Norman MacAfee: Pound, Till, The Cantos and Intolerance

  Norman MacAfee

  Ezra Pound, Emmett Till, The Cantos, and

  JPR 08

(Note: The first half of “Ezra Pound, Emmett Till, The Cantos, and Intolerance,” originally titled “Ezra Pound in Patria Mia,” was delivered on July 10, 2015 at the 26th Ezra Pound International Conference (EPIC), held at Brunnenburg Castle, Dorf Tirol, Italy. Then my twenty minutes were up. The following text is an elaboration of “Ezra Pound in Patria Mia,” made since then.)

to the memory of Emmett Till
“We have found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever.” — D. W. Griffith on Intolerance (1916) [See Endnote 1]

“I don’t know how humanity stands it”
— Ezra Pound, Canto LXXIV, line 389 [See Endnote 2]

The Great War, it was called. Arcadia before, desert after. D. W. Griffith, Karl Kraus, Ezra Pound grappled with it in epic ways.

In Vienna, Karl Kraus was writing his 800-page play to be performed on Mars, The Last Days of Mankind. In Hollywood, D. W. Griffith made Intolerance, which told four stories from different epochs — most memorably the fall of Babylon — and repeatedly intercut them. Ezra Pound was commencing his lifework, his “poem containing history,” The Cantos, intercuttings galore.

From the early 1960s, I have read and revisited Pound: The Cantos, the translations, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Mary de Rachewiltz’s Discretions, and more recent biographies. Pound’s epic, The Cantos, is a challenge to all poets who write about the world, culture, politics, history, as opposed to just the poet’s daily life. The Cantos and Pound’s translations, from the Chinese, Japanese, Anglo-Saxon, Provençal, Hindi, Latin, Italian, French, and ancient Egyptian, open worlds to us.

Though I never met Pound, I grieved at his death in 1972. Then in 1980, at Yale, at a conference on Pier Paolo Pasolini, five years after his assassination, I met Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz. She lived in Italy, but her father’s papers are at Yale and she was working on them there.

It was an incomparable moment for me. [See Endnote 3.] Since 1975, I had been translating, with Luciano Martinengo, Pasolini’s major poems: “The Ashes of Gramsci,” “The Tears of the Excavator,” “The Religion of My Time,” “Reality,” “A Desperate Vitality,” “Plan of Future Works,” and “Victory.” They — and the films, The Gospel According to Matthew, Arabian Nights, Salò, Hawks and Sparrows, Teorema, Medea, Decameron — are very great, up there with The Cantos. At Yale in 1980, I delivered my first-ever paper at my first-ever academic conference, on Pasolini, its title quoting a line from “Reality”: “‘I Am a Free Man’: Pasolini’s Poetry in America.” (Two years later, Random House’s Jonathan Galassi would publish our Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poems. John Calder would publish it in London in 1984, and twelve years later Jon Galassi would bring out a new edition at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

And now in 1980 at a Pasolini conference the daughter of one of the two poets most important in my tradition was before me. I told her how much I loved Pound’s poetry and translations, and her book Discretions. She quoted her father that the great virtue is curiosity. I would not know until much later that there had been bad blood between Mary and Pasolini.

In 2015, I found myself in the Pound castle, Brunnenburg, near Merano, in Italy, at the invitation of Mary, now 90, to deliver my only second-ever academic paper, “Ezra Pound in Patria Mia.” In 1912-13, Pound wrote the essay “Patria Mia” to grapple with the problems of creating an America culture.

I dedicated my paper to Emmett Till, on whom more later.

As I was writing “Ezra Pound in Patria Mia” in New York City, where I live, I was watching the Franklin and Eleanor hours of The Roosevelts documentary by Ken Burns on Public TV.

Pound hated FDR. My Pennsylvania Republican family really disliked him, too, but then they voted for him in 1936, as nearly everyone else did, because “that man in the White House” had saved the country from the worst of the Depression, as they and nearly everyone else felt. As a leftist Democrat, I love Franklin and Eleanor.

FDR, Churchill, and Stalin saved the world from Hitler. Pound was disastrously on the wrong side, for Mussolini, Hitler’s ally. And disastrously he harbored anti-Semitic feelings and broadcast his anti-Semitism for all to hear on Italian radio.

In 2002 Pound was to be honored in New York City with a plaque in the Poet’s Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the cathedral that the Episcopal diocese had stopped building until the Vietnam War ended.

But this man who wrote

I don’t know how humanity stands it
with a painted paradise at the end of it
without a painted paradise at the end of it
Canto LXXIV, lines 389-91

— this man’s often insane rants broadcast on Mussolini’s Italian fascist radio during World War II with countless anti-Semitic slurs as Jews were being exterminated, made his inclusion in the Cathedral impossible. Parishioners who were converts from Judaism and who had lost family in the Holocaust protested, as did others, and the Cathedral canceled the plaque.

A fellow poet in New York, Roland Legiardi-Laura (1953-2016), told me of his father, a GI in 1945 in Rome, who loved Pound’s poetry but hated his prejudices. Roland’s father found some of the Pound broadcast discs at Italian radio and destroyed them, trying in the only way he could to protect the great poet.

In the 1960s in Venice, Pound apologized to the gay Jewish Buddhist American universal poet Allen Ginsberg for his “stupid suburban prejudice” of anti-Semitism, and the younger poet blessed him. Anti-Semitism was pervasive in Pound’s generation among non-Jews, but usually spoken in whispers. The war gave Pound a microphone and a radio show so the whispers became shouts. Beyond the anti-Semitism, and overriding it, Pound’s official crime was that as a U.S. citizen, he had propagandised for the war-time enemy. He paid with internment at St. Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane in Washington, DC from 1945 to 1958.

In 1946, in San Francisco, Eleanor Roosevelt crafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, which she intended would become the International Magna Carta for all people everywhere. But no Roosevelt-administration poet like minor-league Archibald MacLeish (who was on the right side of World War II) could soar like Pound, who was on the wrong side.

A Mexican Communist, Diego Rivera, in some ways redeems Pound with his murals and especially the one commissioned, nearly completed, then destroyed by the Rockefellers. They founded Standard Oil, which became Exxon Mobil, which hid its research on climate change and funded climate change deniers, leading to the worst and worsening existential crisis for life as we know it on our planet. The mural, Man at the Crossroads, was at Rockefeller Center and was destroyed because Lenin was in it.

Never inside the country to raise the standard of living,
but always abroad to increase the profits of usurers
                                          dixit Lenin
Canto LXXIV, lines 164–166

Diego, a year younger than Pound, filled North America’s walls with atheist earthly paradises and hells and with meaning, for meaning is energy.

The destruction of Man at the Crossroads (making Lenin a nonperson) led to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Project Adminstration painting murals on tens of thousands of walls across the nation. And inspiring Philadelphia — home city of Pound and me and Penn (Friend William and University, Pound’s and my alma mater), to become, decades later, with more outdoor murals than any other city in the world, via the Mural Arts Program founded in the 1980s and directed by Jane Golden, housed in Thomas Eakins’ house — inspiring Philadelphia to become the Mural Capital of the World.

At Penn, in 1964, English professor Morse Peckham said, “The three greatest US artists are Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Ives.”

But what of a fourth, under Peckham’s nose, Pound, long ago of Penn?

Brilliant teacher of English Romantic literature, Peckham went on to edit the Variorum edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, anathema to climate change deniers. [See Endnote 4].

Pound shared the sense of injustice and outrage that today we invoke when we speak of the 1 per cent owning almost all. In 1968, in the United States, the average president of a company made 20 times what the average worker makes. Today it is 400 to 1. [See Endnote 5] Pound advocated the evaporation of money. It would have a shelf life of a month or so. Use it or lose it and never hoard it.

Ezra bound in jail, for 13 years in St. Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane in Washington, DC. Gosh! says the title character in the recognition scene in Pound’s translation of Sophokles’ Elektra made at St. Elizabeth’s. Gosh! the living language made in the madhouse cell and stuffed in a drawer. Gosh! How could a madman make so sublime a translation of Sophocles? But hide it he must, and mad he must remain else he could still be executed for treason. Gosh!

Lucky me, in 1989 Pound’s publisher New Directions asked me to consolidate the two variant manuscript versions of his Elektra into one for publication. I am a clumsy typist, but I made a new amalgam edition, the published, acting version, for ND and published by them. [See Endnote 6] I had seen one of the premier performances a year earlier at the Classic Stage Company in New York City’s East Village directed by Carey Perloff [Editor’s note: literary critic Marjorie Perloff’s daughter].

Like Pound going to live in London, in the early teens of the century, to witness the collapse of the British Empire, I came to New York City in 1967 to witness the consummation of our democratic republic, but alas the next year saw the collapse of peace and democracy, with the assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. In that momentous year, I invented the term “nostalgia for the future.”

Pound’s poetry mirrors the age of the cinema: so The
compares with D. W. Griffith’s pacifist experimental epic Intolerance of 1916 while, alas, Pound’s fascist ranting bears comparison, alas, with The Birth of a Nation from the previous year, with its conclusion, alas, that the Ku Klux Klan is the savior of the nation. Dead before, now reborn, its history whitewashed by Griffith’s fabulously popular and persuasive film, the Klan embarked on new phases of terror and lynching.

Intolerance is often called Griffith’s apology, though he considered it his rebuke to his critics. In it, four separate stories — about the evils of industrialism in early twentieth-century America, the fall of Babylon, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the French Protestant Huguenots, and Jesus’ last days — are repeatedly intercut: beginning, wrote Griffith, like four separate rivers that converge to become finally one mighty torrent. In a recurring linking device, a woman (played by Lillian Gish) in ancient garb rocks a cradle — illustrating the title card “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” words of Walt Whitman — linking the first great American poet to the American Father of Cinema to the next generation’s great American poet, Pound.

In Intolerance’s utopian coda, jails vanish, War ends, white people frolic in peace, and a superimposed cross joins hillside multitude to heavenly host. Griffith on Intolerance: “We have found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever.”

I have made preliminary investigation and cannot discover if Pound saw or heard about Intolerance. [See Endnote 7] The film’s London premiere on April 7, 1917, was a great success, helped enormously because the day before, the United States had entered the war. Pound was living in London. The symphony orchestra conductor Sir Thomas Beecham attended the premiere; Pound worked with Beecham in 1917, making a translation of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. [See Endnote 8] So it is likely that Pound saw or knew about Intolerance. There are similarities between The Cantos and Intolerance. Griffith, though, after Intolerance, abandoned the intercutting of epochs. Pound made his half-century-long epic on just such intercutting, the mind leaping among epochs and continents. [See Endnote 9]

Now: Till, the Tills: father Louis, son Emmett:

1945: Pisa

and Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings…
— Canto 74, lines 171–172

In late August 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi, when he dared speak to a local white woman. Because of this violation of insane Jim Crow etiquette, he was kidnapped, tortured, and beaten to death. It was from the martyred body of Emmett Till that the civil rights movement took root, grew, and flourished against overwhelming odds.

Born 1922, Emmett’s father, Louis, had had a restraining order taken out on him for beating his wife. A judge, a white judge, in Jim Crow Missouri gave him a choice: jail or the army. He chose the latter. While serving in Italy, he was accused of the rape and murder of an Italian woman, was court-martialed, and hanged in Pisa in 1945. For a time, Pound and Till were fellow prisoners in the detention camp at Pisa.

Was Louis unjustly executed? It appears he may have been, as another Penn graduate John Edgar Wideman speculates in Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.[See Endnote 10]

During the period of Italian fascism, 1922 to 1945, Pound’s soul became poisoned with anti-Semitism.

Where — oh Ezra, named surely for the Old Testament scribe — where would we be without those Jews invoked by Pasolini in “Plan of Future Works”? [See Endnote 11]

Oh Marx — all is gold — oh Freud — all
is love — oh Proust — all is memory —
oh Einstein — all is end — oh Chaplin — all

is man — oh Kafka — all is terror

I would add:

oh Chomsky and the Chomskometer
oh Karl Kraus and The Last Days of Mankind
oh Charles Reznikoff and Testimony: The United States (1885-1890)
oh Eliot Weinberger — all is 9/12
oh Naomi Klein — all is disaster capitalism
oh Susan Sontag — all is the Republic of the Serious
oh Amy Goodman — all is Democracy Now
oh Mahler and your songs of the earth
oh Claude Cahun and your Heroines
oh Bob Holman and your Bowery Poetry Dreams
oh Nancy Miller Elliott, you Bowery Rembrandt
oh Masha Gessen, all is migration
oh gay Jewish Buddhist American universal poet Allen Ginsberg

Still, Pound is eternal. After his death I wrote these lines:

Ghosts in a grove of bonsai maples,
tiny Linnaeus, Mozart, Pound.

In these years of the Black Lives Matter movement, I dedicate my words to Emmett Till.

Copyright © 2018 by Norman MacAfee

Norman MacAfee in August 2017 in Mexico City at Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli museum, in front of recently discovered studies for the Rockefeller Center mural. Photo by Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes. Copyright © 2017 Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes.

Norman MacAfee is working on a poem-opera, Man at the Crossroads, about Diego Rivera’s mural of that title, painted at Rockefeller Center in 1934, then destroyed because it included Lenin among its 236 figures. He is also translating, with Luciano Martinengo, the poetry of Piera Oppezzo (1934–2005).


Three pages of drawings of Pound and Pasolini: As part of a month-long retrospective of his films and other works, “Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Eyes of a Poet,” the Italian actress Laura Betti and I presented a reading on May 3, 1990, of his poems in the Museum of Modern Art’s Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1. Besides us, the other readers included Isabella Rossellini, Jennifer Beals, Judith Malina, William Allen, Hanon Reznikov, and Tomás Milián.

Around this time, I was able to view at MoMA’s Film Library something I had only heard about: the to me two most important 20th-century poets together, Pasolini interviewing Pound for Italian television. As I watched them onscreen, I sketched them without looking at the paper. The interview is now available on YouTube. It was broadcast in 1968, but my noting “1967” probably means that it was filmed that year. At: Here.

The scribbling:

“Here error is all in the not done.”
Confession of a poet 1967 —
begins with “Ashes of Gramsci” —
Guido was what he wanted to be.
& continues


PPP and EP
Sublime meeting
Perhaps only PPP could understand EP
You honor me with your trust

Guido was Pasolini’s only sibling, three years younger, more athletic, straight, killed at nineteen in the war.

Pound Pasolini, image 1
Pound Pasolini, image 2
Pound Pasolini, image 3

Drawings copyright © 1990, 2018 by Norman MacAfee


Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs;
and vice versa.

[Endnote 1] Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Prentice-Hall 1969), p. 183.

[Endnote 2] Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, edited and annotated with an introduction by Richard Sieburth (New Directions 2003).

[Endnote 3] Pier Paolo Pasolini, Poems, selected and translated by Norman MacAfee with Luciano Martinengo (Farrar Straus & Giroux 1994).

[Endnote 4] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species : A Variorum Text, Morse Peckham, editor (University of Pennsylvania Press 2006)

[Endnote 5] Jim Webb, “Class Struggle,” Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2006; Alyssa Davis and Lawrence Mishel, “CEO Pay Continues to Rise as Typical Workers Are Paid Less,” Economic Policy Institute Report, June 12, 2014.

[Endnote 6] Sophokles, Elektra, a version by Ezra Pound and Rudd Fleming, with an introduction and production notes by Carey Perloff (New Directions 1990).

[Endnote 7] Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (Simon and Schuster 1984), pp. 344-5.

[Endnote 8] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume I (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 284, 299.

[Endnote 9] D. W. Griffith, Intolerance (Cohen Film Collection, 2013).

[Endnote 10] Scribner, 2016.

[Endnote 11] Pasolini, Poems, p. 197.


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