The Great Myths #18: Celtic Myth and Scholarship – Human Voices Wake Us
The late poet and translator W. S. Merwin, who died only last month at ninety-one, has left us a remarkable account of visiting an aging and imprisoned Ezra Pound back in 1949, when Merwin was just starting out.
I was in Washington, D.C., at Easter, during one of my last years as a student. I was visiting a college friend in the city, and while I was there I telephoned St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and to my surprise learned that I would be allowed to call on Ezra Pound and that he was willing to see me.
On a morning of bright sunlight, one of the first warm days of spring, I took the bus across Washington to the hospital….
The hospital at that time was a collection of large nineteenth-century brick buildings. They appeared to have been built in the years after the Civil War, with fire escapes and portico roofs probably added later. They looked hard-worn and tired, but the stains and cracks running down the brickwork, as I recall the place, may be imaginary touches supplied more recently, in remembering it. The building to which my inquiries led resembled a big down-at-heels municipal school—a larger, broader, duller version of the brick neo-Gothic Abraham Lincoln School #14, between Academy and Division Streets in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I attended for five years of my childhood. A dingy entrance, and at the top of a flight of stairs an attendant opened a heavy, metal-covered door, and I found myself in a large, ill-lit, sparsely furnished public room, its walls a wan, glaucous green. A facility. Quite obviously something that was thought of as a necessary evil.
Pound was led down an inner flight of steps that looked like the bottom of a circling staircase in a tower, and he welcomed me, when the attendant stepped aside, with an openmouthed smiled, his head thrown back. We sat down in an alcove, in two veteran easy chairs. The distance between us was beyond calculation. Small-voiced good will calling across a canyon. He began to talk to me as though I knew many things whose very names I had never heard, and I nodded and murmured as appropriately as possible.
The Pisan Cantos had been published fairly recently. I knew something of their story, and something, mostly hearsay, of the government’s case against Pound, but I had read next to nothing about his politics and did not know what to make of the things I had heard. I understood that the insanity plea had perhaps saved his life, and the most frequent question I heard about Pound at the time was whether or not he was crazy. I had not read his statements about fascism or his anti-Semitic rantings. I did not want to believe some of the things I had heard about him, and certainly I did not want him to be shot, which at the time was said to be—or at least to have been—quite possible. Looking back, I am surprised to realize how easily I was able to focus my enthusiasm on the poetry alone, and on what I regarded as Pound’s intransigent, undeflected devotion to it. I admired him for passages in his poems, some of which still seem to me new and gemlike. The startling vitality of those lines allowed me to cling to something that I thought exemplary in him: He was an American—middle-class and in every sense provincial, as I was—who had set out from the beginning to be an artist, a poet. And to do it without money. I felt that I was already in his debt, and at that age I did not want to hear things about him that I would not be able to come to terms with.
He talked about Confucius, kept returning to him. And about Bill [William Carlos] Williams, with approval but as though he were remembering another time. Pound then was in his sixties, but to me he seemed like an ancient, and when he looked back it must have seemed to him that he had lived through several distinct lives. He talked about The Cantos, his cantos, and about that magic trick that he predicted so many times: When the hundredth canto was finished, he said (demonstrating with his hands in the air), the capstone would fit perfectly across the columns of the temple and everything would be seen to be in place. I was eager to ask him the right things, but for the most part he took care of all that. He was glad to have someone who wanted to listen to him….
He went back to talking—about Cocteau now, whose poems he liked, and it was not easy for him to find contemporary poets he wanted to read. He spoke in the key of judgment the greater part of the time. He talked about reading in general. “Have you noticed,” he asked, “that senators never read the newspapers?” I admitted that I had never noticed that. “That,” he explained, confidentially, “is because a political party goes to pot when it begins to believe its own lies.” I hoped he would veer back to the subject of poetry, and he did, and talked about Eliot. Tom. But again a distance, a remoteness, seemed to hover around his words. I wanted to ask him about Yeats, but he took me by surprise and turned the subject to me, or someone he took to be me. Someone, as he seemed quite prepared to believe, who was bent on spending his life trying to write poetry. He had been lucky, he said, to have known a generation of writers who had never thought of writing for money. He told me he imagined I was serious, and that if I was I should learn languages, “so as not to be at the mercy of translators.” And then I should translate, myself. “If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating. The Provençal is the real source. The poets are closest to music. They hear it. They write to it. Try to learn Provençal, at least some of it, if you can. Meanwhile, the others. Spanish is all right. The Romancero is what you want there. Get as close to the original as you can. It will make you use your English and find out what you can do with it.”
When the visiting hour was nearly over, his wife, Dorothy Shakespear, arrived. A tall, quiet, gentle Englishwoman whom I liked immediately, and Pound turned me over to her, speaking of me as though we had known each other for some time and I were a literary person of established consequence. Then the attendant came and led Pound away and up the inner staircase, where the light appeared to be better, and Dorothy and I were led out through the doorway to the world at large.
– W. S. Merwin, The Mays of Ventadorn, 2-3, 5-7, 7-8