Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot May Have Been Fighting About in Dylan's Desolation Row

"Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower..." ~Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

What were Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting about in the captain's tower? In order to understand this, it will be helpful to give a brief introduction to Ezra Pound, a major twentieth century poet who came to a disturbing end.

The trigger event for this introduction to Pound was a story earlier this week in The Daily Beast titled The Letter That Changed the Course of Modern Fiction. The article cites the power of serendipity to change literary history, citing a  letter from Ezra Pound to the undiscovered, unrecognized James Joyce. Joyce had been unable to find a publisher for his short story collection known today as Dubliners. The article goes on to show how Pound, through serialization, helped gain an audience for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and ultimately laid the groundwork for the reverberations set in motion by Joyce's Ulysses.

The high praise for Pound doesn't end with James Joyce, however. Ted Gioia writes:

“Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known,” Hemingway later remarked. “He helped poets, painters, sculptors and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble.” By Hemingway’s estimate, Pound devoted only around one-fifth of his time on his own writing, focusing the rest of his energy on advancing the careers of others.

So what were Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting about then? The Beast gives no hints regarding the rest of the story. Wikipedia offers a more complete picture.

Ezra Pound was an American who had gone overseas and played a central role in literary circles in London and Paris. His influence brought numerous significant writers to the attention of a wider public including Hemingway himself, Robert Frost, Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Wikipedia cites Hemingway as stating, "He defends [his friends] when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. ... He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying ... he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide'.

At this point, Pound appears to be a truly heroic character. What came next significantly stained his reputation.

World War I, the Great War as it was called, not only scarred the countrysides of Europe, it left open wounds in the souls of men. Pound was one of these so wounded. It is normal to ask "why" questions when something so momentous and disruptive happens, and Pound was no exception. The conclusion he came to was that international capitalism was the root cause of this horror. Having lost faith in England, he moved to Italy where he embraced Fascism and threw his support behind Mussolini and Hitler.

During World War II he wrote and recorded radio broadcasts against England and the Allies, possibly hundreds of ten minute pro-Axis propaganda pieces. When the war came to a close, Pound was arrested, turned over to authorities to be tried for treason. At one point he purportedly compared Hitler to Saint Joan of Arc and stated that Mussolini was simply "an imperfect character who lost his head."

Pound was placed in a six by six cell in the U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Center where, according to Wikipedia, he was placed in one of the camp's "death cells", a series of six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cages lit up all night by floodlights. He was left for three weeks in isolation in the heat, denied exercise, eyes inflamed by dust, no bed, no belt, no shoelaces, and no communication with the guards, except for the chaplain. After two and a half weeks he began to break down under the strain. Richard Sieburth writes that he recorded it in Canto 80, where Odysseus is saved from drowning by Leucothea: "hast'ou swum in a sea of air strip / through an aeon of nothingness, / when the raft broke and the waters went over me."

Now check out this last segment preceding the summing up in Dylan's Desolation Row. Every aspect of it is about waters. Neptune, god of the sea, the doomed Titanic, symbol of man's glory, calypso, mermaids, and the Odyssey form the frame containing this conflict between Pound and Eliot.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

The arc of Eliot's life began in a fashion similar to Pound's for he, too, was an American who went abroad. Like Pound he was a social critic and major poet. A keen observer of the times, Eliot had been a protege of Bertrand Russell, the brilliant mathematician, activist and notorious atheist. But in seeing the futility of Russell's line of thinking, he turned to another path and became a Christian.

This world is broken, no matter which system one adopts, Eliot's decision seems to say. Dylan repeats this message over and over through the years. How we respond to this reality -- the Fall in Biblical terms, the opening of Pandora's Box in mythological terms -- is part of what defines us. Eliot went on to win a Nobel Prize. Pound  avoided prison for treason by being declared insane.

Dylan himself avoided being called the leader of a movement, a spokesperson for a generation, or an answer for everyone. He sensed such posturing is a setup for a fall. This did not stop him from asking questions, or raising them and asking them of his listeners.

Ultimately the question still stands: Which side are you on?

3 comments:

The TS Eliot Society (UK) said...

You seem not to have mentioned the editorial relationship between Eliot and Poiund, particularly with regard to the manuscript of The Waste Land.

The whole of Eliot's poem, regarded by many as one of the most significant of the 20th century, was edited by Ezra Pound. he removed entire sections (such as the original opening passage) and made suggestions, deletions and editorial changes to the poem.

The manuscript is published, and the original, with Pound's alterations, can also be seen in the iPad app of The Waste Land.

Some might think this has a bearing on Dylan's lines, with the two poets trading ideas and suggestions for the poem back and forth.

As a consequence, the published poem was dedicated by Eliot "For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro" - "my superior craftsman".



ENNYMAN said...

Thank you for the information. I had hoped that my links to Wikipedia and The Daily Beast would sort of fill in the gaps there. At one point I was going to do my blog entry on Pound alone and then Eliot next and the summing up at the end.

I do not think that the fighting in the song was over the suggestions over editing this important poem, though I may be wrong as can be the case.

The importance of both Pound and Eliot is undisputed. Thank you for these additional insights.

LEWagner said...

"Ultimately the question still stands: Which side are you on?"

I'd suggest that the final question (for someone of our generation) won't be so much if we back the Allies during WWII, or not; nor will it be if we pay lip-service to the so-called "Christian" religion, or not,
but will be more based on if we were honestly on the side of justice, mercy and truth, or not.
Did you do unto others as you'd have them do unto you? Or not.
Did you serve God, or did you serve Mammon?
Did you store up your treasures on Earth, or did you store up your treasures in Heaven?
That sort of thing, as Jesus taught.
The Good Lord will judge, I imagine.