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Pound: Portrait of an Arrogant Poet

A SERIOUS CHARACTER: THE LIFE OF EZRA POUND by Humphrey Carpenter, Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1,005 pp., Illustrated. $40 THE GENEALOGY OF DEMONS: ANTI-SEMITISM, FASCISM, AND THE MYTHS OF EZRA POUND by Robert Casillo, Evanston, Ill.:

Northwestern University, Press. 450 pp. $34.95

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THE critic Yvor Winters, who wrote, as he put it, in defense of reason, characterized Ezra Pound (1885-1972) as ``a barbarian on the loose in a museum.''

Pound's bizarre blend of learning (much of it spurious) and ignorance (entirely genuine) set Latinists reeling at the ``howlers'' in his quasi-translation, ``Homage to Sextus Propertius,'' and sent hordes of hapless students and professors hunting down the abstruse allusions that litter the interminable ``Cantos.'' Yet his consummate skill in slashing out all that was inessential in his friend T.S. Eliot's draft of ``The Wasteland'' remains one of the few instances of editing as an art form.

Pound's pretentiousness and vulgarity, his massive egotism and deep generosity toward his fellow artists, are all brought splendidly to life in this very long, but immensely readable biography by Humphrey Carpenter, well known for his lives of W.H. Auden and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Born in Idaho, the only child of adoring parents, Pound grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where his father worked at the US Mint. At school he did a lot of talking about literature but seldom did much reading, required or otherwise. With a light, sure touch, Carpenter captures the mixture of arrogance and poignancy:

Though he liked to give the impression of being widely read, he once admitted, at the end of his life: `I've read too little and I read very slowly.' Partly in compensation for this, he began to persuade himself that knowledge consisted of nuggets, of items that could be picked up at random.... `It is not necessary,' he said to [his friend, the poet William Carlos] Williams one day, `to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it.' He added: `Don't tell everybody I said so.'

With little more than ambition to back him up, Pound set out to conquer literary London. While he finally did not succeed to the extent that his compatriot and collaborator Eliot later did, Pound did find it easier to make an impression on London's close-knit literary society than to make a dent on the amorphous, highly defensive American literary establishment. Leaving London for the expatriate Paris of the 1920s, he went on to Italy, ``paradise'' of poetic exiles, settling in Rapallo in 1925.

Carpenter, himself a Briton, notes that the British tended mistakenly to attribute Pound's erratic behavior to his being an impatient American, eager to ``get things done.'' Carpenter's own attitude toward Pound is one of easy familiarity (he refers to him as ``Ezra'' rather than ``Pound'') but remains properly dispassionate. It's clear that he has sympathy for Ezra, but that he idolizes neither Ezra, the man, nor Pound, the poet. Sometimes, however, he seems a little tone-deaf to the darker undercurrents of Pound's nature, as when he traces ``part'' of Pound's ``growing obsession with race'' to ``a schoolboyish love of guying comic foreigners.''

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His account of the legal maneuvers surrounding Pound's treason case looks like special pleading. Carpenter believes Pound would likely have been acquitted had his lawyer allowed him to stand trial instead of having him declared mentally incompetent to do so. It's true that, even if found guilty, Pound might have served a shorter sentence than the 12 years he spent in St. Elizabeth's asylum.

Yet Carpenter seems to have lost sight of some facts he's already established: that Pound's wartime broadcasts were uncoerced, highly incendiary, and Pound entirely unrepentant. His abrasive manner and the vitriolic content of his convictions would surely have made him a poor witness in his own defense. One cannot help feeling that the biographer leans too heavily on second-guessing and hindsight in judging a lawyer who had cause to fear for his client's life.

The most curious aspect of reading this book is that one keeps waiting for the moment when Ezra breaks through and becomes a ``major poet.'' It never happens. Carpenter dismisses much of the early work and can make no great claims for the ``Cantos.'' Readers who admire the passage from the ``Pisan Cantos'' that begins ``What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross'' and modulates into the refrain ``Pull down thy vanity'' may be disconcerted by Carpenter's strong argument that these lines do not represent a genuine change of heart. Only in the 1960s did the poet renounce his fascism and anti-Semitism, and by then, he had ceased to regard all his writings as anything but ``Stupid and ignorant all the way through.''

Carpenter's well-researched, finely shaded biography conveys the pathos of the gulf between the unattainable beauty Pound dreamed of and the incoherence, even ugliness, that dogged his attempts to achieve it. But he does not really come to grips with the crucial problem of Pound's virulent anti-Semitism.

ROBERT CASILLO'S ``The Genealogy of Demons'' performs this function thoroughly and brilliantly. Casillo argues that anti-Semitism was central to Pound's outlook and not merely the extraneous excrescence that the poet's admirers and apologists prefer to believe it was.

Far from being a ``suburban prejudice'' (as Pound lightly described it to Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s) or a by-product of his crackpot economic theories about ``usury,'' Casillo shows that Pound's anti-Semitism was at the root of his other obsessions.

Probing more deeply, he explains how this pathological hatred was determined by a variety of factors, psychological and cultural. Casillo not only sheds light on the interrelated phenomena of fascism, anti-Semitism, organized violence, and scape-goating, but also makes an important contribution to the ongoing re-evaluation of the curious history of the largely antimodern, antidemocratic, antifeminist, antiliberal literary movement that has gone by the name of Modernism.

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