The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound

52196947Robert Crawford at Literary Review:

Examining some of Pound’s late prose writings, Swift concludes that ‘Pound never calls for violence, but preaches brutality in code.’ His book concentrates on the period, between 1945 and 1958, when Pound was incarcerated in the huge Washington mental hospital of St Elizabeths – which Pound nicknamed ‘the bughouse’ – after his legal team had successfully argued that he could not be tried for treason because he was insane. Before joining about seven thousand other inmates at St Elizabeths, Pound had been detained in Guantanamo-like conditions in a prison camp near Pisa controlled by US forces. The crime he was accused of was making, throughout the Second World War, radio broadcasts for Mussolini in an attempt to convince Americans of, among other things, the rightness of the Fascist cause. For Pound, America’s modern political leaders had abandoned true American values; he considered Hitler to be a martyr, Churchill a supporter of ‘kikes’ and Mussolini a great ‘Boss’.

Pound was lucky not to be executed as a traitor. The defence of insanity saved him but also condemned him. From the asylum he submitted for publication his Pisan Cantos, which was soon awarded one of America’s most prestigious literary awards, the Bollingen Prize. This is a reminder, if one were needed, that he continued to be regarded as one of the 20th century’s leading English-language poets. He had, after all, been at the heart of the Imagist movement; he had also produced, in Cathay (1915), perhaps the greatest volume of verse translations in English and, Swift asserts, ‘arguably the book which invents modernist poetry’; his friend T S Eliot had described him as il miglior fabbro (‘the greater craftsman’) after Pound helped edit The Waste Land; his ongoing Cantos, an epic of Coleridgean and Ossianic ambition, ranked among the most provocative achievements in the poetry of the Anglophone avant-garde. At the heart of Swift’s book is the issue of how Pound could be at once Fascist, madman and great poet.

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