Ezra Pound, born 100 years ago today in Hailey, Idaho, was at once a poetical Renaissance and a political Dark Age, the century's most influential literary teacher and the era's tragic failure, a champion haranguer and cracked anti-Semite.
The centenary has generated numerous symposiums across the nation, and last night at the Library of Congress, Welsh actor Ray Handy performed a one-man show about Pound, whose work has been crucial to poets and the stuff of doctoral theses to countless graduate students -- biographer Donald Davie has suggested the immensity of the Pound "industry." A. Walton Litz, chairman of the Princeton University English department, says, "Pound and T.S. Eliot have generated more critical work than any other poets I can think of."
For decades young poets learned their craft from Pound. He held forth on the banks of the Thames, the canals of Venice and in the dim rooms of St. Elizabeths asylum in Anacostia where he spent 12 years after the war. "Pound was the first poet I ever read," says Charles Wright, an American Book Award winner. "I honed my ear to his music. I loved the sound of him, but I probably couldn't spend five minutes with the man himself. He was a pig-headed father. I left home long ago, but there he is. He introduced me to everything I make my life of. What beauty next to the wreckage."
In Hailey, Idaho, there is a plaque on the house where Pound spent the first two years of his life and the Hailey Town Museum has a permanent display.
Pound was in many ways the inventor of the modernist movement, though he did not write the first great modernist poem. He was its editor. T.S. Eliot's early drafts of "The Waste Land" were sprinkled with brilliant moments. Pound guided his friend to the poem's immediacy, and Eliot acknowledged the debt with a dedication: "For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro" -- the better workman.
When he stayed with poetry, Pound was a generous pedant, an innovator on the scale of Picasso. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Marianne Moore were just some of the beneficiaries of his advice and boosterism, his hectoring and lecturing, his eye and ear for talent.
Pound did more than any other 20th-century figure to rearrange and renew the syllabus of literary history. His tastes cut across the ages and nationalities; he celebrated not only Homer, Dante and Horace, but also Li Po, Arnaut Daniel, Bertrand de Born, Guido de Cavalcanti and the noh plays of Japan. He is famous for his demand to "Make It New," but no one had a greater knowledge of and respect for tradition.
James Merrill, whose "Scripts for the Pageant" is one of the most celebrated long poems in recent poetry, says, "Pound was a gadfly, saying what someone needed to say, whether one agreed with him or not. His scope, his range, the way he was not afraid of pastiche and including all sorts of literatures and then making them his own, that's what I admire most about him."
Guy Davenport, author of "The Geography of the Imagination" and one of Pound's ardent admirers, writes, "I have seen students learn Chinese because of him, or take up medieval studies, learn Greek, Latin, music; the power of his instigations has not flagged."
Pound's anti-Semitism was vicious, as apparent in his poems as in his conversation. He thought it wisdom itself to say, "The Jew alone can retain his detestable qualities despite climactic conditions."
He also saw Italian fascism as the second coming of Jeffersonian democracy and often broadcast this daft discovery over Italian radio during World War II. The United States charged him with treason for the broadcasts but a series of sympathetic psychiatrists convinced a court that Pound was insane, unfit to stand trial.
A stream of visitors came to see "inmate" No. 58102 at St. Elizabeths, the red-brick asylum, among them literary artists, biographers, students, acolytes and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The scene could be bizarre. One day Eliot and Pound sat on a bench talking and lifting their feet, first the right, then the left, as one of Pound's fellow inmates "vacuumed" the floor with an invisible machine.
When he was released in 1958 and went off to spend his last years in Italy, Pound began a sort of penance dominated by long periods of silence -- real, stony silence. Only the harshest of Pound's critics were unmoved by his strange repentance, his sense of failure at the end.
Allen Ginsberg was a typical visitor, traveling thousands of miles to sit at the master's feet. Pound was gracious but said almost nothing, Ginsberg recalls; one of his few comments was to denounce his own "suburban anti-Semitism."
"You could not help feeling for such a man," Ginsberg says. "The silence, for a poet like that, was a profound apology."
Pound trained his ear the way a ballerina trains her body, and in his early poems, such as "Near Perigord" and "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," he showed a voice at once allusive, musical and alive. His life's epic, the "Cantos," is the record of a peculiar mind moving, a mind filled with music, Greek, Chinese, Italian, sympathies, hostilities, harebrained economics, mad views of American history. He tried to put all of western culture (or his version of it) under a single roof. "The modern world needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thoughts in," he wrote in "Canto II." Sometimes the poems are brilliant, lucid; other times the effect is of a toppled library.
Pound ended the "Cantos" as he did so many of his queer discussions at the end of his life, with a confession of his "many errors":
"I have tried to write Paradise/ Do not move/ Let the wind speak/ that is paradise./ Let the Gods forgive what I/ have made/ Let those I love try to forgive/ what I have made."
It is said that Pound's poetry helped cleanse the language, helped us to hear and see. "What thou lovest well remains," he wrote, "the rest is dross." One can easily say the same of Ezra Pound.