Books: How to sort the rare insights from the rant

The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound

ed Ira B Nadel

Cambridge pounds 13.95

Ezra Pound's name is inseparable from controversy. Some wish to install him in the pantheon with Yeats, Joyce and Eliot as one of the crucial figures of our time, the man who taught the 20th century how to "make it new"; others regard him as little more than a mountebank and pasticheur who happened to latch on to a few seminal figures before going completely mad. The punch-up - more ferocious than the one Larkin said attached to Betjeman - centres on the success or failure of The Cantos, Pound's heavyweight epic, and on his culpability as a neo-fascist and anti-Semite.

Basil Bunting likened the Cantos to the Alps: "There they are, you will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them." Hugh Kenner convinced himself, in his erudite and enjoyable romp through The Pound Era, that Ez had indeed roared, and that it's only the middlebrows and Philistines who run scared of him. In old age Pound himself made two famous confessions. The Cantos were "a botch" and his anti-Semitism had been a silly "suburban prejudice".

Admirers and detractors make of that what they will. Those who stand somewhere in the middle, like me, continue to try to sort the rare insights from the rant. Pound is the classic example of the artist who wants to sweep away the muddle of democracy and replace it with the reign of Great Men; to Homerise, as it were, the body politic, replacing committee meetings and back-room deals with the clean lines and noble aspirations of epic. As Walter Benjamin once pointed out, the aestheticisation of politics leads straight to fascism. Looking at Pound's tragic mess of half-truths, one sometimes thinks that there is no stupidity like that of the intelligent. It won't do simply to look away from his mania, but nor can we wash our hands of him as a fool. Charles Olson's reaction to the whole imbroglio is still pertinent: "Shall we learn from his line and not answer his lie? ... What is called for is a consideration of how such a man came to the position he reached."

Anyone hoping for such elucidation from this Companion will be disappointed. The editor, while acknowledging Pound's "active" support of Mussolini, hurries over the wartime years in a single paragraph. And Wendy Flory's chapter on "Pound and anti-Semitism" is as shabby as it is illogical and evasive. Anyone who has read Pound's wartime broadcasts knows that they are an open and shut case, as insanely vicious as they are self-incriminating. This isn't some sneaky mote in the visionary eye but a sustained, vitriolic and foul-mouthed attack on an entire people, obscene as the ravings of the Ku Klux Klan.

Flory argues that Pound has been made a scapegoat or "stand-in for ... the silent majority ... who, by quietly aiding or standing quietly by, made the Holocaust possible". This allegedly "reflective and analytical" consideration of the issues, which doesn't quote a single line from the broadcasts but exults in "deconstruction's dematerialisation of an accountable self", seeks to unvilify Pound and shift the blame on to those who "allowed" the camps to happen. This naked sophistry, masquerading as high-minded forensics, is both contemptible and symptomatic, suggesting as it does that Pound is more in need of rescuing (where rescuable) from the Poundians than from those who fall asleep over the Cantos.

Fortunately there are more sensible deliberations here on Pound's multitudinous interests in politics, economics, music, translation, modernism and the visual arts. Three different commentators take on the early, middle and late Cantos; three more the critic, the early poetry, the relationship with other American poets; and there is the obligatory look at "Pound, women and gender", which exclaims over the "insoluble enigma" of "his personal life".

Half genius, half village explainer, as Gertrude Stein called him, Pound still deserves our gratitude as well as our condemnation. There was a period of about a dozen years, early in the century, when he seemed to have unerring taste in new poetry, fiction, music, painting, sculpture, and became a one-man Arts Council deciding the artistic fate of nations - amanuensis to the mind of Europe, as Kenner put it. Hubris set in with his rage at the follies of capitalism. My favourite appraisal of him is in Elizabeth Bishop's fine poem "Visits to St Elizabeths" (not even mentioned in this companion). It borrows its form, ironically, from the nursery rhyme This is the House that Jack Built, showing us just how the "the wretched man / that lies in the house of Bedlam" built his own cage, word by word.