Sermon on the Mont: Louis Dudek’s Post-Modernist Cantos (VII-XII)
Norris seems to be a far cry from the uses of art as preached by Dudek and Pound. Dudek wouldn’t book off sick to write — to do so would subvert his civilizing mission as a Generalist prof. And both Dudek and Pound would be repulsed by the idea of poetry as obstructive noise rather than as incisive criticism of civilization. It was his thematic impact that first attracted Dudek to Pound — his cultivation of Imagism and free verse as a medium for an effective critique of modern civilization. The two were connected: the focus on particulars made the message powerful. It was only later that Dudek argued for free verse on the grounds that it facilitated the clear expression of abstractions, that he excluded himself from the “necessary corrective” of Imagism and returned to “Arnoldian” moralizing.
In the early 1940’s, Dudek started pushing Pound onto decisively-not-interested literary friends like Raymond Souster and Layton. Both of these poets were reluctant and ultimately unsuccessful converts. Both entertained a vague faith in the social and personal benefits of self-expression, and uttered the usual complaints against modern materialism, complaints that characterize poets from Wordsworth to Pound. But they were not much into the politicizing of art though Layton was for a time a communist. They seemed to take Dudek’s extreme faith in the social benefits of art as a personal quirk: Dudek was less anarchistic than them, more cerebral and serious. Souster and Layton joined the armed forces during the war; Dudek refrained, believing that it was necessary to defeat the fascists but too sickly to volunteer or be conscripted. In any case he was against conscription on principle. Layton thought of Dudek as a “seminarian.” In describing their first meeting, Layton says, “My imagination at once put a clerical collar around his neck.” Souster was into the early imagistic work of Pound’s friend William Carlos Williams, regarding the orgiastic, lung-busting, operatic and barely comprehensible diatribes of Pound as an affront to Imagism. He referred to the clique of poets around Pound as a “cult.”
Also, while Layton and Souster carped at big capital and the rat race, they didn’t share Dudek’s or Pound’s or Eliot’s, or even the English Department’s, pontifical attitude and seldomly qualified disgust with the masses. More like Williams, they actually saw wisdom in the masses. Williams learned wisdom and language from his patients and other plain folk in his vicinity — he figured out Pound through a taxi-driver, who picked him up outside St. Elizabeths and told him, “He ain’t crazy. He just talk too much.” Souster took on the role of a spokesman for average people and Layton thought of himself as their messiah. But Pound had attacked capitalism, and this Souster and Layton took as his main attraction for Dudek. In his memoirs Layton said of Dudek in the early years of their friendship (1943), “His outlook was more Poundian than mine, even then, though I don’t think he had read too much of Pound at this point. Dudek’s attack was on a civilization which capitalism had spawned. So his concern was with culture, mine with the individual’s place in it, and with economics, which I considered the most significant factor in defining culture. But Louis and I loathed the capitalist system with equal intensity and wished to see it replaced by co-operative socialism.” On this basis, Layton and Souster became for a time Dudek’s most important partners in publishing Canada’s young poets.
In 1949, in an article in First Statement, Dudek revealed in detail his thinking about Pound’s poetry. In comparing F. R. Scott, who he regarded at the time as the best of the established Canadian poets, to Pound, he describes how Scott and Pound started their mature poetry with satire. Scott became “a clever preacher of the Enlightenment talking down to his dull brethren.” Pound, in Mauberley (1920), went deeper. Often, Scott is “too obviously a socialist writing socialistic verse.” Pound is more individualistic, “a poet distracted by the times into shouting out a political message in regards to “a social miasma that he realized lay at the root of his troubles.” Both then moved on to “more conventional subjects of poetry,” but Pound’s Cantos are richer than “the serious lyrics in Scott’s best book, Overture (1945).” This is because Pound had “grounds previously prepared” in “a richer civilization than that of the bourgeoisie.” In earlier books of poems and poetic replications and translations he had explored the literature of the ancient Greeks, of the renaissance and of the east. Scott’s “ground previously prepared” was the late Victorian mode practiced in his own early poems and by his father, F. G. Scott. This ground was “bourgeois” and so could not nourish great poetry. By contrast, Pound’s backward movement was actually “a retreat that could as easily be called an advance.” The Cantos turned into “an epic poem to show when the arts and civilization are sound, when corrupt,” and “an historical and realistic criticism of society, a demand for total health in life and art.” Through his digression and retreat, Pound arrived at “a conception of the organic unity between society in all its ramifications (especially economics) and the fine arts.” In a contorted nutshell, this is what Dudek thought about Pound until near the end of his life.
Here is the essence of Dudek’s thinking on the role of modernist poetry. It has two purposes — first to point out the failures of liberal democracy (especially its partnership with corporate capitalism), and second to portray how an ideal society is based on messages conveyed by art. Both Scott and Pound accept this mandate, but Pound more successfully, especially in terms of the second part of the mandate.
At this time, Dudek started a series of long poems that seemed to use Pound’s epic as a model. These were Europe (1954), En Mexico (1958), Atlantis (1967) and Continuation, a poem in five parts that Dudek worked on from 1968 until his death. A. J. M. Smith referred to Europe as “Pound cake.” This is a good and useful joke. It implies that Dudek’s poems are a confection of Poundian ingredients more than a real elaboration on Pound, and this is true as regards their structure. Dudek’s poems share the theme of the decline of western civilization, the list of the great things from the past compared to the list of the evils of the present, and the lecturing or hortatory voice that uses comic colloquialisms, direct quotations and the end-stopped line or stacked phrases and clauses. But Dudek’s long poems are as Blaser says first-person travel narratives, whereas the Cantos feature, with the first-person lyrics, dramatic monologues — voices other than Pound’s explaining themselves and telling stories. The great models of superior humanity — Ulysses, Sigismundo Malatesta, Elizabeth I and her attorney general Lord Coke, Thomas Jefferson, etc. — who rightfully dominate and mold civil society because of their strength of character — walk the stage.
The Cantos are dramatic, replicating historical events and exhibiting no narrative continuity. In place of that, the dramatic monologues and historical sketches exhibit narrative parallels with one another and with Pound’s personal situation — his studies, his heroes, his adherence to fascism and Social Credit, his incarceration. Dudek’s long poems are first-person ruminations with clear beginnings and endings and explicitly stated complaints about capitalism and speculations about the emptiness of materialism. Davey says that Dudek adds to the Poundian mix “a clearly defined moral and intellectual (i.e. ‘religious’) context,” but most critics don’t see any such context — the messages are clear and honest only in being purely personal and typical. Here’s Continuation II (1990): “Austin Women’s Institute Library”/in Magog, a large brick building,/now being demolished/(Probably couldn’t pay their taxes)/Why not demolish some of the Chinese Restaurants,/HiFi Centres, Record Stores?/They demolish the library building,/no new ones going up, you may be sure,/to make room for Philco, Esso,/& Col. Sanders’ finger-lickin fries/The cross on Mount Royal no longer visible — high-risers stand in the way.”
Don’t hifi centres and record stores provide art and culture, just like libraries? Alright, maybe they sell it, like Dickens, which Dudek “proved” is a bad thing, but Shakespeare too sold art, and primarily to the masses, so does the profit motive really work against art? And what’s wrong with Chinese cafes? Pound’s particulars are carefully chosen, and add up to/illustrate generalizations about money and heroism. Dudek’s particulars add up to random or purely idiosyncratic lists of things that can be dismissed at will, to uncontextualized personal irritations. The assumption of intimacy in the direct reference to the reader as “you,” in the question asked, in the aside about taxes, and in the sarcastic (and slightly inaccurate) repetition of the Col. Sanders’ refrain, indicates that the reader is expected to agree with the sentiments voiced. No attempt is made to explain the value judgments made. The “they” who destroy libraries are undefined — “the system” presumably.
One meets embittered characters like Dudek everywhere — lecturing at McGill or eating donuts at Tim Hortons. They are comical in small doses. Mostly they are boring because they don’t invite response. The evidence for their vast generalizations is a scattered mish-mash of personal anecdotes and media information. At university this would be enriched by ideas and information gleaned from MacLean’s, Harper’s, CBC “Ideas” and drinking buddies at the Faculty Club.
Nor does Dudek propose answers, which could indicate context. The only proactive message of Dudek’s long poems is “experience the art listed here.” The poems are a catalogue of great architecture, painting, music and poetry, a kind of Arts I or “Civilization” reading list rather like Dudek’s courses at McGill. There is no dramatization of the kind of character you will become if you take this course. Presumably you will acquire Dudek’s concerns, regarding Col. Sanders, Chinese cafes, the sale of hot dogs around the Louvre or the obscuring of the cross on Mont Royal by hi-rise towers as symbols of the crass materialism of liberal democracy and capitalism. Nor is there any description of the new civilization that your improved self will help to build, of the methods you will use to build it. The single, specified alternative to being a “boob” is doing a doctorate and becoming a tenured prof with lots of sabbaticals wherein you can ponder great art — preferably on lengthy tours of the hot spots of western civilization. You will know that the new civilization — the time when all facets of society including the fine arts will make up the single, healthy organic unity that Pound wanted — actually existed in the past, and was based on a love of poetry rather than a fascist polity (Pound), a universal Christian faith (Eliot), the turning point in a millennial cycle (Yeats), or the reaffirmation of “ceremony of passage” rituals (Blaser). You will learn that the only present means of regaining civilization is to study the reading list and maybe to write poems criticizing the present for its failures — especially its failure, said by Dudek, Davey and Blaser to be the most insidious one of all, to pay attention to poetry. And poets. And professors of poetry.
Davey, Blaser and Tremblay see Dudek’s studies of and correspondence with Pound as productive, in that they produced an alternative, in terms of pragmatic action including the writing of poetry, to the absolutist visions of the great modernist poets. They see Dudek, in the course of these studies and this correspondence, as secure in his faith, incisive as to what of his master’s message he will accept and what he will not, learning from and looking after his master and thus, through his iconoclasm, leading the younger literati (like them) away from the absolutist tendencies of Yeats, Eliot and Pound into the “open-minded project” of post-modernism. Blaser says, “In Dudek’s annotated edition of Ezra Pound’s letters to him . . . the record is kept of Dudek’s personal efforts to argue for Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and of his part in the important fourth issue of CIV/n . . . which supported the case for release . . . . These Canadian arguments were capped by Dudek’s polished presentation of Pound by way of his letters on CBC, September 4, 1957, the complete text of which is included in Dk. After twelve years, Pound’s release was ordered on April 18, 1958. Dudek is one of the distinguished voices that helped bring it about.” Blaser goes on to say that, while bringing it about, Dudek had to block Pound’s plot to “enter the Canadian literary scene by way of the leading edge of its small presses and magazines, those of Dudek and associates foremost among them. Pound’s extremism in this period is simply and determinedly blocked by Dudek’s humanity and commitment to a very different ordering of the real. . . . Dudek writes, ‘my own views were leftist and strongly democratic’.” The “new ordering of the real” was conscience-based and connected to “coming of age.” According to Tremblay, “Dudek’s modernism was meant to open the field, not necessarily to dictate its terms.”
This is an unbelievably rosy view of Dudek’s relationship with Pound, which has been described by Fetherling as, quite simply, “sad.” It contradicts Dudek’s own late-in-life repudiation of Pound in which Dudek leaves John Tytell’s biography Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano, “with sadness, as if I had seen the wreckage of my own past.” Dudek wasn’t committed to “a very different ordering of the real” but to a faith. That faith — that “by God today we mean Poetry” — failed. He actually appears in Dk as a useful yet unappreciated disciple who flunked all the crucial tests and turned off during the lessons he most needed. Because he refused to listen to Pound, because he made a virtue out of ignoring anything he felt was offensive (i.e. Mein Kampf), Dudek was led into complicity with Pound’s fascism, unable to pull back in time. He became a sorcerer’s apprentice, Mickey Mouse in a hat and gown too big for him, and a wand that he doesn’t know how to use. Dudek tried to apply the master’s incantations without fully understanding them. He thought he could defend his master publicly, release him from bondage, resolve complex social issues and fill empty literary cisterns by muttering abstract spells to the effect that Pound suffered from “surface mania,” fascism was an “ongoing experiment” and racist slurs were “radical self-criticism.” These assumptions blew up in his face. Dk is a comedy of errors, leading up to the Expo invitation, which could have been the biggest comedy of all.
The silliest mistake Dudek made was to try to spring Pound from the asylum. In 1953, in his magazine CIV/n, Dudek published snippets by Valentin Iremonger, and Donat O’Donnell (Conor Cruise O’Brien) and an article by Camillo Pellizzi arguing for Pound’s release. Dudek himself wrote an essay in that issue, vilifying American justice: “Pound has been incarcerated without legal grounds . . . . In hospital he has translated difficult prose and poetry into imperishable English, has edited and proofed his writings . . . has carried on a voluminous, practical, benevolent correspondence . . . . Why should Pound, whose insanity is in fact questionable, be kept behind locked gates . . . ? Let him be released from St. Elizabeths without further indignity and cruelty at the hands of the country he has always served in its best tradition of radical self-criticism.”
The main trouble with this argument was that, in the eyes of many, America had treated Pound with too much consideration. His plea of insanity was easily accepted and he was incarcerated in a place that his best friend Williams described as a perfect writer’s retreat. Williams, a man who had similar complaints against (but different explanations and cures for) civilization, said, “say what you will of the government, our own in particular in this case, it is permitting him, to the limit of his ability, to avail himself of the stores of knowledge found in the national capital.” He was also capable, as Dudek noted in his repudiation, of availing himself of a wife, a mistress, and a lot of fascist toadies.
Blaser praises Dudek for his “Canadian” argument. Taking “Canadian” here to mean “stupid,” Pound would’ve agreed. When he read the issue of CIV/n, Pound immediately wrote (in letter 58): “God bloody DAMN it and save one from one’s friends. SHUT UP. You are NOT supposed to receive ANY letters from E. P. They are UNSIGNED/and if one cannot trust one’s friends to keep quiet re/ the supposed source/whom can one trust. Please remove that page from all copies of Civ/n not yet distributed. Also, a little study of history wouldn’t do you any harm. Hell, hell, hell. When are you going to face the facts? the idiocy, etc. Who the HELL told YOU that E.P. has carried on correspondence?”
Dudek’s response to Pound’s anger is curiously obtuse: “As I see it now, Pound’s letter to me is more an index of his frustration in that terrible mental hospital than a question of any objective incident that might have provoked his anger. I wrote in reply to explain that it was in any case widely known that he had a very large correspondence and did translations and other writing from St. Liz: this was no news to anyone, and could do him no harm. Pound did not answer, and our correspondence, already lagging, lapsed for some time.” It did more than lapse. As Fetherling says, “the friendship cooled.”
No wonder. Dudek had proven himself dangerous. He had acted impulsively, without regard to the fact that, as Dudek himself says in his commentary, the chief psychiatrist at the asylum, Winfred Overholser, queried by Dudek about the continuing incarceration of a man who was obviously sane, referred Dudek to officials who explained the obvious — if Pound were to be declared sane, he would get out of St. Elisabeths alright. But he would go straight to jail to await trial on treason charges. A guilty verdict would mean execution or hard time in a real prison. It was a simple, two-way choice, and Pound had made it himself, deciding to live the lie of insanity and suffer the ensuing guilt of selling out his cause. It seems that Dudek simply couldn’t accept this: how can you worship a messiah who, on the way to the cross, discredits his message (which Dudek took to be all about art) by telling Pilate that he’s actually nuts and then goes on to pretend memory loss and distraction whenever reporters and officials come around? Pound’s other friends argued for his release on the grounds that he was irredeemably nuts but harmless. This is what Pound seems to have wanted, though some biographers argue that he didn’t even want that. As Williams observed, he was comfortable and productive at Saint Elizabeths. As an additional benefit, he could think of himself as a fascist martyr like his hero Mussolini. His “suffering” for the cause hid the fact that he had sold it out.
Later, in his repudiation of Pound, Dudek blames himself for not recognizing that Pound was happy at St. Elizabeths and was actually undermining attempts to spring him. It’s hard to see how Dudek could’ve missed this; it was obvious at the time to Eliot, MacLeish and Frost, who also realized that society was in one way better off with Pound incarcerated — they knew he would resume his neo-Nazi activities as soon as he was out, since he was conducting them covertly from inside. As Dudek says, everyone knew about his “voluminous” correspondence, though no one but Dudek and Pound’s fascist toadies would apply the word “benevolent” to it. Most conspicuously Pound was corresponding with John Kasper of Square Dollar Press and people like him who were acting to spread fascism and racism. But Eliot, MacLeish and Frost argued that it would make America look especially good if it put up with this and released Pound. He was insane and his cause had been discredited. Frost admitted that he made this argument in the hope that a liberated Pound would move into someone else’s neighborhood.
Dudek also, in his repudiation, implies that he recognizes for the first time, through Tytell’s book, that his attempt to spring Pound involved giving fascists a voice in CIV/n: “Goddamit. Olivia Rossetti Agresti, whose article on Pound we published . . . and who I was told was William Gabriel Rossetti’s daughter, and niece of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was actually one of the broadcasters on Rome radio, together with Ezra Pound — and so was Camillo Pellizzi who appears in CIV/n. . . .” But Dudek knew in 1974, when he produced the annotations for Pound’s letters, that Pellizzi was “officially connected with Pound’s wartime radio broadcasts,” and he was paraphrasing Pellizzi to Shapiro in 1951, two years before CIV/n. (Possibly Dudek panicked over nothing. It’s Carlo, not Camillo, Pellizzi who is mentioned by Tytell as “one of the overseers of Pound’s war propaganda.”)
Another blow-up occurred when Pound sent Dudek the main points of a letter to Karl Shapiro, editor of Poetry (Chicago), and asked Dudek to write it up in full and send it under his own name. The points were a guide — Dudek was only to use them if he agreed with them — though it would be preferable if he didn’t add to them. Dudek was not to mention to “ANYone” that Pound had given him the idea of sending the letter. The letter answered some of what Dudek calls “the slanders and misrepresentations” that had arisen out of Pound’s receiving of the Bollingen Award — America’s top poetry prize. The award was a clear sign to the American public and the media that Pound was a sane man and could stand trial. The government reacted to the furor by allowing the award — which included a substantial amount of money that went to Pound’s wife — to stand but prohibiting the Library of Congress from offering any further awards — the prize was henceforth administered by Yale University. Dudek was intimidated by the public outcry. He assumed that Pound meant him to parrot the letter and rightfully decided he “could not play Charlie McCarthy . . . . But he had to appease Pound so he came up with another plan: “Instead I wrote a short article, using as much of Pound’s material as I could manage, and sent it in. The letter was turned down by Karl Shapiro, naturally enough.” Dudek doesn’t quote his “short article” in Dk, but he sent a copy to Pound so it turned up in the Pound archives, and part of it has been quoted by Tremblay. Dudek wrote to Shapiro, “Italian Fascists under Mussolini comprised all sorts, as Pellizzi shows in his recent book Una Rivoluzione mancata, and the aim of the movement was something tentative and always in the process of adjustment.”
Pound was not pleased: “Shapiro is right, I think, yr/article is/USELESS. Yu went outside request/AND you are almost as ham ignorant/of Europe as Shapiro/you haven’t bothered to learn ENOUGH/ SO far as I can make out, what my/position was/what my econ/or politics are.” Dudek wrote back, again obviously hurt: “I had reduced it to a few generalities . . . of a kind which I have so far been able to assimilate myself for my own USE, maybe useful for somebody else (ain’t that what one does with any writer??), but knowing also that these generalities could not altogether please the original author, meaning yourself.” It’s hard to say here if Dudek understood that his generalities were of no “use” except as evasion, something Pound didn’t go for when it came to his platform, anymore than he went for it in his poetry.
Dudek says it was “natural” that Shapiro rejected his letter — was he alluding to the fact that Shapiro was on the Bollingen committee and had voted for William Carlos Williams, and so wouldn’t be inclined to print any defenses of Pound? Or was Dudek alluding to the fact that his own description of Mussolini’s aims, put as a summary of Pellizzi’s argument, is a disgusting attempt to put a positive spin on a political platform that enforced itself on Italy with extreme brutality that included the summary execution of labor and socialist leaders? For a second time Dudek implicated himself. First he’d vilified American justice. Now he was extolling Mussolini.
From Pound’s perspective, Dudek did only one thing right — the 1957 CBC broadcast “The Letters of Ezra Pound.” It concentrates on Pound’s early career as a literary mover and shaker in London and Paris, with his critiques of his modernist colleagues, and with his work as Eliot’s editor and confidante. It praises the Cantos and fairly convincingly defends their “Social Credit” content. It is marred only by the obvious falsification that Pound’s Radio Rome broadcasts dealt largely with poetry and the contents of the Cantos. On the basis of this, it argues that his incarceration is “the tragic case in our time of the genius misunderstood and persecuted by his contemporaries.” The broadcast served Pound’s “propaganda machine” well, and Pound was grateful. Blaser praises it highly. But its conclusion doesn’t reflect well on Dudek. Once again he is slagging a justice system that seems to be erring on the side of mercy and he is either lying or uninformed about the broadcasts.
Both Pound and Dudek were liars. Both lied in their choice of particulars, but Dudek could lie too in his generalizations. He was a compulsive rationalizer.
By 1974, when he published Dk, Dudek had become aware of some of the foolishness and complicity in his correspondence with Pound. Dudek tried to make himself look a bit smarter. First, he argued that Pound was insane (in his insistence on particulars and obsession with arcane subjects like Social Credit) but not really insane: “I believe that his narrow dogmatism was a product of his mental illness; but this illness, though devastating and tragic for him, did not penetrate very deep, it was a surface mania.” He further reasoned that a surface mania would not effect Pound’s poetry but maybe even strengthen it: “Mental illness . . . does not cut a man off from poetry. It may even release greater powers, of insight, of verbal surprise, of emotional force, than are possible to the lukewarm states of sane repose. Perhaps the truly alienated cannot enjoy this benefit. Perhaps it is only available to the partially or minimally ill, who fight their illness. I don’t think we can deny that Pound was one of these.”
By convincing himself that Pound was insane only “on the surface,” Dudek was able to have it both ways. Pound was a genius, though his ideas were crazy. However, this rationalization came at some cost, since it represents a shift in Dudek’s faith. Dudek was moving towards Frye’s idea of the poet evoking sources of inspiration that are outside of rational consciousness, and contradicting what he considered to be the source of his own strength as a poet, his sense of what was thematically important and his familiarity with direct or natural forms of expression. He already knew that Pound’s strength was in his insistence on “the thing itself,” and he’d attached himself to that cause. Now he was saying that this insistence was a mania. Pound was “theoretically unable to understand [that things came with ideas], with benefit to him, since his poetry as a result is crammed with vivid particulars, or ideograms, but every line nevertheless resonates with the abstract or general meaning of these particulars.” Layton might not have feuded with Dudek had he realized that he could’ve meant “demented” as a compliment.
Besides arguing that Pound was insane in his obsession with particulars, Dudek managed the commentary in Dk in order to obscure the full extent of his compliance with Pound’s “agenda.” The extent to which he did this is unknown, and will only be revealed when Dudek’s letters to Pound are published, but quotations from these letters show how Dudek worked. These letters are evidently available now from Philip Kokotailo who, in the mid-1990’s, collected them from Pound archives at various US universities. Kokotailo has discussed these letters with Dudek who allowed their use but not, it seems, their publication. That Kokotailo hasn’t published them yet suggests too that Dudek’s estate is against publication. Their concerns would arise from the fact that the letters reveal more complicity with Pound’s agenda, less non-compliance, more misrepresentation, than the commentary in Dk makes out.
Tremblay has used Kokotailo’s manuscript, quoting from Dudek’s unpublished letters to indicate how Dudek downplayed his reverence for Pound. In 1949, Dudek came onto Pound with lavish praise: “your poetry is the best living experience in books that I know; it sometimes (now) has made me blind . . . . When I’m really tired in mind and body, I take your Cantos . . . and lie back on a cushion and read and read till I’m happy.” Anyone familiar with Dudek would understand that this praise was sincere, but obviously by 1974 Dudek was worried that readers would get the impression that he was “sucking up” to Pound. Maybe he was even a touch embarrassed by his own enthusiasm. As Tremblay notes, all Dudek says in Dk is, “I had written in praise of the Cantos.”
But Tremblay’s quotes indicate that Dudek went far beyond playing down his reverence for Pound. He actually misrepresented himself. His praise of the Cantos, he says in Dk, noted “that part of the excitement lay in discovering the historical references and making correlations . . . and all this would be spoiled for the reader once the scholars and annotators had provided the footnotes and analysis that would explain the poem.” What he really said was “the colleges are crammed with experts and scholars who don’t know how to take poetry, who want to understand it first in some footnoting farcical grade-school sense. I hope to god they never understand it. Unless a poem shines for the eyes and crackles in the ears before it is understood, it isn’t worth understanding.” Why would Dudek bring this up, as a grad student obviously committed to an academic career and writing a heavily footnoted account of three Victorian writers? Or as a critic who seldom discussed the ways in which poems shone in the eyes and crackled in the ears (this was the preserve of the New Critics), but near-exclusively the ways in which they appealed to the mind? Probably he was aware of Pound’s animosity to academics and careful to come onto Pound as a novice poet and not as an academic. It worked, for awhile. Pound provided the answer that Dudek must have been hoping for: “Don’t worry, they wont./i.e. profs &analyzers.” Dudek acknowledges that he regularly ranted at Pound about academics, even after he took a job and McGill. But Pound was not fooled, later informing Dudek, “You profs have a lot to answer for . . . .”
As a further example of misrepresentation, Dudek in his second letter bravely brings up the matter of usury, saying he thinks it characterizes Anglo-Saxon societies more than Jewish ones. The commentary on this leaves out the fact that Dudek makes it clear that he had no intention of judging Pound on this or any other issue. Dudek actually says in his letter, “I have too much to answer for myself to dare to say that a man like you is guilty of a moral wrong . . . your detractors . . . give you the label of anti-Semite and Fascist without enquiring what you say about those things in your books.” Pound agrees with the comment about usury, but states, “a cat is neither a dog nor a rabbit/neither does one want a cat to be doggy nor vice versa.” In short, races of humans are as different as different species of animals. He makes no reference to Dudek’s claim to be morally compromised. Since Dudek lists no particular moral wrongs, what could Pound have said? Dudek’s message was clear — he doesn’t really believe that Pound is a Fascist or anti-Semite. He is willing to listen even if he is.
In December 1950, Dudek sent another important message to Pound — a message unmentioned in the Dk commentary. He made it clear that in his opinion fascism, while it had the highest of goals, had failed, and that it had failed because it was undemocratic. He describes the “function of Fascism — to end categorically the fixed & formal strife between employer and employed, dating from the birth of the Factory system — to devote the energy of all to the communal good, and make the higher end their arbiter.” All of this is “impossible under democracy,” as one can see “in the faces of subway riders . . . in the faces of haranguing demagogues in our recent elections, racketeering and bamboozling the crowd for votes, not for policies . . . impossible because a small group who understand the big idea are a drop in the bucket in this mass society. . . . So where do we go from here? Into the Cantos. I am with you, Ezra . . . . For some of us there is no complete political action possible, but you do recommend a line of thinking. That is what one wants to find and follow. Not to imitate: but to do a different dance on the same tight wire.”
Dudek is telling Pound, up front, that he’s not going to do anything for fascism even if he agrees that fascism had the highest goals. But he is going to follow Pound’s “line of thinking” — “follow” meaning “study” not “imitate.” His reasoning is that fascism failed because it was undemocratic, and there is no use trying to apply democracy to fascism because democracy doesn’t work. Pound would naturally be puzzled by the reasoning, which brings all thought about politics as well as any political action to an impasse. Why study, never mind imitate, a “line of thinking,” that you know leads nowhere? The big picture is seen only by a few (an intellectual elite?) and they somehow have no power.
Pound wouldn’t have considered Dudek part of the “small group who understand.” Obviously Dudek was a rationalizer. But he responds positively by recommending that Dudek study the different parties within the fascist party in Italy, mentioning Camillo Pellizzi, as a man who “keeps afloat by taking it all to general philo, well let us say philoepistemological statement.” Dudek comments, “I did not feel that the occasion warranted my writing to Signor Pellizzi.” This sarcasm seems out of place. Pound was being thoughtful here, taking into account Dudek’s generalizing bent. Pound had already put Pellizzi on a list of writers who could explain fascism, but did not particularly recommend him: “all people like that do is to explain their own thoughts, VERY little to do with what actually happened/which was GODDAMIT the best a blacksmith’s son [Mussolini] could do under the circumstances.” But after Dudek’s clear statement about there not being any complete political action possible, Pound seems to have decided that Pellizzi would appeal to Dudek: “Dudek nearer temperamentally to Pel/than Ez iz.” Dudek and Pellizzi are into generalizations based only on personal opinion, but Pound is willing to consider that such generalizations can keep some fascists afloat through a time of defeat.
Until Dudek’s letters are made public, Pound’s letters, taken without the commentary, indicate the basis on which the relationship developed. Right away, Pound identified Dudek as a generalizer. Pound of course had preconceived notions, as did Dudek, but Dudek thought it helped an argument to state these notions in abstract terms, whereas Pound believed that there was no conviction to be gained through abstractions. He considered himself “scientific” in his thinking, and in science the abstractions of geometry and mathematics, applied in reductionist experiments to particulars, carry absolute conviction. As Dudek and many others noticed, the particulars collected by Pound (and a reluctant Dudek) in support of his beliefs were arcane if not stupid. But once in awhile Pound came up with ones that, in his poetry, “resonate with general meanings.” Dudek thought his “mania” helped him do this. Dudek himself, locked in “sane repose,” specialized in clear, forceful and direct expression of abstractions, without much explanation of how those meanings were arrived at and without any recommending of actions, except for the reading of poems, that might test the abstractions. Pound on his part realized that Dudek would never do anything, including write a poem. Dudek was excluding himself from the principles of Imagism that Pound had laid out and that had become the basis of the modernist correction of the bourgeois poetry of the Romantics and Victorians.
Pound’s draft letter to Shapiro, for example, is stated in particulars (mixed with vituperation). The Partisan Review and some California magazines, all of which had to be “communist,” were attacking Pound. Pound had lost the California magazines from his file; Dudek in his annotations doesn’t list titles for them. But Dudek identifies F. R. Leavis’s “Ezra Pound: The Promise and the Disaster,” as the article in Partisan. The impression is given in these articles that Pound has racist attitudes to Jews and blacks. Pound wants Dudek to refer Shapiro to the references to “men of colour” in the Pisan Cantos. As well, Pound indicates that his championing of Arnaut Daniel (everywhere in his works) indicates that he is “pro-Semite.” Pound is trying to defend himself in the only way he would find legitimate/effective — here’s a list of my actions that indicate I am not a racist or an anti-Semite. He’s being selective in the extreme, but he’s being particular. Pound makes it clear that he doesn’t want Dudek publishing a generalizing defense, that he could do that in Canada where evidently you can get away with it: “If you want a dilution or expansion try THAT on Can/Mag BUT the point was to have those few sentences in the known and circulating bullyTin SOON.” Unfortunately, Dudek ignored all this and tried, as he explained in a letter to Pound, to produce “useful generalizations.” In Pound’s view, that phrase would be an oxymoron. The only “use” for a generalization was as an evasion.
Olson would have none of the inclination to call Pound a maniac: “You and I know that Pound is not crazy, one of those “poets.” You and I know he is a gifted and trained and skillful a poet as any man who has written the English language in these years of our century. We may find him exterior. But there is none but the small who will deny him his power. . . . He is no poet to separate his poetry from society. He is a writer of purpose. . . do you call him a crank? It is no good, that business. Around his trial you will hear it again and again. Just one of those goddamned writers. They’re crazy. A Bohemian. There are writers who are such, but not Pound, despite all the vomit of his conclusions.”
Pound does seem directed and consistent in his dealings with Dudek. He tried to make Dudek think — in Pound’s own terms. Dudek had come onto him as at least objective, probably sympathetic, so he tended to assume that Dudek would come to the same conclusions he had. Actually, he seems to have assumed this of everyone, being convinced that he could talk Stalin, Hitler and assorted American politicians into seeing his point, always puzzled that obviously thoughtful and supremely rational individuals — Williams was the great example — could not be convinced. But he never tried to force fascism on Dudek. He argued with Dudek entirely about method. He gave Dudek the lessons laid out in his ABC of Reading (1934, 1960). The main lesson is that of Chapter One of ABC — a discourse on scientific methodology and its application to poetry, written in considerable impatience with people who don’t know how to think: “The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is a careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another. . . . On this method modern science has arisen, not on the narrow edge of medieval logic suspended in a vacuum. . . . By contrast to the method of abstraction, or of defining things in more and still more general terms, Fenollosa emphasizes the method of science, ‘which is the method of poetry.’”
Of course Pound is to science what Billy Graham and the Dali Lama are to theology, and Dudek recognized that. But he failed to see that his own way of thinking was flawed. Pound suggested that Dudek read Mein Kampf: “it will prob/alter the pt/of view of anyone who has swallowed even 10% of the perfumed sewage that flows thru [here Pound deletes a word] Digest . . . .” Since Dudek had asked Pound for books on fascism, this suggestion doesn’t seem out of context. Dudek comments that he couldn’t stomach Hitler’s book: “My aversion to this book when I leafed through it was so intense – and the stench so pungent — that I have never been able to pick it up since. I can’t understand Pound’s reading it with even qualified approval.” To an inductive thinker it would seem that Dudek is protesting too much. If he’s never read the book, how would he know what Pound might find in it to approve? Is Dudek afraid that he would be turned into a Nazi by reading Hitler? What would Dudek say to a student who refused to read Dante because he was Catholic, deSade because he was a pervert or Dylan Thomas because he was an alcoholic? Dudek’s reaction is that of a person of conscience who cannot see anything to be gained by studying the works of an obviously evil person. In a similar way he could toss off Purdy — reading him alright, and even being impressed, but dismissing his particulars of Inuit life, of the agrarian past, as “not important.”
What Pound was saying to Dudek was something like this: You share with me faith and cause, of which you see my writing as the great embodiment. You express a desire to assist me in this cause. You share with me the most violent distaste for the present situation. This distaste is in all your talk and your poetry, as it is in mine. You see and describe western civilization as a wasteland and a miasma, and your contemporaries as reduced to automatons by complex technology and its applications. Your thesis describes the miseries of Dickens, Thackeray and Carlyle, great artists diminished or obstructed by highly capitalized mass production technology that was out of their control and operating in the interests of profit. Yet you don’t seem to see that this drastic talk, this sweeping condemnation, these massive abstractions, mandate extensive study accompanied by ongoing and drastic action, both in your poetry and your life, if they are to be presented in poetry. It is not enough to assert in general terms the impossibility of a good polity and poetics, since people must live together and express themselves in poetry. In the terms that you have stated your complaints — economic, sociological and political terms — you have to explain what you think is going on. Probably too you should act on it as I did, since you write as I do at times in first-person. Lacking such study and action, you can produce only what you’ve shown me — the ruminations of a professor on vacation. Obviously, considering the problems you have posed, this is laughable.
Olson recognized this challenge. In his notebooks, he called upon the great modernist writers, who owed Pound so much, who learned from him, who were his equals, to put Pound on trial, to explain him: “I cannot be responsible for the way the Dept. of Justice tries the citizen Ezra Pound. But I say I nor any other writer can allow Ezra Pound the writer to go unjudged. It is here the fact that he is a poet, and a good one, has bearing . . . . I propose that what has not been done since his indictment be now done because his public trial is a trial of all of us who use the word. This man, who is as good as any of us, is a fascist . . . . It is not as a traitor to the U.S., but as a fascist he should be judged. It is not his radio broadcasts but the whole body of his work that should be the testimony. . . . Such a trial is long overdue . . . . for it is already clear that though he shall be tried in court as . . a mere hired hand of a foreign government with whom we were at war, we shall find that the press and the people will try him as the Poet Ezra Pound. . . . Let us, then, in the world of our value, separate from the state, examine the work of Pound. He would be the first to stake his work as social in consequence. What is called for is a consideration, based on his career, of how such a man came to the position he reached when he allowed himself to become the voice of Fascism. For Pound is not isolated in this, among artists of his time. He is only, as so often, the more extreme. Yeats, Lewis, Lawrence have also been labeled fascist. . . . I wonder why T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wyndham Lewis, other men who have known Pound all these years have not told us how they explain him. They knew him better than we younger men. I am fed up with the easy.”
It is easy to, as Dudek did, slag liberal democratic society when you fail to track the sources of its failings and specify no alternatives as the great modernists tried to do. Dudek failed to take up the challenge Pound represented — to, as Olson put it, figure out how a great poet had gravitated to the cult of the elite. Failing to do this, he put himself in danger. Since his poetry was one long complaint about the liberal-democratic, capitalistic society he lived in, a complaint illustrated only by disconnected personal particulars and serious vituperation, Dudek could only be taken as a whiner or a fascist. Fortunately he found no readers. Fortunately those who did read him, mostly his colleagues, many of whom had the same condescending attitude to the masses, took him as a whiner.
Some of his students saw him as a fascist, but a relatively harmless one in that he limited his actual political activities to the campus and to the hounding of their heroes Leonard Cohen and Marshall McLuhan. In October 1968, Yetta Wainwright, BA 3, placed the following note of protest in the McGill Daily: “In your issue of October 9, one Louis Dudek delivers one of his periodic polemics against the creeping Marxist menace. Having taken more than one of Dudek’s courses, I’m used to his particular brand of paranoiac idiocy. Anyone who still buys Dudek’s image as some kind of good, grey poet should attend a few of his classes and find out what a tedious old turkey he really is. If the defendants of ‘democracy’ (in the Dudek sense) want their case articulated, they should file Dudek and fly in Max Rafferty [campus hippie-basher and Republican candidate for Senate] . . . .” Other students were a bit more understanding than Wainwright, noting that Dudek, unlike most of the other good, grey poets on campuses across the country, at least cared enough about what was going on to respond.
Dudek’s correspondence with Pound ended with the Expo invitation. Pound died five years later in 1972 and for another decade Dudek continued to proselytize and apologize for Pound and the Cantos, using the arguments presented in Dk. Then, in the mid-1980’s, two books shook Dudek’s confidence. E. Torrey’s book The Roots of Treason (1983) — a book based on St Elizabeth hospital files released under the American Freedom of Information law — conveyed to Dudek the “horrifying realization that Pound’s anti-Semitism and racism were far more virulent and deeply rooted than I had ever allowed for.” But Dudek mentions in his Globe and Mail review of the book that Pound did deny his anti-Semitism and “meant it when he said it, just as he meant his anti-Semitic rants on Italian radio and elsewhere.” For Dudek this confirmed that Pound was crazy, not sane as Torrey (a psychiatrist) asserts. But Dudek is quick to push his old argument that Pound’s craziness is only one side of his personality. The other side looked after Eliot and Joyce, got them and Frost and Hemingway published, wrote the Cantos which are free of anti-Semitism and even of fascism.
A year later (1984), a review of The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis shows Dudek again disturbed but still defending Pound. Here he says that the letters show that Pound was shocked into craziness by the changes in civilization since the First World War. But he remained a poet “to the bottom of his messianic, somewhat demented soul:” “His language started to change — it’s visible in these letters — and this change, coming out of “his rage and sense of mission,” should be studied, rather than Pound’s biography. In fact, says Dudek, “more books that reveal the nasty side of Pound’s personality — his anti-Semitic cracks, his glorification of Mussolini’s ‘empire,’ his attempt to sign his initials with a swastika ‘in order to rile the Americans’ — all that, for the sake of his poetry, I would now be willing to do without.” This was in line with Dudek’s overall tendency to ignore things about Pound that offended him, and it indicates the shakiness of his faith in the prophet. Unfortunately, Dudek himself never followed up his idea of studying how Pound’s language changed due to his rage and sense of mission. That would have been a valuable study, pertinent to Pound’s skill with particulars and Dudek’s own struggle with style. Pound would have approved. But of course such a study would require analysis of particulars. Dudek would have to dabble in the New Criticism.
But it seems Dudek was as good as his word in ignoring further publications of Pound’s non-literary writings and further biographies of Pound. In 1987 another biography of Pound appeared, John Tytell’s Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano. Evidently, Dudek didn’t read it until 1994, when it sparked his repudiation of Pound. The repudiation was published as notes on Tytell in Poetry Canada Review. Dudek says of these notes: “My comments were written down slowly, as I read, without any intention to make use of them or to publish. It was only when I had finished that it occurred to me they might make an interesting cross-section . . . showing my own present stage of thinking about this poet.”
There are two things wrong with this. First, despite Dudek’s determination to hear no evil about Pound, it would’ve been hard for Dudek to ignore a major book about his hero — a book that would have been read by so many and that, as it turned out, contained information pertinent to CIV/n 4 and 6. Second, the repudiation of Pound, the end of Dudek’s long agony of faith, is too violent — too absolute and all-inclusive. Pound was suddenly “a dangerous idiot” and a “stupid” man who had written a mostly lousy epic but just happened to be in the right place to ride the “tidal wave” of modernism to prominence. His shortcomings are illustrated in his personal life, his treatment of his wife and kids. His fame was “not his doing at all but the inevitable result of the triumph of modernism.” This triumph was engineered, Dudek now decided, mostly by Whitman, Williams and Eliot. Dudek refers to the “utter confusion and lack of meaning in the Cantos . . . only the Pisan Cantos come through as poetry. The rest is pedantry and ego pressure and striving for achievement.” Dudek reveals that his decades-long admiration for the Cantos — his imitations of them, his complex attempts to explain how the poem was written by a man whose grip on reason was “basically” solid — had no aesthetic underpinning and was based only on the false idea that the poem had some meaning. He reveals that you can follow all the precepts of modernist poetry and still (like Dudek) write crappy poems that people attached to modernism (like Dudek) will regard as works of genius.
Pound had become a bundle of particulars that could only be denied if the faith he once represented was to live on. That denial had to be clear and absolute; the Gordian knot that tied Dudek to Pound had to be cut. Adding to Dudek’s desperation, perhaps, was his sense of changes in the literary winds. The fact that Blaser went to such extreme lengths to sanitize him in regards to Pound, to authority and to elitism could have been in itself threatening. Post-modernism, led by Derrida, was entering its self-purifying phase — a phase characteristic of all faiths. Advocates were banished for failing to split the right hair. Can you quote from Derrida, when that quote establishes him as an authority, and authority is bad? Can you produce anthologies promoting a canon of black, Indian, women’s etc writing when canons are bad? Can you apply post-modernist methodology, which avoids reductionist logic and canonized history and applies a “culturalist” orientation, to justify an ideology that promoted anti-Semitism, engaged in a brutal, expansionist war in Africa and ended up worshipping every word of the duce, an obvious emotional cripple?
Maybe Dudek recognized his vulnerability, future scholars writing or reading crucifying studies of Pound pointing at him and saying “This man was with him.”
Dudek’s repudiation left the post-modernists in the lurch. Tremblay expresses puzzlement at its violence. “What are we to make of it?” he asks. Hadn’t Davey and Blaser affirmed that Dudek had learned Pound’s lessons on Imagism and on that basis risen to become as great a poet? Also Dudek, says Tremblay, like Pound, “worked publicly to put his ideas into action, modeling, in the process, what both poets thought to be the highest of civic values . . . a program of social action through the arts.” In this, Dudek was the “more successful cultural worker.” Ultimately, Dudek produced “a functional Canadian criticism that was far more nationally inclusive than Pound’s rather narcissistic and republican view of cultural production.” Still, “he was working to produce the kind of culture that he and Pound envisioned.” To reject Pound outright was to reject the foundation of all Dudek’s accomplishments. For Davey and Tremblay, Dudek rejected Pound in the way a good student rejects a good teacher, by improving on him. His 1994 repudiation was specious.
Blaser has the same praise of Dudek, but his argument is of Jesuitical sublety. It seems that it had to be. There’s no way that Blaser, who has some talent and presence as a poet, and who was an expert on Pound, directing graduate theses on him at SFU, could’ve believed that Dudek’s poetry is better than Pound’s or in any significant way even remotely equal to it. There’s no way either that he could’ve done so strictly out of loyalty to post-modernism, which he valued in moderation as a method but famously characterized to his students as modernism laid on its back and wearing bangles and eye makeup. He used the epithet “fat fag” to describe post-modernists. His unexplained but constant references in his preface to the “Canadian” nature of Dudek’s opening up of modernism hints at some insecurity about his situation as an American, but at the same time Blaser was in no way hesitant on arrival at SFU to take out Canadian citizenship (Brian Fawcett sponsored him). He was eager to involve himself in Canlit, which may be why he took on the editing of Dudek. He may have felt insecure as a prof, lacking a doctorate, and wanted a serious project, though his poetry was well regarded in Canada, entering the anthologies at the time that Dudek’s was being ushered out.
Whatever the reasons for his virtuoso performance, it comes across as insincere but revealing. Blaser does allow the reader to assume that Dudek is a major poet since Dudek’s is “an important voice” in countering Pound’s “move toward a totalitarian vision which is a characteristic of modernism now under necessary and severe correction.” This must be a reference to the poetry of both men, since neither man has much significance in any other context, and Dudek’s “voice” is still assumed to be primarily that of a poet. Also, Blaser’s words introduce a selection of Dudek’s poems and the implication is that Blaser has chosen these because he thinks they are good and indicate the important “correction” that Dudek represents.
Blaser, as Sutherland says, lays on the superlatives — but when these superlatives are looked at closely, most of them are evasive. Saying that Dudek’s long poems are “extraordinary,” and “strangely moving” could mean anything as to their aesthetic value. Even saying that En Mexico is “a marvel of detail, image and rhythm” could mean that the poem is marvelously bad in all these ways. Remarking that Dudek is “Canada’s most important — that is to say, consequential — modern voice” means nothing. The statement that Dudek has more in common with Dryden, Pope and Byron than most moderns could mean anything since there are vast tracts of boring, prosaic verse in all three of these older writers and this could be what Dudek has in common with them. Still, Continuation is referred to as a “great meditative poem,” the elegy to Williams is said to be “beautiful,” and Blaser says of Dudek, “the practice of his poetry, which fascinates from the first poems to the latest, has led him into a flowing, radiant form.” These seem to be unevasive superlatives.
Blaser further affirms that Dudek’s poetry is equal in “intellectual force” to the “intellectual energies of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, George Grant, and George Whalley.” Comparing “intellectual force” in poetry to “intellectual energy” in expository prose is to see double, and Blaser has to deal with the massive disagreement that Dudek had with Frye and McLuhan and with the fact that Grant’s critique of modern civilization is an elegiac retreat, a paean to a defeat that Dudek would not admit is utter and would in any case regard as deserved by the contingent of proper bastards that ran the country for so long. Dudek was attracted to the mainstream but regarded it as a European rather than British phenomenon. Mainly, Blaser emphasizes an agreement he sees between Dudek and Frye, saying that Dudek would agree with Frye’s statement: “No discussion of beauty can confine itself to the formal relations of the isolated work of art; it must consider, too, the participation of the work of art in the vision of the goal of social effort, the idea of a complete and classless civilization.”
It seems Dudek would agree with this. As a socialist and supporter of democracy as a political system at least, Dudek would’ve liked the “classless” and as a literalist he would have liked the “complete.” But in what way can “the vision of the goal” be an “idea?” Blaser doesn’t explain, but he finds Dudek “an excellent guide through the sources of barbarism — the consumerism that claims reality by ownership; an anthropocentric view that closes into itself meaninglessly; the continuing, political postponement of a true commitment to social justice; the way poetry disappears in public thought. The poems reflect these problems many times over.” These are facets of Dudek’s and the post-modernists’ critique of contemporary liberal-democratic/capitalist civilization. Blaser recognizes that a critique can’t in itself convey a positive alternative like the idea of a complete and classless civilization, so he also notes the positives in Dudek. These are “his insistence that knowledge of the past be tied intelligently to the present, his use of an approachable language to support his care for the quality of ordinary life, his enveloping devotion to social justice and the civilization that could be based on it.” The implication is that Dudek shows readers how the past can be tied intelligently to the present, what quality of life is, and what a civilization based on social justice would look like.
But then Blaser immediately pulls back, admitting that Dudek’s insistence about tying past to present could be taken as elitist: “He is persistently democratic, though this is not always understood because his determined sense that a knowledge of the past civilizes the present has brought with it charges of elitism. Most of those who use that term should drop it. They are unwitting levelers who leave cultural consciousness ever more vulnerable to the on-going substitution of commercialization and mercantilism for a shared reality.” Blaser’s testy denial of Dudek’s elitism contradicts Davey’s cheerful acceptance of it, but it adds another revelation. For the post-modernists there is a “shared reality” that is being replaced by commercialization. Dudek understood what this reality was, and stood up for it.
Our shared reality is, it seems, some kind of human conscience that tells us what social justice and quality of life are. Not much more can be said about it, because Blaser thinks that actually specifying what social justice and quality of life are, actually laying out what the ideal civilization would be like, would be authoritarian — would be to do what Pound, Eliot and Yeats were trying to do, speak in particulars about the world they wanted. Dudek, Blaser says, understood that this could not be done. He quotes Dudek saying, “Our problem is the radical absence of any valid grounds for universality.” That is, Dudek and his fellow poets feel they know but know they can’t explain what intelligence, quality of life and social justice actually are. Consequently they decline to provide any explanation. Blaser modifies a quote from Lyotard to justify this seemingly defeatist and even cowardly attitude: “Dudek denies the totalitarian answers of modernism, knowing that they participate in the terror of our time. I think he would agree that it is ‘not our business to supply reality’ [Lyotard] — certainly not in totality.”
This leaves the poet only one recourse in participating in the idea of a complete and classless civilization — the one that Dudek tended, as all his critics point out, to take — abstraction. For most critics, this is the central problem of Dudek’s poetry, but for the post-modernists it is a strength. Tremblay says,”[his] attachment to imagistic clarity Dudek would outgrow, later embracing abstraction as a key poetic principle.” This opens the question of whether or not there can be a poetry of abstractions, a poetry that declines “to give to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.” Dudek and the other poet-Generalists, along with the postmodernist profs, might want to think so, but they are going against all classical, romantic and modernist poetics. Keats wanted axioms, but they had to be “felt along the pulse.” The modernists argue, “no ideas but in things.” Post-modernism, with its concept of abstraction as a poetic principle, is not so much a correction of modernism as Blaser says, but its opposite. It may be the opposite of what traditional theorists have always called imagination.
In this opposition, though, post-modernism still, in sticking to abstractions, doesn’t avoid the modernist tendency to absolutism. The aspirations of post-modernism, and its critique of liberal democracy, are those of fascism. David D. Roberts of the University of Georgia History Department says that post-modernists “find at work in Italian fascism not a fully elaborated ideology but a looser mix of ideas that articulated and helped to shape aspirations even as they offered no systematic blueprint.” This is exactly what the post-modernists see in Dudek and more or less what Dudek, in his letter to Shapiro, saw in fascism. And they seem as unaware as Dudek was that the difference between shaping aspirations and offering a blueprint is purely semantic. A loose mix of ideals becomes a polity or it doesn’t exist in the communal mentality: it is simply not there, not an “aspiration.”
There’s no way that Dudek, Blaser and Davey could be called fascists. They had no sympathy with fascism as a movement, and they expressed — especially when writing about Pound — their loyalty to democracy. Mainly, because they proposed nothing by way of polity, they can’t be attached in any meaningful or convincing way to either fascism or democracy. However, since their criticism of “civilization” is focused mainly on democracy, and is visceral rather than reasonable, they are especially distanced from democracy. Also, when they do get into analysis of why fascism crashed, they tend to blame the crash on the opposition that came from the democracies. This is because, as puritans, as fundamentalists, they hate the thinking that gave rise to the modern (and classical) democracies. They think like fascists. Their arguments are based, like Pound’s and Dudek’s, on the premise that their thinking is communal so that they can tell the masses how to think and feel. The fact that they have found their way into the universities, that their thinking is evidently valued enough to place them in the position of moral tutors to the new generation, is confirmation of sanctity. But it is their confidence in their private virtue that is the real confirmation. Some of them (not Blaser nor Davey) even claim independent authority to determine what texts are fit to preach from. What saves them from being fascists is their refusal to discuss polity except in the negative sense of attacking the structures and policies of liberal democracy.
In other words they perform the function that Pound valued in Pellizzi and thought to lay on Dudek — keeping fascism alive in the face of the victory of liberal democracy and the triumphalist liberal “I told you so” arguments that ensued. As Olson said when he argued for poets to engage in their own trial of Pound, “Fascism captured criticism of democracy and puts any critic in the camp of the enemy. It is time we faced this.”
Dudek didn’t face it in time to save his poetry or his peace of mind. He ended up where Eliot, one of the more obnoxious of the anti-Semitic and Mussolini-inclined modernists, finally, in Four Quartets, placed himself and Pound. First Eliot states their overall purpose: “Our concern was speech, and speech impelled us/To purify the dialect of the tribe/And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight.” This might be a Statement of Purpose for the English Department. Then Eliot specifies what the “gifts” for this “concern” were going to be, “To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.” The joke is that these rewards are pretty much distributed to anyone in any walk of life. The first is old age, “as body and soul begin to fall asunder.” The second, maybe, goes especially to reflective types: “the conscious impotence of rage/At human folly, and the laceration/Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.” The last goes especially to those who have espoused a cause: “And last, the rending pain of re-enactment/Of all that you have done, and been; the shame/Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/Of things ill done and done to others’ harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue./Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.”
Dudek got, in particular, gift 3, and he seems to have taken it hard. Unlike Eliot and Pound, he didn’t have anything in the way of convincing poetry to show for his crusade against science, mass culture and democracy and his worship of art. The approval of the post-modernists, and the medals hung on him by the English Department, don’t seem to have counted for much.
Feb. 16, 2008