Ezra Pound was one of the most original and influential poets of the 20th century. Not only did he point out new directions for poetry with his own trailblazing verse, he helped promote important modernist writers such as T S Eliot and James Joyce. Now for the bad news. By the time the second world war broke out, Pound had become a fascist sympathiser as well as an anti-semite, or someone who hated jews. He made broadcasts on Italian radio promoting fascism. Pound was arrested in 1945 for treason against his country, America. He spent over a decade in a mental hospital, discredited, yet a source of inspiration for poets everywhere, many who travelled to his hospital to speak with him.
Is it the man or his poetry or both? He supported tyrants like Mussolini and Hitler, yet wrote poetry with rare lyricism and genius. Do we dismiss the man and his poetry? Or do we try and find some redeeming quality in the man because of his poetry? Or is it wise to separate the two, study the work for what its worth and not let the man influence us?
These are the questions that students at Ethan Andrezejcak’s class in Selwyn Academy are dealing with in their English class, as their favourite teacher, the young, dorky but sensitive BradLee guides them though a selection from Pound’s epic poem cycle, The Cantos. A long poem is the voice of a tribe, BradLee tells them, it’s the spirit of a people rising against oppression and telling its truth to the ages.
Four students in this class are soon going to take this lesson to heart, becoming, as the title of this novel suggests, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. The name of the academy is a reference to a poem by Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, one of the many ways in which author Kate Hattemer makes Pound’s poetry a part of the fabric of her novel.
Selwyn Academy is a prestigious, elite school that focuses on the arts. All its students look for careers in art, literature and entertainment. There’s a whole hour every morning dedicated to students’ practice of their specialities, whether it’s music, theatre, dance or anything else. Among the students is Ethan’s best friend Luke, who is a talented writer. Ethan’s other best friend Jackson is a mathematics geek, while Jackson’s cousin Elizabeth is a talented graphic designer. Ethan thinks he is a bit of a misfit in Selwyn because he isn’t very artistic, although he is getting better at drawing. Luke is one of the coolest kids in school, so his friendship is very important to Ethan and the rest.
Then reality TV comes to Selwyn in the form of For Art’s Sake (FAS), a talent hunt which will pick the most promising students and pit them against each other in a year-long contest, much like American Idol.
Suddenly everything in Selwyn revolves around FAS and the race to the big prize – a scholarship that could help the winner get into the best college. But Luke is not happy about it – he sees this as a commercialisation of the school’s vision, with the focus shifting from serious honing of talent to the hype and glitter of showbiz.
He and his friends hatch a plan. They will use the format of a long poem to voice their dissatisfaction and fight their enemies. Luke writes verses denouncing the show, Elizabeth and Andre provide the layouts and illustrations and Jackson gets them access to the school’s printing press and the friends start anonymously distributing the verses in the form of an underground paper called the Contracantos – a response to the school’s official journal, the Selwyn Cantos.
This act of literary rebellion seems to be going well until Luke joins FAS and starts writing pro-FAS cantos. Andre and his friends are hurt and betrayed, and they start discovering that the management and even their favourite teacher, BradLee are involved in a devious plan. It seems unlikely that three misfit students can take on the forces of greed and commercialism and win, but Andre learns that at the very end of his life Pound told the poet Alan Ginsberg that he regretted his tryst with fascism and that he “should have done better”. This inspires Ethan and his friends to try to fight for the good. Will they succeed? That’s one of the many things you will learn when you read this unusual, intelligent, and entertaining novel.
Literature is not just something that is part of a book – it can be a vital part of our lives, as can honesty, bravery, friendship and understanding that people are not always who we want them to be.