The Poetics of Treason: Ezra Pound’s Postwar Downfall


Ezra Pound in 1913, looking very Adam Driver

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.


“A Rough Mind Map of Ezra Pound”,

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.


Poet Ezra Pound’s 1945 arrest mugshot, taken at Army Disciplinary Training Center, Lavagna, Italy

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,

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.

One thought on “The Poetics of Treason: Ezra Pound’s Postwar Downfall

  1. Yes, Pound is recent enough, important enough, and wrong enough politically (by my lights, and one hopes, most others) to serve as a prime example for these questions. I’ve found no answers that seem final to me on this matter, and I don’t know enough about Pound’s life to be sure, but two things occur to me First, the courage and audacity needed to remake art may, when applied elsewhere without re-adjusting the consequences and ones knowledge and talents, can lead to such errors. In such you can see Lindberg and Henry Ford as other examples in their fields in the same time. The second thought, I wonder if Pound suffered from survivor’s guilt? So many of his circle fought, and some died in WWI. In the US, we have the phenomenon of “Chicken Hawks” who did not serve in their generations war, but wish to be seen as firmly backing military action later.

    Not all the modernists lived overseas. He’s not remembered as such much now, but Carl Sandburg was a hard core Imagist/Modernist poet, yet he’s thought of as this homey Americana guy now, if he’s recalled at all. William Carlos Williams would be another home-fires modernist/Imagist.

    Anyway, interested to see you looking at the soldier poets. I’m surprised myself at what a large group it is, particularly among the early 20th Century modernists as I work with some of their words to use with music I compose and perform over at my blog this year.


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