Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lucky Strikes and other explanations

I recently blogged about Richard Sieburth's superb New Selected Poems and Translations of Ezra Pound, just out from New Directions. It hit the stores this week, and so to celebrate, here's my favorite fun fact about EP, which I gleaned from it: Pound's editor at Farrar and Rinehart in 1933 was, of all people, Ogden Nash! Alas, sales were lousy, so Pound didn't last long there.

Sieburth is EP's most diligent editor, and among this volume's many virtues is the inclusion of John Berryman's rejected introduction to ND's 1949 Selected Poems; as Sieburth explains -

Berryman was primarily responsible for the choice of the shorter poems, which emphasized Pound's early lyrics and dramatic monologues. [...] Pound objected to Berryman's initial selections from the Pisan Cantos as "hash" and "just a mess of snippets" - which [James] Laughlin rectified by "adding some fat on the sides of the bones." But the long and scholarly introduction that Berryman had written for the volume (in which he argued that all of Pound's poetry was essentially autobiographical in inspiration, comparing the Cantos to Wordsworth's Prelude) was immediately rejected by both publisher and poet: the former felt that it was too specifically aimed at a "special high brow audience," while the latter dismissed Berryman's piece as "a lot of damn argument mostly with 2nd/rate critics," certainly "NOT a preface," and certainly "NOT whetting anyone's appetite for the text." The introduction was discreetly relegated by Berryman to the pages of Partisan Review.

Who did EP suggest as a replacement? None other than Rolfe Humphries, who'd praised the Pisan cantos in The Nation. (I suppose most today know him as a translator of Ovid.)  But, as Sieburth continues the tale -

This too fell upon Pound's disfavor, Humphries having insisted on making it clear in his otherwise very laudatory and accessible introduction that while he admired Pound's poetry, he could in no way condone "the anti-Semitic remarks that can be found, if not in this selection, here and there in the Cantos."

Humphries tried to soften his intro somewhat - while refusing to remove the term "anti-Semitic" - but failed to please either Laughlin or Pound, who was incited to parody as well as self-parody: "I believe E.P. to be a complete skunk when not writing poetry, I believe all his historico political ideas to be utter hog-wash, but I have not read a line of his writings on these subjects, all of which bore me to death, and I have no intention of doing so."  To Laughlin, Pound wrote, "there will be no allusion to jews or to mental condition or the whole deal is off."

In the end, Pound got Laughlin to kill this intro, too, and the rest is history, of a delusional sort, you might say; the earlier edition of the ND selected, in print for many years, appeared with no further annotation than EP's one-page "autobiography," which Sieburth aptly describes as "part curriculum vitae, part legal brief for the defense he was never allowed to mount [against charges of treason] because judged non compos mentis."

We don't get Humphries's intro, but we do get T.S. Eliot's, used in the Faber selected, a typically fascinating and slightly perverse document in its own right, and, as I mentioned, Berryman's. Here's JB's opening salvo, classic Berryman:

Since Pound has been for several generations now one of the most famous of living poets, it may occasion surprise that an introduction to his poetry [...] should be thought necessary at all. It may, but I doubt that it will. Not much candour is wanted for the observation that, though he is famous and his poetry is famous, his poetry is not familiar, that serious readers as a class have relinquished even the imperfect hold they had upon it fifteen years ago and regard it at present either with hostility or with indifference. The situation is awkward for the critic. Commonly, when the object of criticism is at once celebrated, unfamiliar, and odious, it is also remote in time; the inquiry touches no current or recent passion. Our case is as different as possible from the enviable condition.

. . . In a few years no one will remember the buffo.
No one will remember the trivial parts of me,
The comic detail will be absent.

After thirty-five years neither comic nor tragic detail is absent. Whatever the critic may wish to say of the poetry runs the risk of being misunderstood as of the poet; one encounters eager preconceptions; and no disclaimer is likely to have effect. I make, however, no disclaimer yet. Let us only proceed slowly - remembering that it is the business of criticism to offer explanations - toward the matter of hostility, beginning with the matter of indifference.

You can almost see Pound's face turning purple on reading such a document as this!

Though Berryman's piece was reprinted in The Freedom of the Poet, I've seldom encountered any mention of it; as for the Humphries, it is reproduced by Hugh Witemeyer in a must-read essay about the making of the selected poems, and as Witemeyer says, Humphries's introduction runs the gamut from Nietzsche to a Lucky Strike ad.

As ever with EP, neither comic nor tragic detail is far from his reader's mind. Sieburth's selection is wonderful and illuminating. It'll be fun to see what reevaluations ensue.

Pictured: One of the sheets of toilet paper on which Pound started the Pisan cantos

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