The art and the artist, can we love one and not the other? It’s a difficult question to answer. Sometimes my heroes might seem to some a little foolish, embarrassing or pathetic, like Li Bai trying to kiss the moon’s reflection on the lake falling out of the boat and drowning himself (I had a friend who did pretty much the same thing, so it can happen), or Stephen Foster cutting his throat while shaving, a down and out Bowery drunk who had the shakes, or Janis Joplin falling down dead from a heroin overdose breaking her nose in the process. These artists you might say were all too human, having maybe too much fun, but hurting no one really but themselves and the collateral damage of loved ones. I have no trouble loving them.
But sometimes I find out my heroes have had unlikable ideas that caused harm. Like Walter Brennan, one of my favorite actors since I was a kid, feeling so much affection for him, and he turns out to have been a right wing Jew hating racist. I come from Pennsylvania, the state of Joe Paterno, who turned a blind eye as we all know to young men buggered in the shower for the sake of football and the almighty dollar. Should we leave the statue up or tear the statue down? Should I never watch Red River again?
And then there’s Ezra Pound. Perhaps if he had only signed his letters with a Heil Hitler! and called Mussolini the boss, but he wrote articles for Italian newspapers with titles like, “Jews, Disease Incarnate,” during the time of the concentration camps, which leaves me feeling an involuntary, “Yuck.”
I’ve pretty much avoided Pound my whole life because of that yuck. Have I been cutting off my nose to spite my face? There always has been plenty to read, more than I ever will be able to; in fact, I think it’s soon time to read Winesburg, Ohio and Les Fleurs du Mal again, but I’m planning to start the Cantos, some written on toilet paper when Ezra was left to go mad in the solitary cage with the blinding lights on. I bought Pound’s Collected Work a few weeks ago. The first poem, Child of the Grass, is young with lovely sounds and full of promise. The good and the bad are all of a piece bound in a book some 1400 pages long.
Child of the grass
The years pass Above us
Shadows of air All these shall Love us
Winds for our fellows
The browns and the yellows
Of autumn our colors
Now at our life’s morn. Be we well sworn
Ne’er to grow older
Our spirits be bolder At meeting
Than e’er before All the old lore
Of the forests & woodways
Shall aid us: Keep we the bond & seal
Ne’er shall we feel
Aught of sorrow
Let light flow about thee
As a cloak of air
Child of the Grass, I would love to hear how Pound would read that. Give a listen to Moeurs Contemporaines, a kind of nasty gossip People Magazine 1919, a cantankerous poem (perhaps with premonitions of the evil to come). Pound’s voice reminds me of the sound a frustrated wasp makes flying against a windowpane. Just leave him alone and he won’t sting or say anything bad about you. He changes a few words from the original text while he reads. I’ve noticed he says, “She will neither come in, nor stay out,” instead of “She will neither stay in, nor come out.” Instead of “Stele” for the title of part VI, he says, “Column.” “There was once a man called Voltaire,” becomes, “There once was a man called Voltaire,” which has a bit of a limerick quality to it. I like that he says, “And the guards couldn’t stop ‘em,” as opposed to “And the guards couldn’t stop them.” And he shortens “And I said: ‘That was before I arrived,’” to, “I said: ‘That was before I arrived.’” I believe he recorded Moeurs Contemporaines in 1958 shortly before he was released from Saint Elizabeths.
I read an account of T.S. Eliot visiting Pound at Saint Elizabeths Mental Hospital. Perhaps it was in a letter of Robert Frost, and perhaps Frost was there as well. As the poets sat talking on a couch, one of the other patients came vacuuming the floor with an imaginary vacuum cleaner. The poets lifted their feet when the sweeper got to them, so as not to get entangled in the invisible hose, letting the man continue cleaning. I’ve always liked the story. Eliot finally did get Pound out of Saint Elizabeths. It took him and other friends like Robert Frost over a decade to do it. Someone in the U. S. Justice Department finally decided it was time to let the cranky (vicious?) old coot out. If he hadn’t been committed as insane to begin with, Pound would have been sentenced to life in a federal pen for his pro-fascist work during WWII. His book is on the table. Should I take a look?
As an after thought I might add that both Eliot and Frost (neither perhaps the most likable of men) are two of my favorite poets and I will continue to read them for as long as I live. In fact, I’ve read them so deeply and so much that I feel (have felt) a part of them, or they a part of me, not just a reader and writer, but a talker and talker, actually communicating. Perhaps when all is said and done, Pound just doesn’t speak to me as those two have, but I need to give Pound a good listen, and see if we can start a conversation. Here he is reading his first canto.