- Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume II: The Epic Years, 1921 – 1939 by David Moody
How wrong was Yeats in 1936 when he described Ezra Pound’s poetry as “constantly interrupted, broken, twisted into nothing by its direct opposite, nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion”? “He is an economist, poet, politician,” Yeats continued, “raging at malignants with inexplicable characters and motives, grotesque figures out of a child’s book of beasts.” How wrong was William Carlos Williams, three years later, when he wrote of Pound that “the man is sunk … unless he can shake the fog of Fascism out of his brain”? Yeats and Williams had been Pound’s friends for years, but by the end of the 1930s, they saw him careening downward into confusion. They were not alone: Pound’s readers were also deserting him. From Eleven New Cantos: XXXI – XLI (1934) to The Fifth Decad of Cantos (1937), buyers of Pound’s poetry in America dropped from one thousand per volume to three hundred. The story is of a strange kind of genius gone even more strangely wrong.
Moody’s authoritative and massively detailed biography, which, with this second of three volumes, now totals 928 pages, sets forth, almost week by week, from 1921 to 1939, the ways in which the poet’s immense energy—an energy that had earlier transformed modern poetry—now drove him into decline and isolation. Handling well the immense documentary evidence, Moody resists speculation about what caused the disintegration of the mind that, years before, had given Yeats’s poetry renewed vigor and, with uncanny editorial precision, had brought The Waste Land into existence. Moody records; he does not theorize. Pound himself was not much given to introspection or to emotions other than fervor and spleen. He had a remarkable lack of interest in himself or anyone else. To his mistress Olga Rudge, the mother of his only child, he said, “I do not care a damn about private affairs, private life, personal interests.” That child was given [End Page 517] to others to raise, as was the only child of his wife, Dorothy, and another (unidentified) man. The personal and the subjective stood in the way of what mattered: economics, history, and his own investigation of a world made up of dishonest politicians, corrupt bankers, and a population oblivious to the nefarious workings of money. And with his focus on money came his focus on Jews.
Moody does all he can to dissociate Pound from anti-Semitism, but his efforts are not persuasive. Since the poet could find it convenient to dismiss the merely “personal,” it made sense, Moody argues, that, while getting along with a few Jewish individuals, Pound could fulminate against those who were poisoning societies and cultures everywhere. The “impersonal” Pound had no difficulty befriending Louis Zukofsky, a Jew. The problem arises that while he may have found Zukofsky companionable, Pound showed cold indifference to the ghastly plight of Jews (“kikes” and “yits,” he called them) in Italy: “Waaal all yits wot come to Italy after 1919 iss to leave in six months | and to get OUT. and all yitts is not to be in Italian schools and in scientif/ bodies etc./ … It is looking THOROUGH.” He asked his readers to think of the “Jew” not as a person but as a metaphor for usury. In Pound’s mind, Moody says, Jews deserved persecution, “not on racial grounds … but because of the economic harm they could be held responsible for.” At one and the same time, Pound could claim that he was against anti-Semitism as a race prejudice while he endorsed it on economic grounds. What were people, after all, as compared with the supreme struggle against exaggerated interest rates? The story of his mania is moving exactly to the extent that one can imagine what the Cantos could have been, given the extraordinary gifts of the poet, and what the poem, distorted by obsession, now is: disheveled in form, obscure in reference, unfinished.
Moody, seeking to show what might have been, demonstrates his considerable...