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Ezra Pound's Radio Operas

Margaret Fisher
ISBN#0-262-06226-7 319
Pages 117 illustrations $32.95

Reviewed by Chris Cobb
ldr@leonardo.org


Few book covers are more appropriate than the one for "Ezra Pound's Radio Operas" by Margaret Fisher. Alvin Langton's 1917 photograph of Pound shows him as sideways looking and blurred. The image is a double exposure that makes it almost impossible to tell who he is.

One pleasant surprise is that Fisher's book does not merely discuss Ezra Pound's radio operas. Instead it is also a fly-on-the-wall view of how the BBC operated in the 20's and 30's. One revelation is that it was the Research Department that got Pound to the microphone not the Music Department.

At the time, Edward Archibald "Archie" Harding was head of the BBC Research Department. Fisher writes that, "One of Harding's goals for the research section was to bring the best English writers of the time to the BBC." And indeed, for a special 1930 New Year's Eve broadcast, T.S. Eliot had been asked to do a translation of Francois Villon's "Le petit testament." But Eliot did not have the time for it. Pound's intelligence and connections made him a logical substitute. "With only two weeks before the scheduled broadcast, Harding telegrammed Pound for the translation." For this reason Pound was brought in to the production studio and an important historical relationship began.

Fisher describes the persona of an individual who was as much a political opportunist as he was an artist. Before his BBC experiences, he had been living in Italy and was involved in Fascist politics. His love of ancient language and his theories, such as Vorticism, (not to mention his rabid anti-Semitism) made Mussolini's Rome seem like the perfect place for him. Throughout the late 1930s Pound spent much of his time defending fascism. When the war began, he surprised many of his former colleagues (and the literary world at large) with a series of fanatical addresses to American troops, which were broadcast on Rome Radio.

The price he paid was that after the war Ezra Pound was a name that became short hand for the corruption of the intellect. The message was that if it could happen to someone as brilliant as Pound, then it could happen to anyone.

Fisher shows how in many ways Pound's radio opera productions at the BBC led directly to his fascist propaganda readings in Italy during WWII. It no doubt occurred to him that his personal and artistic influence could only increase when communicating to the huge audience that radio granted him. Pound was exposed to this possibility at the BBC while working with Harding. Having been the editor of one of the 20th centuries' most important books "the Waste Land" by T.S. Elliot and a tireless promoter of James Joyce, he was already a powerful force in the literary world. But along with the power, there came responsibility.

Fisher's style makes you feel almost as if she had been there herself. This is the kind of voice that comes from knowing her subject very well. It is also the kind of writing that benefits readers on many levels from just plain old history, to biography, to even the nature of radio as a medium. She mentions in her acknowledgements that the entire book came out of a project by the composer Robert Hughes, who was working on a study of Pound's other opera, "Cavalcanti". She had been developing a chapter for him when she began to examine her own subject more deeply. When writing about Pound, inevitably, the rest of the world creeps in.

"Ezra Pound's Radio Operas" illuminates the turbulent 1930's when people everywhere were forced to take sides. After the world economy collapsed in 1929, people were faced with a landscape full of new political parties and government theories. Artists and intellectuals were all over the map in terms of their beliefs. But as they realized what the implications of the new governments were, and for some it would mean their own deaths, only the most strident personalities still embraced Fascism. In Germany Martin Heidegger became a Nazi apologist. And in Italy it was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti whose radio broadcast on August 12th, 1933 brought him "onto the world stage with Mussolini, and there the laws of aural perspective proved their political worth." Marinetti was the leader of the Italian Futurist art movement, in the way Andre Breton was the leader of the Surrealists in France. The surrealists by and large, escaped Europe and fled to America.

Marinetti remained however, and in the 1930's it was important for Mussolini to feign legitimacy by surrounding himself with important cultural figures. The futurist Marinetti was only too happy to oblige. He was given support and encouraged to make programs for the radio. It was Marinetti who brought Pound into this circle. In a real sense, Pound and Marinetti were gambling on the Fascist takeover. The big allure of fascism was that it promised them so much.

Pound was a shrewd man. Some would say that he could be forgiven because he was an artist first, and would go wherever his art led him. It just so happened that the BBC and Rome Radio both happened to support him at about the same time. It should be noted that Pound was not the only one whose loyalties were split. Many American and British (and French for that matter) intellectuals, politicians and movie stars expressed pro-fascist sentiments. But there is plenty of documentation on that as well as that of corporations having benefited enormously from the war. That is a different discussion.

But buried beneath all of this history are these radio operas. The one published here in script form is "The Testament of Francois Villon," broadcast by the BBC October 26th and 27th, 1931 with words by Villon, music by Pound, Produced by Harding. Although the script of his other opera, "Cavalcanti," is not included, it is discussed.

These were not minor works for Pound, who, whatever one might say about him, knew the value of words. And the focus on Francois Villon's "Testament" was especially apt because Villon (1431-1463) was a notorious poet and criminal. He was an iconoclast like Rabelais, Voltaire, Artaud or Genet, and was credited with forming the foundation of modern French poetry. Villon discussed the criminality and the poverty he experienced as a vagabond poet who was constantly in and out of jail. Villon, it seemed, did not belong anywhere and he died young.

There is so much background information here that one could realistically make a production based on the script and related information. Fisher even gives the address to write to for permission. But this book is a rather sneaky (and brilliant) way to get his work out into the hands of the public. She has managed to make a compelling biographical sketch and at the same time present this rare work. It made me think how nice it would be if every artist or writer had a biography included with presentations of their work. That would ensure context, which is so often lacking in this day and age.


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Updated 20th February 2003


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