"No man ever knows enough about any art." - Ezra Pound.
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (1885-1972), "the poet's poet" - poet, advocate, political and economic radical, critic, journalist, essayist, editor and translator.
"He was the poet of the age." - Allen Ginsberg, when learning of Ezra Pound's death.
Early Life and Imagism:
Ezra Pound was born on October 30, 1885 in the small mining town of Hailey, Idaho. He had an average middle-class childhood in Wyncote, Philadelphia, where his father held the position of assistant assayer for the United States Mint. Pound left high school, and attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended another notable poet of the twentieth century, William Carlos Williams, who was studying medicine at the time. Between 1903 and 1906, Pound studied Romantic and Anglo-Saxon languages at Hamilton College, and left with a knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Provençal and Anglo-Saxon. He taught in Crawfordsville, Indiana, at Wabash College, although he only taught for a single year, 1907. This teaching career was cut dramatically short when he entertained an actress in his room at the College.
The following year after the incident at Wabash College, Ezra Pound left the United States to travel widely in Europe, working as a journalist. It was in the same year (1908) that A Lume Spento, his first book of poetry, was published, and following this event, Pound moved to London where he settled down to live. It was here that one of the most significant poetry movements of the twentieth century was founded by Pound and Richard Aldington (amongst others) - the literary movement known as "Imagism". Imagism was a movement which was was embraced by poets in both England and the United States, and which had a specific manifesto:
- Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subject or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
- As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
With these ideas, the Imagists began to create, and Ezra Pound was one of the foremost poets of the movement, editing their first published anthology, Des Imagistes
(1914). Pound himself also wrote on the subject, with a warning to his fellow poets in his 1913 Poetry
"Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol."
It is from quotations like this that Pound's influences can be clearly seen, those of Japanese
classical poetry. Ezra Pound had a strong interest in haiku (the techniques of Imagism were the same as those of haiku
- clarity, efficiency with words, precision, and foregoing rhyme), which comes through in such works as his famed In a Station of the Metro
(which has been beautifully analysed in the node of the same name):
The apparition of faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
However, Pound's interest in Imagism died after a dispute with another poet, Amy Lowell
, after which he referred to the movement as 'Amygism
'. Although he continued to be influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry, Pound ended his time as an 'Imagist', and instead turned to a new movement.
"I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the centre of modernism." - Hugh Kenner, reflecting on a meeting with Ezra Pound.
New Movements in Poetry and Politics:
'Vorticism' became the new poetical movement with which Ezra Pound would identify. He founded the movement with Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and this movement produced a signature magazine, Blast. It was during this time that Pound began his work as a poet's advocate of sorts, always willing to recognise and then help out other poets. Lewis, T.S. Elliot, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H.D., Ernest Hemmingway and James Joyce are significant figures whose works Pound promoted, orchestrating in some cases their publication in such magazines as Egoist and Poetry. Pound's generosity has been recognised by many biographers, one example being that of James Joyce: while working as W.B. Yeats' secretary, Pound began corresponding with Joyce, then bagen to write on him in various magazines, promoting his work. If this was not enough, Pound also collected money for Joyce, and even sent him spare clothes!
Ezra Pound was also a considerable influence upon T.S. Eliot, the most famed example of this influence being Eliot's The Waste Land. With the guiding influence of Pound, Eliot cut the work from 800 lines to 433, and the work is dedicated to Pound: il miglior fabbro ("the better maker/craftsman", which were words written by Dante, another major influence upon Pound (along with Homer, Confucius and Ernest Fenellosa). It was also during this period that Pound met, and in 1914 married, an artist by the name of Dorothy Shakespear(e), with whom he had a son, yet in 1922 he began a relationship with Olga Rudge, a violinist. 1917 also saw Pound becoming the London editor of the Little Review.
At the same time as his interest in Vorticism (a movement which had been influenced, in turn, but the Italian 'futurists', and revolved around the idea that once one had passed an object at high speed within a machine/automobile, then it would be viewed differently), Ezra Pound began his work as a translator of oriental poetry. He has been named the 'inventor' of Chinese poetry of the twentieth century, and from 1913, he began to study the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, after which he began a lifelong study of ancient Chinese texts, including translating the writings of Confucius. This work is considered to be some of his best, and is described by this quotation:
"Pound never wanted to be a literal translator. What he could do, as no other could, is to identify the essence, pick out 'what matter now', and phrase it so pungently, so beautifully, that it will stick in the head and start new thinking." - The back cover of Pound's translation of the writings of Confucius.
By 1920, however, Ezra Pound chose to leave England for France, shifting from London to Paris, where he lived in Montparnasse and could often be found at the café Le Dome playing chess with Ford Madox Ford. To him, England had become "an old bitch, gone in the teeth", and a mere four years after this move to Paris, he shifted once more, this time settling in Rapallo, Italy. It was here, in 1933, that Pound met the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, and it was in this man that Pound saw the opportunity for economic and social reform. As a supporter of Fascism, Pound's statements broadcast over radio became infamous, such as his anti-Semitic statements against what he saw was a Jewish control of the economic systems of Europe:
"..if some man had a stroke of genius, and could start a progrom against Jews... there might be something to say for it."
These World War II broadcasts, made in Rome, were openly Fascist (it was clear that he hated U.S. President Roosevelt and usury banking), so it came as no surprise when Ezra Pound was arrested in 1945 by U.S. forces on charges of treason - Pound was still a citizen of the United States of America. For twenty-five days, Pound was imprisoned within the 'gorilla cage', an open cage which was situated outdoors, and was moved into a tent at the end of this time for medical reasons. This incarceration at Pisa lasted for six months in total, and during his time here he continued to translate Confucius and work upon his most famous work, the Pisan Cantos, writing it on scraps of papers and typing up his poem in the medical tent, after-hours.
Leaving Pisa to stand trial for treason and broadcasting Fascist propoganda in the United States, Pound arrived, and was examined by a panel of four mental illness experts before the trial began. Their conclusion was as follows:
"He is abnormally grandiose, is expansive and exuberant in manner, exhibiting pressure of speech, discursiveness and distractibility... He is, in other words, insane." - The judgement made by the four examiners.
Following this 1946 judgement that he was "insane and too mentally ill to stand trial
" (and consequent acquittal
of the charges
on these grounds), Pound was taken to St. Elizabeth's Hospital
in Washington, D.C.
where he remained for twelve years until the continual appeals made by his writer friends ensured his 1958 release. During his time at the hospital, it was said of Pound that he "works constantly, reads interminably
" and "sees many visitors
". Described by a visitor in 1954 as moving "with the athletic vigour of a young man in excellent condition
", by 1950 William Carlos Williams described him in another way:
"The man is sixty-five now and has grown heavier during the past year. His reddish hair, beard and moustaches have been permitted to grow wildly at random--the long hairs framing his unchanged features half-ludicrously, half-frighteningly, to resembl the face of the beast in Cocteau's well-known film."
Interestingly, it was during this imprisonment at St. Elizabeth's Hospital that Pound won an award for his 1948 Pisan Cantos
, the 1949 Bollingen-Library of Congress Prize
, despite the politics of such a decision. The award, valued at US$1000, was for the best poetry by an American citizen published during the previous year, and the judges included prestigious literary figures such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden
, Allen Tate
, Robert Penn Warren
and Katherine Anne Porter
. The award was made in the knowledge that it likely be opposed by some, and the judges issued a statement, part of which is as follows:
"To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the signifcance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilised society must rest."
Despite the judging panel's best efforts to justify their objective position, an article in the Saturday Review of Literature on June 11, 1949, was the first protest against the decision, and was written by Robert Hillyer. He argued that Ezra Pound's poems "are the vehicle of contempt for America, Fascism, anti-Semitism, and, in the prize-winning Pisan Cantos themselves, ruthless mockery of our Christian war dead." He also pointed out that one of the judges, T.S. Eliot, was a friend of Pound, and therefore had been in a position to sway the decision of the Bollingen committee, and in this manner should be forced to tender a resignation. Naturally, the judging panel defended their decision, and the despute continued for some time, eventually resulting in the Library of Congress removing its participation in the award and passing the judging to Yale University.
The Bollingen-Library of Congress Award was not the only controversy surrounding Ezra Pound during his time in St. Elizabeth's Hospital. In 1946, the head of the publishing firm Random House (Bennett Cerf) announced that he had asked the editor of a poetry anthology, Conrad Aiken, to omit the works of Pound. Aiken agreed to this, on the condition that it was made clear in a statement in the book that this was done not on his wishes, but on the wishes of the publisher. After a large amount of criticism, Cerf eventually turned around in his opinion, saying that although he still did not personally like Ezra Pound, he thought that he had erred in his decision. He said that he feared that he might set a precedent which might lead "straight to the sort of censorship and assumption of the right to tell others what they should and should not read."
"Pound was one of the most opinionated and unselfish men who ever lived, and he made friends and enemies everywhere by the simple exercise of the classic American constitutional right of free speech." - Katherine Anne Porter
Final Years, and Conclusions:
Upon his release from St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Ezra Pound returned to his beloved Italy, oscillating between Rapallo and Venice, where he remained for the rest of his life, almost as a recluse. He died on November 1, 1972, in Venice, but lives on in his writings. Over his years, Pound published over seventy books, contributed to seventy more, wrote over 1500 articles and translated many Japanese and Chinese writings, especially plays. His major work was his encyclopaediac Cantos, a series of poems that he wrote from the 1920s, and when he died it remained unfinished, as it was released in multiple volumnes. In his words, it was "a poem including history." The last published piece, therefore, is Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. This epic poem was influenced by Dante, primarily, and bears a similarity to the work of the Italian master. Perhaps the best description of the work is one used in one of the sources I have used for this node:
"In the Cantos Pound recorded the poet's spiritual quest for transcendence, and intellectual search for worldly wisdom. However, he did not try to imitate classical epic, but had several heroes instead of one, and projected his own self into his characters. His models were Dante's 'La divina commedia'... and Robert Browning's confessional poem 'Sordello'..."
It is also interesting to note that in early editions of the work, Canto LXXII and Canto LXXIII were not published due to their Fascist thoughts, but that they are now included in more modern runs of the Cantos. Pound was also a noted essayist, and although he generally wrote upon the topic of poetry, from the mid-1920s, his interest in economics saw him submitting work on how economic systems could debase or promote artistic culture. Indeed, Pound's interest in Fascism was largely due to not only economics, but also because of his interest in the arts. He held hopes that Fascism would result in a society in which the arts could flourish in their pure forms. These views culminated in an Anti-American stance about culture: he named the famed U.S. poet Walt Whitman's works as an "exceedingly nauseating pill" (which interests me, because Whitman was an influence upon William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, whom Pound had befriended!), claiming that America was isolated from cultural traditions that make the arts possible.
Personally, I don't like Pound's work all that much - I prefer that of William Carlos Williams. But at the end of the day, he was certainly an important figure of twentieth century poetry, if a controversial one.
"Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost degree." - Ezra Pound.
- History of 20th Century Literature by Simon Beesley and Sheena Joughin, Hamlyn (2001)
- Contemporary Poets ed. Rosalie Murphy, pp. 867-873 by Hugh Kenner, St. James Press Ltd. (1970)
- Twentieth Century Authors - A Biographical Dictionary, First Supplement ed. Stanley J. Kunitz, pp. 799-789, The H.W. Wilson Company (1955)
Recommended reading: In a Station of the Metro by Lometa, A lens on the world of spirits: The poetry of Ezra Pound by izubachi and The Cantos, also by izubachi. Brilliant stuff.
"Pound did not create the poets: but he created a situation in which, for the first time, there was a 'modern movement in poetry' in which English and American poets collaborated, knew each other's works, and influenced each other." - T.S. Eliot.