Friday, April 21, 2017

For National Poetry Month: 30 Poets, #21


Birthday: Ezra Pound said, "I have never known anyone worth a damn who wasn't irascible."

Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (1885-1972)
Poet, translator, activist

Few writers can have had so much influence- for good and arguable- as did Ezra Pound. A poet whose vision, over time, sometimes exceeded his ability to express it, he had an astonishing eye for making the best of the work of others. 45 years gone, he still generates torrents of praise, criticism, and doorstop biographies.

He worked as Yeats’ secretary; edited The Waste-Land and The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock for Eliot; worked with Joyce on the publication of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man; advised and edited Ernest Hemingway for decades; and published a large body of poetry over a sixty year period.

He was born in Idaho, where his father, the son of a Wisconsin congressman, was a federal land agent. Mother Pound hated Idaho, and left- with little Ezra- for New York in 1887. Pound’s father moved east in 1889 and got a job at the Philadelphia Mint.

Privately educated, Pound spent his teens in a military school, then at the University of Pennsylvania. His education was punctuated by absences for family tours of Europe; he was a rebellious student and had to leave Penn to finish his degree at Hamilton College in New York. He got an MA at Penn and was working on a PhD when he was sent down for mocking his professors and voicing revolutionary notions in literature.

While at Penn he wooed the astronomy professor’s daughter, Hilda Doolittle; as the poet H.D. she became part of his orbit for decades even as she turned him down as a husband. He asked another student to marry him that same summer, while dating a third.

He taught at a small college in Indiana for a while, and got fired for smoking in his office, general insubordination, and entertaining women in his rooms. Returning to Europe, he met Dorothy Shakespear, daughter of a novelist, and made connections with the most avant of the garde of the day. As his poetry gained renown, he won the financial patronage of a semi-deranged American heiress, who killed herself in 1912.

Pound returned to America, where he fell out of love with New York City generally, and the under-construction Public LIbrary in particular. He thought its design iniquitous, and went out of his way to pass by the construction site daily to shout insults at the architects.

He wheedled the money back to Europe from his parents, and married Dorothy in 1914. Her parents opposed the union, thinking Pound a man who was all show and no income. Certainly he cut a dash in London society: Ford Madox Ford wrote of Pound "approach[ing] with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. Pound was a flamboyant dresser at this stage, and had trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend and an immense sombrero. All this was accompanied by a flaming beard cut to a point and a single, large blue earring."

Pound apparently won over Dorothy's family by agreeing to a church wedding, and, with Dorothy, H.D. and others, launched a new movement in poetry, “Imagism.” In their conception, poetry should state its meaning plain, shorn of abstractions, analogies and romanticisms. It caused an enormous critical stir and brought much notoriety to Pound until the American poet Amy Lowell published an anthology of Imagist poets that left Pound out. Denouncing his creation as “Amygism,” he declared it dead and moved on to new ideas.

In 1921 Pound met an American heiress and violinist, Olga Rudge, by whom he was soon utterly smitten. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1925; Olga placed her with a Tyrolean family, who raised her as another peasant child in the Italian Tyrol. Pound and his wife had a son, Omar, in 1926; he was sent to be raised as an English gentleman in London by Dorothy’s mother. Pound juggled the existence of the two families for years. Omar was 12 before he met his father (Pound was away when Dorothy went into labor, so Hemingway took her to the hospital); Mary, 19, before she knew of her brother.

World War I had a profound influence on Pound’s thinking; he formed the notion that the war was fought as a money spinner for capitalists and their great international combines. At the heart of it all, he maintained, were the Jews, and after he and Dorothy moved to Italy, he became a keen supporter of Mussolini.

So fervid did he become he managed to bully Italian state radio into paying him for weekly ten-minute broadcasts (they were chary, thinking he might be a double agent) in which he meandered through his ideas on art, politics and economics. He delivered over a hundred of them between 1935 and 1945 (Henry Bemis Books has a collection of those broadcasts at its website, He wrote columns for publications financed by the British fascist, Oswald Moseley, and sent out thousands of letters to everyone of any importance pretty much anywhere, lecturing them on his views.

In 1939 Pound sailed to America on a one-man mission to keep America out of the European war. He gave interviews and lobbied members of Congress, and collected an honorary degree from Hamilton before sailing back to Italy.

The war years wer hard ones; money was tight and for a time had Olga, Dorothy, Mary and his parents all under one roof. When Italy fell, he was briefly detained by Italian partisans before he and Dorothy surrendered to the Americans. After he cabled President Truman, asking to be appointed to negotiate peace with the Japanese, Pound was placed in a detention camp in a six foot by six foot steel barred outdoor cell that was floodlit at night; his was reinforced with concrete as the Americans worried the Fascists would try to spring him and make him their leader. He suffered a nervous collapse and was returned to America, where, in November 1945 he was charged with treason.

Artful lawyering and, some said, a sympathetic doctor, got Pound declared insane, and he was sent to St. Elizabeth’s the federal asylum in Washington, D.C. After a while he was given a room of his own, allowed to write and received visitors, and spent the next twelve years there as an international campaign was undertaken by writers and artists to obtain his release.

An early, scandalous salvo came in 1949 when a committee of the Library of Congress determined to award Pound the first Bollingen Prize for Poetry, honoring his Pisan Cantos. The outcry from the political class was deafening, and Congress directed the Library to return the prize grant to the Mellon Family (who transferred the prize and its selection to Yale University). By 1958 Archibald MacLeish, the influential former Librarian of Congress, assumed leadership of the release effort and hired former Solicitor General Thurman Arnold to file suit to force Pound’s release. After the superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s declared Pound incurably insane, and that detention served no purpose, he was released and sailed for Italy.

Disembarking with Dorothy at Naples; he gave a snappy Fascist salute; asked when he had been released from the asylum, Pound replied that he had not been- all of America was an asylum. The couple stayed for a time with his daughter, Mary and her family in the Tyrol, then returned home to Rapallo, where they were joined by Olga Rudge and a new secretary, Marcella Spann, for whom Pound, forty year her senior, fell hard.

Dorothy, who had been appointed Pound’s legal guardian after his insanity and so controlled all his publication rights and royalties, sent Marcella packing.


Pound spent the 1960s more or less quietly, attending Eliot’s funeral in London in 1965 and visiting Joyce's widow. He returned to New York in 1967 for an exhibition of his work on The Waste-Land. After a period of failing health, he died in 1972.

Dorothy died in 1973. Omar, who became a writer, teacher and author, died in 2010. Mary married an Italian-Russian Egyptologist; they bought a castle in the Italian Tyrol, where Pound spent much of his post-release time; she has been the  keeper of her father’s legacy, as curator of his papers at Yale and in her own books and articles.

Olga died in 1996, and was buried at Pound’s side in Venice.

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