- CONTINUING ED
- PUBLIC PROGRAMS
- COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
“Let Them Have Guam and We’ll Take 200 Noh Plays”: a Conversation with Mary de Rachewiltz
With Paul Vangelisti, May 20, 2009, at Brunnenburg, in the Italian Tyrol. Transcribed from a video, commissioned by the Archivio Francesco Conz, for LA LIVRE, a collection of works by more than sixty international artists in homage to Ezra Pound.
PV: Your memoir about your father, Discretions, is a grand book. You know that this kind of memoir is quite the thing these days.
M de R: Well, I tried to stop the translation into German, because I didn’t want locals to get hold of it. But I did say in my introduction to the German edition, this kind of book one should write only on one’s deathbed.
PV: Because you were still a young woman when you wrote this, and you left it open, I thought, at the end.
M de R: Yes, and it’s impossible to follow.
PV: You’ve called yourself the femme conservatrice des traditions and you’ve written a great deal about the responsibility that we have to pay homage to your father and Eliot, for example. For your work, looking toward the future, what responsibilities would you expect people to have?
M de R: I would expect them to read Pound. That’s really the only responsibility I feel they should take on. And I don’t mean that they should stop with A Lume Spento, but they should stop with “Drafts and Fragments” [“Cantos CX-CXVII”].
PV: They should read The Cantos.
M de R: They should read The Cantos. They won’t understand them, but Pound said to me: “I don’t want you to understand, I want you to learn the damn thing!” So, first of all they have to use a little bit of elbow grease, put in some effort, and not expect to understand it. I mean, Pound didn’t understand it himself. He did it. He worked.
PV: Besides your father, who would you say have been your major literary influences, in whatever languages?
M de R: It’s a difficult question, because at school, of course, we had the usual ginnasio. People like D’Annunzio and Carducci and Pascoli, those were my introduction to poetry, then, fortunately Scheiwiller [Vanni Scheiwiller, Pound’s original Italian publisher] introduced me to Montale, Quasimodo, Ungaretti, and sort of coming closer. Then, I guess, e.e. cummings appealed greatly to me, and oppositely, Robinson Jeffers. And, in fact, the reason I was so eager to accept Donald Davie’s invitation to Stanford was because I wanted to see Tor House.
PV: In Carmel?
M de R: Because I had translated a lot of Jeffers, I thought I really had to see that landscape. That’s the most difficult thing to translate: a landscape that you haven’t seen. And you know, he’s full of descriptions of the land and the animals. The sea lion, for instance, and all those animals that he mentions, I just wanted to see with my own eyes, otherwise I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.
PV: That’s an interesting observation, because that is one of the reasons I’ve always been reluctant to translate with another person who knows a language which you haven’t any idea of. Because one isn’t familiar with the landscape.
M de R: Yes, what they eat, what does it taste like? What they drink when they wake up in the morning.
PV: Your father said that he aimed to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase. It might be a bit of a chestnut, but would you speak a little bit about that? How do you think he achieved that?
M de R: It’s not a chestnut because I don’t think anyone has gotten it, no one has quite explained it. I think the person who has come closest is David Moody in his new biography. Only the first volume is out.
PV: It ends in 1918?
M de R: Yes, 1920, when he left England.
M de R: I keep in fact trying it myself and I think he simply hammered out Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita or some troubadour verses or Mir sagen Die Damen Du bist Gries or some Greek άνδρά μόι έννέπέ μύσά. I think he just tried to absorb all these rhythms and eventually succeeded. You mentioned the metronome, but there is other chestnut: “to break the pentameter that was the first heave.” Of course he didn’t always break it.
PV: He was criticized for that.
M de R: Yes, he was. I think it must be in the blood. I think he wrote with his whole body and this, when I say people must read the Cantos through “Drafts and Fragments,” it’s because I start to understand him and his way of working and his poetry only now that I have reached his age. When he was here and very often, I mean in so many articles and interviews, they are all sort of talking about him almost as though he were a poseur. You see these chairs? These chairs are the ones he made, and he didn’t really use them very much. You notice that they all have a headrest? At table when he first came here—we were all young, my children and my husband and I—and he would occasionally even at table, get up and throw himself into a chair. Now I realize that he was exhausted! Since you also write poetry, you wait until you get a bit older…. The fact is that writing poetry is so exhausting. Particularly at the voltage that he was writing. The other day I came across—at least, someone is editing some excerpts from Pound’s letters—and in one he says, “Some idiot has written that he found me in florida salute [“bloom of health”],” in an interview at Saint Elizabeth’s; and adding, “The idiot doesn’t realize that I have 21 hours of solitude.” In the three hours that he was allowed to see people, he would obviously, sort of accumulate, or save all his energy not to put on a show, but to transmit to the visitor what the visitor evidently had come to get out of him. These things hit me now. This he wrote in a letter to me in 1956, over half a century ago, but I sort of glossed over it. Now I understand.
PV: There’s the drawing by Lewis which has him looking, not injured, but leaning back in a chair looking completely exhausted.
M de R: Of course, he did have theories about the body and the bon lutz and Ingenium nobis ipsa puella facit and all that. I mean all these things are real.
PV: Where do you fall when it comes to translation? Obviously you don’t believe in literal translation.
M de R: All I know is whenever I look at my translations, I feel, Oh Lord! I want to redo it all. I know that as soon as copyright is extinguished over the Cantos someone else will have to do it. I would say it can’t be done. But it can be done and here again we have the translation of the Odes, the Confucian Odes. I don’t know if you have looked at them very carefully but there are two poems that he had already translated in Cathay and they are totally different. The rhythm that he gets into the Confucian Odes is something. Just unbelievable, the strength of that.
PV: It’s roughly 40 years later.
M de R: Forty years training in translation. So much so that I had really never bothered to compare. I hadn’t translated the Confucian Odes. I couldn’t do it. I did one of the first of the Cathay, which, in fact, we did together. That too is interesting in that he made me do the war poem, the “Frontier Guard’s Lament.” Because the war was something to him so realistic, but as war. Just war. Nothing to do with politics or ideologies. I have just by chance—I live by means of a one-track mind, I’m afraid, I keep looking up things—and by chance just yesterday I reread a letter that he had written to Katue Kitasono in 1940 or ’41, when it was the only connection, the only way that was still open. Pound was thinking of tanka, and he was thinking of poetry. In this letter he describes to Kitasono what, later, is in the “Pisan Cantos”: the birds, you know, Jannequin’s song (“Canto LXXVI”]. He describes it up there in Sant’Ambrogio, birds singing in contrapunto. That’s the world that he wanted to preserve.
PV: Making poetry something international so that people can understand each other.
M de R: This is what I keep saying to the Americans, for God’s sake, you have an epic which represents America. I even coined this: “Ubi Cantos, Ibi America!” You don’t have to know Greek, but eventually you get to know the Greek words that are in the Cantos because he repeats them and repeats them. You have all the classic Greek literature. The same with Italian. You end up by knowing Dante by reading the Cantos. I always read the Cantos in that Mondadori edition, and La Società Dantesca edition of Dante, both of which have the same shape more or less. I need them both. I have to have all Dante in one hand.
PV: Do you read much contemporary poetry?
M de R: What is contemporary? Everyone is younger than I am. There are so many I can’t keep up! I stopped with my contemporaries: I mean, Creeley. He’s also dead. Denise Levertov, whom I‘ve also translated; she’s also dead. One starts feeling very lonely. But who is my contemporary? There is no contemporary left; they’re all young. Now that there is this easy way to publish everyone can sort of publish 20 volumes of something or other. One receives all these nice books, practically one a day!
PV: If you were to characterize your father, portray him as a character in a novel, how would you start?
M de R: Probably by thinking of his grandfather, Thaddeus Pound. This, incidentally, may be because I have to do some research for various reasons, but it was Moody who made me aware of this photograph of the four generations [including great-grandfather, Elijah] which has widely been published: this little boy leaning against this bearded man in a sort of confidence. It’s almost a feminine, you know, one sees the image of the Madonna with child. It’s almost as if those two men; one is a baby, of course, and the other is an old man. It’s almost as if those two were kind of one thing. I mean at heart Pound was a very simple, straightforward, hard-core American. Unless, of course, one follows the trend of the poet bohême, and all that. No, I think at heart he was very simple, traditional, god-fearing. Because his father, of course, took him with him to Sunday school, where he was teaching the poorest Italian immigrants. I think these aspects in Pound’s background have not been put sufficiently in the right context. I think that the reason he liked my way of growing up, and got on so well with the people in Gais [village in the Tyrolean Alps where Mary was raised] is because he remembered his father and grandfather doing what they now would call “social work.”
PV: You write that when you asked him for the money to buy a sheep, he loved the idea. You speculated that it may have been because of Thaddeus’ lumber mill and all that.
M de R: I may not be answering your question, but yesterday I had a phone call from a Wadsworth, very very distant relatives. They had came back to Venice with the ashes of their mother and father, and I told them the one thing I regret is that we are not all buried in Chippewa Falls [Wisconsin].
PV: Would you say too much has been made of the bohemian and would you present him as a renegade American, essentially?
M de R: Not a renegade, for God’s sake!
PV: Well, by some people’s standards.
M de R: Yes, but it was America that he was trying to represent and save. I mean Walt Whitman, wonderful, okay: “we are one sap and one root.” But Walt Whitman didn’t have the culture that America needs. That’s what Pound came to Europe to get and to take back there. America has rejected it, continues to reject it. I honestly don’t know what it is. But then, they exiled Dante, why did the Florentines? Now they are weeping and taking oil every year to Ravenna to keep the lamp lit. So I keep saying, “Wait until the Americans will come on their knees and beg.”
PV: Several years ago Anne Conover wrote a biography of your mother in which she mentions, as you do in your memoir, the curious use of the third person between your mother and father. Was it a parody of the Italian “lei,” the polite “you” form? Did they really speak this way?
M de R: Yes, especially in their letters, and also in front of me. You have to remember, that when I first heard them speaking to each other, my English wasn’t yet very good. Niceties like this I just took for granted. I don’t know how it started. Of course, in the “Siena Cantos” he does make a lot of fun about the convoluted forms of address that they used: Le Vostre Altezze, Serenissime Lei, so that one never knows who is exactly addressing whom. It may have been some private fun they were having.
PV: Somewhere close to that in Discretions, you pointedly report the statement by your father that: “The real artist in the family is your mother.”
M de R: Well, he said it, and she certainly had an artistic temperament, and she was an accomplished musician. It is just too bad that one didn’t have the equipment to make recordings of her. We have nothing. Certainly she was an artist and, above all, she was fabulous at public relations. In Siena, for instance, the way she managed those monstres sacres that came to the Accademia Chiggiana, all those musicians. Unfortunately, we don’t have her art.
PV: He was referring to her temperament, too, I assume?
M de R: Oh, yes. Georges Antheil, who, I must say, didn’t behave well at all. You, know, the musician?
PV Who ended up in Hollywood.
M de R: Yes, and one person I’m curious about is Lili Krauss. I discovered her, speaking of internet, through Google. I’m very curious because Antheil, and this is in the Anne Conover book, where Antheil writes to Pound about Lilli Kraus’s comment concerning my mother, and I don’t like it. If one lives with the two people as I do, I mean, I think I live more closely to my parents now than I did when they were alive, simply because there is all this literature about them, that I feel that I want to verify things. It’s not research so much but verifying. He too [Antheil] said that she had the artistic temperament. She was a fine artist, in spite of what this bad boy of music claimed.
PV: You wrote that you and your father sat through at least three or four screenings of the same film, and that he was absolutely fascinated by the cinema. Did he talk about it?
M de R: I don’t think he talked about it. You know when [Alvin Langdon] Coburn did those photographs, they did a lot of experiments in 1912; both with sound, fishing for sound in the Seine, in Paris, and in London with this photographer [Coburn]. So, obviously, it was something that fascinated him; the possibility of the concrete.
PV: When he says that poetry ought to be as concrete as a Disney film, I think he meant the “Painted Desert” or one of those documentaries?
M de R: Yes, he liked Disney very much.
PV: Can we talk about religion? Did I hear you say earlier that you thought your father was a religious man?
M de R: First of all, he grew up in a family where the bible was read daily. My grandfather took him to Sunday school and also taught the immigrant children there. I think this is what Hugh Kenner brings out very well in his book: that in Pisa he had again read through the Bible. It was the only book that he had there. He knew the Bible very well. But he obviously wasn’t a fundamentalist. He didn’t want a god as an old man with a beard. But he did say that if he could choose his own saints, he might be a Catholic. I can’t say that I’m a good Catholic, but I am very glad that I am a Catholic.
PV: How do you think this entered his writing, if it does, and how does it enter your writing?
M de R: As for his writing: he quotes the nun in the hospital in Genoa, who asks him—you know, one had to fill out “religion,” one’s religion on those papers—and he says “Confucian.” And she, of course, doesn’t know what that is, and ends up saying: “È tutta una religione.” And in “Drafts and Fragments,” he writes, “God of all men, none excluded.” Those are the religious strong points: love. God is love. “God is that one man love another.” These are lines in the Cantos. They get sort of swept under the carpet.
PV: And paganism?
M de R: Yes, of course, paganism. Naturally we started somewhere.
PV: So do you consider that religion was a source of strength for you?
M de R: I was certainly brought up by this very devout nurse, and then the four years at school in Florence were also nuns. I remember in the last year of school I started to think about religion, oh no, the Holy Ghost, it’s three persons, etc. Again, to quote Pound, there must be incognita. In the end, why should I try to solve a puzzle that no great mind has been able to solve?
PV: Then, perhaps, the Cantos are the poems of a life?
M de R: Oh yes, he is in the Cantos. Everybody is in the Cantos: his grandfather, his mother, his father, Dorothy, my mother, the various ladies who sort of appear and go. We are all there. And lordly men are to earth o’ergiven. All his friends. It’s really only in the “Pisan Cantos” that he had the time to remember. Before he was always working and he was always trying to carry something from Europe, Greece, Italy, Provence, for the Americans to incorporate into this wonderful country that America could be. But in Pisa he had time. He remembers them all, from Walter Rummel, HD, Maude Gonne. Everybody is in the Cantos. “Ulysses’s old Ma missed his conversation.” This line, you know, it’s his mother, who talked more than I do. Now that I am mother/grandmother, etc., I know how much one misses the conversation of one’s children. You read it there. “Why did Penelope wait? Because he never did any harm or injustice to no one.” There are all these little answers to every single personal situation. He doesn’t talk about them, but they are there.
PV: So, in a sense, you would say the same thing that he said in that brief note when Eliot died, ending it in all caps: “READ HIM.”
M de R: Yes, “READ HIM.” Even there [Pound writes]: “Nobody left to share a joke with.” I find that it’s, how should I explain, because this is what one feels when one is old. I find that people don’t seem to joke anymore. If I make a joke, I’m terrified in front of the students. They think I’m criticizing them. No, I’m joking. But you can’t kid anymore. It’s forbidden. Nobody understands. Again: “Nobody left to share a joke with.” Read him!
EP: “If it can’t go into the Cantos, I’ll use it for radio.”