Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ezra Pound in the Bughouse: New in Chicago Review

Rejoice! The latest issue of Chicago Review has dropped, and in it you'll find new writing about Fernando Pessoa, FLARF, and Basil Bunting, as well as an essay by Peter Middleton, Donna Stonecipher's translations of Friederike Mayröcker, and much more, including a little something I wrote about Daniel Swift's book The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound.

Here's how it starts:

There’s an old black-and-white photo from the 1965 poetry festival in Spoleto, Italy, in which we can see Ezra Pound surrounded by younger poets: Bill Berkson is there, along with John Wieners, Desmond O’Grady, Charles Olson—so large he looks like he’s been sloppily photoshopped into the scene—and a partially obscured John Ashbery. The scene is significant, I think, for how it projects two moments yet to come in Pound’s posterity: the Olson-led renaissance of his reputation in the late 1960s, and his eclipse as a model for younger poets after the rise, a decade later, of Ashbery’s star.  Pound had already been in and out of vogue many times: in the 1910s, he was at the center of a creative vortex, and an influence on the shape of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic.  By the late 1930s, he was largely an outsider, and at the end of the Second World War he hit his nadir, politically disgraced and caged like an animal by the American army occupying Italy. 

Our own moment should be a propitious one for another look at Pound.  He isn’t currently a model for many poets (Nathanial Tarn and John Peck are the most significant talents carrying a torch for Ole Ez), but we do live in times that seem uncannily Poundian: times of public madness, resurgent fascism, and crackpot economic theories.  Perhaps it’s not a great time for a young poet to take her cues from the author of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, but it’s certainly a good moment to examine Pound as a phenomenon, if not a model.  The 1959 anthology A Casebook on Ezra Pound provided excellent fuel for the reevaluation of the poet after his release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, when, as Donald Davie put it, Pound’s politics had “made it impossible for any one any longer to exalt the poet into a seer.”  We would welcome another book capable of opening up a new discussion of the meaning and significance of Pound, and Daniel Swift’s study of Pound’s dozen years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, promises to be just such a book.  The topic—and, especially, the subtitle—lead one to hope for a study packed with insight into the moral and aesthetic conundrum that is Pound.  Is he to be held responsible for his fascism? Does his mental health exculpate him? How do madness and politics bear on the poetry itself? One opens the pages of Swift’s book eager to find out. 
The Bughouse, alas, does not live up to its topic, or its moment, when the issues of Pound’s politics have an alarming currency...
The rest of the piece can be found in the the spring issue.  Ordering info and selected content available here. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

I Think of Myself as a Kind of Shaman, You Know: Reading the Syndicate of Water and Light

If there is an international man of mystery in contemporary poetry, Marc Vincenz is it: British but also Swiss and in some meaningful sense Hong Kong Chinese, multilingual, with an unplaceable accent, a past featuring stints as an Island Records musician, a high-level industrialist, a Chinese fantasy novelist, and Icelandic hermit, not to mention an interval as assistant to legendary poet-novelist Reynolds Price, he is the walking definition of an interesting man.  And, in a time when most of us on Planet Poetry can easily be filed away in a dusty folder labeled "professors of English," his is a refreshing profile.  He's prolific, too, and his latest book, a kind of ecological Divine Comedy called The Syndicate of Water and Light, is just now out from Station Hill.

I've written an afterword, and it begins like this:
“I think of myself as a kind of shaman, you know,” Marc Vincenz once said to me, “communicating with the other side.”  I didn’t quite know what he meant then, and probably mumbled something about Claude Levi-Strauss or Jerome Rothenberg, but reading The Syndicate of Water & Light, I think I finally understand.  And I think, too, that it’s appropriate that Vincenz made the revelation when we were in a dingy, black-walled Manhattan bar down below street level, where we went to wait out a heat wave that had engulfed the city. The place—dim and somehow squalid—had the feel of a kind of underworld, and it was of journeys to the underworld that Vincenz referred.  This book is exactly such a journey, a voyage to another reality beneath our quotidian world, and, in the end, a journey back: a communication with the other side.
            It is tempting, if one knows something about Vincenz’s peripatetic and multilingual life, to trace an autobiographical story in The Syndicate of Water & Light: those teeming cities and markets ringing with exotic languages, surrounded by burgeoning industry, seem like the China where he spent a good portion of his life.  And the pristine land of windblown grass, mountains, and sea could easily represent Iceland, where Vincenz retreated after a harrowing experience of venal modern Chinese klepto-capitalism. The sections dealing with Christianity, and a struggle to move beyond its formality to a more open view of the spirit, seem as though they may have come from his education in a Swiss monastery school, but I am cautioned against too autobiographical a reading here by Vincenz’s statement that he arrived in the monastery an agnostic child and emerged a confirmed teenage atheist. Vincenz’s life is present, here—how could it not be?—but it is refracted as if through a kaleidoscope, distorted and reformed into new patterns and symmetries.
            The primary pattern is that of the expedition: the poem’s presiding spirits, Ulysses and Dante, are both inveterate explorers.  Significantly, they are not merely explorers of physical space, but seekers after knowledge—Dante’s is a spiritual quest figured as geographic travel, and Vincenz’ Ulysses is Tennyson’s Ulysses, more than Homer’s: the old mariner follows knowledge like a sinking star, sailing on to the shores of Mount Purgatory. Vincenz is an optimist, when it comes to journeys. The Syndicate of Water and Light opens with a sense that we can grow in knowledge and that we can change—if not, perhaps, the world, then at least ourselves...

The rest is in the book itself, which can be ordered here.  The official launch will be at the AWP, where Marc himself will be adding some much-needed extra-academic zest to the proceedings.