EZRA POUND The Solitary Volcano By John Tytell Anchor Press/Doubleday. 347 pp. $19.95

ABOUT HIS contribution as poet, critic and social commentator we may all wrangle endlessly, but one fact about Ezra Pound seems virtually unarguable -- namely, that he was one of the most colorful literary figures of this century. To be sure, being colorful was his conscious aim: even in his freshman year at college, as John Tytell observes in his absorbing new biography, Pound "accented his sense of difference with a gold-headed cane or a broad-brimmed hat with a swooping feather. He wanted notice." The Idaho-born, Philadelphia-bred poet also wanted to be where the action was -- which is why, after a brief stint as an English teacher at a small Indiana college, he relocated to Europe at the age of 23. There he proceeded to carve a sizable niche for himself in the world of high culture -- a world whose denizens came either to despise him for his brashness and oddity or to revere him for his brilliance and charisma.

Of course, Pound's attention-getting behavior had a purpose: to advertise modern writing, both his own and that of his peers. For kulchur (as he spelled it, in the labored faux-frontiersman style that he often adopted) was his life. He didn't work at a bank, like T.S. Eliot, or deliver babies, like his old college friend William Carlos Williams; when he wasn't writing his own poetry or criticism, he was reading or editing or publicizing somebody else's. Living in turn (during the years between 1908 and World War II) in London, Paris, and the Italian town of Rapallo, Pound managed not only to write some of the 20th century's most important poetry but to found its most important poetic movement (Imagism), to copy-edit its most important poem (The Waste Land), to help its most important poet (Yeats) to modernize his style, and to give its most celebrated serious fiction writer (Hemingway) "the most practical advice" he ever got. What distinguished Pound, above and beyond his literary genius and his ability to recognize literary genius in others, was that he had innate gifts as a critic and impresario -- and a paradoxical combination of egomania and selflessness (in cultural matters, anyway) -- that made it possible for him to play a dominant role in helping these writers to perfect and promote their work.

How, one may wonder, did a boy from Idaho grow up to be the 20th century's foremost cultural activist? Tytell suggests -- quite convincingly -- that Pound's activism was a legacy, in large part, of his paternal ancestors, particularly his grandfather Thaddeus Pound, a self-made man who built railroads and served in the Wisconsin assembly; a "model of enterprise and accomplishment" as well as of American-style optimism, Thaddeus was associated in Pound's mind "with the daring and danger of frontier life, the robust vigors that would serve to domesticate a wilderness." That Pound applied his zeal to culture rather than to business or state politics is attributed by Tytell to the influence of the poet's maternal ancestors, the Westons and Wadsworths. These two old New England families -- the latter of which claimed as one of its members the poet Longfellow -- represented to Pound "history, gentility, and culture." A respect for tradition, a yearning for the new: it is upon this paradoxical combination of elements that the modern sensibility is built.

ONE CAN hardly imagine modernism without Pound. More than anyone else, he was responsible for creating a climate in which sophisticated readers came to expect a poem to be not sentimental, metronomic "Victorian mush" but an impersonal and intelligent object -- either direct and conversational, as in Williams, or comprehensive and obscurely allusive, as in Eliot. Yet when have readers ever felt more uncomfortable with so prominent a literary figure? To those of us with a high regard for modernism, Pound's centrality to it is unsettling on many accounts. For one thing, his poetry -- which ranges from the Imagistic brevity of the two-line "In a Station of the Metro" ("The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough") to the all-inclusive sprawl of the book-length Cantos -- represents, on the whole, a smaller achievement than that of Eliot, say, or Wallace Stevens. And the hyperkinetic, hayseed manner of most of his prose is likely to strike a contemporary reader as irritating, even tiresome.

What's more, Pound's judgment on many matters was, to say the least, extremely unreliable. He bought wholesale Ernest Fenellosa's mistaken theory regarding the pictorial function of Chinese ideograms, as well as Re'my de Gourmont's ludicrous notion of a connection between copulation and cerebral development. More disturbing was his fanatical devotion to the crackpot economic theories of the anti-Semitic Major C. H. Douglas (who declared that most of the modern world's troubles were the fault of usury) and to Mussolini (for whom he propagandized during World War II over Rome Radio). Then there is his famous anti-Semitism, which -- as Tytell shows at devastating length -- was virulent and virtually lifelong. Such phrases as "Jew York" and "Jewnited States" crop up frequently in his early letters; on Rome Radio he declared that "the Jew is a savage" and recommended The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to his listeners; after the war -- when he was domiciled for 12 years in the psychiatric ward of Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. -- he spoke up in favor of pogroms and befriended members of various Klan-like and neo-Nazi organizations.

To be sure, many writers of Pound's era, among them Eliot and Hemingway, at times expressed anti-Semitic sentiments; whether Pound's more vocal bigotry was a sign of greater hostility to Jews, or simply a manifestation of his need to outrage -- his feeling that "They won't pay attention to me unless I say something sensational" -- is open to question. In any event, Irving Howe is probably right in saying that Pound's prejudices were purely abstract and that he never would have wished harm upon any individual; that is, Pound was so preoccupied with Judaism as a concept, as a component of his own grand philosophical system, that he was incapable of recognizing it as an aggregation of human individuals who were actually suffering and dying under his beloved Fascist regime. The sad truth is that for all Pound's sense of responsibility in regard to such abstract entities as culture, the economy, and the state, he was guilty of a reprehensible irresponsibility toward the hoi polloi -- toward individuals, in other words, who did not happen to be artists, intellectuals or leaders. It was a similar irresponsibility that made it possible for him to maintain two households for many years, one with his wife, Dorothy Shakespear, and one with his mistress, Olga Rudge, and to send his children (whom he couldn't be bothered to have underfoot) to be raised in other homes.

A fascinating figure -- and Tytell has written a fascinating book. But it has significant failings. For example, though it is certainly a good deal more readable than many literary biographies, its prose is often deplorable; there are dangling participles and misplaced modifiers in abundance, and numerous instances of imprecise diction (Tytell habitually uses convince for persuade), pleonasm ("the L'Action Francaise"), and stylistic clumsiness. (Tytell writes, for example, such awful sentences as the following: "A bullet-shaped man with shoulders hardly broader than his head, Mencken's grating humor and his explosively opinionated views of American life had organized The Smart Set and The American Mercury.") And there are odd little lapses here and there: the playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht is referred to as "an American critic"; the word blague is used in one chapter but not defined until the next; the names of Meyer Schapiro and Carl Rakosi and Natty Bumppo are misspelled; and a letter from Delmore Schwartz to Pound -- in which Schwartz, incensed at the older poet's anti-Semitism, "resigned" as one of his greatest admirers -- is misquoted.

Furthermore, with so much controversial material at hand, it is frustrating that Tytell has so little to offer by way of commentary. Though he (like James Atlas in his memorable biography of Schwartz) is excellent at retailing colorful details and illuminating anecdotes, he provides precious little critical discussion; he reports the comments of others about Pound's work and life but to a considerable extent keeps his own views to himself. At times, consequently, the book seems to be a mere collection of facts and quotations, devoid of a controlling sensibility of its own. (Interestingly, this is the very reaction that one has to many of Pound's poems.) Nor does Tytell satisfactorily explore the crucial questions that Pound's life raises -- such as, how could such a symbol of humanistic culture be at the same time such a miserable hatemonger? And if such a dichotomy is possible, what does that tell us about the nature of the connections between art and morality, beauty and truth, the poet and the state? Nor does Tytell offer opinions upon such matters as James Laughlin's disturbing remark, in a 1945 letter to Eliot concerning Pound's postwar arrest on charges of treason, to the effect that "Ezra is 'sane' and the world 'insane'," and that Pound was imprisoned only because "the world . . . habitually hangs or torments men of genius or vision."

To be sure, it is difficult to sort out the Pound we must admire from the Pound we must despise, for his genius seems to have been, in a sense, on a continuum with his madness, the best of him inextricable from the worst. His egomaniacal belief that he could save the world by railing against usury was not completely unrelated to his belief that he could save literature by railing against indirectness, superfluity and gratuitous ornamentation. For what it is worth, moreover, Pound recanted his ugliest statements during his declining years in Rapallo. "Wrong, wrong. I've always been wrong," he told the novelist Richard Stern in the early '60s. In a postscript to the Cantos he admited that he'd been "out of focus" about usury: the real problem was not usury but "AVARICE." And he confessed to Allen Ginsberg (who brought him a Beatles record) that the Cantos were "a mess. Stupidity and ignorance all the way through . . . But the worst mistake I made was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism." His final, fragmentary contribution to the Cantos is genuinely pathetic: "Let those I love," he wrote, "try to forgive what I have made." For the rest of us, it is not to forgive but to try to understand -- and John Tytell, though he hardly makes it possible for us to understand everything, has provided in his book a vivid, sensitive portrait that will go a good way toward clarifying, for all of us, the enigma that was Pound.

Bruce Bawer writes regularly about modern literature for The New Criterion.