Love of Literature
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
and Hatred of Fellow Man:
Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos
I love the poetry of Ezra Pound, but it is unfortunate that he cast the tainted shadow of anti-Semitism over his work, and this is something that his readers must struggle with. This is especially true in The Cantos, and The Pisan Cantos in particular, which still manages to be one of my favorite pieces by him. It seems to me that he was trying to unveil a usurious global banking conspiracy - something we can certainly relate to living through The Great Recession - but that he was sidetracked by the red herring of racial prejudice.
Pound was a monumental figure in the world of literature during Modernism, and he had prolific correspondence with all of the major writers of his time. Despite this, he seems to be underrepresented in the study of Modernism, mainly because his name was ruined by his anti-Semitism - although it further hurt his reputation that he sided with Mussolini during World War II and was arrested for treason and found insane in the United States. I always feel bad for him when I read Richard Sieburth’s introduction to The Pisan Cantos and he explains that when Pound was taken to the American camp in Italy at gunpoint, he thought he would be a free man when he was turned over to the Americans. Pound told the Americans that they needed to get him in contact with the President as soon as possible because he wanted to be sent to Japan as a diplomat - claiming himself as an expert in Asian cultures because of his translation work - and that he would attempt to get the Japanese to sign a peace treaty ending the war. The soldiers’ response was basically, “What are you, crazy? You’re being arrested for treason!” and they threw him into a cage, in which he had a massive mental breakdown and then began to composeThe Pisan Cantos on sheets of toilet paper. I pity Pound’s naïveté, but I also envy his tenacity, and I think about the fact that if by some miracle he had been successful, he might have prevented one of the biggest atrocities in history: the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But I digress - I began with his anti-Semitism because I was thinking of Pound in connection to James Joyce. I posted about Ulysses on here when I read it last summer, but after I finished Joyce’s novel, I found Pound even more enigmatic than before. Pound championed Joyce, helped promote him, and made his work known and respected when no one even knew who James Joyce was. Pound was the first one to publish chapters ofUlysses in America and he wrote glowing critiques of Ulysses in The Dial which pronounce Joyce the latest and greatest in a long line of literary masters.
What confuses me is that if Pound loved Ulysses so much, why did he not seem to take one of Joyce’s main themes to heart? Joyce made Leopold Bloom Jewish for a reason. Yes, anti-Semitism was a pervasive attitude at the time, but Joyce specifically made Bloom - his new incarnation of Odysseus, one of literature’s greatest heroes - Jewish. There are chapters that deal with anti-Semitism, and we - the reader - are supposed to empathize with Bloom - literature’s ultimate everyman - and realize that the prejudiced people who hate him are unjustified and have no understanding of who Bloom is as a person. Specifically in the “Cyclops” chapter, we see that the prejudiced “I” and the other anti-Semitic people at the tavern are ignorant, narrow-minded, and worthy of our scorn.
I can’t imagine that Pound wasn’t aware of these running themes throughout the novel, so how did he feel about it? Why was he still prejudiced? I just find Pound so confusing. It seems like he was half-genius and half-crazy.