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Sean Mark, Pound and Pasolini: Poetics of Crisis

Jonathan Pollock
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Sean Mark, Pound and Pasolini: Poetics of Crisis, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2023, 392 p., ISBN 978-3-030-91947-4, 105.49€.

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1Sean Mark’s in-depth study of Pound and Pasolini, subtitled Poetics of Crisis, is a remarkable piece of scholarship, beautifully written, masterfully organised, and which reads almost like the plot of a detective novel; for it is ultimately an attempt to understand why Pier Paolo Pasolini, left-wing poet, intellectual, and film-maker, should have been increasingly drawn to Ezra Pound, propagandist for Mussolini and unrepentant fascist, to the point of interviewing him on national television in October 1967 and of quoting him extensively in his final works. And, by extension, Pasolini’s fascination is an allegory for our own, Mark enabling us to better comprehend why we continue to celebrate the works of such unsavoury authors and political reprobates as Ezra Pound, Louis Ferdinand Céline, or Martin Heidegger. Pound and Pasolini is not just another arbitrary pairing of two modernist authors in the “compare and contrast” style common to the field of comparative literature; although the early chapters might appear to begin in that vein, it soon becomes clear that this is a study in reception, influence, and appropriation, and Mark goes on to show how crucially instrumental Pasolini was in rendering Pound “acceptable” for future nonpartisan readerships in Italy and beyond.

2Mark’s starting point is the televised encounter of 1967 (fully transcribed and translated in the appendix), before circling back and encompassing both poets’ trajectories in order to explain how such an encounter was no mere media coup, and anything but anecdotal. The common ground, of course, was Italy itself. Pound settled in Rapallo in 1924. Except for the 13 years he spent in St Elizabeth’s Hospitable for the Criminally Insane in Washington, DC, he remained in Italy until his death in 1972. Born in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power, Pasolini was murdered on a beach near Rome in 1975, in circumstances still not fully elucidated. Rather than adopting an artistic aloofness as regards the political and socioeconomic turmoil Italy was prey to for much of the twentieth century, both poets threw themselves into the fray, proffering abundant comment and advice in the country’s newspapers and (in Pound’s case) on national radio. Given their respective political allegiances, one would expect that Pound and Pasolini be confined essentially to outlining their differences; all the more surprising, then, is Mark’s careful plotting of the asymptotes of their convergence. For this he is admirably equipped, his familiarity with Italian culture and history allowing him to abundantly exploit the sunken continent of Pound’s Italian-language output.

3After addressing the question, “Why read Pound and Pasolini together?” in the introduction (“Pound and/or Pasolini”), Mark centres the preliminary chapter on the 1967 Venice interview, framing it from a historical perspective. The first subpart, “Encounters,” explores the pivotal role played by Allen Ginsberg in bringing the two poets together; then, “Civil War” explores Pound and Pasolini’s antagonistic positions in the 1940s and 1950s, before “Ghosts and Benedictions” presents the detailed circumstances of their interview for broadcast on national television. The second chapter, “Creatures Facing Backwards,” establishes one of the major characteristics that Pound and Pasolini have in common:

without the shared sense of the presentness of the past, and of the poet charged with its recovery, no encounter between them could take place; only when facing backwards do they look the same way. (111)

4Mark shows how they engage with a similar cultural tradition, from Greco-Roman classics to the medieval romance canon, before examining more closely the role played by troubadour song “in their early pursuit of a poetic idiom closer to an idea of natural speech” (“Spirit of Romance,” xlviii). The construction of poetic personae is the subject of “Congenial Ancestries,” whereas “Nekuia” looks at their unorthodox translation techniques: both Pound and Pasolini saw translation as a means to “invent and circulate a tradition able to accommodate their own work within it” (xlviii). Finally, “Barbarians” explores their ambivalence towards philological practice and their preference for “a libidinal ethos of dilettantism over connaisseurship—with its bourgeois or pretentious connotations” (104).

5If these opening chapters deftly charter what remains, for the most part, familiar territory for scholars, the third chapter, “Exposition,” devoted to “the nexus of pedagogy and politics” (150), makes inroads into less explored ground. In their respective construction of the figure of the poet as educator, both Pound and Pasolini place the revelation of truth above logical argument (hence the subtitle of the first section: “Revelations”). In “Passion and Ideology,” the two poets, having cast themselves as castigators of the ills of society, are shown to “aestheticise the political and politicise their art” (141). Even more radically, they poeticise politics in the language of faith, espousing a religious conception of the political. Mark suggests that in both cases, theirs is “a politics born of grief” (149), Pound having lost his closest friend, Henri Gaudier Brzeska, in the trenches of the First World War, and Pasolini his partisan brother in the skirmishes of 1945. Indeed, the Cantos in their entirety may be conceived of as a literary tombeau in homage to the young French sculptor, “A man of no fortune, and with a name to come” (Canto I, 4).

6“Fundamentally,” writes Mark, “the prospect of cultural revolution to which Pound and Pasolini are drawn is a regressive one—an alternative to mass culture […] in which the poet leads the way” (143). But in order to side with Pound, Pasolini must first gloss over “the ‘Caesarism’ of Pound’s politics, how in thrall he was to Mussolini” (144). The next section, “Crisis-Writing,” reframes the “action-texts” of both poets as alternative pedagogies, and attributes the impracticality of what they advocate to “a poetics of the lost cause” (163). The final section of the chapter, “Pure Opposition,” entertains the idea of a distinct Italian Pound, as opposed to a more cautious American Pound. As Mark points out, “speaking a foreign language […] unbridled his expression” (169). Despite the claims of Pound’s most recent biographer, David Moody, the idea that Pound’s vision of fascism was at a far remove from actual fascism is impossible to uphold in the light of the Italian material. Indeed, “the aspect of Pound’s fascism that has been most neglected is its banality” (171), his pamphlets and broadcasts simply reformulating regime rhetoric. But if “Pound’s fascism was not the fruit of folly or radical incomprehension” (172), how are we to explain Pasolini’s increasing sympathy for the American’s political gesticulations?

Though dismissing their ideas, Pasolini finds Pound’s pamphlets appealing in their anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois insurgence—in short their ‘gesture’ of refusal. […] Through the loose notion of ‘gesture,’ Pasolini channels the vigour of Pound’s antagonism as form, divorced from the specificity of its content. (178)

In other words, he provides Pasolini with a “provocative authorial ethos through which to voice certain ideas and energies” (178).

7In Route of All Evil, the Nobel-Prize winner Meghnad Dasai debunks the political economy of Ezra Pound. But in so doing, he misses the essential point: in the wake of Emerson and Mallarmé, Pound conceives of money as a system of symbolic values, i.e. as a language. This is why he can envisage poetry as a means of correcting political economy. Sean Mark’s fourth chapter, “An Economy of Signs,” demonstrates how Pound and Pasolini both condemn capitalism’s impact on language and art (“Reality’s Written Language”) and attempt to coin new languages founded on the image, via the “ideogrammatic method” in Pound’s case, or a “cinema of poetry” in Pasolini’s (“Lapsus”). The link between image and text is further explored in the section “The Age Demanded an Image,” while “The End of the Avant-Garde” situates the two poets in relation to twentieth-century avant-garde experiment. Finally, “New Techniques” shows how Pasolini’s late verse channels Pound’s “phatic chatter” in an attempt to resist commodification. Interestingly, having “invested so heavily in the transformative power of language,” both poets end up renouncing “the validity of the verbal” (289).

8“Failure,” the fifth and last chapter, begins by tracing Poundian elements in Pasolini’s late work (“The Record/The Palimpsest”). Like the Cantos, Petrolio harnesses the dynamic force of the vortice in its “[s]earch for a ‘magmatic’ or agglutinative form, able to contain a wealth of highly variegated elements” (261). Indeed, form is the content of these works, centred upon the very act of their construction. The following sections, “Paradiso Perduto” and “Katechon,” explore Pasolini’s appropriation of Pound’s poetry and ideas, for example in his film Salò, in which a passage of Canto XCIX can be heard over the radio. Indeed, Pasolini considered this particular Canto a “key to the Cantos’ plot, which is to be sought […] in ‘the backward “march” to the heart of the peasant world (symbolised by ancient China)’” (285). For Pasolini, the American poet embodies “that which is lost in the apocalypse of modernity—the bond with the past, the agrarian, the particular—and, in so doing, acts as a bulwark against the kind of lawlessness of power allegorised in Salò” (290). Thus, “Pound’s ideology is co-opted heretically, as a political instrument against the secularising totalitarianism of consumerism, a symbolically ordered sanctum in the erasure of history and nature” (288). The final section, “The End of the Poet,” looks at the implications of this reconciliatory reading for our current reception of Pound.

9In an article for the Magazine littéraire, the novelist and film-maker Gérard Mordillat claims: “Avec le vingtième siècle, deux grands navires s’éloignent : le navire Joyce, le navire Proust… Ulysse rentre à la maison, le temps est retrouvé, l’aventure romanesque s’achève”; and he directs the reader’s attention towards two montains shrouded in mist: “Deux montagnes magiques, deux monts analogues : la montagne Ezra Pound, le mont Antonin Artaud. Deux œuvres qui pèsent sur notre présent d’un poids insoupçonné” (31). Pasolini too is often heralded as “A Thinker for the Twenty-First Century” (336). In the coda to his study, entitled “Afterlives,” Sean Mark examines the lasting influence that Pound and Pasolini exert on contemporary art and thought: “More than poets of our economic age, they are poets of the crisis of our economic age,” portrayed together in Hostia, a monumental painting made by Nicola Verlato in 2014. But for all this, Mark’s impeccable critical study seriously curtails any further temptation at hagiography, so uncompromising is his exposure of Pound’s unrepentant fascism. Is this to say that a poem by a fascist is necessarily a fascist poem? Mark concedes that Pound’s “totalitarian poetics” come undone in the postwar Cantos: there is a steady relinquishing of authoriality, a broader openness to inconsistency. He quotes mainly from the pamphlets as evidence of Pound’s fascism, for example: “Unless you have put order inside yourself, you cannot be an element of order in the party” (310). However, even here the insistence on order is not just of fascist import. Pound’s phrase is in fact a reworking of his translation of the Confucian classic, Daxue: “having attained self-discipline, [the Ancients] set their own houses in order; having order in their own homes, they brought good government to their own states” (Pound, 1969 33). Likewise, when Mark observes that Pound’s “ideogrammatic method,” i.e. the apparently haphazard juxtaposition of particular facts and events in a single Canto, means that “the time-consuming job of filling in the gaps is left to the reader, who must […] do the bothersome work alone, as long as the same conclusions are reached” (180), he again omits to mention the Confucian heritage. In his translation of the Analects, Pound nevertheless indicates: “I hold up one corner (of a subject), if [the student] cannot turn the other three, I do not repeat (come back to the matter)” (Pound, 1969 219). If there is no denying Pound’s fascism, I would contend that Pound’s poetics are less totalitarian than Confucian (according to Pound’s own idiosyncratic understanding of ancient Chinese thought).

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Bibliographie

DASAI, Meghnad. Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 2006.

MOODY, David. Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man and his Work, 3 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007-2015.

MORDILLAT, Gérard. “Artaud, mauvais sujet.” Magazine littéraire, no. 434, 2004 : 31.

POUND, Ezra. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1996.

POUND, Ezra. Confucius. New York: New Directions, 1969.

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Jonathan Pollock, « Sean Mark, Pound and Pasolini: Poetics of Crisis »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21268 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21268

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Jonathan Pollock

Université de Perpignan-Via Domitia

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