Features March 2022
Idol temptations on the Adriatic
On two great twentieth-century poets.
The island of San Michele, the municipal cemetery of Venice, lies less than half a mile out in the lagoon. Here Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky are buried in the small Protestant section. San Michele is inlaid in the water: almost a perfect square of land bordered by brick walls, in turn punctuated by white arches, with cypresses everywhere dignifying the prospect.
Ezra Pound’s grave is a simple slab lying in the ground, with only his name in the Latin style carved on it. When I visit, an overgrown bush and a vine tangle almost hide the slab, even from a short distance. I stumble around for a quarter of an hour before locating it. A gravestone can be a person’s final signature. This grave has the air of partial abandonment—symbolic for a poet so often disparaged. I move to another grave only about twenty feet away: that of Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky’s upright slab, with his name carved in both Russian and English, is exquisitely tended, with tiny, neatly arranged potted plants and a rose bush, all recently clipped. It is clearly a beloved and much visited site.
Ezra Pound’s grave is a simple slab lying in the ground.
Whereas Pound consciously set out to be great, Brodsky, perhaps with more talent, set out merely to record his emotions and the material world as it appeared before his eyes. Whereas Pound was full of ideology, theories, and grand schemes, Brodsky, who served eighteen months of hard labor in internal exile in the far north of Russia—before being actually expelled from his homeland—had only contempt for such things. Whereas Pound’s pungent historical panoramas, with their emphasis on great heroic figures, leave little room for intimacy, in Brodsky’s poetry inner lives and loves, so agonizingly personal, attain almost a numinous state. Brodsky cares about the individual, not merely archetypes. With Brodsky a lover’s embrace is holy; with Pound only a bloody battle seems to be. And yet Brodsky is deeply interested in history. In a poem about the Russian military hero Zhukov, the names of Hannibal, Pompey, and Belisarius pop up in the space of only three lines. Then there is Brodsky’s famous poem about Tiberius, his essay on Byzantium, and so much more.
But Brodsky is great because no other poet, perhaps, has such an unstoppable gift for surprising and revealing metaphors. “Dust is the flesh of time”; the dental cavities of an old man “rival old Troy on a rainy day”; a dense garden is like “jewels closely set”; “darkness restores what light cannot repair.” Trying to explain his technique, Brodsky said that a poem “should be dark with nouns” on the page. Additionally, Brodsky can “see analogies where others do not suspect them,” as the poet Charles Simic wrote, and this is inextricable from his humanity. Simic called Brodsky “the great poet of travel,” saying that he “wanted to be a universal poet, someone at home everywhere, and he largely succeeded.” This is precisely why Brodsky is so crucial to Europe now—the ideal Europe at this perilous moment should yearn for. Yet my story begins not in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin—the usual datelines for writing about Europe—but in Venice.
“No word can be spoken in this city that is not an echo of something said before.”
Scores of literary greats have written about Venice, so that as Mary McCarthy once said, “no word can be spoken in this city that is not an echo of something said before.” Yet it is possible that the most unsurpassable description of Venice is Brodsky’s Watermark, which at a slender 135 pages of large print can count as an epic, for so powerful and devastating are its metaphors and asides that, while technically a work of prose, it reads like a long poem. It is the inverse of Pound’s Cantos. Whereas that work seeks sprawling greatness and erudition and for the most part fails—despite the enormous labor and organization put into it—Brodsky’s little book hits upon perfection, even as it is clearly intended to be a minor effort. Of course, the brilliance of metaphor is usually a matter of sheer artistry, not hard labor. Just listen to Brodsky reduce the visitor’s Venice to its essentials. True happiness is “the smell of freezing seaweed” at night along “the black oil cloth of the water’s surface”; “beauty at low temperatures is beauty”; “water is the image of time”; and since music evokes time, “water, too, is choral.” On the boat leaving the stazione, “the overall feeling was mythological, cyclopic,” the Gothic and Renaissance buildings a “bevy of dormant cyclopses reclining in black water, now and then raising and lowering an eyelid.” Marble inlays, capitals, cornices, pediments, balconies “turn you vain. For this is the city of the eye; your other faculties play a faint second fiddle.” Ergo, Venice is materialism and superficiality writ large. Physical beauty is everything here. Venice tempts idolatry.
Brodsky puts you in your place; he exposes your inadequacies by his own metaphorical brilliance, which is so matter-of-fact and almost clinical. (He hates writers and academics with “too many tidy bookshelves and African trinkets.” I am partially guilty on that score.) For Brodsky is the pinnacle: you are a dozen levels below him, at the very least. And because he is such a genius, with such precise taste (he reveres Donizetti and Mozart, not Tchaikovsky and Wagner), every offhand remark he makes carries weight. No doubt, he would quietly sneer at my own work ethic, my neat desk, my endnotes, my anxious indulgence in analytical categories and organization, for intellects of his caliber simply don’t require any of it. Their genius can handle disorganization and rise above any system. They can even afford to be lazy (though he certainly wasn’t). They may publish sparingly, in small amounts, and leave a deeper, more lasting imprint than any of us (though, again, in Brodsky’s case his production was prodigious). As for the hardworking, incessantly striving Ezra Pound, in Brodsky’s eyes he is beneath contempt. From the viewpoint of any Russian, Pound’s “wartime radio spiels” in service to the Axis Powers should have earned him “nine grams of lead.”
I now stand over Brodsky’s grave and read “The Bust of Tiberius,” written in 1981, nine years after Pound’s death in this city. Here are some excerpts:
that lies below the massive jawbone—Rome:
the provinces, the latifundists, the cohorts
plus swarms of infants bubbling at your ripe
stiff sausage. . . .
. . . What does it matter that Suetonius-
cum-Tacitus still mutter, seeking causes
for your great cruelty? . . .
you seem a man more capable of drowning
in your piscina than in some deep thought. . . .
. . . Ah, Tiberius!
And such as we presume to judge you? You
were surely a monster, . . .
Pound would have been jealous. Imagine, beaten at his own game of rendering the earthen texture of history. In a portion I haven’t quoted, there is an implicit allusion to Stalin, putting the poet on firm moral ground: again, beaten. Tiberius’s obscene cruelty was, in all fairness, specific to the second half of his reign, from 23 A.D. until his death in 37 A.D., when the aged emperor—perhaps suffering from mental disease—delegated power to the Praetorian Guard. From 14 A.D. to 23 A.D., Tiberius had been a model of caution who abandoned the gladiatorial games, built few cities, annexed few territories, and used diplomacy rather than force against the German tribes. Of course, this does not weaken Brodsky’s employment of symbols to evoke unbridled power.
Ezra Pound, too, was besotted with Venice. In Canto 17, written in 1924, he writes about
the waters richer than glass,
Bronze gold, the blaze over the silver,
Dye-pots in the torch-light, . . .
In this poem the city appears as “the white forest of marble, bent bough over bough”—so what emerges is a triumph of nature and of the divine. Reading Pound’s Cantos can be like looking at an old fresco: there is the obsession with everything that is old to a naive, ideological, and therefore dangerous degree. There is, for example, the famous fixation on usury, which to him functions as nothing less than the original sin that prevents man from creating a paradise on earth. Pound, in other words, harbors a decidedly utopian streak, which almost always is perilous. It is impossible to be blind to these tendencies, as Pound’s fascism and anti-Semitism are more than well-known—they are one of the first organizing principles one discovers about him. And this does (must, in fact) undermine his poetry. There are, for example, no mitigating circumstances surrounding Pound’s World War II radio broadcasts in defense of Mussolini. Indeed, he even praised Mein Kampf. Still, as William Carlos Williams once said about Pound’s genius: “It’s the best damned ear ever born to listen to this language!” Or as Hugh Kenner writes at the beginning of his book The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951), in an obvious reference to Pound’s moral disrepute: “I have had to choose, and I have chosen rather to reveal the work than to present the man.”
But the demolition of Pound has continued apace. Brodsky is only one example. Such literary and intellectual personages as George Orwell, Robert Graves, Randall Jarrell, Clive James, and others—Robert Conquest, notably—have eviscerated Pound both as a person and as a poet, and in some cases they convincingly refute Kenner’s implication that the two can be disentangled. Pound’s Cantos are too often unreadable and make no sense, these poets and critics argue, and some of his translations are even bad: Pound, as one detractor has said, was like an incoherent blogger many decades before his time. And always there is his hate.
What was really at the root of Pound’s demented soul, the starting point of the moral descent that led to his playing a small part in the destruction of mid-twentieth-century Europe? Can we locate its origin in a place or a line of verse? Perhaps we may, by shifting the scene from Venice to Rimini, south of Ravenna on Italy’s Adriatic seaboard, and contemplating a particular church and the man who built it. Please bear with me.
Never does pagan Europe seem so sure of itself as at the entrance to this church. The piazza, polished and lonely in the downpour, is dramatically reduced by the line of other buildings directly at my back. So the Istrian stone encasement of an earlier brick Gothic structure thrusts itself abruptly upon me. The longer I look at it, the more extraordinary it becomes. Between the massive columns mounted on a high stylobate ledge are blind arcades guarding, in turn, a confidently deep triangular pediment. And within that triangular pediment is a lintel that I am barely aware of, yet which anchors the whole façade. Form and proportion take over. In classical architecture beauty is mathematical and equates with perfection.
In classical architecture beauty is mathematical and equates with perfection.
Passing through the door, rather than a warm and embracing candlelit darkness, one is greeted by a shivery, pounding silence and the perpetual late-afternoon light of an overcast day. I feel like ducking back outside, under the clouds. The world at midnight is less despairing. The loud echo of another pair of footsteps every few minutes reinforces my loneliness. The expansive marble floor overwhelms the meager rows of benches approaching the apse (rebuilt after the World War II bombing). The longer I sit here, the more vast and spare the marble becomes.
More than by the scattered frescoes, I am struck by the white limestone clarity of the interior space—as of an archaeological ruin, albeit one deliberately reconstructed by early Renaissance artists. Not color, but force and volume emanate from the flattened and compressed reliefs. The feast of limestone sculptures in the side chapels takes possession of me. In the cold, these crowded and intricate figures, despite their energy, expressiveness, and flowing movement, achieve an abstract and theoretical intensity. This is art that makes you think as well as feel. It is art that offers a path back to antiquity by way of late-medieval city-states, in which communal survival superseded conventional, individualistic morality. For beauty can often emerge from the celebration of power: the very subject is a register of Europe’s past, present, and future.
This church—this temple, really—was built by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1417–68), the scion of a feudal family that ruled over Rimini from the late thirteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth, who was allied with the pro-papal Guelphs against the Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor). Malatesta was a condottiere, that is, a mercenary captain, because he operated according to a contract, a condotta. The ultimate man of action, he lived for years on end under a death sentence in one form or another: he sold his truly remarkable military skills to one city-state after the next, and in the end he lost most of his own city-state of Rimini in the bargain. His image was publicly burnt in Rome. The popes were after his lands, the Medici bank after his money, and yet in spite of his constantly changing alliances and his weakness against the great powers of the papacy, Venice, and Milan—despite defeat, disgrace, and betrayals—he transformed this Franciscan Gothic church into one of the most arresting of Renaissance temples, a “Tempio Malatestiano” filled with bas-reliefs of pagan gods, in order to glorify himself and his longtime mistress and later wife, Isotta degli Atti. Malatesta was an eruption of life in its most elemental and primitive form: someone who, as several historians have suggested, was without conventional morals, yet who came armed with unlimited supplies of energy and heroism.
For Ezra Pound, Sigismondo Malatesta was the perfect “factive” personality, that is, a symbol of manhood in its entirety, a figure both brutal and treacherous, even as he was supremely cultivated in the arts. Malatesta, in Pound’s formation, represents a harmonious whole created from dissident elements: a personality “imprinting itself on its time, its mark surviving all expropriation,” as Hugh Kenner writes. In Pound’s rendering, Malatesta is a man of virtù—less because of his swashbuckling derring-do than because of the fact that he actually restored and decorated this temple, making it such a perfect work of art. It is the Tempio Malatestiano itself—an epic in its own right and an act of sheer will, much like Pound’s own Cantos—that raises Malatesta above all the other rogues and fighting men of his time. Malatesta’s military exploits would have been wasted, pointless, were it not for the work of art that emerged from them: this tempio. Imperialism and war, in Pound’s view, can only be justified by art. For it is the artistic epic that permits civilization both to endure and to begin anew.
Pound devotes several of his early and most well-known cantos to Sigismondo Malatesta, whom he idealizes with so much biographical detail that the poems (and this is a serious issue with the Cantos in general) “decline into catalogue” in places, in the estimation of the Pound biographer Humphrey Carpenter. Pound in Canto 9 calls Malatesta “polumetis,” a Homeric adjective meaning “many-minded,” a reference to the adaptability and resourcefulness of Odysseus himself. For Malatesta’s adventures are in Pound’s eyes quite comparable. Pound is simply infatuated with Malatesta: the Italian is the toughened warrior whom he critiques but with whom he identifies. Just as Malatesta was a patron of the arts and of philosophy, Pound, consciously modeling himself after his hero, was well-disposed toward other writers and artists. There was clearly a Malatesta-like gallantry to Pound’s own efforts. Pound famously tried to help James Joyce find a publisher for Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, later, a magazine to serialize Ulysses. This was at a time when Joyce was living in exile in near-poverty in Trieste. Pound also assisted T. S. Eliot in publishing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It was Pound who had helped discover Eliot, in fact, and who, as we all know, edited The Waste Land. Pound grasped early on both the artistic potential and the epic quality of the work of both writers. For Pound, manly risk was almost inseparable from the creation of the artistic tour de force: thus the image of the larger-than-life, violent Malatesta, who helped produce this masterpiece of a temple where I ache in the cold, ironically became central to Pound’s own nascent fascism. In fact, Pound’s infatuation with Mussolini, another Italian man of action, can be traced directly to his infatuation with Malatesta. With Malatesta, Pound turned a corner in a disastrous direction.
Pound’s writing in the Malatesta Cantos is superficially infectious. It is panoramic and relentlessly obscure, sending you constantly to the encyclopedia. I’ll never forget reading Canto 9 for the first time as a young person, and coming back to it periodically over the years. For it begins mid-gallop, in wide screen:
One year floods rose,
One year they fought in the snows, . . .
And he stood in the water up to his neck
to keep the hounds off him, . . .
And he fought in Fano, in a street fight,
and that was nearly the end of him; . . .
And he talked down the anti-Hellene,
And there was an heir male to the seignor,
And Madame Ginevra died.
And he, Sigismundo, was Capitan for the Venetians.
And he sold off small castles
and built the great Rocca to his plan,
And he fought like ten devils at Monteluro
and got nothing but the victory
And old Sforza bitched us at Pesaro; . . .
And he, Sigismundo, spoke his mind to Francesco
and we drove them out of the Marches.
I am quoting but fragments of a canto that goes on for eight long pages, assaulting the reader as it does with a deluge of factual minutiae that, however admirably researched, sometimes border on the incomprehensible (at least for the layman) for lack of context; yet they are at once both aromatic and cinematic, even as they express within Malatesta’s own person the evil, wasteful forces of an entire age. Whether this makes for good—that is, disciplined—poetry, I am not sure. There is an air of dilettantism about it. Kenner rises to Pound’s defense: “This was a poetry of fact, not of mood or response, or of disembodied Overwhelming Questions.” I have grown out of much in life, but never out of what I consider the very best of Ezra Pound’s sometimes very bad poetry—which is evident in his early cantos, before he lost his way.
Back to Venice. To be buried here is a signal honor, and no one can deny Pound’s influence on twentieth-century poetry. But this is a case in which the very condition of the two gravestones indicates a moral and artistic hierarchy. Pound, with his obsession with the strong man of action and manly virtù, now represents the authoritarian vision, lately manifested by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose political and economic shadow continues its ascent over Europe. Contrarily, Brodsky, the dissident Russian, concerned with universalism and the personal life of the individual, represents a Europe of sovereign, mutually respectful nations, and the rule of law over arbitrary fiat. Here in this Venetian cemetery, two iconic forces stand a few feet apart from each other. Here are the two paths that Europe can tread. May it choose the right one.
This piece is adapted from Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan, to be published by Penguin Random House in April 2022.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 7, on page 14
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