To read Ezra Pound’s poetry is not to read the transcripts of his violently anti-Capitalist and anti-Semitic WWII radio broadcasts, which sound more Rush Limbaugh than sensitive artist.
And so, this blog post breaks from the myopia of writers in combat and instead probes the psychological effect that living in wartime had on writers like the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, and how these effects, in combination with mental illness and a poetic temperament, led him to commit actual war crimes.
Operating outside of the government’s reach in Italy, the prolific poet began delivering political, pro-Fascist broadcasts in Europe in 1935, and continued through World War II. They were so shockingly written and critical of Roosevelt, Jews, and capitalism that they actually embroiled him formally in the conflict: after the Allied victory in 1945, Pound was arrested for treason by the United States Army for crimes related to extremely anti-American (and extremely unhinged) broadcasts performed in Italy.
Ezra Pound, once a keen observer of the poetry of life, the visionary king of “making it new” (as was his aim with his avant-garde poetry), was condemned to one of the U.S. Army camp’s “death-cells,” a floodlit six-by-six foot outdoor steel cage intended for war criminals. After two weeks and an expert evaluation, Pound was deemed unfit to stand trial and subsequently locked up for 12 years at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C.
As a poet and current opposer of our current government leader, I am extremely intrigued, and intermittently horrified, by Pound’s behavior. Sometimes he was cool: ever a meddler, he often wrote letters to emerging poets’ parents who disapproved of their offsprings’ literary ambitions, such as the impassioned missive he wrote to T.S. Eliot’s disapproving father in 1918 defending the talent and promise of his son. Pound was about radical freedom of expression and freedom of individual lifestyle choice way before it was acceptable. But then the war, and the sharp turn towards political ramblings over poetry.
So, in our time of blatant racism in the White House, there emerges a question as to whether we (including me) should really honor people like Pound. It is so hard to separate art from man, when we know how much of art emerges from the individual human experience, especially when it comes to the avant-garde and difficult works of Pound.
There is a reason Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot are often studied in conjunction. Both are respected American expatriate poets who emigrated to Western Europe and in 1908 and 1910, respectively, as an effort to find a culture more in tune with their literary vibes. Both would become part of the Modernist Movement in writing.
Just– how different would it be if T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound had been born 50 years later, gotten swept up in the dominant 1960s American literary Beat Poet Movement– would they still have found it necessary to go abroad?
Picture T. S. Eliot in his waistcoat, Pound his psychiatric hospital gown, and mentally shove them both in a clambaked VW bus, and I believe that aesthetic is very close to my own as a poet. And yet– the Beat Poets would probably not exist without the modernists, and the modernists found it necessary to leave America in order to get closer to the rhythm of life, of inspiration.
“A friend and I have a code phrase for a common phenomenon: One learns that an artist one admires, maybe even loves, is not only mortal, but also an abusive monster or worse. The phrase is Ezra Pound.”
-Josh Jones, OpenCulture.com
What I am learning is that war is inescapable as context for the writer who seeks to capture history, to change it with his markings. It is irresponsible to ignore war’s facts and its effects in your art. This is of course a conclusion based on my personal aesthetic as a poet and is probably some of where this blog comes from. In any case, I’ll leave you with an especially Modernist scrap of poem by Pound which charms me–
“I have made a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
. . .
I am old enough to make friends.”
-Ezra Pound, “A Pact,” 1916
As someone who likes to have conversations with the past, I choose to love these parts of Pound which are warm and resemble my notion of poetry… and leave the rest.