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  • "Tempus Tacendi":The Late Silence of Ezra Pound
  • Sean Mark (bio)

The Return

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Fig 1.

Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Fernanda Pivano, Portofino, September 1967. Photographed by Ettore Sottsass. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019.

Like a holiday snapshot, a party of three are assembled at La Gritta American Bar on the Portofino seafront. Dated September 26, 1967, the photograph was taken by architect and designer Ettore Sottsass; on the right of the frame, his wife Fernanda Pivano addresses Allen Ginsberg, whose Hydrogen Jukebox—an Italian anthology of his verse—she had translated two years earlier. On that late September day, she and Sottsass had driven [End Page 573] Ginsberg, whom they were hosting in Milan, to Sant'Ambrogio, near Rapallo, where he had an invitation to lunch with Ezra Pound. The two poets had met once before, at the Spoleto Festival that July, a meeting Ginsberg had described as "wordless," and this occasion proved no different: over lunch Pound had remained almost entirely silent. When she collected Ginsberg two hours later to drive him across the Tigullio bay to Portofino, Pivano recalls, Pound had agreed to join them "with a nod of the head," and the photograph shows him slightly stooped on La Gritta's wooden seats, as she and Ginsberg speak.1 Disappointingly when it came to Pound, Ginsberg would report to Robert Creeley a few weeks later, the Portofino outing too was an "hour's silent sit in cafe" (Letters, 339). When the hour was up, they drove him back across the bay, to his companion Olga Rudge.

When this photograph was taken, Pound had been back in Italy for almost a decade. After a spell at Brunnenberg, his daughter's castle in Dorf Tyrol, since 1962 he had been living with Rudge in Sant'Ambrogio and Venice and would spend his final decade between these two places with which he is associated. Interviewed forty years later in the Venetian graveyard of San Michele where Pound is buried, Massimo Cacciari, philosopher and twice mayor of the city for the centre-left, recalls his childhood impressions of the aged expatriate as un vate, "a seer," and un profeta biblico, "a biblical prophet."2 To Ilse Engel, an artist also living in Venice, Pound "seemed like a prophet from the Old Testament."3 Pound's appearance in his late years—his second Italian period—was certainly striking, and the image of the white-haired poet captured in the photograph has become iconic, spoken of in such terms of reverence. But the prophet's speaking of revelations or foretelling of future events jars with the near-total public silence that characterized Pound's late years, which both Pivano's and Ginsberg's accounts dwell on. After a lifetime defined by his will to expression, in this "Tempus tacendi" Pound all but renounced communication entirely, conceding only three utterances ("Words no good") to the New York Times, and saying nothing to a German television troupe that had traveled to Venice to interview him.4 Rather than channeling the words of the divine, Pound appeared in thrall to silence itself: "I did not enter into silence; silence captured me."5 As well as a symptom of senility or depression (a condition for which he was treated and even hospitalized in 1966), Pound's late silence has been related to his political past. In the graveside interview, Cacciari reaches for the term "prophet" when asked about Pound's connections to Italian Fascism, as if to reestablish a sense of perspective, a hierarchy of importance. Donald Davie characterizes Pound's silence as a "strategy for handling the condition of survivor," while Desmond O'Grady sees it as "Dantescan self punishment," self-inflicted contrappasso for having spoken too much—an implicit reference to Pound's pro-Axis wartime propaganda and its anti-Semitic content.6 Ginsberg, too, would return to the silence in his writings on Pound, linking it to Pound's poetic and political parabola. "Pound makes a model for poet, poet's career, or poet's lifetime, or the whole spectrum of poet's activity from youth through old age," he addressed the Pound Centennial Conference...