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When America's greatest poets made pilgrimages to Ezra Pound

NONFICTION

The Bug House: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

By Daniel Swift

Farrar Straus Giroux

297 pages, $27

This short work of critical nonfiction by Daniel Swift has more to say about Ezra Pound’s influence on Modernism than A. David Moody’s three-volume biography where every aspect of the poet’s life is given equal billing.

“The Bug House” focuses on Pound’s 12 years of captivity in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C. Even though Pound’s poetic output was slight during those years, it was a critical time due to his interactions with visitors. It is broken into chapters dealing with visit from poets, doctors and a young fascist named John Kasper.

Kasper was unimpressed by Pound’s poetry but loved his fascist rants. He became Pound’s mouthpiece while Pound was in the “bug house.” By supporting this man’s fascist publications, including ones in support of segregation, Pound risked being executed but he survived. America was more interested in catching communists.

The first poet to visit St. Elizabeths was 36-year-old Charles Olson. He wasn’t really a poet yet. Their relationship, though strained, provided the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism according to Swift. He claims Olson coined the term in letter to Robert Creeley. Pound had just finished “The Pisan Cantos.” He gave them to Olson to take to the legendary publisher James Laughlin. Olson opened the envelope and took notes that became the foundation of his “Maximus Poems.” Under other circumstances this would be called plagiarism, but Modernist poets thought plagiarizing was a positive thing, especially when they plagiarized each other.

Olson took plagiarism to the next level. His long poem was a “confused collage made up of bits and pieces of Pound and others.” Olson’s poems are “not a report upon an external reality but instead an attempt to transfer energy from its subject to its reader.” His mantra was, “Art does not seek to describe but to enact.” He became a major force in postmodernism while teaching at the Black Mountain School. He later taught at the State University at Buffalo with Robert Creeley.

William Carlos Williams also visited Pound. They went to Penn together. They both started out “drawing what America might be … from American sources.” But Williams was devastated when Pound helped T. S. Eliot edit and publish “The Waste Land.” He thought it pointed modern poetry in the wrong direction. He never forgave Pound for being the midwife for that poem. This accounts for William’s smug assessment of his friend as being “static with a vengeance — in an insane asylum.”

Williams called out Pound for abandoning their plan to make poetry “tell of their ideal America, how the place might be made to sing” but Pound reminded Williams that he was only “an observant foreigner.”  He would never know what American songs sound like because his father was British and his mother Puerto Rican.

T.S. Eliot visited Pound to pay him back for saving “The Waste Land.” Pound’s books had stopped selling, so Eliot suggested Pound “push the poetry and hold back the prose.” In other words stop making foolish political statements and get back to writing poetry. Eliot reissued two of Pound’s books in England, “Selected Poems” and “The Pisan Cantos.” (He worked at Faber and Faber.) His favorable introductions helped Pound win the Bollingen Prize. Eliot kick started Pound’s career and Pound began writing “The Cantos” again after a lapse of several years.

Swift analyzes modernism at this point because these men more or less invented it. Modernism was born, Swift contends, when Pound got his hands on “The Waste Land.” “The history of modernism is a history of cutting up…modernists made editing into art.” Swift goes on to say that, “central to all modernist art is what has been left out, and what therefore are the relations between what remains on the page.” “This is really library work,” Swift says. “Moving words around…rearranging books.” “Mature poets steal,” wrote Eliot. “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better.”

“Both poets made their names through an art built from quotation, by taking voices from their natural contexts and assembling those phrases into odd new wholes…In taking fragments from the past they ask what fades and what remains, and imagine how our lives might come to fulfill the patterns set long before.”

Pound and Eliot wrote different kinds of poetry because their natures were different. Eliot was “cold, impersonal.” Pound was “a natural propagandist, who spoke his mind.”

Elizabeth Bishop and John Berryman also visited. They turned their experiences into poetry. Bishop was never comfortable with the Modernist movement. She never felt a part of that poetry scene, spending years in Brazil just to get away from it. Bishop’s poem mimics the nursery rhyme, “The House that Jack Built.” She never mentions Pound, just “the honored man/that lies in the house of Bedlam.” As she advances, he retreats. The poem grows up when the poet passes a real madman. Her poem “put to rest Pound and what the example of his career meant to her.” “This is the world of books gone flat,” she writes.

Berryman was obsessed by the image of Pound kept in a cage in Pisa. His poem was not about “a prisoner, but of his prison,” the captivity of an American genius, not the genius itself. The story of Pound’s generation was to him “the captivity of spirit.”

The question of Pound’s sanity pervades this book. It’s important because it’s the only thing that kept him from being executed for his pro-fascist radio broadcasts during World War II. Was Pound faking or was he truly mad? The St. Elizabeths' doctors found reasons to keep this celebrity in their midst. In their defense the question of what constituted insanity was in its infancy in the 1940’s. The question is finally settled when Robert Lowell visits. Next to a true madman Pound was clearly sane. Though odd and narcissistic, Pound struck everyone who met him during those years as “charming” or “crazy like a fox.” As the librarian at the hospital put it, “He was lucky he wasn’t shot.”

A young Allan Ginsberg wrote Pound praising his poetry despite the anti-Semitic rants. Pound wrote back apologizing for “that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.” Ginsberg replied that it was essential that Pound continue to write. “It suggests,” Swift comments, “what we all must do; which is to make our peace … with this most difficult man.”

The book ends on a sour note. Swift claims “a complete list of relevant materials…would encompass a Poundian forty years.” Instead he writes an essay about his sources. So many fascinating connections are made in this book that references notes are essential.

William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry Pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.

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