Since his return to Italy, Ezra Pound has spent most of his time in the Tirol, staying at Castle Brunnenburg with his wife, his daughter Mary, his son-in-law Prince Boris de Rachewiltz, and his grandchildren. However, the mountains in this resort country near Merano are cold in the winter, and Mr. Pound likes the sun. The interviewer was about to leave England for Merano, at the end of February, when a telegram stopped him at the door: “Merano icebound. Come to Rome.”
Pound was alone in Rome, occupying a room in the apartment of an old friend named Ugo Dadone. It was the beginning of March and exceptionally warm. The windows and shutters of Pound’s corner room swung open to the noises of the Via Angelo Poliziano. The interviewer sat in a large chair while Pound shifted restlessly from another chair to a sofa and back to the chair. Pound’s impression on the room consisted of two suitcases and three books: the Faber Cantos, a Confucius, and Robinson’s edition of Chaucer, which he was reading again.
In the social hours of the evening—dinner at Crispi’s, a tour among the scenes of his past, ice cream at a café—Pound walked with the swaggering vigor of a young man. With his great hat, his sturdy stick, his tossed yellow scarf, and his coat, which he trailed like a cape, he was the lion of the Latin Quarter again. Then his talent for mimicry came forward, and laughter shook his gray beard.
During the daytime hours of the interview, which took three days, he spoke carefully and the questions sometimes tired him out. In the morning when the interviewer returned, Mr. Pound was eager to revise the failures of the day before.
INTERVIEWERYou are nearly through the Cantos now, and this sets me to wondering about their beginning. In 1916 you wrote a letter in which you talked about trying to write a version of Andreas Divus in Seafarer rhythms. This sounds like a reference to Canto 1. Did you begin the Cantos in 1916?
EZRA POUNDI began the Cantos about 1904, I suppose. I had various schemes, starting in 1904 or 1905. The problem was to get a form—something elastic enough to take the necessary material. It had to be a form that wouldn’t exclude something merely because it didn’t fit. In the first sketches, a draft of the present first Canto was the third.
Obviously you haven’t got a nice little road map such as the Middle Ages possessed of Heaven. Only a musical form would take the material, and the Confucian universe as I see it is a universe of interacting strains and tensions.
INTERVIEWERHad your interest in Confucius begun in 1904?
POUNDNo, the first thing was this: you had six centuries that hadn’t been packaged. It was a question of dealing with material that wasn’t in the Divina Commedia. Hugo did a Légende des Siècles that wasn’t an evaluative affair but just bits of history strung together. The problem was to build up a circle of reference—taking the modern mind to be the medieval mind with wash after wash of classical culture poured over it since the Renaissance. That was the psyche, if you like. One had to deal with one’s own subject.
INTERVIEWERIt must be thirty or thirty-five years since you have written any poetry outside the Cantos, except for the Alfred Venison poems. Why is this?
POUNDI got to the point where, apart from an occasional lighter impulse, what I had to say fitted the general scheme. There has been a good deal of work thrown away because one is attracted to a historic character and then finds that he doesn’t function within my form, doesn’t embody a value needed. I have tried to make the Cantos historic (vid. G. Giovannini, re relation history to tragedy. Two articles ten years apart in some philological periodical, not source material but relevant) but not fiction. The material one wants to fit in doesn’t always work. If the stone isn’t hard enough to maintain the form, it has to go out.
INTERVIEWERWhen you write a Canto now, how do you plan it? Do you follow a special course of reading for each one?
POUNDOne isn’t necessarily reading. One is working on the life vouchsafed, I should think. I don’t know about method. The what is so much more important than how.
INTERVIEWERYet when you were a young man, your interest in poetry concentrated on form. Your professionalism, and your devotion to technique, became proverbial. In the last thirty years, you have traded your interest in form for an interest in content. Was the change on principle?
POUNDI think I’ve covered that. Technique is the test of sincerity. If a thing isn’t worth getting the technique to say, it is of inferior value. All that must be regarded as exercise. Richter in his Treatise on Harmony, you see, says, “These are the principles of harmony and counterpoint; they have nothing whatever to do with composition, which is quite a separate activity.” The statement, which somebody made, that you couldn’t write Provençal canzoni forms in English, is false. The question of whether it was advisable or not was another matter. When there wasn’t the criterion of natural language without inversion, those forms were natural, and they realized them with music. In English the music is of a limited nature. You’ve got Chaucer’s French perfection, you’ve got Shakespeare’s Italian perfection, you’ve got Campion and Lawes. I don’t think I got around to this kind of form until I got to the choruses in the Trachiniae. I don’t know that I got to anything at all, really, but I thought it was an extension of the gamut. It may be a delusion. One was always interested in the implication of change of pitch in the union of motz et son, of the word and melody.
INTERVIEWERDoes writing the Cantos, now, exhaust all of your technical interest, or does the writing of translations, like the Trachiniae you just mentioned, satisfy you by giving you more fingerwork?
POUNDOne sees a job to be done and goes at it. The Trachiniae came from reading the Fenollosa Noh plays for the new edition, and from wanting to see what would happen to a Greek play, given that same medium and the hope of its being performed by the Minorou company. The sight of Cathay in Greek, looking like poetry, stimulated crosscurrents.
INTERVIEWERDo you think that free verse is particularly an American form? I imagine that William Carlos Williams probably does, and thinks of the iambic as English.
POUNDI like Eliot’s sentence: “No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” I think the best free verse comes from an attempt to get back to quantitative meter.
I suppose it may be un-English without being specifically American. I remember Cocteau playing drums in a jazz band as if it were a very difficult mathematical problem.
I’ll tell you a thing that I think is an American form, and that is the Jamesian parenthesis. You realize that the person you are talking to hasn’t got the different steps, and you go back over them. In fact the Jamesian parenthesis has immensely increased now. That I think is something that is definitely American. The struggle that one has when one meets another man who has had a lot of experience to find the point where the two experiences touch, so that he really knows what you are talking about.
INTERVIEWERYour work includes a great range of experience, as well as of form. What do you think is the greatest quality a poet can have? Is it formal, or is it a quality of thinking?
POUNDI don’t know that you can put the needed qualities in hierarchic order, but he must have a continuous curiosity, which of course does not make him a writer, but if he hasn’t got that he will wither. And the question of doing anything about it depends on a persistent energy. A man like Agassiz is never bored, never tired. The transit from the reception of stimuli to the recording, to the correlation, that is what takes the whole energy of a lifetime.
INTERVIEWERDo you think that the modern world has changed the ways in which poetry can be written?
POUNDThere is a lot of competition that never was there before. Take the serious side of Disney, the Confucian side of Disney. It’s in having taken an ethos, as he does in Perri, that squirrel film, where you have the values of courage and tenderness asserted in a way that everybody can understand. You have got an absolute genius there. You have got a greater correlation of nature than you have had since the time of Alexander the Great. Alexander gave orders to the fishermen that if they found out anything about fish that was interesting, a specific thing, they were to tell Aristotle. And with that correlation you got ichthyology to the scientific point where it stayed for two thousand years. And now one has got with the camera an enormous correlation of particulars. That capacity for making contact is a tremendous challenge to literature. It throws up the question of what needs to be done and what is superfluous.
INTERVIEWERMaybe it’s an opportunity, too. When you were a young man in particular, and even through the Cantos, you changed your poetic style again and again. You have never been content to stick anywhere. Were you consciously looking to extend your style? Does the artist need to keep moving?
POUNDI think the artist has to keep moving. You are trying to render life in a way that won’t bore people and you are trying to put down what you see.
INTERVIEWERI wonder what you think of contemporary movements. I haven’t seen remarks of yours about poets more recent than Cummings, except for Bunting and Zukofsky. Other things have occupied you, I suppose.
POUNDOne can’t read everything. I was trying to find out a number of historic facts, and you can’t see out of the back of your head. I do not think there is any record of a man being able to criticize the people that come after him. It is a sheer question of the amount of reading one man can do.
I don’t know whether it is his own or whether it is a gem that he collected, but at any rate one of the things Frost said in London in 19—whenever it was—1912, was this: “Summary of prayer: ‘Oh God, pay attention to me.’” And that is the approach of younger writers—not to divinity exactly!—and in general one has to limit one’s reading to younger poets who are recommended by at least one other younger poet, as a sponsor. Of course a routine of that kind could lead to conspiracy, but at any rate . . .
As far as criticizing younger people, one has not the time to make a comparative estimate. People one is learning from, one does measure one against the other. I see a stirring now, but . . . For general conditions there is undoubtedly a liveliness. And Cal [Robert] Lowell is very good.
INTERVIEWERYou have given advice to the young all your life. Do you have anything special to say to them now?
POUNDTo improve their curiosity and not to fake. But that is not enough. The mere registering of bellyache and the mere dumping of the ashcan is not enough. In fact the University of Pennsylvania student Punchbowl used to have as its motto, “Any damn fool can be spontaneous.”
INTERVIEWERYou once wrote that you had four useful hints from living literary predecessors, who were Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, and Robert Bridges. What were these hints?
POUNDBridges’s was the simplest. Bridges’s was a warning against homophones. Hardy’s was the degree to which he would concentrate on the subject matter, not on the manner. Ford’s in general was the freshness of language. And Yeats you say was the fourth? Well, Yeats by 1908 had written simple lyrics in which there were no departures from the natural order of words.
INTERVIEWERYou were secretary to Yeats in 1913 and 1914. What sort of thing did you do for him?
POUNDMostly reading aloud. Doughty’s Dawn in Britain, and so on. And wrangling, you see. The Irish like contradiction. He tried to learn fencing at forty-five, which was amusing. He would thrash around with the foils like a whale. He sometimes gave the impression of being even a worse idiot than I am.
INTERVIEWERThere is an academic controversy about your influence on Yeats. Did you work over his poetry with him? Did you cut any of his poems in the way you cut The Waste Land?
POUNDI don’t think I can remember anything like that. I am sure I objected to particular expressions. Once out at Rapallo I tried for God’s sake to prevent him from printing a thing. I told him it was rubbish. All he did was print it with a preface saying that I said it was rubbish.
I remember when Tagore had taken to doodling on the edge of his proofs, and they told him it was art. There was a show of it in Paris. “Is this art?” Nobody was very keen on these doodlings, but of course so many people lied to him.
As far as the change in Yeats goes, I think that Ford Madox Ford might have some credit. Yeats never would have taken advice from Ford, but I think that Fordie helped him, via me, in trying to get towards a natural way of writing.
INTERVIEWERDid anyone ever help you with your work as extensively as you have helped others? I mean by criticism or cutting.
POUNDApart from Fordie, rolling on the floor undecorously and holding his head in his hands, and groaning on one occasion, I don’t think anybody helped me through my manuscripts. Ford’s stuff appeared too loose then, but he led the fight against tertiary archaisms.
INTERVIEWERYou have been closely associated with visual artists—Gaudier-Brzeska and Wyndham Lewis in the vorticist movement, and later Picabia, Picasso, and Brancusi. Has this had anything to do with you as a writer?
POUNDI don’t believe so. One looked at paintings in galleries and one might have found out something. “The Game of Chess” poem shows the effect of modern abstract art, but vorticism from my angle was a renewal of the sense of construction. Color went dead and Manet and the impressionists revived it. Then what I would call the sense of form was blurred, and vorticism, as distinct from cubism, was an attempt to revive the sense of form—the form you had in Piero della Francesca’s De Prospectiva pingendi, his treatise on the proportions and composition. I got started on the idea of comparative forms before I left America. A fellow named Poole did a book on composition. I did have some things in my head when I got to London, and I had heard of Catullus before I heard about modern French poetry. There’s a bit of biography that might be rectified.
INTERVIEWERI have wondered about your literary activities in America before you came to Europe. When did you first come over, by the way?
POUNDIn 1898. At the age of twelve. With my great-aunt.
INTERVIEWERWere you reading French poetry then?
POUNDNo, I suppose I was reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” or something. No, I wasn’t reading French poetry. I was starting Latin next year.
INTERVIEWERYou entered college at fifteen, I believe?
POUNDI did it to get out of drill at Military Academy.
INTERVIEWERHow did you get started being a poet?
POUNDMy grandfather on one side used to correspond with the local bank president in verse. My grandmother on the other side and her brothers used verse back and forth in their letters. It was taken for granted that anyone would write it.
INTERVIEWERDid you learn anything in your university studies which helped you as a poet? I think you were a student for seven or eight years.
POUNDOnly six. Well, six years and four months. I was writing all the time, especially as a graduate student. I started in freshman year studying Layamon’s Brut and Latin. I got into college on my Latin; it was the only reason they did take me in. I did have the idea, at fifteen, of making a general survey. Of course whether I was or wasn’t a poet was a matter for the gods to decide, but at least it was up to me to find out what had been done.
INTERVIEWERYou taught for four months only, as I remember. But you know that now the poets in America are mostly teachers. Do you have any ideas on the connection of teaching in the university with writing poetry?
POUNDIt is the economic factor. A man’s got to get in his rent somehow.
INTERVIEWERHow did you manage all the years in Europe?
POUNDOh, God. A miracle of God. My income gained from October 1914 to October 1915 was £42.10.0. That figure is clearly engraved on my memory . . .
I was never too good a hand at writing for the magazines. I once did a satirical article for Vogue, I think it was. On a painter whom I did not admire. They thought I had got just the right tone and then Verhaeren died and they asked me to do a note on Verhaeren. And I went down and said, “You want a nice bright snappy obituary notice of the gloomiest man in Europe.”
“What, gloomy cuss, was he?”
“Yes,” I said. “He wrote about peasants.”
“Peasants or pheasants?”
“Oh, I don’t think we ought to touch it.”
That is the way I crippled my earning capacity by not knowing enough to keep quiet.
INTERVIEWERI read somewhere—I think you wrote it—that you once tried to write a novel. Did that get anywhere?
POUNDIt got, fortunately, into the fireplace at Langham Place. I think there were two attempts, before I had any idea whatever of what a novel ought to be.
INTERVIEWERDid they have anything to do with “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”?
POUNDThese were long before “Mauberley.” “Mauberley” was later, but it was the definite attempt to get the novel cut down to the size of verse. It really is “Contacts and Life.” Wadsworth seemed to think “Propertius” difficult because it was about Rome, so one applied the same thing to the contemporary outside.
INTERVIEWERYou said it was Ford who helped you toward a natural language, didn’t you? Let’s get back to London again.
POUNDOne was hunting for a simple and natural language, and Ford was ten years older, and accelerated the process toward it. It was a continual discussion of that sort of thing. Ford knew the best of the people who were there before him, you see, and he had nobody to play with until Wyndham and I and my generation came along. He was definitely in opposition to the dialect, let us say, of Lionel Johnson and Oxford.
INTERVIEWERYou were for two or three decades at least in contact with all of the leading writers in English of the day and a lot of the painters, sculptors, and musicians. Of all these people, who were the most stimulating to you as an artist?
POUNDI saw most of Ford and Gaudier, I suppose. I should think that the people that I have written about were the most important to me. There isn’t much revision to make there.
I may have limited my work, and limited the interest in it, by concentrating on the particular intelligence of particular people, instead of looking at the complete character and personality of my friends. Wyndham Lewis always claimed that I never saw people because I never noticed how wicked they were, what SOB’s they were. I wasn’t the least interested in the vices of my friends, but in their intelligence.
INTERVIEWERWas James a kind of a standard for you in London?
POUNDWhen he died one felt there was no one to ask about anything. Up to then one felt someone knew. After I was sixty-five I had great difficulty in realizing that I was older than James had been when I met him.
INTERVIEWERDid you know Remy de Gourmont personally? You’ve mentioned him frequently.
POUNDOnly by letter. There was one letter, which Jean de Gourmont also considered important, where he said, “Franchement d’écrire ce qu’on pense, seul plaisir d’un écrivain.”
INTERVIEWERIt is amazing that you could come to Europe and quickly associate yourself with the best living writers. Had you been aware of any of the poets writing in America before you left? Was Robinson anything to you?
POUNDAiken tried to sell me Robinson and I didn’t fall. This was in London too. I then dragged it out of him that there was a guy at Harvard doing funny stuff. Mr. Eliot turned up a year or so later.
No, I should say that about 1900, you had Carman and Hovey, Carwine and Vance Cheney. The impression then was that the American stuff wasn’t quite as good as the English at any point. And you had Mosher’s pirated editions of the English stuff. No, I went to London because I thought Yeats knew more about poetry than anybody else. I made my life in London by going to see Ford in the afternoons and Yeats in the evenings. By mentioning one to the other one could always start a discussion. That was the exercise. I went to study with Yeats and found that Ford disagreed with him. So then I kept on disagreeing with them for twenty years.
INTERVIEWERIn 1942, you wrote that you and Eliot disagreed by calling each other protestants. I wonder when you and Eliot diverged.
POUNDOh, Eliot and I started diverging from the beginning. The fun of an intellectual friendship is that you diverge on something or other and agree on a few points. Eliot, having had the Christian patience of tolerance all his life and so forth, and working very hard, must have found me very trying. We started disagreeing about a number of things from the time we met. We also agreed on a few things and I suppose both of us must have been right about something or other.
INTERVIEWERWell, was there a point at which poetically and intellectually you felt further apart than you had been?
POUNDThere’s the whole problem of the relation of Christianity to Confucianism, and there’s the whole problem of the different brands of Christianity. There is the struggle for orthodoxy—Eliot for the Church, me gunning round for particular theologians. In one sense Eliot’s curiosity would appear to have been focused on a smaller number of problems. Even that is too much to say. The actual outlook of the experimental generation was all a question of the private ethos.
INTERVIEWERDo you think that as poets you felt a divergence on technical grounds, unrelated to your subject matter?
POUNDI should think the divergence was first a difference in subject matter. He has undoubtedly got a natural language. In the language in the plays, he seems to me to have made a very great contribution. And in being able to make contact with an extant milieu, and an extant state of comprehension.
INTERVIEWERThat reminds me of the two operas—Villon and Cavalcanti—which you wrote. How did you come to compose music?
POUNDOne wanted the word and the tune. One wanted great poetry sung, and the technique of the English opera libretto was not satisfactory. One wanted, with the quality of the texts of Villon and of Cavalcanti, to get something more extended than the single lyric. That’s all.
INTERVIEWERI suppose your interest in words to be sung was especially stimulated by your study of Provence. Do you feel that the discovery of Provençal poetry was your greatest breakthrough? Or perhaps the Fenollosa manuscripts?
POUNDThe Provençal began with a very early interest, so that it wasn’t really a discovery. And the Fenollosa was a windfall and one struggled against one’s ignorance. One had the inside knowledge of Fenollosa’s notes and the ignorance of a five-year-old child.
INTERVIEWERHow did Mrs. Fenollosa happen to hit upon you?
POUNDWell, I met her at Sarojini Naidu’s and she said that Fenollosa had been in opposition to all the profs and academes, and she had seen some of my stuff and said I was the only person who could finish up these notes as Ernest would have wanted them done. Fenollosa saw what needed to be done but he didn’t have time to finish it.
INTERVIEWERLet me change the subject now, and ask you some questions which are more biographical than literary. I have read that you were born in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885. I suppose it must have been pretty rough out there then?
POUNDI left at the age of eighteen months and I don’t remember the roughness.
INTERVIEWERYou did not grow up in Hailey?
POUNDI did not grow up in Hailey.
INTERVIEWERWhat was your family doing there when you were born?
POUNDDad opened the Government Land Office out there. I grew up near Philadelphia. The suburbs of Philadelphia.
INTERVIEWERThe wild Indian from the West then was not . . . ?
POUNDThe wild Indian from the West is apocryphal, and the assistant assayer of the mint was not one of the most noted bandits of the frontier.
INTERVIEWERI believe it’s true that your grandfather built a railroad. What was the story of that?
POUNDWell, he got the railroad into Chippewa Falls, and they ganged up on him and would not let him buy any rails. That’s in the Cantos. He went up to the north of New York State and found some rails on an abandoned road up there, bought them and had them shipped out, and then used his credit with the lumberjacks to get the road going to Chippewa Falls. What one learns in the home one learns in a way one doesn’t learn in school.
INTERVIEWERDoes your particular interest in coinage start from your father’s work at the mint?
POUNDYou can go on for a long time on that. The government offices were more informal then, though I don’t know that any other kids got in and visited. Now the visitors are taken through glass tunnels and see things from a distance, but you could then be taken around in the smelting room and see the gold piled up in the safe. You were offered a large bag of gold and told you could have it if you could take it away with you. You couldn’t lift it.
When the Democrats finally came back in, they recounted all the silver dollars, four million dollars in silver. All the bags had rotted in these enormous vaults, and they were heaving it into the counting machines with shovels bigger than coal shovels. This spectacle of coin being shoveled around like it was litter—these fellows naked to the waist shoveling it around in the gas flares—things like that strike your imagination.
Then there’s the whole technique of making metallic money. First, the testing of the silver is much more tricky than testing gold. Gold is simple. It is weighed, then refined and weighed again. You can tell the grade of the ore by the relative weights. But the test for silver is a cloudy solution; the accuracy of the eye in measuring the thickness of the cloud is an aesthetic perception, like the critical sense. I like the idea of the fineness of the metal, and it moves by analogy to the habit of testing verbal manifestations. At that time, you see, gold bricks, and specimens of iron pyrites mistaken for gold, were brought up to Dad’s office. You heard the talk about the last guy who brought a gold brick and it turned out to be fool’s gold.
INTERVIEWERI know you consider monetary reform the key to good government. I wonder by what process you moved from aesthetic problems toward governmental ones. Did the Great War, which slaughtered so many of your friends, do the moving?
POUNDThe Great War came as a surprise, and certainly to see the English—these people who had never done anything—get hold of themselves, fight it, was immensely impressive. But as soon as it was over they went dead, and then one spent the next twenty years trying to prevent the Second War. I can’t say exactly where my study of government started. I think the New Age office helped me to see the war not as a separate event but as part of a system, one war after another.
INTERVIEWEROne point of connection between literature and politics which you make in your writing interests me particularly. In the ABC of Reading you say that good writers are those who keep the language efficient, and that this is their function. You disassociate this function from party. Can a man of the wrong party use language efficiently?
POUNDYes. That’s the whole trouble! A gun is just as good, no matter who shoots it.
INTERVIEWERCan an instrument which is orderly be used to create disorder? Suppose good language is used to forward bad government? Doesn’t bad government make bad language?
POUNDYes, but bad language is bound to make in addition bad government, whereas good language is not bound to make bad government. That again is clear Confucius: if the orders aren’t clear they can’t be carried out. Lloyd George’s laws were such a mess, the lawyers never knew what they meant. And Talleyrand proclaimed that they changed the meaning of words between one conference and another. The means of communication breaks down, and that of course is what we are suffering now. We are enduring the drive to work on the subconscious without appealing to the reason. They repeat a trade name with the music a few times, and then repeat the music without it so that the music will give you the name. I think of the assault. We suffer from the use of language to conceal thought and to withhold all vital and direct answers. There is the definite use of propaganda, forensic language, merely to conceal and mislead.
INTERVIEWERWhere do ignorance and innocence end and the chicanery begin?
POUNDThere is natural ignorance and there is artificial ignorance. I should say at the present moment the artificial ignorance is about eighty-five per cent.
INTERVIEWERWhat kind of action can you hope to take?
POUNDThe only chance for victory over the brainwash is the right of every man to have his ideas judged one at a time. You never get clarity as long as you have these package words, as long as a word is used by twenty-five people in twenty-five different ways. That seems to me to be the first fight, if there is going to be any intellect left.
It is doubtful whether the individual soul is going to be allowed to survive at all. Now you get a Buddhist movement with everything except Confucius taken into it. An Indian Circe of negation and dissolution.
We are up against so many mysteries. There is the problem of benevolence, the point at which benevolence has ceased to be operative. Eliot says that they spend their time trying to imagine systems so perfect that nobody will have to be good. A lot of questions asked in that essay of Eliot’s cannot be dodged, like the question of whether there need be any change from the Dantesque scale of values or the Chaucerian scale of values. If so, how much? People who have lost reverence have lost a great deal. That was where I split with Tiffany Thayer. All these large words fall into clichés.
There is the mystery of the scattering, the fact that the people who presumably understand each other are geographically scattered. A man who fits in his milieu as Frost does, is to be considered a happy man.
Oh, the luck of a man like Mavrocordato, who is in touch with other scholars, so that there is somewhere where he can verify a point! Now for certain points where I want verification there is a fellow named Dazzi in Venice that I write to and he comes up with an answer, as it might be about the forged Donation of Constantine. But the advantages which were supposed to inhere in the university—where there are other people to contrôl opinion or to contrôl the data*—were very great. It is crippling not to have had them. Of course I have been trying over a ten-year period to get any member of an American faculty to mention any other member of his same faculty, in his own department or outside it, whose intelligence he respects or with whom he will discuss serious matters. In one case the gentleman regretted that someone else had left the faculty.
I have been unable to get straight answers out of people on what appeared to me to be vital questions. That may have been due to my violence or obscurity with which I framed the questions. Often, I think, so-called obscurity is not obscurity in the language but in the other person’s not being able to make out why you are saying a thing. For instance the attack on Endymion was complicated because Gifford and company couldn’t see why the deuce Keats was doing it.
Another struggle has been the struggle to keep the value of a local and particular character, of a particular culture in this awful maelstrom, this awful avalanche toward uniformity. The whole fight is for the conservation of the individual soul. The enemy is the supression of history; against us is the bewildering propaganda and brainwash, luxury and violence. Sixty years ago, poetry was the poor man’s art: a man off on the edge of the wilderness, or Frémont, going off with a Greek text in his pocket. A man who wanted the best could have it on a lonely farm. Then there was the cinema, and now television.
INTERVIEWERThe political action of yours that everybody remembers is your broadcasts from Italy during the war. When you gave these talks, were you conscious of breaking the American law?
POUNDNo, I was completely surprised. You see I had that promise. I was given the freedom of the microphone twice a week. “He will not be asked to say anything contrary to his conscience or contrary to his duty as an American citizen.” I thought that covered it.
INTERVIEWERDoesn’t the law of treason talk about “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” and isn’t the enemy the country with whom we are at war?
POUNDI thought I was fighting for a constitutional point. I mean to say, I may have been completely nuts, but I certainly felt that it wasn’t committing treason.
Wodehouse went on the air and the British asked him not to. Nobody asked me not to. There was no announcement until the collapse that the people who had spoken on the radio would be prosecuted.
Having worked for years to prevent war, and seeing the folly of Italy and America being at war—! I certainly wasn’t telling the troops to revolt. I thought I was fighting an internal question of constitutional government. And if any man, any individual man, can say he has had a bad deal from me because of race, creed, or color, let him come out and state it with particulars. The Guide to Kulchur was dedicated to Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky, a Quaker and a Jew.
I don’t know whether you think the Russians ought to be in Berlin or not. I don’t know whether I was doing any good or not, whether I was doing any harm. Oh, I was probably offside. But the ruling in Boston was that there is no treason without treasonable intention.
What I was right about was the conservation of individual rights. If, when the executive or any other branch exceeds its legitimate powers, no one protests, you will lose all your liberties. My method of opposing tyranny was wrong over a thirty-year period; it had nothing to do with the Second World War in particular. If the individual, or heretic, gets hold of some essential truth, or sees some error in the system being practiced, he commits so many marginal errors himself that he is worn out before he can establish his point.
The world in twenty years has piled up hysteria—anxiety over a third war, bureaucratic tyranny, and hysteria from paper forms. The immense and undeniable loss of freedoms, as they were in 1900, is undeniable. We have seen the acceleration in efficiency of the tyrannizing factors. It’s enough to keep a man worried. Wars are made to make debt. I suppose there’s a possible out in space satellites and other ways of making debt.
INTERVIEWERWhen you were arrested by the Americans, did you then expect to be convicted? To be hanged?
POUNDAt first I puzzled over having missed a cog somewhere. I expected to turn myself in and to be asked about what I learned. I did and I wasn’t. I know that I checked myself, on several occasions during the broadcasts, on reflecting that it was not up to me to do certain things, or to take service with a foreign country. Oh, it was paranoia to think one could argue against the usurpations, against the folks who got the war started to get America into it. Yet I hate the idea of obedience to something which is wrong.
Then later I was driven into the courtyard at Chiavari. They had been shooting them, and I thought I was finished then and there. Then finally a guy came in and said he was damned if he would hand me over to the Americans unless I wanted to be handed over to them.
INTERVIEWERIn 1942, when the war started for America, I understand you tried to leave Italy and come back to the United States. What were the circumstances of the refusal?
POUNDThose circumstances were by hearsay. I am a bit hazy in my head about a considerable period, and I think that . . . I know that I had a chance to get as far as Lisbon, and be cooped up there for the rest of the war.
INTERVIEWERWhy did you want to get back to the States at that time?
POUNDI wanted to get back during the election, before the election.
INTERVIEWERThe election was in 1940, wasn’t it?
POUNDThat would be 1940. I don’t honestly remember what happened. My parents were too old to travel. They would have had to stay there in Rapallo. Dad retired there on his pension.
INTERVIEWERDuring those years in the war in Italy did you write poetry? The Pisan Cantos were written when you were interned. What did you write during those years?
POUNDArguments, arguments and arguments. Oh, I did some of the Confucius translation.
INTERVIEWERHow was it that you began to write poetry again only after you were interned? You didn’t write any cantos at all during the war, did you?
POUNDLet’s see—the Adams stuff came out just before the war shut off. No. There was Oro e Lavoro. I was writing economic stuff in Italian.
INTERVIEWERSince your internment, you’ve published three collections of Cantos, Thrones just recently. You must be near the end. Can you say what you are going to do in the remaining Cantos?
POUNDIt is difficult to write a paradiso when all the superficial indications are that you ought to write an apocalypse. It is obviously much easier to find inhabitants for an inferno or even a purgatorio. I am trying to collect the record of the top flights of the mind. I might have done better to put Agassiz on top instead of Confucius.
INTERVIEWERAre you more or less stuck?
POUNDOkay, I am stuck. The question is, am I dead, as Messrs. A.B.C. might wish? In case I conk out, this is provisionally what I have to do: I must clarify obscurities; I must make clearer definite ideas or dissociations. I must find a verbal formula to combat the rise of brutality—the principle of order versus the split atom. There was a man in the bughouse, by the way, who insisted that the atom had never been split.
An epic is a poem containing history. The modern mind contains heteroclite elements. The past epos has succeeded when all or a great many of the answers were assumed, at least between author and audience, or a great mass of audience. The attempt in an experimental age is therefore rash. Do you know the story: “What are you drawing, Johnny?”
“But nobody knows what He looks like.”
“They will when I get through!”
That confidence is no longer obtainable.
There are epic subjects. The struggle for individual rights is an epic subject, consecutive from jury trial in Athens to Anselm versus William Rufus, to the murder of Becket and to Coke and through John Adams.
Then the struggle appears to come up against a block. The nature of sovereignty is epic matter, though it may be a bit obscured by circumstance. Some of this can be traced, pointed; obviously it has to be condensed to get into the form. The nature of the individual, the heteroclite contents of contemporary consciousness. It’s the fight for light versus subconsciousness; it demands obscurities and penumbras. A lot of contemporary writing avoids inconvenient areas of the subject.
I am writing to resist the view that Europe and civilization are going to Hell. If I am being “crucified for an idea”—that is, the coherent idea around which my muddles accumulated—it is probably the idea that European culture ought to survive, that the best qualities of it ought to survive along with whatever other cultures, in whatever universality. Against the propaganda of terror and the propaganda of luxury, have you a nice simple answer? One has worked on certain materials trying to establish bases and axes of reference. In writing so as to be understood, there is always the problem of rectification without giving up what is correct. There is the struggle not to sign on the dotted line for the opposition.
INTERVIEWERDo the separate sections of the Cantos, now—the last three sections have appeared under separate names—mean that you are attacking particular problems in particular sections?
POUNDNo. Rock Drill was intended to imply the necessary resistance in getting a certain main thesis across—hammering. I was not following the three divisions of the Divine Comedy exactly. One can’t follow the Dantesque cosmos in an age of experiment. But I have made the division between people dominated by emotion, people struggling upwards, and those who have some part of the divine vision. The thrones in Dante’s Paradiso are for the spirits of the people who have been responsible for good government. The thrones in the Cantos are an attempt to move out from egoism and to establish some definition of an order possible or at any rate conceivable on earth. One is held up by the low percentage of reason which seems to operate in human affairs. Thrones concerns the states of mind of people responsible for something more than their personal conduct.
INTERVIEWERNow that you come near the end, have you made any plans for revising the Cantos, after you’ve finished?
POUNDI don’t know. There’s need of elaboration, of clarification, but I don’t know that a comprehensive revision is in order. There is no doubt that the writing is too obscure as it stands, but I hope that the order of ascension in the Paradiso will be toward a greater limpidity. Of course there ought to be a corrected edition because of errors that have crept in.
INTERVIEWERLet me change the subject again, if I may. In all those years in St. Elizabeth’s, did you get a sense of contemporary America from your visitors?
POUNDThe trouble with visitors is that you don’t get enough of the opposition. I suffer from the cumulative isolation of not having had enough contact—fifteen years living more with ideas than with persons.
INTERVIEWERDo you have any plans for going back to the States? Do you want to?
POUNDI undoubtedly want to. But whether it is nostalgia for America that isn’t there any more or not I don’t know. This is a difference between an abstract Adams-Jefferson, Adams-Jackson America, and whatever is really going on. I undoubtedly have moments when I should like very much to live in America. There are these concrete difficulties against the general desire. Richmond is a beautiful city, but you can’t live in it unless you drive an automobile. I’d like at least to spend a month or two a year in the U.S.
INTERVIEWERYou said the other day that as you grew older you felt more American all the time. How does this work?
POUNDIt works. Exotics were necessary as an attempt at a foundation. One is transplanted and grows, and one is pulled up and taken back to what one has been transplanted from and it is no longer there. The contacts aren’t there and I suppose one reverts to one’s organic nature and finds it merciful. Have you ever read Andy White’s memoirs? He’s the fellow who founded Cornell University. That was the period of euphoria, when everybody thought that all the good things in America were going to function, before the decline, about 1900. White covers a period of history that goes back to Buchanan on one side. He alternated between being ambassador to Russia and head of Cornell.
INTERVIEWERYour return to Italy has been a disappointment, then?
POUNDUndoubtedly. Europe was a shock. The shock of no longer feeling oneself in the center of something is probably part of it. Then there is the incomprehension, Europe’s incomprehension, of organic America. There are so many things which I, as an American, cannot say to a European with any hope of being understood. Somebody said that I am the last American living the tragedy of Europe.
Note: Mr. Pound’s health made it impossible for him to finish proofreading this interview. The text is complete, but may contain details which Mr. Pound would have changed under happier circumstances.
* Pound indicates that he is using the French contrôler: “to verify, check information, a fact.”