Today my subject matter is going to be a bit unusual…but that’s kinda usual fare for this blog, now isn’t it? It’s just that this is the first time I’ve covered a poet…Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was one of the greatest American poets in history who was the foremost force in the modernist movement. He also carried with him a dark side, which came out in politics.
Although Ezra Pound hailed from the rural town of Hailey, Idaho, he traveled extensively as an adult and spent much of his life outside the United States. In college, he studied philosophy along with language and resolved to gain the greatest knowledge of poetry by age 30. In 1907, he began his teaching at Wabash University in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a town he despised for its socially conservative ways. After a year, he departed for London. In 1912, he began his career as a critic when he worked as London correspondent for the Chicago-based magazine Poetry. He befriended W.B. Yeats and was one of the first to recognize and promote Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, and Marianne Moore. Pound also assisted James Joyce and got his novels Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses published. He was, as Joyce put it, “A miracle of ebulliency, gusto, and help” (Menand).
Ezra Pound during this time was publishing his poetry. Some of his most notable works include Ripostes (1912), Lustra (1916), Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919), and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). One of his best known poems, “In a Station of the Metro” (1913), reads:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. (Menand)
However, his most famous work would be the ongoing and ultimately unfinished The Cantos, a long poem (about 800 pages) which he worked on between 1915 and 1962. This work would have a profound influence on subsequent poets, including the beat generation. He also befriended and aided such figures as Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Williams. Pound developed his own unique style of writing with unique choices for abbreviations and sometimes employed alternate spellings for words, thus making reading his writing a bit difficult. So far, I have only gone over his career as a man of letters, but this blog is called Fascinating Politics…so on with the politics!
Pound on Politics
Pound was profoundly affected by World War I…he saw its damage and devastation and wished for it never to be repeated again. He became a critic of the British, a major fan of Mussolini, was profoundly suspicious of big banks, and came to view interest as a great evil responsible for the world’s problems. In 1933, Pound got a personal audience with Mussolini, and gave him a copy of “A Draft of XXX Cantos”, which he accepted graciously, stating, “Ma questo è divertente” (“How amusing”)” (Menand). He also viewed Alexander Hamilton as a historical villain for his ties with and advocacy for established business and banks, regarded Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri as a hero for his opposition to the Second Bank of the United States, and was a staunch opponent of the Federal Reserve. He saw the evils of the world to have been caused by financial manipulation. Pound also maintained correspondence with many people in government, but the people he wrote to the most were Senators William E. Borah of Idaho and Bronson Cutting of New Mexico as well as Representative George Tinkham of Boston. His correspondence with the latter is by far the lengthiest, having been from 1933 to 1941. Pound despised both the League of Nations and FDR, the latter he viewed as engaging in unconstitutional uses of executive power, a charge that is ironic considering what he would do during World War II.
I mentioned at the start of this post that his politics were his dark side, and this came in the form of his admiration for and support of dictators. Pound continued to support Mussolini during World War II and extended the same support to Adolf Hitler. He also wrote articles for publications owned by Sir Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. As you might have concluded at this point, he was also a staunch anti-Semite. From 1941 to 1943, Pound went on Italian radio to propagandize for Mussolini and condemn the United States and Britain and accuse Britain of being an Anglo-Jewish Empire. He also frequently employed the use of the slur “kike” in his broadcasts. These broadcasts were characterized by bizarre rambling and ultimately placed Pound in mortal danger after his arrest by U.S. forces. Other treasonous propagandists faced death sentences, notably William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”), who was executed by the British government for his propaganda broadcasts for Nazi Germany. However, he appeared to suffer a mental breakdown after being kept outside in a 6 x 6 cage in isolation for three weeks and his friends in the literary world pushed for him to be institutionalized. A board of physicians agreed, and instead of facing a trial for his life Pound became a resident of St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C.
He had not renounced his ways while in confinement, as he stated that “Hitler was a Joan of Arc, a martyr” (Blamires, 532). While in captivity, Pound wrote the Pisan Cantos, which was both critically acclaimed and unapologetically fascist and caused a controversy when he was awarded the Bollingen-Library of Congress Prize for poetry in 1948. Also troubling were some of the people he befriended while in confinement. In 1952, a young man named Eustace Mullins, who had come to admire Pound’s poetry and had engaged in correspondence with him, started visiting him. He, like Pound, was an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist and under the guidance of Pound wrote The Secrets of the Federal Reserve (1952), in which he claimed that a group of elite bankers wrote the Federal Reserve Act for their own profit. I have covered why this narrative is incorrect in my October 2019 post, “The Politics Behind the Federal Reserve”. Mullins, the only man to write an authorized biography of Pound, This Difficult Individual Ezra Pound (1961), also believed in such nonsense as the Jewish blood libel, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and 9/11 Trutherism. He was identified as a “neo-Fascist” by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his article that compared Hitler to Jesus in the sense that they were both, in Mullins’ view, victims of Jews.
Pound also befriended and mentored John Kasper, a KKK activist who was often in trouble with the law for said activism and shared Pound’s view that desegregation was a Jewish plot. He established a bookstore to sell works with viewpoints supported by Pound. Pound’s associations with both Mullins and Kasper proved troublesome for figures in the literary world who wanted to secure his release, which eventually happened in 1958. Although Pound in later years expressed public regret for his anti-Semitism, he never really dropped his views and this has been difficult for those who admire his impressive work to reconcile this with his politics. He lived the remainder of his life in Venice, Italy.
Whether Pound was mentally ill or not is a subject of great speculation, but it is likely that at worst he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder but was otherwise sane.
Blamires, C.P. (2006). World Fascism: A-K. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Menand, L. (2008, June 2). The Pound Error. The New Yorker.
For some of his poetry:
For some of his radio speeches…you can judge whether he was crazy or not: