'Selected Letters': the musings and madness of Ezra Pound

March 27, 1994|By Daniel Mark Epstein

These letters between the eminent poet and his publisher read like the climactic scenes of a tragic opera, a curious coloratura duet. Beginning in 1933, when Ezra Pound, 48, was living in Italy and James Laughlin was a sophomore at Harvard, their correspondence tracks the dissolution of a great intelligence, Pound's descent into madness and isolation during World War II.

Mr. Laughlin first wrote to Pound hoping to visit the poet in Rapallo. He wanted to learn how to read the poet's new Cantos and understand his preference for certain contemporary writers: presume to disturb you, because I am in a position (editor Harvard Advocate and Hark- ness Hoot) to reach the few men in the two universities (Harvard and Yale) who are worth bothering about, and could do a better job of it with your help." Pound received the eager student. He began to educate Mr. Laughlin in the "modernist" aesthetic, as he had done with generations of writers before him.

In a few months Pound was addressing Laughlin as Nilectus Filius (Beloved Son): "Signed on yester day a/m/ with Routledge of LONDON for a tex book on licherchoor/ one up again for the deCAYdent Britons/as being more alert than the smart yankee publishers."

The deliberate misspellings, puns and dialect in Pound's letters are sometimes amusing, often silly. They can also be exasperating, as the reader struggles to decipher, with the aid of David Gordon's footnotes, such sentences as "Huge sassy on Binbin's HELL being got up, by that conservative edtr (i.e.; hiz minions)." Mr. Gordon's notes provide fitful support. In this case, neglects to tell us that "Binbin's HELL" refers to Lawrence Binyon's translation of Dante, or that "sassy" means essay -- meanwhile pedantically citing the year and month of the article's publication in the Criterion.

Mr. Laughlin approaches Pound as a student, a fan and aspiring poet. It soon becomes clear that Pound does not take him seriously as a poet but will embrace him warmly as a disciple, a foot-soldier in the glorious war for Kulchur. Pound has a clear agenda in the letters he writes to the wealthy young man, two or three a month during the 1930s.

As the poet produces his new Cantos, he wants them published in the best magazines; he wants to see his book of essays, "Jefferson and/or Mussolini," in hard covers, along with new books by William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings; and with increasing urgency Pound requires an American forum for his messianic writings on economics and politics. He expects Mr. Laughlin to help.

Pound writes to Mr. Laughlin on Dec. 10, 1935: "Faber bumblin about ny nexx bk/ ov Essays/ I.E. they NOT wanting what I am interested in/ I HAD a real book planned, but it contained Jeff/Muss/Chinese Writ/Character and Ta Hio . . ." Mr. Laughlin is only 20 but the handwriting is already on the wall. His mentor is cultivating in him an American publisher, friend and cheerleader. The power of Ezra Pound's personality is legendary. Soon the docile Mr. Laughlin is acting as an American agent, placing Pound's poems and propaganda in magazines, even re-writing an essay so diffuse that only extensive revision could make it acceptable to the North American Review.

According to Mr. Gordon's introduction, "For Laughlin's graduation from Harvard in 1939 his father gave him $100,000." This contradicts a letter dated 1938 in which Mr. Laughlin announces that his father has died, leaving everything to his mother -- as well as evidence that the student left Harvard before graduating. Be that as it may. Somehow he got $100,000. With it he founded New Directions, the publishing house that printed all of Pound's poetry, translations and essays.

As Pound's pro-Fascist propaganda grew more strident, more virulently anti-Semitic, it became very difficult for Mr. Laughlin to defend the poet's reputation in America. After a sales tour in November 1939, the publisher writes: "In most stores they refuse to stock your books. Either they say they won't have them because you are a Fascist, or they say that youth has lost interest in you . . . But your poetry -- like that of mr. propertius -- will have virtues to survive . . ."

At this point the 25-year-old publisher stands up to his mentor and finds his own voice. In an extraordinary sequence of letters, 1939-1941, Mr. Laughlin emerges heroic as he plays the loyal and honest Kent to Pound's raging King Lear.

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