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.

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“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 appears in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit