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The Case of Ezra Pound

The story of the famous poet's arraignment for treason and confinement to a mental hospital.

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Ezra Pound will probably die at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the mentally ill in Washington. Arraigned for treason, but never brought to trial, called insane (mentally incompetent) although he continues to publish with great critical success, Pound has not been out of the hospital grounds for eleven years now, held "in the long, dim corridor inhabited by the ghosts of men" as Archibald Macleish puts it. MacLeish sees Pound there as "a conscious mind capable of the most complete human awareness . . . incarcerated amongst minds which are not conscious and cannot be aware," in an enforced association which produces a horror which is not relieved either by the intelligence of doctors or by the tact of administrators or even by the patience and kindliness of the man suffers it."

Yet, the plea for Pound's freedom runs constantly among those aware of his situation. In the New Directions booklet of tributes to Pound on his 70th birthday, Hemingway wrote,

 Will gladly pay tribute to Ezra, but what I would like to do is get him the hell out of St. Elizabeth's, have him given a passport and allow him to return to Italy where he is justly valued as a poet. I believe he made bad mistakes in the war in continuing to broadcast for that sod Mussolini after we were fighting him. But I also believe he has paid for them in full and his continued confinement is a cruel and unusual punishment.

It is believed by some that the insanity verdict was a convenient "out" for the authorities. Hugh Kenner, in Poetry, November 1952, wrote that "it has prevented the ideas expressed in this broadcasts from being inspected," that Pound has recited those ideas in prose and poetry for many years, and that his war-time gestures are intelligible only to those who have studied closely his Cantos and his essays on reading and culture. An inspection of Pound's Italian broadcasts (available on microfilm from the Library of Congress) does reveal what MacLeish has called the strided raging of the Cantos. But Robert Fitzgerald observed that few people seem to have read the transcripts of the talks

... and I imagine few would care to ... I could take a great deal of rage against the snakes of finance and I could well see the point of scorn for Roosevelt's public insecurities. Even anti-Semitism could be forgiven if it were what it had seemed to me in Pound before—an almost innocent vice partly echoing the Potash and Perlmutter era of comedy in America. But it was not like that, nor were the other contents in general anything but chaotic and unworthy ... I think that Pound at 20 or 30 would have thought hanging an entirely appropriate reward for the author of those radio scripts!

Pound's economic theories, the flow of his radio talks and the blood of his Cantos, originate from the Social Credit plan of Major C. H. Douglas and the doctrine of "free money" of Silvio Gesell. Gesell (1862-1930) wished to eliminate non-labor incomes, such as interest and rent. He proposed issuing "shrinking money" (Schwundgold) which would weekly lose 0.1 percent of its face value, under the purchasing power control. Thus, such money could not be withheld from the market; it would cease to draw primary interest and become free. Douglas  blamed our poverty-in-the-midst-of-plenty  and the boom-depression cycles depression cycles on the control of production and credit by a few finances. Let us, he said, form one great holding company of securities, the United States Inc., for example, compute to the total national wealth, and, upon this, declare to all citizens a certain national dividend to be paid monthly. With the control of prices, wages, profits, with the consumers' demands parallel with production, the national dividend becomes the difference between production and consumption. Establish an equitable distribution of social credit; maintain private enterprise under a controlled profit system.

The two theories (in their more complex and detailed forms) became part of Pound's poetry. Our major problem, he says, is that of distribution. In 1930 in his ABC of Economics, he called for "the shortening of the working day .... to keep credit distributed among a greater part of the population ... It is not the whole answer." He described the place of control of credit as 

... a dark room back of a bank, hung with deep purple curtains. No one must see what happens. What happened in the Bank of the USA before Mr. Van Buren set up an Independent government treasury? ... Inflation for the benefit of the few.

He defined himself as a Jeffersonian republican: " ... you can throw in Confucius and Van Buren, but you must distinguish between 1820 and 1930 and you must bring your Jefferson up to date." His preconception of democracy

... as it existed in the minds of Jefferson and Van Buren, is that the best men .... will take the trouble to place their ideas and policies before the vast majority with such clarity and persuasiveness that the majority will accept their guidance ... The preconception of let us say the Adamses, or aristodemocratic parties in that privilege, a little of it, will breed a sense of responsiblity....It seems fairly proved that  privilege does NOT breed a sense of responsibility....95 percent of all privileged classes seem to believe that the main use of privileges is t be exempt from responsibility.

.... Obviously no best, not even good governing class can be spinelesss...."good" must include a capacity for action, some sense of relation between action and mere thought or talk.

As others cling to parts of his ideas, ignoring the disagreeable elements, so Pound clung to parts of Mussolini while apparently ignoring his baser actions. Pound frequently quoted Mussolini's pre-power protest, "we are tired of a government In which there is no responsible person having a hind name, a front name, or an address." a point we might make, good use of today. He printed on Ms letterheads the dictator's maxim, "Liberty is not a right but a duty." Admiring the ostensible encouragement Mussolini gave artists. Pound settled in Italy. From Rapallo for 20 fears he was, as Yvor Winters says,

... the most influential critic in American letters, so far as practical results are concerned; and when he was replaced, it was by his disciple Eliot, who did little save restate his ideas in a more genteel style.

"Am I an American?" he wrote to Humbert Creekmore. 

... Yes, and bugger the present state of the country, the utter betrayal of the American constitution, the filth of the Universities and the ... system of publication where you can buy Lenin, Trotsky *the messiest of the lot), Stalin for 10 cents and 25 cents, and it takes seven years to get a set of John Adams at about 30 dollars.

Long before his radio talks, Pound had spoken against

... advocating fascism in and for America... I think the American system de jure is probably quite good enough, if there were only 500 men with guts and the sense to use it or even with the capacity of answering letters, or printing a paper.

Apparently he had no idea what he was doing would get him into trouble. He did not swerve from his belief that he was 

... only trying to tell the people of Europe and America how they could avoid war by learning the facts about money. 

Pound easily could haw become an Italian citizen, saving himself from later grief. But regularly he went to the American embassy to maintain his United States citizenship; he wanted,' he says, to reaffirm his faith in the Constitution. Early in 1942 he made an attempt to get on the diplomatic train that took Americans from Italy to Lisbon for passage to the United States, but he was refused permission to join the group. Consequently, he remained in Rapallo. He says he was asked by the Italian if he would make some broadcasts. Anything that would save mankind was worth a try. He maintains that he was not forced to speak, that "no scripts were prepared for me by anybody, and I spoke only when I wanted to." At the beginning of each talk it was stated that he had no connection with the Italian government, that he was speaking only as an American citizen. He wanted to save the Constitution, to warn the people against usurers who, he said, destroy us.

His radio talks fit a description Yeats gave the Cantos:

... nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion; he is an economist, poet, politician, raging at malignants with inexplicable characters and motives, grotesque figures out of a child's book of beasts

(like Ulysses, the Cantos are based upon characters from history and fiction, upon an economy, motives, politics, all explicable within the poem's massive epic organization). When, he was bought to the United States in an Army C-54 on November 18, 1945, he declared:

If freedom of speech doesn't apply on the radio—i the age of radio ... I'd die for an idea all right, but to die for an idea I've forgotten is too much, Does anyone have the faintest idea what I sai?

That is, he did not realize he had said anything to arrest him for, 

He had gone to the authorities  in Italy in 1945 to tell them he had heard they were looking for him. After some deliberation and incredulity, they accepted him as a prisoner. The report on his confinement at Pisa, where The Pisan Cantos had their birth, is best found in the Cantos themselves and in "The Background of The Pisan Cantos" David Park Williams (Poetry, January, 1949) who was a literate guard at the Disciplinary Training Center where Pound was interned from May through October, 1945. The Center possessed half dozen cages and sixty boxes which served as cells for "incorrigibles." Dangerous prisoners, such as the Lane gang members (Canto LXXI) were placed in cages made of heavy wire, "enabling guards," Williams says. "to keep a 24-hour watch on those within." Apparently, the Army feared that Italian fascists would attempt t rescue Pound, for a special cage wis built for him, the "gorilla cage" of Canto LXXXIII.

"Ha, I was a dangerous criminal!" Pound said later. 

... They thought I was a dangerous wild man and were scared of me. I had a guard night and day and when they built a cage our of iron mats from airplane runways and put me in the cage for the merriment of all, they posted a guard outside. Soldiers used to come up to the cage and look at me. Some of them brought me food. Old Ez was a prize exhibit..

He slept on the cement floor of the cage ("so kissed the earth after sleeping on concrete"). Tar paper was spread across the top to keep off the sun; he was given a pup tent to rig up isnide the bars at night. The closing couplet of of The Pisan Cantos thus takes on poignancy:

If the hoar frost grips thy tent

Thou wilt give thanks when night is spent

No one ever tried to rescue Pound. 

Much of The Pisan Cantos describes this scene: the barbed-wire enclosure, the constant figures of the guards, the trainess (as the prisoners were called) punished with close-order drill after dark (they were given 14 hours of training daily), "sweatin' it out to the bumm drum" of the prison band with guards on horseback keeping watch over it "as the young horse whinnies against the tubes." Pound clung to a worn volume of Confucius. He read hour upon end, or simply sat," Williams says, "and "combed his ragged beard, watching the Pisa road where passers-by and occasional white oxen were visible"—

and there was a smell of mint under

   the tent flaps

especially after the rain

            and a white ox on the road toward


                 as if facing the tower

dark sheep in the drill fields and on wet

   days were clouds

in the mountain as if under the guard

   roosts.                           (Canto LXXIV)

Because of his poor health, Pound was moved from the cage after a few weeks to a pyramidal tent in the medical area, where he spent most of the summer and part of the fall of 1945, A prisoner gave him a packing-case for a table and there he was able to write. not was allowed to speak to him at any time. But some did:

as the greatest charity

to be gound among those who have not

   observed regulations

They don't know what to do with me, 

so they put old Ex in a cage and flew him back to the United States ... They kept me in confinement on a starvation diet when I first got here, and I didn't see the sun for months. 

He was arraigned for treason based on opinions aired via radio—the first American to be so charged. He called it a "damned fool idea" that he had betrayed his country; he was, he insisted, bent upon saving it.

That insistence became part of a nine-sentence report by for psychiatrists, three for the government, one retained by Pound's defense, which declared him mentally incompotent— "his self-appointed mission" to "save the Constitution." The report spoke of his "uncertain living," his being "eccentric," his "advancing years," called him "abnormally grandiose," referred to personality's  "further distortion"—in, effect, a good description of the independent artist. The report was considered valid and Pound was delivered to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Anacostia. He was at first placed with the criminally insane and the violent ward. He later said: 

I met a very pleasant chap. We had many interesting conversations. He seemed no crazier than I. When I found out that he had been committed for killing his wife, I reconsidered my position. 

At length, he was shifted to a more tranquil section, and there he remains. 

For eleven years he has held his own  court where he has been able, primarily in warm weather when he has been permitted  afternoons outside the building (but never outside the hospital grounds) if accompanied by his wife. The Pounds have been married 43 years; Mrs. Pound's maiden name was, seriously and perhaps as symbolic and fanciful as anything in the Cantos, Dorothy Shakespeare. She never misses a day at the hospital. When she arrives, Pound greets her with a wave and and a kiss on her cheek. 

And there, in his loose sweatshirt, an old GI overcoat, baggy trousers, heavy white socks, bedroom slippers, long underwear showing at his ankles, Pound sits on a char warm afternoons on the wide, lush, and sweeping lawns of the grounds and peers at his visitors beneath a green eyeshade. For his 71 years he is vigorous, still rough-bearded, still much, as Eliot described him in 1946 "...his restless energy—in which it is difficult to distinguish the energy from the restlessness and the fidgets ... a kind of resistance towards growing into any environment." Actually, he has the problem of too many visitors who seek advice, aid, answers, literary judgements, and just the thrill of looking at him, Evidently, rather than spend time with the planned intellectual games of the hospital, he has chosen to work o such matters as his The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius published in 1954, and on the further Cantos (Section: Rock Drill) and translations. In an effort to organize his thinking, he has concentrated a good deal of chess. 

As far back as 1949 Dr Frederic Weham, author of The Show of Violence and other psychiatric studies of criminal insanity,

... proved to the satisfaction of my own scientific conscience and that of many of my colleagues that according to the very statement given out by the authorities Ezra Pound was not legally insane and did not have any major disease which would render him legally insane. 

And in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr. Wetham further explore  the insanity decision: in Italy, Pound was declared "sane and able to stand trial for treason" by Army Psychiatrists; if he had been tried, by now he would have served his sentence and would have been released  along with Axis Sally and the others. 

Ironically, Pound's possibilities of being set free were probably more damaged by his having received the Bollingen Award for The Pisan Cantos. A furor arose, not only among those preoccupied with literature, but also from house-wives who wanted hum hanged and businessman who would have him shot—T.S. Eliot, one of the Fellows, was blamed for controlling the committee's votes, although as Malcolm Cowley pointed out (in the New Republic), Eliot "neither nominated The Pisan Cantos for the prize nor argued that it was the best book to choose; he merely cast one vote for it among eleven." The question of the separation of poet from his work flamed again. One of the Fellows of the Library asserts that, "Our job wasn't to pass on the question of Pound's loyalty;" we were giving a prize for a book of poems." Cowley further stresses that Fellows' view that other virtues exist as well as the patriotic: "Originality, learning, sharpness of image, purity if phrase and a strict literary conscience ... and these are present in Pound's work along with his contemptible politics." By giving him the prize, the Fellows were defending, they insist, "that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest."

The battle spread to the Congress, where a Representative was busy calling modern art Communistic (the Communists call it capitalistic and decadent). An investigation of tie Bolliogen Award, was demanded. Now the Library of Congress has been forced to cancel not only the prize in literature, but also its awards in music and art. As Cowley remarks: 

The little American republic of letters is under attack by pretty much the same forces as those to which the Russian writers have already yielded: that is, by people who prefer slogans to poetry and national self-flattery to honest writing.

Pound makes his own plea in one of the most touching and beautiful, and most quoted, of his Pisan Canto passages:

'Master thyself, then others shall thee 


  Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Not knowst'ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

   How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

   Pull down thy vanity,

Rather to destroy, niggard in charity, 

Pull down thy vanity,

    I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing

    this is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

    To have gathered from the air a live


or from a fine old eye the conquered 


This is not vanity

    Here error is all in the not done,