Meghnad Desai, The Route of All Evil: the Political Economy of Ezra Pound, Faber
Ezra Pound, modernist poet, fascist broadcaster, was brilliant at surfing on other peopleís waves. Long before this American cheer-leader for the Stateside avant-garde became a self-styled exile in Italy, and so useful flotsam during Mussoliniís power surge in the 30s and 40s, he had harnessed the energy of others with aplomb.
It had all begun so well. Poundís early poems, published in the first two decades of the twentieth century, have a striking leanness he had learnt from Eastern poetry but they are also distinctive additions to the Western canon. They are part of the history of the Anglo-American movement helped form and publicise, Imagism, one of the modernisers of poetic diction in the 1910s, to which the poets of today still owe a debt.
Pound was an exceptional translator: his version of The Seafarer achieves inspired sound effects that are haunted by the stylistic qualities of the Anglo-Saxon original. He was also a gifted editor - perhaps no greater when, as a friend of T. S. Eliot, he helped shape the draft of the poem most associated with the last century, The Waste Land.
Pound was often unable to edit himself, though. He was a prolific letter-writer to newspapers and literary journals, complaining, often in hectoring tones, about widespread philistinism, and, more specifically, the dearth of American avant-garde poets published in Britain (a moot point). Although these letters were free publicity, Pound didnít understand the law of diminishing returns: before long he had a justified reputation as an arrogant crank, an own goal for modernism.
Lord Desaiís generous account of Poundís economic writings shows the poet was quick to latch on to the C. H. Douglasís Social Credit theory, a voguish philosophy popular among writers in the interwar years and backed up with its own ďGreenshirtĒ political organisation. Social Credit imagined the state taking control of the materials at the heart of any economy by assigning a fixed value to all products made within the countryís borders. Other forms of state intervention would bring the citizen firmly under central control, too. Despite complaining bitterly over any bureaucratic hiccup he happened to encounter in his own life, Pound doesnít seem to have understood either the trivial or the sinister implications of such state-centred political economies. As Meghnad Desai also shows, he also failed to see that Douglas had got his sums wrong (there is a double-counting error at the heart of Social Credit). Pound failed to engage with perhaps the key economist of the period, Maynard Keynes, and he completely misread the profound benefits of Americaís New Deal, a strategic state intervention which required neither the magic realism nor the Big Brother politics of Social Credit.
But Pound was moving on to another wave before long: it was only a small jump from Social Credit to his support of Mussolini, and then to the anti-Semitism of Poundís war-time writings. How this book will help readers go back to his poetry is difficult to say, except as a cathartic admission that Pound was wrong-headed and hateful, but Desaiís modest and candid tone throughout sets out the evidence and the reader can return to the voluminous Cantos open-eyed about the politics of this nevertheless remarkable poet.
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