17 October 2012
Having quoted him on Twitter I found myself in a debate about Ezra Pound’s fascism, my opponent seemed to be of the view that his political beliefs, in some way, negated his poetry. Thinking about this, I realised my distaste for Pound’s politics was as nothing next to my loathing of the mind of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who, never, renounced his support for Stalin in the face of overwhelming evidence that he turned the Soviet Union into an abbatoir. I have heard of times when, in private conversation, Hobsbawm, in later life, persisted with the defence. Well, okay, Pound was a pretty vicious anti-semite and much else besides. So is my greater anti-Hobsbawm feeling justified? I don’t know, but here’s an attempt to explain it.
Pound was probably – these things cannot be precisely calculated – the most influential poet of the twentieth century after Eliot. In fact, he might be said to be the most influential by proxy because it was Pound who knocked Eliot’s The Waste Land into shape. So he should be, he is magnificent. I used to get chills as a teenager from poems like Exile’s Letter, E.P. Ode Pour L’election De Son Sepulchre. Near Perigord and, later, from even some of the most incomprehensible Cantos. I still get those chills. As a musician of language, he was greater than Eliot, but, in most other respects, he came in number two.
Pound was probably – these things cannot be precisely calculated – the most influential poet of the twentieth century after Eliot
So I am biased, but this, I think, is a bias with a rational basis. Hobsbawm was a historian who adhered to a profoundly wicked, irrational and inhumane view of history – the idea that history was a story that could justify the murder of millions – in spite of the crushing evidence of the failure of that view. I can understand taking that view in the fraught conditions of the thirties – many good people did – I cannot imagine clinging to it in the light of what later became evident – many bad people did.
Pound was a poet. He did not carefully weigh evidence and, in any case, his evidence came from the imagination and from mythology, not from the reality-based world of the historian. That this led him astray is not surprising – poetry is powerful stuff – many poets have been led astray and great art has often been produced by people we would now find very nasty. I’m not sure I would accept a dinner invitation from Carvaggio, I’d be scared. The questions are: does the wickedness affect the art? And, therefore, can there be no separation of the aesthetic and the autobiographical?
The answers are obviously yes and yes there can. Pound’s anti-semitic rants in the Cantos are both morally and aesthetically bad. But, read as a whole – a very difficult task – what we see is an autobiography in poetry, a broken, modernist reponse to Wordsworth’s Prelude (a mad comparison, I know, but that is the point). What we are getting in these poems in the mind in the raw, great bleeding warts and all, filtered through the musical genius of his language. The Cantos, I suppose I am saying, can be read against Pound. Consider the pale colours and regretful beauty of CXV. Or consider the lines in EP: Ode about World War I that started the Twitter debate.
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
You cannot read a historian against himself. His meaning is explicit and his own. A poet – any artist – is a different creature, responsible as a human for what he is, but not always entirely responsible, for good or evil, for what he does.