Friday, February 19, 2010

The poetics of rage: cant and Cantos

Yesterday I read the manifesto of Joe Stack (1956-2010)--after he set fire to his Austin, Texas house and then flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS office building. I found myself for the first time in many years wanting to turn to Ezra Pound's Cantos. I am an insufficient Modernist scholar, one who adores Hart Crane but never quite took to T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound; this may explain why I now teach contemporary poetry more than any other and get at the Modernists through allusions rather than texts. But when I taught a Foundations in Creative Writing Course several years ago, I assigned Pound's ABC of Reading--less as an instruction manual than as a model. I wanted students to think about their own canons, and about how they might present those canons to their own students. I also love the voice in that book, that of an American hick auto-didact, as once folksy and tyrannical, learned and self-consciously entertaining. My students balked. They did not want to read the book. They knew Pound's politics were malicious, racist, fascist. The more I tried to get them to separate out the tone and content of this book from the Pound they knew of, the less they wanted to follow me. Now I might complain (as I did) that the political atmosphere of my English department, one that sometimes emphasizes "correct thinking" over (or as) literary value, was to blame. As perhaps it was. But none can argue that the Pound problem is an easy one.

So I put the stack of Joe Stack's print-outs down and came to the computer to look for Pound's "Usura" canto. Stack's life-long obsession with the economic system seemed ripe for comparison, however attenutated, with Pound's Canto. The first google link comes us this way: "CANTO XLV — WITH USURA, by Ezra Loomis Pound (1937)." Fair enough. On the Pound page there's a link to a recording of Pound reading, and there are two columns, one of the Canto in English and the other of the Canto in a language I don't know, which I'm pretty sure is Portuguese. Click to the home page and you get a curious mix of advertising on how to program computers, advice on how to learn Hebrew, and ending with, "The Big Lies of Our Times," which includes these statements: "Language evolved from bird whistles and chimpanzee chatter"; "Man has stepped on the moon"; "Democracy is good" and "Mortgages, bank loans and credit cards aren't usury."

When I went to the next screen of my google search for Pound's Canto, the second item came up from Stormfront, a white supremicist website. I had just gone to their site a week ago by accident, when I looked for the victims of Dr. Amy Bishop, the biology professor who shot up a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. The victims were there, names and photographs, as proof to the Stormfront people that diversity is a bad thing, and that of course a white woman from Harvard shot the non-white members of her department. So here again they were, with a page devoted to Pound's "Usura," printed out in its entirety. It is a beautiful poem; in fact, one of the commenters on the stormfront stream notes that this is "Perhaps the best poem ever written, IMO." Another remarks, "Beautiful, thank you."

This is hardly the Pound of the radio speeches. I have not read those speeches, but when I open a termite-gnawed copy of Ben Friedlander's "Draft Text of Pound's World War II Radio Speeches," I find this: "The American has the head, evidently, of a chicken. He is incapable of political reverie. The existence of a secret and irresponsible government does not worry him." A couple pages later: "Why does the intelligent American, the bright lad who can write but doesn't, why does such a man take it as a matter of course that to earn his living he has to hide his intelligence and work for some blob-headed vulgarian slob?" This was from a Pound's address on "Violence," delivered on 16 June 1942.

Now we've located the proleptic voice of Joe Stack, who winds up toward the end of his manifesto with a call to revolt: "I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are." What an American voice this is. Stack lacks the imagination of Pound's "blob-headed vulgarian slob," but he does have his "pompous political thugs" and "zombies." Radio has given way to the internet, but the voice is fairly consistent, churning away against taxation and advocating for violence.

None of this is surprising. Joe Stack, like Ezra Pound, is full of rage. He writes in an American voice. His manifesto, like Pound's radio addresses, "rambles," is a "diatribe," presents no clear politics except anger. But there's a moment in Stack's manifesto that I return to this morning, one closer to Pound's poetry perhaps than to his rant. It's a moment I wish Stack had interpreted differently, because it is the single moment of compassion in his document. In college, Stack lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His neighbor was a widow (of a retired steel worker) who was even poorer than himself. He lived on peanut butter and crackers, she on cat food. When he gets to her his prose loses its rage for a moment and becomes more Dickensian than Poundian:

"When I got to know this poor figure and heard her story I felt worse for her plight than for my own (I, after all, I thought I had everything to in front of me). I was genuinely appalled at one point, as we exchanged stories and commiserated with each other over our situations, when she in her grandmotherly fashion tried to convince me that I would be 'healthier' eating cat food (like her) rather than trying to get all my substance from peanut butter and bread. I couldn't quite go there, but the impression was made." This is the one point in the piece where I can identify directly with Stack. Not over the piano, his business asset, that he needs to declare on his taxes but can't figure out how; not over his tax code obsession (even if, like me, he is something of a literary critic on that score). While I understand his anger over big business and a system that crushes some while advancing the wealth of others, his final act makes me a lot less inclined to sympathize with him. (That his politics are incoherent is telling, but also not inclined to draw this reader in.) But here is a woman for whom he--and I--can feel compassion. Through her, I feel for Stack.

This is a moment of beauty, of feeling. It is not the beauty of Pound's lines, which mingle rage with music ("no picture is made to endure nor to live with / is it is made to sell and sell quickly" . . . "Stonecutter is kept from his stone / weaver is kept from his loom"). But it is a moment of connection. That Stack uses it to return to his obsessions is perhaps inevitable: "I decided that I didn't trust big business of take care of me, and that I would take responsibility for own future and myself." Nonetheless, at one point he saw his own "sad figure" in the person of another. I wish he'd gone elsewhere with the moment than toward his act of terror thirty or so years later.

I'm not the only one making the Pound connection this morning. Tim Yu has posted this link, for example, on his Facebook page. Nor am I the only person who feels unsettled by the way in which Stack gets at some truths about our economic and governmental system. (Why are we surprised that an irrational person is also thought-full?) But what strikes me, moves me even, is that Stack has used the language of fellow feeling in the middle of his manifesto. Stack was not a racist or a hater of particular persons, unlike many who preceded and will follow him. He includes himself among "blacks and immigrants" rather than blaming them for what has happened to him. He turned to writing as "therapy," he notes, but there was no therapy there. I don't teach writing as therapy, but I do consider it a vehicle of and toward compassion. Had I been his writing instructor, I would have circled the paragraph about the old woman and asked to see more of that.


Meg Withers said...

Thanks, Susan. I agree wholeheartedly. And, yes, I was looking for "more of that" when I read the rest. The old woman is up at the top of those pages, and I saw no other like it in the rest of his post, which also made me realize he was indeed being self-centered (but for that one excursion from his own problems). How like most of the rest of us he is.

Richard said...

I dunno, Susan, comparing Stack with Pound, in my opinion seems very misplaced.

Pound - despite his extremely misplaced and unforgivable diatribes (which he later recanted, inexcusable, yet indicative of his ability to change and to be self-critical, especially in his old age), was a poet's poet, embracing and illuminating world literatures, both contemporary and traditional, at a time when insularity, provincialism, and cultural presumptuousness in western academia reigned oppressively, ignorantly and arrogantly.

Your students' pre-judgement of Pound's politics versus his poetic prowess and literary eclecticism saddens me because his oeuvre is formidable, a-mazing (pun intended), and incredibly teachable/impacting.

For me, Pound, in my younger years (late teens/early 20s) opened my world to an amazing cultural, world mileu, from Li Po to Noh, Confucious to Homer, Dante to Browning, and so much more. Furthermore, his juxtaposing of multiple languages including the Chinese ideogram, even Hawaii Creole English, in his Cantos was illuminating and life-changing.

In sum: Pound killed no one and helped give birth to an incredible literary era/epoch. Stack is a murderer, a mere footnote in the annals of suicidal killers, a frustrated failure whose contributions to his community are next to nil.

I'll end my brief rebuttal to your blog with Pound's Canto CXX:

"I have tried to write paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

Let the Gods forgive what I
have made

Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made."

susan said...

Richard--thanks much for this corrective, but let me say I was not comparing Stack to Pound as a poet! Recant(o)ed or not, Pound's ideas were as horrifying often as his poetry was beautiful, and world-opening. And like it or not, EZ has been taken on by the supremicists and teabaggers; reception is not the poet's fault, but it's happened. So yes to Pound's amazing poetry and rhetoric, but still. Trying to tease those out becomes quite a task in the classroom . . . aloha, Susan

susan said...

Katherine D. Oldmixon wrote:
> Susan, I was going to comment on your blog, but it got too complicated. . . and I thought perhaps I'll just send my rambling thoughts to you. -Kat
> Susan, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection. I hadn't thought of Pound in light of Stack's letter. I had recently thought of Pound, though, as Roman Polanski again makes headlines. It did not surprise me to find humanity or lucidity in Stack's words. I share with others concern for his family and for his recent victims and their families. The article in the Times this morning paints a rather homey, familiar picture of Stack. I can imagine easily that I might have met him at some time downtown, in one of the clubs or at Central Market or the airport--everyday places where workaday sideline musicians play. My husband is also in both the high tech and the musician world of Austin. Joe Stack lived not far from us. I believe it wise to recognize our common humanity, even when it discomfits (perhaps especially then.) At the same time, I am concerned at what can become or be interpreted as romanticizing or rationalizing violent acts as a response to anger. How many walk among us carrying their silent --or not so silent-- rage? In the aftermath of violence, ours must be a delicate negotiation of focus, as your essay here proves. (I wish that he had had you as his writing teacher.)

susan said...

Specifically about the arts, a reading recommendation for Richard Hamasaki would be George Orwell's essay "Benefit of Clergy." In general, the Pound conundrum is another case of Yeats's Rule: "The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work." Yeats is one of his own paradigms of the rule, because he was a great poet, a horrible human being, and not incidentally Pound's common-law father-in-law.

The rule holds for non-poets too. I'm grateful every day, for instance, for the labors of Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison, and William B. Shockley, inventor of the transistor. But no, I wouldn't have enjoyed their personal company. Ford was an ignorant crackpot who could just barely read and write. Edison's many eccentricities included a fear of changing his clothes and a fear of washing. As to Shockley, he was like someone out of science fiction: a genuine monster.

And as to Pound:

In his last days, suffering from clinical depression, he allegedly apologized to Allen Ginsberg for his anti-Semitism. But even if we take Ginsberg at his undocumented word about that, it shows Pound showing his Yeats side by calling the prejudice "suburban." In British English, the adjective "suburban" connotes "lower class"; in American English, it connotes "petit bourgeois." Either way, it's a snobbish sneer, and sociologically inaccurate to boot. To the end, Pound was Pound.

In the terms of poetic language or of literary history, that doesn't matter in the slightest. Pound remains a great poet who was also the impresario and obstetrician of the entire modernist oeuvre. That fact remains. But let's not patronizingly infantilize the arts by pretending that their non-formal content is without significance.

Jonathan Morse

JP Craig said...

About Stormfront and Modernists: I was recently searching for a Mina Loy piece and found it on Stormfront. I'm sorry I can't remember the specific piece by her now; it wasn't THAT recently....