Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Ezra Pound

Homeric warfare: re-righting the Classics

The 'Betty' letters

The ‘Betty’ letters

As well as interesting marginalia, a bonus of buying second hand books is finding unexpected stuff tucked between pages, so I was chuffed recently on acquiring a set of the early ‘fifties poetry review Nine to find various fliers and cuttings hidden within, plus three letters to the original owner of the magazines from the classical scholar, translator and academic W F Jackson Knight (brother of literary critic Wilson Knight). One of these throws an interesting light on the methods of Nine and of its pugnacious and reactionary editor, the poet and self-appointed disciple of Ezra Pound, Peter Russell.

Eleven 'Nines'

Eleven ‘Nines’

The letters are to a “Betty”, probably an ex-student of Jackson Knight’s (though not, as I first thought, the classicist Betty Radice, later an editor at Penguin Classics). “JK”, as he signed himself, maintained a vast correspondence with ex-students and others, so it’s annoying but hardly surprising that my unidentified Betty makes no appearance in Wilson Knight’s exhaustive and exhausting 1975 biography of his brother, which I now plan to employ as a doorstop or flower press.

Much of the contents of the letters is shrill and slightly flirty chatter (JK never married), but in February 1950 he wrote to acknowledge a letter that Betty, who clearly had some close association with Nine, had inserted with a prospectus for the review:

“Naughty to put a letter in for 1d! How I liked it though. I wishd you were here.

Can I, if I subscribe, have the first issue of NINE? What chances to keep it going? Can you work together with The Wind and the Rain and be the Criterion, and get safer – you two the only two? What hope of getting hundreds and hundreds of my little friends into nine-print? No – only good ones, who deserve it – and only the pieces which should be printed. I don’t care about just another mag. I do care about the right one (prospectus looks good), which really serves the right causes and above all the divine niceness and brilliance of the sort of people you and I know who we mean by which. Grammar OK?”

'JK' in the early 'fifties

‘JK’ in the early ‘fifties

JK’s letters, wrote Wilson Knight, “drive the informality of epistolary writing to the limit.” No doubt Jackson Knight wrote as he spoke; it’s always a slight shock to realise that some people of a certain class really did talk like this. The Wind and the Rain, a rival literary review run by Neville Braybrooke, had recently printed a piece by Jackson Knight on his favourite author, Virgil. He did indeed go on to subscribe to Nine, to which he was also to make a single ill fortuned contribution. So was Nine to prove the right sort of mag, serving the right causes, and run by the right sort of people? Well, it was “right” in one sense.

“The Right is to-day, everywhere the Underground Resistance!” shouted Peter Russell in issue 2 of Nine. Reacting to what they saw as a poetic decade of undisciplined and introverted Leftist neo-romanticism, Russell and his editorial board – poets G S Fraser and Iain (later Ian) Fletcher, editor and classical translator Ian Scott-Kilvert and classical critic D S Carne-Ross, afterwards a Third Programme producer – banged the drum for a return to objectivity, order, tradition and form. In this post-war re-invigoration of the great literary tradition, translations from the Classics were to play their part. Even so, Nine was happy to print poems by Charles Madge, Ronald Duncan, George Barker and others positioned well outside its programme, though it was not always an unstrained fraternisation. For Russell, if not for his co-editors, these literary standards were of a piece with his maverick political rightism.

Peter Russell, drawn in 1950 by Wyndham Lewis

Peter Russell, drawn in 1950 by Wyndham Lewis

In the event, it wasn’t too long before the wheels fell off. Issue 1 of Nine had appeared in the Autumn of 1949. Oddly, all but one of the editorial board vanished abruptly from the title page after issue 7 of Autumn 1951, leaving Russell to manage the final four issues solo. What happened?

His ‘seventies collaborator William Oxley later recounted Russell’s version of the crash, given twenty years afterwards. Two highly unpleasant reviews by poet Roy Campbell, loose cannon and elder statesman of the maverick right, had “blown apart” the board; one of a book by Stephen Spender, the other of:

“… some translations done by an eminent professor of whom Campbell wrote: ‘We do not expect poetic talent from a translator, let alone a professor, but we are entitled to insist on elementary scholarship.’ The editorial board of Nine, apart from Russell himself, were ‘all aspiring professors looking for safe jobs in universities,’ and they refused to countenance the publication of Roy Campbell’s offensive review.”

This “offensive review”, of J B Trend’s translations from the Spanish of poems by Juan Ramon Jimenez, eventually appeared in Nine 9, with a note by Russell explaining that it had been rejected by “the then editorial board”, and first printed in The Catacomb, the scurrilously reactionary (and loss-making) review run by Campbell and his son-in-law Rob Lyle, but bailed out by Tate and Lyle sugar money – “catacombs financed by saccharine,” as Christopher Logue put it.

“Though it is difficult to imagine what literary motive can have prompted the publication of this book,” fumes Campbell, “the political motive sticks out a mile.” His “review” then veers off into the familiar Campbell rant about the Spanish Civil War, “gun-shy poets” such as Auden and Day Lewis, the Iron Curtain and so on. It’s not hard to see why the board had cold feet.

On top of all this Russell’s co-editors, their suspicions aroused by an unpaid printer’s bill, had accused him of having his hand in the till, while a fire destroyed the contents of Nine’s office in 1951, postponing issue 7. Thereafter frequent appeals for renewals of subscriptions couldn’t prevent disastrous delays to later numbers. Nine finally gave up the ghost in April 1956.

'... the MS was altered ...'

‘… the MS was altered …’

But there may have been other behind-the-scenes unpleasantnesses that contributed to its break-up and decline. One is disclosed by Jackson Knight in a later letter to “Betty”:

“Re P[eter] R[ussell] – I did draw back a little. I didn’t seem to be much wanted. And when I’d done something asked of me actually during a week end of hundreds of miles, arduously, the MS was altered to make me disapprove when I’d approved of something – rewritten. So I couldn’t sign it. I don’t know if it was printed. I’ve never had this happen in 33½ years otherwise. I am not cross. I know something of the literary fight and literary code. I just keep away when I can, having seen the way the wind blows. Yet I received a N[ine] actually today.”

The “something asked of me” was a review of half a dozen Penguin Classics translations; this did appear in Nine 6 (Winter 1950-51), but under the pseudonym “Classicus”. (Clearly Knight was never sent a copy.) The books he had reviewed included two prose versions by E V Rieu, co-founder and editor of Penguin Classics, Homer: The Iliad and Virgil: The Pastoral Poems. (Rieu’s previous, ground breaking Homer translation, The Odyssey, had been the opener for the series.)

The offending article

The offending article

Of the Virgil, “Classicus”/Jackson Knight approves most warmly: “ … as felicitous as any modern English prose version .. can be expected to be … The most fastidious reader … will find nothing to blame.” And “Classicus” even heads off the predictable charge of dumbing down: “If this is ‘culture for the masses’ – and I think it is – we must have more and more of it …” All the other books are thoroughly approved, except for one, Rieu’s Iliad.

Here his opinion appears inconsistently damning: “Homer is eminently rapid, eminently plain and direct, and eminently noble … Dr Rieu’s prose Iliad satisfies the first two conditions … but fails to satisfy the third. Of the supreme grandeur of his original he manages to convey very little …” And that’s about all “Classicus” has to say on the book. This has to be the section altered by Russell to censor Knight’s original, more generous approval of Rieu’s Iliad. But why?

In our post-Classics culture it’s not easy to appreciate just what was at stake, and how threateningly communistic Rieu’s approach might appear to some. As Sun Kyoung Yoon explains in a 2014 article in The Translator:

Rieu … translated Homer in an egalitarian spirit, in line with a trend which was gaining ground in the aftermath of the Second World War. To bring Homer to the widest possible range of readers, Rieu chose to transform his epics into novels … emphasising narratives and characters … his Odyssey, in particular, was a major landmark in popularising the Classics: the huge success of Rieu’s Penguin edition proved that Homer could be made accessible to anyone.

img_0005Popularised perhaps, but hardly popular with Peter Russell. In a stand-off between accessibility and “grandeur,” his elitist instincts knew no doubts. The issue of Nine that carried the censored review by “Classicus” also promised forthcoming numbers on Latin and Greek literature, “to re-establish creative contact with the past.” Translations were solicited that should not “sacrifice poetic vitality to accuracy, nor accuracy to poetic vitality.” For Russell, Rieu’s egalitarian translations met neither criterion. In the event these special numbers did not materialise; in humiliating Jackson Knight by tinkering politically with his review, Russell made sure of that.

But we are in Cold War territory here. And the fracture lines of the times were as liable to appear in the pages of the little magazines as anywhere else, as this minor classical spat demonstrates.

Recommended for use as an anvil

Recommended as a flower press

Jackson Knight died in 1964, his reputation as a scholar and a gent unblemished, apart from an enthusiasm for spiritualism that led him to consult the shade of Virgil himself to advise on his 1956 Penguin translation of The Aeneid, the “Supreme Poet” even dictating answers to JK’s questions directly in Latin to his medium Theo Haarhoff; in séances Virgil appeared to Haarhoff’s niece clad in his laurel crown.

Peter Russell died in 2003 after a long, hugely prolific and generally penniless career as a professional poet. His later work, under the influence of his “mentor” Kathleen Raine, moved away from the vaunted objectivism of the Nine years to a gushy, “vitalist” and often confessional Neoplatonism. His anticommunism never wavered.

Brando and Eliot in shadows

My brush with Brando was gratifyingly bizarre. I was helping to run a college cinema club; shortly before one evening showing, there was a phone call: Marlon Brando was in the area filming (news to us), and would he be able to see our film? Was this a hoax? But no, a couple of minutes before kick off a young man appeared who claimed in a stateside accent to be Mister Brando’s fixer. Passing across a slab of notes he explained that the great actor and his party were outside. Only one thing: the lights should go down just before his entrance; Mister Brando preferred to go incognito.

"Mistah Washizu - he dead."

“Mistah Washizu – he dead.”

Brando (his profile dimly recognisable) and entourage filed in as arranged. They sat in the semi darkness of the front row, speaking little and in low voices, only among themselves. We were showing Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. At the end, after Washizu, Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character, had undergone his spectacular downfall, punctuated by more arrows than a single human frame might seem able to accommodate, the lights were kept down while they left the same way. Later the college porter told me that on his way out  Brando, at the head of the line, had paused before the massy mediaeval oak of the college gate, and had stroked it with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. To a man, his entourage had followed suit. The porter had been amused not so much by his original gesture as by their sycophantic mimicry.

The great oaken gate had presented itself to him, perhaps, as a signifier of Albion, of ancient wisdom, of a more authentic, pre-American world, a world maybe not too far from feudal Japan.

This was (I think) in 1969. Brando’s career was in a strange place at that time. What could he have been filming over here? I’ve no idea. (This was too late for Pontecorvo’s under-rated Burn!, I think, which in any case was filmed partly on the continent, and not in the UK.)

Brando in shadow

Brando in shadow

After seven years, Brando was back mumbling in the shadows, this time as the largely invisible Colonel Kurtz on the set of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Millions of words later, we are still not much clearer on quite why the filming went so famously pear shaped (as if we care), but in an interview Dennis Hopper has said that Brando’s refusal to be filmed with him came after he had ranted at Brando in a cinema in the Philippines where cast and crew had gone for a night out. Interestingly, from my viewpoint, they had chosen to see Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, featuring Toshiro Mifune.

As the rows rumbled on, Coppola and Brando abandoned the Apocalypse script and improvised Kurtz’s dialogue. Brando may or may not, as alleged, have prepared himself by reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse was based, but he seems to have found his way around T S Eliot. It’s well known that Eliot’s epigraph to The Waste Land, at least in draft, was the death of Heart of Darkness’s Mr Kurtz, prototype for Brando’s Colonel Kurtz:

“… He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”

In early 1922, Eliot had returned to London from a spell under the shrink in Lausanne – “… an aboulie [aboulia, loss of motivation] and emotional derangement” was his self-diagnosis – clutching a wadge of pages for Ezra Pound to hack and snip into something resembling a coherent poem. “The horror” was the first bit into the bin: “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation,” grumbled Pound. Eliot sniffed back that “It is much the most appropriate I can find, and somewhat elucidative.” “Do as you like about Conrad,” snarled Pound, but the passage was cut anyway.

Pound also axed 90% of the original “Death by Water” sequence, leaving few hints of Conrad in the finished Waste Land, though there is still a dripping echo in the sweating river and drifting barges on the turning tide in the “Song of the Thames-daughters” in the “Fire Sermon” section. Both The Waste Land and Apocalypse Now were a mess, a mass bubbled up in chaos and derangement, warping out of control, both requiring merciless chopping down into something the shape of poetry.

Eliot got his own back by prefixing his next poem, The Hollow Men, with an equivalent but more cryptic quote from Heart of Darkness – “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

Coppola may have allowed the camera to pass knowingly over copies of Eliot’s other sources for The Waste Land – Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazer’s The Golden Bough – lying around rather posily in Colonel Kurtz’s shadowed den, but it’s The Hollow Men that Brando / Kurtz reads brooding in the shadows, in a sequence largely cut, Pound-wise, from the film as released [link below]. (It has sometimes been noted that this otherwise complete reading of the poem omits only the epigraph “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”, in order to avoid an unfortunate reality loop; as a fictional character about to die, Colonel Kurtz can hardly read about the death of another fictional character on whom he himself is based.)


It seems to me that in this reading Brando strokes the words with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. As Anglified American, Eliot has come to represent the man transplanted to the authentic waste land, a discoverer, like the Kurtzes and now like Brando himself, of a far older wisdom, of primal vision. We touch the ancient wood, we feel the immeasurable truth of it, and, with a cry like a whisper, we suspect the horror.

‘I drag my body over yellow stones’: the Vorticist period writings of Jessie Dismorr

l'ingenueFollowing on from my page of images by Jessie (later Jessica) Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, a new bunch of drop-down pages is available among the tabs up above (or go here and find the links) on her writings from 1915 to 1922. Here are collected all her pieces from Blast 2 of 1915, from The Little Review of 1918-19, and from the manuscript poetry collection of 1918 given to John Storrs, with her piece on Russian art for The Tyro 2 of 1922, preceded by a general introduction. Maybe someone else has done this far better, or is about to, but I’m not aware of it, so here’s my best shot.

From the psychogeography of “June Night” to the dense and breathless metaphysics of the later poems, from aphorisms on aesthetics to feminist satires on the Pre-Raphaelite woman, there is much of interest here, not forgetting the savage attacks on Dismorr in The Little Review by Margaret Anderson and Yvor Winters that knocked the stuffing out of her literary self-confidence.

“To Strangers – all my curiosity and artlessness.
To my Lovers – an eternal regret.
To my Friends – more insistent demands, the last enigma of conduct, a few gifts.”

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

pound“My dear old Ezra,” wrote Wyndham Lewis in 1946 to Ezra Pound, then incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for his wartime support for the Italian regime. “How are you, and what are you doing with yourself? … I am told that you believe yourself to be Napoleon – or is it Mussolini? What a pity you did not choose Buddha while you were about it …”

To T S Eliot, he commented: “Probably … it will be part of the duties of the attendant psychiatrists to read all his Cantos and to encourage him to discuss them.”

In contrast, much online comment on this phase of Pound’s life seems to be solemn hagiography hosted by Odinists, conspiracy theorists or New Righters (read: old fascists), and one hesitates to add to it; but then, his case is so instructive. So here’s a piece of verse concerned with our urge to reconstruct or re-enact the past, a project that must always fall short. It starts in a museum of military costume and ends at the Cannock Chase German war cemetery. Ezra makes a guest appearance along the way.

(Innumerable: too many to count. Unnumberable: resistant to numbering, defying the imposition of historical order.)

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

The past lies worn as a workhouse copper token,
surface smooth in generality
but detail slow to hint. We squint
and read it wrong. That captain’s museum hat
was fore and aft, not broadsides;
those lapels are buttoned all awry.
The temper of the times, you see, was finely tuned;
the moment’s mores made a subtle song.

At fifty paces we can clock a re-enactor,
something indefinable being out of true;
the face is similar through centuries
but only superficially,
for each face bears a shade, a twist, a cast,
a tic that tells its time.
An image of a previous thing
must shamefully betray the moment of its making.
In its texture, pose and colouring
its shamming history is softly written.

Meanwhile, anachronisms at our end
annoy the dead. The errant angle
of a buckle or the usage of a kerseymere
(or was it ‘cassimere’?) provokes resentment.
Ghosts are not amused by our uncaring parodies.
We lend them by our fancy dress
such forms of immortality
they find so less than flattering
that, mouthing and invisible
within their darkened abstract cells,
they gob their anger at our future features.

Darn mah hide! says Uncle Ezra,
chawing wad as he adopts a
proper transatlantic posture.
Yew all goffossayken Brits’ll sell
yer hi-toned and historrik former time
(a pause, he spits) fer ten yewzuriuss pence
an turn it into goddam panto.
Do fergive mah pree-zumchewuss rime,
but seems ter me a better bet by far
wd be ter giv it to yer Muse
to reinviggerate within a Canto.

But red is the rope where old Benito hangs
while his ingrate survivors pulp his head,
and narrow’s the cage where the broken poet clings
and scrabbles for a unity among his scraps of text,
and rambling hospital’s the home for him
hit full in the face by history,
who wrestled with the past and stumbled,
missed the date and paid the cost,
capsizing on his river of mysterious dead.

The tiny birds perch out of view.
We hear their sorry bleat, and peer but can’t identify.
Below, on rhododendroned lawns, the German boys
are slatted into lines of alien grey stone;
the dead are all and always very far from home.

cage

© moi, 2013

Mashing up the Vortex

While I’m in the business of blessing Blast, a short thought or two about the “lost” number three of the Vorticist mag.

“I think your idea of … the launching of a fresh number of Blast, which you could call an American Number, is an excellent notion,” Wyndham Lewis wrote from his army training camp at Weymouth to Ezra Pound in late April 1916. “You would have to conduct it largely, I expect. I personally should be very pleased to see Blast do another lap.” As Lewis envisaged it, the contents of a third number might have included “a drawing or two & a little writing” of his own, reproductions of works shown at the Vorticist group show in New York (including one in colour), Pound’s Byronic satire “L’Homme Moyen Sensuel” (which eventually appeared in the Little Review in 1917), and a contribution of some sort by Eliot.

Even after the “American Number” proved a non-starter, Lewis was still proposing a third issue as late as 1919. Writing to John Quinn, he confidently described the likely contents as his own essay on art and architecture, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where is your Vortex? (separately published the same year, in the event), “fifteen or twenty designs” by half a dozen contributors, a story by himself and “a long, new poem by Eliot”. Pound (“vanished into France and … in a mist of recuperation and romance”) was not expected to be involved. Publication was anticipated in November. (The “long, new poem” from Eliot is curious: does anything in his 1919 Poems qualify? Or does this mean that a preliminary draft of part of The Waste Land was already in existence at this early date?)

In the event there was of course no third lap, though the “American Number” was eventually reanimated, after a fashion, as the hefty mish-mash of academic criticism, modern creative writing and associated bits and bobs put out in 1984 as Blast 3 by diehard Lewis re-publishers Black Sparrow Press of California. Lots of fun, but, inevitably, not kwite the bisnez, as Ezra might have put it.

I’m surprised that there haven’t been countless other attempts at a Blast 3, if only at the cover. Or have there? All I can find is a Blast 3 cover “remake” thread from 2010 at the “Whitechapel” website run by “Freakangels” webcomic creator Warren Ellis. There are five pages of entries from various digitty-comicky-graphicky people, though few of them really hit the mark, to be honest. But here’s a half dozen that I felt made a real attempt to be true to the spirit of the original while dragging it a few decades into an alternative future; the low-tech design of the first two seems particularly apposite.

Oxbrow

J Garrattley

Kuru93

David Bednarski

Luis Fuentes

Paul Sizer

Though at the end of the day, this sort of thing doesn’t amount to much more than deco-punk game-play. As steampunk subsides comfortably into commercial neo-Victorian whimsy, the modernist era might appear to offer an edgier source for retro-futurism. Having said that, the Tate Vorticist show last summer was flagged up here for the dieselpunk community, but apparently with little interest; in these circles, film noir cosplay, vintage vehicles or closet stormtrooperdom seem a bigger pull than modernist art. But pickiness about the real culture of the fetishised past might actually indicate a developing boredom with it – hence, our mash-up version of the ‘thirties or whenever is expected to be more interesting than the real thing. Besides being a convenient laziness, a refusal to engage for real. In our parodic, superficial, postmodern charades we really are becoming The Dancers at the End of Time.