Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: James Joyce

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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A little gallery for Jessie Dismorr

small self portraitAs we move into the centenary year of Blast, it seems like a good time to present a page of work by the uncommonly interesting Vorticist (and much else) Jessie, or Jessica, Dismorr. (To view the page, find the tab above or go here.)

So far I’ve managed to scrounge up 66 images of paintings and drawings from all periods, including what appears to be an image of James Joyce, and two likely Vorticist designs, among the papers of American sculptor John Storrs, that for all I know may previously have been overlooked.

As and when other images turn up, they will be added without announcement.

Dismorr was also a poet, and the (uncollected) texts of her Vorticist period are well worth reading – the stuff of a future page, no doubt.

A neglected modernist masterpiece: Terence White’s ‘Irene’

Squashed in among the largely amateurish outpourings of sincerity that bulk out Tambimuttu’s Poetry London X (1944) sit six pages of stand-out writing: an episodic prose poem, surreal, satiric and punctuated by feverish sonnets, that builds into a rolling onslaught of Joycean wordplay. This neglected modernist masterpiece is billed as Terence White’s “Extracts from ‘Irene’”.

This is not the Terence Hanbury White of The Sword in the Stone etc. Nor Terence de Vere White, the Irish novelist. But Terence White (1913-68), aka Terence d’Olbert White, aka Terence White Gervais – musician, composer, music scholar, Associate of the Royal College of Music, logician, film theorist, psychoanalyst, poet in five languages, playwright, translator, artist, Theosophist and flagellant, described by a contemporary as a “small red-faced man with crazy eyes.”

This is the Terence White whose suite for flute and string quartet, performed at the Wigmore Hall in 1956, drew the comment from a Times reviewer that “one movement after another ended with raised eyebrows.”

The Terence White who reportedly declared: “You know I am feminine in my nature and I have always wanted to experience pregnancy myself. I would love to give birth – just a small animal would be enough to be my salute to the universe!”

The Terence White whose Chastisement across the Ages (1956), penned under the suitably dominating name of Gervas d’Olbert, claims to be a “scientific” survey of corporal punishment (“’comprehensive’ might be a more appropriate word than ‘scientific’”, notes one reviewer) and begins thus:

“Amid a world torn and bruised by dissension and misunderstanding of every type, it is a relief to record one human activity which knows no frontiers of race, religion, dialect or epoch. Chastisement is universal …”

And, sadly, the same Terence White who by the mid-‘fifties was obliged to bed down, destitute, in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

But what of his organ concerto, of his piano sonatas, of Piscarille, his prose satire in French, of his “large-scale work” After Leonardo: Quality and Quantity for a New Civilisation, of his play about Sappho, or of his long poem in terza rima, “Sylvia Pregnant”, said to have been admired by James Joyce? None of them published, and all apparently lost forever.

But his poems do survive. And thanks to Tambi’s foresight, we do still have “Extracts from ‘Irene’”, though this is clearly excerpted from a longer original work. In case anyone imagines Terence White Gervais to be some sort of invention of mine, I have posted the full text of “Irene” on a page here (or use the tab above), together with a few notes and three related pieces that seem also to have been part of the full work.

There is much to be done before even the basic facts of White’s life and work can be sketched out here. A photo of the man would be a good start! Meanwhile, my thanks to Bill Bennett for sharing the labour of Googling down what we do know. Much more to come, hopefully …

Valley of the dolls

I’m not really in the business of lifting stuff wholesale from other sites, but I can’t resist passing on some personal favourites from Uneek Doll Designs, as offered by creator Debbie Ritter of Cullman Alabama, on the Etsy shopping site. Tucked in alongside Prince Harry, Santa and the Sock Monkey is a fine range of home made poetical, literary and artistic figures, with the odd psychoanalyst thrown in …. I think Ms Kahlo would definitely have approved of Debbie’s version of The Two Fridas. Click and enjoy!

Albrecht Durer

The Two Fridas

Andy Warhol

Jackson Pollock

Sigmund Freud

Carl Jung

Edgar Allen Poe

George Orwell

Aldous Huxley

Anne Sexton

James Joyce

W H Auden

The Joyce and Auden dolls are rather wonderful, but best of all have to be Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – stunning!

Sylvia and Ted