I always look forward to the arrival of AGENDA,
the poetry magazine founded by William Cookson, when still an undergraduate at New College, Oxford, at the instigation of Ezra Pound himself. Cookson died in 2003, but his mag continues, now under the admirable editorship of Patricia McCarthy. The current issue, entitled POUND RECONSIDERED is an absolute corker . It contains a superb memoir by Michael Alexander, much the best translator from Old English. (His Penguin Beowulf is much to be recommended , but so too is the volume entitled The First Poems in English. He was inspired to start this vein of work by reading Pound’s version of The Seafarer. )
His is a serious reassessment of Pound as poet, but he also has good anecdotes. I liked the fact that when he called on Olga Rudge and Pound at Rapallo in 1962, she saluted him as “Mr Beowulf, I presume”.
Ezra, of course, seldom spoke in those days. Alexander tells of seeing him at Eliot’s Memorial Service in 1965. He was standing alone outside the Abbey, ostracized by all the respectable congregation. Three people eventually spoke to the great man. One was an American man of letters, Cleanth Brooks, then a cultural attache at the US Embassy. He was received in total silence. The second was Michael Alexander himself. The third was a tall, amiable figure, who said, “My name is Stephen Spender. I came to see you in St Elizabeth’s. [ie the mental hospital where Pound was incarcerated after the war]. I don’t know if you will remember me”. Pound: “No”.
It is heartrending to read of how broken and miserable Pound was in the time that Alexander knew him. Plenty of great poets idolized political monsters. Many of the Romantic poets would have died for Napoleon. Dante hero-worshipped the Emperor Henry VII and implored him to massacre Italian cities, women and children included. Lots of sillies in the British literary scene of the1930s thought that Stalin had created an earthly paradise and went to Spain to fight for a Republic which was lining up whole conventsful of nuns in front of firing squads. Pound paid heavily for his admiration of “The Boss” or “Ben”.
The plum of this terrific issue of AGENDA, however, is a new work by Ezra himself, a rather PreRaphaelite work of 1909 entitled The Dawn, sixteen pages about the girl he was currently nuts about, Katherine Ruth Heymann. In the end, Pound concluded it was written too much under the spell of Swinburne and Rossetti and he had moved on as a poet. It contains some very fine passages,however. My favourite quatrain was
Yea sometimes in a bustling man-filled place
Me seemeth some-wise thy hair wandereth
Across my eyes, as mist that halloweth
The air awhile and giveth all things grace.
We are all in the debt of A. David Moody for his account of how the work was discovered. He has also made a very significant biographical discovery since finishing his 3 vol doorstopper, namely the testimony of Dr Wendell Muncie, the psychiatrist appointed by Ezra’s counsel to assess his mental state in 1945. It is now clear that the US Government wanted to avoid Pound being put on trial and that they colluded in Muncie’s desire to save the life of the greatest American poet of the twentieth century.
.I spent a happy six weeks last summer reading through Moody’s magisterial three vol life of Ezra, reading The Cantos as he ex-POUND-ed them, though, I confess, skipping some of the bits about economics which so obsessed Pound, and with such catastrophic results in his personal life. (Horror at Capitalism and its destructive power, hatred of what it was doing to the poor in the 1920s and 1930s, subsequent idolization of Mussolini and the highly regrettable wartime broadcasts he made on Italian radio to his fellow-Americans.)
My summer with Moody and Ezra reinforced my sense that Pound was a truly gigantic figure. It also made be love Pound as a man. The fact that he was on the losing side in the Second World War did not make me think he was a monster. In personal terms he was a consistently generous and benevolent figure. We know of his selfless editing of Eliot’s The Waste Land, but there were countless other acts of midwifery and kindness, including his patronage of AGENDA. His poetry breathes love as in the lines, never published in his lifetime, but considered as a sort of epitaph
Yet from my tomb such flame of love arise
that whoso passes shall be warmed thereby;
let stray cats curl there
where no tomb stone is
& girls’ eyes sparkle, at the unmarked spot
let rancours wane
& a slow drowse of peace pervade who passes.
True, like his hero Robert Browning, he could be difficult to follow.
You wheeze as a head-cold long-tonsilled Calliope,
But God! what a sight you ha’ got o’ our in’ards,
Mad as a hatter but surely no Myope,
Broad as all ocean and leanin’ man-kin’ards.
Heart that was big as the bowels of Vesuvius,
Words that were wing’d as her sparks in eruption,
Eagled and thundered as Jupiter Pluvius,
Sound in your wind past all signs o’ corruption.
But there is also the lighter Pound, reminiscing about the 1890s, a decade which was really his spiritual home:
“SIENA MI FE’, DISFECEMI MAREMMA’”
Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones,
Engaged in perfecting the catalogue,
I found the last scion of the
Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog.
For two hours he talked of Gallifet;
Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
By falling from a high stool in a pub …
But showed no trace of alcohol
At the autopsy, privately performed—
Tissue preserved—the pure mind
Arose toward Newman as the whiskey warmed.
Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels;
Headlam for uplift; Image impartially imbued
With raptures for Bacchus, Terpsichore and the Church.
So spoke the author of “The Dorian Mood,”
M. Verog, out of step with the decade,
Detached from his contemporaries,
Neglected by the young,
Because of these reveries.
* * * *
Some years ago now, the BBC very kindly commissioned me to make three television programmes about poets – Betjeman, Larkin and Eliot. For a slightly whimsical reason, they gave the films the titles “Return to Betjeman Land” “Return to Larkin Land” etc. I offered to make one called “Return to Poundland”, but I think this suggestion spelled the end of my career as a televisonary. I never heard back.