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Pound Won’t Change You

Do people read the Cantos and change their politics or their approach to economics? No, I don’t think so. Does the poetry bring that subject alive, if you are a poetry fan? Does it preach a message only poets can hear? No, I think, not really. But there are things in there. There are questions about where money comes from, how it is “made out of thin air”, how we can all be in debt, how one decade we can have money flowing around and the next decade not.

Most readers of Pound explore these issues to understand why they bugged Pound, not because they’ve been awoken to the subject of economics. Maybe he was onto something, his readers say, because he seems to be onto a lot of other things. He is an opinionated person who wants to prove things for himself and others. As Gertrude Stein said, Ezra Pound is a “village explainer”. So what if anything about economics does he explain? If he has ideas, what are they, and if they’re important does Pound himself get in the way of getting them better known?

I’ve been interested in Ezra Pound ever since I wanted to be a poet, in the mid 1980s, and perhaps that’s half the problem, or shows the context. I started to read him because I love poetry, not because I wanted to understand economics. I’m not sure I was reading him for his ideas, good or bad. For example, I also knew he had made anti-semitic remarks. But, as somebody with some Jewish blood myself, I was never personally put off by the anti-semitism. It was always clear to me that Ezra Pound was a marginal figure, too esoteric and too multilingual, too quirky in his language to stand for any kind of dominant culture. I was starting to read him about the same time that David Icke first became known not as a sports broadcaster but as the self-proclaimed son of God come to reveal the truth about the lizard people controlling the world’s destiny. I tended to see in Pound’s anger against world corruption, and his occasional figures of speech that, for example, his beloved United States had become the Jewnited States, as the political phrasemaking of someone with no knack for political phrasemaking. I saw him as a grumpy uncle with silly prejudices who could otherwise be good company. As Pound said to Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s, his anti-semitism of the 1930s had been a “stupid suburban prejudice”.

Pound to an extent seems to have believed the infamous Protocols of Zion, a forged document of the end of the 19th century purporting to be by Jews and purporting to set out the Jews’ conspiracy to take over the world. I always saw this is as B-movie silly as David Icke talking about our lizard masters. I could fully believe that the rich and the bankers could well set up the rules to benefit themselves. I never saw any evidence that these were all Jews. Certainly my own Jewish blood had never provided any passport to inner circles of the rich and powerful. The main comfort I had was a feeling of being part of the glorious subculture of people who like poetry.

Since even easy poetry has always seemed more likely to make people change the subject or leave the room, and since Ezra Pound was one of the most demanding poets I had ever read, it never seemed credible that Pound was going to change the world for the worse, by making it more anti-semitic. But this marginal silliness status made it seem unlikely that he would change the world for the better with economic reforms. And that didn’t bother me, anyway. I wanted to read Pound for the poetry not the ideas.

And the Cantos always remained terrifically exciting poetry, with a wide range of reference, poetry that looked at different periods of history and attempted to handle everything. The long poem that he wrote for 50 years, the Cantos, seemed capable of handling any kind of language and therefore excited the ambition to discuss any subject. And always to do it in mesmerizing language. Not just clever but eloquent. Although the fact it was clever was good enough for me. As a school child I was interested in trying to speak foreign languages although I wasn’t very good at it. I was always interested in puzzles and patterns and especially mathematics and I was good at mathematics so I always wanted in my reading a literature with pattern and challenge and ambition. Ezra Pound was always all of these.

I knew that Pound was interested in the idea of a conspiracy of the super rich and bankers. He was also interested generally in how the economy works and in not leaving the economy to the rich and the bankers. He wanted to understand economics and he wanted to challenge us to think about it. He always represented not just socialist revolution or the rule of business.

So what I have always wanted to know is why Pound was interested in a different way of doing economics. I couldn’t believe that a mind so subtle would be just plain stupid about economics. If anything the one was just stupid about economics was me, and I like maths! I was always very unhappy about injustice. I always felt if I took a big salary, somebody else would have to have a small salary and it didn’t feel right to me that one person should get paid more money than another, but that was about it. Poetic naivety, perhaps.

And so I have always wanted to know what drew Pound to social credit but as Pound himself says the nearest you get to the subject of understanding economics the more the light is “blinding and bewildering”. The idea of social credit is a simple one. We should not be thinking about balancing the books, and of old debt. We should instead see what actual produce our country has made in a year. That’s our credit, because we can hold it or eat it. And there should be a way to keep making it, and to share it out. We shouldn’t all be working for the man. Nor do we need a new set of leaders to tell us what to do. We might need leaders to stop corruption, and to resist big business and the banks. But since a cow can produce two baby cows, one we can keep to breed new cows and one we can spare, then for every cow we may after a year have a cow left over in interest. Money doesn’t work like that, it doesn’t organically produce new money from its own body, and so we shouldn’t demand fixed interest on it. We should be grounded in a world of things, and make sure that there are enough things to live on, not grow the economy and mere profits of money.

It makes a great deal of sense to me when I started to read about economics is that it cannot easily be understood by the metaphor of household budgets. And since it was very clear to me that the British Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, seemed up to something naughty. She would say that dealing with the economy was very much like balancing a household budget. But economists tend to say, no, you have to run the economy in ways that, if you ran the household budget, the household would go broke. But if you don’t, the economy goes broke.

Whenever I asked, on the English Literature courses I was taking, for a summary of Pound’s position about economics, I was told that he was eccentric or a crank about money and that was the end of that conversation. I think this is an easy thing to say when the economy seems to be doing well or at least a lot better than it currently is in 2015. Pound was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, and the 1929 wall street crash must have weighed very heavily on him. Now that we have had a second crash, maybe we are less inclined to think we have the answers and Pound was just plain wrong.

So let me ask another simple question? The first one was: is it fair that some get paid more than others? The second one is: where did all the money go?

Speaking from personal experience, the 5 years leading up to the 2008 crash were for me the first years when there seems to be money around for poetry and art. I would be paid for poetry and art projects and could raise funds for ideas. I was amazed that it was possible to bring artistic ideas into reality through investment.

Then the 2008 credit crunch happened. And suddenly there was a lot less work advertised in poetry and art. Where did the money go? If there was money there last year why is there no money here this year? Where had it come from and where has it gone? Pound was interested in these questions before money became scarce in the 1929 crash. But still I feel if we ask “where did the money go” we can understand Pound and we can talk about Pound better in 2015 than we have been able to since the 1930s. And because of this, more than ever in my life, I find that he is useful. I find myself understanding I’m guessing out what emotions Pound may have been feeling much better and I can see how he was trying to get vision and comfort from the poetry he was writing in the 1930’s.

Now it has been generally accepted all of my lifetime that Pound was good in the 1920s . Getting Ulysses by James Joyce into print and art poetry crossover magazines like BLAST set up and distributed. And starting the cantos. Indeed, 25 years ago I wrote my post-graduate thesis on the first 11 cantos of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, written in the 1920s, and why the poem risks going permanently downhill after that. After that, in canto 12, Pound starts quoting from historical documents, about men of power, preferably who were patrons of the arts, who got things done. But often not very straightforwardly. Fragments of this and fragments of that.

Along these lines it has also been generally accepted that Pound spent too much of the 1930’s incorporating and quoting lots of indigested historical research: about the United States of America in the first hundred years of its independence and the history of China over two or more thousand years, in the Adams Cantos and Chinese Cantos. When I started reading Pound, these were sort of the filler cantos, treading water. Many critics I liked who were guiding me to start to understand the Cantos described the Adams Cantos and the Chinese ones, the cantos of the 1930s, as boring and a disaster. Then comes the 1940s. Italy goes into the war against the allies. Ezra Pound goes on the radio to attack the Roosevelt administration and question why Americans should back the war. Italy loses the war. America invades Italy, arrests Pound and holds him in a prison camp in Pisa, in a cell lit round the clock out in the open with glaring lights, until he has a sort of breakdown. During that month, separated from his textbooks and libraries, Ezra Pound can’t keep writing cantos with fragments of historical books and instead writes the Pisan Cantos, generally considered to be a return to form or even the greatest poems Pound ever wrote, albeit written in the extremities of imprisonment and the fear perhaps of execution for treason.

Instead of being executed, though, Pound is sent to a mental hospital in New York state for 13 years until he is nearly 70 years old and then is released to live his last 15 years in Italy. In the mental hospital and afterwards, he carries on writing more research-based quotation heavy cantos which are less appealing than the Pisan Cantos. Finally he writes some quite beautiful last fragments, apologizes to Allen Ginsberg for his suburban prejudice of anti-semitism and worries that he should not have attacked money but greed then he dies.

By this account Ezra Pound was the great innovator and technical poetry master who had managed to find a form that can incorporate any kind of language and any kind of research but was indiscriminate and greedy about what material he chose, wayward in his use of sources. Thus, even though the Cantos as a long poem in chapters is always musical it has great long boring unexplained passages and some of logic of why it moves from one section to another is personal and obscure.

If they are personal one could argue then one needs to like the person in order to want to follow his personal leaps of logic. And Ezra Pound is not very likeable. He can be if not macho then certainly like a very preachy geek. He seems to get angry a lot. And he seems to like the angry language of anti-semitism. His portrayal of black people is, to say the least, complicated although one can argue that his fellow modernist Gertrude Stein has similar problems, with not really treating black people as equals even though both Pound and Stein have a strong ear and eye for particularities and don’t just keep actual black people invisible in their worlds. One can argue as some have that Pound is sentimental about the Chinese and that his portrayal of China is almost like a fairy land in which all the things that Pound wishes English speaking people would do better are done in Chinese culture. Pound argues for example that because Chinese written language looks like pictures that Chinese people are more visual and less abstract than English speaking peoples and this is a sweeping generalization by someone who didn’t speak fluent Chinese, and is challenged by Chinese scholars.

All in all, if one is to try to get a personal hit when reading Ezra Pound the way one might with many other poets then he will disappoint us, sometimes coming across as a racist person from an older generation who generally disapproves of the way the whole world is going and gets irritated at people for not being like him. If he is to be considered as the prophet of a new utopia, as its visionary, then there is the risk that whole utopia might be a grumpy angry place.

But as a poet I recognise Pound can be a more upbeat, less introspective, less introverted poet than so many others. Our world is full of louder music and a greater interest in dance and movement. And yet poetry is still often rather withdrawn. Pound is more multimedia, more all singing and all dancing, than other poets: he is extrovert and lively. And where other extrovert poets rant or talk in clichés or start to make our ears hurt, Pound remains mysterious and musical. It’s this ambition and extroversion, and this insistence that the world be better that draws male poets and some female poets to Pound.

And the world is in a mess right now. It’s in a less obvious mess than the 1930s. We only hear it’s in a mess but we don’t see widespread poverty and degradation yet. My dad grew up in the 1930s and I could see how much it affected him, how he always seemed lucky to have enough food and possessions, how he didn’t like waste and wanted anything we bought to last. And the 1930s led to war. Many in the 30s hated the bankers as we do now. Many said, as I do now, “where did the money go?”

Of course in 2015 in Britain we have an idea that there might be nations from whom we have borrowed and we owe the money back. But we’re still told we live in one of the richest countries. There is widespread distrust of political leaders and we want a solution, a better explanation and a different way of doing things. I’m not going to say that Pound had the answers. But I feel more emotional about economics than I ever have in my lifetime and I want to know what his questions were, especially if they throw light on those bits of his ambitious long poem which have so widely since the 1940s been written off as a boring failure. I don’t want to make any excuse for Pound’s stupid blaming of rich Jews nor for the way he stuck to Mussolini and in the insane asylum years corresponded with right wing American nuts and white supremacists (on whose websites you may well arrive if you Google for what Pound wrote about money and economics ). Pound fell in with people like a kind of exaggeration, a going too far, and I don’t condone it when he did nor does his biographer A David Moody.

But I’m interested in the unexaggerating Pound, because there is one; in trying to see what interested him. I’m helped because many who knew him found him generous and friendly, because a lot of his poetry is life affirming and because he himself said that we shouldn’t chuck the baby out with the bathwater. Talking to the BBC in 1958 Pound said:


“Every man has a right to have his ideas examined one at a time”


This is Pound’s usura poem.

The problem with the Usura poem is its repetition: it blinds us to the full meaning. It’s a vituperation about a baddy, a cartoon baddy, a baddy in a pulp detective novel and Pound frames it that way purposefully. Pound says the usura canto comes in the middle of the book as he intended it, and is the detective novel reveal of the villain:


“There is a turning point in the poem toward the middle. Up to that point it is a sort of detective story, and one is looking for the crime.”


But let’s look at all the things that would happen if usura was NOT there: the crops, the food, the making of art, the love.


Canto XLV
(my edit)

… a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,

…  a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luz
… where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,

… mountain wheat… strong flour

Stonecutter … stone
weaver … loom

wool comes … to market
sheep bringeth … gain
… the needle in the maid’s hand
… the spinner’s cunning…

… church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
… the chisel
… the craft and the craftsman
… the thread in the loom
… learneth to weave gold in her pattern;

… the child in the womb
… the young man’s courting
… the young bride and her bridegroom


If we look at this list, we find that Pound at his best defends these things, not least in his Chinese cantos.


His point was simple – here was a country that survived recession for whole chunks of decades at a time, in a different way from us in the West. If there was a bad crop, the emperor didn’t levy the same taxes (what Pound calls a fixed levy). It was reduced, creatively, so that the crops were still sewn. And everyone was fed. Pound said the mark of the failure of any economic system was if people starved in the name of balancing the books, and he wanted everyone to have their minimum needs met. (Even though he himself lived frugally, making his own furniture, sometimes out of packing crates, and sending money to help poets poorer than himself, Pound didn’t have as I do any guilt that some earn more than others. But he did dislike the rich sitting on their money, he wanted it in circulation, being risked, to make things).

We are in a better position in 2015 to understand why Pound held up China (or indeed Italy) as an historical study of an alternative we might learn lessons from. First of all, travel is much restricted in a recession, and we dream of far off lands. Second of all, we wonder if other countries do it better, especially if we dislike our own leaders. Nowadays we idealise Greece and Iceland but do we read up much on them in detail? Or are we like Pound in China looking for a whole different cultural approach?

Pound didn’t have a theory, he had a study of history. He said explicitly that although he admires Mussolini in Italy, the country Pound lived in from 1924, he does not advocate fascism in the USA, but a return to the best first stages of the Republic, of Jefferson. Look at 1932 and how people didn’t know Italy well and how they looked then to that as one kind of alternative, even if that looks foolish now. Will we look foolish in the future for how we thought about Iceland or Greece (or own own countries of residence?). Look at William Carlos Williams, no fascist, looking at Pound’s book Jefferson and/or Mussolini in 1932 and saying about it that here was an alternative to the real enemy: plutocracy.

Pound also clamoured for a return to the best of the Republic and said that laws are like poetic laws:


“The real life in regular verse is an irregular movement underlying. Jefferson thought the formal features of the American system would work, and they did work till the time of General Grant but the condition of their working was that inside them there should be a de facto government composed of sincere men willing the national good”


So apart from a love of heroes what structural reforms did he want? Mainly about money. He didn’t like tax as a fixed levy and he didn’t like the gold standard. He talked often about the way the Indian farmer would bring a sack of the same grain to market one year and need 3 bags the next year to obtain the same money. This seemed a simple outrage. The Euro is compared to the gold standard by Barry Eichenhorn, how one system across many countries  may be largely about a certain financial stability benefitting only the rich. It’s no good without a social policy. And it doesn’t necessarily escape the problem of “beggar my neighbour” economics. (Something that broke one of Pound’s main laws, that economics should leave anyone beggared, or starving).

And Pound wanted certain basic decencies. That war must be avoided if possible. He wanted a shorter working day too. Doing more with less, as green politics often proposes.

One hears themes again and again in the Cantos: watch for nature, hope for good harvest, everyone pull together to get the land farmed and the harvest in. Don’t just balance the books. We also hear the idea that money men make war to sell arms to both sides, as widely held as a Facebook meme nowadays (which it wasn’t when I was young and it’s not necessarily right either. It could have been Pounds way of grieving WW1).

I wonder too about the role of accepting one’s financial lot advocated by Buckminster Fuller, who met Pound and whom Pound called “grandfather of the future”. Fuller didn’t like the banks either, and wanted a wholly new system and also one based on the fact that money doesn’t produce baby money etc. But Fuller always said “the exact money will come for what you are meant to do”. And speaking personally, I’ve often found this true. Pound says the poet must have curiosity. But I for one have been led to expand my skills in certain areas, which I have then used for poetry, because there was money in it (money I could take as a poet, I should add).

Having said all that, all that is easy to say for me as a white heterosexual male in Great Britain. If I were a member of a group routinely turned away from work, to whom money came rarely and poverty much more commonly, and I could only fall back on religious faith (though I do have religious faith) I might be disinclined completely to see money as any kind of useful shaper of my life. Money as shaper in the way I’ve described it may only work as a metaphor for me because I have more access to the lottery than others. In all this, to me, Pound is always more universal. My economic philosophy may offer not comfort but insult. His may be pie in the sky, but it’s universal pie in the sky compared to mine.

So if we’re going to take the ideas “one at a time” and if we worry about the economy, can we write cantos that go deep but aren’t fascist? I asked some poets whose work I admire how would they write a Canto. Could some of Pounds better ideas come out of a canto if it wasn’t written by Pound, but by someone who can take a lot from him technically? Can we gain any comfort by looking at how other countries in other historical periods have dealt with austerity and recession? Can we use devoted attention to language, and collage, to make the vision speak true?


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