Making the trains run on time, part 1

The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner

A literary biography of Ezra Pound which I bought about six months ago and didn’t get around to reading till just now. I was a bit daunted by it – flipping it open at a random pages made it seem rather forbidding, full of fragments from the Greek and translations of Confucius. (That reminds me – have I linked to A E Housman’s Fragment of a Greek Tragedy yet?)

It turned out to be excellent comfort reading; the need for comfort, I suppose, gave me the impetus I needed to burrow into it. It wasn’t as recondite as I had feared but it’s not an easy read.

It’s excellent on the technicalities of Pound’s poetry, and I was very glad that I had my copy of Stephen Fry’s prosody primer The Ode Less Travelled close to hand, or I would have got hopelessly lost among all the caesurae and trochees and such.

The attitude of Kenner to Pound’s propagandising for Mussolini and imprisonment by the Allies made me a little queasy, although that’s not unexpected in such a partisan critic. His brief examination of Pound’s anti-semitism is curious: one gets the feeling that Kenner is not so much embarrassed because his subject was, for a time, a blithering Fascist, but because it’s déclassé to have to deal with the matter at all.

The question of Pound’s politics is not quite that of whether a writer can hold morally culpable views and still be great. Pound’s politics were not simply morally wrong, they were idiotic; like all people who think they have found the One Big Thing that’s wrong with the System, he comes across as a hopeless crank. And when you consider that his aesthetic came to depend on the idea of Poet as Sage, it’s easy to see why Kenner would want to gloss over the problem.

Reading through the Cantos in sequence is a dismaying experience, as the brilliant poetry sinks inexorably into a mire of rants about usury. Flann O’Brien dealt with this sort of thing once and for all in two paragraphs of The Third Policeman:

‘Money is hard to come by these days,’ he said, ‘with the drink trade on its last legs and the land starved away for the want of artificial manures that can’t be got for love or money owing to the trickery of the Jewmen and the Freemasons.’

I knew that it was not true about the manures. He had already pretended to me that they could not be got because he did not want the trouble of them.


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