Trying Ezra Pound (Part I)

Ezra Pound died in 1972 when I was in college studying (if that’s the word for anything I did in 1972) literature. Pound was admired then, a cool avant-garde cat in the rebellious anti-traditionalist 1960’s, a voice more oblique than Dylan’s, a thinker and a theorist who overthrew the past and did away with the oppressive rules of poetic rhyme and meter, who somehow survived the heavy boot of the American Department of Justice and got out of prison. He was beloved by two heavies of the era, the poets Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson, the former a major cultural and literary presence and the latter an important influencer in academia.

I bought a used copy of Pound’s Selected Poems published by New Directions. I started to read and immediately had no idea what he was writing about. Nor could I possibly know why these poems mattered, how they mapped on poetry’s landscape.

Nor did I know exactly why he had been imprisoned. Wasn’t he, like, an anti-war protester? The word “traitor” was mentioned, but on college campuses, who wasn’t a “traitor” in the heady days of the late 60’s – early 70’s? Weren’t we all outlaws in the eyes of America?

So I didn’t really know who Ezra Pound was. Ah, but I found out. It didn’t take long.

Fast forward to dinner recently with my cousins Norman and Patricia, where the discussion landed on Pound, not to praise him but to bury him. Notwithstanding his outsize influence in poetry and culture in the 20th century, my cousins and I just couldn’t abide his rabid, fascist, anti-Semitic, Mussolini-adoring radio broadcasts in Italy between 1943 and 1945. Ezra Pound defiled his own name and reputation, and, damn, it’s hard to get that fascist stink out.

Yes, he deserves a salute for his early role as a fierce modernist poet rebelling against the tired Victorian parlor poetry he disdained, as a publisher and influencer of the new era’s best poets and artists, and as a patron of new ideas and forms of expression blowing through the early 20th century. He revitalized the use of imagery in poetry. His influence cannot be understated.

And I grudgingly admit that I like some of the poetry he wrote in his apolitical younger years. Consider, for example, the very non-modernist Erat Hora, the arrogant A Pact, or the medieval parody Ancient Music. But his master achievement, the Cantos, always made me feel the sharp smack of haughty erudition across my face. This is an exercise in obscurantism, self-indulgence, and over-educated allusion for the creme de la cognoscenti, for the literary aristocracy. The masses be damned.

Except for several years before and during World War II when he was busy scripting fascist propaganda for his own broadcast in Italy, Pound worked on his 117-section, 800-page Modernist opus throughout his life. It was to be “a poem containing history.” Into it he poured everything he knew, his theories of poetry and art, epochs of American, European, and Chinese history, economics, governance, his knowledge of languages and his ear for dialects, and eventually his obsession with the corrupt international financial activities of powerful usurers and capitalists – cue, the Jews.

And so, over the years, I’ve read selected poems in the Cantos, but I will never make a study of them. They offer me no joy, no delight, no illumination, no emotion. They are impenetrable. There are flashes of beauty in sound or image, but the whole package feels uninviting, hard, arrogant, even angry. I try to read a few pages, then I must stop. I’m bored, I’m confused, I’m uneasy, I need a friendly guide in a hostile land. I feel like a petty middle brow. An uneducated low brow. Or perhaps a despised Jew.

The Cantos are, and cannot help but be, informed and infected by the contemptuous imperial thinking that led Pound down the primrose path to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington, D.C. The same interests and obsessions that he set down in the Cantos flowed into his hateful and nearly-incoherent radio broadcasts – history, economics, governance, finance, and, constantly, constantly, constantly – the Jews. The difficult though sometimes lovely poetry of the Cantos is Dr. Jekyll, while the difficult and vicious rhetoric of the broadcasts is Mr. Hyde. They have the same genetic code.

Naturally, this raises the perpetual question about whether one can appreciate the art while scorning the artist. As Flaubert noted, the artist like God is everywhere present but nowhere visible in the artistic creation. From Pound’s brilliant chaotic skull emerged the Cantos and the radio broadcasts like doppelgängers. Flip sides of the same Roman coin.

Reading Pound is not the same as reading T. S. Eliot with his casual anti-Semitism or knowing that Wallace Stevens was a Hoover Republican who, for a short while at least (according to his biographer, Paul Mariani), admired Mussolini. It is fascinating and dispiriting to find anti-Semitism or political illiberalism in the lives of so many great Modernist poets. T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings, Wallace Stevens – they all reflected to greater or lesser degrees the noxious attitudes of their time. But in their art they (mostly) transcended the meanness within. None fed the world’s flames in the incendiary manner of Ezra Pound.

Did Pound’s fascist and anti-Semitic views directly infest his poetry? Many scholars think so, and they often point to the long-suppressed Cantos 72 and 73. But I don’t feel the need to examine the question by searching canto by canto. Pound’s erudite elitism alone is too undemocratic for my tastes. Not every poet wants to hold hands with Whitman, this I understand. But holding hands with Mussolini? (Pound was disgusted with Whitman but made a bitter peace with him. Of Whitman, he said, “He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission.”)

I know the Cantos are greatly admired, influential (“the ground for me to occupy, to walk on,” Allen Ginsberg said), and an important part of poetry’s history. And while the verses do not serve the propagandistic purposes of, say, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, they are imbued with the sulfurous odor of mid-century European fascism. There’s no good prosody for that.


For his war time activities, Pound might well have been convicted of treason and imprisoned, if not outright executed. The legal case against him on the merits was overwhelming, and more than a few other Americans were convicted of treason for similar propaganda efforts. Several times a week for three years, Pound broadcast his views that Americans were being vilely misled by their president “Franklin D. Frankfurter Jewsfeld,” that England was “Jew-ruined,” that France was “wrecked under yid control.” How poetic. (Here’s a transcript of one of Pound’s speeches in 1942.)

Indeed, Pound’s fascination with Mussolini began in the 1920’s, and his conversion to Italian Fascism was complete no later than January 1933 when he had a personal meeting with Mussolini himself. He gave Il Duce a draft of his cantos, which the dictator read and remarked, “How amusing.” High praise. Pound’s fascination, faith and infatuation with the fascist program never wavered after that.

Through the 1930’s Pound was just a crazed ex-pat, arguing for U.S. isolationism and the advance of grand fascist ideas and worrying his literary friends. But it was his broadcasts during the war itself that led to charges against him of treason. Upon his capture in Italy and extradition to the U.S., the preliminary question of his competence to stand trial was put to a jury in Washington D.C., and he was found to be mentally unfit for trial. Exactly when his clinical madness overwhelmed his reason was never determined, and there was to be no ultimate finding that Pound was a traitor who used his heightened powers of expression to undermine the war effort against Hitler and Mussolini. No, he was merely too insane stand trial.

Nonsense. He was no more clinically insane than any other anti-Semitic fascist (then or now). Nor was he any more clinically insane than any other mad literary genius, like the beautiful visionary William Blake or the bipolar, monstrous Robert Lowell. In 1946 he became a patient, and though involuntarily committed he was never a convicted prisoner.

And he was never too insane to continue work on his opus, the Cantos, although this soon presented a problem for him. No less an authority than the US Attorney General began asking why Pound, who was writing brilliant poetry and receiving important literary figures, was too crazy to stand trial for treason. The poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald visited Pound to get assistance in his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, but soon questioned the type of man he was colluding with. He wrote to Pound, “You… chose to plead insanity rather than stand up to trial. If there was something you wanted to fight for aside from yourself you could have fought for it then.” Fitzgerald concludes that, if Pound was not insane – and his continued work on the Cantos and availability to other poets suggested he was not – then “you were craven not to stand trial on your indictment.” Pound, it seems, was a very un-Homeric coward.

He was finally “cured” of his madness in 1958 when the Justice Department dropped its charges and released him from the bughouse. Back to Italy he went where, as he stepped off the boat onto Italian soil, he gave a grand old fascist salute.

Does this man look insane?

Pound’s Peers

Some of the pilgrims who visited Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital include poets whose works and lives I greatly admire, such as Elizabeth Bishop and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg not only visited the impounded Pound but forgave him for his virulent excesses during the war. Luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and Archibald MacLeish visited and took steps to assist Pound in securing his freedom and achieving literary recognition. Thus, even as incarcerated LGBTQ patients were being treated to electro-shock treatments and lobotomies at St. Elizabeths during Pound’s stay, Pound himself was working on his magnum opus.

A free man in Portofino, Italy – September 1967

Indeed, in what became a major literary scandal, the incarcerated Pound won the esteemed (and first) Bollingen Prize in 1949 for his Pisan Cantos. Winning the Library of Congress’s new award is a story unto itself. Suffice to say, it set off a war among the denizens of high culture and created an enormous political backlash that reached the halls of Congress.

Ironically, the Pisan Cantos edged out Paterson, William Carlos Williams’ all-American paean written in an all-American idiom to a hard-bitten all-American town. But poetic justice never rests. In 1972, a panel of distinguished intellectuals recommended Pound for the Emerson-Thoreau Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Academy’s governing council, however, rejected the recommendation on “moral grounds,” igniting a new firestorm. Among the objectors was Jean Mayer, the French-American scientist and expert on world hunger who won 14 military medals for his work in the war-time French Resistance. Mayer noted that people “as creative as [Pound] were being gassed and put to death by his friends.” And then again, in 1999, a panel of esteemed writers recommended that Pound be granted a place of honor in the Poets’ Corner in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. Pound, who said on the air during the war that “I think it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred thousand yidds,” was denied that American place of honor.)

Pound has always had his supporters and apologists. He was naive, they say. He was crazy. He wasn’t a serious fascist, and his ravings were incoherent and ineffective. He didn’t hate ordinary Jews, only a handful of rich Jewish international financiers. He himself described his anti-Semitism as “a stupid, suburban prejudice.” His poetry must not be read in an autobiographical or historic context (per the New Critics of the 1950’s) but is autonomous and stands on its own. (How perfectly convenient that the New Criticism enabled such a non-contextual reading of Pound.) Or conversely, Pound’s shortcomings must be understood within the full dimensions of his literary greatness. A great poet like Pound cannot be judged by mere human standards. He’s just too damned important to ignore.

Preserving Pound’s artistic legacy was the goal, I assume. But that legacy is not his only legacy. The other, less rarefied legacy persists today in Italy, where neo-fascists continue to celebrate the grand glory of Pound’s political vision. Indeed, his very name has been appropriated by one influential group of modern-day fascists – Casa Pound, the House of Ezra Pound.

Viva il duce-poeta!

Pound’s Betters

It is not hard to find forceful anti-fascist activism among Pound’s literary comrades and contemporaries.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was no poetic comrade of Pound’s but she was his contemporary. She eschewed his modernist manifestoes in favor of more traditional poetics, writing with stunning beauty about universal themes unfolding in the lives of real people – love, heartache, grief, sex, nature, loss, aging. In the 1920’s and 30’s, with High Modernism at the zenith of experiment in free verse, she appropriated traditional poetic forms and tropes to express a radically new and freer way of living, particularly for women. She fought oppressive social structures in how she lived rather than in the style of her verse. And, while the modernists disdained Millay for her ardent feminism and classical verse forms, she was so well-received by the common reader that, at a poetry reading in the 1920’s, she filled the Hollywood Bowl in LA three nights in a row.

An avowed pacifist during the First World War, she was clear-eyed about the dangers of totalitarianism that came unleashed on the European continent in the 1930’s and, when war exploded in Europe (and then globally), she spoke out against isolationism and put her fame and her voice to work for the Allied cause. As Pound busily wrote and broadcast hundreds of venomous screeds denouncing America, FDR, and Jews, Millay wrote and published propagandistic verse to shore up Allied morale. And authorized proceeds of sale to go to the Red Cross.

She wrote the poems in her 1941 book “Make Bright the Arrows” in “furious haste” and knew they were “faulty and unpolished,” but she explained that she had “one thing to give in the service of my country — my reputation as a poet.” (Letter to Charlotte Sills, 1/2/41.) She knew there would be those who would “never forgive me for writing” the poems. She was right. The critical response to “Make Bright the Arrows” was often withering, and her reputation as a poet suffered among the literary elite who, by the end of the same decade, would award Pound the prestigious Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos.

William Carlos Williams was Pound’s pal in the earliest days of Modernism and remained a friend and rival over the decades. No less a warrior than Pound in the Modernist goal of deposing poetry’s ancien regime, Williams did not lose his head in the political turmoil of the 1930’s and 1940’s. He condemned racist and anti-Semitic ideologies and was contemptuous of “the murderous gangs [Pound] says he’s for.”

Moreover, unlike Pound’s multi-lingual internationalist poetry, Williams was always in the American Grain, seeking to create an American poetic idiom from the material of American life. While his poetry is often not an easy read, it retains a familiar, colloquial style that invites the common reader in. I always like reading Williams, even as I wander around his Paterson, lost and confused. Williams had a real life outside his own mind. He was a doctor, he helped living people, he delivered more than 3,000 babies. “Williams was in touch with human feelings,” Pound told Ginsberg in a late-life moment of self-disgust. A defeated Pound ruefully recognized that Williams’ basic humanity and decency was reflected in his art, qualities lacking in Pound’s own work.

Ernest Hemingway was the beneficiary of Pound’s artistic guidance, encouragement, and sponsorship. It was Pound who told the younger Hemingway in the 1920’s to strip the adjectives (and any other unnecessary words) from his writing. He provided invaluable criticism and friendship, and made Hemingway’s early work tighter and sharper. Pound’s literary influence on Hemingway ran deep. (A good account of his influence can be found here, if you have a JSTOR account.) But Hemingway had no trouble seeing that his friend and mentor was starting to go off the rails in the 1930’s and acted disgracefully and despicably during the war. “It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast,” Hemingway wrote to Archibald MacLeish, and “his friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing [sic] and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis.” Hemingway remained loyal to Pound and assisted in springing him from St. Elizabeths for repatriation in Italy.

During the war, Hemingway and Pound were in a real sense war-time enemies. While Pound wildly railed against the Allies, FDR, the Jews, and those who resisted fascist glory, Hemingway was a war correspondent who repeatedly crossed over into military action on the battlefield, who provided advice to and then commandeered Free French partisans, and who claimed to have directly killed many German combatants. If there was some Hemingway-esque bluster in this, his activities were sufficient to warrant a summons from the Inspector General, Third Army to sort out his extra-journalistic activities. Hemingway had prior military experience in World War I and in the Spanish Civil War (fighting the Franco fascists), he knew Paris and the terrain of France, he was fluent in French, and he was a valuable asset to the war effort. In fighting against Nazism and fascism, Hemingway faced not only mortal danger but the danger of violating the Geneva Convention by removing his journalist’s badge and entering into battle. Unlike his mentor, he was not brought up on charges. He would have been, if Pound’s side had prevailed.

Pound into the Ground

Ezra Pound died in 1972, a broken man, living his final years in silence and misery, believing he had not accomplished his mission to create a poetic masterwork. His other mission – to see fascist order and glory restored in Europe – had also failed, ending with Mussolini ingloriously hanging from his heels in Milan after his arrest by Italian anti-fascists in the final days of the war.

I’ve had a terrible thought: what would have happened to Pound’s legacy had he met the same fate as Mussolini when he was arrested by Italian partisans in May 1945? (The partisans released him for “possessing no interest“, but he was subsequently seized by American forces.) His acolytes and admirers would have grieved his tragic death and lamented the loss of his future poetic contributions (and perhaps his repentance). The acclaimed Pisan Cantos would not exist, but neither would the disreputable Cantos 72 and 73. On the other hand, Pound’s legendary role in shaping literature in the 20th century was already completed, and his demise would not have diminished that. St. Elizabeths would not have had its most illustrious inmate, and there would have been no line of visitors at the door, bringing tea and sympathy.

Perhaps Allen Ginsberg would have forgiven him post mortem. Or perhaps not. Poets would have grappled with the ghost of Pound, but the great moral dilemma, the handwringing over what to do with the living unrepentant mad genius would have been answered. The man would have met the rough justice delivered by partisans throughout France and Italy (but not, of course, in Spain where the fascists had murdered Federico Garcia Lorca and the Spanish Republic itself). Twelve years in the asylum would not have become a symbol for a vengeful American patriotism crushing the spirit of a great artist. Any martyrdom owing to Pound would have been as a brilliant fascist thinker killed by blood-thirsty Italian Communists. As Europe’s old fascist impulses re-ignite in our own historical moment, “Casa Pound” might be named after World War II’s murdered fascist poet.

But I am getting dark.

Pound Cake

Let me get back to dinner with Norman and Patricia. Our main course was a platter of disdain for Pound the man, not the poet. Then it was time for dessert. Norman paused and recalled an early short poem by Pound that he had memorized a long time ago:

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the court-yard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

Suddenly I was in a mental crisis. This is a beautiful poem, centuries old in its original Chinese. Entitled Liu Ch’e, Pound translated and published it in 1915 in his book of translated Chinese poems entitled “Cathay.”

I am going to conclude this diatribe right here. I will wash the bitterness of Pound from my tongue before moving on to the delicious pound cake that is Liu Ch’e.

Next week I am going to post a follow-up, looking at Liu Ch’e in a way that would satisfy the long-gone New Critics, looking only at the words on the page, the images as they unfold in my mind as a reader.

And we will try, you the reader and I, to forget for the moment about the horrible half of the great poetic mind that brought forth those ancient silken images so long ago.


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