Book Reviews

Book Review: Charles Olson & Ezra Pound | written by Gail

Hate blinds. It makes this man of exquisite sense a false instrument. It makes a lie of perception.

Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975, pg. 56 (emphasis my own)

It was a Friday evening, and I was, as usual, reading a book. Shabbat had come in with the sunset, but dinner wasn’t going to be for another hour. I could smell the food from the kitchen, and, in the living room with me, could hear my mother and brother turning the pages in their own books. The book I was reading was absolutely fascinating (and I gave it five stars on Goodreads, too), so I was a little irritated when my reading was interrupted by my father, who dumped eight books on the table next to me and asked if I want to have them.

This is a regular occurrence. My father retired several years ago, and has since been in the process of trimming down his library – now that he has the time to read them, he’s deciding which books he actually wants to read: which books he bought because he needed them for his academic work, but no longer needs; which books he bought and ended up not liking; which books he bought in languages he never learned; which books he liked, but will never read again. I am a major benefactor of this process. My teeny-tiny shelf of poetry and classics has expanded into a full three shelved bookcase. I have two beautiful editions of Shakespeare’s plays, several collections of English Poetry, The Prince and the Pauper, etc., all thanks to my father deciding he no longer needs them.

n this particular Friday evening he had an enormous a five volume edition of something or another, a sizable pair of volumes that looked real fancy, and a tiny little book, less than 150 pages long, called Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths. It, like most of the books I’ve been gifted from my father, was clearly old; it wasn’t falling apart, but the pages were slightly yellowed, and the paper cover that hardbacks usually have was missing. But out of all of the book offered to me that night, Olson & Pound was the one I was looking forward to reading the most.

I cannot be responsible for the way the Dept. of Justice tries the citizen Ezra Pound. But I say I nor any other writer can allow Ezra Pound the writer to go untried.

Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975, pg. 16 (emphasis my own)

 

Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was an American poet, who, although noteworthy on his own merits, was also noteworthy for all the artists he discovered and nurtured into fame. Most likely you’ve heard of them: T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway are only a handful of those whose artistic endeavors he supported.

And, of course, he was a fascist

During WWII, he was the voice of a radio program in Italy in which he supported the Axis Powers, Hitler, and Mussolini, expressed hatred for Jews and the Allies, and in general, committed treason. When the war ended, he was arrested and eventually brought to the United States for trial, but, following pleas from his many protegees, was instead declared mentally unfit for trial and placed in an insane asylum.

I propose that he be so examined and tried by the only men who conceivably can recognize and judge him, his fellow writers. It is not as traitor to the US, but as fascist he should be judged. It is not his radio broadcasts, but the whole body of his work that should be the testimony.

Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975, pg. 16 (emphasis my own)

Charles Olson (1910-1970) was also an American poet. I read his poem “The Moebius Strip” in high school (outside of the classroom, in case you were wondering) and enjoyed it. He, although not a fascist, was fascinated with what he calls the “Pound case”; how could someone who is, in his opinion, such a brilliant writer, also be a virulent antisemite, a fascist, a traitor the American people? He decided to investigate and, sort of Mindhunter-like, he visited Pound in his ‘prison’ to find out. For a while, he visited him weekly, although eventually this petered out. Olson wrote a whole slew of notes and even a couple of poems about Pound, but decided not to publish them until Pound died. Unfortunately, Olson died about two years before Pound; fortunately, The University of Connecticut, now in possession of all of his various papers and files, including “a manila folder labeled “Pound case”” (page ix), decided to edit and publish them as a book.

The editor (Catherine Seelye) made the executive decision to mostly publish the notes as is. Some words that were clearly forgotten or parentheses that weren’t closed were inserted, and of course she divided the poems, the fragments, the longer, more complete notes into sections according to her choosing, but mostly what we’re reading when we’re reading Olson & Pound is Olson.

Olson’s writing is incredible. He writes with such sincerity about a topic that is extremely difficult. He describes Pound’s mood swings and disarming charm with tremendous honesty, and his shock at every antisemitic or fascist or traitorous comment that inevitably comes always reads as genuine. Pound doesn’t read as insane or mentally incapable; he reads like a man who is so consumed by hate that that’s all that’s left. He reads like an antisemite, like a fascist. Olson, being in the room with him, will get swept up in Pound’s charisma, but we, the readers, never truly forget.

[…] he repeated his definition of a lunatic: “an animal somewhat surrounded by Jews.”

Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975, pg. 75

He made nothing of it, as he doesn’t of any remark to him, actually. You can see him take such things into himself, and know he hears, but that’s all.

Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975, pg. 58

It’s hard to explain the experience of reading a book like this, especially as a Jewish person. To see someone so convinced of their own hatred, to know this man was real and admired by many, to know that people who are themselves admired, instead of denouncing him, came to his rescue – it’s jarring, to say the least. But Olson, at the very least, is himself unwavering in his conviction that Pound is not a good person, that his opinions are wrong. He doesn’t come to sympathize, but rather, to understand.

Whether he does or not is a little ambiguous by the end. The last notes were written shortly before his death, and are unclear and unrefined. The issue of Pound was still on Olson’s mind at the end of his life.

There it is. It stop you. You feel him imagining himself as the last rock of culture and civilization being swept over by a wave of barbarism and Jews […] the saviour of all that has been culture, the snob of the West. For he is the AESTHETE, as I had Yeats speak of him. All – his pride in his memory, his sense of the internationale of writers, painters, musicians, and the aristocrats, his study of form as technique […] it is all a huge AESTHETICISM, ending in hate for Jews, Reds, change, the content and matter often of disaster, a loss of future, and in that a fatality as death-full as those for whom the atom bomb is Armageddon, not Apocalypse.

Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths, 1975, pg. 83 (emphasis my own)

I don’t know how to end this review. This is such a bizarre book. 4.5/5 stars for the lack of clarity in certain places, although it’s not exactly his fault he up and died.

4.5 / 5 stars

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Charles Olson & Ezra Pound | written by Gail”

  1. Very interesting post! It is lovely that your dad has passed his books to you. What a wonderful way to pick up something you might not have found otherwise.

    1. Thank you. I know this is a bit of a strange book to review. It’s wildly out of my comfort zone (mostly ya, scifi, fantasy) but it was so beyond fascinating. That said, it’s a little messy. But like I said, we can’t really blame Olson for dying.

  2. I love that you’re getting books passed along and I hope you enjoy reading all of the classics and poetry! I have read some of Pound’s works for university but we never looked into the poet himself so I didn’t know he was a fascist. Now this intrigues me all the more and it sounds like Olson has written this so well!

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