Bernstein and Pound (Spring 1996, from the Poetics List)
From: Charles Bernstein (bernstei@UBVMS.CC.BUFFALO.EDU)
Subject: Pound & Man at Yale
Subject: Re:reading Pound
To: Multiple recipients of list POETICS

I wrote a follow-up piece to "Pounding Fascism" (which is in A Poetics) called "Pound and the Poetry of Today"[subsequently collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems]. It was published in The Yale Review in 1986 (I don't have the exact citation handy). The speech was originally presented at the Pound Centennial at Yale: an occasion at which at I was made to feel (and no doubt also made myself feel) very unwelcome. I was just about the youngest person invited to speak, and the only Jewish one; it didn't seem a coincidence that I was also the only person to raise the question of Pound's fascism at this occasion. The spirit of the supposedly academic event was set by the Pound's daughter asking us to observe several minutes of silence in honor of the anniversary of her father's death, which coincided with the Yale event. In keeping with this reverential spirit, the tone of the event was solemn and studiously respectful. In contrast, my speech would have seemed boisterous and structurally irreverant; though insofar as this was so it was was oddly more in the mood of the putative subject. While I was excluded from some of the social occasions set up for the participants (for example the lunch just before my talk), I was invited to a formal dinner at one of those Yale halls filled with dusty oil paintings of important Yale men (fortunately, Susan Howe, who was living in nearby Guilford, came to the dinner with me). This was the sort of occasion where you'd hear people murmuring to one another, "you know, despite it all, maybe Pound was right about social credit" (and maybe some other things too). Creepy.

The Yale Review had written to me saying they wanted to publish works from the proceedings. After the event, at which it was made clear to me that I should not have spoken the way I did (not a new problem for me however), I wasn't surprised that Yale Review turned the piece down. While they may have had other reasons to reject it, since it was advocating an approach to poetry antipathetic to their aesthetic agenda, I couldn't help but interpret it as an extension of the reception I had gotten at the centennial. I made my views known to them and they reluctantly relented, agreeing to publish the work not as an article, but as "commentary" which meant the back of the ... book and in a smaller point size.

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.

From: Charles Bernstein (bernstei@UBVMS.CC.BUFFALO.EDU)
Subject: Re: reading Pound
To: Multiple recipients of list POETICS

          What Greek logomachy had in common with the
     Hebrew poison was debate, dialectic, sophistry, the
     critical activity that destroys faith. ....
          The Hebrew attack, crying our for vengeance,
     began by destroying the Roman Gods. ...
          But faith is weakened by debates, [which are] more
     or less rabbinical and if not rabbinical at least anti-
          _`Che l'intenzione per ragione vale."_
          Faith is totalitarian.  The mystery is totalitarian.
     The sacred symbols are totalitarian.  The destruction of
     the images of the Gods did not increase faith. ...
          ... That fatal inclination to want to understand
     logically and syllogistically what is incomprehensible is
     Hebrew and Protestant.
          --Ezra Pound, 1942 (in _Meridiano di Roma_), qtd
                by Peter Nicholls in _EP: Politics, Economics and Writing_

THUS, in thanks to Jerry, Marjorie, Jackson, Rachel, and the rest of the Poetics "Jews" and Protest-ants (irregardless of ethnic origin) who insist on debating what they/we cannot understand.

This is Charles Bernstein speaking ... from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, home of Zabar's and Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King.
& now for some further sophistry: "the critical activity which destroys faith":


Many of the poets and critics who discount Pound do not do so because of his fascism but because of a dislike for collage, parataxis, and the very strikingly rhetorical surfaces of Pound's poems. They also discount other poets, working in related modes, whose politics are quite contrary to Pound's. The converse of this is also true, as the remarkable posts by Rothenberg, Mac Low, and Perloff, among others, have shown. In this context, I don't take the new wave of Pound criticism that regards fascism as central to Pound's poetic project to be a move away from reading Pound or as a way of undermining his significance or influence. 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.")

Starting in the 1980s, critics like Nicholls (a deep lurker on this list), Rachel DuPlessis, Richard Sieburth, Jerome McGann, Burton Hatlen, Bob Perelman, and others, but most militantly Robert Casillo, tried to integrate Pound's political and economic and gender ideologies into the "tropical system" that is his poetry. In doing this, these readers were giving Pound the respect of taking him at his word, in contrast to those critics who, like well meaning relatives, were often forced to say Pound didn't know what he was talking about. 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; it means thinking through the implications of poetic structures, rather than imagining them ever to be neutral or transparent. A poem including history means we must read the history too, and this history is writ in the style, in the symbolic/semiotic economy of the poem, in the material means of production, as much as in Pound's "disembodied" "ideas" -- a matrix of material meanings that Christine Froula so brilliantly calls "The Pound Error": error as much in Joan Retallack's sense of typos and errancy as in political misjudgment: it's _all_ there.

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 ususally associated with the `right' and a `populism' ususally 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.

There are any number of fascist writers who are of virtually no interest to many or probably any of us on this list. And there are virulent antisemites like Celine, whose work I like more than is comfortable to say, but which I don't find as structurally and "tropically" rich in terms of the sort of issues I am raising here. Pound's work, it seems to me, not only allows for but provokes an ideological reading; it insists that it be read, form and content, for its politics and its ideas. And it is precisely this that is one of the _enduring_ values of his work. The dystopian aspects of Pound's work are important to fully explore, even with tempers flying off the page, because he is a fundamental a part of that elective tradition (thinking of Christopher Beech's useful sense of Pound's influence in his _ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition_) that, as Beach and others have noted, consists mostly of poets whose politics and economics differ so radically from Pound's. But the more important Pound is for that tradition, then the more important it is to understand the disease that consumes his work, which cannot be disentangled from what is "good" about it. Nicholls, for example, notes how Pound's insistence on "making it new" made for an affinity with related fascist ideals. The significance of "the Pound tradition" requries that we interrogate it for what it excludes as much as what it makes possible: interrogate the assumptions of poetic lineages not just to acknowledge their effects but also to counteract their effects. (Perhaps one aspect of this elective tradition is a commitment to difficult writers and difficult writings; after spending some weeks lately writing about Laura (Riding) Jackson, that possibility is hard to miss.)

Marjorie urges us to "begin at home" with our political concerns, to look around at what is happening in 1996 in America. Given the context of her own life experience, her warning is all the more ominous, all the more to be headed. But also, I would say, I hope within the spirit of her wake- up call, but also in the spirit of "debate", that in the context of this Poetics list, taking on Pound's fascism is also a way of starting at home.


N.B. The first paperback edition of The Cantos (expanded) is due this spring from New Directions