Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Ezra Pound and the universal poem of common humanity

The cages: Pound’s, reinforced, is visible at the extreme left.

In the spring and early summer of 1945 the poet, anti-Semite and fascist collaborator Ezra Pound was confined to a six foot square open steel cage (specially reinforced) at the US Army’s Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) near Pisa, Italy, and then to a tent in the medical compound. He was obliged to pass his imprisonment within earshot of continual but disparate moments of surrounding conversation and exclamation. The names and fragmented voices of his fellow detainees (mostly African American) and their guards are scattered across his Pisan Cantos:

Hey Snag wots in the bibl’?
wot are the books ov the bible?
Name ’em, don’t bullshit ME. (Canto 74: 175)

“c’mon small fry” (74: 406)

“ah certainly dew lak dawgs,
ah goin’ tuh wash you”
(no, not to the author, to the canine unwilling in question)  (79: 34)

(WordPress formatting, unfortunately, doesn’t cope with the complex indentations of Pound’s lines in the original.) The poet seems to have been enormously impressed by the versatility of the inmates’ restricted dictionary of obscenities (Canto 77: 203):

“If you had a f….n’ brain you’d be dangerous”
remarks Romano Ramona
to a by him designated c.s. in the scabies ward
the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words
one verb and participle one substantive  ὕλη   [“hule”, Greek for “matter” or “shit”]
one adjective and one phrase sexless that is
used as a sort of pronoun

Though vast tracts of The Cantos are just clusters of unappetising crossword clues unprovided with solutions, in this case there can be some amusement in trying to work out the exact terms Pound has in mind. A bit further on, at line 232, he returns to the topic of army vocabulary, which now prompts an enigmatic recollection:

there are in fact several coarse expressions used in the
army and Monsieur Barzun had indubitably, an idea, about anno

domini 1910 but I do not know what he has done with it
for I wd/ steal no man’s raison

Henri Martin Barzun

“Monsieur Barzun” is Henri Martin Barzun, French experimental poet and solo proponent of simultanéisme, a promotion of “orchestral” or polyphonic poetry as drama, articulating the voice of the crowd, the modern hymn of collectivity. Barzun settled in the USA after the Great War, where his son Jacques Barzun became a successful and well regarded historian and writer. Barzun senior went on to found an experimental drama school in New York, and continued to write and publish under the brand of “Orphism”. He died in 1973.

His major work, L’Universel Poème, or L’Orphéide, was never published in its entirety, though the Barzun Wiki page states that typescripts survive, and notes the publication of three excerpts in 1913, 1929 and 1930. It seems unlikely that Pound would have been acquainted with Barzun or his work “about anno domini 1910”, but it’s conceivable that during his time in Paris in the early ‘twenties he would have become aware of the  influence of Barzun’s spatial, typographic poetry on the Dadaists with whom he was then engaged. One might also see some diffuse influence in the fragmentary, multi-voiced scripts of The Cantos themselves, despite Pound’s avowal that “I wd/ steal no man’s raison”.

In fact, a fourth excerpt from L’Universel Poème was published in 1939 in Eugene Jolas’ celebrated magazine transition, the inter-war mouthpiece of the European romantic avant-garde. Pound was well aware of transition; in late 1926, writing from Italy, he advised James Joyce to submit the instalments of his “Work in Progress” (to become Finnegans Wake) to Jolas’s first issue. (Pound was himself wary of publishing Joyce’s “circumambient peripherization” in his own new literary magazine, The Exile.)

From October 1938 to April 1939 Pound was visiting London, and in April and May of 1939 New York; transition had distribution centres in both places. transition 27, containing the Barzun extract, is dated 1938 but was actually published in February 1939, just in time for Pound to discover and read it in one or the other city. The volume included, without comment, a “Fragment de l’Universel Poème”, credited simply and without explanation to “Barzun”. It may have been only a fragment, but it required an impressive eight sheet fold-out to be specially printed and bound into the pages. It seems entirely possible to me that Pound had seen this in 1939 but by 1945 had lost the memory of it, the polyphony of the detention centre then triggering what then seemed like a more remote or general recollection.


The passage in the “fragment” (as far as my French is up to it) is a complex chorus of heroic exhortation to “pioneers” (poets, engineers, navigators and so forth) to assault the heavens; it would not have been out of place in the late symbolist context from which Barzun emerged. It appears to be “scored” for about three dozen voices, arranged vertically, and no doubt can only be fully appreciated in performance, if that were feasible. (Only at one point, on the uppermost lines, does conventional language give way to sounds – “rrrr  rreu eu …  ero  vre”, an elision of “hero” and “œuvre” – that hint at any connection with Futurist or Dadaist sound poems, but even here the two words implied are entirely meaningful.)

Though intended to be read from left to right, the fragment as presented may have more value as an early suggestion of a modernist poem as a visual, spatial structure, with obvious relevance for parts of The Cantos. Though there is no central point for a listener, the multiple voices on the page can be understood as caught in fragments, arriving at different times from different directions and at different distances. And in this respect we are back in Pound’s compound.

Given that throughout this period and later Pound remained a virulent, even hysterical, advocate of fascism, and a bitter and unreconstructed anti-Semite, his feelings towards his fellow detainees, mostly black, seem remarkably sympathetic. At several points he likens their situation (and his) to that of their slave forebears in the middle passage:

magna NOX animae  with Barabbas and 2 thieves beside me,
the wards like a slave ship (74: 393)

in limbo no victories, there, are no victories –
that is limbo; between decks of the slaver (77: 174)

Louis Till

John Tytell’s 1987 biography notes that on his way to the Disciplinary Training Center “Pound was handcuffed to a soldier accused of rape and murder”. This may well have been Louis Till (“St Louis Till” as Pound heard his cage-mate call him – a clever pun), of whom he records drily in 74: 171:

and Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings

I wonder if the second line is in Till’s own words, answering Pound’s whispered query as they sat handcuffed together in the van? Elsewhere (76: 85 and 77: 270) Pound records a snatch of overheard conversation where one of the two in Till’s death cell, so possibly Till himself, insists that he has studied Latin, an accomplishment that obviously impressed Pound. Till was hanged in July 1945; as his Wiki page notes, the strength of the evidence against him has recently been called into question. In 1955 Till’s 14 year old son Emmett, accused by a white woman of offensive behaviour, was brutally killed, and his murderers acquitted. In 2017 his accuser finally admitted that her “evidence” had been invented. The Emmett Till murder became an important stimulus to the Civil Rights movement.

Prisoners at the DTC

The “universal poem”, in Barzun’s conception, seems to be essentially an affair not of discord but of solidarity. To whatever extent Pound’s temporary situation inspired in him some feelings of solidarity with that of the African Americans with whom he shared his imprisonment, his anti-Semitism remained at the heart of his “political” convictions until his final period of melancholy silence and disavowal of The Cantos. A piece by Michael Reck in an Evergreen Review of 1968 records a remarkable conversation between Pound and Allen Ginsberg, who, like other Beats, admired Pound’s work and – despite everything – the independence of his convictions:

‘Any good I’ve done has been spoiled by bad intentions – the preoccupation with irrelevant and stupid things,’ Pound replied. And then very slowly, with emphasis, surely conscious of Ginsberg’s being Jewish: ‘But the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism. All along that spoiled everything.’

Tytell finds this a moment of “ritual penitence”. Who knows? Suburbanism or irrelevance are hardly the worst points on which we might condemn a sympathy for the Holocaust, but one would still like to take this as a recantation, a request for forgiveness. Myself, I’d hope that even now, Ezra Pound may be standing, as that fine old hymn has it, amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. If so, that centre of specificity must surely be surrounded by the poetic polyphony of humanity in solidarity, restored to a whole new dimension.

“Let the Gods forgive what I have made,” reads a final fragment of The Cantos. In 1959 Pound revisited the site of the Disciplinary Training Center. It had become a rose nursery.

(It’s quite likely that the Barzun and Till references in The Pisan Cantos have been discussed to death already by Pound commentators; I wouldn’t know. The image here of Henri Martin Barzun has been lifted without permission from gentlerereader.com, a site devoted to Jacques Barzun. That of Louis Till appears at findagrave.com.)

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4 responses to “Ezra Pound and the universal poem of common humanity

  1. John Sims July 11, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    I have a decades-old memory of reading a report of a conversation between Pound and Ginsberg where Pound belittles his anti-semitism as a small-town prejudice. Then Ginsberg, as if trying to console Pound, suggests that the anti-semitism of the the Cantos has an aesthetic (or structural?) function. Pound repeats himself ‘ just small-town prejudice’.
    Is this an embroidered memory or is there some account I can check it against?

  2. richardawarren July 11, 2018 at 6:54 pm

    Hello John. I think this must be what I’ve briefly quoted in the post – Michael Reck, “A Conversation between Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg”, Evergreen Review no 57, June 1968. A short excerpt is given in J P Sullivan’s “Ezra Pound. A Critical Anthology”, Penguin, 1970. Pound is despondent. Ginsberg suggests, among other things, that Pounds “irritations against … Jews fit into their place as part of the Cantos, despite your intentions, as the theatre, the record, of flux of consciousness. The Paradise is in desire, not in the imperfection of the way it was done.” Then Pound makes the “suburban” comment I’ve quoted. And Reck points out the significance of Ginsberg’s Jewish heritage. I’ve no idea, I’m afraid, of where the whole thing might be republished. I used Sullivan, plus an extra sentence (continuation) quoted in Tytell’s biography.

    • John Sims July 13, 2018 at 11:21 am

      Many thanks for retrieving the text which my memory has distorted over the years. What stuck in my mind and gullet was Ginsberg’s attempt to explain (away) Pound’s anti-semitism.

  3. richardawarren July 13, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Yes, I understand what you mean. Though – since Ginsberg was of Jewish heritage and I’m not – I somehow feel I have to give him some credit for his view. I suppose he was saying that Pound’s hatreds stand as a historical record of the falsehoods of the period: his “irritations” “fit into place” as a “record” of a “state of mind”. He’s saying, I guess, that it may have been evil to have written such stuff, but it makes sense as a testimony to the times, whatever intentions Pound may have had. But it’s a fraught area, and Ginsberg was certainly bending over backwards to be generous!! Intentions are pretty important. I wonder if Ginsberg said anything else about this at any other time? I ought to try and find out.

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