BORN IN BRISTOL, England, in 1921, the poet Peter Russell served with the British Army in India, Burma, and Malaya during World War II. After the war, he founded and edited the journal Nine (1949–’56), one of the outstanding literary reviews of that period. The journal was known for its substantial, often trenchant reviews as well as for its ambitious program of introducing readers to world literature through translations and essays. Russell also started Pound Press, which published books and pamphlets by Ezra Pound and others. In 1950, he edited and introduced the anthology An Examination of Ezra Pound, with essays by various authors, which helped reactivate interest in Pound’s work after a long period of neglect. From the early 1950s until 1963, Russell operated a used bookstore in London’s Soho; and from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, he lived in Venice, where he visited with Pound regularly. In the mid- to late 1970s, he taught in British Columbia; was resident poet at Purdue University in Indiana; and was in Tehran, where he taught at the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy at the time of the revolution of 1978–’79. Russell returned to Italy after that, living for many years in the countryside near Arezzo, where he wrote, studied, and published prolifically until he went blind toward the end of his life. He died in January 2003, in the Valdarno region of Tuscany, where he had been living for more than 20 years in an isolated old mill house, La Turbina.
His own literary production was vast, various, fascinating, erudite, and uneven. Those who search for Russell’s work online or in a library will find that the volume most widely available is a selected poems, published in 1984 by Anvil Press, All for the Wolves. That collection draws on Russell’s work from 1947 to 1975, but he wrote much of his best poetry after 1980. Other selected poems for the years after 1980 have been published by University of Salzburg Press — an online search will turn up some copies of these. Agenda did a feature issue on Russell in 1995; and the Swansea Review did one in 2000. Shorter features were in the Tennessee Quarterly (Spring 1995) and the Chicago Review (Summer 1997). Poet-critics Hugh MacDiarmid, Kathleen Raine, and Tom Scott published essays on Russell; and there were reviews by Peter Levi in the Times Literary Supplement and by Robert Nye in the Times. Dana Gioia (in an essay in the Tennessee Quarterly issue cited above) referred to Russell as “one of contemporary poetry’s few genuine originals,” and Thomas Fleming of Chronicles (November 1991) called Russell “the last of the great modernists.”
The following interview took place on November 14, 2000, at La Turbina. A little less than halfway through the interview a third person joined us — Lenny Emmanuel, who at the time was the poetry editor of the New Laurel Review in New Orleans. The few passages where the three of us are speaking are clearly labeled as such; other passages are just the dialogue between Russell and me. About a third of the way into the interview, while discussing Pound, the question of Pound’s antisemitism came up. As a close friend and admirer of Pound, Russell plays down and oversimplifies this issue, but I have left his words intact, and have done the same with his statements about the fascist or far-right intellectuals Giovanni Gentile and Julius Evola.
ANDREW FRISARDI: I thought we could start by talking about Nine and the literary scene at that time in London. You started Nine in the late ’40s , right?
PETER RUSSELL: Yes, it was started two years before , but then it never really got off the ground. It got into the hands of a gallery owner. He was going to put up the money and we were going to call it Acropolis. And Charles Tomlinson, who was then still an undergraduate at Cambridge, became a great friend at that time, and we planned it together. Then Charles moved off somewhere else in England, and I rather lost touch with him; I only saw him once or twice a year. And I collected these other friends of mine — nine of us. The most brilliant of them was D. S. Carne-Ross. Do you know his name?
I know the name, yes.
He’s a Classicist. A very, very clever man, but quite uncreative. He taught with [William] Arrowsmith and several other people at Texas. But we had weekly meetings, just the editors, with a few extra people, like John Heath-Stubbs, who was a good friend; David Gascoyne came sometimes, Kathleen [Raine] came sometimes.
You started Nine after discovering Pound, right?
Oh yes, yes.
That was the impetus for it.
Oh, yes. Pound lay behind it. But we soft-pedaled Pound, because we didn’t want to offend the literary world by praising him to the skies at that time. He himself wanted it that way, too. I was in constant touch with him. I got two or three letters a week from him. Quite a lot of them are at Texas, some at Buffalo, and the rest got burned. Then there was Eliot, putting on the brake all the time. That was helpful. He would cough up cash every now and then, that was really useful. [Laughs.]
What was he putting on the brakes about?
Well, about Pound and about anything that was not quite polite. We had to be very polite. For instance, I referred to Macmillan’s, who had kept Thomas Hardy and Yeats out of print for many years during the war, as MacMillions, and he said, “You can’t say that sort of thing,” and I did, I printed it just the same.
Did he like the magazine?
Oh, yes, he liked it very much, except for those things which were sort of youthful effervescence, and I was the great villain there. I would say quite nasty things about quite important people. No doubt I did myself quite a lot of harm. But at least people found it lively.
How did the title Nine come about?
It was a mixture of things. The nine Muses; and also Dante’s conception of the number nine as one less than perfection, or the number 10, which referred to the Empyrean. Also, there were nine of us originally in the group that started the magazine.
Who were the writers that you were publishing in Nine?
Well, there was Robert Graves, E. E. Cummings [also Pound, Eliot, Tom Scott, Allen Tate, Edith Sitwell, Wyndham Lewis, Hugh Kenner, and others], and Roy Campbell figured big in the later issues of Nine. Roy Campbell was the cause of the nine of us breaking up. They wouldn’t accept some things that Roy wrote. Roy was reviewing the regius professor of Spanish at Cambridge — his book on Jiménez. And Roy found all sorts of really schoolboy errors — so-called misinterpretations, errors of simple language, and Roy wrote, “We don’t expect poetic talent from a translator, but at least we expect accuracy.” And then he translated the same poems by Jiménez, and another by Quevedo, which the regius professor [J. B. Trend] — what was his name? I can’t remember — had mucked up. He just did them, like that.
I remember, Roy and I used to have lunch together in a particular pub, virtually every day, because we shared an office in Kensington, and about half past 10 when it opened we’d repair to the pub, drink seven or eight or 10 pints of beer, then go back to his house. We’d collect a couple of bottles of rough Spanish wine, take them back to the house, have a nibble and some wine, then Roy would lie diagonally on the floor — it was a room a bit bigger than this [Russell’s not very large kitchen], no furniture, practically nothing. He would lie down on the floor with Baudelaire open on the left and a notebook in the middle, and, the first time I saw him doing this, I thought he was copying it. He wasn’t: he was translating it, at the speed that you or I would copy something carefully. Amazing. He was a marvelous man, terribly amusing, and of course he, again, was very rambunctious. He was attacking everybody all the time, including his close friends.
Who were the other people connected with Nine?
Well, D. S. Carne-Ross before anybody. A man called Brian Soper, who lives in Delaware. An Englishman. Very clever man. He reminded me always of Coleridge; he looked very like Coleridge, for a start, and he had a very slow, but sure way — without any pomposity — of talking real good philosophy. And he helped a lot with ideas — the cultural background. He didn’t write a great deal, he’s published very little. Yes, and then Ian Fletcher. A mediocre poet; quite good, I mean, if you read him now you’d think he was a jolly good poet, but in those days, when we had real poets living in England, he was rather minor. But a very scholarly man, almost a parody of the scholarly pedant. But full of good ideas. And he introduced me to things like Gnosticism, like metaphysical and Baroque imagery, about which I knew nothing.
Your background up to this point was science, right?
Well, yes, I had a lot of science. None of them knew anything about science at all. Well, Soper knew a little bit, but the others didn’t. And they knew very little about visual art, whereas I had traveled all over Italy, almost to every town of any size, seeing all the important paintings and sculptures.
I can see in your lyrics how a scientific vocabulary comes in with a sort of more traditional lyric vocabulary.
Yes, yes. I use words which have many faces, I use a word — I can’t give you an example off the top of my mind, but a word which could be a traditional, literary, lyrical word or a philosophical word, but it also has a modern scientific ring about it. I’m not following up Empson’s conception of ambiguity, as I understand it — I read Empson 40 years ago, and I knew it very well. A very minor poet but with a very special touch to him. Graves I found much more … I mean, Graves is pretty good. His prose is awfully good too. Carcanet Press are printing the whole of Graves and the whole of MacDiarmid. Twenty or 30 volumes — beautiful books to handle. So I’m rereading Graves and MacDiarmid, whom I knew very well.
Now, was he [MacDiarmid] involved in Nine?
I’m wondering whether we published anything by him. Certainly I reviewed some of his books in Nine. But I don’t know whether we published anything by him. You see my collaborators were very anticommunist — so was I, but in a different way. MacDiarmid was a rather absurdly loud-mouthed communist. In fact, one of those Scotsmen who are always shouting. But of course he had a fine intelligence as well. You’ve got to sort out the claptrap from the, you know, “We the people have no time for the bourgeois!” [Laughs.] We’re all bourgeois. He wasn’t. He lived in a little crofter’s cottage with an earth floor, he had no water taps, no bath. He really lived a traditional way.
What about your correspondence with Pound at that time?
Well, see, up till ’57, when he was released, he would write two to three letters to me a week — they were mainly sort of telegraphese, “Do this, do that” — always useful. Then when he came back to Italy, the correspondence didn’t fade out, but I got one thing perhaps in a month or six weeks. Then I met him in Rapallo, for the first time physically — I spent two weeks with him and Olga [Rudge], near Rapallo — Sant’Ambrogio. And that was delightful. But of course he was … I wouldn’t say finished, but he didn’t talk much. He obviously … some of the time he didn’t really know what he was doing. At any rate, we got on extremely well, as always — that would have been summer of ’65. In the winter of ’65 I came to live in Venice, partly because I loved Venice and partly because Ezra was frequently in Venice. So between ’65 and his death in ’72, I was seeing him in Venice once, twice, three times a week. Olga was a wonderful hostess, and she liked asking me always because Pound liked me — and he would talk to me. With the other people he wouldn’t talk … All my notes were burned [in the fire in Russell’s house in the early 1990s]. I kept careful notes of everything he said. I went home late at night and wrote it all down before going to sleep. All … all destroyed. I’ve got perhaps 50 or 60 sheets, all burnt round the edges. I’ve got to reconstruct what’s on them. There are 60 poems of [Russell’s translation of] Mandelstam, out of 220. Have you seen my poem on the funeral of Ezra?
No, I don’t think I have. I’ve seen your poem for his 80th birthday. You describe the funeral in your introduction to An Examination of Ezra Pound [an anthology of essays about Pound, published in the United States in 1950]. How did that come about, doing that anthology?
Well, it was my idea, and I took it to various publishers. Eliot wouldn’t publish it. He thought that the time was inopportune. He was very cautious.
Why did he think it was inopportune?
Well, he thought it would put the backs up of the literary establishment, who would do everything they could to keep him [Pound] inside [St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington]. And they did.
There were people who wanted to keep Pound inside?
All the left-wing people, you see. Which means about half.
Would Auden have been one of them?
No, Auden was very fair about Pound. Auden was a kind man, he was a good man. With all sorts of quirks and eccentricities. But he was a good chap. It was the little professors with their rigid communist prejudices. They hated him, and they hate me … Where were we? Oh yes, the irony was that I then took it to a small firm of publishers with three directors of which were all Jews. And they leapt at it; they loved the book. You see, this myth of Ezra’s antisemitism comes from his own stupidity, where he talked in the radio speeches about Jews: “Cromwell was a Jew! Churchill’s a Jew!” Well, you know, this is like MacDiarmid shouting his head off. Ezra was playing popular demagogue, which wasn’t really in him at all. He was acting it. When I first told Ezra I was going to Italy for the first time — what should I do? who should I see? — he gave me a list of four people to visit. He said nothing about them except that they’re good people, “My close friends, they’ve done a lot to help me out over the years, I’ve known them for 20 or 30 years,” and that sort of thing. I went to see them. They were all Jews, and very conscious of being Jews. But they loved Ezra. No problem, you see. He wasn’t antisemitic — I mean, every time, every evening I went to Ezra’s house there was somebody there who was Jewish, and there was no conflict about it at all.
So when Pound made those statements it was a sort of shorthand?
Yes. That is: “Jew” equaled “money-lender.” I know enough about the banks to know that he was absolutely right about the harmful effects of usury and moneylending, but he was absolutely wrong to use the word “Jew.” And it ruined his life. There’s very little prejudice in Italy about Pound and antisemitism. There’s a book that’s published in Rome — haven’t got the details. I want to get it. On Ezra and usury and the banks and that sort of thing. I read it in a small magazine, published in Florence, which draws on a lot of very serious and good writers, but they’re all — I won’t say fascist — but they’re all, you know, definitely extreme right. Not authoritarian fascism or anything like that, but the so-called traditional school, people like [Julius] Evola, who’s a brilliant writer I think. But he’s known as being fascist and all of that, and therefore [ignored] by the whole of the left, which means three-quarters of the literary world in Italy. You know about the big thing in Pisa University, about [Giovanni] Gentile? Gentile, as you probably know, was a brilliant philosopher. He was a marvelous educationalist. And he was Mussolini’s minister of education. He founded the modern Italian school system. He also edited, off the top of his head, the whole of the first edition of the Enciclopedia italiana, 1928 [actually 1936], a wonderful compilation. And then, the communist resistance people murdered him, assassinated him in Florence in ’43 [actually 1944]. Cowardly act. Gentile is known to have helped a great many Jews to get out of Italy or hide themselves. Recently, very late in the day, I mean 50 years late, the University of Pisa wanted to put up a lapide [stone] in his memory. What happened? A hundred professors objected to a lapide to this great man, whose only fault was having been Mussolini’s minister. I wrote to the rector — naturally they haven’t put the thing up — saying couldn’t you solve the problem by putting up a memorial to the people who murdered him? No reply, of course. [Laughs.]
There’s a young man [now editing University of Salzburg Press, which published a lot of Russell’s work] who is interested in the more or less avant-gardist poets, whoever they are. I just don’t fit in. You see, Salzburg did three volumes of selections — selections from a five-year period. First of all, there was Peter Jay with Anvil Press and my All for the Wolves. Then Salzburg did More for the Wolves, then they did My Wild Heart, and they accepted for publication a subsequent volume to be called Bewildered Heart. You see? “My wild heart,” “bewildered heart.” This “bewildered” is a play of words — there’s “wild,” “wilder.” But this “bewildered” translates an Arabic term, which is a little bit like the Dark Night of the Soul; the mystic, who’s been going along fine for a long time, just when he’s just beginning to think he’s seeing the truth and everything, he gets all confused and in a terrible state. Despair.
I had an amazing dream, in which I was Quintilius [a fictional Silver Age Latin poet in whose persona Russell wrote a large number of comic-serious poems, including the volume From the Apocalypse of Quintilius], with my queen of the Indian estate that I ruled successfully for many years, and we left the estate to our children and retired to the forest in traditional Brahman style. It was a pilgrimage that we’d been making for many years. And we thought we were doing fine; we thought we’d freed ourselves of the ego and we were living completely in the spirit. At a certain point, we come up against what is a huge wall — imagine a wall that is 50 meters high or 100 meters high, with great stones mortared together. We go round and round and round, there’s no gate in at all, and we just sort of lie down and weep. No way to get in. Obviously this is the wall around Paradise. Nirvana. At a certain point, a young Buddhist monk comes, and he gives us a sweet smile, and he just walks through the wall. It was the most wonderful dream. Later, the monk came back and helped us a great deal, and we got inside. The inside … I mean, I couldn’t express in words how beautiful it was. Super-reality.
When did you have this dream?
Oh, about six months ago. So that’s my foundation at the moment.
Have you written any poetry from that dream? You’ve written a lot of poetry based on dreams.
It will take a long time to come. When you get these high dreams — in fact, in my earlier life it took seven years before I could incorporate it. I hope … [laughs] I hope I get to do it before that. I don’t think I’m going to live seven years. I’m not depressed about death, but the thing about death that makes me sad is that I can’t go on with the work I’m doing. But of course that is a form of egoism. That’s why I can’t get into the Garden. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have your cake and eat it. And you’ve got to give up one or the other. That dream was unbelievable. I could see every leaf, every serration on every leaf, wonderful colors, birds of every color and shape, singing — marvelously. Have you seen my poem “In the Woods”? Probably not. It starts off, “Bird song, self singing to self.” I adore birdsong.
In a few essays, you talk about [the scholar of esoteric Islam] Henry Corbin’s idea of “affective tonality.” Could you describe what you mean by that?
Yes, I can’t find his exact words, but it means affective tonality. I’ve written in quite a few essays, and also in letters to young poets who write to me, that in the very first words of a poem you have to establish a context, in time in space, out of time out of space. But you have to establish a context, but a context which has this “affective tonality” — you know the tone of the thing that’s going to come. You know where you are, so to speak. Sometimes when one writes perhaps a bad poem, it’s partly humorous and partly serious. That combination can be alright, as in my poem “Smoke,” but it’s got to be done the right way. There are no rules.
There’s some place where you talk about the link between “affective tonality” and the Muses.
Yes, yes. I mean, this is inspiration. Most of the poets one meets today might have something quite interesting to say, but they don’t really have any tonality. I wish I could find Corbin’s exact words — I’ll find them sometime when I reread some of his books, which I’m overdue for now.
You studied with Corbin [at the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, where Corbin taught], right?
Oh, yes, I’ve read almost everything by him. But they’re not the sort of books you read once and put down. You have to go back to them four or five times.
Yes, they’re very dense … The presence of Sufi ideas in your poetry — there seems to be more and more of it as time goes on.
Yes, “Albae Meditatio” was a kind of apex of that. [Read the interviewer’s commentary here.] I don’t know whether I’ll ever capture that tonality again. But you see, it does open, and establish immediately a context and a tonality. And I think that’s how it must be. You see enormous amounts of poetry gets written today, especially in Italy, which expresses alright ideas — about getting rid of the ego and living in the spirit — but it’s really only opinion, it doesn’t convince you. These people are saying what they think they ought to say in order to be a poet. There’s no conviction there at all.
Yes, intellect and emotion somehow are integrated in your work. I think that a lot of writers tend to do one or the other.
Yes, but very few succeed in communicating real emotion. Whereas music, modern music, is absolutely out of the world of emotion. It’s not really music; it’s experimentation with sound, with noise. Pop music is better than the professor’s music. All theories.
[A couple of hours later, having gone to the train station to pick up Lenny Emmanuel.]
I’m writing an enormous amount, you know.
Yes, you have all these new sonnets.
I’ve got 60 new sonnets in the last three months. Plus 200, maybe 300 lyrics, satires …
Have you always been drawn to writing in the sonnet form?
Oh yes, yes. I mean, when I was very young, 11, 12, 13, I read the whole of Petrarch — and adored it. And of course I knew the Shakespeare sonnets and the better known Elizabethan and Jacobean sonneteers. Mainly from the anthologies — the Shakespeare ones I knew very well when I was young. But I preferred the Petrarchan form. The Shakespeare sonnets are very uneven; some of them are terribly careless. I don’t even think he wrote them. At any rate, from 1946 onwards I was writing sonnets quite seriously … Petrarch, Petrarch is the basis of the sonnet.
LENNY EMMANUEL: If you do off-rhyme, imperfect rhymes and stuff, I like that. I just don’t like “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water,” you know.
RUSSELL: But Mother Goose is the best preparation for any poet, because they have every rhythm you can imagine.
FRISARDI: Well, that’s true. When I was a kid, when I got fevers, high fevers, I would get delirious often, and I would hallucinate. And the thing that would stop my hallucinations was Mother Goose rhymes.
RUSSELL: Really? Very interesting. It makes sense to me.
FRISARDI: I would recite them with my mother, the Mother Goose rhymes — because usually the hallucinations were pretty scary — and the Mother Goose rhymes would calm me down.
RUSSELL: That’s very interesting. I’ve never heard that before, but I believe it.
EMMANUEL: I’ve told Peter about so-called perfect rhyme, and to me, when he does his best is when he uses off-rhyme, when it doesn’t take attention away from the content.
FRISARDI: Really? Because I think sometimes, in a poem like “Theorem,” there’s a very exact, you know, there are strong rhymes in there.
EMMANUEL: You like that?
FRISARDI: I like both. I like any effect if it works, basically. And I think it can work as long as it doesn’t feel forced or slow down the movement, but I don’t think it has to feel forced.
RUSSELL: When you think of a great poet of the 17th-century metaphysical school, like Henry Vaughan … Vaughan’s rhymes are absolutely infantile — it’s “light,” “sight,” “night,” every time. But the things work beautifully. Because the rhymes tie up with the other words in the rest of the poetry. Therefore it’s not just a sound rhyme; it’s a meaning rhyme, a semantic rhyme. And I use these same words, the obvious things, very annoying in English, key words like “soul,” or spirit. You can’t really rhyme them. Okay, you’ve got “hole,” or “whole” — that’s good: you know, “the whole soul.” But the other rhymes are unusable, there are only two or three. “Dover sole” [laughs] — I mean, what can you do? …
EMMANUEL: When were you at Purdue University?
RUSSELL: It must have been in 1977.
FRISARDI: What did you teach there?
RUSSELL: Creative writing. I liked the black kids very much, because they used to write these stories, in their own language. The white kids would say, “But he can’t even write English.” I said, “But he does. He writes Black American English.” That’s good. It’s the most living language in the United States. When I was in New York for a whole year, I used to spend every evening, or almost every evening, in the black bars on the Upper West Side. Those people, I mean, they used to be very hostile when I entered. I just politely asked for whatever I wanted. Somebody would come up to me and say, “Why’re you here?” And I said, “Well, I like these places, I like your people. I’m an Englishman.” “Oh, you’re English, you’re not American.”
EMMANUEL: They liked you then?
RUSSELL: I got on marvelously with those people. So much humor, such rich language — oh, wonderful. Not many very good poets. What was the old man’s name?
FRISARDI: Hughes? Langston Hughes?
RUSSELL: Langston Hughes, yes. What a dear man. I adored him. I never met Richard Wright. Interesting man, but a bit too political for me.
FRISARDI: When did you know Langston Hughes?
It would have been in ’66. I spent late ’66 and the first half of ’67 entirely in New York. I had a bit of money. The Washington Square Press gave me a 3,000-buck advance for a translation of the complete poems of Mandelstam. Of course they’re all lost now; they were all burnt in that fire. For reasons of copyright, they turned down the book; they couldn’t print it. Political correctness. There was no copyright. In the meantime, a gang of crooks at Texas spread the rumor around that my translations were inaccurate. Which was absolutely untrue, because the one thing I really went for was verbal accuracy. I was learning Russian at the same time I was translating Mandelstam. Lydia [Pasternak, Boris’s sister] lived in Oxford, and I met her when she was reading a new batch of poems by her brother, in some organization in Bayswater, and I went along. I took a week after that absolutely ransacking the grammars of Russian. And within a week of starting Russian, I started translating Mandelstam. Obviously I had great difficulty at the beginning, because I didn’t know the internal connections of words and so on. But I did some what I think quite good translations. I started out with rhyme and meter, and [a man who] was then running a review called … something in Montreal, I can’t remember, he wrote to me — this would be 1957 — “Peter, you just can’t do translations into rhyme and meter. It’s ridiculous.” Of course the exact opposite of what I think today. Unfortunately I listened to him. And I did them into, in effect, free verse. Very natural, but without rhyme. And Russian poetry without rhyme isn’t Russian poetry. Apart, from, say, Mayakovsky, who had a genius for other things. At any rate, I then translated everything that was known, everything of poetry that was known of Mandelstam. And I got to know quite a lot of Russian — of course I wasn’t an expert; you’d need a five-year course to be an expert. I just did it on the side. I was a busy bookseller. Ten hours a day in the shop, a few hours a day with my family, my young son, my wife then, digging the garden, coping with all the domestic problems. You know how it is. Then when I came to Italy, I did a great many more. And as I say, Washington Square Press gave me this big advance, $3,000 — Robert Paine was at the back of it. I haven’t heard from Robert for about 20 years; I presume he’s just died. He looked like he was going to die when I last saw him. Dear, sweet man. I think he had a terrible pasty face, and a tremore, you know. And I thought, well, dear Robert, you’re not going to last long. Then, as I say, they never published the book, they never sent my manuscript back. Of course, I had copies. Because these people at Texas university wanted their own translations to go in. And in the end, you know, Penguin Books took up … William … what’s his name? William … An American poet. A very well-known poet, very good poet too. He’s done a lot of translations from Spanish. I think he does know Spanish, but he certainly don’t know Russian. He, with the help of a prof at Princeton, did an edition of Mandelstam for Penguin, which is, you might say, the standard Mandelstam today.
Was it Merwin?
Merwin, yes. W. S. Merwin. Now I met W. S. Merwin when he was just starting. Must have been ’53, ’54. Very nice man, you know. I liked him very much. But we’ve lost contact. He hasn’t answered letters, which is not very nice. But he’s a good poet.
You said on the phone last night that you didn’t really like [Eugenio] Montale, that you thought Montale was just too pessimistic. But I think that a book like La bufera [The Storm] is not just pessimistic.
You think it’s okay? I find, even his earlier work, which everybody says is better than his later work, I find it sort of hopelessly negative. I mean, okay, he had a wonderful sense of the balance of consonants and vowels, syllables, and meter, and so on. It is free verse, but it’s free verse which is really strict. It’s almost Parnassian. But it’s so totally negative. Nothing works in his world. And he was like that as a person — he never had a good word to say for anybody, unless it was to his advantage to write it in the Corriere della Sera. Montale was a great disappointment to me. I read Montale first when I came to Italy in ’47, and I was impressed by his tremendous control of rhythm. And I wasn’t that much put off by the pessimism at that phase. A young fellow — I was, what? 26, 27 — is easily duped by a big reputation. I thought, “Well, I ought to like Montale, so I will like Montale.” Not entirely honest. Rereading him recently …
Which one? His first book?
I’ve read everything up to the end of La bufera. I’ve got to read Satura and the late ones.
So you thought La bufera is also very negative?
Because I thought that with the two muse figures, Clizia and La Volpe, there’s a beautiful remaking of the dolce stil novo [Dante’s and other Tuscan poets’ “sweet new style”] conceits.
Really? Maybe you’re right. Maybe it was just my mood in Sicily this summer.
What did Pound think of Montale?
He never mentioned Montale. Montale never spoke to Pound. I remember, about a year before Pound’s death, they were on the same platform, at the Fondazione Cini; it’s the most important platform in Venezia. They didn’t speak to each other. Montale — being the great anti-fascist — wouldn’t speak to the old man. Disgusting; absolutely disgusting. Because Pound was very open to everybody — left, right, center … There is this brilliant lady from the University of Genoa who has written two very long, extremely brilliant essays on my sonnets. What is very interesting is she points out that Peter Russell is known as the student of Pound and has totally rejected Pound’s views on the sonnet.
I remember reading somewhere that you found in Petrarch the complex syntax and rhetoric that Pound didn’t like.
You see, Pound, who had a marvelous sense of all literature, was still a child of his own time — the pre-war period. He was formed between, say, 1902 and 1912. And he wanted to be with the times, he wanted to be an avant-gardiste.
He was reacting against the excesses of Victorian poetry.
Oh, absolutely! He was right, he was right. I mean, you take Pound on Milton. Pound dismissed Milton. Eliot, following him, dismisses Milton.
And Shelley. They hated Shelley.
Yes, they were children of their time — in a bad sense. Eliot and Pound had certain good reasons to warn us against Miltonianism. Now, we need somebody to encourage people to write like Milton. Both of them will be right. That is, in 1912, it was wise to advise young poets to avoid writing like Milton. Now, I think, we need to advise young poets to write like Milton.
[Various random comments. Then Russell talks about a poem he’s working on, his process of working on it.]
I’m never in a hurry to write a poem. I start off maybe with only two words. You take that idea of “fickle imagination” — where am I going to go from there? Am I going to be in favor of imagination or against imagination? Of course, I’m going to be both. I’m in no hurry. I’m going to read some more Góngora, some more Ernst Jünger … You’ve got to look up Ernst Jünger.
EMMANUEL: What did he say?
RUSSELL: Well, he was a man who traveled around, virtually everywhere. He’d stay in a particular place for six months, a year. He seemed to know every leaf of every plant, every insect, every bird, everything, all the different types of people, the bartenders, and the local people. He really got himself right into life, and he wrote perhaps 100 books. I’m reading them all in Italian, because I don’t know who publishes them in English. I can read them in German but it slows me down, you know. I read German about one-fifth the speed that I can read Italian, one-10th of the speed that I read English. But then the translations have got to be good. And there’s this article by him — I forget which collection it’s in but it’s in one of his major books — on the relations and the nature of consonants and vowels. He takes off from Jacob Grimm. Grimm, of course, is the great source of all our knowledge of language. If you want to know about language, you’ve got to read the five huge volumes of Jacob Grimm. His brother Wilhelm also wrote really wonderful things, but Jacob, I think, was really the seminal man. Like the two Schlegel brothers. You know, you have to read all of Schlegel, two of them. Those German Romantics were just fantastic. Novalis, I think, I mean, Novalis died at 25 years old [actually 28]. The profundity of that young man. I mean, Keats fades into nothing beside Novalis. I read all these great German Romantics when I was a kid at school. When I was studying biology and chemistry as a kid at school, high school, it was absolutely necessary to learn German, to read the best texts on those subjects. I went out to Germany in ’39, June till September ’39. I stayed with a wonderful family, a dear old professor of history at the University of Heidelberg. Poor old chap, not being a member of the Nazi Party, was finding it very difficult to be accepted. He had three young children growing up, who were all passionate Nazis, and he took paying guests. Well, I found this man through some agency in London, and I went out and stayed with him at some ludicrously small amount per month. And the old boy took to me, he took me around, he was indefatigable. He walked me round all Heidelberg, up the Neckar River. And, to all the … you know, the festival of course with plays by all the great German dramatists — Goethe, Schiller. He taught me so much, and he introduced me to the German lyric poets. I read Goethe, Hölderlin, Novalis, all of them. Marvelous. I had with me the Oxford Book of German Verse, which was not bad, it was a good selection, but of course he introduced me to a lot more.
FRISARDI: Peter, in your lectures Dante and Islam you say how Dante, even though he learned so much from Islam, kept a provincial attitude toward it, and had a kind of bigotry toward Islam which was characteristic of the time. But why did he do that, when he took so much and he learned so much from these great [Muslim] writers?
Well, I think he was of his own time. If I cast out whoever our enemies are now, we reject everything that they have. And he was the same. He put Muhammad in hell, Ali in hell.
He puts them with the schismatics.
Yes. And we haven’t gotten beyond them in our own time, 600 years after Dante. What can you do? Dante wasn’t perfect; he was a child of his own time. And there’s no doubt whatever Dante had known very many people who knew the Middle East and the Arab world, the Persian world, extremely well. Templars and other people who would come back after 30 years of living there, after they’d married Arab wives or Persian wives. In that age, when there weren’t manuscripts and printed books of everything, people recited hundreds of lines from, let’s say, the Arab or Persian poets, translated into Italian. I don’t say Dante knew Arabic, because I don’t believe so. But he must have known many Arabs or Persians who recited these things for him in Italian or Latin, and of course being the great genius that he was he picked up the whole idea. He probably never heard of Ibn ‘Arabi, but he knew the whole of Ibn ‘Arabi.
I wonder why, in the modern West, there is there such a resistance to ecstatic spiritual poetry, unlike, say, in earlier times? The ecstatic spirituality that comes through Dante and the dolce stil novo poets, or the Sufi poets.
You see, I would put it this way. Until the beginnings of the so-called Renaissance, there was no real difference between Orient and Occident. From the beginnings of the Renaissance, the myth of the “mysterious Orient” begins: the Oriental whose mind you can’t understand. Absolute nonsense. Indians, Mussulmani [Muslims], Buddhists, Taoists — absolutely rational sensible people, that we can understand if we want to. I was there as a young man. I spent time in India, Malaya, with the Chinese of course — the Chinese are dominant in Malaya — Thailand, the south of China, and had many, many contacts with the Japanese. At the end of the war, we had about 20 Japanese officers, who were our prisoners, and I’d say we treated them very well. Officially we had to keep them segregated. In fact, of course, we chatted with them. Most of them spoke very good Burmese. I didn’t understand Japanese, but because they’d been there in Burma for three years, they spoke quite good Burmese, and I spoke absolutely fluent Burmese. We could communicate. And they introduced me to all the major Japanese ideas … And I got all sorts of ideas out of them. Wonderful things.
I believe that our society is a spiritual wasteland and that the arts can do something about that.
It’s the big problem of today. Essential. You see, each of us, we have to do our own little thing towards this big objective. Each individual has to do some small thing towards it. When it’s all added up, the serious individuals will have contributed an enormous amount to a higher view of what we humans need.
EMMANUEL: Peter, what’s the small thing that you think you have to act against? The materialism?
RUSSELL: Well, materialism, but there’s indifferentismo. You see, most people are quite content to pass their lives being amused by television: birth, television, death. Then there’s a higher life, which is based on what we vaguely call the soul. The soul is full of completely contradictory things. All the different emotions, and ideas, and reasons. And then there’s the spirit, which is completely free from the ego or io [“I”]. It’s really the mind of God, the Divine Mind.
FRISARDI: What kind of change would be most needed for a renaissance in poetry and culture?
A new poetry has got to come absolutely spontaneously. No theory. It’s no good reading the fucking — excellent — Enciclopedia di Princeton. [Points to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, on shelf next to table.] It’s got to come from the heart, from the balls, from the toes — from every part of our body. I have no program for the future of poetry, because I believe it will come out of a new … a new … I’m trying to find a good word. A new attitude.
Yeah, an awakening. A renaissance. But, you see, a renaissance is not going to be an academic program, which says, “The old renaissance was like this, the new renaissance is going to be like this.” It’s just going to come out of absolute spontaneity. It may come out of some housewife — who knows? from West Lafayette, the worst place ever — who has a wonderful vision of the possibilities and writes it.
Andrew Frisardi’s most recent books, both published in 2020, are a poetry collection, The Harvest and the Lamp (Franciscan UP), and a prose book, Love’s Scribe: Reading Dante in the Book of Creation (Angelico Press).