A. M. Klein and the "Fibbiest Fabricator of Them All"
by Darlene Kelly
In 1948 the Jewish-Canadian poet A. M. Klein published a review in verse form of Ezra Pound’s Cantos that was at once a homage and a parody. The idea for this poem entitled "Cantabile" may have originated in the class on American poetry that Klein taught as a part-time lecturer at McGill in which students were asked to write parodies of Pound’s verse (Literary Essays 410). The extradition to America of Pound from Italy, where he had broadcast fascist propaganda against the Allies, his sensational trial for treason—a charge which his lawyers helped him to evade by pleading their client’s insanity—and his committal to St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C. were all well-publicized recent events. The verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity divided public opinion. In an era of Nuremberg trials it seemed to many observers, notably a Jewish community outraged by Pound’s anti-semitic statements, that the poet had received far too light a sentence. But his defenders argued that, however distasteful Pound’s views, they were hardly treasonable, and that his incarceration in an open cage in Pisa which precipitated a mental breakdown was punishment enough. The opening lines of Klein’s "Cantabile" evokes America’s baffled response upon Pound’s return to America:
And when they brought him back
The tag "fibbiest fabricator" captures Pound’s double venture as propagandist and poet. At the same time as he was disseminating fascist and anti-semitic theories, he was also publishing the exquisite verse which earned him the title "il miglior fabbro" from the eminent T. S. Eliot. Like their legal counterparts, cultured readers had to ask hard questions about Pound’s political ideas, especially as these ideas infiltrated his writings. As both poet and critic, he had proved vastly influential. But did his despicable ideas not vitiate his art and so disqualify him from being a model to anyone? Experimental poet Charles Olson succinctly expressed the difficulty of having Pound as a mentor when he asked, "Shall we learn from his line and not answer his lie?" (17). Klein was an avid reader of Pound’s works. In fact, the number of books by Pound in Klein’s private library was surpassed only by his Joyce collection (Literary Essays 411). That Klein learned from Pound’s writings can be seen in the cast of Klein’s style and even, in places, of his thought. And yet the "fibs," especially his calumnies against Jews, rankled, and Klein was forced to attack and finally to repudiate his teacher. There was, however, something contradictory, even self-mutilating, in Klein’s rejection of Pound. Here was an anxiety of influence that, as we shall see, was anxiety indeed for a Canadian artist who had gone to school to one of the century’s great writers, but who also regarded as sacred his duty to defend world Jewry.
Even if Klein had so wished, he could not have escaped Pound’s influence. In calling his study of English literature’s modernist beginnings The Pound Era (1971), Hugh Kenner was simply acknowledging what few would dispute: Pound’s colossal domination of that period. The years in which America’s most famous expatriate subjected readers to the shock treatment of his experimental verse and trenchant critical opinions were the years in which A. M. Klein was honing his own skills as poet and critic. Klein’s purchase of numerous works by Pound shows that he took seriously the high estimate of that writer expressed not only by luminaries such as T. S. Eliot, but also by notable opinion-makers of the day such as British critic F. R. Leavis and American poet and critic Allen Tate. Writing in The Dial in January 1928, Eliot described Pound as the perfect model for all poets who were eager to master their craft: "I cannot think of any one writing verse, of our generation and the next," Eliot noted, "whose verse (if any good) has not been improved by the study of Pound’s. His poetry is an inexhaustible reference book of verse form. There is, in fact, no one else to study" ("Isolated Superiority" 5). In his ground-breaking book New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), F. R. Leavis argued that modern verse began with T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ezra Pound, three writers that no aspiring poet could possibly ignore. And a year earlier, in an essay on Pound from which Klein quoted in "Cantabile," Allen Tate wrote that Pound’s Cantos "had more influence on us than any other [poetry] of our time" (351).
An important Canadian critic who prescribed the study of Pound to writers in his own country was Klein’s university friend A.J.M. Smith, himself a distinguished poet who spearheaded the McGill movement, that is, those writers whose poetry and criticism appeared in The McGill Fortnightly Review (1925-27). Klein had a high regard for pointers from the man whom, in a complimentary pun, he called "il fabbro miglior—the better smith" (Literary Essays 210). Chief among Smith’s recommendations to fledgling authors was a good working knowledge of Pound’s verse. Indeed, Smith, whose cosmopolitan tastes as an anthologist later got him in trouble with writers who saw their tradition differently, denounced as provincial the Canadian literati who had never even "heard of—much less read"—Ezra Pound (Towards a View 179-80). Given Smith’s insistence that the modern writer had to imitate those "whose language is living and whose line is sure…[like that of] Pound" (Towards a View 185), Klein would have seen as absolutely essential an apprenticeship to Ezra Pound, regardless of what he really might have thought of him.
Given Pound’s celebrity at the time when Klein was acquiring a poet’s basic skills, Klein’s choice of him as a model would seem inevitable. And yet the young Klein had reservations about the experimental verse which bore Pound’s imprint. As a man who, as one of his editors observed, dearly loved words, "the sound and sense of them, mouth-filling, polysyllabic words" (Beyond Sambation xix), Klein found much twentieth-century poetry too stark. Also, having been schooled in a metrically exigent tradition, as his skilfully ordered and often rhyming poems make clear, Klein considered verse like Pound’s to lack form. In an essay called "Worse Verse" which appeared in The McGill Daily in 1927, for example, he attacks imagism, the movement which had launched modern poetry and whose tenets—economy, direct treatment, and new rhythms—were clearly defined in two essays that appeared in the March, l913 issue of Poetry magazine, one by F. S. Flint called "Imagisme" and the other by Pound entitled "A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste." Klein’s article exudes the breezy confidence of an adolescent thumbing his nose at higher authorities: "It is impossible to speak of the general current of free verse," Klein wrote, "[since] mud has no current" (Literary Essays 151). With like impudence he attacks Pound as a writer who "senses no compunction of his aesthetic conscience when he fertilizes the poetic field with his genius and with adjectives manurial" (151). He ridicules imagism, which required strict economy in treating the "thing," as utterly regressive:
What today is heralded as imagist is no more than a reactionary reversal to the rebus intelligence, a degeneration into the concrete, an acceptance of the nous of the noun—it is an attempt to say nothings with things. Considered leniently it is no more than a system of higher hieroglyphics. It was in free verse that our prehistoric progenitors made vigorous love to the un-Platonic cavewoman. As Whitman admits, with more truth than poetry, his is a "barbaric yawping." (152)
Klein had even more fun at the expense of his famous elders in "Verbum Sat," an essay in which he pretends to bury the A.M. Klein who wrote unfashionable poetry. Although he is not mentioned by name here, Pound’s interment in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (a poem subtitled "E.P." Pour l’élection de son sépulchre") of his youthful self is certainly behind Klein’s playful celebration of the "funeral" of that youthful poet whose works appeared in "The McGilliad" (Literary Essays 155-56). In a use of his own initials that recalls Pound’s famous "E.P." in the subtitle mentioned above, Klein expresses a desire "to throttle our very alter ego, one A.M.K." (156), because of that alter ego’s "low crimes and misdemeanours" as a poet who "noose[d] our tongue in sesquipedalian circumlocution" with a "fit of prolixity" (156). In short, A.M.K. is guilty of violating what "E.P." had designated an essential stricture of imagism: economy. In a witty comparison of his wordy self to lexicographer Samuel Johnson, Klein notes that "Johnson incorporated his opinions in his dictionary; A.M.K. incorporates his dictionary in his opinions" (156). In a further jab at the imagists, he contends that the "ultimate of brevity is nihility" (157). He ends his satiric attack impenitent and unreformed:
And such I intend to remain. I frame no apologia for my peccadillos; with blatant spitefulness shall I proceed on my faulty ways, and with a stiff-necked obstinacy on the path of sin…. What! Are not my lengthy polysyllables a manifestation of a love of letters? (157)
Given Klein’s emphatic dismissal of imagist poems, it comes as a shock to find several in his own work, many of which could have been written by Pound himself. A few of these efforts are tongue-in-cheek. In the ironically titled "Composition," for example, the speaker first declares his intention to write his love a poem; then he produces a few unrhymed lines of irregular length in which the woman’s eyes in her pale face are comically likened to roses and forget-me-nots on a field of lilies. He ends with a lament: "Alas, this is free verse… / I must write my love a poem" (Complete Poems 94). Yet about this same time Klein also wrote the following delicate imagistic poem entitled "Fable":
Verses such as these show a greater willingness to experiment than the obiter dicta of Klein’s youthful essays suggest. His study of Pound had taught him a new way to wrest music and images from words; and though this was not the medium that Klein finally chose for his greatest works, he could not resist emulating the great American modernist, deriving from him a heightened sense of what language could do. Many of Klein’s experimental verses have the chiselled delicacy of the Japanese haiku which, along with the classical Greek lyric and French symbolist poetry, were important models for imagist poems written in English, the most famous of which is Pound’s "In a Station of the Metro." Klein’s exquisite "Reveille in Winter," for example, makes almost tangible in the frosty air which accentuates the sharpness of all sounds the music of sparrow-song:
Across my bed-room window pass
Other poems in this manner reveal Klein’s playful side, as in "Elegy":
The sea clutches her hair in
The same ludic element is found in "Image Celestial":
But the humour in such poems cannot disguise the fact that Klein has mastered the very form of Pound-sanctioned verse which elsewhere he disparaged.
Pound may also have influenced Klein’s work at a second remove, as in the case, for example, of Klein’s several imagist tributes to autumn. Klein could scarcely have avoided knowing the celebrated imagist poem "Autumn" by the late T.E. Hulme, the Bergsonian philosopher and advocate of the new movement in verse. Along with four other poems by Hulme which exemplified what he saw as imagistic principles, "Autumn" appeared in an appendix humorously entitled "The Complete Poetical Works of T.E. Hulme" in Pound’s own book Ripostes (1912). These poems were given a posthumous boost by Pound’s reprinting of them at the end of another of his books, Personae (1926). By joining together unlikely things, Hulme’s metaphors in "Autumn" compel the reader to see that season with fresh eyes, especially its "ruddy" moon which leans "over a hedge / Like a red-faced farmer" surrounded by "wistful stars / With white faces like town children" (Personae 252). Klein’s "Wood Notes," of which the Japanese Hari-Kari poem was a part, begins by defending such startling tropes as less outrageous than nature herself:
I said: Autumn
Klein’s several poems on autumn take up the Humean subject in ways that seem to have been influenced by imagism’s fusion of dissimilar things into a new entity. In "Old Maid’s Wedding," for example, Klein calls autumn an "old bride" with a veil of mist over whom is thrown the "confetti" of dead leaves (206). Klein’s four-line "Autumn Night" shows night expanding into "a big black crow which slowly flew / With stars as gleaming nails within her claws" (90). And his beautiful sonnet entitled "Autumn" erupts with even more striking conjunctions:
You are an oriflamme against the
• • •
Futile is praise before your splendour, Autumn.
Whatever reservations that Klein may have had about the terseness of imagism, he obviously had no problem in making its basic form accommodate his more elaborate vision. It should also be noted that poems do not have to be short to qualify as imagist poems. As William Pratt rightly observes, "…what are the longer poems of Williams, Pound, or Eliot but aggregate Imagist poems, set in a sort of mosaic pattern around a dominant image—a super-image, like The Waste Land, for example, or arranged in successive ‘ideograms,’ as in the Cantos?" (38). It is but a short step, then, from the series of images in Klein’s "Autumn" to a longer imagist-inspired catalogue in the poem "Grain Elevator":
Up from the low-roofed dockyard
Not only does "Grain Elevator" demonstrate the poet’s rich adaptation of imagistic techniques, but it even echoes Pound’s definition in "A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste" of an image as an "intellectual and emotional complex" whose immediacy confers "freedom from time limits and space limits" (Literary Essays of Ezra Pound 4). This definition bears a striking resemblance to Klein’s statement of how the grain elevator works as an image, that is, as a "box" which, by conjuring up the experiences of other people in other places at other times, "mixes up continents and makes a montage / of inconsequent time and uncontiguous space" (650). These final lines not only function as a coda to the poem, but they also encapsulate a key point of Pound’s imagist manifesto.
The affinities between Pound’s work and that of Klein, however, extend well beyond imagism. Although they are so different in form and content as to make a sustained comparison impossible, Klein’s "Sestina on the Dialectic" was inspired by Pound’s "Sestina: Altaforte" all the same. Convinced that he could do better than Pound, Klein plays a variation on the sestina form made famous by his predecessor. In a letter that was meant to accompany his submission of the poem to the Kenyon Review, he called the sestina a "monotonous form" because of the recurring end-words, the examples of which in English—and he names Pound here—tend to "degenerate into a performance (which of course it is)" (Complete Poems 1012). Yet, as at least two other critics have shown, without both Pound’s example and his critical observations on the sestina in The Spirit of Romance (1929), it is doubtful that Klein would have written "Sestina on the Dialectic" at all.1
Other poems by Pound and Klein are worth comparing in greater detail. In Pound’s lyrical "N.Y.," for example, the speaker apostrophizes New York, vowing to make it eternal in his poem: "My City, my beloved, my white! Ah, slender, / Listen! Listen to me, and I will breathe into thee a soul" (Personae 62). This promise is echoed at the poem’s end:
In Klein’s "Montreal," the very same ingredients—the city’s name as the poem’s sole title, the use of apostrophe, the hypnotic repetition of the word "city," the tenderly possessive note, and the promise that the subject will live forever in the poem—are reassembled into a new, distinctively Canadian dish, as these random lines, with their French and English words, make clear:
O city metropole, isle riverain
New York lives forever in Pound’s tribute to it, whereas Montreal would seem to reside for only the poet’s "mortal time" within the beating valves of his heart (and the repetition "in these beating valves, / Here in these beating valves" wonderfully mimics the beating of that heart); and yet, in its key references to "eterne souvenir" and "forever edified," the poem confers upon Montreal, as Pound’s "N.Y." does New York, the permanence of its own well-wrought art.
Pound’s attacks on cultural pretension and on the waste of war also have their counterpart in Klein’s work. In "Portrait d’une femme," for example, Pound exposes the dilettantism of a shallow woman:
Your mind and you are our Sargasso
In all the "sea-hoard" of her mind’s contents the speaker finds, as he tells her, "Nothing that’s quite your own. / Yet this is you" (61), a cruel thrust. Another such woman is "The Lady Valentine," an aristocrat featured in part XII of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," who sees the arts as her vocation. As Pound remarked elsewhere, the hallmark of such a person is mindless talk: "She babbles of [art criticism] as of ‘the play,’ or of hockey, or of ‘town topics’" (Patria Mia 60). The artist whom she patronizes feels inferior to her socially, however, simply because he has less money than she does, as his clothes reveal:
In the stuffed-satin drawing room,
Even more ignominious is her "well-gowned approbation / Of [his] literary effort" (180), an approbation that is worthless. The lady finds poetry essential to her well-being; it is her "border of ideas, / The edge, uncertain, but a means of blending / With other strata / Where the lower and higher have ending" (180). Poetry allows her to mingle with the cultural élite at the same time as it protects her against the lower classes "in the case of revolution" (180).
Klein’s "Diary of Abraham Segal, Poet" contains a similar exposé of a wealthy woman with cultural pretensions. Milady Schwartz—the title "Milady" signifying the vulgar arriviste—likes art in small doses, being
a member of a club
A cartoon-figure of a woman, she waddles into her husband’s office where she "sweetly coos to hubby dearest" (234), her chins pendulous and her gold teeth gleaming. In this world of Canadian capitalism, as in Lady Valentine’s salon, clothes are a mark of success, but the nouveaux riches ardently desire the cachet of belonging to a cultivated set of people. Here is Klein’s wry variation on the theme of the patron (in this case patron manquée) dispensing "well-gowned approbation" to a menial, while she describes her own attempt to acquire culture by osmosis:
Milady Schwart, (oh, no, she is no
Like Pound’s aristocrat, the wealthy Milady Schwartz keeps a nervous eye cocked on social revolution. She seeks the preventive, not of art, but of participation in a conscience-salving fund-raiser: "Why only last week she was overjoyed / To go to the Grand Ball, Chez Madame Lloyd, / And dance all night for the poor unemployed" (235). Despite their different backgrounds, Pound’s Lady and Klein’s Milady are two of a kind.
Like Pound, Klein also explored such weighty subjects as the horror of war. In one of the most famous passages of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," Pound rails against the "old men’s lies" which led brave soldiers to the slaughter in a nightmare world of "disillusions …hysterias, trench confessions, / laughter out of dead bellies" (Selected Poems 175). He goes on grimly to note, "Died some, pro patria, / non ‘dulce’ non ‘et decor’… / walked eye-deep in hell" (175). In "Blueprint for a Monument of War," Klein revives the irony of its being sweet and right to die for one’s country, showing how soldiers forfeited their lives for the vainglory of having their name recorded on a monument or on an archival page. They go to their death for some "wild slogan’s sake," Klein’s version of the "old men’s lies" which led young fighters into the same hell as that described by Pound:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria
By contrast, a newspaper editor engages in a far safer form of warfare: in the secure world of the office, he occupies himself by "Mustering infantry in pica; / zooming in paragraphs; / Throwing his word-grenades" (454), and playing other bloodless games. No wonder that, in Canto XIV, Pound had called the "press gang" the "betrayers" and "perverters" of language (Cantos 61). The impression that one derives from both Pound and Klein is that, like everyone else, the press conceals the brutal nastiness of war. Only the poet tells the truth.
Pound’s view of the poet as an isolated person whose work is nonetheless crucial to society can be discerned in one of the Klein’s most important works, "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape." The picture of the drowned poet which forms a shocking conclusion to that poem was anticipated in Pound’s depiction of Mauberley, the artist who ends up like a piece of sea-wreckage on a beach in the Moluccas, a "consciousness disjunct" amid the flamingoes and "Incapable of the least utterance or composition" (Selected Poems 185, l86). Klein’s poet is exiled not simply near the sea but at the very "bottom" of it, where he "lives alone, and in his secret shines / like phosphorus" (Complete Poems 639). Part of the blame for the poet’s being so far removed from society is society’s low opinion of art, although this isolation itself sometimes leads to a debased art, like the formally perfect but lifeless "Medallion" which Mauberley sculpts (l87), and like the "outmoded art" practised by certain writers in Klein’s poem who, "having lost the bevel in the ear, / …know neither up nor down, mistake the part / for the whole, curl themselves in a comma…" (636). But Klein’s final statement on the artist’s role in society is far more hopeful than his Lycidas theme suggests, for that statement would seem to be informed at the end by the aesthetic of Ezra Pound.3
In seeing Pound’s aesthetic as the basis for an optimistic reading of "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," one must first recall that the art which society rejects in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" was the moribund art of Pound’s youth: good art Pound not only himself produced, but as an ideal robustly defended. He tirelessly promoted the work of Joyce, Eliot, Frost, and other talented writers in the days when they were struggling for recognition, scolded his readers for their lack of culture, prescribed remedies for their ignorance, and declared poets to be the unacknowledged "antennae" of the race. In the ABC of Reading, a primer which makes startling claims for art’s importance, Pound boldly asserted that a nation depended for its intellectual health and well-being upon its writers: "If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays" (32). Only the writer could help to avert this catastrophe by keeping the medium clear and flexible for discourse that was carried on at every level of society, including scientific and political exchange. No stale or imprecise terms were allowed because the writer's job in treating a subject was, as the title of one of Pound’s books implies, to Make It New. In Canto LIII, the first of ten "Chinese History Cantos" which paid selective tributes to the great emperors of China, Pound praises Tching-Tang, founder of the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.), for a philosophy that closely resembled his own:
Tching prayed on the mountain and
Several of these ideas reverberate in section VI of Klein’s "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape." It is true that at the end of this poem the poet lies unappreciated at the bottom of the sea, but he is said to "shine" there, his ability to give the world an Edenic newness still radiant. Klein’s emphasis on the artist’s potential, as D.M R. Bentley notes, avoids both the egotism and the pessimism of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (13). But Mauberley must not be confused with Pound himself, whose view of the artist as the minter of a nation’s language is the afflatus of Klein’s exalted, slightly arrogant designation of the writer as the "nth Adam taking a green inventory" of a world that does not exist until he names it: "For to praise / the world—he, solitary man—is breath / to him. Until it has been praised, that part / has not been" (Complete Poems 639). And in the second-last stanza, Pound’s often repeated doctrine of "making it new" takes root in Canadian soil:
To find a new function for the
Even the phrase "mean ambitions" in the last line calls for a footnote to Pound. In a tribute to nineteenth-century poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt that appeared in the March, l9l3 issue of Poetry magazine, Ezra Pound described how a "committee of poets"— which in addition to himself included such notable writers as W. B. Yeats, Richard Aldington, T. Sturge Moore, John Masefield, and others—honoured the elderly Blunt at a dinner party with gifts of a reliquary and of high-flown speeches. Pound asserts in this article that Blunt’s "claims upon posterity" would be firm even if he had written nothing more than the double sonnet "With Esther," which Pound reproduces in its entirety ("Homage to Wilfrid Blunt" 220). In this poem Blunt sets the world’s value at nought beside his youthful love for the "Esther" of the title.
When I set
In the September, 1923 issue of Poetry, an obituary review of Wilfrid Blunt by Maurice Lesemann described the great fête and referred readers back to Pound’s 1913 article for full particulars. It is entirely possible that Klein already knew Blunt’s work; or that, like many a poet riffling through recent back issues of an important magazine to which he intended to send his own work, he came upon Lesemann’s review, was intrigued enough to look up the original article and, good poet that he was, to profit from the sample of excellent verse that Pound, with his impeccable taste, had cited.
So far, this paper has attempted to demonstrate the numerous affinities between Klein’s work and that of Pound, with emphasis on Klein’s imagist and satiric verse, on his anti-war poetry, and on the aesthetic which redeems the ending of "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape." But there were two Ezra Pounds who compelled Klein’s attention: Pound the great modernist whom Klein admired, and Pound the broadcaster of anti-semitic slanders, the first of which to offend Klein being the unflattering cameo of the Jewish "Brennbaum" in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." Despite his esteem for Pound as a writer, Klein could not ignore his attacks on Jews. As we know from the poem "Autobiographical," he was trained from infancy to combat anti-semitism. On the night two strangers "Fiery from Volhynia’s murderous hordes" in the northwest Ukraine came to visit his parents in their Montreal ghetto, Klein relates, their talk of Jews being slaughtered made the "cards and humming stop. / And I too swear revenge for that pogrom" (565). Pound’s attacks on Jews could not help but elicit from the watchful Klein a similar response.
Occasionally these attacks were playful, as in Klein’s sly reference to Pound in "The Parliament of Fowles," an allegorical short story about squabbling literary critics which he published in The McGilliad while still a student. The "feathered aesthetes" are debating the relative merits of the sky as it appears at noon and at night when a peacock ascends the pulpit and croaks,
"The sky at noon is a banner
The imagistic definition of the sky as a banner of Cathay alludes not just to Pound’s imagist verse, but, even more pointedly, to his Chinese translations and to Chinese-style poems of his own which appeared in a volume entitled Cathay (1915). The peacock’s aphoristic style of argument is like Pound’s critical method as well, although the eagle comically deflates the peacock’s dramatic announcement by saying that the sky is susceptible rather to a Jewish association, one that would have horrified Pound the anti-semite.
A fragment of unpublished novel which Klein drafted years after "The Parliament of Fowles" also ridicules Pound. In it a Jewish translator named Pimontel eagerly scans the reviews of his work only to find the English-language press unappreciative. A snatch of hostile criticism is excerpted from the review of one obnoxious critic who is equipped with "dagger and Italian cloak" (Notebooks 135). The identity of this reviewer leaps out at the reader in the very first line:
"We exPOUND. We will not say that poetry of this kind, whether admitting its authorship, or hiding behind non-existent originals, ought not to be written. Only that it ought not to be read! We are not opposed to forgeries. Cf. Chatterton, Mangan. But we do not—positively—want Yidgin English! Such a book as Pimontel’s may perhaps be allowed—once! Once—and basta!" (135)
This passage contains merely a glancing reference to Pound, captured here in the parody of his arbitrary use of upper-case letters for certain words and syllables, in the anti-semitism ("no Yidgin English"), and in the Italian trappings which complete the picture. Yet, brief as they are, the satiric allusions found in "The Parliament of Fowles" and the Pimontel manuscript reveal Klein’s sense of Pound as a hostile force.
Not content with merely sniping at Pound, however, Klein launched a more sustained attack upon him and his protégé T.S. Eliot (primarily for being Pound’s protégé) in the Jewish periodicals which he edited. Three articles in particular stand out: the verse-parody of The Cantos entitled "Cantabile," an essay called "T.S. Eliot and the Nobel Prize" protesting Eliot’s being chosen for that honour, and a scathing denunciation in "Old Ez and His Blankets" of the Bollingen Prize committee for giving its prestigious award to Pound’s Pisan Cantos. The virulence of these assessments of Pound and Eliot, rife with personal invective and a mean-spirited belittling of their achievement, cannot easily be defended. As we shall see, the reason why these two famous writers whose work was crucial to the development of Klein’s own elicited in him such a violent response was rooted both in the historical events of World War II, specifically the Holocaust, and in the imperatives of Klein’s religious psyche.
In "Cantabile," the element of parody gave Klein a measure of detachment from his subject, with his anger somewhat defused by the poem’s witty inversions of Pound’s style and ideas. At the outset, when Pound is brought to trial in America, the customs officers find that he has nothing to declare but a string of anti-semitic slurs, like those found scattered throughout Pound’s actual writings, and a ballad about the "Black Douglas / And wow but he was rough!" (Literary Essays 265), a reference not only to the hero of the Scottish ballad but also, very cleverly, to Major C. H. Douglas (1879-1952), a personal acquaintance of Pound’s whose Social Credit theories of money supply in a capitalistic system, which were among other things anti-semitic in implication, Pound publically espoused. Parodying the phonetic spelling that Pound often affected, Klein suggests that Pound was acquitted of treason (by "seven psychiatrists [who] feigned insanity") because "one kuddent make a martyr of him, cood one?" But, while Pound slipped the knot of American justice, he did not escape the wrath of Klein who had a startling charge of his own to bring against him: usury.
In accusing Pound of usury, Klein was reversing the usual attribution, in literature especially, of this unethical practice to Jews. In an essay entitled "The Jew in English Poetry," Klein examines the famous stereotypes of Jewish usurers, noting that no good Jew could ever have been the model for such scoundrels:
The chief crime with which later literature charges Jews is that of usury, a practice into which Jews were driven by their exclusion from almost all other trades, but which is certainly contrary to all Hebraic ethics. The Bible prohibits interest; and the Talmud places the usurer on a level with the pervert and blasphemer. (Literary Essays 228)
In this l932 essay Klein quietly demonstrated the anti-semitism of artists long dead (hence no longer capable of writing any more offensive lines), such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens; but in 1948 the tone of his attack on the twentieth-century’s most forceful literary exponent of theories harmful to Jews was far more acrimonious, perhaps reflecting Klein’s postwar fear that, even hospitalized, Pound was still a dangerous man.4 Arguing that Pound should not have been tried for treason at all (unless it were the "traductore-tradditore" variety 225), Klein attributes to him the very offence with which Pound had repeatedly charged the Jews:
USURA: that his offence
Klein mockingly duplicates Pound’s use of capital letters for the word "USURA" in the notorious Canto XLV, a poem which one critic acutely notes "would be a magnificent, perhaps unflawed piece of work, were it not for the uncomfortable fact that it is a hymn to an obsession" (Carpenter 547). Certainly Canto XLV is a perfect summary of Pound’s belief that usury (with which practice in other contexts he associates the Jews) blights an entire civilization. As Christine Froula notes, "Its austere dirge poses Usura against the real human values that it blights, negates, and overrides: good houses, good bread, good art, natural fertility" (175). Pound’s opening lines capture the Biblical fervour of the tirade that Klein so savagely mocked:
• • •
• • •
In Guide to Kulchur Pound had argued that "future critics of art will be able to tell from the quality of a painting the degree of tolerance or intolerance of usury extant in the age and milieu that produced it" (27). In a reversal of this charge, Klein indicts Pound for battening as an artist on the wealth of others, that is, on their writings: "the Dante coinage, Provençal, Chinese yen / not as his own, but his for increment" (265). Wyndham Lewis made essentially the same point when he accused Pound of "parasitism" (40), but Klein’s play on the idea of money is far more apt, and utterly relentless. The writers from various centuries and all parts of the globe whose works were used to a richly allusive end by Pound become in Klein’s poem the mere used goods of a "pawnbroker / …[who had] invented a new way to ring a coin on the table" (265). Firmly rejecting all inferior or bogus art, Pound "trafficked only in the best mdse." [merchandise], the insulting use of the verb "traffick" effectively undercutting Klein’s concession that Pound had good taste. Moreover, Pound’s appraisal of other writers, itself much admired, in fact was wanting in objectivity, for he allegedly gave "discounts" to his favourites—a reference to Pound’s praise of friends—but bargained fiercely with others "like his Jew" (265). The juxtaposition of "Pound Libra L / USURA" concludes this part of Klein’s attack.
By the end of the poem Pound’s reputation is demolished. The cantos are derided as the "syphilisation of our gonorera / and Pound its thunder clap" (265). This image of sexual disease ironically counters Pound’s metaphor of good writing as the agent of intellectual health which rids the mind of sick notions and promotes clarity of thought. When Klein has the "lady from Idaho" (Pound’s home state) who is touring the city in Italy where he lived for years ask if Pound will be remembered, the answer is in the affirmative, but what follows makes clear that he will be remembered as a man whose output was paltry:
As the author of a Gradus ad
In a note to the last line of this poem, Zailig Pollock points out that "Est Perditus" may be a reference to the medieval anti-semitic taunt HEP, an acronym which is believed to mean, "Jerusalem is lost" (Collected Poems n. 1025). (The "Jimmy" is James Joyce who in Ulysses used a similar conjuction of initials and colon to humorous and ribald effect.) Once again Klein turns the point of a racist remark against the racist himself, for in this case, it is not the city sacred to Jews that is lost, but rather Ezra Pound (E.P.) himself of whom it can be said "est perditus," that is, he is lost.
The settling of the anti-semitic score against Pound continues less artfully in "T.S. Eliot and the Nobel Prize." Klein begins by asking how work so "hackneyed" and slight as Eliot’s—"one can number his lines, let alone his poems" (269)—could ever be awarded the Nobel Prize. Eliot is also charged with being derivative in allowing mainly dead artists to write The Waste Land for him, a reference to the copious allusions to famous works in that poem. Although a great admirer of Klein’s writings, some of which he edited, M.W. Steinberg finds it "difficult to accept [Klein’s] depreciation of T.S. Eliot’s poetic achievement, a depreciation largely prompted by Eliot’s anti-semitic taint" ("The Conscience of Art" 93). As the following passage makes clear, however, Klein’s animus against Eliot is rooted in his conviction that Ezra Pound is the covert author of Eliot’s works:
…there is a man alive who, though he permitted himself the discretion of withdrawing his own work from competition, might still have laid claim for a part of Eliot’s award. That man is Ezra Pound. He it was to whom The Waste Land was dedicated as to il miglior fabbro—the better craftsman. He, it is said, was the man responsible for reducing that Waste Land from a work of 700 lines to one of 400 lines—criticism showing that the art of deletion, especially in poetry, is often superior to that of composition. And Pound it was who introduced Eliot to the fame and exploitability of many of his dead collaborators. Pound’s imprint, in fact, is to be found everywhere in Eliot’s work. (Literary Essays 271)
The case against both Pound and Eliot rests finally on what Klein considers their hate literature: "Pound does an Antisemitic squib about a Mr. Brennbaum; Eliot does likewise with Mr. Bleistein" (272). Parts of Gerontion, Klein alleges, differ only in rhythm from Hitler’s "lucubrations" (274). As a result of this moral deficiency, neither writer could lay claim to greatness.
Clearly, Klein’s hatred of the antisemitism that he found in Pound and Eliot impaired his ability to judge their work dispassionately. This malfunction emerges very clearly when one contrasts Klein’s benign opinion of T.S. Eliot’s edition of Kipling in 1943 with his harsh attack upon the same scholarly project in l948, a time when crimes against Jews were under intense scrutiny. In a letter to A.J.M. Smith written on November 5, l943, Klein praises as judicious his friend’s decision to include Robert Service in an anthology of Canadian poetry, noting that the same defence could be made for Service that "T.S. Eliot has just made for Kipling—that K.[ipling] and in a lesser degree S.[ervice] were folk balladists…" ("Some Letters" 7). Writing on the same subject in the Nuremberg era, when the full horror of war-time atrocities created an intense backlash against anti-semites by surviving Jews, a more sinister construction was put by Klein on Eliot’s attempt to revive interest in Kipling’s poetry:
[Eliot] edited a selection from Kipling, the author who ornamented his collected works with swastikas….obviously the element of affinity between Kipling and Eliot was something other than a common aesthetic code. Despite the pathetic effort which Eliot makes in the introduction to that book to prove Kipling a considerable poet, the feeling remains that is K’s xenophobia which is the real catalytic agent. (Literary Essays 275)
It is at least arguable that it was only after the correspondence with Smith in 1943 that Klein discovered Kipling’s penchant for decorating his works with swastikas. One may even allow Klein to have been entirely ignorant of the fact that Kipling adopted the ancient symbol of the swastika strictly as a Masonic emblem, one which he renounced, as critic Bonamy Dobrée points out, when Hitler "befouled" it (22). Neither hypothesis exempts Klein, however, from the need to be fair. In the 1943 letter to Smith, Klein’s attribution of a respectable motive to Eliot as Kipling’s editor—to revive interest in Kipling’s unjustly neglected folk ballads—is completely absent from his later statement on the subject, even though Kipling’s ballads were no less good in 1948 than they had been in 1943. This inability to arrive at a balanced assessment of Eliot and of his mentor, Ezra Pound, is typical of all Klein’s later judgments on both men.
A similarly intemperate analysis is found in Klein’s "Old Ez and His Blankets," a phrase culled from the Pisan Cantos which Pound wrote while imprisoned in the American Detention Camp at Pisa and which, in a controversial move, were awarded the coveted Bollingen Prize for Poetry. The sarcasm and personal invective of Klein’s response to the giving of this award to Pound betray his rage:
I venture to say, first of all, that I doubt whether any of the members of the distinguished committee—with all due respect to their titanic mentalities—can actually follow the sequence and the meaning of Cantos LXXII-LXXXIV. Much too frequently these cantos give the impression of an old man mumbling into his unkempt beard the gossip of two decades ago, the tag-ends of an outmoded pedantry, the dirty snivelling jokes of senile impotence. Frequently, too, that beard becomes frothy with malice, the spittle of hatred and frustration running down its matted clots. But a totally coherent statement never is made—what the old knave is actually saying is never made clear. It is just as well. (278-79)
Klein then makes perfectly clear what "the old man mumbling into his unkempt beard" has to say about Jews—in short, "the usual Pound against Shylock" (280)—by excerpting the worst anti-semitic passages from the prize-winning Cantos. If for such work, Klein afterwards exclaims, "Ezra Pound deserved the Bollingen Prize, Goebbels posthumously should be awarded the Pulitzer" (280). Of course that T.S. Eliot, who as a member of the Bollingen committee, should vote for Pound was not surprising, for "ideologically Pound is but an Eliot-plus-temerity" (280).
Given Pound’s technical virtuosity, it is puzzling that Klein refuses to grant him that merit at least. One notes that Robinson Jeffers’s fascist views also failed Klein’s litmus test—what Klein called "a sense of common humanity" (Literary Essays 235)—and yet Klein expresses respect for Jeffers as a "master of a peerless utterance [who was] still, from a technical viewpoint, an incomparable poet" (235). Elsewhere Klein notes that G.K. Chesterton is "continually crying that Jews are running away with England" (Literary Essays 158), but in that same essay he praises Chesterton’s clear thinking, and in another the "nimbleness of [Chesterton’s] dialectic" (153). Even the "notorious Tojo," as in an essay entitled "Of Japanese Poets" Klein calls the war criminal who led Japan’s forces, is judged to be quite capable of producing "splendid" lines of verse despite his "distorted" philosophy (Literary Essays 188). Klein was able to separate Tojo’s offensive views from his exquisite lines by using a tactic that, as Klein himself noted, was modelled on the Japanese treatment of the silkworm: "keep the silk, and throw the worm away" (188). And yet, in the case of Pound and his acolyte Eliot, Klein throws away both the silk and the worm.
The reason for Klein’s denying a critical justice to Pound and Eliot, of course, was that they had been honoured for the very writings which had helped to make the Holocaust possible. This heaping of accolades upon those who, in Klein’s view, should instead have been tried for crimes against humanity violated Klein’s sense of legal and moral justice. Miriam Waddington has argued that the radical poetry of Klein’s youth was informed by a notion of yosher, that is, of justice, which is as central to Judaism as the problem of good and evil is to Christianity (47). This passion for yosher animates far more of Klein’s work, however, than simply the radical poems. It is the essence of what Rachel Feldhay Brenner calls Klein’s "combative poetic response to history" (20), a response which required that crime be followed by a ritual punishment. And since, as Klein suggests in a poem on divine justice, God had somehow "mis-weighed" offences, retribution would have to pass into earthly hands such as Klein’s own:
One day the signal shall be given
• • •
Certainly justice was not done when the American judicial system provided a loophole for Pound, a man who had called for a "pogrom UP AT THE TOP" (Carpenter 612), that is, a putsch of influential Jews, and whose anti-semitic tirades were an incitement to violence against Jews everywhere. Nor was justice served, in Klein’s view, when prominent anti-semites were honoured for their work. Against such egregious wrongs, Klein lashed out like the Hebrew prophets of old.
The trope is Klein’s own. In The Hitleriad (l944), a satiric dissection of Hitler in the manner of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, he states, "I am the grandson of the prophets! I / Shall not seal lips against iniquity" (Complete Poems 582). This view of the poet-prophet was confirmed in "Bialik Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour," an essay in which Klein rejected the "effete aestheticism" of the poet who is "above and beyond the battle…Not such is the function of him who bears the name of a poet—the maker" (Literary Essays 33). He commends poet Chaim Nachman Bialik for denouncing a pogrom with a noble invective that revealed his true warrior spirit (33). To some degree Klein’s praise of invective as "noble" when used in a good cause explains the personal abuse heaped on Pound by Klein, much of it ad hominem and unworthy of Klein, and yet of a piece with the kind of holy war that he saw fit to wage against anti-semites. In another essay he speaks of neutrality in the face of evil as an evil in itself, a truth embodied in a letter from Alfred Loisy to Pope Benedict from which Klein quotes the following lines: "‘No one has a right to be neutral in moral questions. Whoever pretends to be indifferent is in reality siding with him who is wrong’" (Beyond Sambation 208). Such indifference would be doubly shameful in the case of a poet whose vocation, like that of the prophet, required him to seek redress.
This is not to suggest that Klein’s passion for yosher as poet and journalist was narrowly delimited to exposing anti-semites like Pound. M.W. Steinberg detects the same righteous indignation, for example, in Klein’s protests against apartheid in South Africa, the wartime internment of Canada’s Japanese citizens on the west coast, and Quebec’s discrimination against the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Beyond Sambation xvi). Yet World War II and its horrific concomitant in the Holocaust burned like acid on Klein’s prophetic conscience, making him almost frantic whenever those implicated in the murder of Jews were not punished as they deserved. In an uncollected essay entitled "The Voices" which appeared in The Canadian Jewish Chronicle on May 25, 1945, for example, Klein fervently desired that justice be meted out to two traitors—the Irish William Joyce whose fake British accent earned him the derisive title of "Lord Haw Haw," and Ezra Pound—who over short-wave radio, from Germany and Italy respectively, both sought to undermine the Allied war effort and to propagate hatred against Jews:
For the past five years, short-wave
radio-listeners were harassed, and amused, by a couple of radio voices
which [were] never heard but they were pouring fire and brimstone upon
the democracies and all that they stood for. One of these was the
notorious English accent which soon came to be known as Lord Haw Haw,
and the other was the strident tone of Ezra Pond [sic]. While the one
devoted himself to a violent interpertation [sic] of all things British,
from the Archbishop of Canterbury down, the other made the United States
his special target, with particular attention to President Roosevelt.
Both, of course, larded their comments—we believe that this is le
mot juste—with an obscene and virulent anti-semitism.
In a later editorial captioned "The Judicial Process," Klein reports that, in a triumph for British justice, Joyce had been tried and found guilty without the halo of martyrdom, unlike the anti-semite Pierre Laval, whose trial in France also ended in his being found guilty, although not before Laval managed to garner some sympathy for himself among the general public. This essay reveals Klein’s intense need to see that justice, even in minute particulars, be done. His pleasure in the handling of Joyce’s trial, for example, was vitiated by the judge’s allowing to go unrebuked a slighting remark about the Jewish victims of the gas ovens which was made by a defence lawyer. The overreaction of an obviously upset Klein to what most would consider an oversight by the judge is worth noting: by this failure, Klein alleges, a judge whose practice in other respects "enhanced" the British judicial system’s reputation of "pre-eminent excellence" altogether "nullified his previous scrupulosities. For the essence of the judicial process is to be fair—fair to both the accused and the complainant" (Beyond Sambation 249-50). Given the shocking disclosures of Nazi brutality during the war, any attack upon the innocent people who died at their hands, even if made only in the hope of obtaining a more lenient sentence for the accused, is unacceptable. But to insist, as Klein did, on retribution at every point, was to invite disappointment and to court despair. But a "grandson of the prophets," as Klein styled himself, could do no less.
Klein’s unbalanced reaction to Lord Haw Haw’s trial sheds valuable light upon his vituperative estimate of Pound and Eliot. His attacks upon them in the late l940s were excessive, and seemed better suited to a discussion of Hitler or of Goebbels than of two men of letters, however distasteful some of their opinions. But, as we have seen, the postwar honours which were conferred upon them crystallized Klein’s fear that the great awakening of humanity’s conscience in the matter of Jewish persecution had not occurred after all. Like the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby after a lesser tragedy, Klein seemed to expect the world to remain at moral attention forever. Yet, despite a knowledge of the Holocaust which should have been utterly mind-altering, the cultured people who comprised the Nobel and Bollingen committees actually rewarded rather than punished these two famous anti-semites. Klein could not bear to see any persecutor of his race go uncensured. Cheated of legal justice in the case of Pound and Eliot, he decided himself to settle the matter of their greatness as authors, even if he had to employ critical measures that were not altogether fair. The rationale is clear enough: if he had to sacrifice objectivity when assessing those parts of their work which were innocent of anti-semitism in order to discredit what to him was the criminal element of that same work, then he would do so, even though the writings of Pound and Eliot had been the very lifeblood of his own.
Yet as an artist Klein could not easily commit parricide. Throughout his attacks on the literary forbears whom in other circumstances he would have honoured, a great tension is evident. Reading between the lines of "Cantabile," for example, one detects a sneaking admiration for Pound and his work. One sign of this esteem is the epigraph itself: "De litteris, et de armis, praestantibusque ingeniis translated means "Concerning books, arms, and men of unusual genius." Such a line can be read ironically, of course; yet in the poem, as we saw earlier, Klein grudgingly conceded Pound’s consummate taste in authors, many of them either minor or entirely unknown, whose work he publicized. Putting good writers in circulation this way was no small achievement. As critic G.S. Fraser noted, "To Pound, even more than to Eliot, we owe our contemporary sense of an enormous variety of the literary modes and devices and achievements of a dozen cultures as being spread about before us like…an ‘imaginary museum’" (2). Like Fraser, Klein knew that Pound’s unerring aesthetic sense could be trusted in sifting out good from bad works: he was indeed, as Klein put it, "expert in the bite for counterfeit" (265). Klein also betrays a certain respect for the often reviled Pound in designating him the "stoic of the empty portals," an image of nobility in the face of desertion that makes the final phrase, "Est Perditus," not simply a variation of the anti-semitic taunt "Jerusalem is lost," but also an expression of pity, perhaps even of sympathy.
Klein’s proclaimed antipathy to Pound is full of such contradictions. For example, he indicts Pound for a failing which elsewhere Klein celebrates as a virtue and even manifests himself—that is, the incorporation of other works within his own. Yet anyone who knows Klein’s work well must find this attack on the use of tradition (of all things) by Pound and by his alter ego, T.S. Eliot, utterly baffling. How could Klein, who drew so extensively on his own rich Judaic tradition, condemn Pound for speculating in the "cultural exchanges" of other writers and periods? Or attack T.S. Eliot for "derivativeness" (Literary Essays 270) when he himself derived so much from both Eliot and Pound, including a definition of the artist as "he who, nourished upon the ancestral heritage, yet—if only in the slightest—deviates therefrom" (Literary Essays 148) that is essentially T.S. Eliot’s idea of tradition and the individual talent?
Klein’s double standard in condemning a use of tradition by Pound (and Eliot) that he secretly admires and even emulates can also be seen in his praise of James Joyce. In a reply to Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger’s query about the possible trouble a non-Jewish reader might have in reading Klein, the poet answers that an amalgamation of two or more cultures had already been done successfully in English literature, most recently by James Joyce whose Ulysses represented a "successful literary merger of the values of two cultures" (Literary Essays xiii). Not only is Joyce exempt from the charge brought against Pound of "speculating in Homeric exchanges" (to adapt Klein’s own metaphor), but Klein himself could guiltlessly imitate Joyce’s verbal pyrotechnics in several of his own works and deliberately echo in one particular poem, "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," the title of Joyce’s famous novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.5 And yet Klein accuses Pound of thefts from "another man’s wisdom, another’s wit" (Literary Essays 280), not to mention "the usual thievings from James Joyce" (280). By the time this essay appeared, Klein had clearly subordinated the objective appraisal of Pound’s art to his own pressing desire to see Pound utterly discredited, if not in a court of law, at least in the court of public opinion.
The distinguished Jewish critic George Steiner has pointed out that the atrocities perpetrated in Europe and in Russia between 1914 and 1942 made it impossible any longer to believe in the civilizing power of letters. In terms that bring Ezra Pound to mind, Steiner evokes the failure of culture to lead its adherents to humane action:
The ultimate of political barbarism grew from the core of Europe. Two centuries after Voltaire had proclaimed its end, torture again became a normal process of political action. Not only did the general dissemination of literary, cultural values prove no barrier to totalitarianism; but in notable instances the high places of humanistic learning and art actually welcomed and aided the new terror. Barbarism prevailed on the very ground of Christian humanism, of Renaissance culture and classic rationalism. We know that some of the men who devised and administered Auschwitz had been taught to read Shakespeare or Goethe, and continued to do so. (Language and Silence 5)
That Pound was a similarly cultured brute is at the very heart of the difficulty he presented for Klein, for Pound’s anti-semitism produced between the two men a rupture precisely where there might have been a bond. In view of their common devotion to literature, Pound was a man to whom, in happier circumstances, Klein might have felt an intimate connection. That the arts can make kin of strangers was the very point of Pound’s lovely "In Durance," a poem whose one line, "…ordinary people touch me not" (Personae 20), Klein cited as evidence of Pound’s snobbery (Literary Essays 274). But the poem can be interpreted more generously as Pound’s attempt to honour as his "own kind" all those who share his love of the arts:
Klein would not have failed to recognize himself in this description. In a tale of the wandering Jew entitled "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," Klein similarly observed how a common culture makes its adherents "brother" and "cousin," a Poundian kinship of spirit from which the outcast Jew, however, is hurtfully excluded:
…on occasion and in divers lands
The special horror of Pound’s "reasonless hatred" against Jews, then, was its emanating from one who in his other incarnations had not only been Klein’s teacher, guide, and mentor, but also his kinsman. In short, what Klein beheld in the "fibbiest fabricator of them all" was one brother persecuting another, Cain plotting the murder of Abel. For Klein, lover of dialectic though he was, there could be no synthesis here, but only an agony of ambivalence.
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