- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

A ceremony took place this past year in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine which was notable more for what was absent than what was present. On Oct. 24, the needs of politics overtook the beauty of art when a ceremony placing Ezra Pound in the Cathedral's Poet's Corner was aborted. The magnificent Cathedral is justly famed for its beauty, its commitment to liberal theology, and its belief that the arts contribute to the worship of the divinity. This is the basis of the Cathedral's angelic musical tradition. It is also reflected in the Poet's Corner. In that niche of the Episcopal sanctuary are honored Americans who have contributed the most to literature.

Luminaries such as Hart Crane, E.E. Cummings, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway and a host of others are honored in the Cathedral's Arts Bay with stones bearing their names. The long connection of Anglican Divines with art and literature is continued in Morningside Heights' magnificent sanctuary.

A writer is not inducted into this august company by ecclesiastical whim. The Academy of American Poets, which includes Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States, John Updike, and Rita Dove, National Book Award winner for poetry, must place their imprimatur on which truly great men and women of letters will be honored.

This year two new inductees were to be admitted: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. At the last minute, a letter was sent by the Very Rev. Harry S. Pritchett Jr. to the Academy stating that Pound would not be inducted. Members of the congregation had threatened a demonstration if such a ceremony were to go forward. The bishop acceded to the pressure. Pound's son, daughter, and Pound scholars planning to attend were informed of the cancellation. Daniel Hoffman, poet in residence at St. John's, sent the news that the congregation had protested the induction of Pound and that he would not be honored in the Cathedral. Fitzgerald's induction proceeded as planned.

The incident sheds a harsh light on the thrall political correctness has on the broad-minded in New York. The uproar occurred because Ezra Pound, not to put too fine a point on it, was an anti-Semite and a traitor in the service of fascism. Although a seminal figure of modern poetry, Pound created a scandal that resonates today by broadcasting for the Italian Fascists during World War II and for the anti-Semitism he espoused. After the war Pound was tried as a traitor but spent 12 years in St. Elizabeth's after being found insane. Eventually, an international outcry by intellectuals and poets lead to his release.

Traitor, anti-Semite, fascist and madman, Ezra Pound is a poster boy for bad behavior. The Episcopalians are perfectly within their rights to refuse to honor him in their own Cathedral. The initial acceptance however, up to even creating the stone for the Pound niche, followed by sudden reversal, smacks of politics rather than religious belief. Notably, there is a curious silence from the arts community at this form of "censorship." At a time when all the cognoscenti of New York are outraged at Rudy Giuliani for cutting-off funds for anti-Catholic art in a public institution, not a peep of protest has been raised against "narrow-minded" Episcopalians. The defense of Andrew Serrano and his "Piss Christ," or the more recent denigration of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung, rest on the assertion that good art must challenge our beliefs and assumptions. Any resistance to these "challenges" is rebuked as babbitry.

How odd then, that the liberal, transgressive world of high-minded artistic endeavor is not up-in-arms over St. John the Divine's decision. Pound is, by common consent, one of the greatest poets of the age. Measured by influence alone, he ranks in the top five poets of the century. He encouraged or improved the work of T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and James Joyce. The work for which he is honored is, in the main, neither fascistic nor anti-Semitic. It is Pound's political associations that are too challenging for those who normally lecture the devout to lighten-up when artists attack all that they love.

Marsha Ra, warden of the Cathedral's congregation and leader of the protest is quoted as saying Pound is "not representative of Christian values." She continued with what is normally regarded as blasphemy in the rarefied world of New York intellectuals: "The belief in art for art's sake is neither Christian nor Jewish. We are not a temple to the Muses." This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Tellingly however, when traditionalists make such points against left-wing artistic expression is the fact that they face the combined animosity of The New York Times, the wealthy art aristocracy, and the cultural elites. It is tempting to compare Pound to the others the progressive congregation honors in the Poet's Corner.

Mark Twain's writings were virulently anti-Catholic, and he was a foe of organized religion in general. Hemingway died by his own hand; a mortal sin in Christian theology. Poe was a booster of Southern slavery. Fitzgerald used anti-Semitic slurs frequently in his correspondence. T.S. Eliot held to the fashionable, upper-crust anti-Semitism of his day. Others made sport of opposing Christian moral teachings regarding sexuality.

Yet only Pound is denied a place in the Episcopal pantheon. Pound even has an excuse for his most odious actions: An American court of law found him mad. For 12 years he languished in an insane asylum. Time and again Episcopal Bishops have attempted to intercede on behalf of accused criminals because they were mentally unfit to stand trial. Evidently this mercy is only granted murderers.

When Pound was released he seemed to disavow his anti-Semitism to fellow poet Alan Ginsberg. Forgiveness upon repentance has an impressive Christian pedigree. The most interesting aspect of the whole Pound adventure is what it reveals concerning that which truly offends those making artistic choices in New York. Had Pound denounced the Catholic Church in Vietnam and justified the communist atrocities in that country, does anyone doubt that he would be in the Poet's Corner today? Pablo Neruda, a great poet and unrepentant Stalinist is the subject of fawning adulation.

Mediocrities like Maya Angelou are lauded precisely because of their left-wing views. Year after year literary prizes go to anti-Catholic crusaders. Yet the banishment of Pound goes almost unremarked. Where is The New York Times? The directors of artistic enterprises throughout New York? Had the Baptists excluded a writer of the first rank from their celebrations because of his politics the outrage in New York would not yet have subsided. Frank Rich call your office.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. The world-view preached in Morningside Heights is so indistinguishable from the prejudices of New York's secular cultural arbiters that it is immune to the cries of censorship that greet any other display of moral opprobrium towards art by the religious leaders of New York. The politicization of the art world is now so advanced that an undisputed literary heavyweight is denied a place beside his fellows because of political views which barely manifested in his art.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is an indisputable, though religious, part of this world. Still, Pound is likely to get the final world because, as he wrote, "The history of art is the history of masterwork, not of failures, or mediocrity."

John Julian Vecchione is an attorney with Ross & Hardies and a graduate of Hamilton College, which is also Ezra Pound’s alma mater.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide