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The Poets

October 01, 2009

Ezra Pound (A Modernist Poet)*


Ezra Loomis Pound (1885 - 1972)

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' 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.

*Biography from Poets.org

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