The poet Ezra Pound may have been a crazy old man, but does that cancel out his fascism or his treason?
When I first started working at the Library of Congress in the 1970s, there were members of the staff that still remembered the old man who haunted the reading room in the Thomas Jefferson Building. He would, they said, catch the bus in Anacostia, across the river in Southeast D.C., and ride it up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, where he would get off and scuttle into the reading room. There he would sit at one of the old wooden desks, scribbling quietly and muttering to himself. After a while he blended in with the scenery, another of the city’s walking wounded taking refuge in that venerable haven. At least he didn’t cause any trouble like some of the other denizens I later encountered, such as the Bride of Christ—loping around the perimeter of the reading room, always dressed in a wedding gown—and the man in the John Adams Building’s reading room who, like Harvey Weinstein, masturbated repeatedly in full view of other patrons.
Only later did I learn that I’d missed my chance by just a few years to bring reading materials—my job in the Jefferson Building was as a “deck attendant”—to this alleged infamous old man. The old staffers were absolutely certain that he was Ezra Pound.
“Reading Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” would be the equivalent of listening to all four sides of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.”
Some have called Pound the most influential poet of the 20th century. After all, he edited T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” helped get James Joyce’s Ulysses published, inspired e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Others have called Pound the most unreadable poet of the 20th century. After all, he spent 50 years writing a single 800-page poem (“The Cantos”) that he claimed was unfinished. Reading Pound’s “Cantos” would be the equivalent of listening to all four sides of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. More to the point, though, many others have accused Pound of being a fascist (he called Hitler “a martyr” and loved “poor old Benito”) and a traitor for his Axis propaganda broadcasts from Italy during World War II.
In all, Pound made 200 anti-American, pro-Fascist radio broadcasts intended to undermine the Allied war effort. He was indicted by the Department of Justice in July 1943 and held in a 6-foot by 6-foot “cage” in Italy until he could be extradited to America after the war. His cryptic messages from captivity read like the letters that Rudolf Hess sent from Spandau Prison, alternately self-pitying and philosophical but never regretful for crimes committed.
Pound’s radio broadcasts were almost as inscrutable as his poetry. Listen to this broadcast from May 1942.
Even as propaganda, it fails. It neither motivates nor convinces anyone who isn’t already a hate-filled anti-Semite, and it probably put most listeners to sleep. In a near-robotic voice, he drones on for ten minutes about “Hebrew barbarism” and the Talmud (“that dirty book”) and how “the Kike is out for all power.” This is the true Pound, not the delicate poet the academics fawned over when I was an undergraduate English literature major. It’s clear, from this and other of his broadcasts now restored and available, that the true Ezra Pound was a pompous asshole and a crushing bore.
“But Swift does something else in The Bughouse, perhaps inadvertently, by suggesting that Pound may have faked his madness to avoid being convicted of treason and likely executed by the federal government.”
With that said, it made perfect sense to me as a young deck attendant back in the 1970s that Pound would have ended up a disheveled old man stared at from the reading room viewing area by the DC bus tourists and a semi-permanent resident of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Anacostia, the same place where John Hinckley lived after he shot Ronald Reagan in his attempt to show off to Jodie Foster. That is, it seemed completely plausible, given the aforementioned assortment of walking wounded who frequented the library’s reading rooms.
In The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Daniel Swift disabused me of the notion that the poet hanging out in the reading room was Ezra Pound. Ezra was not allowed off the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Anacostia, leading to the question: Was that old man in the reading room who fooled my former LC colleagues pretending to be Pound? That would be a true dagwood sandwich of craziness, wouldn’t it? An anonymous crazy person pretending to be a famous crazy person, thus canceling out the crazy, if my math is correct.
But Swift does something else in The Bughouse, perhaps inadvertently, by suggesting that Pound may have faked his madness to avoid being convicted of treason and likely executed by the federal government. After all, Pound set up a “salon” during his 13-year residency at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital—on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime. He was given an office, a typewriter and all the amenities of a modest hotel and was allowed to continue to write and publish his poetry. People of the stature of Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Charles Olson and Frederick Seidel came to visit him, drink tea, eat brownies and discuss literature (“In the room the women come and go. Talking of Michelangelo”).
It is possible, of course, that Pound was faking mental illness. He was already halfway there, under the best of circumstances; maybe he just decided to ride the bus to its logical conclusion. But, really, 13 years is a long time to fake madness. Isn’t it? I don’t know, I haven’t tried. Maybe I should.
Was Ezra Pound mad? This question seems quaint, doesn’t it? His ravings, in fact, would be tame enough these days to qualify as a more civil surrogate for the President of the United States, or even a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Alabama. And, even so, would it cancel out the evil that he did? Would it make his poetry any more, or less, sensible? Do poets have to be mad for us to like them?
This is the age-old question about our cultural heroes, isn’t it? They may be evil assholes in life but they always turn into literary angels after they die.