This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one by one (so far — I may deal with a few at a time on occasion).
These are not exactly typical readings of the poems, so much as readings I’m doing with a specific research project in mind — how to write Ezra Pound as a figure in a novel in which modernist artists, poets, and musicians secretly waged an occult war in the earlier half of the 20th century. If you’d like to know more about the project, I recommend scrolling down to the bottom of extended post, and reading the first installment in this series.
After last week’s discussion of Canto XVII, I’m tackling Canto XVIII and XIX, which Pound first published in A Draft of Cantos 17-27.
Cantos XVIII and XIX are both fairly short, and fairly transparent as Cantos go, and I imagine they did not take Pound too long to compose. I don’t see the texts available online, so I’m again assuming the interested reader has a copy of The Cantos on hand.
Canto XVIII begins with a recounting of Kublai Khan’s issuance of paper money, as recounted by Marco Polo in his memoirs, as dictated in a cell where he was a prisoner of the Genovese; there is a strangely, eerily prescient echo here of Pound in Pisa, in a cell, engaging in his own autobiographical recounting, though that is not something Pound could have foreseen in 1925… well, not the real Pound, anyway. The treatment of Kublai Khan of course recalls the man’s jubilant depiction in a famous poem by Coleridge, a Romantic poet; and yet, for Pound there is a whiff of distrust and criticism here. Leon Surette’s explanation fits well: just as the Romantics had seen themselves as in revolt against the Enlightenment, the moderns saw themselves in turn as in revolt against the excesses and naïvete of the Romantics (such as in their exultation about, and late crestfallen disillusionment regarding the French Revolution — or, worse, their occasional lack thereof). It may be that Pound here is taking a serious post-shot at Coleridge, by claiming for himself a more historiographically accurate imagine of the Mongol emperor.
A few other interesting thoughts that occurred to me are the fact that Marco Polo should turn up this late, in a poem the author of which is interested in bridging Chinese and European history, and who is interested particularly in Italy. I might have expected Marco Polo to have turned up sooner! But also, there are details in the telling of Kublai Khan’s paper-money story that seem important, most especially the observation that “all this costs the Kahn nothing, / And he is so rich in this world.” Pound is concerned about the relationship of the issuance of money to the physical world, to actual “wealth” and to power.
But the majority of the Canto turns on the story of one Zenos Metevsky, which Terrell informs us is a pseudonym for the munitions magnate Sir Basil Zaharoff. Zaharoff’s hatred for the British (like Napoleon’s for the French, due to “rhyming” incidents of childhood mistreatment), is a life one might find somewhat similar to Odysseus’; indeed, one finds Pound’s treatment of Metevsky rather like that of the Odyssean hero, and one cannot help but wonder what sort of a poem Pound might have written had he not settled upon usury as the great evil of the world. Metevsky is cunning, wily, crooked, but manages to come out on top even despite prison terms and making enemies for himself. Yet Pound is already disgusted with “usura,” and cannot see his way to painting Metevsky as anything but a bad guy, “Metevsky Melchizedek” — the wicked high priest of the arms trade (and of war). There is a lot of material about the manufacturing and selling of munitions, about competition and fights over different energy resources (coal and oil alike, the latter sold by Gethsemane Trebizond Petrol, which Terrell suggests is supposed to stand in for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company), as well.
And then, suddenly, Pound is thinking back to the pre-World War I era, and he mentions (by pseudonym) Hamish — that is, Taffy Fowler, whose wife (Terrell reminds us) ran a salon for poets and artists in 1908-1909. This indicates the source of some of the rumors that make up the content of the Canto: some of these stories were in circulation in London when he arrived from America. The rest is about the hell created by the sellers and makers of weapons — to Pound’s mind, the truly wicked warmongers on whose shoulders (along with the shoulders of the bankers, their allies) the blame for World War I belongs:
War, one after another,
Men start ’em who couldn’t put up a good hen-roost.
This concludes Canto XVIII, but Canto XIX picks up the thread, continuing on directly:
Sabotage? Yes, he took it up to Manhattan,
To the big company, and they said: Impossible.
And he said: I gawt ten thousand dollars tew mak ’em,
And I am goin’ tew mak ’em, and you’ll damn well
Have to install ’em, awl over the place.
And they said: Oh, we can’t have it.
So he settled for one-half of one million.
And he has a very nice place on the Hudson,
And that invention, patent, is still on their desk.
The problem with the usurer, in Pound’s mind, is that he is interested in one thing first, and that is money. The Hudson River, in eastern New York State, was according to Terrell home to many predatory and, in Pound’s mind, usurious types. But there is a mutuality of the pernicious arrangement here: the inventor takes his money and runs, not caring whether his invention gets made: it is like the poet who writes, but would be willing to take money for poems that, once he is paid, must never be published. For Pound, this seems in fact to be a kind of sabotage.
It is hard to fault Pound for being disgusted by this, and seeing it this way; there is a kind of sabotage to human endeavour when the only purpose of work, of clever innovation, of intelligent creation, is money. It is a perversion, and this is something that creative types — poets, writers, musicians, artists, and the like — know instinctively, if they are at all worthy of their job titles. This insight was in Pound’s day as it remains now: largely poorly understood by people in the business side of things. It is fair to consider sabotage a cultural and economic system in which monetary value of things is the only value up for consideration, and in which every other sort of value is apparently (and effectively) drained away. The innovations and intelligence that could make the world a better place, and could propel the world forward in development, end up languishing, because they are not immediately seen as profitable.
Overall, this reminds one of the notion of alienation from one’s labour, a notion advanced by Karl Marx — who ironically is mentioned dismissively in this canto, only a line or two later. Just as above we considered what might have been written if Pound had seized upon figures like Zaharoff as heroic rather than villainous, one cannot help but wonder what sort of a poem The Cantos might have become if Pound had ended up falling choosing Marx, and socialism, as his preferred response to the vagaries and idiocies of capitalist waste and corporate warmongering. Indeed, he seems to have done so when it comes to Communist Russia, but he felt that local solutions would vary from place to place, and specifically that Marxist capitalism was not a solution with which America would be compatible.
Still, one cannot help but imagine Pound living somewhere in St. Petersburg (well, at that time, Leningrad), lined up for bread, still writing poems praising Lenin or some other Soviet leader, as much as he might denigrate and mock lower-level functionaries — or, alternately, in a cage in Poland, or East Berlin, or Afghanistan, being held by American troops who had caught him and deemed him a traitor not in World War II, but in the Cold War (or one of its imaginable possible, alternate-history hot flare-ups). Doubtless, Stalin would have loved to have a famous and well-regarded American poet in the USSR… at first. Later on, not so much, and maybe Pound would have been deported, or shipped off to a gulag. Imagine Creeley and Ginsberg and Zukofsky visiting him in Leningrad, and writing about the unceremonious purging of Pound; imagine interviews surfacing on Youtube in 2005 of Pound being interviewed by Russian intellectuals back in the early 1970s; imagine his reminiscences of brief meetings with Gorky and Zamyatin and other Russian writers, and the affair with Olga having ended when Pound and Dorothy left for Russia; which Russian artist or musician would have become his mistress then? (Or might Olga have followed him to the USSR?)
Or, perhaps all this is a slash against the connections between American big business and the Soviets. After all, Wall Street and the Bolsheviks actually had some connections, as a number of writers have pointed out. (Anthony Sutton’s book Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution is probably the one that goes into the deepest detail, but I haven’t read it yet. Note, the book may be crackpot; it’s available online at a crackpot-looking site, but we’re talking about Ezra Pound here, so crackpotitude shouldn’t scare us off, though this particular theory may have developed long after Pound’s time… I doubt it, though: Sutton’s work alleges a conspiracy between the Bolsheviks and Wall Street, and that sounds exactly like the kind of thing Pound would have loved to think about — and explains the constant discussion of “usurious” capitalists and Bolsheviks in the same cantos. I’ll have to read more about Pound biographically to see whether I have a proper read of this stuff, though.)
Anyway, to return to the canto at hand: Pound discusses an apparent conversation with a rich businessman in Paris, who tries to interest him in Marx; his encounter with Arthur Griffith (the founder of Sinn Fein) in a hotel in Paris, under surveillance by a British detective pretending to read the British gossip rag The Tatler, and Griffith’s comment that even though he believed Pound’s economic theories, one “Can’t move ’em with a cold thing, like economics.” (Griffith and Pound flee the secret policeman, but later his telephone stops working for a week — more surveillance, one presumes.)
Pound mocks the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand, a fellow by the name of Princip, and then engages in a confusing bit of reported speech about people wanting to “go over” — perhaps this is people attempting to flee Russia, or perhaps people trying to flee into Russia; I’m not really sure. Someone — it’s not clear whom Vlettmann is supposed to be — reports a surge in Pan-Slavic feeling, with folks going about in the dead of night and singing an old folksong that would someday become the national anthem of Yugoslavia, Hé Sloveny!
There are a few references which, to me bafflingly, Terrell doesn’t connect to what I connect them to. The first is in the next section, discussing the observations of Vlettmann, where “Birth of a Nation” is mentioned. I took the line:
Short story, entitled, the Birth of a Nation
as a sarcastic mention of the world-famous D.W. Griffith film, perhaps because recently I’d been reminded of the fact that Pound adored bad movies (and the film director sharing a name with Arthur Griffith seems to me to be perhaps more than coincidence.) Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (available in all its racial offensiveness and insanity online here) tells the story of the American Civil War and of the Ku Klux Klan, and was very popular around the world — including in Russia. The Civil War and the Russian Revolution were both civil strifes, both wars that radically changed their nations, and both had major effects on the economies of their nations. I assume this is not by accident, but some of the material that follows the reference seems to me less parseable, beyond it being stuff about World War II, the division of Europe — a couple of pages later, that division reaching a shattering point.
The second weird parallel, for me, was the stuff about the 1914 Mexican Revolution, where a government is run from a train along a railway. Color me crazy, but the first thing that crossed my mind was Lenin’s famous train journey to Petrograd in 1917 (during which he composed his April Theses, a game plan for the Bolsheviks; this, sadly, I learned about reading an interview with China Mieville regarding his novel Iron Council; I’ve read the interview, but not yet the novel). The details at the end of the story make it finally clear that Pound is dealing with Carraza’s revolution Mexico, but when he mentions it so close to all this other Russia-related material, I feel as if it’s very unlikely Pound didn’t intend an eerie subject rhyme here.
Of course, the Mexican case involves successful retrieval of oil (power) from the ground, while in Lenin’s case, the power seems to issue from the people. Lenin’s views on antisemitism are particularly interesting, both in what they share with, and how they diverge from, Pound’s views. The following is taken from the link above, which is simply Wikipedia:
The tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organised pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. … It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. … The capitalists strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races. … Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob, and disunite the workers. … Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.
There are two last anecdotes providing material for the poem. The first concerns a banker, apparently Thomas Lamont, repudiating someone named Steffen for something he has written implying that J.P. Morgan — the firm of which Lamont was a member — had absolute power in America. The anecdote recounted by Lamont’s stand-in, a character named Tommy Baymont, concerns a coal mine that J.P. Morgan assumed ownership of a coalmine when “the mortgage fell in”; they found they could extract the coal, but they couldn’t sell it (or exert any kind of control) until James Buchanan Morgan (aka “Diamond Jim Brady”, another big capitalist at the time) worked out a deal for the coal to be bought by his railroad, at a higher price, to the firm in which he held shares. The railway and the coal supplies for it were both controlled by Brady, and he was the one who exerted control, demanding Baymont (Lamont) sell the coal for a higher price, as he himself had been doing all along.
At least, I think that’s what’s going on. What’s clear is that there are a number of power players, and a lot of power, cocatenated among those who work in the finance industry, and that they are not above wielding the power for nefarious purposes — something it seems Pound is eager to remind us has been the case ever since Kublai Khan issued paper money.
Then follows another anecdote, concerning a group of Europeans, related to one another and involved in all sorts of business all over the continent, who realize that the coming war (World War I) will sunder their connections, and leave them on opposite sides of the conflict. Obviously, the intended irony here is that it is businesspeople whose warmongering resulted in this, and business survived after the war, even where familial connections became impossible.
The figure of “Ptierstoff,” especifically, seems of note, because Terrell tells us he is a stand-in for Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff, a high-ranking Czarist diplomat to England; while I cannot find any information regarding his connection to Moura Budberg’s first husband (Count Johann “Djon” von Benckendorff, another Russian diplomat), there definitely is a connection between Moura and Alexander: he appears in one of the photographs bundled into Tania Alexander’s Tania: Memories of a Lost World, on a picnic outing with some members of Moura Budberg’s family and circle of friends. This does constitute another NEAT SF CONNECTION. Budberg’s daughter’s account of the Russian Revolution, of which I recently posted an excerpt, suggests that Russian elites were not quite so quick to spot the coming troubles as the businessmen in Pound’s poem.
But while that is notable, it seems to me far more notable just what a small world it was in the early days of the 20th century. The nanny who helped raise Moura Budberg (named Micky), and who in turn raised her daughter Tania Alexander, seems likely to have been sent to Russia by none other than Maud Gonne, who was for a time (like her daughter, Iseult Gonne, kinda-sorta) the object of W.B. Yeats’s affections (and of a proposal by the poet); Pound having worked as Yeats’s secretary, there was more than one connection between Pound and Wells (aside, of course, from the direct one, for they did correspond and occasionally meet, and Wells makes an appearance, however brief, in a canto we will read later this year).
Back to the end of the poem: it seems to recount a case of excessive debauchery in a place called “Yash”, and excessive haggling over turquoise somewhere in Kashmir. The connection here makes perfect sense if you consider Pound’s esoteric sense of the erotic: as with stupid businessmen, stupid men in general tend to think that with women, more is better. This renders every sexual liaison, and every business deal, a function of purely numerical significance. The more women, the better; the cheaper the product, the better. No way to organize your value system for a civilization, but, it seems, Pound was arguing this was precisely the way the bankers, arms dealers, and other assorted assholes of the world, were busy promulgating.
One wishes Pound had settled on that term — “assholes of the world” — rather than all this medieval business of usury. It would have led less straightly to his anti-Semitism, to his more excessive economic ramblings and distractions, and so on. But, such was not his chosen fate.
There is not so much poetry in Cantos XVIII and XIX: there is verse, but a decided lack of beautifully poetic line, structure, or expression. Yet somehow the poems seem to be building up to something, and they do somehow sort of cohere. Perhaps this kind of oscillation is necessary, in a large, long poem: one cannot be 100% at the crest of a wave all the way through, or it gets to be overwhelming in ways the Canto isn’t quite… at least, isn’t quite yet. (And it does remind me of how I teach rhetoric in my public speaking and essay-writing courses: you can get into all kinds of esoteric stuff, but you cannot stay there. Rather, you need always to oscillate between poles: abstraction and concrete examples, formal and informal language, evidence and explanation, logic and sensible appeals to human feeling. And as I say, it’s clear Pound is building up to something.
To what, I’m not yet sure, but we will find out when we dive into Canto XX and XI (and maybe XIX?) next week…
As for my fantastical Pound:
- The weirdly, eerily prescient moments in The Cantos — like Pound writing of Marco Polo as a war prisoner in Genoa, a strange echo of his own time in a cage at Pisa after World War II — are numerous enough that, in a story in which Pound is engaged in the kind of occult workings I have in mind, one might as well have him possess — for whatever reason — some sense of what the future will bring. Pound in the cage in Pisa might be haunted by visions of Pound in other cages, in past iterations of the timeline; but Pound in London, Paris, or at Penn State years before, might also have been haunted by such terrifying intimations. Dreams and nightmares of cages, and dark hints to those who comment on the use of Polo in this poem!
- With all this Russia-related stuff, Pound as a (troublesome) Soviet defector is too tantalizing a figure to pass up. I cannot help but imagine him in a cage, being transferred from East Berlin to West (or, perhaps, out to some gulag), after pissing off the Soviet leadership one too many times; perhaps in one of the alternate lives the character leads? (My Pound can “reboot” his life at any point, thanks to the “vortex” he and Wyndham Lewis set up; or so it is in the original version of my short story featuring Pound and Wells and occult power.)
- The Mexican/Russian parallel, and the American/European one, are fascinating. I likewise can’t help but imagine a Pound who returned to the Americas, though likely settling in Mexico, or who fled the Soviet Union for Mexico… only to hang out with Trotsky and Frida Kahlo and the rest of the crowd down there.