Reading the Politics in Pound’s Poetry


Excerpts from “Pounding Fascism (Appropriating Ideologies — Mystification, Aestheticization, and Authority in Pound’s Poetic Practice)” as found in A POETICS by Charles Bernstein.“… For Pound’s fascism is all too easily censured, as by slap on hand, while the fascist ideas that infect his poetry and poetics seep unnamed into the orthodox cultural theory and criticism of this society.

Pound’s fascism, far from hindering the canonization of his poetry by American literary culture, has been a major factor in its acceptance. Stripped of its obnoxious overtness, Pound’s fascism becomes the stern but fatherly voice of authority, measuring by the Pound standard the absolute worth of the cultural production of all the societies of earth, the ultimate Core Curriculum. Without its righteously Eurocentric and imperiously authoritative undercurrent, the formal innovations of Pound’s poetry would have contributed to its marginalization. This is evident from the relative marginalization of much of the formally innovative poetry of, sic, “The Pound Era”. Pound’s status, far from being jeopardized by his political ideas, is enhanced by them.

I do not, however, equate Pound’s politics with Pound’s poetry. The Cantos is in many ways radically (radially) at odds with the tenets of his fascist ideals. In this sense, Pound has systematically misinterpreted the nature of his own literary production; refused, that is, to recognize in it the process he vilified as usury and Jewishness. This blindness to the meaning of his work, to how in significant ways it represented what he claimed to revile most, contributed not only to the rabidness of his dogmatism but also to the heights of magnificent self-deception and elegiac confusion that is The Cantos at its best.”

“Pound, or part of him, wished to control the valuation of the materials he appropriated by arranging them in such a way that an immanent or ‘natural’ order would be brought into being. As Pound seems to acknowledge in the final movements of the (for the moment) standard version of the poem, The Cantos never jells in this way. For Pound this was a measure, no matter how ambivalent he may have been about the evaluation, of the failure of The Cantos …

Pound’s great achievement was to create a work using ideological swatches from many social and historical sectors of his own society and an immense variety of other cultures. This complex, polyvocal textuality was the result of his search — his unrequited desire for — deeper truths than could be revealed by more monadically organized poems operating with a single voice and a single perspective. But Pound’s ideas about what mediated these different materials are often at odds with how these types of textual practices actually work in The Cantos.

Pound’s fascist ideology insists on the author’s having an extraliterary point of ’special knowledge’ that creates a phallic order (these are Pound’s terms) over the female chaos of conflicting ideological material. As Robert Casillo points out in his study of Pound’s antisemitism, Pound contrasts the phallocentric/logocentric unswerving pivot (citing Wang in canto 97: ‘man’s phallic heart is from heaven / a clear spring of rightness’) with the castrated and nomadic Jew. Jews are the purveyors of fragmentation and therefore the dissolution of fixed hierarchical cultural values (the Jews, says Pound on the radio, want to ‘blot out the classics, blot out the record’). Again, Jews, as usurers and in league with the Commies, represent ‘an indistinct, rootless, destructive mass’ eroding the agrarian ideal of homestead, of nature and private property (values Pound equates with order, clarity, telos). ”

“…As Casillo con cludes, ‘Pound turned to Fascism because he shares not only its deep fear of indeterminacy’ — of the vague, inchoate, and incommensurable, of all that is mysterious or ambiguous or unknown — ‘but also its central desire, which is to banish the indeterminate from social life … And as in Fascism, in Pound’s work the ultimate sign of such fearful [indefiniteness] is the Jew.’

What grotesque views for someone whose work is filled with indeterminacy, fragmentation, abstraction, obscurity, verbiage, equivocation, ambiguity, allegory; who has made the highest art of removing ideologies from their origins and creating for them a nomadic economy whose roots are neither in the land nor in the property but rather in the abstraction of aestheticization and the irresolution of the jarring harmonies of incommensurable sounds. As Richard Sieburth has noted, the ultimate irony of The Cantos is that all its irreconcilable elements can be reconciled only in the abstract, by the authority of the author, on credit. Indeed, the real economy of The Cantos is the one Pound constantly struggled to repress and to lay bare: the economy of reader and writer and book; the economy of language not as Logos but as exchange. …”

“…neither do I wish to ignore the warning implicit in these considerations: that aesthetic processes can be used for a variety of purposes; that to understand a work requires interrogating its motivations and social context. It is always revealing to ask of a work: what does it serve and how? The answer to this question, however, is not identical to what the worker’s intentions may be. A response to this challenge is that some work may usefully evade any single social or political claim made for or against it because of the nature of its contradictions, surpluses, and negations. Perhaps this is the most positive thing that might be said of Pound’s poetic works.

But perhaps fascism has won the day, anyway. When Pound the great artist is excused for his politics, fascism has won. When Pound’s politics are used to categorically discredit the compositional methods of his poetry, fascism has won. When Pound’s poetry is exalted and his politic dismissed as largely irrelevant to his achievement, fascism has won. When Pound’s politics are condemned, his poetry acknowledged or ignored in passing, but sanitized forms of his ideas prevail—the virtue of authority, property, and the homestead (’family values’), the sanctity of the classics, the condemnation of the nonstandard in favor of ‘the plain sense of the word’ and the divine right of the West (or East) to harness and bleed the rest of the world–fascism has won … ”

Excerpts from “Pounding Fascism (Appropriating Ideologies — Mystification, Aestheticization, and Authority in Pound’s Poetic Practice)” as found in A POETICS by Charles Bernstein.


Excerpts below from Spring 1996, Charles Bernstein on The Poetics List–

After insisting on the necessity and value of reading Pound in terms of his fascism, my speech begins with a discussion of Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies as a counter to the Core Curriculum mania (then in full swing), which I suggest is a logical extension of Pound’s ideas of master texts. (Here I distinguish between Pound’s “panculturalism” and “decentered multiculturalism”.) I go on to differentiate Pound’s desire for “montage” (the use of contrasting images toward the goal of one unifying theme) from his practice of “collage” (the use of different textual elements without recourse to an overall unifying idea). The piece ends with a discussion of Jackson Mac Low’s great book Words nd ends from Ez, which it still seems to me is a fundamental resource for any consideration of Pound …

…This new Pound criticism, which in some ways incorporates aspects of what has come to be called cultural criticism, or cultural and gender studies, tries to integrate Pound’s political and economic ideas with his poetic practice. Like all critical projects, this one is limited. Much of the best Pound criticism before this period tended in various ways to cauterize or surgically remove the cancerous parts of Pound’s work, or career, in an attempt to save the good parts. Partly this was a strategy to “save” the work, but it was equally a forceful interpretative system, an “apolitics” of poetry if you will. (Peter Nicholls: “Most previous criticism of [Pound’s] work has, from a variety of motives, sought to keep these different strands separate, tending in particular to drive a web between the ‘literary’ and poltical dimensions in his writing.”) …

The point here is not to say one approach or the other is right but to note that these approaches allow for different readings of Pound’s poetry. None of this work, it seems to me, ought to drive one from reading Pound; quite on the contrary. (Possibly this may be the work of a distinctly younger generation of scholars who no longer felt that raising these issues aligned their views with those who roundly dismissed Pound in the postwar period; this earlier polarization pushed those who went to the defense of Pound’s poetry to avoid dwelling on the relation it has to his politics and views on money.)

Casillo and Sieburth actually brought me back to reading Pound; that is, reading through the fascism and masculinism brought me from a passive, largely unarticulated, aversion to Pound, to an active, and ongoing, interest in all aspects of his work. Certainly I have been polemical in my essays on Pound, but not without the ironic realization that Pound relished just this sort of poetic polemicism. Reading Pound through the fascism means reading Pound in the most specific social and historical terms. It also means reading poetic forms politically, as an economy of signs …

Poetry is not worth reading because it is comfortable or happy or understandable or uplifting, any more than history or philosophy is. Nor does reading for a politics of poetic form mean that forms are liberating; more often we find, as Ray DiPalma once wrote, that “all forms are coercive”. If one starts with the assumption that a poetry should be truthful or beautiful, that it’s meaning should transcend the circumstances of its production — then of course talk of the politics of Pound’s poetic forms will seem dismissive of Pound’s work, since it pulls that work down from the heights of poetic vanity into the real-politics of the actual poem in actual history.

People say, Pound was deluded, Pound was insane, Pound was paranoid, Pound was delusional, as a way to explain away, or possibly contextualize, his fascism. I don’t doubt this, but it doesn’t get me anywhere. Fascism itself was (IS) delusional and paranoid, and Hitler and Mussolini and Goebbels are certifiable in my book, as are the shouting Brown Shirts pictured in Triumph of the Will (don’t we call this “mass hysteria”?). [Highly recommended, in this context, in the recent documentary on Riefenstahl, “The Wonderful, Horrible World of Leni Riefenstahl”.] I agree with Pierre Joris that what’s important to understand as we approach the end of this long century is the nature of this delusion, of this insanity, that has attracted so many otherwise admirable, sometimes brilliant, people, groups, indeed cultures. Of course Pound was delusional during the period of his Radio Speeches; reading Pound means reading through these delusions, trying to come to terms with them. It doesn’t mean that in making these judgments one is free of one’s own delusions, or that such a reading gives a complete account of this poetic works, which demands multiple, contradictory, readings.

Pound was not just a fascist; he had different politics, and poetics, at different points in his life and even at some of the same points. Nicholls notes that from 1930 to 1937, Pound was eager to keep a dialogue open with the American Left; and earlier in his life his views seemed more Left than Right, although, reading Nicholls, one begins to see this as much as a weakness in the Life/Right distinction as an inconsistency on Pound’s part. Nicholls also shows that “perhaps the most disquieting thing about [Pound’s] savage propaganda is that it was to some degree an extension of ideas that had governed the earlier Cantos.” Indeed, Nicholls’s tracings of the (de?)evolution of the practice of “authority” and “ideological closure” in Pound’s work is crucial for understanding a fundamental dynamic of modernism.

Yet Pound’s poetry is never simply a direct reflection of his politics; indeed, I would argue quite to the contrary that Pound’s work contradicts his fascism. The fascist reading of Pound’s poetic practice is valuable as one approach; it is not a final or definitive reading; as with all critical methods, it illuminates some issues while obscuring others. Of course, as Casillo’s book and other Pound criticism shows, it also may push the criticism to the polemical and even hysterical, as if the critic feels she or he is wrestling with a demon more than interpreting a poem. This too needs to be historicized and contextualized before it can be judged.

Pound told Allen Ginsberg he suffered from “that stupid, suburban prejudice of antisemiticm”, as if he should have been immune from such a low, “suburban” consciousness. But one thing that is notable about Pound is that he does not appear to have been “personally” antisemitic, which would have been in no way unusual for a person of his generation and background. His attacks on Jews are not related to his hatred of individual Jews or his desire to be a member of an “exclusive” country club. His views of Jews are highly theoretical and structural, projecting Jewishness, more than individual Jews, as the core force in the destruction of the most cherished values of the West. This demonization is not a “stupid suburban prejudice”, it is the systematic paranoia-producing ideology that has come to be called by the fascism. (Burton Hatlen: “we will all seriously misundertand fascism if we insist on seeing it as a “right-wing” poltical movement. For fascsim … blended an authoritarianism usually associated with the `right’ and a `populism’ usually characteristic of the `left’.”) Marjorie Perloff is quite right to point to it in Buchanan and the fundamentalist right; they too have gone well beyond “stupid suburban prejudice”, even as they bank on it. It is scary to see the degree to which fascist ideas have rooted themselves so deeply in mainstream American life, often in the guise of family values and consonance with a natural order. Pound’s most fascist polemics resonate in an eery way with the current wave of attacks on the arts, gays, the disenfranchised poor, immigrants, feminism, and the cities. I say this because there is often a tendency among Americans to exoticize fascism; Pound did his best to bring it home.

Excerpts from Spring 1996, Charles Bernstein on The Poetics List.


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AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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