Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: transition

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 day is two halves’: Thomas Good’s ‘Carrion’

Thomas Good by Matthew Smith (detail)My recently posted profile of the sadly neglected but gratifyingly jagged poet Thomas Good (intro post here, also) mentions his contribution in the ‘thirties to that mammoth intercontinental compendium of the surreal and the Joycean, Eugene Jolas’s transition magazine. This turns out to be a short prose piece, published in the final issue, number 27 of 1938, among an assortment of texts grouped as “Hypnologues and Paramyths.” A note states that Good sent this from London, so it must have been written very shortly before his move to France after his breakdown in 1937. Curiously, this is the same issue of transition to which Terence White (aka Terence White Gervais) contributed. I should have tracked this down before, but here it is anyway and in due course I’ll add it to the Thomas Good pages above. It’s the earliest piece of his writing that I’ve yet found, by several years.

transitionFor me this chopped and feverish piece of automatism sits among the “hypnologues”. It’s striking that the earlier part echoes Good’s personal anxieties at the time, with its mentions of firm loins, a priest withholding absolution, Lazarus, an anchorite and so on. Yet the last two paragraphs contain a number of proper names (Mackenzie, Whipsnade, The Waste Land !!) that suggest some cut-up method using magazines or newspapers. However it was made, it certainly stretches the notion of narrative to screaming point, though it’s odd how quotable it is in places: “Each leg is severed for patent privacy …” Even aphoristic: “Benevolence is only one ounce in the kingdom of truth.”

Two possible typo’s: “cenotaur” in the middle of the first paragraph must surely be for “centaur,” and I have no idea what a “speehoo” might be in the final section, though a “speeho” is apparently an uproar in Scots.

When I first read this, I found myself feeling sorry for the baby ant which is castrated …

 

THOMAS GOOD

Carrion

Dry lanes he came through without sugar in stomach and temptation in coldness. He looked and called and no answer. He spoke and said: “You yellow cuckoo, only touch my bellysprings and you’ll find I’m randy enough. I’ll pink straight if they don’t leave me now, or when they hear my body crackle.” Not to speak of the apple-orchard and blossom to cover her. Firm loins broke his goose-step, and there were crazy children singing into his ears, asking him to murder them, because the priest withheld absolution. O, never will he stink yet until Easter, with seven lines crossing his brow, and if the five angels who sleep by Lazarus’s tomb have not kept quiet how much ranking will be in the bye-pass of Heaven. Now the twin-monster is harnessed to a star, and the bite of a tooth in her left breast. She saw the seven storms and breathed out gold-dust to the cenotaur. There was a crack in the eyeball and white men strangling a negro baby near the furnace. So I said: “Never answer while these bloodlips rouse stealth in the keeping of pig-sties. For benevolence is only one ounce in the kingdom of truth.” There were five pears adjacent to the snowdrop, and where the crane draws wheels, Satan made his meal of abdomens. Only the anchorite had any salt to his pie and left no sting in the serpent’s mouth. The acrostic was numerical and eleven bases of brimstone led to the gossamer pavement. Travelling by his side I heard the snapping of ribs, and demented stallions were exercising magnetism in shovelfuls by any road curious eaters may have taken. A day is two halves and few women have goat’s milk, but when two angry girls stripped the priest, he shaved his bones to sawdust. He said: “I’m in Chancery now and doubletwisted if Abel gives no quarter.” Now the discourse was ready to be given:

“O, lapwing in heaven of time carry a countenance of grim odour through the bays. Alias Mackenzie is a softer reef than a pinnacle and swallowed mud is no tether to a liaison. Fume in equal paces, left, left, right and left again, and tell no dead games in season by choking berries in Whipsnade. In streams of gloom two straps had soaked in steam. Dromedary counts steps to Druid arches and Clovis holds no distaff.”

Now I stand where no echo manipulates water, or trifle soothes brain-fag. I have asked in three-four time if Bartimaeus singed his tail in the waters of Eden, and if several apricots sit swaying in Gotha. Each leg is severed for patent privacy and eleven bends of the head strike the end of a season of chamber madness. In the court of the triremes Abjacus castrated his baby ant and an uncouth bandy-legged giant manoeuvres by firelight. We kept swaying through bedrock till the sweep of dunes left a billycock hat to signal where the tide had reached. Twenty fathoms below Ann’s curse, foul stench set jaws in motion, and, cleaning the stirrups, we plunged into the spume again. And so on. Until they sailed into the archer’s last ride and knocked twice into farthing spoons, all frosty in the daydream. This is the speehoo on hot drops when no cream spins round the hoop. Have you to beg on carrot roads or sweep stale ditches? Give five hoots by the pear-tin and send the scarab flying to the hatchway. Care for the two bitches lifting the curls from the rancid butter and no ginger will stand baking. For crying Smith will not bill The Waste Land and Joseph is stripping the muddle by the oak beams and clover.

Samuel Beckett and the Definite Article

Pursuit of the “lost” Joycean poet and composer Terence White Gervais (see post here and page here) leads me to his contributions to the final issue (27 of 1938) of transition, the international modernist review edited by Eugene Jolas. A few pages into this number, the reader is confronted by “Ooftish”, Samuel Beckett’s ferocious poetic rant on the problem of pain:

Ooftish

offer it up plank it down
Golgotha was only the potegg
cancer angina it is all one to us
cough up your T.B. don’t be stingy
no trifle is too trifling not even a thrombus
anything venereal is especially welcome
that old toga in the mothballs
don’t be sentimental you won’t be wanting it again
send it along we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
with your love requited and unrequited
the things taken too late the things taken too soon
the spirit aching bullock’s scrotum
you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it
it is you it equals you any fool has to pity you
so parcel up the whole issue and send it along
the whole misery diagnosed undiagnosed misdiagnosed
get your friends to do the same we’ll make use of it
we’ll make sense of it we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

“Ooftish” is Yiddish-derived slang for money, meaning “on the table”, in the sense of putting up a gambling stake – “show us your money”. Our pains, physical and psychological, are our stakes in the gamble of living. But the table is also a food table – “we’ll put it in the pot” – splitting the metaphor rather uneasily with that of a Passover meal.

According to Beckett, the poem had been prompted by his recollection of a sermon in which the preacher declared:

“What gets me down is pain. The only thing I can tell them is that the crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.”

beckettA crucifixion that was “only the beginning” must therefore be a potegg – a dummy that entices the hens to contribute. It is true enough, as Aquinas recognised, that evil is redemptive in the sense that it can produce good. Nor should the crucifixion necessarily be understood as an isolated moment in time, but perhaps more as an event in the dimension of eternity that runs throughout history, containing, in some mysterious sense, all suffering – even the agony of a snared rabbit. But “must contribute to the kitty” seems harshly reductive, and maybe some way short of this mystery.

Is Beckett angry that the Passion of the Christ may not have been all sufficient? Or does he assert that the sheer crushing reality of pain trumps any metaphysical solution? We’re not quite sure, and neither, it seems, is he. The direction of the weight of the last line is uncertain. Is it scornfully dismissive? Or does it acknowledge the centrality of the crucifixion event? If the latter, Beckett later retreated. For in the final version of “Ooftish” in the Collected Poems of 1977, two small changes have been made. Line 13 is altered from

you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it

to

you won’t cure it you won’t endure it

ironing out an awkwardness and stripping the punctuation in line with the rest of the poem. But more significantly, the last line

it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

becomes

it all boils down to blood of lamb

The loss of the definite article – available in both Hebrew and Greek – is far more than a piece of tidying; the generalised “blood of lamb” takes the metaphor out of the Christian context (originally reinforced by the poem’s working title of “Whiting”) and firmly back to the Passover of the old covenant.

And yet there’s no denying the poem’s origins in a Christian consideration of the problem of pain. Nor, it seems to me, is there any denying the invisible presence of a closet Christianity in Beckett’s wider work, unlikely though this may sound. His world of absurdity, despair, suffering and separation is the world of fallenness. It may seem like all that’s on offer, but it is never acceptable, and never viewed indifferently. By definition, its recognition assumes that an alternative is at least conceivable, and that alternative, in Beckett’s vision, can hardly be the progressive reform of human nature under secular programmes of improvement.

It does indeed all boil down to the Blood of the Lamb. In such a dialectic, for Beckett as for any of us, the Christ event has to be the defining event and the Christ the Definite Article.

Follow-up post, “Samuel Beckett and the mental belch” – here.