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The Bughouse: the poetry, politics and madness of Ezra Pound

by Daniel Swift

Harvill Secker (2017)



To be clear: this book does not purport to be a rounded biography of Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972), perhaps the twentieth century's most influential poetry-propagandist -and an indispensable midwife to Modernism. It deals primarily with the twelve and a half years between December 1945 and May 1958, during which Pound was locked-up in a Washington asylum, St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe) Hospital, indicted for 'Treason' towards the United States and placed continually under assessment as to whether he was fit to stand trial in a court case which -if he had been found guilty- would potentially have led to his execution.


Swift shows us a number of different Ezras refracted through the assorted prisms of various visitors and physicians. This authorial policy can be a little disorientating and, indeed, no firm conclusions are drawn nor, by design, much in the way of a balanced judgement reached. But, before we enter its echoing corridors, it is probably helpful to learn just how Pound was brought, at the age of sixty, to that institution he was to christen 'the bughouse'.


After settling in Italy in 1924 the previously itinerant writer began to conceive an admiration for Benito Mussolini which would lead him to make a large number of pro-fascist, anti-Semitic broadcasts throughout the Second World War. Turning himself over to the occupying U.S. forces in May 1945, he was placed in a steel cage, six foot square, within a Pisan detention centre (where he seems, unsurprisingly, to have experienced a form of nervous breakdown). Subsequently repatriated by plane to Washington, he was put under the direction of a psychiatrist with the rather Bond-villain name of Dr Winfred Overholser, medical superintendent of St. Elizabeths -under whose supervision he would remain throughout the years of his confinement.


The Bughouse grants us only a limited insight into Pound's treatment regime or his medication. In the 1950s these would have been quite limited: Chloropromazine (Largactil) was the first anti-psychotic -also known as a 'major tranquilliser'- and was initially licensed in 1953. Other treatment options would have included Hydro-therapy and what we now call Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) -though, due to privacy laws, we cannot know if Pound personally experienced any of these. We do know that he consistently refused to have anything to do with manual labour (or 'occupational therapy') whilst on the wards. In one way Pound may have been extremely fortunate: 1949 was the absolute peak year for lobotomies performed in the U.S. with 5,074 of these 'psychosurgeries' carried out.


Similarly, diagnosis of Pound's mental state has proved slippery. In 1945 four doctors testified that he was suffering from a 'Paranoid state'. A 1946 report, following a Rorschach test, isolates pedantry, 'personality disorder' and misogyny, concluding ‘while many of these qualities are schizoid and some of his attitudes paranoid, there is no evidence of psychosis’. A slightly comic undertone is introduced when the patient discerns 'Abyssinians with whiskers' within the Rorschach ink-spots and queries mischievously ‘are these supposed to reveal sex perversions?’.


By 1952, the implementation of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) further complicated things. One psychiatrist, a Dr Cruvant, recorded 'Narcissistic Personality type'; but by 1955, Dr Overholser was isolating a -slightly nebulous- 'Psychotic disorder, undifferentiated'. This may likely have been in response to a letter of the previous year from the U.S. Attorney General regarding a patient who was deemed ‘mentally capable of translating and publishing poetry but allegedly (...) not mentally capable of being brought to justice’.


The problem hinged around those wartime broadcasts. ‘I think it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yidds IF you can do it by due legal process’ (E.L. Pound, Rome, April 1943). Against a more sinisterly vengeful backdrop, William Joyce (a.k.a. 'Lord Haw-Haw') had been rushed to trial in London and hanged, in the January of 1946, on a technicality  -possession of a false passport- because, as a non-British citizen, he could not strictly be arraigned for 'treason'.


At the time of his own indictment, sales of Pound's work had almost completely 'dried up' and his publisher/friend, James Laughlin, made the decision to 'sanitise' further editions by concentrating on their more aesthetic, rather than polemic, aspects. The unexpected success of the Pisan Cantos (1948), winner of the Bollingen Prize (its panel of judges including T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell) prompted a rush of visitors to the incarcerated celebrity: Pound could now, by special dispensation, entertain them on the hospital's well-tended and tree-fringed lawn.


This was the beginning of the so-called 'Ezuversitry' -although the professor's seminars still tended towards monologues concerning the machinations of F.D. Roosevelt and the iniquity of international Jewry. The bi-polar 'Cal' Lowell had venerated Pound since 1936 when they had first corresponded. By 1947 (when Lowell was appointed Consultant in Poetry -in effect U.S. Laureate- to the Washington-based Library of Congress) they shared a common history of imprisonment and a penchant for ticking-off presidents. Lowell was to take his friends Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell to visit the man whom he dubbed as both 'uncle Ezra' and 'the marvellous monster'. It seems almost like a scene from The Silence of the Lambs with Pound as an only-slightly-more-avuncular Hannibal Lecter pulling the strings, spider-like, from his cell.


Although 'uncle Ezra's first experience of St. Elizabeths (built 1855) must have been harrowing -initially he was based in Howard Hall for the criminally and violently insane- he soon settled into a more orderly routine. Among his first visitors were Charles Olson (later of the 'Black Mountain poets') and his own wife, Dorothy, who was granted 'power of attorney' over him in September, 1946.


Thereafter things began appreciably to improve. He was moved into the main hospital and allocated a comfortable room (with views towards the Potomac River) where he often read, wrote -and sang- late into the night. He held court to such notables as 'Tom' Eliot (theirs a symbiotic relationship of mutual patronage); William Carlos Williams (a friendship of long standing, vexed by an intermittent settling of old scores); John Berryman (their meetings commissioned by Pound, who saw this interlocutor as his 'spy-hole' into the world: Pound would later be incorporated into the Dream Songs), and Sheri Martinelli (artist and model, featuring in the Cantos, with whom Pound may -or may not- have conducted an affair within the hospital grounds. Friend to a number of the 'Beat' generation of writers, she was also something of a 'muse' to this much older man).


By the later Fifties a wave of sympathy was building for Pound's release (there may also have been a sense that he had 'done his time'). Luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost made statements in his support. In January 1958 he finalised 'Canto 100' (which he had stated previously would conclude the sequence -though, in the event, it did not). A motion, in mid-April, to dismiss his  indictment for Treason was upheld -but he chose to remain within his 'bughouse' for a few weeks longer so that its dentists could complete their treatment of his troublesome teeth.


Ezra Pound would return to Italy on the liner Christofore Colombo, which docked in Naples on July 9th. A number of reporters came on board and asked him what his internment in an American asylum had been like. He replied "All America is an insane asylum" and posed for the photographers with his hand raised in a fascist salute. (For these final details this reviewer has had to consult Humphrey Carpenter's monumental 1988 biography, A Serious Character). Pound's last years were something of an anti-climax: a free man at last, he could no longer occupy the spotlight and lapsed into a strangely apathetic silence well before his own death in Venice, aged 87.


The Bughouse is in its own, slightly narrow way a fascinating -if occasionally annoying- read. Its author adopts a technique of personal contextualization, continually writing himself into the narrative (rather like the approach used, more successfully, by Olivia Laing in her 2013 study of alcoholic writers, The Trip to Echo Spring). This can jar: we are here to learn about Ezra Pound, not his biographer.


On the other hand, this is a story with so many, individually irresistible, strands: what precisely is meant by 'insanity'? When does a system of beliefs become 'actionable'? Who bestows the right/privilege of free speech? And when, if ever, should this be redacted? Perhaps rather perversely (as a non-believer) I hold the Bible's paradoxical counsel to be as helpful as any: 'Answer not a fool according to his folly lest thou be like unto him... Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his conceit' (Proverbs, 26).


Sometimes -perhaps once every generation- someone comes along who, by their willingness to express the previously-unthinkable, opens a debate. Often this person may be muddled-headed themselves, unable to proffer anything much by way of a coherent solution -but they can help to highlight a problem.


For example, in early twenty-first century Britain it was almost impossible to venture the opinion, in 'educated' company, that one's own country had been deliberately subjected to unacknowledged and unprecedented levels of immigration (solely in order to artificially deflate wage-levels) without also being labelled a 'racist', a 'xenophobe' or a 'fascist'. Now this view has won a widespread -if sometimes vulgarly expressed- acceptance.


Pound's vituperations towards a 'Georgian' body of literature hopelessly in thrall to out-dated notions of 'gentility' served as a much-needed corrective. Yet his own work, and thought, have become undeservedly canonical.


Was he a madman? Or a genius somehow touched by divine fire? Perhaps the safest answer to these questions (and one which helped, rightly I'd contend, to preserve his life) is to suggest that he was merely possessed of an 'unsound mind'.



Kevin Saving © 2017