In the early 19th century, the great poet Shelley wrote that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." The last poet who seemed to agree with that idea was Ezra Pound, who died in 1972. Pound was an anti-Semite who broadcast pro-fascist and anti-American opinions over government radio from Rome during the Second World War, expressing his regard for Hitler and Mussolini. A man of great imagination, Pound was also the acknowledged inventor of modern U.S. and British poetry, an inspiration to T.S. Eliot and many others.
His case raises again a familiar question: should we judge people by their work or by their lives? His real life, as he saw it, was to bring about the betterment of humanity through his own advice, which he had much to offer. His daily work was in writing, translating and discussing poetry, including poems by ancient Chinese and Japanese writers, and reviving ancient seers like Confucius.
His political advice was so twisted that few could understand it and fewer still could apply it. At some point he decided that the future of humanity lay in the reform of the money system. He was attracted to conspiracy theories and soon believed the world was run by the network of Rothschild banks. He was against "usury," meaning interest bearing loans. He adopted the theories of C.H. Douglas, a British engineer and preacher of Social Credit, the same movement that became the basis of Alberta's government in the 1930s and afterwards.
When the war ended Pound was arrested by American police and charged with treason. His lawyers argued that his mental condition was so deranged that he was unable to stand trial. At a sanity hearing before a jury, four doctors testified that Pound showed paranoia, psychosis, delusions of grandeur and much else. He listened in silence except at one moment when he disagreed with a witness and cried out, "I never did believe in fascism, God damn it!" After listening for half a day, the jury decided Pound was "of unsound mind."
This saved him from a treason trial and possible execution. He was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a federal asylum in Washington. He stayed there for nearly 13 years until the government withdrew the charge against him and he moved back to Italy, his home since the 1920s.
During the years in St. Elizabeths, he remained a controversial figure. Poets and other writers denounced the government for locking up a renowned author; others felt he had been lucky to escape execution. But few on either side knew much about him. Platoons of poets and would-be poets visited him -- Robert Lowell and William Carlos Williams, John Berryman and Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore and Charles Olson, Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Bishop. Of course his old friend T.S. Eliot came. Some came once, some many times.
Daniel Swift, an academic student of Pound's work, wanted to find out what they learned. He obtained the list of Pound's visitors and then searched through their letters in university archives for what they told their friends about him. Pound's favourite name for St. Elizabeths gave him the perfect title for his book: The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound.
Elizabeth Bishop (Pound called her "Liz Bish") wrote a poem describing him as "tragic, talkative, brave, cranky, cruel, tedious, wretched." Reading Swift's book tells us he was most of those things, sometimes in the course of a single day. But, more than that, it brings him out from behind his sometimes wretched sentences and the endless Cantos he wrote and restores his essential humanity. Those who have tried and failed to read Pound in the past may well find that Swift has managed to show that, aside from his bigotry, Ezra Pound was an engaging character.