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Do Politics Matter In Poetry? New Biography Explores The Case Of Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound poses in Rapallo, Italy, not long after his 1958 release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he spent 12 years.
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Ezra Pound poses in Rapallo, Italy, not long after his 1958 release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he spent 12 years.

In the winter of 1949, a group of judges — including poets T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell — met to decide the winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize for the best book of poetry published in the United States the previous year. They gave the prize to Ezra Pound for his collection The Pisan Cantos. Then all hell broke loose.

Pound wrote The Pisan Cantos while he was in a prison camp in Italy in 1945. He'd been charged with treason for making more than 200 radio broadcasts from Rome during World War II in which he voiced support for Mussolini and Hitler, and railed against a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

At his 1945 treason trial in Washington, D.C., Pound, who'd suffered a nervous breakdown, was spared the death sentence because his doctors ruled him "mentally unfit" to stand trial.

That's why, four years later, when Pound won the Bollingen Prize, he was residing at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a government facility for the mentally ill located in c. The disdainful headline about the award in The New York Times read, "Pound, In Mental Clinic, Wins Prize For Poetry Penned In Treason Cell."

Eliot and the committee defended their decision by insisting that only the "poetic achievement" mattered. Pound himself prepared a cryptic acceptance statement that read, "No comment from the bughouse."

In his provocative and wide-ranging book called The Bughouse, literary critic Daniel Swift chronicles his own investigations into the question of whether or not Pound's madness and politics matter to his poetry. Among other research adventures, Swift prowls the corridors of the abandoned St. Elizabeths Hospital, dives into the archives, dines with present-day Italian neo-fascists who revere Pound and visits Pound's 90-something-year-old daughter in her castle in Italy.

Had Swift's book come out even last year, its subject might seem academic. But given the explosion of stories about Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose — in short, stories about men's behavior and how that behavior affects their reputations and, in some cases, their art — well, all of a sudden, this story of Pound's politics and his prejudices takes on fresh significance.

If you know any lines by Pound, chances are you know his signature modernist mantra: "Make it new." The sordid events of the past few months make the questions raised by Pound's long-ago behavior "new" all over again.

Swift is an alert and eloquent guide, not only through the thickets of Pound's difficult poetry, but also through the changing treatments of mental illness in the 20th century. Swift examines medical records, conversations and Pound's poetry for evidence of madness — which some detractors thought he faked, especially when he began holding literary seminars on the lawn of St. Elizabeths midway through his 12-year stay.

Much less ambiguous are Pound's radio broadcasts. In a broadcast from Rome in April 1943, his message is clear. Pound says: "I think it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yidds IF you can do it by due legal process."

Building on the work of other scholars, Swift points out that Pound, even when he was in St. Elizabeths, anonymously contributed around 200 pieces to far right journals and newspapers. In many of them, Swift says, Pound argues the case for eugenics and condemns desegregation as a "fuss ... started by Jews."

So, how do we read and think of Ezra Pound these days, assuming we do? Swift diligently keeps all of Pound's contradictions in play, resisting a final verdict. The courts, however, were eventually pressured to reach one.

In 1958, Pound was released from St. Elizabeths. The judge in charge ruled that Pound had always been mad and that his condition was incurable. As Swift says, this judgment "hollowed" Pound's broadcasts and his entire body of poetry "into raving."

Whether you regard that verdict as a travesty or good riddance or something else, I guarantee that The Bughouse will vex you into thinking more deeply about the relation between an artist's life and work, and perhaps even about the old-fashioned question of moral responsibility.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.