Modernism's Man Of Action
was an American-born expatriate poet, intellectual and critic, largely responsible for the emergence of Modernism in the early 20th Century. He served as editor of many important literary journals. Notorious for the difficulty of his writings, Pound spent much of his life in Italy where he embraced Fascism and the brutal dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
Born Ezra Loomis Pound on October 30, 1885 in Hailey, Idaho Territory, when it was was still a part of the wild west, he went on to memorialized the event in some of the opening lines of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
(1920): "– seeing he had been born / In a half-savage country, out of date/ -- ". His father, Homer, worked for the US Mint as an assistant assayer, and on his mother’s side Pound was a distant relative of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The family moved to the Philadelphia suburbs when young Ezra Pound was a baby. He was subsequently educated at Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania and received a degree in Romance Philology in 1906. During his studies at Penn State, he befriended William Carlos Williams and the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), to whom he was engaged for a short time.
As a student, he was always interested in languages and by the time he had graduated college Pound had studied Latin and Greek, German and Anglo-Saxon, and mastered several Romance languages, including Provencal. He was widely read in the literature of half a dozen countries. Ezra Pound later began a teaching career at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, but got into trouble when he allowed a stranded actress to stay in his room overnight. "All accusations having been ultimately refuted except that of being 'the Latin Quarter type’," he later claimed.
With the financial support of his family, Pound was able to sail to Europe where he settled in Venice and published his first collection "A Lume Spento", a collection of poems influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Browning. Other small volumes followed, but he was so disappointed in them that he thought of chucking them all in the canal.
When Ezra Pound moved to London in 1914, he married Dorothy Shakespeare and soon met William Butler Yeats, whom he considered the greatest English-language poet of his day. In London he came under the influence of T.E. Hulme and the members of the Poet’s Club. Hulme advocated a very spare diction and would use no word that was not essential. He published Hulme’s poetry as an addenda to his own collection, Ripostes
, and noted, "--the natural object is always the adequate symbol."
The Imagist Manifesto
he authored laid the groundwork for all Modernist poetry, emphasizing clarity, economy, and precision of language. Pound also made a bid for free verse, although not all of the Imagists
followed his lead. His Literary Essays
are essential to anyone wishing to understand 20th Century poetry. "Make it new,’ he proclaimed.
Ezra Pound was too much the gadfly, however, to remain with any one artistic or literary movement for any length of time. He soon quarreled with other members of the Imagist group and shifted his allegiance to the artistic medium he and his friends Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein called Vorticism – a combination of visual and written art that found expression in Blast
– a periodical that lasted only two issues due to the complications of WWI.
In 1915, Pound began his long epic poem The Cantos
– influenced by Cubism – a work which remained unfinished at his death. He's been considered a great editor by others. Pound red-penciled Hemingway’s stories and championed the efforts of James Joyce and countless others; after Pound edited The Wasteland
and cut it in half, his friend T.S. Eliot called him "Il miglior fabro
." Translated, it means "The better craftsman."
Not only did Ezra Pound, through his editorships and criticism, advance the cause of modern poetry, he helped the traditionalist Robert Frost as well, reviewing his work and bringing him to the attention of the public.
He also expressed himself in other arts. During the years of The Great War and following he served as music critic for several publications, composed three operas and two sonatas for violin, and penned a "Treatise on Harmony" (1924) and two essays on musicologist Arnold Dolmetsch. (1918). He was responsible, with his friend Olga Rudge – a violinist herself - for the rediscovery of the music of Vivaldi and promoted the works of the composer-pianist George Anthiel. He wrote one book appreciative of his young friend killed in WW I, the modern sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska.
Ezra Pound also translated the songs of the Provencal poets and the works of Confucious (The Confucian Odes
, The Great Digest
and The Unwobbling Pivot
), Aeschylus (Women of Trachis
– a rendering of the Greek into a kind of ersatz American Negro dialect and gangster-slang!).
Afer the war Pound was arrested and charged with treason. He had made broadcasts that criticized America and attacked Roosevelt and other members of the government. But he was adjudged to be mentally incompetent and placed in St. Elizabeth’s Institution in Washington, D.C. from 1946 to 1958. A steady troupe of American intellectuals, artists and poets visited him there.
In 1948, the Library of Congress awarded him the Bollingen Prize and a storm of criticism erupted, so much so that Congress barred the Library from issuing any more prizes until 1988. When he was finally released to return to Rapallo, Italy, he was observed at Naples giving a farewell Fascist salute in the direction of the US. He said, "America is a lunatic asylum." Later, he added, "I guess the definition of a lunatic is a man surrounded by them."
In old age, he apologized for his anti-semitism – too late and too little, many people thought many – and became a recluse in Venice in the care of Miss Rudge. He denounced his own works, calling The Cantos
"a gigantic failure."
He died in 1972 and was rowed at night by torchlight across The Grand Canal in Venice, accompanied by monks in black robes chanting medieval Latin hymns. He was interred on the cemetery island of San Michele. The Rudge now lies beside him.
remains as controversial in death as he was in life. As recently as October 1999, the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City overruled a vote by a group of prominent American writers to honor him with a place in the Poets' Corner of the church.
In the Cemetery at San Michele numerous signs guide one to Pound’s grave – and these are in different languages – English, Italian, Chinese, Latin and Greek. The State Department and many US citizens have refused to allow his remains to be transported back home to be buried here.
Nevertheless, Ezra Pound today has millions of fans around the world and in every language.