A Poet's Strange Case; the Great Talent, Moral Defects of Ezra Pound

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Poet's Strange Case; the Great Talent, Moral Defects of Ezra Pound


Byline: Vincent D. Balitas, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the Summer/Fall 2003issueof "Crossroads," the journal of the Poetry Society of America, Spencer Short, one of 20 new Americanpoets profiled there, recalls that his first experience "of how a poem works" was when a friend read Ezra Pound's "The Garden" to him. The first stanza of this lovely, though acerbic, poem reads:

Like a skein of loose silk blown

against a wall

She walks by the railing of a

path in Kensington Gardens,

And she is dying piece-meal of

a sort of emotional anemia.

It is easy to see why these words could attract and teach a young poet, but because Pound's reputation is based more on his abhorrent behavior during World War II - his ardent support of Mussolini, his ranting against the Allies on Italian state-controlled radio, his repulsive anti-Semitism - than on his merits as a major poet and as a shaper and definer of Modernism, too few readers take the time to sit down with this often difficult poet.

This is not the place to consider at great length the controversy that surrounds Pound. Neither is there space to detail all of his extraordinary contributions to the arts in the first half of the last century. Richard Sieburth, the editor of this superb collection of Pound's poems and translations, provides in his chronology and notes many of the facts necessary to get a basic grip on the seemingly endless accomplishments of this pivotal figure.

And he does not ignore the ongoing debate about Pound's place in the history of 20th-century art, a debate that has caused his reputation to fall well below that of his contemporaries, especially T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams.

Pound lived a long life, one that was, for the most part, spent in the service not only of poets and poetry but also of the arts in general. Born Oct. 30, 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, he died in Venice, Italy, on Nov. 1, 1972. In 1896, he published his first poem, a limerick, Mr. Sieburth tells us, "on the defeat of William Jennings Bryant in the presidential election."

From then on his life involved formal and informal study of quite a few languages and literatures; extensive travel both with his family and, later, on his own; the writing and publishing of his own poems and translations; the tireless support of other poets and artists; and an eccentric and often damning involvement in the social and political upheavals resulting from World War I.

Where he found the time to do all he did - from serving for three winters as secretary to the great William Butler Yeats; to arranging the publication of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"; to promoting and reviewing the early work of Robert Frost and many other now well-known names - is an epic story that can be found in the late Hugh Kenner's dynamic book "The Pound Era" (1971), or in the many biographies and critical studies that have tried to understand what Pound's friend William Carlos Williams called "the liveliest, most intelligent and unexplainable thing."

Certainly, Pound's place not only as a major player in literary Modernism but also as a primary handmaiden to its creation and development is assured even in the face of his well-documented moral lapses. There can be little doubt that, although he had an unbelievably sharp eye for spotting artistic talent, his inability to discern bigoted sham economic and political theories led to his long incarceration in St. Elizabeth's, the federal mental institution in Washington, D.C., and to his partial exclusion (generally by university pundits) from what would have been, for any other poet of his caliber, a life of awards and honors.

Pound's is a strange case. This was a man with a unique ability to identify creative genius, who cajoled and browbeat editors to publish work that was breaking down, or away from, the aesthetics of the 19th century. …

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