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The uniquely irritating case of poet and godfather modernist Ezra Pound

We all know one. He’s smarter than anyone. He seems to know everything. He can out-argue and out-joke everyone. He can fix any play, story or poem because he can spot BS a mile away since he’s made of it himself. He thrives when surrounded by clever people who love to watch him perform. But he can’t create in solitude, can’t imagine on a blank slate. Because of his encyclopedic memory he steals his material. When that’s not enough he plagiarizes his friends. At its best he’s Shakespeare. At its worst he’s Ezra Pound.

In these three well-researched books, A. David Moody, professor emeritus at the University of York, examines every aspect of Pound’s life clearheadedly except Pound’s main opus, “The Cantos.” The author believes it is a masterpiece. In spite of his extensive explications the verdict is still out on that issue.

The main drama of his life – other than revising Eliot’s “The Waste Land” – could be taking place today. It’s the 1930s. Many banks and financial institutions are failing and the ones that survive call in their loans and hoard their cash. Greedy bankers and financiers working behind the scenes send our soldiers to war to protect their interests.

Having moved to Italy from Paris so he could play tennis all year-round, Pound was convinced an oligarchy in his home country was making the common people suffer by mishandling the money supply, in direct violation of the Constitution. When his hotheaded letters to congressmen and the president are ignored, he makes political speeches on the radio praising Mussolini and excoriating many of America’s prominent citizens. He also makes anti-Semitic remarks because he accepts the era’s all-too-pervasive view that Jews secretly run the banks.

Pound’s public pronouncements never made much sense but now he had gone over the edge. And he paid for it – three months in an open air cage near Pisa and 12 years in an insane asylum back in the States. Some would say he didn’t pay enough.

A. David Moody disagrees. There were two offenses, Moody contends, unrelated but allowed to merge in the public and legal mind. One was being a traitor. Moody argues if it had come to trial, Pound would have won. Many famous people praised Hitler and Mussolini early and were forgiven. The other offense was anti-Semitism, which, though despicable, is not against the law. Pound was protected by his Constitutional right to free speech.

Once Pound was locked up in St. Elizabeth’s a phenomenon happened that is common with prisoners whose cases draw much public debate – he was surrounded by disciples. The more rabid of them like John Kasper were protected by their right to freedom of speech, the same right that had been denied to Pound.

Introduced to Pound’s poetry in a course at Columbia, Kasper decided he hated Pound’s poetry but loved his political ideas. He set out to make available all the tracts that Pound thought essential in making the public understand what was really going on in American politics. Kasper didn’t stop there. He espoused many radical racist and anti-Semitic positions and Pound didn’t stop him. Pound seemed to think, once again, that things would work themselves out. But it didn’t help his case for getting out of St. Elizabeth’s that a man was running around the country misrepresenting Pound’s ideas.

In an age of soundbites and rabid political grandstanding it is instructive to look back at examples from the past. Even though Pound had good legal advice and many friends who wanted to help him, his legal defense got lost in the emotions of the moment. The poet Charles Olson for instance, who was a great friend of Pound’s and visited him often in the hospital in the end declared, “I stand for keeping him in custody.” Moody goes on to say, “that Olson, a ‘leftwing’ democrat, could stand up for keeping a man in custody because of his opinions was a striking deviation from a basic principle of American democracy and justice. He was far from alone in that.”

Pound had a genius for friendship even though one of his oldest college friends, William Carlos Williams called him “an ass.” Even Allen Ginsberg forgave him his anti-Semitism when Pound apologized. When he was in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital many of these powerful friends lobbied the president and the Justice Department to set him free. This group in included Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams and others.

None of these well-connected and well-intended friends law could see that Pound’s case violated the rule of habeas corpus and he should have been freed immediately. They rested their case on his being a great poet. I love to think of President Eisenhower trying to make sense of “The Cantos.”

Pound was by all accounts a multifaceted man. He was a very good editor. He saved Eliot’s “The Waste Land” by ridding a draft of that poem of vast amounts of doggerel. He was William Butler Yeats’ secretary and felt comfortable editing his work and he helped James Joyce by getting some of his early stories published. He was also a good publisher though he ran a magazine for a only short time. Using other editors like Harriet Munro at Poetry Magazine and the affluent publisher James Laughlin at New Directions Press, Pound helped promote the careers of many including Marianne Moore, Hilda Doolittle (HD,) Frost, Joyce, D.H Lawrence, Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, E.E. Cummings, George Oppen, Olson, and many others. He even enlisted the aid of his rich friends to set up a fund to support writers like Joyce while they wrote in obscurity.

He wrote volume after volume of poetry contradicting his early edict that “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” But then his life is filled with inconsistencies. Starting with imitations of the Troubadours, he became a founding member of the Imagists and wrote the two-line “In a Station of the Metro.” Then he moved away from that school of poetry and wrote an experiment in aesthetic distance called “Personae.” These poems seem to be an extension of what he learned from early Joyce and late Yeats. But then he gave that up and as a farewell to England wrote “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” a variation on Eliot’s work but not nearly as complex.

Thinking it was high time for him to write his great work instead of helping others write theirs, he followed in the footsteps of the two other great writers of his generation, Eliot and Joyce. He began “The Cantos” modeled vaguely on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” Like his models, he wrote works in the vernacular but he filled them with allusions that left most readers in the dark.

Pound whose career is replete with 180-degree turns now joined the tradition of writing treatises for royal eyes only, but now the those eyes belonged to well-educated people who shared his opinions, his tastes in literature and his political theories. It included Latin or Chinese quotations and passages from crank economic textbooks.

It’s true that modern poetry owes a lot to Pound for taking the pretty out of poetry (to use Whitman’s phrase.) The “pretty” was deeply engrained in Georgian poetry and had to be radically removed. Pound zealously promoted any poets who broke new ground. He often edited poems that still had some “pretty” in them. But his own poetry never found a consistent modern voice the way Frost, Williams, Edward Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop and others did. Maybe at last he took to heart his friend Hemingway’s advice about writing – “Forget living the Literary Life” because he never finished “The Cantos” and in the last years he talked as little as possible. His final self-assessment was, “I spoil everything I touch. I have always blundered ... All my life I believed I knew nothing, yes, knew nothing. And so words became devoid of meaning.”

His last poem, silence, was his most informative.

William L. Morris is the co-inventor of The News’ Poetry page. He now lives and writes in Florida.


Ezra Pound: Poet, A Portrait of the Man and his Work

Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920

By A. David Moody

Oxford University Press

507 pages, $47.95

Volume II: The Epic Years 1921 - 1939

By A. David Moody

Oxford University Press

421 pages, $35

Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939 - 1972

By A. David Moody

Oxford University Press

640 pages, $35