Ezra Pound --- Traitor/Poet

Culture Watch
tags: treason

Mr. Alger is a freelance writer.

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Walker, the so-called Taliban Yank, fades from the front pages, and Hanoi Jane of Fonda family fame becomes a footnote superseded by celebrity, the controversy over Ezra Pound and his actions during World War Two remains frozen in time -- was he a great poet or a traitor to his country?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.

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More Comments:

Rick Lester - 4/24/2004

The Zionists that Mussolini supported - Jabotinsky and Begin to name two - aren't called traitors. They're heroes to Israelis, even though Jabotinsky was also allied with Petilura, the Ukranian Jew killer.

Zionists got Israel, Pound got put away without a trial. How Stalinesque.

BTW, Pound, who railed against the banks, was put away by US Attorney General Francis Biddle. His ancestor Nicholas Biddle was the president of the Bank of the United States when Andrew Jackson smashed the bankers' powerbase.

mike shriver - 4/19/2004

sadly, pound keeps getting a bum rap.

let's be fair -- the historical context keeps being either obscured, partially reported out or just revised. you know, the "historical facts" upon which pound's treason has been absolutely determined and put to rest.

the problem for me is that i'm not in agreement with the verdict of his treason. to be frank, i also am not in agreement with his being banished in large measure from the american literary canon and equally not in agreement with his fate of being relegated to a 'champion" of other literary giants while at the same time being dismissed as a lesser artist or a crank.

in light of the facts, yes, pound was a horrible anti-semite (more on this point in a moment). yes, the finding of pound to be crazy (for lack of a better diagnostic term) did save his life. yes, pound did broadcast (some rantings are more coherent than others; some broadcasts more grounded than others) and yes, pound was a supporter of mussolini (for a host of misguided, if not delusional beliefs -- more too on this in a moment). and yes, pound was incarcerated in pisa in an "open air detention center" awaiting deportation to the us to stand trial for treason.

pound's open-air detention center however, was not anything of the white-collar criminal, country club type. hardly. pound was jailed in an empty zoo. pound was jailed outdoors in an animal's cage. and for the record, this detention center was home to other criminals (some for violent crime, murder, rape, etc.), some of whom were executed. this is no small point. it is while being jailed in such a cage that "the pisan cantos" were born.

pound's mental state at this time -- for that matter for many years -- was rather fragile.

that eleven poems of the caliber of those in "the pisan cantos" emerged from this setting is remarkable. of the choices for the bollingen award in 1948, were "the pisan cantos" the best choice? hindsight dictates subjectivity.

but back to the issue at hand -- pound's treason.

in keeping with a bias still fairly present within literary circles, unquestioningly pound's radio broadcasts continue to be defined -- de facto -- as seditious. i think this judgment is not only unfair, but also convenient.

and to cement this verdict, what we are instructed to remember is pound's virulent and loathsome anti-semitism. (and here i deplore pound's anti-semitism). but, what is fascinating in this analysis of pound is that a faulty syllogism is set up that continues to this day, in spite of data, in spite of context and in spite of the breadth of brilliant work pound contributed.

the faulty syllogism? a) pound broadcasted anti-american radio shows in italy during ww2; b) pound was anti-semitic; therefore c) pound was a traitor.

the first statement displays a rather scant read of the transcripts as well as betrays an opinion as to the role of dissent in the united states when involved in war. in other words, there is far more to pound's broadcasts than we have been poorly informed about and even those things that we have heard of are slanted against anyone who would question war.

throughout the history of the united states many have objected to our government's involvement in wars at home and abroad (e.g. through resisting the draft, declaring oneself a conscientious objector, by vocally registering one's opinion), our approach to how we deal(t) with such objectors has run the gamut from imprisonment to presidential pardon. it was pound, after all, who helped secure northumbrian poet basil bunting's release for his objections to britain's wartime involvement.

pound did broadcast, sometimes at a frenetic pace, other times in a fairly lackadaisical fashion. his radio broadcasts per se are not in question. the intent, content, context and nature of some of these broadcasts however, are. unlike other noteworthy radio commentators of ww2 (tokyo rose, as one), pound was not officially or even covertly working for the fascist regime of mussolini. his support for mussolini -- however misguided and idealistic -- certainly highlights pound's myopia and particular failings in his political perspective. but these often unfounded hopes of the italy mussolini was ostensibly reviving -- and therefore a return to the day where the artist mattered -- do not make him a traitor. perhaps a pariah, an extremist, even an eccentric problematic curmudgeon. but not a traitor. pound even returned to the states years before pearl harbor to try to speak to congressional leaders to dissuade america's involvement in the war in europe. is that sedition? pound's ability to realistically and factually evaluate mussolini -- which he clearly did not -- also does not make him a traitor. when pound exhorts on radio that american soldiers are fighting a war that is being sold to them as a war of liberty but is, instead a war about money and economic advantage, and as such is a war they should strongly question -- if not stop altogether -- is that treason?

but returning to the logic model so unemployed in pound's case...

his anti-semitism does not distinguish him from a great many of his contemporaries (t.s. eliot. wyndham lewis, henry ford, etc.). not in the slightest. to suggest the virulence of his anti-semitism is what makes it so relevant is convenient, but unconvincing.

but in collapsing one piece of americana (no matter the degree of its robust nature or lack thereof) that he was un-patriotic/un-american with an accurate (but hardly universally-employed critique of his peers) statement that he was anti-semitic and there is little room for anything less than the short-shrift pound receives to this day.

foolhardy or a bit mentally off-balanced, pound bought into the myth that mussolini was going to be a catalyst for an artistic revival in italy. this revival would be one that would -- finally -- restore the artist to his/her proper place in society, a society where art was valued as were artists. pound had reason to vainly hope for this, especially given his experience of a world where wars were fought with mustard gas, where the "old lie" of "...dulce et..." had been exposed, where wars were fought for a ton of bashed up books, wars where talented artists went to fight only to return disabled, insane, or, even worse, dead (henri gaudier).

i guess i find the trap of revisionism regarding ww2, pound and the broadcasts, and all of the attendant stuff to be far too easy and one that merits discussion. while the chill brought about by the cold war ostensibly thawed (post mc carthy's fall), some of those jingoisms have tremendously influenced the manner in which we often critique literature and artists and citizens during our previous wars (the equating of speaking out in opposition to the government being tantamount to treason in the time of war being the most pervasive).

we owe the canon a far more objective and detailed read.

lastly, having the complete manuscript of t.s. eliot's poem "the waste land" in circulation now, it is about time we cease relegating pound's prowess to simply being a svengali of sorts. his reconstruction of eliot's work -- creating from iron filings indeed a rose -- is not the mere work of a technocrat. if one watches and reads pound's edits and recommendations, he had as strong an ear for the unheard music as did eliot; otherwise the poem would not be what it is.

pound helped far more (eliot, yeats, bunting, frost, h.d., hemmingway, joyce, and the list keeps going) than we seem to care to remember and contributed far more brilliant poetry than we care admit.

the legacy of "the pisan cantos" -- apart from their power and sadness and fractured spirit and perfect word/image/meter and their artistry -- in this case is that to try to divorce the art from the artist, the art from the time or the artist from the time is to sell-short everyone short.

Calif Gray - 12/12/2003

The Mountain Spirit

若有人兮山之阿 There seem to be a man in the deep mountain,
被薜荔兮帶女籮 Clad in creeping vine and girded with ivy,
既含睇兮又宜笑 With a charming look and a becoming smile.
子慕予兮善窈窕 "Do you admire me for my lovely form?"

乘赤豹兮從文狸 She rides a red leopard - striped lynxes follwing behind -
辛夷車兮結桂旗 Her chariot of magnolia arrayed with banners of cassia,
被石蘭兮帶杜衡 Her cloak made of orchids and her girdle of azalea,
折芳馨兮遺所思 Calling sweet flowers for those dear in her heart.

余處幽篁兮終不見天 "I live in a bamboo grove, the sky unseen;
路險難兮獨後來 The road hither is steep and dangerous; I arrive alone and late.
表獨立兮山之上 Alone I stand on the mountain top
雲容容兮而在下 While the clouds gather beneath me.

杳冥冥兮羌晝晦 "All gloomy and dark is the day;
東風飄兮神靈雨 The east wind drifts and god sends down rain.
留靈修兮憺忘歸 Waiting for the divine one, I forget to go home.
歲既晏兮孰華予 The year is late. Who will now bedeck me?

采三秀兮於山間 "I pluck the larkspur on the mountain side,
石磊磊兮葛蔓蔓 The rocks are craggy; and the vines tangled.
怨公子兮悵忘歸 Complaining of the young lord, sadly I forget to go home.
君思我兮不得閒 You, my lord, are thinking of me; but you have no time,"

山中人兮芳杜若 The man in the mountain, fragrant with sweet herb,
飲石泉兮蔭松柏 Drinks from the rocky spring, shaded by pines and firs.
君思我兮然疑作 "You, my lord, are thinking of me, but then you hesitate."

雷填填兮雨冥冥 The thunder rumbles and the rain darkens;
猿啾啾兮狖夜鳴 The gibbons mourn, howling all the night;
風颯颯兮木蕭蕭 The wind whistles and the trees are bare.
思公子兮徒離憂 "I am thing of the young lord; I sorrow in vain."



Louis Mello - 9/28/2003

I don't understand why being a traitor has anything to do with being a great poet. The two are not mutually exclusive. One's opinion of an artist's politcs as well as of his personal life have no bearing on artistic achievement. The debate is sterile and of little value to the political or literary worlds. Besides all of this, someone who's mental health has always been an issue should have his opinions somewhat mitigated. The Pisan Cantos were (as well they should have been) judged on their merit as literature and not as a political statement.