This Day In Literary History
On April 18th, 1958, a federal court ruled that the famous American poet Ezra Pound be released from a hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, DC. It would mark the third act in a life drama of genius tempered by insanity - and ignorance.
Pound had been committed to the psychiatric hospital in 1946 after doctors found him not competent to stand trial for treason. During the war, Pound, who had lived in Italy for twenty years, had recorded propaganda radio broadcasts for the Mussolini regime.
After his arrest, Pound was sent to a brutal military prison where he was put in one of the "death cells" - a 6x6 foot cage perpetually lit by floodlights.
There, he spent three weeks in isolation, denied a bed, reading material, physical exercise, and communication with everyone but the chaplain. To prevent him from killing himself, his belt and shoelaces were confiscated.
Pound lost what little sanity he had left. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic with narcissistic personality disorder, he was sent back to the United States and committed to the St. Elizabeth hospital for the criminally insane, where he would languish for over a decade.
Ezra Pound was born in Idaho in 1885, but grew up in Pennsylvania. He came from a fiercely conservative Protestant family whose religion was steeped deep in anti-Semitism. His grandfather was a powerful Republican congressman.
As a boy, Pound attended military school, where the erratic, self-destructive pattern of behavior that governed his life took root. There, he learned well the importance of discipline and submission to authority for the greater good.
And yet, he was also an intelligent, conceited, and independent young man who believed that discipline and submission were tools with which to shape the unwashed, barely literate masses into a decent orderly society - not for superior people like him. He wanted to be a poet.
When it came to his own liberty, the young fascist in training took great pleasure in challenging authority. In 1907, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he taught Romance languages at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Although fiercely conservative himself and teaching at a conservative college, Pound described the conservative town of Crawfordsville as "the sixth circle of Hell" - he hated conservative small towns.
Pound's landladies caught him in flagrante delicto with a stranded chorus girl he'd invited to stay in his apartment and kicked him out. When word of his scandalous transgression got back to the college, he was fired.
Finding his own country hopelessly provincial, Pound went to Europe, which he loved. When he was thirteen, he'd gone on a European tour with his mother and aunt. On his return, he settled in London, where he struck up friendships with the great poets of the day.
Pound also burst onto the literary scene himself. Along with his old girlfriend, the famous poet Hilda Dolittle, he founded the Imagism movement, the opposite of Romantic poetry. He aimed for verse with clear imagery and devoid of unnecessary wordiness.
During the first world war, Pound championed the works of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and other authors whose works were considered too experimental for publication. He helped get Joyce's classic debut novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man published.
Pound also began writing his most famous work - an unfinished epic poem called The Cantos, the first volume of which was published in 1924. It's rightfully considered one of the most important works of 20th century modernist poetry - and one of the most controversial.
The horrors of the Great War led Pound, who was already an anti-Semite, to believe in the anti-Semitic mythology spawned by the conflict. Pound believed that the war had been engineered and manipulated - on both sides - by Jewish bankers.
Regarding the English as the willing slaves of the Jews, he moved to Paris in 1921. There, he connected with the great writers of the Lost Generation, including Tristan Tzara and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway and Pound became good friends.
Like most of Ezra Pound's literary friends, Hemingway admired his talent and liked him as a friend, but had no use for his politics. Another of Pound's friends, the famous poet Marianne Moore - who was herself conservative - also deplored his fascism.
After living in Paris for three years, Pound's physical health was deteriorating, and he had suffered what Hemingway called "a small nervous breakdown." He moved to the warmer climate of Italy, where he became enamored with dictator Benito Mussolini.
In 1927, Pound launched his own literary magazine, which would feature the works of his friends, including Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats. Yet, the magazine ultimately flopped because of Pound's own writings.
As his mental state worsened, so did his writing. His editorials were often rambling, incoherent, and just plain bizarre. The man who championed fascism also praised Lenin and Confucius in his editorials!
When war came to Europe again, Ezra Pound, now paranoid and totally demented, believed that if the Allies won, the world would be enslaved by the Jews. So, he wrote and recorded propaganda radio broadcasts for which he was paid well.
These ten-minute broadcasts, filled with anti-Semitism and paranoid rants, aired on English language radio stations in Italy and Germany. After Mussolini was overthrown and executed, Pound and his mistress were seized by armed partisans and later released.
Fearing for their lives, they turned themselves in at a nearby U.S. military post. While Pound awaited trial in a military prison, a reporter for the Philadelphia Record managed to get an interview with him.
Pound described Mussolini as an "imperfect character who lost his head" and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who had just committed suicide following Germany's defeat, as a modern day male Joan of Arc - "a saint."
Ezra Pound's release from the psychiatric hospital in 1958 came about mostly due to letter writing campaigns launched by his friends, including Ernest Hemingway, who used his clout as a recent Nobel Prize winner.
Pound's friends all agreed that he was just a poor, sick, nasty yet harmless old man who should be pitied. The psychiatrists agreed that he was no longer a danger to himself or others. After his release, he moved to Naples. When he arrived, he gave the press the fascist salute.
Prior to his release, Pound publicly claimed to have renounced his anti-Semitism, but privately, he had corresponded with John Kasper, a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader who was later jailed for bombing a school because it allowed a black girl to attend.
In his later years, Pound tried to finish his magnum opus, The Cantos, but found that his talent had dried up. He couldn't write anymore, so he abandoned the work. One of the finest poets of his time, yet his legacy was forever tarnished.
Ezra Pound finally found clarity of thought and genuine repentance in his old age. In 1967, at the age of 82, he met with legendary poet Allen Ginsberg in Venice. During their talk, Pound summed up his personal and artistic failings:
My own work does not make sense. A mess... my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through... the intention was bad, anything I've done has been an accident, in spite of my spoiled intentions the preoccupation with stupid and irrelevant matters... but my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything... I found after 70 years that I was not a lunatic but a moron. I should have been able to do better... it’s all doubletalk... it’s all tags and patches ... a mess.
Quote Of The Day
"Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." - Ezra Pound
Today's video features a rare recording of Ezra Pound reading from his classic epic poem, The Cantos. Enjoy!