Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"With Usura Hath No Man a House of Good Stone" (Pound, Canto 45): An Interview with Leon Surette

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"With Usura Hath No Man a House of Good Stone" (Pound, Canto 45): An Interview with Leon Surette

Article excerpt

THAT LEON SURETTE has been writing for more than four decades primarily about Ezra Pound (1885-1972), the American poet, may seem unusual and surprising--but this "scholarly monomania" may be attributed to the fact that Pound continues to be a controversial figure and a paradigmatically difficult modernist poet. For instance, while the United States was at war with Italy and the Holocaust was being perpetrated, Pound made broadcasts over Rome Radio denouncing President Roosevelt, encouraging American soldiers not to fight, and raving about Jewish conspiracies and the role of banks in having started the war. In the suppressed-until-1982 Italian Canto 73, Pound pays homage to a young Italian girl's sacrifice of her life in leading a company of Canadian soldiers into a minefield to their deaths--as Charles Olson later said, "Here we [Americans] were listening not only to a fascist, but the ENEMY!" Indeed, there is overwhelming, and tragic, evidence for what Tim Redman has called "the frightening aspects of [Pound's] allegiances." Of course, trying to find excuses for Pound's scandalous behaviour is indefensible; however, does it follow from this, as some critics and readers have insisted, that his work, including especially The Cantos, his magnum opus, is infected with his repugnant views to such an extent that it should be expunged from the canon altogether? This is a question asked by Pound's sympathizers, detractors, and those who aspire to remain objective alike. This is a question, as well, that Dr Surette has asked several times and which he has approached from a number of different angles.

Pound may be known best in some circles for his role in such important movements as Imagism or Vorticism and for his discovering and/or championing of several modernist writers, including James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and H. D.; however, his reputation rests on The Cantos, his "poem including history," an 818-page-long poem whose composition occupied him for approximately fifty years. Massimo Bacigalupo calls Pound's "epic" the "sacred poem of the Nazi-Fascist millennium"; indeed, the poem may be (and has been) viewed as an authoritarian summing up of the most abject twentieth-century ideologies and prejudices; yet this is also a text committed to a radical ideological openness and also the poem most responsible for the unprecedented blossoming in American (but also world) literature of formally innovative, open, and open-ended poetry. This is a poetry that questions received notions of poetic form through its radically modernist, abrupt, paratactic techniques of disconnectedness and discontinuity, visual experimentation, textual heterogeneity, and undigested quality. Pound is largely responsible for making possible the innovations of successive generations of American poets, from the Projectivist group, to the Objectivists, to the language poetry of Charles Bernstein, and so on. And so, a case may be made that this poet who in 1945 was indicted for giving aid and comfort to the Kingdom of Italy and its then allies in the war against the United States is also--arguably--the poet who, before, during, and after his twelve and a half years of forceful confinement at the St Elizabeths Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C., influenced the development of twentieth-century poetry more than any other single person. And so, he may--after all--merit the attention lavished on his work by critics like Dr Surette.

It is this poem that Leon Surette has invested a whole academic career at trying to make sense of and, in doing so, has found himself traversing some rather esoteric and difficult terrain. Dr Surette received his PHD from the University of Toronto in 1969. His dissertation's title was "The City in the Cantos of Ezra Pound: A Study of a Modern Epic"; it was supervised by Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. He taught for a brief period at UBC before accepting a position at UWO in 1970, spending the next thirty-three years teaching undergraduate and graduate courses there. …

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