Wednesday, April 18, 2012

National Poetry Month—Ezra Pound "Portrait d’unne Femme"

Young Pound in London, flaunting it.

Today marks that date in 1958 when Ezra Pound was finally released from the mental hospital where he had been held since being charged with treason for making propaganda broadcasts for the Italian Fascists during World War II.  The release finally came after years of campaigning by an international who’s who of poets and writers, including many leftists who despised his politics but admired his monumental contribution to 20th Century literature.

A very good case can be made for Pound as the most important figure in English language poetry on both sides of the puddle not only for his own considerable poetic talent, but because he virtually delivered the baby of modernism that broke centuries of convention in poetry structure, rhythm, and breadth of topic.  He did so as a generous friend and editor who mentored the careers of William Carlos Williams. H. D., Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot.

He also had a tremendous ego and clearly saw himself as the maestro of a literary revolution.  No one was more impressed with Ezra Pound than Ezra Pound.  And as generous as he could be to his acolytes, he could be the bitter, petulant enemy of those who he thought challenged his exalted status.  The viciousness of his feud with Amy Lowell, who he thought tried to steal his leadership of the Imagist movement, was just one legendary example.

Pound was born far from capitals of culture on October 30, 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, then still a rough and tumble timber frontier where his father worked in the family lumber business.  

His ambitious mother took her toddler back east to Philadelphia and culture.  Her husband eventually followed and got a job in the Mint.  The family lived comfortably in suburbs.  Pound was educated in a series of genteel Quaker dame schools before being enrolled in the Cheltenham Military Academy in 1898.  It was there that at age 11 he determined to become a poet and published his first verse, a satirical rhyme about William Jennings Brian who had just lost a second stab at the Presidency.

Three years later his mother took him on a summer long grand tour of Europe, which profoundly influenced him.  In the fall of 1901 the precocious child was enrolled as a 15 year old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the University Pound immersed himself in the campus literary scene and in his own self-proscribed course of study so that by the age of 30, “I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was ‘indestructible,’ what part could not be lost by translation and—scarcely less important—what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated.”  That included the mastery of several European languages and reading Asian work in translations.  He simply ignored his required classes that did not fit into this study.  Despite being just as brilliant as he told everyone he was, his grades were thus abysmal. 

He also made connection with a young pre-med student from New Jersey, William Carlos Williams, and began an affair with a professor’s daughter, Hilda Doolittle.  He would later foster the careers of both.

In 1903 Pound made another European tour with his parents.  Due to his poor grades, he enrolled in Hamilton College in Clinton, New York upon his return.  He studied language, including the Provencal dialect and Old English.  He also read and deeply studied Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italian which inspired his later life-long project, his epic and ultimately unfinished Cantos.

After graduating in 1905 Pound returned to the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a masters degree in Romance languages and began working towards his PhD.  But he provoked a confrontation with the head of the English Department resulting in his abandoning his thesis.

In 1907 he took a position teaching Romance languages at Wabash College in Indiana.  It was a disastrous match between a conservative college and town and his own larger than life persona, now dripping with bohemian extravagances.  He was forced to leave before the school year was out after a dancer was found in his room.

Pound was relieved.  It gave him the opportunity to do what he really wanted to do—relocate permanently to Europe which he did in 1908.  After arriving in Gibraltar he led the life of a romantic vagabond, earning a few dollars as a guide for American tourists in Spain, sending poems to Harper's Magazine and beginning to write short fiction.  In Venice he self published his first book of poetry, A Lume Spento.  He peddled most of the 100 copies he had printed for six cents apiece, but made sure some found their way to important people in England.  At least one copy caught the attention of a London Evening Standard reviewer who praised it lavishly.  And he made sure that the man who he considered the greatest living English language poet, W.B Yeats, got a copy.  He did and was charmed.

Pound arrived in London in August with £3 in his pocket and a world of ambition .  He wrote his friend William Carlos Williams that “London, deah old Lundon, is the place for poesy.”  He lived in cheap lodging houses, found a bookstore willing to put copies of A Lume Spento in the window, lectured some, and paraded around town in garish, multi-colored outfits and a huge hat.  He made himself impossible to miss and the likes of Ford Maddox Ford could not help but take note.

By December he scrounged enough to publish a timely now slender volume, A Quinzaine for This Yule.  Novelist Olivia Shakespear invited Pound to attend her influential Tuesday afternoon salons, where he met her daughter Dorothy.  It was through this connection that he finally got to meet Yeats and other important literary figures.  An American heiress, Margaret Lanier Cravens, was so taken with him that she solved his financial problems by settling a generous income on him so he could concentrate on his poetry.  Cravens killed herself in 1912 not long after learning of Pound’s engagement to Dorothy Shakespear.

Pound found some commercial success and critical acclaim with the publication of two collections in 1909, Personae and Exultations.  He also began to make his mark as a critic and essayist with The Spirit of Romance in 1910.

The following year Pound dashed home for a few months on a mad mission to get the New York Public Library to change the design of the massive building they were erecting.  He caged money from his parents for the return fare and did not return to the land of his birth for decades.

He worked on a new collection in Paris and apparently spent time with Margarett Cravens back in London.  He also secured a weekly column in the Socialist journal New Age which gave him a small regular income.

Hilda Doolittle had arrived in London and by September of 1911 decided to stay despite Pound’s obviously tangled affairs.  The remained close and took up rooms on the same street along with Ezra’s friend, the poet Richard Aldington and all three of them worked afternoons in the Reading Room of the British Museum.  Doolittle would eventually marry Aldington shortly before Pound wed Shakespear.

It was during these afternoons at the Museum where Pound found the classic Japanese poetry, prints and paintings which began to revolutionize his aesthetic.  With his two friends Pound began to work out a new theory of poetry.  They eventually called it Imagism.  They agreed on three principles:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2.  To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3.  As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
That was in the summer of 1912, which turned out to be a turning point year for Pound.  He published the first volume that began to reflect this new understand even if it did not totally absorb it, Ripostes.  He also worked on a number of loose “translations”—actually loose original interpretations of the texts rather than accurate translations including an Old English poem, The Seafarer and Sonnets and ballate of Guido Cavalcanti from the Italian.  These drew harsh criticisms for errors, failures to understand certain cultural markers.  Yet they were also praised as imaginative and capturing, somehow, the essence of the work.

Pound next went to work on translations of Chinese poetry based on notes of a dead American scholar who had studied under a Japanese master.  Despite the distance from the original material Cathay, published in 1913 was greatly lauded, even by Chinese scholars.

Most importantly, 1912 was the year that Harriet Monroe recruited Pound as a regular, paid contributor to Poetry magazine.  Pound not only began submitting is own poems, but appointed himself a kind of talent scout and also submitted the work—and boosted the careers—of Doolittle, now writing as H.D., Aldington, James Joyce, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, and even the very well established Yeats.

In November 1913 Yeats invited Pound to spend the winter months with him as a confidant and private secretary at Stone Cottage in Coleman's Hatch, Sussex.  He returned the next two years with new wife Dorothy in tow.  The association with Yeats boosted his prestige even among his traditionalist critics.

After marrying in 1914 Pound and his wife set up housekeeping in a single large triangular room without a toilet at 5 Holland Place Chambers, near his old haunt of Church Walk.  Once again newlyweds HD and Aldington lived in quarters next door.  The couple lived on his slender income from Poetry and contribution to two other journals and on her small income from her mother.

The same year began to contribute to Wyndham Lewis's new and exceptionally avante guarde literary magazine BLAST.  Although only two issues made it to the newsstands in 1914 and ’15, Pound was drifting toward Wyndham’s more radical vision and diverging from Imagism, or Imagisme, as he preferred, as expounded by H.D. and Aldington.  Amy Lowell, drawn to London by her admiration of H.D. was at the launch party for BLAST and returned to the states a flame with desire to spread the new movement.  When she financed an American anthology, she did not include Pound, which set off their famous, bitter feud.

Pound sat out World War I in London although many of his contemporaries were swept up into the trenches.  Several acquaintances and close friends were killed, including poet T.E. Hulme, in Flanders in 1917 to Pound’s deep sorrow.

Pound concentrated on his work, getting a boost when Cathay was finally published in 1915.  He also shepherded Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to serialization in The Egoist and arranged for its publication as a book in Paris. 

Conrad Aiken brought Pound manuscripts by his discovery, an American expatriate named T.S. Eliot.  Eliot’s work had been rejected by almost every editor in England before Aiken somewhat reluctantly turned to Pound.  Pound recognized genius when he saw it and got Eliot into the pages of Poetry and promoted him as a protégé on the London literary scene.  

He was also writing music reviews under a pen name in The New Age and weekly columns in both The Egotist and New Age in addition to his work for Poetry.

Despite his heavy workload he announced to friends the inauguration of a vast new project that he imagined might take 40 years of his life.  He had early drafts of Canto I, the first in an unending series, published in Poetry in January 1917.  Later that year he sent an Homage to Sextus Propertius which was savaged in a letter published by a critic as a bad translation.  It was never meant to be a translation, but rather a musing on the text and themes of the Roman poet.  Pound’s outraged, and intemperate reply was not published by Monroe.  When she did not hear from him for a few weeks after, she erroneously assumed that Pound had resigned in a huff, thus ending the period of the fruitful collaboration.

Ever experimental, Pound was making enemies and alienating friends.  He was depressed by the carnage and futile loss of life in the war and increasingly disdainful the London literary scene.  Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 16 poems about a disillusioned poet published in 1920 was widely considered autobiographical, although Pound denied it.  It was however his swan song to England.

In January 1921 the Pounds relocated to cheap quarters on the Left Bank in Paris.  They were soon swept up in the vibrant expatriate literary community there.  He also connected to Marcel Duchamp and other key figures in the Dada and Surrealist who both confirmed and expanded his esthetic.  He became close to Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.  The two couples spent a summer in Italy together and Hemingway looked on Pound as both an editor and a mentor.  But there was little income from his writing and Pound, who built the furniture for his own apartment, took a commission to build bookshelves for the Shakespeare and Company bookstore—shelves which are still in use today.

Eliot mailed Pound a draft of The Wasteland which he heavily edited.  Rather than being offended, Eliot recognized what an improvement had been made, “I should like to think that the manuscript, with the suppressed passages, had disappeared irrecoverably; yet, on the other hand, I should wish the blue penciling on it to be preserved as irrefutable evidence of Pound's critical genius.”

Joyce arrived with early drafts of Finnegan’s Wake.  Pound helped Ford Maddox Ford scrounge funding for a new literary journal transatlantic review which published Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.

Pound’s domestic relationships were in turmoil.  He and Dorothy always had an open relationship—at least as far as her tolerance for his many sexual conquests.  But in 1922 he met and fell in love with American concert violinist Olga Rudge.  The two began an affair that would last 50 years.  The two took off for a summer on the Riviera while Pound wrote solo violin pieces for her and collaborated with George Antheil on two operas including Le Testament de Villon.

After Pound was stabbed, apparently in a random attack, in a Paris café, he and Dorothy decided in 1924 to leave the city of light for quieter—and cheaper—accommodations in Italy.  They settled in Rapallo, picturesque seaport town in the province of Genoa.  Rudge followed Pound there, pregnant with his child. Mary was born on July 9th.  Neither had an interest in raising the child who was given into the care of a German woman to foster for 200 lire a month provided by Rudge’s wealthy family.  It was too much, even for Dorothy, who left Pound for most of the next two years.

Dorothy re-united with her husband after becoming pregnant herself on an earlier visit.  Their son Omar was born in Paris on September 10, 1926 while Pound was in the city for the premier of his opera Le Testament de Villon.  Hemingway drove the mother to the hospital.  That son, too, was given up and was raised in England in wealth and comfort by his Grandmother Olivia receiving only infrequent visits from his parents.

Despite the drama, Pound was working seriously now on his Cantos. He published Cantos 17–19 in the literary magazine This Quarter which had previously dedicated its whole first issue to him with laudatory essays by Hemingway, Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and e.e. Cummings.  In 1927 he even launched his own somewhat successful magazine, The Exile to which he contributed mostly rambling essays.

Pound junked most of his early drafts, including those published in Poetry and now referred to as the Ur-Cantos.  He tinkered with many drafts and revisions of many sections.  It was never a coherent work, but a string of musings on topics ranging from Greek mythology, to Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon,  Chinese history, usury, Italian anarchists—and eventually Mussolini and Italian Fascism.  He drew on many languages, deep research, personal memory, as well as whims and personal prejudices—which could be extremely petty.  Not so petty or pretty was an ugly stream of anti-Semitism.  

The Cantos were published in different revisions and in dribs and drabs in literary journals and occasional collection and in periodic volumes from 1923 until a “comprehensive” collection of the unfinished work, The Cantos (1–109) was published in 1964.  Four years later that was supplemented by Drafts and Fragments: Cantos CX-CXVII.

Much of Pound’s time in the ‘20’s was occupied trying to figure out the catastrophe of the War.  He decided that international financiers, driven by usury, were responsible for the war.  Of course those financiers were Jewish.  His remedy was the leftish idea of social credit expounded by engineer C.H. Douglas who he had met at the offices of the Blast a decade earlier.  But he believed existing Socialist and Marxist parties were corrupted by the same sinister forces as the Capitalists.  He turned to new, and somewhat amorphous, Fascism as the political tool to implement his economic reforms.

Pound published ABC of Economics in 1933, Social Credit: An Impact in 1935, and Jefferson and/or Mussolini in1936 to expound on his theories.  Olga Rudge had arranged a meeting between Pound and the Italian dictator in 1933.  Pound pressed him on his economic theories.  Mussolini was non-committal but flattering.  Pound was star struck and began to write friends that he had, “never met anyone who seemed to GET my ideas so quickly as the boss.”

After returning to London in 1938 to arrange for the funeral of Olive Shakespear Pound reunited with Eliot and Wyndham Lewis—and even saw poor Omar for the first time in eight years.

In April of 1939, not so coincidentally timed as tensions built to another war, Pound sailed to the States on a mission to promote his Social Credit ideas and to prevent American intervention.   He lobbied in Washington.  Dorothy claimed he was not driven by egotism, but by genuine concern.  Others had their doubts.  Pound even found time to dash to Hamilton College,  a leading institutional voice for heartland conservative isolationists, to receive an honorary degree.  

Back in Italy before the outbreak of the war, Pound began to produce virulent anti-Semitic pieces for the Italian press.  He contributed articles to Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Fascist press extolling Hitler and Nazism as the armor of civilization against Russia.  He began to sign letters to old friends in England and America “Heil Hitler!”

Clearly this was not, as some friends later claimed, a mild and naive infatuation.  Pound was a completely devoted and committed Fascist and an avowed enemy of the Western democracies which were, as he wrote in a Japanese newspaper, countries “run by Jews.”

Despite his apparent dedication Italian authorities were suspicious that he might be a deep cover British agent and for two years declined his persistent offers to make propaganda broadcasts.  They finally agreed after the United States entered the war.  Pound made more than 100 broadcasts, which he wrote himself.  He traveled to Rome once a week to record his 10 minute programs and was paid $17 for each of them, virtually his whole income during the war as he was cut off from his American and British royalties. 

Even after Rome fell and the Italians deposed Mussolini and made a separate peace, Pound continued to write under pseudonyms and broadcast under Nazi aegis He was arrested by partisans in Rapallo in April of 1945 four days after Mussolini had been executed.  He was released, but fearing re-arrest, he and Dorothy turned themselves in to American occupation troops.

Pound had been indicted for treason in the U.S. in 1943.  He was now interrogated at lengthy by both American military intelligence and FBI agents sent to build the case against him.  He tried to strike a deal.  He asked to speak to President Truman to offer to make a special broadcast to Japan, From the Ashes of Europe urging the surrender of the Empire.  He also offered to make a final broadcast to Europe admitting his errors, urging Japanese surrender, begging for mercy to Germany, and even endorsing a homeland in Palestine for the Jews.  The offer was turned down, but the detailed proposal was forwarded to J. Edgar Hoover at FBI headquarters.

But the remorse might not have been sincere.  On V-E Day he reintegrated his admiration of Hitler—“a saint like Joan of Arc” and Mussolini.  Authorities were not amused and sent him to a military prison in Pisa where he was placed in solitary confinement in an open cell with no bedding and worse, no reading material.  After 10 days Pound experienced a complete mental break down.  He was transferred to a more comfortable tent and allowed pen and paper.  There he began writing what would become known as the Pisan Cantos.

In November Pound was transferred to the United States and arraigned for treason in a Federal court in Washington, D.C.  A judge ordered him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to determine his sanity to stand trial.  For weeks he was held in the general population of  the prison ward, a noted hell hole where he was allowed only one 15 minute visit a week.  Once again both his mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly.  

In January 1947 the hospital superintendent, personally fascinated by Pound, agreed to move him to more comfortable private quarters on Chestnut Ward.  He was allowed almost unlimited visits, including up to four hours a day from his wife Dorothy, now officially his legal guardian.  He was given access to any books he wished and provided with writing materials.  Pound immediately began working again on his Cantos.  In fact the ward provided a secure and comfortable environment with unlimited writing time.  Pound began to actually enjoy it, and to the chagrin of his friends, resisted efforts to get him released.

But his friends, even those like Hemingway who hated his politics worked to get him out.  They had a strategy—rebuild Pound’s reputation as a great poet.  To that end his longtime publisher James Laughlin of New Directions Press had The Pisan Cantos in July of 1968.

The idea conceived by William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, W. H. Auden, and Archibald MacLeish was to time the release for eligibility for the first Bollingen Prize for poetry to be administered by the Library of Congress.  The jury was stacked.  It included not only some of Pound's old Isolationist Republican Congressmen, but someof the poets involved in the scheme.  With dissenting votes from Karl Shapiro and the wife of the Attorney General who indicted him, Pound was given the inaugural award in 1948.  He even received the support of his old nemesis, Amy Lowell.

Much of the public, however, was outraged at the award to an indicted traitor.  Newspaper editorial railed, Rep. Jacob Javits demanded a Congressional investigation, and the Library of Congress was stripped of authority  over subsequent awards.  Pound was allowed to keep the prize and the $1000 award that went with it, but the bad publicity did nothing for his chances at release.

Pound made several public repudiations of his anti-Semitism.  Yet he continued to urge visitors and staff at the hospital to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Eustace Mullins of the Aryan League of America visited Pound and wrote an admiring 1961 biography.  Worse, he was close to Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi John Kaspar who was eventually jailed for the bombing of a Black school in Nashville.  Such associations kept Pound from being released despite continued high profile support from T.S. Eliot and others.

After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1957 old chum Hemingway that it would be a “good year to release poets.”  He also pledged to Archibald MacLeish to give Pound $1,500 to get him started on a new life after his release.  

In 1958 a new lawyer began appeals to have Pound released.  He was supported by hospital executives.  Privately they believed Pound had a narcissistic personality disorder but was legally sane.  Publicly they told the judge that he was hopelessly insane but harmless and could not be helped by further hospital treatment.  Without opposition from the Justice Department the Treason charges were dropped and Pound released from the hospital.

He and Dorothy quickly beat a retreat to Italy where he was photographed giving a Fascist salute upon landing in Naples.  They went to live with his daughter Mary in the South Tyrol before returning to Rapallo where Olga Rudge joined them.  A younger American secretary/mistress was added to the mix making for a very unhappy household.

Pound suffered bouts of depression and deteriorating health.  After falling seriously ill with a kidney infection, Dorothy felt she could no longer care for him and left for London to live with her son.  Pound and Olga divided time between Venice and Rapallo.  Despite ill health he managed to make a public appearance at a Neo-Fascist rally in 1962.

One by one his friends were dying. First William Carlos Williams and Eliot two years later. He made it the funeral in London in 1965 and made it to Ireland to visit Yeats’s widow.  When Allan Ginsburg, a rising star, visited him in Venice in 1967, Pound made his most famous repudiation of anti-Semitism, “…my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything ... I found after seventy years that I was not a lunatic but a moron ... I should have been able to do better ...”  Weeks later he was back to making anti-Semitic comments to other visitors.

Pound dared return to the U.S. in 1969 for an exhibition on Eliot that included his famous blue pencil edit of The Wasteland and received a standing ovation back at Hamilton College when he accompanied his publisher Laughlin who was awarded a PhD, largely for promoting Pound’s work.

Upon returning to Italy, his health declined quickly.  He died in Venice on November 1, 1972 with Olga at his side.  Dorothy was too ill in England to travel to the funeral.  He was buried in the expatriate graveyard on the island of San Michele.  Dorothy died in England a year later followed closely by Olga who was buried next to him.

And there you have Ezra Pound, genius, mentor, rascal, bigot, and traitor.  Make of him what you will. 

Portrait d’unne Femme

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind—with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion:
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that's quite your own.
                     Yet this is you.

—Ezra Pound

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