Willis Goth Regier
The humanities remind us how inspiring and playful human life can be. They also confront fears, anxieties, and monsters of the night. Take vampires, for instance, formerly a local problem in Transylvania and now spread across the globe as proxies for plague, attractive evil, and forbidden love.
I love Buffy the vampire slayer and not just because she’s cute. Every time she slays a vampire she removes another gram from a weight that oppressed me since grad school. Never mind the blood-sucking heartthrobs of the Twilight Saga and The Vampire Diaries. Vampires are real, demanding, anything but sexy, and unlike Buffy, they’ve gone to college.
My vampire was Ezra Pound, who died a week after my proposal on Pound was approved by my dissertation committee. Brash, poetic, irreverent, and restless, Pound fascinated me. I was a Great Plains boy whose sense of the world was formed by books and Pound appeared to have read everything from everywhere. His ABC of Reading (1934) was my literary guide when I was twenty-two, taking me from Nebraska to England, France, Italy, and China. His belief that literary studies should listen to Mozart and Bach fit my tastes perfectly.
I cherish friends and Pound’s friends were astounding: Yeats, Joyce, Harriet Monroe, and T. S. Eliot, to name a few. He wrote verse like “Sing we for love and idleness, / Naught else is worth the having” and prose that said, “Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing; the rest is mere sheep-herding.” The icing on the cake was his championing of translations and his appetite for languages. In the ABC of Reading he asserts, “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is CAPABLE of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.” I believed that, and still do. Romance languages were his strength (the troubadours were the focus of his own graduate study), he made a pass at Chinese, and his commitment to Weltliteratur was more committed than Goethe’s.
When I was tender I was as infatuated with Ezra as Buffy and her friends were with an enchanted quarterback. Then troubles arose. My girlfriend tried Pound’s Cantos and shrugged. “What do you get out of this guy?” she asked. I quoted a favorite passage from the ABC: “Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man.”
“Man,” she muttered, “man. Dead white male sexist snob.”
A worried professor took me aside to ask whether I knew that Pound had gone mad. I nodded gravely, silently recalling what Pound wrote in his ABC: “The concept of genius as akin to madness has been carefully fostered by the inferiority complex of the public.” Pound’s disdain for the profanum vulgus puffed up my vanity like a clown’s balloon.
Well meaning people regularly reminded me that Pound was a fascist (Italian version) and a raving anti-Semite but I countered that he was the only poet I knew who had at least made some effort to understand economics. Allen Ginsberg forgave him, why couldn’t I? Besides, his bad boy reputation had its own charm. If Buffy could flirt with Dracula, couldn’t I enjoy the flights of a batty poet?
I was adept with excuses and Pound is unsurpassed for giving excuses to read past Pound. Every one of his essays led somewhere else, to Homer, Confucius, Mencius, Sappho, Ovid, Cavalcanti, Dante, Villon, Flaubert, Walter Savage Landor, Henry James, Swinburne, on and on. Whatever my later regrets, I owe him this.
A few years later I had detoured through Pound’s recommended readings enough to suppose I knew what he was talking about (if you’ve triumphed through Finnegans Wake, try Browning’s Sordello). I blew through Pound’s poems and prose like a kite in a thunderstorm. Despite all the warnings I didn’t know what danger I was in until it was too late to retreat. A spate of Pound studies appeared. I read them and wondered what was left to say. A spate of Pound biographies appeared. I read them and wondered whether I should have taken the road to Robert Frost.
I had a dissertation to complete, but every time I sat down to write there was some other book on Pound to nag me. Each made me reread Pound: new book then Pound, new book then Pound, in a vicious circle. Pound would have called it a vortex. My dissertation director called it wind and dust. He advised, “First write, see what you think, then look to see what others think,” but instead I wondered what Pound thought, or might have thought. At first he was an object on the horizon. Then he was the horizon, hovering over everything.
Quoting Pound became a bad habit. Was he trying to speak through me? When I read he leaned over my shoulders, distracting me, slowing me down. There were times I’d look out the bus window and swear I saw him walking along.
It went from bad to worse. Admiration decayed into apathy, dedication sank into duty, excitement faded because it always fades. I would’ve liked him more if he’d left me alone awhile, but no, he clung, and clung all the tighter when scholarship turned against him. His politics were anathema, his Cantos chaotic, his knowledge shallow and cribbed. My cohort despised him. I felt his pain.
Pound was a tomcat with women and a vampire to me. Here was I in the prime of life, spending nights with Pound, puzzled by his predicaments, trying to guess his wishes. Weltliterature was breaking out all over but I was alone with Ezra, a deadweight round my neck.
Every day he was deader. Critic after critic called him up to kill him anew, yet I was living for him. He directed my steps to the library. He chose when I could sleep. In a dream I looked in a mirror and Pound looked back, tired and angry. I woke trembling.
Then I wrote like mad, fast as I could, gulping down coffee and shots of e. e. cummings to dilute my stomach acid, and did whatever it took to be done and shake him off. When I graduated he left me and I thought I had put him to rest, but no, wrong again. People speak of a “Pound Industry.” He’s found fresh blood, pools of it, gathered in his name. Fugitives from Faust and Paradise Lost tell me there are many such industries.
Where are you, Buffy, now that a vampire vogue surrounds us? Can you emerge from Netflix to slay other vampires that prey on aspiring Ph.D.s? Of course you can! Computer graphics turn teenagers into wolves, a dissertation can turn poetry into torment, but with your wicked wit and judo kick you can pound a nightmare into whimsy.
Willis Goth Regier is Director of the University of Illinois Press. Regier has been twice elected to the Board of Directors of the Association of American University Presses and served as its President in 2000-2001. He is the editor of Masterpieces of American Indian Literature (MJ Fine Books, 1993), and author of Book of the Sphinx (1994; selected as a Choice ‘Outstanding Academic Title’ for 2005) and In Praise of Flattery (2007). His articles and reviews have appeared in American Academic, the Baltimore Sun, the Chronicle of Higher Education, French Forum, Genre, the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Language, Modern Language Notes, Paideuma, World Literature Today, and other journals. His most recent book, Quotology, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2010.