This well-written micro-biography of Ezra Pound explores the boundary between madness and genuisby Sameer Rahim / March 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Bughouse by Daniel Swift (Harvil Secker, £25)
“I never did believe in Fascism, God damn it!” protested Ezra Pound at his trial for treason in 1946. He was lying. While living in Italy, between 1941 and 1943, the US poet made at least 105 radio broadcasts in which he railed hotly against “kikes”; at one point he told his audience, “you are learning Hitler’s basic text.”
But Pound was lucky: the jury found him insane and he was sent to a mental hospital in Washington DC—the bughouse of the title—where he continued writing his epic Cantos.
He was visited by a number of poets, including TS Eliot (whose poem The Waste Land he had skilfully edited) and William Carlos Williams. The critic Daniel Swift relates these visits in this well-written micro-biography, which explores the boundary between madness and genuis. Fertile territory, perhaps, and Pound was clearly an astonishing figure. The whiff of a cult developed around the Cantos, with fellow poets all too ready to indulge him. The Pisan Cantos, which included a lament for Mussolini, was awarded a prize in 1949. Eliot, not immune to what Pound later sourly described as the “suburban prejudice” of anti-Semitism, happily joked around while playing tennis with him at the mental hospital.
Swift writes about speaking to modern fans of Pound on the extreme right, and towards the end wonders, “whether I am by now only trying to forgive Pound by blessing him with indecisions he does not, in fact, display.” But there is the sense that, for Swift, Pound’s virtuosity places him above morality. The poet’s story is one of talent fatally misdirected. In an early love poem, “Francesca,” he wrote: “I would that the cool waves might flow over my mind.” Me too Ezra, me too.