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Why Ezra Pound was the most difficult man of the twentieth century

Adam Kirsch on Daniel Swift's The Bughouse: the Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound.

“Ezra Pound was the most difficult man of the 20th century,” writes Daniel Swift. This may sound hyperbolic – certainly Pound had a good deal of competition – but in The Bughouse, his ruminative new study, Swift makes a good case for the statement, especially if one pays due attention to the range of meanings hidden in the word “difficult”.

Most obviously, it is as a writer that Pound was difficult. His life’s work, the long poem known as The Cantos, is a classic example of the rebarbativeness of modernist poetry. Before Pound, great verse had been written in cantos, such as The Divine Comedy; but to give a poem that title was a gesture akin to calling a novel The Chapters. It was a way of eschewing subject matter and unambiguous themes, of announcing that Pound’s interest was process, not product.

And that process was as complex, often as illegible, as thought itself. Free-associating on characters from the Odyssey to Confucius and from the Italian Renaissance to the American Revolution, Pound produced a self-portrait as “difficult” as any cubist masterpiece. Sometimes it is literally unreadable, as when he incorporates Chinese characters into the text. More often it is unreadable in the sense of being defiantly uninteresting, as when he quotes long passages from the writings of John Adams. But then Pound will interpolate a passage of resounding rhetoric or limpid lyricism that seems to redeem all the confusion, to confirm that this really is the work of a master poet:

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

These celebrated lines come from the section known as the Pisan Cantos, and their pathos is heightened by the circumstances in which they were composed. Which brings us to the other way in which Pound was famously difficult: as a moral-political “case”. Pound lived in Italy throughout the Fascist period, and he was an ardent admirer of Mussolini, in whom he saw a reincarnation of the Renaissance patron-warlords he wrote about. During the Second World War, Pound – still a US citizen, although he had lived in Europe since 1908 – made numerous propaganda broadcasts in English on Rome Radio, aimed at convincing American soldiers of the perfidy of capitalism, Franklin D Roosevelt and the Jews, among other targets.

This made him a traitor, and at the end of the war he was captured by a band of Italian partisans and turned over to the US army. He was imprisoned at Pisa, first in a cage, then in a tent; and it was in these piteous conditions that he wrote the lines that sound so much like an apology. It is not man who makes order, Pound now confesses, ­after so many years of romanticising the ­fascist New Order. Perhaps all his fantasies of poetry hand in hand with power were just so much “vanity”. Yet it was hard to give up the fantasy, and these very Pisan Cantos also contain some of his most virulently anti-Semitic and pro-fascist verse.

It is at this juncture in Pound’s life that Daniel Swift picks up the story. Swift does not spend much time examining the wartime broadcasts, though he quotes enough to show that they were both loathsome and criminal. Rather, he focuses on what came next, after Pound was returned to the US to stand trial for treason. It was a delicate situation – the victorious United States putting a world-renowned poet on trial – but a ­mutually advantageous solution was found: Pound would be judged insane, rather than guilty. That way he would avoid prison or death, and the government would avoid the stain of punishing him.

So, from 1946 to 1958 Pound was an inmate of St Elizabeths, an enormous psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC. This is the bughouse of Swift’s title, and as he shows, it was the setting for a bizarre chapter not just in Pound’s biography, but in the history of American literature. “American poetry in the 20th century,” Swift writes, “is a cycle of encounters with Ezra Pound,” and this was true in a literal as well as a literary sense. Pound was given a good deal of freedom to receive visitors, and a who’s-who of mid-century American poetry could be found in his room.

At first, it seems that The Bughouse will be a biographical-literary study of these encounters and their poetic legacies. Swift begins by writing about Elizabeth Bishop – “Liz Bish”, in Pound’s patented corn-pone patois – who paid several calls and wrote a haunting poem about them, “Visits to St Elizabeths”. He goes on to discuss Charles Olson, who was initially wary of Pound but later based his influential theory of “projective verse” in large part on Pound’s example. Then there was William Carlos Williams, Pound’s old friend from university, and Robert Lowell, whose own poetry was full of madness and asylums.

Swift is a sensitive and thoughtful reader of both poetry and human psychology, and he shows how all these relationships rested on a mixture of sympathy with and distance from the imprisoned poet. Indeed, it was the reaction against Pound’s “difficulty” that would define the next generation of American poetry, in the work of visitors such as Lowell and Bishop. Swift is also a perceptive analyst of the work Pound was producing in the bughouse years, including more cantos and (very) loose translations of Confucius and Sophocles. His version of the Confucian Odes, Swift points out, turns Chinese flora and fauna into the American specimens he could see from the lawn of St Elizabeths: great horned owls, ospreys and quince.

Yet Swift is not only writing literary criticism. The Bughouse is also a kind of immersive adventure journalism, in which he retraces Pound’s steps and tries to unearth new details about his life. The adventure includes a visit to the now-shuttered St Elizabeths: “Here in the old hospital all is peeling back. The squares of fitted carpet curl up to reveal floorboards, and roof beams emerge from the broken ceiling. The world is turning upside down: leaves of paint upon the floor and roof tiles beneath our feet.” In one tantalising moment, he is left alone – deliberately, perhaps – with Pound’s restricted patient files. Honourably, but disappointingly for the reader, he refuses to open the box, on the grounds that “I risk seeing the secrets of others” as well.

It is in the second half of the book that things get strange, when Swift pays a visit to an Italian neo-fascist collective that calls itself CasaPound. Here he encounters tattooed thugs who are also aesthetes, drawing inspiration from Pound’s poetry and his prose writings on economics and politics. In this indirect fashion, Swift draws the reader’s attention to the toxic legacy of Pound – the racist drivel he continued to write during his incarceration, and the white-supremacist disciples who formed another contingent of visitors to the hospital. While Swift is on the whole quite sympathetic to Pound as a man and a poet, his portrait does not shy away from Pound’s essential ugliness – his petty, banal prejudices, his monomania, his conspiracy theorising, his admiration of violence and oppression.

Again, although he treats the question of whether Pound really was insane with elaborate respect, his book finally suggests an affirmative answer. Symptoms that in the poet’s youth seemed artistically eccentric, such as narcissism and grandiosity, blossomed over the years into full-fledged mania. Much of Pound’s later poetry and prose is unreadable in precisely the same way as the rantings of a madman: it endlessly reiterates obsessions that are incomprehensible unless you share them.

In the 1930s, enough people did share Pound’s anti-Semitism and fascism that they became world-historically important, rather than individually disturbing. Now that those same obsessions seem to be staging a comeback across the Western world, his case calls for stringent judgement, rather than the sympathetic evasions it has so often inspired.

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas” (W W Norton)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.