In early 1958, a few months before Ezra Pound was released from “St. Liz,” the federal asylum he called home for twelve years following his spiteful, and eventually treasonous World War II broadcasts from Italy, Harry Meacham, the president of the Poetry Society of Virginia and friend of Pound’s, handed him an issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Pound was impressed, and Meacham decided to write Charlotte Kohler, the editor at the time, to order him a subscription and let her know that Pound had a few new Cantos ready for publication. Kohler wrote Pound in March, saying she’d love to see some of his new work. He responded two days later, sending her Canto XCIX and a brief letter that read as a guide to the poem:
99 is fairly self contained. It is led up to by 98 which contains more ideograms (basic meanings in chinese thought) that are suitable for isolated magazine publication.
99 is a condensation of, or emphasis on, the Emperor Yong Ching’s commentary of his fathers SACRED EDICT.
On Vide Cantos 59, 60, 61 for the Manchu Dynasty.
Of course there IS a shape and plan to the cantos, and this fuller treatment picks up from the earlier decad of chinese cantos.
There is NOTHING in chinese words (spelled out in english letters) or in the ideograms which is not stated in the english text.
They are merely underlinings to emphasize the source of the statements; ideas; disposition of Confucian code put into action by a great administration.
The “Thrones” part of Dante’s Paradiso is concerned with the practice of high ethics IN GOVERNMENT, not the saints but the rulers.
That same day he wrote Meacham to let him know that VQR “may need a bit of sale’s talk from you when they get ms/.”
The canto made its way through the poetry board. One member, Bill Mathews, wrote, “I vote to use Ezra. It’ll take up space—but why not? The thing is witty and, I think, a good piece of Poundism.” He also attached a somewhat hesitant nomination for the annual Balch Prize, scribbling “$300 Balch?” in the right-hand corner of his note. But Pound’s poetics were nearly as controversial as his politics, and not everyone on the board was excited about an eleven-page “piece of Poundism” whether it was “self contained” or not. Another poetry editor, Thomas Abernethy, later commented on the manuscript during the proofing stage, writing, “Does this nonsense belong in a scholarly Review?” and after the last line of the poem “If this is poetry, God save the arts!” Despite the editorial division, Kohler eagerly wrote Pound on March 31, accepting the poem for publication in the upcoming summer issue. It would become Ezra Pound’s first publication following his release from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958.
By this time, several American literary heavyweights had been pressuring the attorney general to drop Pound’s treason charges, and a trial date was set for mid-April. Pound seemed reenergized. On April 2 he wrote to Kohler again, at first regarding a potential mix-up with one of his Chinese characters, “yr/ advisory edtr/ is probably correct replacing the 4th ideogram,” and then writing:
I believe, incidentally, that I have in the past been useful to the rare magazines that consented to print me and it seems possible that I might get wind of other ms/ that wd/ be useful to you.
For example Olivia Rossetti Agresti says she is sending me two more installments of her memoirs.
As you may know, she is niece of Dante Gabe, and Christina, and daughter of W.M. Rossetti who got Whitman into England etc.
She is also a cousin of F. Madox Ford etc. And most of her reminiscences have been worth reading,
bits that aren’t she don’t fuss about.
If you wd/ like to see the ms/ when I get it, I can send it along.
There is also my daughter’s war diary, possibly the only impartial first hand account of a little known chunk of Europe during that period, as seen by a girl who had grown up next to what are here called grass roots.
I have been saving it for suitable place in which to release it.
He goes on to mention a slew of unsuccessful writers, one or two successful ones, a few projects of the past decade worth review, and the self-satisfying observation that “Vorticism seems to have reached Brasil.”
The United States Government dropped the charges against Pound on April 18, 1958, and a few days later Dr. Overholser, his psychiatrist, cleared him to leave St. Elizabeth’s. Ezra Pound was front page news again. He spent the next few months traveling around the east coast visiting friends and trying to attach himself to sympathetic magazines, reviews, newspapers, and publishers. On April 30, Harry Meacham drove Pound to Richmond to meet with James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of the Richmond News Leader, Charlotte Kohler, and a few other members of what Pound called the “Southern vortex.” The poet had a rather lively discussion with Kohler on the current state of American periodicals during which he began pitching the possibility of editing or even writing a couple pages for the Virginia Quarterly Review each issue. He followed up their conversation with a letter in early May:
Re/ enlivening the campus / I can work INSIDE any limit, so long as not blocked by idiots.
minimum, I could EDIT ONE page of notices of books of the Quarter/
showing edt/ office not DEAD from neck up.
I COULD write the whole page, in three line dabs/ but it wd/ be better to have a qualified staff. Gillhoff for germany and scandinavia. As I don’t read the four scand/ lang/ and my German not fluent enough.
It is not a question of verbal spread, it is a question of KNOWING what is alive.
His proposal went unanswered for nearly all of May, and growing impatient, he wrote again on May 25:
Have you got any further with your board of governors or whatever, re further collaboration with the Va. ¼ly?
I rather want to arrange something with SOME U.S. periodical before leaving. The general stuffiness and incompetence of the others most visible, inclined me, as I think I made clear, to hope that you would find room for some liveliness,
BUT if you are up against some obstacle that you can’t remove, I wd/ appreciate candour, or even indiscretion, on your part in letting me know.
Kohler was up against “some obstacle.” Apparently the board didn’t like the idea of reserving an entire page for any one author, especially one just released from a mental institution. Kohler closed the letter hoping Pound would continue sending VQR his work and the quality work of his friends. Pound responded the next day:
I wonder if ANY of your board reads ANY language but North American
It [Mercure de France] was not run on the principle of suppressing though[t], but of meeting it.
I did not want to write the two pages, but wanted 2 pages (minimum) devoted to mentioned the few, and there are DAMN few—books per quarter without which readers will remain in the sodden state of imbecility which the late Mencken deplored, and which is increasing under the present policy of degrading schools.
I don’t care a hoot whether anyone notices my personal opinions, but it is deplorable that they should hide from historic fact and from the few contemporary minds that are not corrupted and DEAD as mutton, or more so, i.e. dead as american periodical publication when it is not 78% phony.
they [the “DAMN few—books”] could be reviewed by the stupidest ass on your campus, or even something so low as Hillyer or Celler, so long as their existence was not concealed from yr/ readers.
Kohler’s next letter was to let Pound know his issue was in the mail and ended saying, “it was a pleasure and an honor. . .to talk with you this Spring. I hope I may have that pleasure again at some time in the future.” Unfortunately, she didn’t. Canto XCIX remained Pound’s sole contribution to VQR. Instead of a lively, potentially controversial quarterly column written by the most infamous poet in American history, a poet who had only another two years of energy and enthusiasm left in him, Kohler and the Virginia Quarterly Review got a postcard. It was dated August 16 and sent from Pound’s castle in Brunnenburg. On the back it asked:
Are the Va/ palookas against manuscript from outside the parish or, excluding all the matter not locally produced? 100 [Canto 100] shd/ be ready for release by the time you get this. 5 or 6 pages only.
the refusal to notice foreign books will NOT increase yr prestige.
And signed, “Cordially, with a touch of pity.”
Read more about Pound’s failed attempts to continue contributing to VQR from Italy in Jon Schneider’s “Ezra Pound: Foreign Correspondent,” from our Spring 2008 issue.
- March 17, 1958: Letter from Charlotte Kohler to Ezra Pound
- March 19, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler
- March 19, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to to Harry Meacham
- February 26, 1958: Letter from Harry Meacham to Charlotte Kohler
- Note from Bill Mathews to Charlotte Kohler
- March 31, 1958: Letter from Charlotte Kohler to Ezra Pound
- April 2, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler
- April 9, 1958: Letter from Charlotte Kohler to Ezra Pound
- Note from Bill Mathews to Charlotte Kohler
- April 10, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler
- May 2, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler
- May 5, 1958: Letter from Harry Meacham to Charlotte Kohler
- May 25, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler
- May 28, 1958: Letter from Charlotte Kohler to Ezra Pound
- Canto 99 proof
- May 29, 1958: Letter from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler
- June 17, 1958: Letter from Charlotte Kohler to Ezra Pound
- August 16, 1958: Postcard from Ezra Pound to Charlotte Kohler