Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972), American poet, translator, editor, critic, and esthetic propagandist whose life was surrounded by controversy, is best known for his Cantos (1925-1960), an epic version of the history of civilization.
Pound founded the imagist movement in American poetry and was an influential poet. He was the first to promote and publish T.S. Eliot's poetry. Recently it was discovered that Pound's suggested revisions for Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) were adopted in the final version of the work, revealing Pound as a sort of invisible "co-author" of one of the 20th century's most influential poems. Unfortunately, Pound's positive role as a teacher and promoter of modernist poets and poetics and as a translator of Oriental and Anglo-Saxon verse has been largely overshadowed by the spectacle of the vehemently reactionary anti-Semite and racist who actively supported the Fascists during World War II, was indicted for treason following the war, and was declared legally insane in 1945.
Ezra Loomis Pound was born on Oct. 30, 1885, in Hailey, Idaho, but spent most of his youth in Pennsylvania. In 1901 he began attending the University of Pennsylvania and then, two years later, transferred to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, from which he graduated in 1905. He received a master of arts degree from Pennsylvania in 1906, where he taught while engaged in his studies. Among his pupils was poet William Carlos Williams. After teaching French and Spanish at Wabash College, Indiana, Pound left for London in 1908 on a cattle boat, where he lived until 1920.
A Lume Spento (1908), Pound's first published volume, was followed in 1909 by Personae of Ezra Pound and Exultations of Ezra Pound. Most of his early work was late romantic in style, heavily imitative of Robert Browning, and probably influenced as well by his study of Provençal chansons. The "credo" Pound stated in 1917, calling for a new "imagist" poetry of austerity, directness, and emotional freedom, a poetry "nearer the bone, " was realized in the poem Portrait d'une femme, published in Ripostes (1912), which was probably inspired by Henry James's novel Portrait of a Lady and which may have influenced T.S. Eliot's later poem of the same name.
Pound founded and edited the revolutionary literary magazine Blast in 1914 and later became the European editor of Harriet Monroe's Chicago Poetry, using his influence to promote and encourage Eliot. Harriet Monroe later said, "It was due more to Ezra Pound than to any other person that 'the revolution' was on."
Pound effectively preached the gospel of modernism during this period, but his own poetry for the most part did not live up to his teachings. He developed his own voice as a poet much more slowly than did Eliot, who by the time he left Harvard had already developed his mature style. Through his "creative translations" of Chinese poems in Cathay (1915) and his "Homage to Sextus Propertius" (1918 and 1919) Pound's characteristic mature style gradually emerged. By the time Hugh Selwyn Mauberley appeared in 1920, with its echoes of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, " Pound had achieved his artistic maturity.
In 1918 Pound began investigating the causes of World War I, the earliest evidence of his lifelong obsession with economic and political theory, to explain the failures of modern democratic society. From 1920 to 1924 Pound lived in Paris, where he was associated with Gertrude Stein and her brilliant circle of American expatriates. He dominated the avant-garde literary movements of the period. He moved to Italy in 1924, where he spent most of the rest of his life. The first of the Cantos, his magnum opus, appeared in 1925. In the years before World War II he published, in addition to his poetry, books on economics, art, and Oriental literature and lectured at the Bocconi University in Milan on Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren.
In 1941 Pound began to broadcast propaganda from Rome attacking the American war effort. The broadcasts, which expressed his complete disillusionment with democratic culture, were largely personal diatribes on the proper nature and function of art and the artist in society—thus, his indictment for treason by the American government after the war was condemned by most artists and critics. The Italian government had faithfully observed Pound's request that he not be compelled to say anything contrary to his conscience or to his duties as an American citizen; his broadcasts were misguided attempts to "save" his home-land from what he felt was a debilitating democracy rather than calls for its destruction.
Pound was returned to the United States in 1945 under indictment for treason but never stood trial. After his lawyer successfully entered a plea of insanity, Pound was committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. His Pisan Cantos were given the Bollingen Award in 1949, largely through the influence of Eliot, who, along with William Carlos Williams and many other prominent figures in American letters, was instrumental in having Pound's indictment dismissed in 1958. That same year Pound was released from St. Elizabeth's under a storm of controversy and returned immediately to Italy.
When Pound returned to Naples he gave a fascist salute to assembled photographers and claimed he was the greatest living poet. He returned to his home in Merano and began gardening, planting grapes and, of course, writing. This period in his life was cut short by a heart attack in 1962. Afterwards he became very elusive and rarely talked to anyone. He continually worked on one singular project, trying to find a "paradise" to end his Cantos series. He took long walks along the streets of Venice and, as friends said, tried to come to terms with himself and his life.
There seemed to be many others as well who were trying to come to terms with Pound. The year of his death the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had turned down a request by other writers and critics to award Pound their Emerson-Thoreau Medal. By a 13 to nine vote, the Academy voted not to award Pound even though they stated that he was a great writer. They cited Pound's political views and past behavior as the reasoning behind denying him the award.
Pound died on November 1, 1972 in Venice's Civil Hospital from an intestinal blockage after falling ill at his home near St. Mark's Square.
Pound's early imagism, a confused and ambiguous esthetic, was an attempt to make poetry scientifically respectable. Through it he hoped to be able to present in verbal images the exact equivalent of the actual object described, so that the experience of the poem would create in the reader the same sensations caused by direct experience of the object itself. Pound never acknowledged the amount of conscious and unconscious selection and control that went into the making of an imagist poem, and his own work exemplified a personalism that belied his objectivist theory. He never admitted, even to himself, that the creations of the human mind must invariably be conditioned by the process of that mind.
Perhaps the best example of Pound's imagism is "In a Station of the Metro, " which has only two lines: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough." The poem is similar in format to Japanese haiku poetry, which he cited enthusiastically as authority for his later theory of the "ideogrammatic method" but which he never fully understood in its indigenous religious implications. Characteristically, Pound cited examples from the entire body of world literature in support of his various esthetic theories with little regard for their actual context or meaning; everything was shaped to fit the contours of his own mind.
"The Seafarer" (1912), one of Pound's earliest and best creative translations, brilliantly reproduces the unique consonantal "sound" of Anglo-Saxon poetry, but, characteristically, its detail and incident are considerably revised to suit his individual purposes. Many of the later Cantos show his command of Anglo-Saxon sonics. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley marked Pound's creation of the persona that would serve him throughout the Cantos. A debt to Walt Whitman is suggested in the very conception of the Cantos, a lifelong series of explorations of the self in the context of world history. But the Cantos fundamentally proceed through the accretion of established literal history, whereas Whitman's method was more organic, fashioning a personal myth which moved out to metaphorically envelop the world.
Pound's reputation as a poet ultimately must rest on the Cantos, which are notoriously uneven in quality. Longer than Whitman's Song of Myself or Herman Melville's Clarel, to which they might be compared, except for a few early examples they are noticeably less successful because of their obsessiveness, moral insensitivity, and unreadability. Despite Pound's claims for their scientific objectivity, the Cantos are in fact highly subjective and morally irresponsible. In spite of his arguments for the "ideogrammatic method, " the treatment of history as self-evident "fact" in the manner of the image in an imagist poem cannot be either morally or philosophically defended. In a sense there are no real people in the Cantos, only stereotyped heroes and villains; it is a poem about history that fails to present humanity acting and suffering at its very center. As William Butler Yeats said of Pound's villains, he presents them as "malignants with inexplicable characteristics and motives, grotesque figures out of a child's book of beasts." Pound's best known slogan was "Make it new!" He might better have exhorted himself to "make it human."
Although the Cantos are part of a long American tradition of epic attempts to use history as a clue to the meaning of present experience, and despite their Emersonian emphasis on fact as the clue to form, their main thrust remains Pound's own fundamentally sentimental nostalgia for "nobler, " more "heroic" past ages and his alienation from the contemporary world. His best poetry is in his creative translations, not in the major work of his career.
As early as the publication of Mauberley in 1920, Pound ceased developing as an artist and thinker. His final Cantos differ intellectually only in their degree of compressed allusion from the antidemocratic implications of his earliest fully achieved work, in which he described the modern world as "an old bitch gone in the teeth … a botched civilization." The immense historical erudition and intellectual idiosyncrasy of the Cantos make them virtually indecipherable to many readers. Indeed, the late "Rock Drill" Cantos are apparently intended to be unreadable, being arranged on the page as spatial sculpture rather than as understandable poetry.
Pound's influence on contemporary poets is small in comparison with that of William Carlos Williams, who more accurately exemplifies the current interest in Zen and Whitman. But those who explore the "deep image" find in Pound's work clues to a new poetics.
Further Reading on Ezra Loomis Pound
A paperback selection of Pound's poems was published in 1957. For Pound's theories see A B C of Reading (1934), The Letters of Ezra Pound (1950), and The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (1954), which was edited by T. S. Eliot.
A full-length biography of Pound is Charles Norman, Ezra Pound (1960). For discussions of Pound's works see Peter Russell, ed., An Examination of Ezra Pound: A Collection of Essays (1950); the section on Pound in Babette Deutsch, Poetry in Our Time (1952); Harold H. Watts, Ezra Pound and the Cantos (1952); Lewis G. Leary, ed., Motive and Method in the Cantos of Ezra Pound (1954); Clark M. Emery, Ideas into Action: A Study of Pound's Cantos (1958); Macha L. Rosenthal, A Primer of Ezra Pound (1960); George S. Fraser, Ezra Pound (1961); George Dekker, The Cantos of Ezra Pound: A Critical Study (1963); L.S. Dembo, The Confucian Odes of Ezra Pound: A Critical Appraisal (1963); Walter E. Sutton, ed., Ezra Pound: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963); and the section on Pound in Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets, from the Puritans to the Present (1968). Pound's obituary can be found in the November 2, 1972 issue of the New York Times.