Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano," a biography by John Tytell.

Considering my glacial reading norms, five weeks to read a book isn't too bad.

As noted previously, there was a pause along the way to view supplementary video, and follow other leads suggested by John Tytell's biography, Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano.  I now know far more about the poet's life and times than I did before, fulfilling one mandate of Why Roger Reads. 

It is fascinating to contemplate a time when an artist could proclaim that poetry would change the world, and be taken seriously. Pound did, and at times, the intensity of his commitment reminds me of a youthful Publican sure that he could do the same with better beer.

Poetry changing the world? For a time, perhaps rock and roll lyrics filled a similar slot, though now, I'm not sure Twitter is up to the task. I'm no poet -- and know it, all too well. As for the beer, well, the new boss is much the same as the old.

Pound's early career as an expatriate in London and Paris was seminal, less so for his own poetry than his championing of other writers, including T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. He had an eye for talent, and often sacrificed his own prospects to espouse it.

Pound was an advocate of modernism in poetry, and for a time, an exponent of it in his own poems. His reputation was such that later in life, overdue recognition came his way.

At some juncture, perhaps in his late thirties, Pound's train left the rails. He became obsessed with right-wing politics and crackpot economics, and apparently began viewing himself as a latter-day Confucius, or a philosopher chosen to impart wisdom to a ruler.

His choice of ruler was unfortunate. Having taken up residence in Italy, Pound's delusions came to be centered on Benito Mussolini's formless fascist doctrine of power. When America entered World War II against Italy, Pound might have returned home or moved to a neutral country like Switzerland.

Instead, he remained in Italy and recorded regular radio messages composed of his mostly incoherent political and economic rantings, which were aired on state radio in spite of misgivings in Mussolini's ruling circle; apparently they realized that the only script Pound would follow was his own.

In 1944, now almost 60, Pound was arrested by the victorious Americans, tossed into a wire cage at the detention camp, and the debate began: Was the poet's wartime behavior treasonable on the part of a man with a sound mind, or was he simply crazy?

Pound was brought to Washington D.C. to stand trial, but friends and lawyers successfully intervened, and he was sent instead to a mental hospital, where he remained for 13 years, finally to be released when the post-war climate changed, and it became less about the war against fascism and one old man's part in it, and more about the ongoing "cold" war with communism.

Returning to Italy and an uneventful 15-year-long postscript, Pound was transformed into an elder statesman, although it wasn't clear at the time what his legacy would be. Was he famous for poetry, midwifery or treason? Was he insane? Had he been sane, but lost the plot during his incarceration?

Until close to the end, Pound continued to write editions of what he called The Cantos, poetry as personal diary, stretching off to the horizon and never completed before his death in 1972.

Tytell's biography was published in the late 1980s. I found it serviceable and worth the time, though perhaps not memorable. It would be interesting to know how the study of Pound has progressed over the past 30 years, but for now, it's enough for me.


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