Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Moderns: Pound, Cocteau, and Homosexuality

It is doubtful that Ezra Pound ever gave any systematic consideration to male homosexuality. By the time he settled in London in 1908 the Oscar Wilde controversy had subsided, so that Pound’s affected “aesthetic”style of clothing was unlikely to earn him any unwelcome aspersions of inversion.

In those apprentice years he wrote tolerantly of poets who extolled other males “in Greece and Pagan countries” (letter to W.C/ Williams, 21/10/08). Later he acquired a kind of locker-room homophobia, to judge from the coarse “Tale of the Honest Sailor” that concludes Canto XII. At a more serious level the joke attests Pound’s adoption of the medieval parallel of sodomy and usury as two forms of sterility. During his St. Elizabeths period Pound was sometime heard to lament the “pansification” of America.

These negative attitudes, including the characteristic hardening in older years, were arguably part of the mindset of the period. In addition, there may have been, as conjectured by Hugh Kenner, some element of sexual politics. Kenner has postulated that Wyndham Lewis and his associates reacted against Bloomsbury intellectuals (Forster, Strachey, and Woolf) by flaunting their own machismo.

One commitment, though, would have deterred Pound from out-and-out homophobia-- his attachment to ancient Greece. He could scarcely have remained unaware of the major role of same-sex love in that source culture.

Pound shared with the openly gay Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) an interest in reviving the classics so as to make them relevant to modern times. Unlike the mischievous Pablo Picasso, Pound refrained from attacking his French colleague on sexual-orientation grounds. He was always deferential to Cocteau.

Apart from the difference in orientation, the two poets present a number of striking similarities. Cocteau’s “Cap de Bonne Espérance” (1918), a homage to the aviator Roland Garros, is arguably the first long modernist poem in any language. Its collage-like techniques anticipate some of those found in The Cantos.

During the 1920s and 30s Cocteau reworked ancient Greek themes, including his dramatic versions of “Antigone,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Orpheus.” Pound entered this field later with his renderings of Sophocles’ “Elektra” (1951) and “The Women of Trachis” (1953).

Both sought to integrate modernist music into the theater. In 1917 Cocteau wrote the scenario for the ballet “Parade,” with music by Erik Satie and sets by Picasso. “Oedipus Rex” (1925), with its Latin text, was a close collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. With the help of George Antheil, Pound wrote his own score for his opera “Le Testament de Villon” (1926). This was followed five years later when, at the behest of the BBC, he began work on another opera, “Cavalcanti.”

Informed by a certain aesthetic approach, both poets trended to the right in politics, leading to flirtation with the German occupier during World War II (Cocteau) and outright support of Mussolini (Pound).

In their later years both retired to pleasant seats by the Mediterranean, only to be compelled by circumstances to give them up. Still, their last years were blessed by the attention of faithful companions, Edouard Dermit (Cocteau) and Olga Rudge (Pound).

Finally, the two poets have at last made their way into the respective literary pantheons of their nations, Cocteau with two volumes in the Pléiade series (1999-2003) and Pound with one in the Library of America (2003).

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