Can you separate the poetry from the poet?
By Glenda Robinson
This year Valentine’s Day presents a unique opportunity. You can focus on your own relationship — or lack thereof — or you can join sanmiguelense Austin Briggs, a 50-year professor of English Literature at Hamilton College, as he ponders his lifelong relationship with the poet Ezra Pound.
Lecture: Ezra Pound: My Fascist/Traitor/Lunatic/Anti-Semite/Genius Poet. A San Miguel PEN Lecture by Austin Briggs. Tue, Feb 14, 6pm. Ángela Peralta Theater. 100 pesos
I recently spoke with Austin about his talk.
Glenda Robinson: Austin, in your past five justifiably popular PEN lectures you’ve featured specific works of literature. But this time you’re going to shift gears and discuss Ezra Pound, his life and works, and your ambivalence about him. First of all, why does Pound merit your schizoid title?
Austin Briggs: Ezra Pound was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. On top of that, he has a brilliant history of supporting other writers. As Hemingway famously said, “He defends (his friends) when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money…he gets publishers to take their books. His sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying.” Pound was critical in bringing Hemingway, James Joyce and Robert Frost to prominence.
GR: And on the other side of the ledger?
AB: During World War Two, Pound delivered 120 broadcasts from Italy on behalf of Mussolini, denouncing America’s involvement in the war. After Italy fell, he was imprisoned by the US military and had a mental breakdown. Though charged with treason, he was judged unfit to stand trial and spent 12 years in a psychiatric hospital. And he was virulently anti-Semitic, frequently railing against “yids” and “kikes.”
GR: How did you forge such a personal connection with him?
AB: He was an alumnus of Hamilton, and when I went there to teach in 1957, I tracked down everyone who knew him and extracted their stories about him. Ten years later I had the good luck to spend a weekend with his son, Omar Shakespear Pound, and his wife Dorothy Shakespear. Omar offered me the chance to take scholarly possession of a treasure trove of his father’s papers to catalog and edit. Ultimately I turned him down because I didn’t know if I could ever get inside a mind so saturated with anti-Semitism. Then two years later, Pound arrived as a surprise guest for lunch at my house.
GR: And do you promise to share the story of that lunch with us, along with related stories of your personal interactions with John Updike, James Dickey, and other literary greats?
AB: I do.
GR: And do you think you will ever resolve your ambivalence about Pound? Do you think, as Saul Bellow wrote, that “the poet’s conviction (cannot) be separated from his poetry”?
AB: I don’t know. I’ve spent most of my life on the horns of exactly that dilemma. I look forward to tackling this topic with my PEN lecture audience. Maybe they can help me.
San Miguel PEN is one of 144 chapters of PEN International, the largest and oldest worldwide organization of professional writers. PEN is dedicated to promoting literature, supporting intellectual cooperation among writers, and fighting for freedom of expression. At any time there are about 1,000 writers and journalists on the PEN list who have been jailed, recently murdered, threatened or called to court for something they have written. Your contribution helps San Miguel PEN intervene on behalf of oppressed writers, and also helps fund scholarships for local students. For more information call 152-0614 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.