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Letter from Poetry Magazine

Clive James responds:

Introduction
. . . intentional attempts at humor can never be as funny as the would-be seriousness that misjudges its tone.
Clive James responds:

Contrary to William Watt's assumption, I have little trouble imagining that Pound's long stay in the insane asylum was no picnic. But I wasn't saying that it was. I was merely saying that he got a better break than many people who were sent to their deaths for no reason at all, and whose fate can easily be said to have been at least partly determined by Pound's professed politics, which were a lot more than "nasty." They were murderous, and meant to sound like it, right there in the Jew-baiting sections of the Cantos which the work's diehard admirers would like to think are less characteristic than the rhapsodies. Viewed from that angle, Watt's strongest point, which is based on the undoubted truth that he visited Pound in the hospital and I didn't, begins to sound less convincing. His other points sound weak straightaway. If, to the naked eye, there are red stars as well as white stars, then there are stars of more than one color, so the phrase "the color of stars" needs to be "the colors of stars," doesn't it? Pound either would have written it like that, or he would have recast it. But he did neither of those things, because "the color of stars" is meant to mean what it says, which, I now think, doesn't sound like much, although I once thought it did.

I never thought that the ant was like a centaur, because there is nothing about the ant lifting its front section so that the front two "appendages" (Watt's word, and pretty clearly a fudge) would look like a centaur's arms. Once again, if Pound had meant that, he could have said so. But he didn't. What he offered at that point, and at countless other points in the Cantos, was the chance for commentators to get in and help him with the writing. There, one suspects, lies the real secret of the lingering attraction. It wasn't I, incidentally, who said that the work doesn't "cohere." It was Pound. To everyone except him and his more abject fans, it was always obvious that he had set out to be incoherent. Watt can call this fragmentary view of experience a "take" if he wishes, but I wish he wouldn't drag Dante into it.

It almost makes more sense to drag Homer into it, as Edward McCrorie does in a letter seemingly designed to remind me that intentional attempts at humor can never be as funny as the would-be seriousness that misjudges its tone. I laughed a lot to hear that McCrorie has been "mulling" Homer "closely." Is there any other way to mull him? The sad truth is that Pound, while he will always attract interest, inspires lasting loyalty only among those whose pretended confidence is barely controlled hysteria. There is always a giveaway, such as McCrorie's threat to cancel his subscription "for the foreseeable future." It is meant to sound like a bit more than the canceling of a subscription, but somehow it comes out as meaning rather less. Anyway, let's hope he doesn't do it. This magazine, in keeping with its name, has always treated poetry as the stuff of life, and consequently there have always been quarrels. It was an element that Ezra Pound, to his lasting credit, helped to bring to the magazine in the first place. That much, at least, we can all grant him without a second thought.

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This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

Letter from Poetry Magazine

Clive James responds:

  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

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