The Ever-Enigmatic Ezra Pound: From Foreign Languages to Fascism

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Does anyone know how hard it is to get a hold of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? I mean, they don’t even have the damn thing on eBook and they have everything on eBook these days. Since I have boycotted Amazon for their unacceptable treatment of Hachette, the less popular titles I’m after have started to seem less attainable. (While Amazon is a nasty monopoly who is literally squeezing money out of the fragile publishing industry, they have an unparalleled selection.) But as a principled book buyer, I went to Strand, talked to a human, ordered the book, waited two days (agony), and picked it up. I sort of felt like Ezra Pound was playing hard to get.

I liked Ezra Pound ever since I read this quote: “Use either no ornament or good ornament.” I’m entirely guilty of the occasional mediocre ornament, but this simple, straightforward statement on writing made me feel an immediate kinship with him. Then I started reading his biography…

Ezra Pound was a fascist. He supported Hitler and Mussolini, wrote for fascist publications, and was prosecuted as a traitor of the United States of America. How could I possibly like a poet like that!?

But that raises the question, do you have approve of the artist to like the art?

The recent Wood Allen Controversy has made many avid fans answer this question. After his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow came forward with an open letter accusing Allen of sexual abuse, fans and colleagues had to decide if this mattered. Are Allen’s films now ruined because he’s a bad person? People don’t argue if Allen’s films are good. Everyone knows they are. But does his personal life change the way we feel about them?

I decided I could live with Ezra Pound’s political past, separate the poems from the poet. The poems are good. Undeniably good, but they’re also pretentious and alienating. Pound alludes to obscure figures in classical mythology and switches without warning into Italian and Greek. The reader gets the feeling that he’s got something to prove. I wish my hard-to-get copy was footnoted, but even without fully understanding the content of Pound’s poems I am still drawn to them. I sit in my room, reading the poems aloud, feeling delight at the lines that are just perfect. Below is my favorite Canto thus far.

 

Canto V

Great bulk, huge mass, thesaurus;

Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out

The bride awaiting the god’s tough; Ecbatan

City of patterned streets; again the vision:

Down in the viae stradae, toga’d the crowd, and arme’d,

Rushing on the populous business,

And from parapet looked down

And North was Egypt

The celestial Nile, blue deep

Cutting low barren land,

Old men and camels

Working the water-wheels;

Iamblichus’ light,

The souls ascending

Sparks like a partridge covey,

Like the “ciocco”, brand struck in the game.

“Et omniformis”: Air, fire, the pale soft light.

Topaz I manage, and three sorts of blue;

But on the barb of time.

The fire? Always, and the vision always,

Ear dull, perhaps, with the vision, flitting

And fading at will.     Weaving with points of gold,

Gold-yellow, saffron…     The roman shoe, Aurunculeia’s

And come shuffling feet, and cries “Da nuces!

“Nuces!” praise, and Hymenaeus “brings the girl to her man”

Or “here Suxtus had seen her.”

Titter of sound about me, always

And from “Hesperus…”

Hush of the older song: “Fades light from sea-crest,

“And in Lydia walks with pair’d women

“Peerless among the pairs, that ones in Sardis

“In satieties…

Fades the light from the sea, and many things

“Are set abroad and brought to mind of thee”

And the vinestocks lie untended, new leaves come one the shoots,

North wind nips on the bough, and seas in heart

Toss up chill crests,

And the vine stocks lie untended

And many things are set abroad and brought to mind

Of thee, Atthis, unfruitful.

The talks ran long into the night.

And from Mauleon, fresh with a new earned grade,

In maze of approaching rain-steps, Poicebot—

The air was full of women,

And Savairic Mauleon

Gave him his land and knight’s fee, and he wed the woman.

Came lust of travel on him, of romerya;

And out of England a knight with slow-lifting eyelids

Lei fassa furar a del, put glamour upon her…

And left her an eight months gone

“Came lust of women upon him,”

Poicebot, now on north road from Spain

(Sea-change, a grey in the water)

And in small house by town’s edge

Found a woman, changed and familiar face;

Hard night, and parting at morning.

 

And Pieire won the singing, Pieire de Maensac,

Song or land on the throw, and was dreitz hom

And had De Tierci’s wife and with the war they made:

Troy in Auvergnat

While Menelaus piled up the curch at port

He kept Tyndarida.   Dauphin stood with de Maensac.

 

John Borgia is bathed at last.           (Clock-tick pierces the vision)

Tiber, dark with the cloak, wet cat gleaming in patches.

Click of the hooves, through garbage,

Clutching the greasy stone. “And the clock floated.”

Slander is up betimes.

But Varchi of Florence,

Steeped in a different year, and pondering Brutus,

Then Σιγα μαλ ανΘις σεντεραν!

“Dog-eye!!”” (to Alessandro)

“Whether for love of Florence,” Varchi leaves it,

Saying  “I saw the man, came up with him at Venice,

“I, one wanting the facts,

“And no means labor… Or for a privy spite?”

Our Benedetto leaves it,

O empia? For Lorenzaccio had thought of stroke in the open

But uncertain (for the Duke went never unguarded)

“And would have thrown him from the wall

“Yet feared this might not end him,” or lest Alessandro

Know not by whom death came, O se credesse

“If when the foot slipped, when death came upon him,

“Lest cousin Duke Alessandro think he had fallen alone,

“No friend to aid him falling.”

Caina attende.

The lake of ice there below me.

And all of this, runs Varchi, dreamed out beforehand

In Perugia, caught in the star-maze by Del Carmine,

Cast on a natal paper, set with an exegesis, told,

All told to Alessandro, told thrice over,

Who held his death for a doom.

In abuleia.      But Don Lorenzino

Whether for love of Florence…but

“O se morisse, credesse caduto da sé”

Σιγα σιγα

Schiavoni, caught on the wood-barge,

Gives out the afterbirth, Giovanni Borgia,

Trails out no more at nights, where Barabello

Prods the Pope’s elephant, and gets no crown, where Mozarello

Takes the Calabrian roadway, and for ending

Is smothered beneath a mule,

a poet’s ending,

Down a stale well-hole, oh a poet’s ending.           “Sanazarro

“Alone out of all the court was faithful to him”

For the gossip of Naples’ trouble drifts to North,

Fracastor (lightning was midwife) Cotta, and Ser D’Alviano,

Al poco giorno ed al gran cerchio d’ombra,

Talk the talks out with Navighero,

Burner of yearly Martials

(The slavelet is nourned in vain)

And the next comer says “Were nine wounds,

“Four men, white hourse. Held on the saddle before him…”

Hooves clink and slick on the cobbles.

Schiavoni…cloak… “Sink the damn thing!”

Splash wakes that chap on the wood-barge.

Tiber catching the nap, the moonlit velvet,

A wet cat gleaming in patches.

“Se pia,” Varchi,

“O empia, ma risoluto

“E terribile deliberazione.”

Both sayings rule in the wine,

Ma se morisse!

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Remainder by Tom McCarthy

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The characters in the novels of the postwar moment are characterized by a determined, almost defensive normalcy. Characters that break the mold of the defined “normal” flaunt their otherness in the face of the conventional, challenging the ordinary. While these characters delight readers with their unapologetic oddness, they also confront society’s vision of normality causing the normal characters to react to this challenging of their values. In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the nameless protagonist has suffered a mysterious accident, causing him to have to relearn basic physical behaviors. While he reviews how to perform physical tasks, his cognitive and emotional capacity has clearly been affected. He no longer feels natural in the world he inhabits, rather he feels as though he hardly exists. After winning eight and a half million dollars in a settlement, the protagonist is able to pursue his bizarre fantasy of acting out mundane scenarios over and over; these re-enactments make him feel real, even though the events are entirely staged. Fascinatingly, the supposed “normal” characters are roped into his concept, accepting his orders in return for money. By the end of the novel, the protagonist has managed to involve an enormous number of people in his fantasy, people who seem to do his bidding without questioning his motives. The protagonist in the Remainder spreads his “otherness”, expanding London’s perception of the “normal” through his re-enactments. However, his disregard for human life surpasses the sphere of the natural and enters into the realm of the deviant and inhuman.

The protagonist’s greatest desire is to feel natural and real in a world of which he no longer feels a part. He believes there is too much thought associated with his actions, which frustrates him immensely: “That’s the way I had to do things after the accident: understand them first, then do them.” (McCarthy, 14) He watches a movie starring Robert De Niro, admiring the naturalness of his motions, his realness: “He flows into his movements, even the most basic ones. Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes. He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” (McCarthy, 24) Initially the protagonist sees himself as abnormal and De Niro as normal, the unnaturalness of his movements a sign of unusualness. His friend, Greg convinces him, however, that unnaturalness is actually more ordinary than naturalness. “You’re not unusual. You know what you are?…You’re just more usual than everyone else.” (McCarthy, 24) In this scene, our protagonist is deemed extra-ordinary, which begins his foray into extraordinary behavior. Thus, it is in a desire for normalcy, that the protagonist delves into the distinctly abnormal.

The protagonist’s plans start relatively small. He initially wants to create a house for himself that mimics a scene that may or may not have happened. When in the bathroom at a party, he has a moment of intense déjà vu when looking at a crack in a wall. This moment of memory or imagination makes the protagonist feel real for the first time since his accident. He thus decides he will spend his money on re-enacting this scene perfectly: “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would.” (McCarthy, 67) Thus, begins his concept of re-enactments. He hires a logistical “executor”, Naz, to help him realize his vision. (McCarthy, 77) Naz doesn’t treat the protagonist’s requests as odd, rather he responds as though the desires are perfectly natural. Naz’s enthusiasm for tackling logistical challenges quells any unvoiced doubts he may have about the sanity of the project. The protagonist recognizes in order to construct his fantasy world he will have to, “buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as [he] told them to.” (McCarthy, 69) Naz responds to the protagonist’s bizarre requests succinctly and unquestioningly. When the protagonist describes a certain woman he would like to be a part of his re-enactment, “There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me…her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly…She’ll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I’ll work out and assign to her,” Naz simply replies, “Understood…who next?” (McCarthy, 87) Naz’s affinity for logistics causes him to lose sight of the normal and be sucked into the protagonist’s otherness. Neither the protagonist nor Naz considers the lives of these re-enactors; they do not acknowledge that a continuous and physically exhausting job, dependent upon the whims of the protagonist could be unethical. While the protagonist has suffered a trauma, Naz has not, evidencing that the protagonist’s zeal and otherness is spreading to Naz who was previously “normal”.

The intricacy and immensity of the protagonist’s vision causes Naz to hire a huge number of staff members:

We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard. We hired contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers. There were site managers and sub-site managers, delivery coordinators, and coordination supervisors. We took on performers, props and wardrobe people, hair and make-up artists. We hired security guards. We fired the interior designer and hired another one. We hired people to liaise between Naz and the builders and managers and supervisors, and people to run errands for the liaisers so that they could liaise better. (McCarthy, 111)

As the staff grows, the protagonist’s sphere of influence grows larger, causing a large number of “normal” people to become involved in his abnormality. As the protagonist is the narrator, readers have little insight into the minds of his staff; however, their participation in his project suggests complicity. None of the people the protagonist hires to participate in his re-enactments question why he is doing these re-enactments. The only questions they ask are logistical. When explaining the pianist’s role in his re-enactment, the protagonist says, “You make mistakes…then you go over the passage you got wrong again, slowing right down into the bit where you messed up. You play it again and again and again—and then when you’ve got down how to do it without messing up, play it some more times, coming back to normal speed…you with me?” The pianist’s only response is, “I make the mistakes deliberately?” (McCarthy, 119) The obedient and unthinking behavior of the protagonist’s staff is nearly as odd as the protagonist’s vision itself. The protagonist spreads his peculiarity with the simple incentive of money. The compensation for their actions cause the staff not to question the idiosyncratic vision the protagonist is attempting to realize.

While the protagonist shows a blatant lack of concern for the convenience of his employees, even employing children at all hours to satisfy his desires, his re-enactment of a shooting reveals his lack of reverence for human life. He procures the part of the street where the shooting took place, not imagining that this re-enactment could be upsetting for the family of the dead man. He is only concerned with the “realness” of the event and must re-enact it. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it is real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams: with all their outlines, arrows and shaded blocks they look like abstract paintings…but they’re not abstract at all. They’re records of atrocities.” (McCarthy, 185) While the protagonist may not show reverence for the dead man’s life, he does actually honor him in his own way. “This man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extend of having no more consciousness of them.” (McCarthy, 198) The supposed “normal” people are not having the same semi-reverent experience with the dead man; none of them have undergone a trauma like the protagonist. Their concept of humanity should not be affected, yet, they participate in a re-enactment that, in their view, should be considered unethical. These people should be held to a higher moral standard, yet the prospect of money causes them to forget their qualms about impersonating a recent death. The protagonist has extended the morally acceptable with and money.

As the novel progresses, Naz becomes increasingly affected and obsessed with exacting the protagonist’s vision. It isn’t the re-enactments themselves that excite him, rather the opportunity to put all of his logistical genius to work. The narrator notes a change in the behavior and demeanor of Naz, “He’d always been dedicated to my projects…but back then his dedication had been purely professional. Now, though, his inbuilt genius for logistics was mixed with something else: a kind of measured zeal, a quiet passion. He defended my work with a fierceness that was muted but unshakable.” (McCarthy, 233) Naz is grateful to the narrator for allowing him into his fantasy, providing him the opportunity to exert his logistical abilities. He says to the narrator, “‘Thank you…for the…just for the…I’ve never managed so much information before…’ His eyes were sparking now.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s suspicions are confirmed, “Yes. Naz was a zealot—but his zealotry wasn’t religious: it was bureaucratic. And he was drunk: infected, driven onwards, on towards a kind of ecstasy just by the possibilities of information management my projects were opening up for him, each one more complex, more extreme.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s abnormal desires allow Naz a professional opportunity that is inconceivable in the normal world. He pushes the boundaries of conventionality, which then allows Naz to also pursue his passion. However, Naz’s zealotry for his work soon competes with his humanity.

The narrator decides that he would like to re-enact a bank heist. He procures a warehouse and meticulously plans out the event. The narrator soon realizes that his re-enactment would be more genuine if it were a real bank heist. He decides to plan a re-enactment without obtaining permission of the bank or telling the re-enactors that the heist is real. The re-enactment becomes a real robbery. “In law we’d be robbing a bank. There were no two ways about it. In the eyes of the staff, the customers and bystanders and police it wouldn’t be a performance, a simulation, a re-staging: it would be a heist—pure and simple, straight up.” (McCarthy, 263) The narrator and Naz plan the heist, but soon realize that there is great potential for information leakage about their plan. Naz comes up with the plan to kill all of the re-enactors in planes. “One way to guarantee there’ll be no information leakage…is to eliminate the channels it could leak through.” (McCarthy, 274) When the protagonist asks Naz what he means by ‘eliminate’, Naz replies: “‘Eliminate…’ his voice was shaking so much it reminded me of spoons in egg-and-spoon races, the way they shake and rattle—as though the task of carrying what it had to say were too much…‘Remove, take out, vaporize.’” (McCarthy, 274) The narrator is unperturbed about the deaths of hundreds of people. His reply to Naz’s suggestion is, “Wow!…That’s beautiful.” (McCarthy, 276) At this point of the novel, the complete inhumanity and extreme otherness of the protagonist becomes clear; “I lay there for the rest of the night, picturing planes bursting, flowers dehiscing. I felt happy—happy to have seen such a beautiful image…My pyramid was like a Pharaoh’s pyramid. I was like the Pharaoh. There were my loyal servants…my reward to them was to allow them to accompany me on the first segment of my final voyage.” (McCarthy, 276) His lack of compassion for human beings and concern for human life turn his oddness and peculiarity into deviance.

The bank heist goes horribly wrong. One of the protagonist’s hired re-enactors is shot and killed during the re-enactment. “The only thing that moved was a deep red flow coming from Four’s chest. It emerged from his chest and advanced onto the carpet…‘Beautiful!’ I whispered.” (McCarthy, 291) It is not only the protagonist’s lack of concern about his employee’s death that point to his complete ambivalence toward human life. The fact that he does not know any of his employees’ names and refers to them as numbers further emphasizes his unnaturalness and inhumanity. When the other re-enactors try to call off the re-enactment, they realize that they have been duped, that the re-enactment was a real heist.  Naz’s reaction to the failure of the re-enactment and the messiness of the mistakes cause him to break down. “It wasn’t dramatic or hysterical: it was more like a computer crashing—the way the screen, rather than explode or send its figures dancing higgledy-piggledy around, simply freezes.” (McCarthy, 297-298)

Though the protagonist is responsible for the death of Four, it is still possible to consider his death an accident. However, that is not the case with the death of Two. The protagonist blatantly and needlessly shoots Two, simply because he feels like it. “Two was as far from me as Four had been when he, Two had shot him, Four, in the back…I shot him. It was half instinctive, a reflex, as I’d first suspected: to tug against the last solid thing there was, which was the trigger…but I’d be lying if I said it was only that that made me pull the trigger and shoot Two. I did it because I wanted to.” (McCarthy, 299)The protagonist feels no guilt or shame when Naz sees Two’s body. The protagonist cheerfully says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” (McCarthy, 300) At this point the normal and the deviant separate. While the protagonist is untroubled by the murder he just committed, Naz is unable to cope with the reality of death, particularly one that is messy and disorganized. “Naz didn’t answer. He just stood there, looked up, closed down, vacant.” (McCarthy, 300) While Naz is able to plan the conceptual murders of hundreds of people in planes, when faced with the reality of death he shuts down. Perhaps normal isn’t the right word for Naz, however he is more certainly more so that the protagonist who cheerfully considers the death of two of his nameless employees as “beautiful”. It is the protagonist who infects Naz with the his vision, the prospect of exercising his logistical genius with an intricate project. However, Naz is not entirely soulless. He is horrified at the prospect of a dead man in front of him, while the protagonist’s reaction to the death is happiness.

The narrator, in his effort to feel real and normal becomes abnormal and deviant. Though his actions allow for the gainful employment of hundreds of people, and provide professional opportunities for people like Naz, his expansion of the realm of the normal snaps with his decision to kill all of his employees. His enormous amount of wealth allows him to challenge the status quo without being challenged by dubious staff. His oddness is initially acceptable, despite some of his unethical practices, like making people, adults and children work extreme hours and failing to learn his employees’ names. However once humans are harmed in the execution of his fantasy, he enters the realm of positive evil. While a character like Naz is certainly changed and affected by his association with the narrator, his humanity is not entirely lost like the protagonist’s. He still regards murder with shock and horror, rather than an unconcerned euphoria. While the protagonist expands London’s concept of normal, he eventually crosses the line. His otherness becomes blaring and unacceptable in the face of normality.

The Third Man by Graham Greene–The Bloody Fool: Rollo Martin’s Determined Belief in Harry Lime

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In Postwar Britain, the concept of “belief,” the trusting in the existence of something without tangible proof, was considered quaint and naïve. The “believers” in this period are viewed with the same sympathetic mirth as those who sleep with their doors unlocked only to have their mattress full of hundred dollar bills raided in the night. The viewers feel deep compassion for these people, combined with a peculiar envy for their innocence that is quickly combated by a “well, they had it coming” grimace. This compassionate vindictiveness is captured in the literature of the time. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopic government eventually thwarts Winson Smith’s belief in the existence of a possible future without Big Brother. In Kazou Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens’ belief in his employer’s goodness, and thus his value as a small influencer of the world’s improvement, is crushed with his acknowledgement of Mr. Darlington’s role as Hitler’s pawn. In both cases the “believers” are faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts their belief, however, it is only with reluctance that the protagonist eventually accepts the truth. Similarly, Rollo Martins in Graham Greene’s The Third Man doggedly sticks to his belief that his best friend, Harry Lime, is a good person, despite the evidence to the contrary. Martin’s belief in the goodness of Harry Lime, despite its erroneousness is what sets him apart in a world without faith or optimism. There is virtue attached to a character that refuses to acknowledge the corrupt state of the world, retaining faith in the notions of friendship and loyalty. Thus, Rollo Martins, through his naive beliefs, points towards a better world.

When Major Calloway informs Rollo Martins that Harry Lime, “was about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city,” (Greene, 25) Martins is entirely unwilling to accept this fact, even though it comes from a police officer, a person of authority. Martins immediately begins to size up the space between him and Calloway to see if he can reach him to hit him. At this moment Calloway thinks, “Martins, I began to realize, was dangerous.” Martins dangerousness, however, does not simply boil down to his propensity towards violence, rather it has more to do with his unwillingness to accept information, his questioning of authority, and his resolute belief that Harry Lime is a good man, a victim of police incompetency. Martins immediately places his suspicion onto the police and away from Harry Lime, “I’ve always hated policemen. They are always either crooked or stupid.” (Greene, 26) Martins goes as far to associate himself with Harry Lime’s work, so firm is his belief in Harry’s innocence, “Because if Harry was that kind of racketeer, I must be one too. We always worked together.” (Greene, 26)

Martin’s naïveté is highlighted when he recalls their early friendship, which provides the reader with a view of Lime to which Martins is entirely unaware, “But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.” (Greene, 24) While Martins remains blissfully oblivious of the implications of this statement, Calloway and the reader are immediately suspicious. Calloway replies, “That was convenient for Lime,” (Greene, 24) suggesting that Harry had manipulated Martins in the past, and perhaps is not the hero that Martins believes he is. Martins catches the insinuation in Calloway’s statement and replies angrily, “What the hell do you mean…That was my fault not his. He could have found someone cleverer if he’d chosen, but he liked me.” (Greene, 24) While Martins places the blame on himself for being caught after executing Harry’s plans, he similarly places the blame on the police for Harry’s alleged reputation as a racketeer. “I suppose there was some petty racket going on with petrol and you couldn’t pin it on anyone, so you picked a dead man. That’s just like a policeman.” (Greene, 24) Martins’ denial of the possibility of Harry’s culpability highlights his loyalty as well as his foolishness and naïveté.

When Calloway produces evidence of Harry’s wrongdoing with his dilution of penicillin, Martins cannot help but question his belief in his friend, however it takes Calloway several attempts to convey the reality of Harry’s crimes. “They begin to dilute the penicillin with coloured water, and, in the case of penicillin dust, with sand. I keep a small museum in one drawer in my desk, and I showed Martins examples. He wasn’t enjoying the talk, but he hadn’t yet grasped the point.” (Greene, 80) Martins’ faith in Harry Lime is so firm that he cannot initially understand the severity of Lime’s crimes. He replies, “I suppose that makes the stuff useless.” (Greene, 80) Calloway explains that the harm caused by the diluted drug is worse than simple ineffectiveness; indeed, the diluted penicillin caused infections, unnecessary amputations, and deaths. Then Calloway plays his trump card, bringing up the undisputable evil of poisoning innocent children. “But perhaps what horrified me most was visiting the children’s hospital here. They had bought some of this penicillin for use against meningitis. A number of children simply died, and a number went off their heads. You can see them now in the mental ward.” (Greene. 80-81)

Martins’ loyalty to Harry is so paramount, that even the use of innocent children doesn’t entirely convince him. He replies, “You haven’t showed me any evidence yet…” While Martins is determined to believe in his hero, Harry Lime, without any evidence to his goodness, he is unwilling to accept the horrors his hero is accused of without sufficient evidence. Once the proof is presented, however, Martins feels his world crashing around him. “If one watched a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years ago in a school corridor.” (Greene, 82) While the reader watches the dissolution of Martins’ belief in Harry Lime, Martins still questions the charges leveled against his hero. “Are you certain that he was the real boss.” (Greene, 82) Martins’ faith stretches far enough to invent yet another conspiracy that could clear his friend, “Suppose…someone had got a line on him, forced him into this racket, as you forced Harbin to double-cross…And they murdered him in case he talked when he was arrested.” (Greene, 82-83) Even after Martins is presented with evidence against Lime, he is still determined to explore every avenue that could possibly clear him. He is unwilling to give up his belief until he is entirely certain of Harry’s culpability, until he is faced with Harry himself.

It is only when Martins is faced with Harry Lime’s lack of guilt at his victims’ deaths that Martins’ belief in Harry’s goodness is finally crushed. Martins says, “Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you ever seen any of your victims?” (Greene, 104) Martins’ use of the word victims shows his acknowledgement of Harry’s guilt. Harry reinforces Martins’ condemnation with lack of empathy for his victims:

Victims?…Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there…would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—for ever. If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. (Greene, 104)

Harry’s commoditization of human beings with his monetary language, this behavior is in direct contrast with Rollo Martins worshipping of Harry Lime. He sees Lime asbeing larger than life, while Harry sees humans as dispensable dots. His lack of concern for his girlfriend, Anna Schmidt further dehumanizes Harry when he admits to setting up her arrest. “The price of living in this zone, Rollo, is service. I have to give them a little information now and then.” (Greene, 105) When Rollo asks would have happened her he replies unconcernedly, “She’d have been sent back to Hungary. There’s nothing against her really. A year in a labour camp perhaps.” (Greene, 105) The success of Harry Lime is achieved by his use of the people who believe him, the people who love him. Thus belief, as much as it is innocent and noble, also makes one vulnerable to manipulation.

As Harry Lime dies, he whispers to Rollo Martins, “Bloody Fool.” (Greene, 117) Rollo explains to Calloway that he wasn’t sure who the words were referring to. “I don’t know whether he meant that for himself—some sort of act of contrition, however inadequate…—or was it for me—with my thousand a year taxed and my imaginary cattle rustlers who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.” (Greene, 117-118) It’s also possible that Harry Lime is calling Martins a bloody fool for continuing to believe in him throughout their friendship. Indeed, Martin’s assertion that Harry could be capable of any sort of contrition shows that he is still a “bloody fool” when it comes to Harry Lime.

While readers view Rollo Martin’s belief in Harry Lime as virtuous, they also look at him in frustration. Martins’ refusal to accept Lime’s guilt when there is more evidence for it than his innocence may be glorified loyalty; it could also be called naïve and stupid. Rollo Martins’ idealism and optimism remind readers of the world they wished they lived in, while bringing awareness to the danger of reality. Belief without evidence puts one at risk for manipulation and deceit, and crushing disappointment. Postwar Britain was clearly in a cynical state, longing for the ability to believe, but struggling with the risks of doing so.

 

Personism: A Manifesto by (my boyfriend) Frank O’Hara (1961)

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Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make an elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”

That’s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose that you’re in love and someone’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, “Hey, you can’t treat me this way, I care!” you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang on to life, so you have to take your chances and avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.

But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means or it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked mean, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: If you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is “yearning”.

Abstraction in poetry, which Allen recently commented in in It is, it is intriguing. I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. Abstraction (in poetry, not in painting ) involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between the “nostalgia of the infinite” and the and “the nostalgia for the infinite” defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé). Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody know about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that is vermin on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poésie pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! but to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.  That’s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blonde). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only jus that poetry finish literature off. For a time people thought that Artaud was going to accomplish this, but actually, for all their magnificence, his polemical writings are not more outside literature than Bear Mountain is outside New York State. His relation is no more astounding than Debuffet’s to painting.

What can we expect of personism? (This is getting good isn’t it?) Everything, but we won’t get it. It is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything. But it, like Africa, is on the way. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.

Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry edited by W. N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis

My 20th century-poet-boyfriend

My 20th century-poet-boyfriend: Frank O’Hara

Strong Words is a collection of musings, essays, letters, diary entries, and ramblings of modern poets on the subject of poetry. Here are a few of the gems of wisdom I picked out:

“Rhymes properly used are the good servants whose presence at the dinner-table gives the guests a sense of opulent security; never awkward or over-clever, they hand the dishes silently and professionally. You can trust them not to interrupt the conversation or allow their personal disagreements to come to the notice of the guests.” ~Robert Graves, Observations on Poetry 1922-1925

“Anyone who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” ~E.E. Cummings

“Which brings me to something that I might say is the very heart of the matter of human contentment or as near was we can get. This is the secret of learning how not to care. Not caring is really a sense of values and feeling of confidence. A man who cares is not the master.” ~Patrick Kavanagh, Self Portrait (1967)

“Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.” ~Frank O’Hara (my poet crush), Personism: A Manifesto (1961)

“For each of us as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘beautiful / and tough as chestnut / sanchions agains (y)our nightmare of weakness / ‘ and of impotence.” ~Audre Lorde, Poetry is not a Luxury (1977)

“A poet learns the contemporary language and its literary version through being alive, meeting people, loving them, learning what it is about some of them that is to be disliked or distrusted, by sheer amusement, entertainment in people and phenomena, by sheer sorrow, by laughter, tears, by wonderment, puzzlement, by repulsion, by immersion in existence. What I am saying is that the best passages of poetry are involuntary even when their artistry has been mastered through years of severe rehearsal and concentration. Poetry appears to exist in all languages, cultures and societies. It is heartening to suppose that it does. If nothing else, it would seem to justify a life squandered in devotion to arduous, satisfying, lonely, disillusioned, grievous, joyful, difficult and simple art.” ~Douglas Dunn, A Difficult, Simple Art

“Easy, as any musician or athlete will tell you, does not make happy and does not make good. Easy means self-indulgence, laziness when faced with a challenge, and a cowardly unwillingness to hurt people by telling them the truth or upsetting the status quo. Easy means accepting art’s least common denominator and spreading about the rumor that anything that suits most people must be OK.” ~Anne Stevenson, A Few Words for the New Century (2000)

“The language of poetry is narcissism itself. It calls attention to itself at every possible oppertunity. It is as vain and self-conscious and as tensioned and competitive as an adolescent. It wishes all eyes to be on it: we are to hear its voice only, to love only it and to spurn its competition, although this competition is life. everything else in reality, everything that has not yet been transfigured not only into language but into the particular language and the particular music of the poem.” ~C. K. Williams, Context: An Essay on Intentions (1983)

“As a child I read a lot and loved reading in bed, which is probably one of the nicest ways of reading, with its cradling memory, especially poetry, indolently alert, absorbing yourself in the music and images that come to mind.” Grace Nichols, “The poetry I feel closest to,” (2000)

“One can’t have ever word substantial (none of these are at all) but as many as all telegraph pose and no wire–‘tread bejumpered (over) (the) sheepy fields.’ Naturally the result is ‘I am getting more and more obscure day by day’, ‘I shall never be understood, (bliss), ‘I think I shall send no more poetry away but write stories alone.” ~Medbh McGuckian, And Cry Jesus to the Mice (2000)

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letter to Miss Pierson

A few words on poetry from a wonderful Worcester native:

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I am answering you because (1) You enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. (This happens very rarely.) (2) You think that poetry discussion groups are ‘a bloody bore’ –and although there are exceptions, in general I agree with you completely.

I think you have set up difficulties for yourself that perhaps don’t really exist at all. I don’t know what ‘poetic tools & structures’ are, unless you mean transitional forms. Which one can use or not, as one sees fit. If you feel you are ‘moralizing’ too much–just cut the morals off–or out. (Quite enough young poets tend to try to tie everything up neatly in 2 or 3 beautiful last lines, and it is quite surprising  how the poems are improved if the poet can bear to sacrifice those last, pat, beautiful lines.) Your third problem–why shouldn’t the poet appear in the poem? There are several tricks–‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or even ‘one’–or somebody’s name. Someone is talking, after all–but of course the idea is to prevent that particular tone of voice from growing monotonous.

From what you say, I think perhaps you are actually trying too hard–or reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry. Prosody–metrics–etc are fascinating–but they all come   afterwards, obviously. And I always ask my writing class NOT to read criticism.

Read a lot of poetry–all the time–and not 20th century poetry. Read Campion, Herbert, Pope, Tennyson, Coleridge–anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past–until you find out what you really like, by yourself. Even if you try to imitate it exactly–it will come out quite different. Then the great poets of our own century–Marianne Moore, Auden, Wallace Stevens–and not just 2 of 3 poems each, in anthologies–read ALL of somebody. Then  read his or her life, and letters, and so on. (And by all means read Keat’s Letters.) Then see what happens.

That’s really all I can say. It can’t be done, apparently, but by willpower and study alone–or by being “with it”–but I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.

Not Like That by Adrienne Rich

It’s so pure in the cemetery.

The children love to play up here.

It’s a little town, a game of blocks,

a village packed in a box,

a pre-war German toy.

The turf is a bedroom carpet:

heal-all, strawberry flower

and hillocks of moss.

To come and sit here forever,

a cup of tea on one’s lap

and one’s eyes closed lightly, lightly,

perfectly still

in a nineteenth-century sleep!

it seems so normal to die.

Nobody sleeps here, children.

The little beds of white wrought iron

and the tall, kind, faceless nurse

are somewhere else, in a hospital

or the dreams of prisoners of war.

The drawers of this trunk are empty,

not even a snapshot

curls in a corner.

In Pullmans of childhood we lay

enthralled behind dark-green curtains,

and a little lamp burned blue

all night, for us. The day

was a dream too, even the oatmeal

under its silver lid, dream-cereal

spooned out in forests of spruce

skirting the green-black gorges,

thick woods of sleep, half prickle,

half lakes of fern.

To stay here forever

is not like that, nor even

simply to lie quite still,

the warm trickle of dream

staining the thick quiet

The drawers of this trunk are empty.

They are all out of sleep up here.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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**Spoiler Alert! If you want the ending of this book to be a surprise do not continue reading, no matter how alluring this bold, starred disclaimer is.**

Nineteen Eighty-Four completes the triad of classic dystopia books, joining A Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Unfortunately Nineteen Eighty-Four is my least favorite.  Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four honestly made me nauseous. While A Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 leave the reader with some semblance of hope; a glimmer of faith in the human condition, Nineteen Eighty-Four does not.  I like to think that the human spirit cannot be completely destroyed. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think that if faced with pain I would wish it upon someone I love.  I think that there is a part of us that the government cannot touch.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a society completely controlled by the government.  Having emotions against the party is considered dangerous.  Everyone is under constant surveillance, even within their own home.  The protagonist, Winston, remembers life before the party was in power and wishes to return to that time.  He lives in a world full of disgust, fanaticism, and anxiety. Winston carefully begins to rebel against the party with his illicit girlfriend, Julia, who also is an enemy to the party.

Once Winston is captured by the party he is tortured mentally and physically,(at one point putting his face in a rat cage to be devoured unless he surrenders himself to the party) until he is able to be reintroduced into society.  He is no longer a danger to the party. He betrays everyone, including Julia.  By the end, he is only capable of loving Big Brother. He is unable to muster up emotion for other humans. He has been indoctrinated beyond return.

I don’t think that the human soul is that weak. I don’t think torture can distort human nature so much that they would betray those they love.  I think George Orwell is wrong. I’m not scared for the future, so long as human beings retain their ability to love, we’re going to be okay.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

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If there was a female Henry James, it would be Elizabeth Bowen.  Her plots are not driven by  events, but by small gestures of characters.  Her characters are similar to James’ in both Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove.  There is a plain, innocent heroine: Portia, who isn’t terribly likable, but hey, she’s better than all the other twisted, manipulative characters we’re faced with. 

The story proceeds (at a snail’s pace) as Portia falls in love with Eddie, a slippery, creepy lay-about who has absolutely no business dating Portia. Though he clearly has no feelings for her, they proceed with a semblance of a relationship.  Meanwhile Portia writes about her life with her brother, Thomas and his wife, Anna, including details of her illicit relationship with Eddie.  Unknown to Portia, Anna reads her diary whenever Portia is out.  

The Death of the Heart certainly succeeds in revealing the pettiness of the upper middle class.  By creating a character like Portia who is too innocent and naive to realize what is proper, forms a juxtaposition with Anna and Thomas.  Portia’s social mistakes combined with the reactions of Anna create a parody of the upper middle class.  

The ending of the book was the real disappointment. I am happy to go though 400 pages of inaction if I am to witness a victory of some sort. This is where Bowen deviates from James.  James creates an ironic victory for his heroines, while Portia still seems like a naive little girl. She has not stuck it to her brother and sister in-law, she simply runs away and hides like a  child. There is no conclusion, no resolution, simply a vague open-ended finish.