Daniel Swift is interested in Ezra Pound, as were poets Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, John Berryman and William Carlos Williams. And the Idaho literati should understand the importance of Pound, once William Butler Yeats’ assistant, because he was born in Hailey. But how did a kid from Idaho become one of the most misunderstood (he was pro-fascist and an anti-Semite) and important literary figures of the 20th century?
Swift, a British scholar and Pound enthusiast, responds with his new book, “The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound,” in which the author takes the reader inside of St. Elizabeths Hospital near Washington, D.C., where Pound was held on an insanity plea for more than a decade (1945-1958). Pound’s lawyer negotiated his restriction to St. Elizabeths in lieu of facing a death penalty trial for treason. Swift explains, in detail, the treason allegations: i.e., Pound’s rhetoric during his radio broadcasts from Italy were in favor of Italy’s fascist regime – treason for an American citizen.
Appropriately, Swift writes through the lens of Pound’s visitors and doctors at St. Elizabeths, including Eliot, who visited in 1952. The duo played tennis and reminisced about their London days. Swift writes that “Pound’s editing of ‘The Waste Land’ is one of the most resonant anecdotes of twentieth-century history,” so the conversation between the two poets must have been cerebral, but Eliot never chronicled his time with Pound there, so scholars will never know what was said on the hospital grounds.
Poet Robert Lowell, who also suffered mentally, took poet John Berryman to St. Elizabeths in 1948:
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At the hospital, he [Berryman] sits on the floor with his arms around his knees.
He smiles and asks Pound to sing for them, and Pound’s voice floats above the ward.
Half a year passes and Berryman returns to St. Elizabeths. This time he goes alone and Pound offers to feed him: first a roll and then a banana, which Berryman refuses and Pound eats himself.
Later, Berryman writes: “the lunatic one/ fidgeting with bananas.”
Swift’s interest in Pound is not imitated to Pound’s poetry or his coterie; his exhaustive research addresses Pound’s mental diagnoses: “In July 1953 Dr. Bernard Cruvant – who had been Chief of Service while Pound was at Howard Hall … recorded a new diagnosis. Pound was, he proposed, a ‘narcissistic personality type.’” In 1955, Dr. Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths, believed Pound suffered “psychotic disorder, undifferentiated,” but many scholars believe Overholser was simply protecting Pound from the death penalty with his assessment.
Other doctors believed Pound was bipolar or manic depressive, and St. Elizabeths doctor E. Fuller Torrey believed that Pound faked his symptoms to dodge the death penalty. Anyone who knew Pound understood that he had the ability to flip the doctor-patient meeting each visit, and for Pound the patient is the doctor.
In a powerful section of the book, Swift takes the reader to the streets of Rome in 1933, when Pound met his hero, Benito Mussolini: “[Pound] opened the ‘Cantos’ and the dictator looked down at a page and said, ‘But this is not English.’ Pound explained, ‘It’s my idea of the way a continental Jew would speak English,’ and Mussolini replied, ‘This is entertaining.’” The story changes over the years, and Pound quotes Mussolini in Canto 41.
“MA QVESTO,” said the Bos, ’e divertente.
Pound revered Mussolini, and after the dictator was shot and hanged in a square in Milan, Pound memorialized the dictator in the first of his “The Pisan Cantos,” which Pound wrote while he was detained in an open-air cage in Italy awaiting his treason trial. Later, portions of Mussolini’s brain were flown to St. Elizabeths for “further examination.”
Pound wrote some of his best work at St. Elizabeths, including “Section: Rock Drill” and a translation of Sophocles’ “Women of Trachis.”
Idahoans and scholars should read “The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound” to learn more about the controversial writer who urged Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce to not use phrases that were already written. Make it new, Pound declared, and Swift makes Pound studies new again with this work.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.