The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound
by Daniel Swift
Published February, 2017
Ezra Pound was always an extraordinary figure on the landscape of modern literature. What was it Yeats said? More deliberate nobility than anybody – and then stammering, nightmare, the opposite. In one way Pound is the incarnated spirit of modernism: he edits The Wasteland, he helps turn Yeats himself into something more than the great poet of yesteryear, he promotes Joyce to the point where he effectively lays the foundation of the reputation of the author of Ulysses as the great writer of English language modernism. And he pushes Ford Madox Ford (the best of the British – well, apart from D.H. Lawrence, whom he also notices), he singles out and praises Robert Frost, the finest of the American conservatives. He is the master of ceremonies for the movement which for anyone young in the late middle of the twentieth century was the next best thing to a Renaissance.
And he was also a figure who would ride higher and more reckless in the sphere of political conflict and confusion than any poet since Milton. Just as Milton would write speeches for Oliver Cromwell, the Protector who established Britain as a Commonwealth and realise his own ambition to ‘cut off’ Charles I’s ‘head with the Crown on it’, just as Milton offered a justification for doing this and might have been executed at the time of the Restoration as a regicide, so Pound found himself on the wrong side in the second world war, broadcasting propaganda against America, from Italy, on behalf of the Italian Fascists, on behalf of Hitler’s ally, Mussolini. And so he was thought to be a traitor, he was put in a cage in Pisa and might have been executed for treason if he had not been deemed – madly, but mercifully – as insane and unfit to plead. And so, il miglior fabbro, as Eliot called him – Eliot who rushed to Pound’s side when he fell into the GI’s hands – spent a decade of his life in Saint Elizabeths Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington DC.
There they came to him, the crippled kings and awestruck queens: the poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson, the critics like Hugh Kenner (the greatest of his interpreters), the Nazis and the nutcases. He became both a permanent pariah and a scandal. He was nominated for the Bollingen Prize in 1948 at the very point that his life was in jeopardy and George Orwell (of all people) said there was no reason why he should not win the prize simply because he had embraced folly and evil though he had always thought personally that Pound was a ‘bogus’ poet.
The Cantos, Pound’s great work, was a long mad plaint that might for a moment have fired the sympathies of Fascist and Communist alike, like a unity ticket embracing Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the litany and lamentation, the excoriation of ‘Usura’, of capitalism itself. Think of the old cracked dithyrambic voice chanting in Canto XLV:
With usura hath no man a house of good stone each block cut smooth and well fitting that design might cover their face, with usura hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall harpes et luz or where virgin receiveth message and halo projects from incision, with usura seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines no picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and sell quickly with usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his tone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA wool comes not to market.
It was the death song of capitalism, a great dirge against the freewheeling brutalities of a capitalism that left no poor person safe. And, of course the paradox of Pound was that he became the poorest of the poor. He was captured and put in a cage, exposed to constant light and the elements and the distinct risk of execution. The Pisan Cantos include these lines from Canto LXXXI, which must rank high among the anthology pieces and greatest hits of twentieth-century poetry:
What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none? First came the seen, then thus the palpable Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell, What thou lovest well is thy true heritage What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee[.]
One might wish more diffidence and faltering of the poet who bedded down with Fascists – but who could deny the power of these lines? And if the composition of great poetry is some kind of Elysium, if it is an elevation from which can be beheld the love that moves the sun and other stars, then it has as its occasion some experience of living hell. And yet how strange The Pisan Cantos are, what plangency they have in the very jumble of their articulation. Think of how they start in Canto LXXIV – and then how they continue. The first images of Mussolini and Clara Petacci strung by the heels in the Milan market, an act of vindictive barbarism on behalf of the victors though their cause was just. There’s a queasiness, isn’t there, in ‘The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders’ when the object of such grandeur and such pity is so wholly inappropriate.
An early poem by Christopher Logue registers the poet’s father sneering at Shakespeare –’The tragedy of Hitler. Boo hoo’ and Logue said of this ‘My father was right to instill such doubts in me.’ But with Pound there is the tragedy – coexistent with the flawed triumph – of his blindness. Treason in this war of all wars, anti-Semitism at this moment of all moments. Bardic and self-parodic, intoning and knowing nothing, or (what was worse) not knowing what he knew and what he didn’t. And yet there remains the extraordinary dignity of the tragic folly and the way the gift kept on through all the drafts and fragments . Here is Pound in Canto CXVI, the poem that concludes The Cantos:
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 That I lost my center fighting the world. The dreams clash and are shattered — and that I tried to make a paradiso terrestre. … Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me. And I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere.
He would add a counterpoint little later on in the poem: ‘i.e. it coheres all right/even if my notes do not cohere.’ Where do we start, where do we stop with Pound?
Daniel Swift in The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound starts (or at any rates gets going) with a description of people like Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson coming to see Pound in the Bughouse, in the asylum that was his substitute prisonhouse, Saint Elizabeths (as with Finnegans Wake, no apostrophe to indicate a possessive, just the dim acknowledgement of a plurality of people possessed). Swift seems to set out a bit self-consciously obsessed with his subject, and overly keen to put poets like Olson in their place – however he soon registers Olson’s horror when he realises that Pound has been talking with relish about a group of Canadian soldiers going across a minefield laid by Mussolini’s troops. Treason creeps down the spine of the young poet with horror and outrage. If that sounds rhetorical, well, Daniel Swift is. In the face of subject matter that can only (or at any rate has only) been treated with circumspection he barges in with the sensationalism of a – youngish sounding – literary critic, as if the verbally acrobatic play of mind and the apprehension of irony and ambiguity could solve any problem.
But the book gets better. The psychiatrists who examine Pound and determine his fitness to plea seemed to have thought he was mad because of the arresting and dissociative sensibility that had brought The Cantos into being. It’s fascinating to read of Pound’s dealing with the young doctor Jerome Kavka, who was of Polish descent and Jewish. Pound seems to have put out a feeler to establish this and performed a comic routine with accompanying song, an elbows-at-right-angles sort of chicken dance all about Herr Zibowitz or some such dodgy Yiddisha gent. And Kavka – how crazy the name for the keeper of a sane nutcase – took it in good part and said he was fond of ol’ Ez because his sense of humour was a bit like his Polish dad’s. And then after the poet’s death Kavka wrote his recollections of the poet’s time at St Elizabeths for the journal Paideuma. It’s heartwarming that execrable old Ezra should have had the companionship and kindness of a man of psychiatry who was both all-American in his openheartedness and came from the heart of Mitteleuropean Jewry, an heir to Freud who was alert to the tragic paradigms of absurdity in The Castle and The Trial, who was within a whisker of being the namesake of their author.
Pound was, of course, a lord of language. Think of how much twentieth- century writing – first rank as much as fourth rank – comes out from under the billowing cloak that produced ‘In A Station of the Metro’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
And think of the way Pound gave voice to a world through the strangeness and the emotional reality he found in Chinese literature, armed with nothing but his intuitive clairvoyance and Fenellosa’s notes. Recall ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife’:
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead I played about the front gate, pulling flowers. You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse, You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums. And we went on living in the village of Chōkan: Two small people, without dislike or suspicion. At fourteen I married My Lord you....
If the final apprehension of the husband can sound like a bit of chinoiserie (‘My Lord you’) it can also sound like Shakespearean mastery of broken speech pattern. It has a beauty in its strangeness but the ravishing formal exoticism is not separate from its overheard quality. ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife’ is an epistolary poem in the form of a letter and with the implied compactness of its prose sense. As recently as the 1980s young people I knew used to cite another epistolary poem by Pound, ‘The Exile’s Letter’, to indicate the spaces in their own hearts for things they did not know or did not want to know or did not want to say.
And if you ask how I regret that parting? It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end, confused, whirled in a tangle. What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking— There is no end of things in the heart. I call in the boy, Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this, And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.
This imitation of the great T’ang lyric master Li Po – Rahuko, Pound says, following Fenellosa – displays his typically American command of the music of flatness, of thinness, of understatement.
Daniel Swift is a rather brilliant critic in the narrow sense and he is also a powerful and very talented writer rather more so indeed than is usual in even a very good critic. Here is some straight criticism on The Seafarer. Swift begins:
Pound has so completely abdcicated his own personality that the poem becomes anonymous, but it is characteristically part of the Poundian game of shifting self-narration.
He goes on with eloquence and intelligence:
The poem was written in perhaps the mid ninth century and Pound’s version, done in 1911, sounds at once medieval and modern: it achieves this effect of dissolving history through careful poetic artifice… it is filled with clipped repetition of sounds and of struggle, and that the sound works with the sense is what makes it a poem. There is tension too between what is particular to him and what repeats for all. Much has been changed in Pound’s new version, but equally much has been preserved, for Pound renders the Anglo-Saxon original in modern English vocabulary and yet retains the original poetic form of alliterative verse, which is built upon a skeleton of four strongly stressed repeated sounds, two in each half of the line. This is a very showy style and one which draws attention to itself: it is hard to reconcile such careful formalism with the speaker’s insistence upon his own distinctive individuality, but we may. The poem says: let me tell my own version of events, and in the telling let me invent myself. It will be unreliable, of course; it always is, but it will also – at least for this moment, in this place – be me. ‘May I, for my own self, songs truth reckon,’ the first line demands, both firm and polite, in the old language’s song, he is inventing his own self and his own past.
Great stuff as far as it goes. The trouble is that The Bughouse is constantly outgrowing its own status as a work of interpretation without quite turning into the thing it might be – a biography which is also a work of intrinsic literary quality. What we tend to get is a kind of travelogue and personal journey into the environs of Pound’s incarceration. There is an extended section which is all about Swift’s own journey to the ruins of Saint Elizabeths asylum which is interesting enough in itself but fairly self-evidently beside the point if the reader’s primary interest is Ezra Pound. For example:
There are boards on the floor and upon them, grit, and on the walls the paint is peeling. The long hallway is long and wide with arches repeating in the distance, and it vanishes at the far end into the light of another door. To the left and right are dispensaries, offices, some shut off with yellow tape, and we walk into others. Each room contains a sink. Here in the old hospital all is peeling back. The squares of fitted carpet curl up to reveal floorboards, and roof beams emerge from the broken ceiling. The world is turning upside down: leaves of paint upon the floor and rooftiles beneath our feet.
It might as well be an essay from some Granta issue about institutions or dark houses.
Then there is the treatment of William Carlos Williams. Swift tells us that Williams wrote to President Truman querying the appropriateness of Pound’s confinement in a ward for the criminally insane, as well he might given that he was an old sparring partner and friend of the poet’s, and also a doctor. He then discusses a piece Williams wrote about his friend but did not choose to publish in his lifetime, ‘A Study of Ezra Pound’s Present Position’. Swift’s analysis is that of the smart student: ‘Here ‘position’ is a delicate way of saying incarceration but it also means belief, and the problem is precisely Pound’s beliefs and the place to which they have brought him.’ He quotes Williams –‘he [Pound] has lost faith in the efficacy of the poem and gone over to ideas, using poetry as his stick’ – and adds his own gloss ,‘Williams is delicate, but his teeth are never far from sight.’ It seems absurd to accuse Williams of mordancy when he chose not to publish this criticism. ‘He is a very dear old friend,’ he wrote. But Swift insists on quoting lines like this to make his point: ‘he has wanted to make me ‘like him’ and therefore always inferior. He came from the frontier and has never got it out of his liver… Pound is now static with a vengeance – in an insane asylum.’
Swift also does handstands with Williams’ letter to Doctor Overholser, the Superintendent of Saint Elizabeths, in which he passed on Dorothy Pound’s hopeless request that Pound be released into her custody. He is needlessly insulting in suggesting that this was ‘cowardly’ on the part of Williams rather than courteous. There’s also an axe-grinding discussion of why the ever-observant poet of everyday life would not have bothered to recall his converations with Pound when he did see him. It makes sense that Williams should merely record ‘Ezra Pound seems about as he always has been, not any worse or any better’ and the fact that he does not detail Pound’s specific words is his business. Williams’ jocular if pointed sendup of The Cantos is interesting too, and scarcely surprising, but it’s simply silly to suggest that Williams is intent on usurping the custody of ‘poetry’. This is the kind of codswallop that gives academic criticism a bad name. A more rigorous editor alive to the distinctions of the genre would have struck it out.
The logic of The Bughouse is to see the asylum as intrinsic to Pound and to the question of Pound. Swift is fascinating and a bit morbidly fascinated by what Pound might have been subjected to in Saint Elizabeths – did he have shock treatment, for instance? Was he in fact thought of as genuinely deranged?
Pound won the Bollingen Prize in 1948 – judged by his supporters Eliot and Lowell among others – and Swift reproduces the famous citation: ‘to permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would be to destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception on which any civilised society must rest.’ He talks about Pound’s visitors and emphasises that the poets who came to St Elizabeths tended to underline that they didn’t belong there. Everyone, Swift says, ‘says in one breath, two things. How strange and awful they whisper: how like and unlike me.’ Robert Duncan finds himself locked into the hospital and when he cries to be let out the attendant says, ‘Next time you’ll tell me you’re sane.’
There’s then some rather factitious stuff about Pound doing versions of Sophocles, The Elektra and The Trachinae, which were significantly, Swift thinks, tragedies, and that this chimes in with the fact that they were contemporary with Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (which remotely draws on the Alcestis of Euripides). Swift toys around with the idea that classical tragedy is a matter of presenting the dreadful from outside the self – and you wonder how much he knows about the subject.
Swift frequently returns to one central question: was Pound mad? One context is the 1954 publication of The Pisan Cantos and he cites Robert Fitzgerald, The Odyssey translator putting an answer to this question in the toughest terms to Pound,
You are in Saint Elizabeths because you and your lawyer chose to plead insanity rather than stand up to a trial. If there was something you wanted to fight for aside from yourself you could have fought for it then. If your mind was sick then you belonged in Saint Elizabeths. If it wasn’t, then you were craven not to stand trial on your indictment.
Sympathy, for Swift, depends on seeing Pound as insane, respect depends on seeing him as sane. Is it as simple as that? Certainly Hugh Kenner long ago in The Pound Era singled out the doctor who briefed Pound on how a sane man could survive in a loony bin but it’s possible to think that the craziness of Pound’s ideas about Social Credit and the naivete of his sympathies for fascism were sufficient to classify him as insane in the eyes of the law. Or would this sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is, after all, not hard to see it as, for instance, something that could be used in order to mitigate the responsibility of terrorists. But propaganda broadcasts – not least propaganda broadcasts as idiosyncratic and hard to follow as Pound’s – are essentially rhetorical acts which become potentially treasonable for the simple reason that, war being a total condition, ordinary notions of liberty are dispensed with.
Swift offers an obvious but illuminating contrast in the case of Robert Lowell, forever going off the rails and wanting, early on, to sit at Pound’s feet in Rapallo. He also, quite brilliantly, discusses the US Attorney-General asking Doctor Overholser about his patient and the whole Janus-like dilemma Pound presented to the law. After the publication of the Confucius anthology the US Attorney-General wrote to Overholser to inquire about his patient, ‘who is seemingly mentally capable of translating and publishing poetry but allegedly is not mentally capable of being brought to justice’.
Part of the difficulty with all this is archival. There is no evidence of how Pound was treated clinically at St Elizabeths, though an Italian doctor who saw him in old age, Romollo Rossi, told a conference of Pound scholars that in the 1960s he saw Pound, very old, suffering from depression, and that he read a report from Saint Elizabeths which said he’d been given ECT. Rossi thought that Pound was manic depressive or bipolar but he did not keep a copy of the file he says he saw.
Both the power and the weakness of Swift’s study of Pound’s madness emerge in a paragraph that concludes digression on Robert Lowell and the poetry that came out of his psychiatric treatment:
American poetry in the twentieth century is a cycle of encounters with Ezra Pound. The poets come and go and they play their variations on the game of same or different, nearing or retreating. For nobody is the dance more wrought or more intimate than Robert Lowell. There is a photograph of Lowell and Pound meeting in the period of these late sonnets, after Pound’s release from the hospital. They are standing side by side, in Italy: two poets, nothing alike. One tall, just middle aged; the other ancient, out of time. One has his hand perched elegantly at the bottom of a lightweight, grey summer suit. He looks like a mannequin with cropped dark hair; his whole rig is pure preppy. The other stands with his hands loose, awkward in a too-big shirt. His hair is wild about his thin face in a white halo. But: in their eyes, the same expression.
The first sentence is superb and a case of what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. The last two sentences are the melodramatic expression of a misapprehended case of the obvious.
Swift talks to a Pound scholar who assures him Pound has nothing to do with the development of Italian fascism and he immediately decides, in a cloaktrailing gesture, to head for Rome where he meets the people of an organisation called Csza Pound who quote ‘With Usura’ and arrange interest free mortgages for those who need them. One is a former accountant who used to live in Tibet. They have a bookshop and parade posters of diverse people, one of them agrees with Daniel Swift that Orwell is a great writer. Another, the chief spokesman, quotes Pound saying he was a fascist of the left when Swift refers to their rightwing policies. There are inferences (to the reader from the writer) to a Casa Pound members running amok and shooting two Sengalese people in a square in Florence. There are portraits of Pound in red and white and black and omnipresent emblems of the tortoise, its limbs arranged to form a near swastika. These people are attractive, gregarious, weird (and Swift is proud of their strangeness).
When someone gives him the fascist handshake, gripping his arm above the wrist, he describes Pound’s description of it in cantos LXXII and LXXIII. He mentions Humphrey Carpenter saying this handshake is the unambiguous expression of Pound’s fascism. After the partisans and Americans and the opposition to Mussolini started to win, the fascists retreated to the town of Salo in the North. Swift does not refer to Pasolini’s film of that name but he does say how Pound’s speeches were transported to Salo and delivered by others. He also cites Pound’s meeting with Mussolini and the dictator saying ‘This is entertaining (divertente)’ and also that one of Pound’s propositions would be difficult to implement. It’s hard to know what this rather disquieting very strange chapter is doing apart from insinuating that Pound was a once and future freak show. This chapter also shows Swift working in the mode of a hip magazine writer. He admits that whenever he does an interview he dresses up, usually playing the poetry professor, with bright socks (for some reason) but in the case of Casa Pound, getting his hair shorn short to look like one of them. He ministers to the mythology of the Casa Pound people as well as their own impression of reality: the black and white image of Pound in solitary at Saint Elizabeths, Pound as the best known poet in the world. And he can’t resist the final grand guignol detail. After he was shot and his body strung up in the Milan market, an autopsy was done on Mussolini and part of his brain was sent to America for examination. Where? To Saint Elizabeths, of course.
It became clear by 1956 that Saint Elizabeths were going to have to release Pound. Frank Lloyd Wright offered him a house, Stravinsky and Cocteau wrote on his behalf, and the Attorney General – aided by petitions from Archibald Macleish – decided that it was uncharitable to keep Pound locked up given he would never be sane. On the day the charges were dismissed, Pound wrote to his daughter Mary de Rachewiltz, ‘Officially I am crazy as a coot, though not a peril to society or myself.’ Overholser said, ‘ There is a strong possibility that the commission of the crime charges was the result of insanity.’ And, Swift says, in dismissing the indictment, the judge emphasised precisely this interpretation. Pound had, they said, always been mad. On 7 May 1958 they left, Ezra and Dorothy, to first of all see his childhood home in Wyncote, Philadelphia, and then on to stay with Williams in Rutherford New Jersey. Williams had had a series of a strokes and was depressed, Pound wouldn’t shut up. Avedon, though, took his photo of the poet here. On this encounter Swift is at his best:
As always with Avedon’s mineral-fine portraits, the subject is perfectly and squarely set, and Pound’s giant head here fills the frame, as if all the world were his face. His eyes are shut and his mouth is just open. We cannot see his teeth. Here in the place of words there are lines: the lines wide on Pound’s brow, the crow’s feet scattered from his eyes, and the furrows that hold his mouth. These are Pound’s lines, and they are written all over him. The photograph has a legend behind it. Avedon, they say, stepped up close and raised the camera, and said, ‘You know I’m Jewish?’ and before Pound could reply he clicked the shutter and froze him like this.
Swift’s conclusion is a not quite earned certitude. He quotes Donald Davie to make the point that no one can ever in future look on a poet as a seer.
After Pound it is hard to invoke the classical ideal of poets as moral leaders, for there is always his counter-example. After Pound we are left with his warning, worry at it as we will. As he wrote to an old friend in January 1937: ‘What you go on doing is thumping an unreal effigy and callin’ it Ez’.
The last part of The Bughouse is a kind of bibliographical essay of great warmth and brio which is, finally, all about Ezra Pound. Daniel Swift has not quite written a great book about Pound, not quite, though he has written a dashing and arresting one and the greatness in his subject shines through every dark corner . ‘Essay on Sources’ begins thusly:
Yet the most pleasing thing about him is how he is, up close, unlike anything one might expect. He is funnier and more generous than his detractors allow, for they see him only as severe and unforgiving. He is also harder and crueller than his adepts will permit. At the hospital, his visitors often felt differently about him on the way out than they had on the way in.
He cites Donald Davie, he cites Guy Davenport, as all true lovers of Pound should, and it’s fitting and just and to his great credit that he describes Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era as ‘the most important biographical study and will always remain so.’ This is true because Kenner’s relation to Pound is a bit like Jonson’s relation to Milton: he comes to him with the fullest possible imaginative engagement and potential sympathy even when his subject is unsympathetic. And – though the politics were mad beyond belief – Kenner is brilliant in illuminating the world of intentions and ideas, the perceptions about language, and the nobility about the renovation of poetry that make Pound in some ways the greatest figure in the whole of poetic modernism. The simple reason for this is that his work is almost impossible to assimilate. His century old injunction to ‘Make It New’ remains an impassioned warcry because it is the manifest challenge the work throws down: in the radicalism of its artifice, the impassioned beauty of its realisation, and the extraordinary ferocity and grandeur of its failures, and its stabs in the dark of its own making. Donald Davie may have been right that no poet could be a seer after Pound: ever, ever, ever, again. His work comes so close to being an enduring embodiment of Adorno’s quote ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ because he is shadowed by an infamy he could not comprehend or didn’t care to.
But it was Davie who emphasised the moment Daniel Swift ends with. The moment where Ginsberg, of all people, tells Pound he was right to rail against capitalism and that he was an empowering figure for poets like himself because he is in technique such a pioneer and such a liberation. And Pound says – and who cannot feel the pity of it? – ‘and the worst thing about me was that petty suburban anti-Semitism’. No, it wasn’t just suburban, but still poetry may not need seers, and if it does, there is more wisdom in Yeats’ mumbo-jumbo and dynamic worldliness and in Eliot’s spirituality and striving for the spirit, his wishing to know where it blows as it lists, perhaps too there’s a wisdom in Williams’ book of the world as it is and Stevens’ sense of things being different on blue guitars but seers are always blind but so too are tragic heroes. What’s that line in Thom Gunn, ‘I remember Oedipus, old, led by a boy.’
Who could not think of Pound? And who, reading this book by a young man like Daniel Swift, will not think of the masterpiece he might one day write about that old master, that old monster, Ezra Loomis Pound.