EIGHTEEN The Finality of Holes

If you like photography and/or poetry, this post might upset you. You will know many of the photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in the depression years: most famously, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother – a pea picker sitting in a tent with her children (an image that Lange later doctored because the thumb was not quite right). But you can’t know all of the FSA’s images – partly because there were 277,000 of them in total and partly because around 100,000 were trashed: innumerable rolls of film were simply thrown away and individual images that offended had holes punched in them – like this 1936 photograph of North Carolina toddlers by Carl Mygans:

Homesteaders’ children North Carolina (Carl Mygans1936)
Library of Congress Control Number -2017716041

Or this stunning, layered composition by Arthur Rothenstein capturing a the little girl who, for a moment as she stares into the lens, exists outside the poverty of her family:

Arkansas sharecroppers (Arthur Rothenstein 1935)
Library of Congress Control Number 2017720766

The villain of the piece was Roy Stryker, who ran the FSA project. He knew what he wanted and briefed his photographers on their task – destroying their work where they failed or where there was, in his opinion, a shot better suited to his purposes. [1]

Another important piece of art that had holes punched in it was T S Eliot’s The Waste Land.

M/S page of The Waste Land with Ezra Pound’s emendations
(from Valerie Eliot’s 1971 facsimile edition)

The hole puncher was Ezra Pound to whom Eliot gave his manuscript for comment. The scan above shows the Poundian hole punching – actually more deforestation – in all he cut down The Waste Land by half.

There are reasons why Eliot sought this intervention. Pound had all along been a particularly staunch supporter and advocate. Pound was not just a pioneer of modernism – he was significant in identifying early and promoting the careers of many modernist writers – James Joyce, Eliot himself as well as Wyndham Lewis and even Ernest Hemingway.

And Eliot had a genuine feeling for Pound’s significance. Even after Pound’s support for Italian fascism and his subsequent incarceration in a cage out in the open (somewhat like Isabella MacDuff, seven centuries before, who was hung in a cage over the gate of Berwick on Tweed for supporting, indeed crowning , Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland) Eliot fought against high profile opposition to have Pound’s returned to literary acceptability: Arthur Miller, for one, set his cap against “the Mussolini mouthpiece” being “welcomed back as an arbiter of American letters”.

“The Mussolini Mouthpiece” at the time of his caging and before committal to an asylum for the insane – where he remained for twelve years

When Eliot handed over the manuscript, he was at a low ebb mentally (newly returned from a sanatorium in Switzerland) and may have wanted reassurance from the man who had done so much to push forward his career. In an article that won Duke University’s Prize in Literary Criticism in 1988, Wayne Koestenbaum suggests an interesting motivation. He argues that the mental illness that took Eliot to the clinic in Lausanne was actually “hysteria” in the Freudian sense. The manuscript of The Waste Land is therefore an ” hysterical discourse -a ‘private theater’ of fantasy like {Freud’s patient} Anna O.’s” and therefore written in female language. Koestebaum argues that Pound’s role was akin to that of a psychologist and his intervention and collaboration with Eliot converted “the female text into an object within a homosocial economy …. Pound fathered, husbanded, and procured Eliot’s feminine Waste Land, and marked it as male”. [2]

Or as James Joyce put it, The Waste Land “ended the idea of poetry for ladies”.

Then there was Pound’s charisma, a characteristic singularly lacking in the shy Eliot. A senior-ish statesman, in the 1910s and 1920s, Pound flew high in London and Parisian modernist circles. It is easy to think that he modelled his style on Oscar Wilde: Ford Madox Ford recalled his appearance at the Cafe Royal in “trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring”.

Ezra Pound (E O Hoppe painting 1918)

Eliot admired Pound’s intellect and also his professional skills: in the dedication to The Waste Land, he acknowledged Pound as Il Miglior Fabbro, “the better craftsman”. This is the accepted translation of a phrase from Dante – but it is wrong to take the word “craftsman” (or “smith”) in today’s somewhat plodding, artisanal sense. Dante himself was paying tribute to one of his own heroes, Arnaut Daniel, a twelfth century Provencal troubadour admired by Petrarch and acknowledged by Dante as his inspiration. Arnaut Daniel had a huge influence also on the poetry of Pound and Eliot. Pound brought Daniel to public attention through his transliterations and through his lectures. One of these lectures was titled “Il Miglior Fabbro“: clearly for Eliot, Pound stood on the same high pedestal where Dante had placed Arnaut Daniel.

Interestingly, Pound’s edit of The Waste Land may well have reflected the approach that he took in transliterating Arnaut Daniel’s poems – where he asserted that “a translator must choose what elements of an original poem to sacrifice in order to preserve its essential qualities”.

Given Eliot’s high opinion of his fellow American, his deferential collaboration is understandable. But whether Eliot was correct in his estimation seems, in the eyes of the literary establishment, a matter for debate. F. R. Leavis thought Hugh Selwyn Mauberley “great poetry, at once traditional and original. Mr. Pound’s standing as a poet rests on it, and rests securely”. Ernest Hemingway wrote that Pound “writes a large and distinguished share of the really great poetry that has been written by any American living or dead—or any Englishman living or dead or any Irishman who ever wrote English.” But to Wyndham Lewis, Pound was simply a “revolutionary simpleton,” a propagandist, an “impresario” – and, worse, a “parasite,” albeit a “great intellectual” one.

For one modern day critic, the release of Pound’s letter has shows him as “dedicated to the creation of ideal conditions for work – mostly the work of others”. He kept up an extraordinary correspondence – sometimes 40 letters a day – a frenzy from which “a singular truth is emerging: Pound, like Samuel Johnson, put talent into his work, genius into his life …. he was a one-man renaissance, commissioning, goading, visiting, commanding, berating, advertising, publicizing – and writing letters” [3].

But whatever the height of Pound’s pedestal, the holes he punched in Eliot’s manuscript – and those punched by Eliot under Pound’s influence – did produce a poem leading to the Nobel Prize for Literature. As Eliot enjoyed his triumph in Stockholm, his mentor could only gaze out through the bars of the mental asylum where he would remain for another ten years.

If the Pound/Eliot collaboration was all that we could know about The Waste Land, it would be regrettable. Books and essays can be edited: the artistic integrity of creation at length can generally survive emendation. But with a poem, even one of the length of The Waste Land, ever word is critical and should be the responsibility of the poet: emendation on the scale of The Waste Land is composition by committee. But Eliot’s solitary voice can still be found: Valerie Eliot has published a facsimile of the manuscript that Pound worked on. And Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue have assembled a 678 line “editorial composite” of The Waste Land that shows the possibilities existing within Eliot’s single mind.

Notes and Links

The Kept and the Killed Erica X Eisen (January 26, 2022 The Public Domain Review) – click here for the full article [1]

The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s Collaboration on Hysteria (Winner of the 1988 TCL Prize in Literary Criticism) by Wayne Koestenbaum (Twentieth Century Literature , Summer, 1988, Vol. 34, No. 2 pp. 113-139. Duke University Press) [2]

Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis ed. Timothy Materer (reviewed by Roger Lewis in The New England Quarterly , Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), pp. 607-614) [3]

The Waste Land edited by Nick Selby p. 39 (Icon Critical Guides)

Ezra Pound The Spirit of Romance (1910) (via

Ezra Pound’s “Map” of Arnault Daniel Mark I. Smith-Soto (The Comparatist Vol. 8, May, 1984, pp. 14-20. University of North Carolina Press)

The Waste Land – a facsimile and transcript edited by Valerie Eliot (1971 Faber)

The Poems of T S Eliot (two volumes) edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Faber)

Ezra Pound – the 1959 BBC interview –

Melvyn Bragg film of The Waste Land with biographer Peter Ackroyd –