Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The headline as modern poetry

 “Ezra Pounded By Andy Suit”
New York Times columnist Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has given that headline from the New York Post of 7 April his award as the best headline of the new year. It appeared above a story about Ezra Merkin, an associate of Bernie Madoff’s who has been charged with pocketing money he was supposed to have invested. The good professor's reasoning 
... the literal meaning is easily accessible: Ezra Merkin is being pounded by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. But the headline is a pun (obvious to some, hidden from many) on the name of a famous mid-20th- century poet, Ezra Pound.
And that’s not all. Pound is notorious for an anti-Semitism that is rooted in a hatred of usury, the practice of lending money often at unconscionable rates of interest. Usurers, Pound charged in his Canto XLV, don’t produce anything or engage in honest, redemptive work or create beauty: “With usura hath no man a house of good stone . . . no picture is made to endure nor to live with/but it is made to sell and sell quickly.” And then to sell again and again, in an endless sequence based on nothing but speculation; it is in essence a “mega-Ponzi scheme.” In usury and also in capitalism itself “corpses are set to banquet” and there is no “clear demarcation” between the real and the fictional. Things are not things, but “futures,” and derivatives and derivatives of derivatives. The practices of usury, Pound thunders, are “against nature” and make everything barren: “Usura slayeth the child in the womb.”
Are the headline writers bringing Pound in to indict the excesses of capitalism? Are they suggesting that Jews, in the person of Merkin and Madoff, are the villains? Or are Madoff and Merkin victims of the anti-Semitism Pound professed and others keep alive today? This headline keeps on giving, although exactly what it gives is a matter of debate — as is the case with all modern poetry.
So the next time you are inclined to sling off at your local tabloid, just remember Stanley Fish and the tangle of allusions that can lurk behind a simple headline.
For my part I still dip my lid to "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR: as perhaps the greatest headline of all time and I see it has been chosen by publisher HarperCollins as the title of a new book containing a selection of the best from The Post.




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