Rod Jellema on EZRA POUND
(October 30, 1885 - November 1, 1972)

When Ezra Pound arrived in Washington from Italy in 1945, a prisoner charged with treason, he landed in a war's-end bureaucracy which could offer little in the way of a literary scene. Briefly jailed and then transferred to St. Elizabeth's, to a secure ward for the criminally insane, he would have had almost no contact with poets in Washington anyway. Most of his visitors were from elsewhere, among them William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Charles Olson, Robert Lowell. If he had been living in Washington by choice (hard to imagine), his isolation and loneliness might have been about the same. Often gruff and irascible, an incessant talker, "a barbarian on the loose in a museum," in those twelve years he might have been only a difficult neighbor.

Ezra Pound in 1945, taken 5 days
after his admission to St. Elizabeth's Hospital
(National Archives)


I used to think of him not as a neighbor but as an uncle. Uncle Ezra. He'd be a grand embarrassment to most of my gentler family, a fire-brand uncle self-exiled to London-Paris-Rapallo-Venice who had strolled the horsey streets of London with Yeats in 1912 wearing pinned-up trousers of green pool-table felt and an oversized hat, railing against the world's loss of decorum and order. Lots of people might want an uncle like that to shock the neighbors ­ or the other uncles ­ the kind of uncle you need when you sometimes have to wonder. This "crank medievalist" with his "rich but disordered memory," who hoarded intersecting planes of light in seven languages of broken glass the way Old Man Hodge, our midwest neighbor, used to stash away foreign bottle caps in his shack out back that no one ever entered. Uncle Ez. He would have startled and bored your friends by tracking like comets the curves of ideographic Chinese verbs, chanting, hands flying. But his talk would be, well, different. He could enter into and speak from the mind of a medieval scientist who would get "a mind full of forms" from looking at newly developed electric street lights, fascinated by not just the light but by "the thought of the current hidden in air and in wire" ("Essay on Cavalcanti"). But then he'd leap to big pronouncements for saving civilization, usually wrong, often horrid and disgraceful. You'd have to feel confused and ashamed. But he'd be like no one else's uncle, and there's that thing about the wonder. He might not sit on the front steps and tell the neighbor kids about it, he might in fact shout to them just what's wrong with international banking, but if he was your uncle he just might sometimes let you in.

When he arrived in Washington, aged 60, he must have seemed a mere wreck of the man who, as powerful impresario, had first gotten Frost and Eliot published and had, by their own accounts, given "new life" to Yeats and taken James Joyce "out of the gutter." Commanding nothing now, he was reduced to requesting a vacuum cleaner to battle the microbes he feared. He had to beg small changes in his diet (he liked to slather bread with mayonnaise and serve it to his guests). But Pound the writer was not slowed down. He read through chaotic piles of books, finished the section of his Cantos he had begun in the U.S.Army's detention camp in Pisa (The Pisan Cantos,1948), translated Confucius and some Sophocles, and then wrote and published Cantos 85 - 95 (Rock-Drill, 1956) and Cantos 96-109 (Thrones, 1959). He also wrote thousands of letters, some of them hugely scrawled in pencil, some of them dictated to and typed by his wife Dorothy. All the reading and writing was done over the clatter of hospital routines and the din of the voices of his mentally disturbed wardmates. "The best talk in St. Liz," wrote Hugh Kenner, "was the monologue." The city of Washington cannot claim to have nurtured these writings, at least not in the usual way. Washington was outside the walls of where the work happened.

In at least one minor case, literary Washington did get inside the walls. Rudd Fleming, then a young professor at the University of Maryland, visited Pound often to converse about Greek drama and eventually to collaborate with him on a translation of Sophocles' Elektra. Finally published as a play by Pound and Fleming (Princeton University Press, 1989), Pound's work on this project cleared the way for his translation of The Women of Trachis (1954) and built up momentum for further work on the cantos.

When I came to Washington Pound had three years to go. Though I got to know Rudd Fleming, who could possibly have introduced me to Pound, visiting him was the farthest thing from my mind. An intern on the ward would give me occasional anecdotes, but the mere thought of a visit would have struck fear into me. The fear would have been somewhat like the kind of fear taught by the Hebrew Bible.

The work that Pound produced in his twelve years of confinement was an attempt to round out and finish the work that he had begun by 1907, when he had exiled himself. One of the ways he had stated his life's mission was "to bring back the gods." The tentativeness and ambiguity of their possible return is caught in the tension of his early poem, "The Return," where the gods in present tense are in irregular, unstable meters while their past is in metrically regular lines and the final image has no tense at all. By the time of his death in Italy, twelve years after his release, the gods were still suspended, the cantos unfinished. In their final fragments, he could calmly outstare what he had failed to finish in Washington and since:

..............................No man can see his own end.
The gods have not returned. "They have never left us."
..................................They have not returned.

(Canto 113)

I have brought the great ball of crystal;
............................Who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
..............But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.

(Canto 116)

The quiet flow of such lines came mostly after and seldom during St. Elizabeth's. The final third of the Pisan Cantos, written there, carry the truckloads of Pound's deep, wide, almost frantic reading. But the resulting fragments of quote and paraphrase and the footnote-like insertions are still under an astonishing mastery of formed speech, everything held together by tension. The mastery continued in the next two books of the cantos, Pound trying now for the precision of philology in one of them, and in the other for a balance between the terrible disorder perceivable within and outside of himself and the clean sanity of ancient Chinese ideograms. He got himself back to what he had started to catch 30 years earlier, sketching Confucius (the westernized name for Kung):

And Kung said, and wrote on the bo leaves:
................."If a man have not order within him
"He cannot spread order about him;
And if a man have not order within him
His family will not act with due order;
..................And if the prince have not order within him
He can not put order in his dominions...
And Kung said, "Without character you will
.................."be unable to play on that instrument
"Or to execute the music fit for the Odes.
"The blossoms of the apricot
.................."blow from the east to the west,
"And I have tried to keep them from falling."

(Canto 13)

I cannot pretend to make wise elucidation of the cantos in Rock-Drill and Thrones. Pound demands slow, careful readers, and why not? As a teacher I used to point to a few samples and hurry on, willing to concede that the failure was more mine than Pound's.

But what finally is Washington to make of this poet-in-residence? I'm back to Uncle Ez. The "treatment" had probably little effect. He had surrendered himself in Italy so that he could get to Washington to "save the Constitution." His obsession with crackpot economic theories, derived largely from Major Charles H. Douglas, and his fear of disorder, sane enough to begin with ("1918 began investigation of causes of war, to oppose same"), twisted him into the high fascist arrogance of state-imposed order. He carried into that delusion a nasty anti-Semitism first acquired in the suburbs of Philadelphia. At St. E's he was still ranting about the need for racial purity. Out of touch with America (and also by the way with Nazi death camps, which he would instinctively have abhorred) he had thought for years that Mussolini was the hero who would solve the fiscal mess at the root of poverty and war. Uncle Ez was the kind of paranoid eccentric who would listen to no one but himself. Unforgivably so. Now all he could do, holding onto his arrogance, was to move past Mussolini's collapse into older kinds of order that he could (and he really could) make present and new in the later cantos. Washington meant psychoanalysts and lawyers and bureaucrats, and that to any Uncle Ez in the world means almost nothing at all.

Assuming that there is such a thing as Washington poetry, hopefully never defined, Pound of course influenced it enormously ­ simply because he broke through and expanded the possibilities of all poetry in English. From him we learned to respect hard edges and metrical log jams, we learned to mine words instead of manipulating readers with words. Our poems dared to become little cyclotrons, energy transformers. His revolution was deep and broad. (More narrowly you can find Pound's imprint on the output of Pound-like cantos by Washington poet Carlo Parcelli, and on Parcelli's work with the e-magazine Flashpoint.)

It is tempting to honor Pound's achievement by setting aside what is ugly in its content. But that won't do. You can't separate a poem's content from its form and still be talking about a poem. Poetry is formed content. T. S. Eliot may have seen a way through when he wrote to Archibald MacLeish that their problem in trying to get Pound released would be to convince others that Pound "is neither sane nor insane." That is to say, Pound might be off the scale. One of my professors from undergraduate days at Calvin College, Henry Zylstra, suggested that possibility back in 1949. Pound's derangement, he said, might be more than a personality disorder; "Pound may be so sensitive a recording device that he is recording the schizophrenia deep within western culture." That's an interesting way of reading Pound, who said early on that "poets are the antennae of the race."

It was only after his release from Washington, back in what Henry James called deep dark old Europe, that Pound got free of his furies. After long periods of silence (incredible to anyone who knew him) he would admit to visitors that he had been wrong. "I botched it." He told Allen Ginsberg that "the worst mistake I made was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism." And in the end, far from Washington, the indignant gods he had tried to recover who had never really left us (the mind, the mind) came almost back, close enough again in fragments of cantos to bring to his madness and imperfections and failings a final hush:

A blown husk that is finished
........but the light sings eternal
a pale flare over marshes
........where the salt hay whispers to tide's change.

(Canto 115)


THE RETURN by Ezra Pound (1913)

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
.......................and half turn back;
These were the "Wing'd-with-Awe,"

Gods of the wingéd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
.......................sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!
.......These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.

Slow on the leash,
.......................pallid the leash-men!



Suggested Reading:

Ezra Pound's The Cantos remains in print. A new edition of The Pisan Cantos, edited and annotated by Richard Sieburth, is promised for September, 2003. An essential paperback is Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. There are two standard volumes of Pound's letters up to 1945, but his letters from St. Elizabeth's are presently scattered through four smaller books. The best guide to Pound's life and work is still Hugh Kenner's monumental The Pound Era. Of special interest and highly recommended: the recordings that Pound made of a selection of his poems shortly after his release, originally on a Caedmon LP. The craggy voice, rolling the r's, is usually incantatory, sometimes lyrical, often entertaining, sometimes urgent.

The Academy of American Poets web site contains a bibliography, publications list, connections to web "exhibits" and 7 poems (1 with audio):

The Plagiarist web site reprints 21 poems:

Professor Eiichi Hishikawa of Kobe University in Japan has created a useful site with a biographical timeline, bibliography, and links:

The Modern American Poetry site has some great commentary on individual poems, as well as articles, photos, a bibliography, and links:

Donald Lyon's essay on Pound, "A Major Minor", was originally published in the New Criterion: