the delights of this study is what we might call the topographical analysis. The book falls fairly neatly into two parts – studies of the Cantos in relation to places and people, a sort of Baedeker to Pound’s inner geography, fittingly when we consider how Pound took Italy as the touchstone for the world. It is not so much that Pound is an Italophile, but that he saw the world by looking out from Italy, a world with Italy in the foreground. Montale himself noted Pound’s Italocentric weltanschauung: “Only in Rapallo, which he called ‘the world’s navel’ did he feel at home … He needed Italian pretexts.” Thus, the book begins and ends at the place closest to Pound’s ‑ and Bacigalupo’s – heart, the city and environs of Rapallo on the northwest Riviera coast of Italy, having strayed, in the meantime, to Venice and Rome and onwards.
Bacigalupo’s intimacy with the landscape in which the Cantos were composed is a delight. At the outset, he takes us on a walk from Pound’s seafront attic in Via Marsala to the village of Sant’Ambrogio on the slopes of Montallegro, following Pound’s daily itinerary from his home and wife (Dorothy Shakespear) to his lover Olga Rudge. From the attic he sees the sandboats run up on the beach at Rapallo: “the boats’ sails hung loose at the mooring, / cloud like a sail inverted / and the men dumping sand by the sea-wall”. On another occasion he sees the lamps floating on the harbour during the July festival of La Madonna di Montallegro “From the long boats they have set lights on the water …” Pound climbs the hill, noting in passing the ex voto offerings in thanksgiving for some favour of the Madonna, usually salvation from a storm at sea, a longstanding tradition in seafaring Liguria. In a later chapter we have dinner in the company of Bacigalupo, Pound and Olga Rudge at a terrace restaurant in Sant’Ambrogio.
Pound, Bacigalupo remarks, “likes … a litany of names of mythical persons and favourite places”. An unpublished fragment contains the place-names Prato, Monte Rosa (another name for Montallegro), San Pantaleo, and Dorata (in Toulouse) all in a mere thirteen lines. For the expert this naming of names is a treasure trove of biographical and mythological data, but for the uninitiated it is at best a recitation of meaningless sounds and at worst an irritating obscurity. What, we ask ourselves is Pantaleo? An internet search turns up a comune in the province of Sassari in Sardinia, an unlikely reference point. In fact, Bacigalupo tells us it is “a little church overlooking two bays near Olga Rudge’s house in Sant’Ambrogio”. The text reveals nothing.
The relevant lines are spoken by the Madonna (the original Canto is in Italian):
“Il fano delle grazie è in rovina,” mi disse
A Pantaleo mi rifugio …
(The shrine of the graces is in ruins,” she tells me / I seek refuge in Pantaleo).
Bacigalupo leads us unerringly through this thicket of locations and mythology, managing, in the process, to paint a limpid portrait of the villages and shrines of Rapallo and the half-moon of hills that usher it towards the Tyrrhenian Sea. Later we return with Pound to his attic and an example of his irrational hatred of all things Jewish – the Rothschilds arrive to soil “our seafront with a pot-bellied yacht in the offing”. He calls them the ‘Stinkschuld” (the guilt stink) and accuses them of war profiteering. “He is unable to express contempt,” notes Bacigalupo, “except in a contemptible way.”
But Rapallo was not Pound’s first profound encounter with Italy. The “Three Cantos” (1917) begin in Venice and move to Sirmione on Lake Garda (where Pound would later meet Joyce). The poem begins on the steps of the Dogana, the old custom house, now an important art museum, and veers away to Garda in the space of a few allusive lines. Neither place is mentioned by name but rather evoked by local reference or description. We are expected to follow in the biographical slipstream and interrogate the significance of each reference; this entails an understanding of the history and mythology of the Italian peninsula going back to Roman times with stops along the way for Dante and Cavalcanti among others. His vision of Venice (from Rapallo) is of “the stone place, / Pale, white, over water, / Known water, / And the white forest of marble …” In Pound’s universe, Venice is finance and trade (the opening at the Dogana is significant). It must be abandoned for the verities of nature. When he thinks of Venice in Canto 17 images of treason and the death of heroes come to mind. Later, caged as a traitor in Pisa, he thinks back with nostalgia to his youth in the city. Feeling his age and perhaps the magnitude of the fate that has befallen him he thinks of himself as “a man on whom the sun has gone down”.
Pound hated Rome as a city of “false fronts, barocco”. Baroque, in his mind, coming as it does after the Renaissance, is associated with the development of usury and thus with corruption. Medieval Italy, by contrast, was the real thing, though Bacigalupo points to the contradiction in Pound’s celebration of Mussolini’s construction of the Via Dei Fori Imperiali, which involved demolishing and building on top of medieval streets. Suddenly these streets become “medieval squalo”’ and “garbage”. “Mussolini,” he wrote, “has done more to disencumber this glory than all the Popes” and remarks, in classic fascist mode, that “what has disencumbered the Via Dell’Impero is WILL” (Think of Riefenstahl’s Nuremberg film Triumph of The Will).
Pound went to Rome to see the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution) in 1932, set up to celebrate the March on Rome ten years earlier. He was most impressed by a reconstruction of Mussolini’s office at the Milan newspaper Il Popolo D’Italia, which he compared to the offices of The New Age, a Fabian magazine to which Shaw and HG Wells, among many others, contributed and where Pound first began to think about economics. Bacigalupo remarks that Pound’s description of the office points to how the poet saw himself in relation to the dictator: they were equals and on converging paths to greatness. Both Mussolini and Pound started out as socialists, both worked on left-wing newspapers and both were fascists. Aside from that, it is difficult to see any similarities except, perhaps, an intense sense of self-importance. In fact, Pound met Mussolini only once, when he tried to get him to read a memorandum on economics.
Bacigalupo credits Eliot and Pound with the continuing popularity of Dante in translation. Indeed, he tells us, even in Italy, postwar poets are grateful to those two giants of modernism for their response to The Divine Comedy. Pound seems to have read his Dante in the Temple Classics edition ‑ pocket-sized octavo volumes well-bound and robust. It is where I first began to read Dante myself, and though the language of the translation is now archaic it is very fine work. The Cantos take the Divine Comedy as a model; the intention was to construct, in the words of JJ Wilhelm quoted in the text, an “epic of judgment”, including a descent into hell and a climb into paradise. In an essay in The Dial, Pound lamented the disappearance of Dante’s sense of the essential unity of experience which Pound believed was characteristic of the mediaeval period: “We appear to have lost the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge … magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible, the matter of Dante’s Paradiso …” But we wouldn’t be speaking of Pound if we didn’t expect him to take an eccentric view of Dante’s work. He would come to see Dante as the “arraigner of usury” (Bacigalupo’s felicitous phrase) as he intended himself to be in The Cantos. But also, the defender of fascism which he identified (fascistically) with Italy itself, right up to the end when he railed against the Armistice and the removal of Il Duce. Of course, Dante himself was also a political poet, a taker of sides, who condemned his enemies to eternal damnation and sent his friends to heaven (for the most part), and in that regard Pound’s partisanship of both Dante and politics is not misplaced.
Much of the foregoing will be of interest to general readers of Pound and perhaps also to scholars. The second part of the book concerns itself with close readings of texts including the nakedly propagandist cantos 72 and 73. As Bacigalupo remarks, 72 and 73 are often seen as the “nadir of Pound’s oeuvre”, but he reads them, rather provocatively, as a “voluble expression of passion, howbeit misdirected”. They are, he argues, Pound’s most concrete efforts at writing and therefore his “most successful and deliberate”.
The section begins with Pound’s essay “European Paideuma”, a sort of manifesto for European self-regeneration along racist lines. In it can be detected his hostility to what he called “semitic Christianity”, and to semitic influences in European culture in general (by “semitic” he means from both Jewish and Arabic sources). The document is, in essence, a call to distinguish what Pound thinks of as characteristically European from other cultures. Taken against the background of Pound’s fascism, it is difficult now not to hear the drumbeat of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and antisemitic parties with which Europe is currently plagued. The second text examined is Pound’s eccentric translation of Enrico Pea’s novel Moscardino. It is an established fact that Pound tended to reimagine texts rather than translate them and Moscardino is no exception. Bacigalupo, in essence, argues that Pound’s version is a new work, remarkable in its own right, and, while representing the novel’s subjects and style, can in no way be regarded as an accurate translation. It is not so much that Pound’s Italian was not good enough – Bacigalupo cites, for example, Pavese’s brilliant translation of Moby Dick at a time when he had little or no English – but that he was too egocentric and/or too careless to bother about fidelity to the original text. Bacigalupo provides us with a closely analysed sample parallel table of errors and omissions (Pea’s original, Pound’s translation, Bacigalupo’s annotation), enabling us to judge for ourselves.
However, the heart of this section of the text is Bacigalupo’s analyses of both Cantos 72 and 73 (“the Italian cantos”, as they were written in Italian) and the Pisan Cantos. His readings are a tour de force, a defence of the cantos’ lyric and emotional charge and as an expression par excellence of Pound’s state of mind and of his method of composition.
He takes the famous refrain “pull down thy vanity” to be an honest assessment of the poet’s own errors as well as a commentary on the vanity of humankind in general. He mounts a convincing argument that the object of the attack is not the US army, which had detained him, as some scholars argue, but a sort of controlled rage against error, the chief of which is his own. Nevertheless, as Bacigalupo makes perfectly clear, the cantos also contain praise for Mussolini and Hitler. I do not know if, at this point in 1945, Pound knew of the horror of the death camps and the industrialised murder of Jews, and whether or not he would have approved it if he did, but other aspects of fascism were positive in his view. Withal, Bacigalupo rightly regards the Pisan Cantos as “among the most compelling American poetry to have come out of World War II”.
The final section of the book is devoted to Pound’s postwar years – the years of his committal to St Elizabeth’s, his release and return to Italy and his ultimate decline into silence. There is an interesting examination of the cantos composed in the hospital; a fascinating portrait of “Grampa” Pound surrounded by “hippy” acolytes; and a chapter on H.D.’s memoir An End To Torment, which traces its genesis in exchanges between Pound’s friends and followers and what it has to say about Pound. In particular, Bacigalupo says, that out of hospital Pound was, in fact, a more tormented figure. This leads us neatly into what I can only describe as Bacigalupo’s own memoir essay of his friendship with the Pounds at Rapallo – for this writer at least, the most fascinating of all.
The chapter is called “Sant’Ambrogio in the half light” and a sense of the gloaming of the day pervades it. Bacigalupo describes his walks to Sant-Ambrogio, where Pound was living with his lover Olga Rudge, his relationship with both of them, his early scholarship (his first book offended Olga Rudge deeply because he refused to gloss over Pound’s political past and she was trying to whitewash it), their visits to his family home, lunches with a Who’s Who of contemporary literature and philosophy – Cyril Connolly, “the Isaiah Berlins”, “the Stephen Spenders” and many well-known scholars, an extraordinary milieu for a brilliant young man who must have felt almost destined to be a Pound scholar. This chapter is both a portrait of the poet and his lover in declining years and a portrait of the vibrant cultural life of Rapallo at the time. It is amplified by an earlier chapter on “Ma Riess”, who kept a boarding house there, and which includes a brief account of his time there by the American poet James Laughlin, who came to sit at the feet of Pound and who boarded with her.
Bacigalupo makes a convincing case for reading Pound as a poet while not ignoring his fascism. In that regard Carlo Izzo is an important and noble ally who had, as the Americans say, “skin in the game”. He spoke from the position of an anti-fascist married to a Jewish woman: he knew and respected Pound and spoke about his politics with pity rather than hatred. But undoubtedly, despite the best work of his friends and admirers Pound will remain an enigmatic and troubling figure, testament to the dreadful attraction of racism and authoritarianism, exemplified, as Bacigalupo rightly remarks, in the ominous politics of CasaPound in Italy, a neofascist organisation that claims to follow Pound’s economic and social policies.
An Irish reader might well wish to have Bacigalupo’s paper on the relationship between Yeats, Pound and Iseult Gonne (Ezra Pound and Modernism: The Irish Factor, ed Walter Baumann and William Pratt) if only for Yeats’s delicate sensibility with regard to Iseult working as secretary to Pound at The Little Review: “She is a young girl & must like the rest of us live in a world of fools”. This from the man who proposed marriage first to her mother, Maud, and then, when Maud refused him, to Iseult herself. But it was clearly excluded as not fitting the Italian theme. But as a guide to the Cantos so rooted in Italy and Italian history, and as an exploration of the people and forces that shaped Pound and his poetry, it would be hard to better this book. It should be of interest to both the general reader of poetry and to the academic specialist.
William Wall is the author of six novels, four collections of poetry and three of short fiction. His most recent books are Grace’s Day and Suzy Suzy (both from Head of Zeus, London and New Island, Dublin). His work has been translated into many languages and he himself translates from Italian. www.williamwall.net