Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Dada

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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Kurt rejoined: Schwitters in Lakeland

A greyish day on a Lake District holiday is an opportunity for a pilgrimage to the modest shrine to Kurt Schwitters at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside. (For a previous post on Schwitters, see here.) Some years ago I searched the Lakes in vain for any traces of his presence, but now the Armitt sports a tidy little room with some thirty items. The weight is towards the effective but surprisingly conventional landscapes and portraits that were his bread and butter at the time, but there are a couple of Merz pieces too, plus – holy of holies – the faded sign to the now disembowelled MerzBarn at Elterwater. In the churchyard down the road at St Mary’s survives the headstone to the grave from which Schwitters’s body was removed to Hanover in 1970. Further south at Kendal the Abbot Hall Art Gallery hosts a small wall of Schwitters. All in all, a very worthwhile and tourable grouping of relics.


crossleyBarbara Crossley’s The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters, published in 2005 by the Armitt Trust, does not list or discuss in detail the works of this period, but does chronicle painstakingly his last years in the Lakes, following his release from internment in the Isle of Man in late 1941. Notwithstanding the self-sacrificial love and support of Schwitters’s partner Edith Thomas, it’s depressing to learn of the artist reduced to hanging about an Ambleside café, offering portrait sketches to customers for the price of a cup of tea, or working desperately on the barn, breathless and dying, his hands blue with the cold. It comes as a shock to realise that Schwitters died at the age of sixty. The subsequent neglect of his surviving work, followed by litigious bickering as prices later rose, does not make for good reading either. (Not that things are necessarily more sympathetic today. In the Armitt I was obliged to grit my teeth as some saloon bar know-it-all in hiking boots opined dismissively to his mate that the collages were “just patterns,” and that many of the works were probably labelled “Untitled” because the artist knew no English. )

Reviewing all this, I’m struck once again by the uncanny, almost miraculous even-handedness with which Schwitters maintained the two extreme polarities of his practice: the canon-busting inventiveness by which his collages bypass all expectations and still reach entirely satisfactory solutions, balanced by the comprehensive sanity of the observational work, as witnessed, among others, by the touching little pen and ink study of flowers at the Armitt.

Some of the Armitt and Abbot Hall items show up on the Art UK Schwitters page, but others are missing or beyond the scope of the site, so here are some selected snaps. (Click for enlarged slides. Any objections to my posting these, please contact me.) At the top left of the “YMCA Flag” collage is a portion of the envelope in which Schwitters received news of a grant towards the MerzBarn work from MOMA New York. Sorry about the reflections in this one; I find myself incorporated by the glass.


The taking of these photos coincided with a strange camera malfunction (perhaps more a photographer malfunction, if truth be told) in which entirely unfamiliar images arrived in the camera’s memory, while shots of Schwitters’s works deleted themselves only to reappear at will later. Unnerving. But all quite appropriate to a MerzBarn from which the Merz has been excavated and a grave that no longer holds a body.

Hannah Hoch stitches it up

And so to Hannah Hoch at the Whitechapel, on till 23 March. Despite the thousand pieces of poor GSCE artwork “inspired” by her collages, the prolific but always fascinating “Dadosophess” seems suddenly to be very much of this moment, and I found the gallery gratifyingly crowded by tall, serious young people, many in black knitwear.

Here are a few sneaky snaps of pieces that might not be easily found elsewhere online. (Forgive the grainy ‘phone images. Must get a better ‘phone …)

And a few thoughts:

  • This show is almost entirely of collages, but her paintings are often even more impressive.
  • Her early abstractions derive from a professional preoccupation with pattern and patterns – textile and crochet. Her Vom Sticken of 1917-18 is a modernist manifesto of embroidery, no less.
  • As a good dressmaker, Hoch rarely attempts to disguise the seams in her collages. You are confronted by images that first appear unified, but then promptly deconstruct themselves into their constituent parts, only to reassemble moments later. They are alive within that flicker.
  • Was she as overtly anti-racist as today’s commentaries suggest? I’m not so sure. The use of black faces in some collages seems to me to be meant more as an aesthetic jolt than as a political one. But I guess that, whatever the intention, that in itself was taking an almighty risk in ‘thirties Germany.
  • Her Album scrapbook of magazine photos is strongly reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s way of working. Except of course that Bacon, being a bloke, chucked his images all over the floor.
  • It comes as a surprise to find that she was active into the early 1970’s – from the era of Johannes Baader into that of Baader-Meinhof, in fact. Post war, she found a renewed preoccupation with abstraction; not the reductive abstraction of constructivism, but an abstraction of accretion, of self-complicating and fantastic forms.

I very much recommend this, if you find yourself in London. Far more rewarding than *ahem* Richard Hamilton at Tate Mod.

Le Petit Journal des Refusées

cubist smallNewspaper cartoonists in the nineteen-teens had a great time with Cubism: what on earth would those crazy modern artists get up to next? But we all know that Cubism emerged from Picasso’s Demoiselles of 1907; so what’s this drawing all about – in 1896? Come to that, what’s the whole magazine about?

19th century Yankee humour can be an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring, as anyone will know who’s ever discovered Artemus Ward. But this is something else – Le Petit Journal des Refusées, written, illustrated and published in San Francisco by “James Marrion”, a pen name of humourist Gelett Burgess, and a spin-off from his more successful – and more orthodox – The Lark. In 1894 Burgess had been dismissed from his post at the University of California at Berkeley for his part in the vandalistic demolition of a temperance fountain. In addition, he is credited with the invention of the term “blurb”.

cover smallLe Petit Journal, which proclaimed itself a quarterly, lasted for exactly one issue. It was printed on leftover wallpaper, on pages cut to a trapezium, and apparently with slightly different contents in different copies. Some pages are typeset in mixed fonts, or with letters randomly inverted.

The mock-decadent cover promises contributions on Art, Literature, Counterpoint, Vulgar Fractions, Dress Reform and Yachting, but the contents, as the title suggests, all claim to be works by “feminine authoresses” (with names such as Anne Southampton Bliss, Alice Rainbird and Howardine de Pel) that have been “ruthlessly rejected by less large-hearted and appreciative editors” of such well known periodicals (real or imaginary) as the War Cry, the Butcher’s Advocate and the American Journal of Insanity. Though to say that the “contributions” are parodies of literary fashions would be something short of the mark. Burgess mocks some aspects of the feminist agenda, though not without affection, and apparently not from a reactionary standpoint.tongues small

The drawings that frame the pages, often overpowering the texts, are extraordinary; some belong more in the San Francisco of 1967 that that of 1896. The “Cubist” page I’ve already noted, but this heavy, angular black line that zig zags around a rather incompatible frieze of tramping feet belongs to no style then current, and seems to anticipate Vorticism.

feet smallThe overall effect is of a proto-Dada, and it’s fascinating to see how humour, as a genre, is stretched here into a form of avant-gardism, albeit an avant-gardism that does not know itself to be such. Burgess died in 1951; his Wiki page indicates he was still writing in the late ‘thirties, but I rather think he hit his peak with Le Petit Journal. Three variant copies are available online in the splendid and invaluable Modernist Journals Project hosted by Brown University and the University of Tulsa. Well worth a browse.