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Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (October 30 1885 – November 1 1972) was a poet, musician and critic who, along with T. S. Eliot, was one of the major figures of the modernist movement in early 20th century poetry. He was the driving force behind several modernist movements, notably Imagism and Vorticism. The critic Hugh Kenner said on meeting Pound: "I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the center of modernism."
Early life and contemporaries
Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, United States. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and at Hamilton College. During this period, he met and befriended William Carlos Williams and H.D., to whom he was engaged for a time. He taught at Wabash College for less than a year, and left as the result of a minor scandal. In 1908, he traveled to Europe, settling in London after spending several months in Venice.
The London Revolution
Pound's early poetry was inspired by his reading of the pre-Raphaelites and other 19th century poets and medieval Romance literature, as well as much neo-Romantic and occult/mystical philosophy. When he moved to London, under the influence of Ford Madox Ford and T. E. Hulme , he began to cast off overtly archaic poetic language and forms in an attempt to remake himself as a poet. He believed W. B. Yeats was the greatest living poet, and befriended him in England, eventually being employed as the Irish poet's secretary. He was also interested in Yeats's occult beliefs. Yeats and Pound were instrumental in helping each other modernise their poetry. During the war, Pound and Yeats lived together at Stone Cottage in Sussex, England, studying Japanese, especially Noh plays. In 1914, he married Dorothy Shakespear, an artist.
In the years before the First World War, Pound was largely responsible for the appearance of Imagism and Vorticism. These two movements, which helped bring to notice the work of poets and artists like James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Richard Aldington, Marianne Moore, Rebecca West and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, can be seen as perhaps the central events in the birth of English-language modernism. Pound also edited his friend Eliot's The Waste Land, the poem that was to force the new poetic sensibility into public attention.
However, the war shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilisation and he abandoned London soon after, but not before he published Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). If these poems together form a farewell to Pound's London career, The Cantos, which he began in 1915, pointed his way forward.
In 1920, Pound moved to Paris where he moved among a circle of artists, musicians and writers who were revolutionising the whole world of modern art. He continued working on The Cantos, which increasingly reflected his preoccupations with politics and economics, as well as writing critical prose, translations and composing two complete operas (with help from George Antheil) and several pieces for solo violin. In 1922 he met and became involved with Olga Rudge , a violinist. Together with Dorothy Shakespear, they formed an uneasy ménage à trois which was to last until the end of the poet's life.
In the mid 1920s Pound moved to Rapallo , Italy, where he continued to be a creative catalyst. The young sculptor Heinz Henghes came to see Pound arriving penniless. He was given lodging and marble to carve, and quickly learned to work in stone. The poet James Laughlin was also inspired at this time to start the publishing company New Directions which would become a vehicle for many new authors.
At this time Pound also organised an annual series of concerts in Rapallo where a wide range of classical and contemporary music was performed. In particular this musical activity contributed to the 20th century revival of interest in Vivaldi, who had been neglected since his death.
In Italy Pound became an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini, and anti-Semitic sentiments begin to appear in his writings. Pound remained in Italy after the outbreak of the Second World War. He disapproved of American involvement in the war and tried to use his political contacts in Washington D.C. to prevent it. He spoke on Italian radio and gave a series of talks on cultural matters. Inevitably, he touched on political matters, and his opposition to the war and his anti-Semitism were apparent on occasions.
Towards the end of the war, he was incarcerated in a United States Army detention camp outside Pisa, spending twenty-five days in an open cage before being given a tent. Here he appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He also drafted the Pisan Cantos in the camp. This section of the work in progress marks a shift in Pound's work, being a meditation on his own and Europe's ruin and on his place in the natural world in what has been considered as some of the first ecological poetry in English. The Pisan Cantos won the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress in 1948.
After the war, Pound was brought back to the United States to face charges of treason. He was found unfit to face trial because of insanity and sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he remained for 12 years from 1946 to 1958, when he was released and sent back to Italy, where he died in 1972. Pound was conceited and flamboyant, to say the least, which in psychiatric terms became "grandiosity of ideas and beliefs". The insanity case against Pound is widely believed to be an example of state abuse, effectively imprisoning Pound without a trial. By contrast E. Fuller Torrey believed that Mussolini's propagandist was coddled by Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths. Overholser admired Pound's poetry and allowed him to live in a private room at the hospital, where he wrote three books, received visits from literary celebrities and enjoyed conjugal relations with his wife and several mistresses. (Torrey exposed the relationship between Overholser and Pound in a 1981 Psychology Today and later, the book The Roots of Treason.) At St. Elizabeths he was surrounded by poets and other admirers and continued working on The Cantos as well as translating the Confucian classics. Many of the poets and artists who frequently visited Pound would have been horrified to learn that another of his most frequent visitors was the then-chairman of the States' Rights Democratic Party, with whom Pound used to discuss strategy and tactics on how best to rally public support for the preservation of racial segregation in the American South. Pound was befriended there by Guy Davenport, and subsequently Davenport wrote his Harvard dissertation on Pound's poetry (published as Cities on Hills in 1983), a work that was highly influential in causing a re-assessment of Pound's poetry. Pound was finally released after a concerted campaign by many of his fellow poets and artists, particularly Robert Frost. He was still considered incurably insane but not dangerous to others.
Return to Italy
On his release, Pound returned to Italy where he continued writing, but his old certainties had deserted him. Although he continued working on The Cantos, he seemed to view them as an artistic failure. He also seemed to regret many of his past actions, and in a 1967 interview with Allen Ginsberg he apologised for "that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism". He died in Venice in 1972.
Because of his political views, especially his support of Mussolini and his anti-Semitism, Pound continues to attract much criticism. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the vital role he played in the modernist revolution in 20th century literature in English. This importance may be considered under four headings: poet, critic, promoter, and translator.
As a poet, Pound was one of the first to successfully employ free verse in extended compositions. His Imagist poems influenced, among others, the Objectivists and The Cantos were a touchstone for Ginsberg and other Beat poets. Almost every 'experimental' poet in English since the early 20th century is in his debt.
As critic, editor and promoter, Pound helped the careers of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, Williams, H.D., Moore, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Charles Olson and other modernist writers too numerous to mention as well as neglected earlier writers like Walter Savage Landor and Gavin Douglas.
Immediately before the first world war Pound became interested in art when he was associated with the Vorticists (Pound coined the word). Pound did much to publicise the movement and was instrumental in bringing the movement to the wider public (he was particularly important in the artistic careers of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Wyndham Lewis).
As translator, although his mastery of languages is open to question, Pound did much to introduce Provençal and Chinese poetry, the Noh, Anglo-Saxon poetry and the Confucian classics to a modern Western audience. He also translated and championed Greek and Latin classics and helped keep these alive for poets at a time when classical education was in decline.
In the early '20s in Paris, Pound became interested in music, and was probably the first serious writer in the 20th century to praise the work of Vivaldi (who had been neglected for centuries) and early music generally. He also helped the early career of George Antheil, and colllaborated with him on various projects.
The secret to Pound's seemingly bizarre theories and political commitments perhaps lie in his occult and mystical interests, which biographers have only recently begun to document. 'The Birth of Modernism' by Leon Surette is perhaps the best introduction to this aspect of Pound's thought.
- Carpenter, Humphrey (1988). A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Kenner, Hugh (1973). The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Longenbach, James (1991). Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Oderman, Kevin (1986). Ezra Pound and the Erotic Medium. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Redman, Tim (1991). Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Stock, Noel (1970). Life of Ezra Pound. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
- Surette, Leon (1994). The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult. McGill-Queen's University Press.
- Pound at Modern American Poetry
- Pound at EPC
- Pound and the Occult
- Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character
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