The United States of America v. Ezra Pound
A soldier of the American Fifth Army as it swept northward along the west coast of Italy in the concluding days of World War II was riding a liberated bicycle in the outskirts of the fashionable seaside resort of Rapallo when he was accosted by gray-bearded gentleman with no baggage but several volumes of the works of Confucius in his pocket, who insisted on seeing the American authorities. The soldier offered to sell him the bicycle and, not getting a satisfactory response, pedaled away out of history.
Other soldiers were more helpful, they directed the man to an officer who directed him to superior officers who had no idea who this odd-looking character might be, but when they began getting long hysterical cables about him from Washington they decided he must be dangerous, and they shut him up behind barbed wire at an Armed Forces Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa along with American soldiers who had committed murders, rapes and other high crimes and misdemeanors.
He was kept in a cage measuring six by six-and-a-half feet, and there he remained, forbidden to speak to any one, with bright lights shining through the bars at night, through three hot weeks. Suffering from severe fatigue and claustrophobia he was removed to the medical enclosure, where he could sleep in a pup tent, circulate among the guards and the other prisoners, read newspapers, and there he quickly regained all his bounce and vigor. For the young inmates and guards alike he was a popular, bizarre, grandfatherly figure as he went through fencing exercises with a broomstick, helped illiterate soldiers compose letters to the folks back home, and sat down every evening at the typewriter in the dispensary to tap out line after line of poetry.
By this time, every one knew who he was and why he was in Pisa. He was Ezra Pound, considered by many of his contemporaries to be the greatest, or at least the most influential, American poet of the 20th century. And he had been indicted by a federal grand jury for treason against the United States of America.
Cries of "Treason!" rise frequently in American political discourse, but in point of fact there have been very few actual cases of treason that have been officially adjudicated in the nation's history. The only two that get any serious attention in the books are those of Benedict Arnold, great hero and great turncoat of the Revolutionary War, who was condemned to death in absentia by General Washington in 1780, and Aaron Burr, a former Vice-President of the United States, accused by Jefferson of planning to break the country in two, who was tried and acquitted by a jury in 1805.
Moat treason cases since then have been tawdry affairs, unimportant figures selling unimportant secrets for a handful of dollars, and the like. What made the Pound case uniquely fascinating was not only the highly-charged personality of the accused, but also the nature of the acts for which he was indicted. His was a brand new kind of treason, one that the writers of the clause in the U. S. Constitution defining the crime, working as they did in the Dark Ages of technology, could never have possibly envisaged It consisted of making radio broadcasts
Pound, who had been living in Rapallo for twenty years, had been broadcasting twice a week to Americans with short-wave sets ever since February 1940, when America was still a neutral power watching World War II from a safe distance.. He wrote his own scripts and delivered them with gusto, making full theatrical use of the pseudo-hick dialect he had been perfecting over the years. (He had once written a newspaper column entitled Ez Sez) In point of biographical fact there was nothing rustic about him: though born in Hailey Idaho, he had been brought East as a little boy when his father was appointed assistant to the Assayor at the U. S. Mint in Philadelphia, he had gone to Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania, and would retain for the rest of his life vestiges of the upper-middle-class mentality of the Main Line.
His scripts for Radio Roma covered political, economic, historical and cultural subjects, interspersed with personal reminiscences, all tumbling over one another in such impulsive and unpredictable order that some Italian officials suspected he was transmitting military secrets to the enemies of Italy in an unbreakable code. He was in fact expressing in his customary percussive prose style his deeply-held beliefs that only a currency reform under a system known as Social Credit would solve the world's economic problems; that only an authoritarian regime like Mussolini's could clear out the muck that was stifling modern life; and that something, preferably something violent, should be done to get rid of the Jews, the Bank of England, Franklin Roosevelt ("Stinky Rosenstein"), Winston Churchill, publishers, night-clubs, usury, birth control, muddy painters like Rembrandt, sloppy composers like Beethoven and Puccini ("Spewcini"). Along the way he would drop in gnomic utterances on the order of, "The laws of durable government have been known since the days of King Wen," or, "The cultural stink betrayed the U. S. in 1863."
Pound was the quintessential spoiled child, brought up to take for granted that anything he thought or said was bound to be both necessarily right and rightly necessary. "There isn't much my boy doesn't know," cried out his father one day on a café terrace in Rapallo after hearing his son maintain against all opposition that the greatest master of French prose was King Louis XVIII. He was the kind of man who always had a ready solution for any human problem which popped into his mind, whether it was traffic (build curved streets flowing around 40-storey buildings with underground parking for 20,000 automobiles each), the provision of an inexpensive protein-rich diet to all the people of Italy (grow peanuts), or the geopolitics of the Far East or of Renaissance Italy. .
What attracted the Italian Ministry of Popular Culture into paying for these broadcasts was their shrill hectoring cock-sure insistence that America could only begin to solve its problems, dating back to the Big Stink, by keeping strictly out of the war against Germany and Italy.
His many friends, and still more numerous enemies, in America might find these broadcasts distressingly crude, bombastic and nasty, but as a citizen of a free country he had a perfect right to express his opinions.
His legal position changed dramatically, however, on a December day in 1941 when his proposal to straighten out Far Eastern problems by having the Japanese and Chinese drive the Australians ("that dirt") out of Australia went on the air at almost the precise moment when Japanese bombers, apparently steering in the wrong direction, appeared over Pearl Harbor. Four days later, Mussolini, without any one asking him to, moved only by his sense of honor or the sequelae of a sexually transmitted disease, joined the governments of Bulgaria and Romania in declaring war on the United States, and the U. S. Congress promptly declared war on Italy.
Pound was now an enemy alien, and under international law might have been expected to be packed off to an interment camp along with his English-born wife Dorothy Shakespear (a woman of whom some of his friends said that there was nothing interesting about her but her name), and his American-born mistress, the talented musician Olga Rudge.
Instead, he was allowed to continue the comfortable schedule he had worked out for himself. For three weeks of every month he would divide his time between the apartment he shared with Dorothy on the Rapallo seafront and the house he shared with Olga up the road in the hills. The fourth week he would spend in Rome, hobnobbing with literary friends and Fascist bigwigs, recording a month's worth of broadcasts in the Radio Roma studio and collecting his fee of 350 lire (the equivalent, said his enemies, of about twenty silver dollars) per broadcast from the Ministry of Popular Culture.
This peaceful and productive life came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1943 when Mussolini was booted out of office by the Fascist Grand Council which had sworn eternal allegiance to him, and Italy changed sides in the middle of the war. Pound would never forgive those Italians who had betrayed the man he was proud to call "the Boss," a man of whom he said that it was impossible to disbelieve a word he uttered. When Hitler had the Boss rescued from his mountain-top prison and set him up as head of a puppet "Social Republic" in the little town of Saló; in the Italian north, Pound soon showed up to confirm his allegiance and before long he was a presence on the radio again.
He made one broadcast to the American troops fighting their painful way up the peninsula, telling them that the men who overthrew Mussolini should all be shot. But he was chiefly occupied with writing scripts for others to read and giving editorial advice to novice propagandists. He received about eight thousand lire a month for these services.
He also spent a good deal of time writing scores of pamphlets and newspaper articles, and occasionally some jingoistic verse. He offered the youth of Italy a model of heroism to follow in a poem, Canto LXXIII, a copy of which he presented to the Boss. It contains a solemn promise that "we will return" to Alamein, scene of an ignominious Italian defeat in Africa (perhaps an unconscious reflection of General MacArthur's words when he fled the Philippines, words which Pound must have heard often repeated on American propaganda broadcasts to Europe) and a vision of a nation reborn through the glorious sacrifices of girls and boys in black Fascist uniforms. Mostly it is a narrative, of the sort dear to Ministries of Popular Culture everywhere, of a country girl, "a bit chunky but lovely," who after being raped by some Canadian soldiers leads them into a minefield which her brother has just laid. "Dead was the maiden, among all that scum...Glory, glory," cries the poet. ,
So far as is known, no Italian girl or boy was stupid enough to follow Uncle Ez's advice to lead suicide forays into minefields. For that matter, there is no reliable evidence of any damage whatever having been done to the morale of the American Armed Forces or the war effort of the American people by Ezra Pound's broadcasts. The reason is not hard to find. They were written in a vigorous erudite subtly-cadenced prose style very like the poetic style of his Cantos, the work on which he spent most of his life, a work the size of the Bible or of Ulysses and like them intended to be a compendium of human knowledge about human life. It was a style that guaranteed he would have no success with a radio audience.
He called this style the "ideogrammic method," which means that whenever something comes into your mind you squeeze it into a stark compact image, a "luminous detail," and then as your mind drifts or leaps somewhere else, you create another image, and you leave it up to the reader to work out what if any connection there may be between them. Most of the early readers of the Cantos had no idea of what they were about, and it has taken the labors of generations of scholars to identify all the names and notions packed into his verses and peel off the various layers of their hidden meanings..
Radio audiences in the 1940's had no such critical apparatus to help them and could hardly be expected to keep up with Uncle Ez as he bounced and bounded from image to hobbyhorse, from Confucius to Hitler ("Brother Adolf, I hand it to him, he is more efficient than I am."), from the suppression of the Pennsylvania Colony's paper money in 1759 ("the MAIN cause of the American Revolution") to Cleopatra. Even his most worshipful admirers have had to concede that as a practical propagandist, enlisted for the duration in the fight to make a cleaner more fascist world he was a failure all along the line.
This was immaterial to the lawyers in the Department of Justice in Washington who were collecting evidence for his trial for treason. The ineptitude of the perpetrator does not, from the point of the view of the law, diminish the criminality of the deed. (When some German soldiers in civilian clothes were landed by submarine on Long Island in 1942 with orders to sabotage industrial installations, they blundered their way into getting arrested before they could set off a single bomb. Most of them were executed nevertheless,)
Pound, sitting it out for six months in the Disciplinary Center while the government built up its case against him, had every reason to be scared to death. It is true that he always cultivated what Olga Rudge called "a persistent refusal to face any facts which do not fit into how he would like things to be." However, he was never as total a fool as such statements make him sound. He had a lively intelligence and a keen eye. He kept up with things in the daily papers (where he found inspiration in the columns of Westbrook Pegler who hated Roosevelt almost as much as he did) and in Time magazine. He knew, and noted angrily in his poems, that the public men he most admired - Benito Mussolini in Italy, Vidkun Quisling in Norway, Pierre Laval in France - were being shot down like dogs to the savage approval of their countrymen. He knew that William Joyce, "Lord Haw Haw," the most famous radio propagandist of the war, whom he had more than once consulted for technical advice, had been condemned to hang in London. And he knew that there were plenty of people in America who were howling for his blood.
There was a special personal feeling of hatred abroad at the time against what were called "radio traitors," the men and women who had come sneaking over the air waves into people's own living rooms to tell them that their sons and husbands and brothers were fighting and dying overseas in a war which, Pound assured them in 1942, "you are not going to win. None of your best minds ever thought you could win it. You have never had a chance in this war."
Hindsight fifty years later makes it easy to see that, in reality, the chances of Pound's being put to death were practically nil. Other Americans who had broadcast for the enemy - Robert Best and Douglas Chandler for Germany, Iva d'Aquino ("Tokyo Rose") for Japan - and who were much more serious figures in the propaganda world than Pound would later be tried before American courts and found guilty of treason, but all the punishment they would get would never be more than long prison sentences that were bound to be reduced as the passionate tempers of wartime cooled down.
However, neither Pound nor his legal counsel could be sure of any such leniency when he was flown to a jail cell in Washington in November 1945.
They had three possible lines of defense.
One was that Ezra Pound was a great poet, a genius, and geniuses are above the laws that apply to ordinary people. This is an argument that almost every one accepts when it is applied to geniuses who have been dead for centuries. We are all outraged that the government of Florence should have condemned Dante to perpetual exile in 1302, even if we know nothing about the facts in the case. We are horrified to learn that when Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey - who occupied much the same position as innovator of a new style of English poetry in the sixteenth century as Pound did in the twentieth - quartered the arms of Edward the Confessor on his escutcheon in 1547, thus insinuating that he had a better claim to the throne of England than the reigning monarch Henry VIII, Henry had him tried for treason and his head chopped in a matter of weeks. But the argument cuts little ice when the geniuses are still around in the flesh, amid the passions of the living world.
A second defense could have been that Pound was right all along. In choosing Mussolini and Hitler above Churchill and Roosevelt, he had, as he put it, championed "light against filth" The United States, "sold to the Rothschilds," had taken the wrong side. Pound would hold firm to this conviction through all defeat and disaster. His wife Dorothy, a simple soul who could be counted on to be his faithful mouthpiece, would say in 1948, "He did not commit treason. The treason was in the White House, and people are beginning to see that at last."
The American public, however, definitely did not see that in 1945, and it would not have made an effective defense with any jury in a Washington court. Pound shrewdly tried to keep his more belligerent writing out to sight for years: Canto LXXIII was not published in its proper place in the Cantos till 1986, and then only in Italian (it could not be translated, said his daughter, "for political reasons.")
A third defense, and the one that Pound repeatedly said he would be proud to make, was that in speaking over a technically enemy radio he was only exercising his rights under the First Amendment to the American Constitution as a patriotic American citizen.
But in 1945 the country was united as rarely before in hatred of the enemy and in no mood to forgive an unabashed apologist for that enemy. Most of Pound's friends were convinced that a line of defense like this would backfire on him in court, and that a jury would be only too glad to condemn him to death.
This posed an agonizing problem for the friends, who included many of the most famous writers of the twentieth century. Since the day he landed in London in 1908 with his flaming beard, his velvet jacket and his mission to change the course of English poetry, Pound had been a commanding presence in the world of letters. If contemporary poetry sounds different, looks different on the printed page from the traditional poetry of previous centuries, it is in large part due to the example and the endless inflammatory preaching of Ezra Pound.
It was not simply that he influenced the style of younger men and women. With boundless energy, and a generosity as rare in poets as in any other professional group, he devoted vast amounts of his time and effort to encouraging penniless young writers like James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway, getting them published, writing enthusiastic reviews, panhandling money so that they could pay their rent.
Hilda Doolittle, whom he had once courted in the tree house behind her parents' home back in Pennsylvania and whom he called "Dyrad" because she reminded him of a shy wood-nymph, timidly showed her some manuscripts of her poems in the tea-room of the British Museum one day in 1912. "Why, these are good, Dryad!" he exclaimed, and took out one of his sharp red pencils and shortened a few lines, changed a few adjectives and signed at the bottom, "HD, Imagiste," with one stroke baptizing a new school of poetry and conferring upon the Dryad the alias under which she would appear in all the anthologies.
A decade or so later, his young friend Tom Eliot, a clerk at Lloyds Bank in London, came out of a Swiss psychiatric rest home with a long diffuse and rather whiney poem lamenting the loneliness of a sensitive poet condemned to live among the people of London ("these crawling bugs"). Pound slashed away at it with his red pencil, cut out half the lines and hectored the author into changing others. The result was The Waste Land, now considered the classic statement of the mood of disillusionment and despair which engulfed the world after the mass slaughters of World War I.
Pound, like most other intellectuals of the time, was convinced that Western civilization was rotten to the core, eaten away by the corrupt politico-economic system of capitalist democracy ("pejorocracy," or rule of the worst, was his term for it.) For a while he thought that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had found the right formula for putting things to right, but he soon found greater promise of salvation in Fascism. Beginning in the 1930's he began issuing instructions to the world on how to change its ways, and when the world persisted in ignoring him his words grew increasingly shrill and disorderly and vitriolic, culminating in the cracker-barrel-thumping sermons on the short air waves..
His friends, followers and admirers - Eliot, Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky and all the rest - were, depending on their temperaments, embarrassed, appalled, disgusted or infuriated by his broadcasts while he was making them. But when he was in a dungeon facing death they would not turn their backs on a man they regarded as an exceptional human being as well as a great poet, and they all wanted to save his life.
Surely, said the poet Archibald MacLeish, who had been in charge of American radio propaganda at the time Pound was sending his messages from Rome, "treason is a little too serious and dignified a crime for a man who has made such an incredible ass of himself, and accomplished so little in the process." "He deserves punishment and disgrace," said Hemingway. "But what he really deserves is ridicule." It was Hemingway who was the first to suggest out loud that Pound might be declared irresponsible because he was "obviously crazy."
The same idea had occurred to Pound's lawyer, Julien Cornell, who on November 20, the first time he saw his client, brought up te subject of a possible defense of insanity, and Pound told him that the idea as already occurred to him.
At court hearing six days later, the judge ordered an examination of Pound by four psychiatrists, of whom the best known was Dr. Winfred Overholser, superintendent of St.Elizabeths Hospital, the federal insane asylum in Washington. The doctors signed a report written by Dr. Overholser which described Pound as eccentric, grandiose and distractible, and went on to conclude that he was "mentally unfit to advise properly with counsel or to participate reasonably and intelligently in his own defense. He is, in other words, insane."
There were not a few who were not convinced that all those adjectives added up to a degree of madness that would make a well-educated and very articulate man completely unaware of what he was doing. Certainly the acquaintances who visited him then and in later years saw nothing really abnormal about his behavior. This was the same old bouncing boisterous Ezra they had known in :London and Paris and Rapallo, alternately charming and unbearable, the same warm-hearted friend, lynx-eyed critic, crackpot preacher (giving the impression, T. S. Eliot said, of a man trying to tell a very deaf person that the house is on fire,"), faithful Fascist, foulmouthed bigot.
But the decision was not in hands of acquaintances or psychiatrists, it had to made by a jury which convened to consider the case on February 13, l946. For all the advance publicity, the trial proceeded at a normal quiet pace, with no legal fireworks, no outbursts of temper. Most observers were of the opinion that the prosecutors were being something less than half-hearted about attacking the testimony of the psychiatrists, whose twisted professorial jargon would have made an easy target for aggressive cross-examination. But perhaps the prosecutors knew what they were doing. They knew that they would win little glory by opening up all the heaviest legal artillery on a "nut poet" (as Westbrook Pegler called him) as if he was a full-blown extremely dangerous traitor like Benedict Arnold.
And besides, theirs was not the open-and-shut case it may have looked like at the beginning, There were potential legal pitfalls ahead which might turn a long trial into an embarrassment, even a farce; the accused traitor might even get off scot free.
The framers of our Constitution, aware that they might all have been hanged out of hand for treason against the King of Great Britain if they had lost the Revolutionary War, had taken great pains to make sure that those accused of treason against the United States would get a fair trial. Specifically they demanded two witnesses to every overt treasonable act. The overt acts in the Pound case were radio broadcasts, and though tens of thousands of people in America had heard the broadcasts and hundreds could testify that they recognized the voice of Ezra Pound, the only witnesses who could truthfully swear that the man speaking into the microphone on any particular day three to five years previously was an American citizen named Ezra Pound were the Radio Roma studio technicians, and they had other things to do in the studio than commit to memory the features and intonations of a bearded weirdo sputtering in what was to them a totally unknown tongue.
There were other legal technicalities. There were some seven thousand documents, detailing all the transactions between Pound and the Italian authorities, which had been seized in his house in Rapallo by an FBI agent in May 1945, and since there was a war on and this might be considered enemy territory, it had never occurred to the agent to ask for a search warrant. A punctilious court might decide that this whole mountain of damning evidence was inadmissable.
Whatever their motives, the prosecutors let the whole proceedings move along at a fast uneventful clip. For the most part, Pound sat in anxious silence. The jury, having had time to hear the pyschiatric evidence and to look the prisoner over, took less than five minutes to reach a verdict that the respondent was of unsound mind.
Pound was delighted. "Cornell has saved my life," he said.
He was promptly taken off to St Hospital. No one could have foreseen that he would stay there for more then twelve years.
It was an old and dilapidated building, overcrowded and understaffed, with some patients sleeping in the corridors. Pound called it alternately his bughouse and his hellhole. Visitors who came to see him all spoke of its oppressive atmosphere, with television sets going full blast everywhere and hollow-eyed patients drifting aimlessly about or creating their own mad theater. Yet Pound thrived. His vigor impressed everyone. He was cooperative with the staff and got on well with his fellow-patients. "I can get along with crazy people,": he said. "It's only the fools I can't stand."
He told Julien Cornell on one occasion that if he had to stay in America - and the U. S. Government seemed in no mood. to let a man accused of treason quit its shores - St. Elizabeth was as good a place as any. Indeed, it had certain advantages. For the first time in his life he was totally free of money worries, getting bed and board for free from the government while royalties from his books piled up in the bank. He had all the time he wanted for playing chess and playing tennis and talking a blue streak and, above all, for writing.
He had a room of his own where he could type at all hours, and his output was prodigious. He wrote twenty-five more cantos; he translated a work by Confucius, three hundred ancient Chinese poems, some diary entries by Mussolini and a tragedy by Sophocles. He dashed off scores of manifestoes and thousands of letters, almost all of them unsigned in order to head off questions about whether so productive an author was really as mentally incompetent as the doctors said he was.
The best feature of St. Elizabeth was that it was in Washington, easily accessible to the kind of steady attention he needed, which would have been much harder to get in the quiet little sanitarium in Arizona where T. S. Eliot wanted to park him, or in a federal prison like Leavenworth in Kansas where he might well have been sent if he had been convicted of treason. He could receive as many visitors as he wished; they wrote in swarms to reserve their hours. He received them in groups of up to fifteen, in a screened-off enclosure in a corridor, or out in the hospital's spacious lawns while he fed the squirrels.
Some days the visitors were distinguished literary figures like Eliot, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Kenneth Clark. Some days they were professors and graduate students and Chinese scholars. Most days they were a raggle-taggle collection of young people, described by Pound's daughter as sloppy and ignorant, not knowing so much as the titles of his poems but enthralled with the chance to listen to his nonstop commentary on everything in and outside of the world.
Years passed, the poet approached and passed his seventieth birthday, and there was increasing discomfort and embarrassment in America and the world about the whole situation. People who had been actually convicted of treason were being led out of prison one after the other. Tokyo Rose, in her day a much better known and much more hated figure than Pound, got out after seven years.
The trouble was that as long as Dr. Overholser kept sending in annual reports that Pound was still insane, he could not legally leave the walls of St. Elizabeths. He could have asked at any tie for a new hearing to prove that he was quite capable of understanding the charges against him. But then he would have to go on trial for treason. And though he often rehearsed the eloquent speech he would make in his defense, when it came time to make a decision, wily old Uncle Ez was not going to emulate his Rimini heroine and walk into a minefield .
In all those years he never made a serious effort to get himself out of St. Elizabeths. When Cornell wanted to appeal his case, Pound and his wife Dorothy refused to pursue the matter. When his daughter asked him what steps he was taking to get out of his hell hole, he changed the subject. An exasperated T. S. Eliot told her, Your father does not want to accept freedom on any terms that are possible."
If he would do nothing for himself, it had to be up to his friends to get him released by working quietly through government channels. The trouble was that something there was in Ezra Pound that did not like quiet. Controversy was always boiling up around him. He could not stay long out of the public eye.
In 1946 there was a literary storm when Random House announced that it was going to cut Pound's poems out of the new edition of its anthology of English and American poetry. It had to back down when a phalanx of prominent authors accused the publisher of crude political censorship.
A bigger furor came two years later, with the publication of The Pisan Cantos, the poems that Pound had tapped out behind the barbed wire. They looked familiar enough, the same suave incantatory rhythms, the same flashing of all kinds of luminous details. The tone however was something new, it was deeply personal. Along with the usual lavish display of book-learning sprinkled with spicy anecdotes and violent invective and snatches of ancient myth and dreamy bits of landscape, the new cantos offered the poignant feelings of an old man locked up in prison clutching at any support to save him from despair: the white-breasted birds perched on the wire like half-notes on a music staff, the mother wasp artfully building her nest, the old poet folding his blankets in his little tent, a fellow-prisoner who makes him a table out of packing cases and tells him, "Doan you tell no one I made it." Instead of the ritual mourning for the death of ancient mythical figures like Osiris, there was now a deep genuine grief for the fall of Benito Mussolini, "the twice-born, the twice-crucified," whose head hung down like a bullock's from a butcher's stall in a Milan square.
Instead of the cocky self-confidence of the old days there was now something that sound like humility. "Pull down thy vanity," begins a passage of a dozen or so noble lines which are probably the most remembered and most quoted lines he ever wrote.
Of course being Pound, he could not leave well enough alone, but went to add another dozen or so lines to explain that the words about pulling down vanity might be appropriate for the vast majority of mankind, but definitely not for the poet Ezra Pound who had done things which were "not vanity" at all. These included "to have gathered from the air a live tradition," which was one of his definitions of his own poetic practice. And "to have, with decency, knocked/that a Blunt should open." This passage, which must sound mysterious to the untutored reader, is explained by the commentators as referring to an episode in 1910 when Pound led a group of young poets on a pilgrimage to the home of Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a distinguished Victorian man of letters and anti-imperialist crusader, bearing as tribute a work of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska whom Pound and his acolytes considered the greatest sculptor of modern times. Blunt was not too impressed with his guests, he thought the Gaudier sculpture was "paulo-post-futurist" junk and described Pound in his diary as a Europeanized American who had "contracted all the absurdities of the day." But he received them in grand and jolly style, dressed like an Arab sheik, and fed them roast peacock, and his eyes lit up in way that Pound could still see flashing thirty-five years later.
Admirers and detractors of the book quarreled violently and publicly about it, and the quarrel soon became political. As it happened, several of Pound's admirers were members of the Library of Congress selection committee for the Bollingen Prize, which had just been created as an annual award for the best volume of American poetry published in the previous year. The first Bollingen Prize-winner, in 1949, was Ezra Pound, for his Pisan Cantos.
Members of Congress were moved to incandescent fury when they learned that a branch of their government was bestowing honor and glory and a sizeable check on a man who only a few years before had been the hired hand of an enemy power fighting a war to the death with the United States, and was still proud of it. They revoked the award, abolished the prize, and the furor was so great that for years to come no one in government would touch the case of Ezra Pound with a ten-foot pole.
Years passed, election followed election, and then in the early 1950's, when the public had pretty well forgotten about Ezra Pound, and it seemed that he might be let go without creating a fuss, there he was back in the headlines again. Congress was gingerly moving toward passage of the first major civil-rights law of the twentieth century. Supporters of traditional values, now invidiously called "racists," were outraged, and some hot-headed people among them were moved to take to the streets, cheering for white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, burning crosses and burning black churches, rioting against school integration, on occasion butchering young men like Emmet Till (son of one of Pound's fellow-prisoners at Pisa) who had committed the outrage of directing a wolf whistle at a white girl in Mississippi. Reporters discovered that some of these hot-heads had listened to Pound's sermons on the lawn of St. Elisabeth, had written him letters of admiration and had received letters of encouragement from him.
There was another uproar. Once again the politicians being approached by Pound's friends had to tell them in the current climate of opinion they could do nothing for him, at least not until after the next election..
It was not until 1957 that public opinion and the political climate had cooled down enough to put a quiet end to the situation. A propaganda blitz led by Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish convinced the Eisenhower administration that, with so many Nazi war criminals having served their time and now out walking in the streets, it was doing no one any good to keep a permanent lock and key on a septuagenarian poet who was being talked of for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
It was Dr. Overholser who, as he had back in 1946, found the practical solution..He prepared an affidavit saying that Pound was permanently and incurably insane, but that he was not dangerous and it would be a needless expense for the taxpayers to keep him indefinitely in a government hospital The government having no objection, on April18, 1958 the District Court dismissed the indictment for treason, and after almost thirteen years Ezra Pound was a free man, charged with no crime, but legally incapable of signing a check or a contract or any official document.
He was pleased, but he was in no hurry to leave St. Elizabeths, where some dental work was scheduled, and it was not until May 7 that Case No. 58102, Pound, Ezra, was officially closed with the notation, "Condition upon discharge: unimproved."
He was certainly unchanged. It was the old jaunty Pound who came bouncing out of the bughouse at the age of 73, lively, opinionated, bombastic, combative, unrepentant as ever.
After a brief round of visits, he sailed for Italy, sharing a cabin with his wife and a young admirer from Texas, Marcella Spann ("firm of flank," as he wrote in his ongoing Cantos) who had been a regular visitor at St. Elizabeth and was now his secretary. When the ship docked in Naples, he quipped to interviewers that United States of America was one big insane asylum, and gave the swarm of press photographers a snappy Fascist salute..
He would live for almost fifteen more years, increasingly sad embittered years. His writing sputtered out. His personal life was for a while a battleground of wife, daughter, Marcella Spann and Olga Rudge. In the end, Olga Rudge, the only grown-up in this family group, bore him off in triumph to her apartment in Venice. It seems only fitting that a man who had spent so many years denouncing usura as the primal curse of humanity should come to die in what had been during his favorite centuries (the twelfth to the sixteenth) the most usurious of all cities, envied and despised by all for its unfailing worship of the almighty ducat.
In those years he would be in and out of clinics and nursing homes. But there would be periodic flashes of the old vigor, when he would go bounding around in Rapallo or Venice pointing out the beautiful spots he had loved so well to disciples who could hardly keep up with him. A Fred Astaire movie might set him tap-dancing along the canals. Once he turned up in a parade of goose-stepping neo-Fascists with swastika armbands in Rome. At the age of 87, when the gondola-ambulance came to take him to his deathbed in the hospital, he insisted on getting up and walking down the stairs to meet it.
But more and more in those last years he was sunk in long brooding silences. When on a trip to Paris he saw the original production of Samuel Beckett's End Game with its old father who lives in an ashcan and periodically sticks his head out of the top of it to eat a little food or shed some little tears, he said: "That is me."
He told visitors that his Cantos were a botch, that he had been "wrong, wrong, wrong...Eighty-seven percent wrong...I was as stupid as if I had been a telescope used the wrong way."
Ezra Pound never got around to explaining just what he had done that was wrong. He was man enough to tell Allen Ginsberg at lunch in Venice in 1967 that he was ashamed of his anti-Semitism, which he called a "stupid suburban prejudice." Ginsberg was too much of a gentleman to remind him that he had never spent a day in a suburb since he left Wyncote, Pennsylvania, fifty-nine years before,
© 1995 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine December 1995