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From the Archives: “I Have Tried to Write Paradise”
Spanish Gardens, Ezra Pound, Modern Poetry, and Antisemitism
I’m taking an extended road trip around the Thanksgiving holiday. You may have already read how much I love “Life in Motion.” If not, here it is temporarily out from behind the paywall.
Every town and city we’ll be visiting, almost every road we travel, will be new to me. Heaven. But because of the length of the trip and the fact that I’ll be doing a lot of driving, I’ll also be taking a break from new writing. I’ll undoubtedly be doing social media posting on Notes, so look for me there, too.
My first new post will be the paid subscriber post of December 4. I’ll send out a preview of it to free subscribers, too. Thursday, December 7 will offer the next essay or creative piece available to all subscribers. In the meantime, I’m suspending paid subscriptions as of this past Monday until 12/4, so paid subscribers lose no time on that subscription clock, and I’ll be posting a From the Archives essay for each of the next three Thursdays, starting today. Each is from the first month of Homo Vitruvius, so they will be new to the vast majority of you. They will present a range of my essay writing and interests, including some memoir.
From the Archives will then become a series of occasional second acts for essays. The general purpose of their retaking the stage is to offer an idea to free subscribers of a benefit of becoming a paid subscriber: full access to the complete archive of essays and other posts. In this particular case, I’m sharing what was only my fifth post — third real essay — only two weeks into the life of Homo Vitruvius, when I had all of 38 subscribers. I’m pleased to say I have many more than that now, and the vast majority of you will not have seen the essay before. I hope you’ll enjoy it. It seems particularly relevant today.
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The Spanish Garden enchants to this day as a cultural emblem of the Medieval and Early Renaissance Spain that is the locus of my novel-in-progress The Dream of Don Juan de Cartagena, a fictional exploration of the world-changing Magellan circumnavigation of the earth. Several of the novel’s key scenes, including its final, take place in Spanish gardens. Like all formal gardens, the Spanish variety serves to impose an Apollonian order – a human-designed form and control – upon the Dionysian riot of flora, fauna, and sensation often found in nature. In particular, the Spanish Garden as we know it is a development of the Persian garden, a manifestation in Spain of the Islamic, Almohad Caliphate that for centuries ruled in Al-Andalus of the Iberian Peninsula, and of the subsequent, post-Reconquista Mudéjar style. The Persian Garden is also known as a Paradise Garden. Greek versions of the Jewish Bible denominate the Garden of Eden as Paradeisos, a word the Hellenistic Greeks adopted from the Old Iranian paridaiza, meaning enclosed, or walled, garden or park. The Spanish (the Paradise) garden is a refuge from the world.
The natural world surrounding Orynyn, Ukraine, the shtetl where my father was born, offers neither the formal beauty of a Spanish garden nor the wild disorder of Dionysus, yet it struck me, at first sight, two months after my father’s death, as unexpectedly profuse and unchanged since his childhood there eighty years earlier. Knowing, as I did, the harsh death-strewn history of those bloodlands of southwestern Ukraine, I must unconsciously have anticipated something like the black and white scenes of Second World War and Holocaust newsreel footage. The truth, we know, is that while babies burned in bonfires at Auschwitz, birds sang in the sun-dappled trees, or as W. H. Auden observed in “Musee des Beaux Arts,”
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
The horses of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen that marched all the Jews of Orynyn to the city hall for slaughter one day in August 1941 might well have been scratching their buts against the trees. Fortunately, by then, my father was long gone.
Having had enough, all around them, of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and pogroms – during none of which Jews were anyone’s particular favorite – my father and his older sister by two years had begun a roughly five-year journey to the United States. My best guestimate is that it was sometime in 1922 or 23 that the two children, traveling on their own, slept one of many homeless nights on the steps of a Krakow, Poland church. Jostled awake in the daylight by the booted foot of a Polish army officer, my father, now risen, received the officers’ gloves across his face, contemned by the damning epithet Jew, the affricate dz sound of the “j” harshly spit in accusation between the tongue and gum line. Like other groups subject to derogatory verbal attacks, specific nonstandard words of abuse evolved to serve as the weapons against Jews, too. But the history of antisemitism is so long and deeply embedded in Western and Middle Eastern culture that those words have remained largely auxiliary to the primary derogation itself, which is simply a Jew’s existence as a Jew. It suggests dirty Jew, though not in any physical but rather a moral sense. A Jew is by nature a dirty Jew, so no other words of abuse are required beyond the literal appellation. Such is the invidious character of historic antisemitism.
About the same time that my father was being unkindly reminded on Catholic Church steps yet again what he was, Ezra Pound was making literary history in Paris. Beginning in late 1922, he assisted Ernest Hemingway in editing his short stories. He so assuredly edited T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, cutting it in half, that Eliot, alluding to Dante’s Purgatoria, would famously dedicate it to Pound, “il miglior fabbro” – the better craftsman. Pound started afresh that year on his own, great, ill-hewn epic poem of a lifetime, The Cantos.
Unlike James Joyce, another of the Paris greats of the Modernist 1920s, who was consumed by, and cared for, only his own works of genius, Pound was a generous friend and midwife to many a publication. Among many other, lesser-known works, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses owe their publication in part to Pound. He delivered Imagism into the literary world. Much as I can roll the first four words of Ulysses around in my tongue like a hard candy that never dissolves – “Stately plump Buck Mulligan” – the opening lines of Pound’s “Canto I” urge me to sit and write by beating the words out of my chest:
And then went down to the ship, Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and We set up mast and sail on that swart ship, Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward Bore us out onward with bellying canvas, Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Hemingway and Eliot were only two of those who argued that the achievement in English literature during the first part of the Twentieth Century was inconceivable without Pound’s influence. In 1971, Hugh Kenner titled his book on Pound’s achievement and legacy during those years The Pound Era. Kenner also ignored a very great deal, and he wanly diminished, by few and feeble quotations, Pound’s offenses.
The earliest signs of Pound’s antisemitism (along with Eliot’s and Hemingway’s) appear before the 20s, but, as it happens, in 1922, as well, Pound wrote Canto XVI, “With Usura,” an entire poem dedicated to a medieval church sermon on the earth-decomposing evil of usury, complete with N.B. definition of the term at its close. From “With usura hath no man a house of good stone,” at its start, closely followed by “with usura / hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall,” to the Old Testament “Usura is a murrain,” and ending with “Corpses are set to banquet / at behest of usura” Beelzebub breeds in high interest rates. Let it be said that while no one enjoys a high rate of interest on home, car, or college tuition, for many centuries now, when people rail against usury, they are railing against Jews. As Pound proceeded to do for the next two decades and more of his life.
The antisemitism met its complement in economist Clifford Douglas’s idea of Social Credit. Beware the poet as political economist. After leaving Paris to live in Italy, Pound fell in love with British fascist Oswald Mosley, Il Duce himself, and Hitler. It is difficult to overstate the volume and venom of the hundreds of pamphlets and radio broadcasts Pound authored, through the 1930’s until the fall of Mussolini, attacking the Allied war effort, demonizing Jews, and defending fascism and Hitler. After all this, Pound’s treatment once taken into American custody emerged a matter of some implied rebuke among a small number, who seemed to believe that rabidly hateful and traitorous poetic royalty should have been spared discomforts and indignities far less than the end of a bayonet, the edge of a firing squad death pit, or the bouquet up the nasal passages of Zyklon B gas: for three weeks, Pound was confined, with scores of others – at the close and amid the carnage of a war that killed tens of millions of people, and whose perpetrators he served as mouthpiece – in an outdoor prison cage. Returned to the U.S. for trial, he was finally, reasonably judged insane. The specific psychiatric diagnosis changed multiple times, but that he was nuts – grandiose and nuts – there was little doubt.
Between 1945 and 1957, Pound was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington D.C. Among the literary community, his confinement there remained a cause célèbre. Why was it so? This is perhaps the most human part of the story. Pound had many peers who loved the man personally and admired the artist. Many younger writers revered the great man of literature. E. M. Forster once wrote, in a prewar, 1938, essay, “What I Believe,” that “'If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” One can swell with the spirit and emotion of blutsbrüderschaft, assent to its ideal, and still reason morally enough to stand back cautiously and say, well, it sorta depends. What’s being betrayed, under what circumstances, to what consequence? Should David Kaczynski not have alerted the FBI to his brother Ted’s possible identity as the Unabomber? Should brotherly love have assented to more death and injury? What about apologia for continental-wide war crimes and genocide? Well, what was done was done and the man, twelve years on, was still clearly mentally ill. He would never stand trial. Why not, in all compassion, let him live out his days cared for by his wife and mistress?
That was twelve years on. But near the start of Pound‘s confinement, far less forgivably, the most famous names in poetry, including W. H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Conrad Aiken, Katherine Anne Porter, and influential New Directions publisher James Laughlin, worked quickly to whitewash Pound’s record and reputation by awarding him the first ever Bollingen Prize for poetry, in 1949, for the publication of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, composed while he was incarcerated in Italy. This became a cause of even greater controversy, which led the Library of Congress to disassociate itself from the prize. Those who voted the award defended themselves by declaring their commitment to “that objective perception of value on which civilized society must rest” (emphasis added). These were conceptions of “value” and the “civilized” from which it was nonetheless possible objectively to depart. Karl Shapiro, a Jew on the awarding jury, opposed the award, but it wasn’t, of course, necessary to be Jewish to recognize the impropriety: Katherine Garrison Chapin also voted against, noting that “the traitor could not be separated from the poet—his anti-democratic, anti-Semitic fulminations ran through his whole work." As part of the same concerted effort to resurrect Pound and see him freed, Laughlin was publishing a new, Selected Poems of Pound, for which he asked poet and translator Rolphe Humphries to write an introduction. Humphries obliged, tendering unsurprising praise of Pound’s erudition and poetic gifts that included, as a matter of conscience, condemnation of his political and human sins. After much back and forth with Pound, including the poet’s wife Dorothy defending him against his traducers, and a surplus “kike” from Pound for good measure, Humphries refused to make the requested excisions.
By the time of Pound’s release, he had been corresponding for years with white supremacists in the U.S. and anonymously publishing the usual “fulminations” in Australia. He and Dorothy soon sailed from the U.S. for Italy, where, upon landing, he promptly offered the fascist salute. Though Pound made some public appearances in the remaining years before his death in Venice in 1972 – he attended a London memorial after the 1965 death of T. S. Eliot, for instance – he grew increasingly reclusive and famously silent, a climatic state that drew much meaningful speculation from others.
How to feel about all this, particularly if one is writer, poet, scholar, academic? To my knowledge, only one person responded near perfectly, though there is certainly only praise to offer the outright rejections and condemnations by those like Chapin. That one person is Elizabeth Bishop, and she responded so well because she made poetry – real, human poetry – of it. A much younger writer who had not known Pound, she was brought to visit him at St. Elizabeth’s by her dear friend Robert Lowell, who was himself offering obeisance to the master. Bishop returned multiple times during the year she spent in Washington in the precursor position to U.S, Poet Laureate. She observed not just Pound but all the other tortured psyches around her. In 1956, she wrote “Visits to St. Elizabeth,” in the manner of a repeating, cumulative nursery rhyme, with a final stanza that reads:
This is the soldier home from the war. These are the years and the walls and the door that shut on a boy that pats the floor to see if the world is round or flat. This is a Jew in a newspaper hat that dances carefully down the ward, walking the plank of a coffin board with the crazy sailor that shows his watch that tells the time of the wretched man that lies in the house of Bedlam.
No one in the literary world served Pound more fittingly.
For myself, I was just becoming fully conscious of Pound as poet (not as transgressive) in the year or two before he died. As writer, poet, student of Modernism, I had my early literary consciousness shaped by him and his peers. Then I came to know things. As a writer, a person purposing to offer in words not just the aesthetically estimable but also some human value, one has to contend with what one knows. Not to is to fail, as a person, too. Well, we all fail, many times. We should try not to.
According to the Bu-jew Alan Ginsburg, who visited Pound in 1967, the latter made deeply self-critical acknowledgements of his failures. Ginsburg kindly said to Pound, “The Paradise is in the desire, not the imperfection of accomplishment.” But Pound rejected the offering, stating that his “intention” was bad. He is then famously quoted by Ginsburg as saying that “my worst mistake was the stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism, all along, that spoiled everything.”
That Pound seemed increasingly haunted by the knowledge of having wrecked his life and ambitions seems inarguable. That he actually understood how he did so is doubtful. The antisemitism was far from his only crime, and to reduce, in bohemian condescension, what is a great moral failing to an almost, mere aesthetic error (“suburban prejudice”) is a profound misguidance. He didn’t exclude people from the country club or admission to Columbia. He supported tyranny and mass murder.
I had to make my own decision what to do with Ezra Pound. Do I never read his poetry again? Do I not teach him? Do I condemn him anytime I might? It has all depended. One can’t teach Twentieth Century English poetry, especially the first half, without addressing Pound’s poetry and literary influence.
Fittingly, again, Pound’s most adequate (though hardly exculpatory) expression of remorse came not in polemic or prose or conversational mea culpa but through poetry. In a late fragment, often designated Notes for Canto CXX, he wrote:
I have tried to write Paradise Do not move Let the wind speak that is paradise. Let the Gods forgive what I have made Let those I love try to forgive what I have made.
I take those lines and I set them beside or superimpose them on a photo of Pound I cut from a newspaper when still that young man first learning of him.
You see in it here the great poet standing in his library, literary and exotic, with his forebears – see Joseph Conrad? – gazing over him. Sometimes, I place it all on the home page of an online literature course. This past winter session, it headed the first page of the syllabus to my introduction to poetry class. Occasionally, there will be cause to discuss it. Other times not. I don’t direct it. Generally, I let my work speak for itself.
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Poet. Storyteller. Dramatist. Essayist. Artificer.
“Not just words about the ideas but the words themselves.”