Ezra Pound --- Traitor/Poet
As John Walker, the so-called Taliban Yank, fades from the front pages, and Hanoi Jane of Fonda family fame becomes a footnote superseded by celebrity, the controversy over Ezra Pound and his actions during World War Two remains frozen in time -- was he a great poet or a traitor to his country?
A patriotic debate over a poetry prize, one that was awarded in 1949 with the blessings of a literary panel appointed by the Library of Congress? Sounds hard to believe, but in its time a heated debate raged over the first Bollingen Prize in Poetry and its $1,000 award, which was given to Pound, who at the time was under indictment for treason against the United States, and confined to a hospital in Washington, D.C. after being declared insane.
What were Pound's weapons - his missiles launched at the United States and Great Britain during World War Two? The English language and radio broadcasts delivered from Italy against the allied war effort in a series of rambling, incoherent gibberish that was pro-fascist and decidedly anti-Semitic?
One can only imagine the reaction today if an international rock star, say Elton John or Paul McCartney, used Afghanistan in a televised speech the way Pound ranted about the allied presence in North Africa during World War Two.
Pound began a broadcast for Radio Rome on April 23, 1943, for instance, by declaring,"I think quite simply and definitely that American troops in North Africa, all of 'em ought to go back to America, if they can get there."
And then the frantic railings continued, the derogatory references to Jews; that Jews were responsible for the war, disproportionately controlling the press and in cahoots with President Roosevelt, which prompted Pound to declare,"I think it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yids."
When the Bollingen Prize was first announced the New York Times captured the story succinctly in its headline:"Pound in Mental Clinic, Wins Prize for Poetry Penned in Prison Cell."
Pound received the award for his Pisan Cantos, written while imprisoned in an open-air military detention center in 1945. The Pisan Cantos, part of an epic work started in 1925 but never finished, are regarded as Pound's most personal poems, his attempt to contemplate his own past while lamenting what he saw as the tragedy of Europe with the collapse of fascism.
The Bollingen Prize is not a minor award, having been presented over the years to such poets as Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Robert Penn Warren, e.e. Cummings, and Robert Frost. But, it was to Pound that the first one was awarded, and his Pisan Cantos is seen by many as preparing the way for confessional poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath.
As the literary critic Malcolm Cowley writes in his essay, The Battle Over Ezra Pound,"A few newspapers printed favorable editorials, while others were puzzled rather than angry; they wondered who were the Fellows of the Library of Congress and why they had chosen a book by a guaranteed-to-be-crazy poet who had given broadcasts from the enemy, like Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose."
How did Pound ever get to this state; a man who was a renowned poet who helped promote such writers as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence before they were well known? Pound, a bitter man in his sixties, living in Rapallo, Italy, spewing venom and hatred against his country in time of war, and not a video technology war, but truly a world war to determine the fate of Europe in the face of the fascist powers.
Pound was born in 1885 in Idaho, of Quaker ancestry. He entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1901, where he met and became friends with fellow poet William Carlos Williams, who ironically was considered for the Bollingen Award in 1949, losing out to Pound's Pisan Cantos, though Williams jointly received the prize in 1953 with Archibald MacLeish.
After transferring and graduating from Hamilton College, Pound returned to the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Masters degree in Romantic languages. It was at this point in his life that his first brushes with what he perceived as unreasonable bourgeois authority occurred. First, he failed to be accepted as a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, with mediocre grades and unruly arguments with the faculty cited as the reasons, and then while teaching at a small Presbyterian college in Indiana, Pound was fired after letting a traveling actress spend the night in his room while a storm raged outside.
So far, an unremarkable life, but a sequestered life in the halls of academia were not to be Pound's calling. He left the United States, arriving in London in 1908, and later that year published his first book of poems, A Lume Spento. When he moved to Paris in 1921, he was already considered a major literary figure.
Like many, Pound was deeply affected by the devastating trauma and unprecedented destruction of World War One. Unlike other literary figures, just as profoundly influenced and disturbed, Pound became increasingly obsessed with economics and the idea that the world would be a safer, more stable place if states were governed by a central authority, as exemplified by fascist Italy under Mussolini.
Pound first took to the airwaves in 1936, intermittently expounding his theories on economics and his political observations over Radio Rome. By 1941, he was regularly denouncing the United States and Great Britain, while praising the Axis powers. One can easily see how these broadcasts were received by his fellow Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The once admired poet was indicted for treason by the United States in July of 1943. Certainly he was guilty of"giving aid and comfort" to the enemy in the eyes of most Americans. And to compound the matter, Pound continued his broadcasts attacking the United States and its support of"the coming of Zion" until he was arrested in Genoa in 1945 and sent to a U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Center in Italy.
That could have been the end of the story. Pound was flown back to the United States in November of 1945, and though he had been indicted on 19 counts of treason, a jury subsequently determined that he was incompetent to stand trial, so he was shipped off to St. Elisabeth's Hospital for confinement.
But poets, especially ones with roaring demons inside, produce poetry, and Pound's Pisan Cantos was written while he was in the prison compound near Pisa before he returned in custody to the United States.
Pound was still in St. Elizabeth's Hospital when the controversy erupted over the decision to award him the Bollingen Prize; in fact, he would remain in the hospital for 12 years until released in 1958, when he returned to Italy and lived quietly until his death in 1972.
A substantial majority on the panel of international poets voted in favor of the Pisan Cantos as the best book of verse by an American author published during the preceding calendar year. There were 10 votes for Pound, two for his old friend William Carlos Williams, one abstention, and the vote of another poet, who recently died, was awarded to Pound because the deceased poet was the one who nominated the Pisan Cantos for the award.
Cowley points out that there were"only mild skirmishes at first" over giving the award to Pound until The Saturday Review published two articles by Robert Hillyer who"marched in with fresh battalions like Blucher at Waterloo."
Hillyer, a former professor at Harvard who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1934, launched an attack charging that the award was part of a conspiracy to undermine literature and the American way of life. Of course, it was also an opportunity for Hillyer to lash out at T.S. Eliot and Auden, to whom, as Cowley notes, Hillyer"revealed an obsessed rage" and regarded as poetic rivals.
In large part, Cowley's essay on Pound, was in response to Hillyer's vindictive articles in The Saturday Review. But Hillyer's articles were effective, with cries of"Up with English classics!" and"Save our college girls from reading T.S. Eliot!" making the rounds among the patriotic literary elite.
The furor found its way to Congress, with Senator Jacob Javits of New York calling for an investigation, and the issue coming before a Congressional Joint Committee on the Library of Congress resulting in a resolution that, henceforth, the Library of Congress would cease from giving awards or prizes. The next Bollingen Award, received by Wallace Stevens in 1950, was presented by the Yale University Library.
Cowley concluded that the Fellows were performing the double duty of citizens and men of letters in awarding the Bollingen Prize to Pound, and their choice of the Pisan Cantos was literary rather than political.
According to Cowley, after interviewing the Fellows of the Library of Congress, most revealed that"they felt too many second-rate authors had been given prizes for expressing the right opinions." Still, Cowley questioned whether the Pisan Cantos represented"the highest achievement of American poetry" during the year 1948.
In Cowley's opinion, Pound's Cantos was"the worst of several possible choices" but his major objection with the Fellows selection was that it returned Pound"back into the limelight" and saved him from a justified fate in obscurity.
"After being arrested by his own countrymen he was sent to a mental hospital without being granted the dignity of a pubic trial," Cowley stated."It was the perfect retribution, a spoiled punishment for a soiled crime."
Of course, Cowley was writing before the electronic age and the 24 hour news cycle of cable television, where the thought of dignity and a public trial hardly fit together.