Perhaps no other poet in the 20th century presents more forcefully than does Ezra Pound the need to separate the life from the work — and the impossibility of doing so. Pound’s visionary role in leading poetry in English into the modern, after the etiolations of the late 19th century, seems incontestable. So do his generosity and loyalty as a critic and friend (to Eliot, Joyce and others), his tirelessness as a teacher, his unorthodox brilliance as a translator from multiple languages and above all, his supreme ambition for poetry, expressed in his long poem the “Cantos,” and in its animating conviction that poetry not only could but should guide the practical motions of society itself.
On the other hand, Pound was a sort of Antaeus. As long as his feet were on the ground that fed him with images and experiences, he was a giant. In the air, as a seer, a social theorist and a philosopher, he was notoriously vulnerable. He worshiped strong leaders; he indulged in a virulent anti-Semitism; and only slyly, belatedly, offhandedly did he take responsibility for mistaken actions and for detestable opinions that he expressed in writing. His life resists posterity’s best efforts to make it resemble a morality play. His arrogance, his ambition and his hopes for his country led him to record more than 100 radio broadcasts critical of the American government while he was in Mussolini’s Italy between 1941 and 1943. Indicted on a charge of treason during the war, he was eventually declared of unsound mind and spent almost 13 years confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital outside Washington, D.C. Upon arriving at Naples, Italy, in 1958 after his release, his first gesture was the Fascist salute. Yeats foresaw all of this when he met the young Pound in 1912: “He is a headlong ragged nature, is always hurting people’s feelings, but he has I think some genius and great good will.”
The latest contribution to the Pound conundrum is Daniel Swift’s “The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound.” Swift is not a literary scholar. Instead, he is a kind of literary-critical memoirist. His approach is to provide new insights into poetry by reconstructing the environment in which poems were written, incorporating his own experience into the text. His book “Bomber County” (2010) examined some poetry of World War II through an exploration of a relative’s service in the Royal Air Force. Now he seeks insights into Pound through biographical investigations of those who visited him over the years at St. Elizabeths and through other extramural research. Swift declares, “Wherever people speak of Pound, there I tried to go.” His strategy is intriguing but prone (as is memoir itself) to a kind of irrelevant narcissism. Declaring that previous biographies have sought to provide too unified a portrait of Pound, Swift suggests that he will “permit rival tellings to sing their discord” through a “style of telling — occasional, fragmented, in glimpses” not unlike the collage effect of Pound’s own poems.
Swift has done a certain amount of detective work here, though no doubt not enough to satisfy the Poundians, who are a fierce and demanding tribe. The names on those cartes de visite to St. Elizabeths constitute a roll call of major American poets: John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, T. S. Eliot, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky and others. Swift reveals himself to be no deep student of American poetry, and he is occasionally given to unhelpful generalities, as when he declares that “tragedy, modernism, translation, collage: All are concerned with the great action of drawing together.” He reads the work of Pound’s visitors and those works of poetry, translation and prose that Pound created during his confinement. It is hard to identify Swift’s final judgment of the poetry; he declares that “the grand bad faith of the ‘Cantos’ — its pomposity, its anger — is a constant, running line after line,” but this is so instantly untrue that one wants to chalk it up to the spiteful impatience every reader has felt who has engaged deeply with Pound’s allusive and polyphonic poem and emerged occasionally inspired but also baffled and frustrated. Swift’s most useful discovery may be the extent to which Pound at St. Elizabeths became a kind of touchstone by which other poets — beginning with Olson, but including Lowell and Pound’s old friend Williams — sought “to take Pound in, incorporate him, shape him” for themselves. Captivity invites appropriation, and appropriation can take different forms, as for example when Eliot protectively sought to shape the perception of Pound in the world at large as a cold high modernist, rather than as an intemperate propagandist.
By focusing on a nexus of relationships leading to and from Pound at St. Elizabeths, Swift also illuminates what he rather grandly calls “the riddle at the heart of the 20th century.” The genius is a madman; the savior is a betrayer; the populist is an aristocrat; the intellectual and artistic hero is a coward and a faker; the innovator is a reactionary; the artist is a politician; the legislator is an inmate. The contradictions multiply until they seem to describe something larger than any one man. Swift quotes the literary scholar Samuel Hynes in 1955 to the effect that Pound’s confinement is “a reflection of an apparently insoluble modern dilemma, of the way in which individual freedom and the common good have come to be seen as antithetical.” This is by way of saying that when we indict Pound, we indict ourselves and our society.
Unfortunately, this argument goes only so far. Swift also quotes Williams in 1947 declaring that Pound “has lost faith in the efficacy of the poem and gone over to ideas, using poetry as his stick.” Here is the ultimate tragedy: that the attention to crystalline detail, in Pound’s poems, to the particulars on which life and truth depend, should be sacrificed to his desire to be, as Gertrude Stein famously remarked, the village explainer. Nor does Williams’s “stick” ignore the darker consequences of Pound’s skewed beliefs, which have, as Swift shows, fed a range of conspiracy theorists and white supremacists as well as the movement known as CasaPound in Italy. And yet, and yet: Apparently Pound, in one of his late notebooks, asked, “Have I seen the divine where it is not?” And no reader of Pound’s lyrics, his translations or sections of his “Cantos” could respond in the negative. Pound saw the divine, and he helped us see it too. Is he discounted as a seer, then — or supremely validated as one? Not a poet himself, Swift nonetheless understands poets when he writes, “What is moving and important is the attempt and not the achievement.” And he quotes Olson, the first poet to visit Pound in St. Elizabeths, who asks, “Shall we learn from his line and not answer his life?” One longs for deliverance from the contradictions, but there is none. As Swift remarks: “Some parts we keep and some we send away. It is by choosing between the two that we get to glory.”