Book Review: Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Struggle for Light

8 November 2021

Dmitri Akers, Independent Scholar

Alec Marsh, Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Struggle for Light (London: Bloomsbury, 2021)

Pound’s transnationalism and internationalism have been well-explored in scholarship on the poet and critic; the former succinctly covered by Jahan Ramazani’s A Transnational Poetics (2006) who formulates his ideas of ‘Pound’s eastward-detouring transnationalisms.’[1] Little, however, has been published that contextualises the poet’s reactionary, fascist, and racist nature with the pervasive, global aspect of The Cantos (1915-1962). The Historicising Modernism series published by Bloomsbury might have helped to fill this gap with Alec Marsh’s new book, Ezra Pound’s Washington Cantos and the Struggle for Light (2021).

Marsh makes one of very few attempts to unveil the Poundian paradox of internationalism (an admixture of cultures cited, responding to global economic developments, and an Odyssean or Ovidian exile) and far-right political critique of capitalism (Americanism, Aryanist racialism, and anti-Semitism). Some of the most overtly political poems in The Cantos are to be found in two obscure, later parts: Rock-Drill (1956) and Thrones (1959). Marsh designates these as a new section, the ‘Washington Cantos’.

Marsh is not afraid of pointing out that Pound’s economic theories can be boiled down to racialised views, such as those pertaining to usury running capitalism. Usury is the making of money regardless of production or the possibility of such in Pound’s mind; loaning money with interest causes economic and social ills: ‘With usura hath no man a house of good stone.’[2] This usury is ultimately propagated by ‘“Butchers of the lesser cattle” … [that is,] nomadic Semites and, latterly, the Jews’ (85). Some Pound scholars avoid the topic altogether. James Laughlin, a disciple of Pound and the publisher of The Cantos at New Directions, warns us not to overlook the far-right virulency: ‘[Anti-Semitism] is there [in Pound’s work] and we have to face it and think about it.’[3] Marsh deftly positions Pound’s anti-Semitism within his right-wing theory and praxis.

Marsh expertly details Pound’s views of Aryanist racism, inspired by Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), who wrote on the origins of different races (polygenism). Pound’s ideas on race were all-encompassing, almost frighteningly universalising and oppressive. Wherever a civilisation he deemed worthy existed in history, it usually was Aryan or Chinese. He even categorised Sumer and Ancient Egypt as part of Aryanism, which seeps into the mention of Sargon of Akkad, the 24th and 23rd century king of the Akkadian Empire, in Cantos XCVII and XCIX, creating an Aryanist ‘function’ (78). However, this stretch of research on Pound’s politics reproduced by Marsh takes up a large part of the book. Thus, the reader must wade through some political history before even coming to the poetic nature of the ‘Washington Cantos’.

Marsh has endeavoured to lay bare how integral Pound’s politics, however noxious, are to his poetry. He discusses not only Pound’s overt racism, but his radical right-wing views, particularly anti-communist McCarthyism, which adds to his demonstration that The Cantos have been consciously political and contain coded political statements.

In the ‘Washington Cantos’, Pound begins to make political references to Communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin: ‘And Lenin: “Aesopian language (under censorship) / where I wrote “Japan” you may read “Russia”” / And small bank accounts are now guaranteed.’[4] What Lenin meant by ‘Aesopian language’ is more so about the moralising nature of Tsarist censorship, that is, to write ‘with extreme caution, by hints, in an allegorical language … to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up the pen to write a “legal” work.’[5] Pound adds a line about banks and international usury, inverting Lenin’s own conception of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism (where there is a contradiction between nation-state and global finance) into almost racialised, rather than class-based, analysis of capitalism. But Pound’s writing in St Elizabeth’s Hospital — a psychiatric hospital he was held in after World War Two through to 1958 — was likely censored by the prison in his mind, or even by someone else.

In the afterword of the present book, Marsh reflects and comments on his use of similar arguments in his previous book, John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic (2015), such as the following part on the familiar Aesopian language: ‘Pound frequently uses “Aesopian language” (100/733) and subject rhyme to refer to Hitler in the late cantos.’[6] But perhaps it is natural to Marsh’s argument that he might draw from earlier material. There is also recognition that the exposure of Pound’s far-right politics may be deemed an attack, including the ‘racialized metapolitics [among other things, which] drove and impeded his ascension to the light of paradise’ (229).

Marsh highlights that, contradictorily, Pound forsook the American system, democracy, and the usury system, but also stamped his genuine American origins at court: ‘Naturally, part of his defense against the treason charge was to assert his American roots’ (201). Pound underwent a metamorphosis and exile himself, much like the Roman poet, Ovid, who inspired ‘Canto II’ (46). Initially, the poem had been dedicated to and about British poet Robert Browning, but Pound eschewed him. Pound transforms as the ship in ’Canto II’ that becomes a menagerie of beasts: ‘Lifeless air become sinewed, / feline leisure of panthers, / Leopards sniffing the grape shoots by scupper-hole.’[7] This is Pound’s retelling of Ovid’s Bacchic elements, when he reworks the tale of Dionysus, the God of the Vine, as the ‘boy.’[8]

Marsh notes quite adeptly that there has been a lack of political readings into what he calls the ‘Washington Cantos’ but he also contextualises this by showing that Pound had difficulty with his own views, as well as coherency: ‘The problem, for Pound, was the possibility that there was no coherence; that his vision of history and therefore politics were somehow wrong and that as a result the poem was something far worse … [despite these fears, he created] a didactic poem’ (225).

The strength of Marsh’s book lies within the decoding of Pound’s political poetics, but sometimes at the cost of framing Pound’s relationship to American political history only from a far-right perspective. The conception of a ‘Washington Cantos’ section is an important development, because it shows that Pound had more American themes in The Cantos than the Adams Cantos (1940), however mired in Pound’s right-wing critique of capitalism.


Sources:

[1] Jahan Ramazani. A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 10.

[2] Ezra Pound. ‘Canto XLV’, in The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1986), 2.

[3] James Laughlin. Pound as Wuz: Recollections and Interpretations (London: Peter Owen, 1989), p. 15.

[4] Ezra Pound. ‘Canto C’, in The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1986), 11-13.

[5] Vladimir Lenin. Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 169.

[6] Alec Marsh. John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 129.

[7] Ezra Pound. ‘Canto II’, in The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1986), 88-90.

[8] Carroll F. Terrell. A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (California: University of California Press, 1993), p. 6.

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