Ezra Pound: Poems

United States (1945–58)

St Elizabeths Hospital

On 15 November 1945 Pound was transferred to the United States. An escorting officer's impression was that "he is an intellectual 'crackpot' who imagined that he could correct all the economic ills of the world and who resented the fact that ordinary mortals were not sufficiently intelligent to understand his aims and motives."[109] He was arraigned in Washington D.C. on charges of treason on the 25th of that month. The charges included broadcasting for the enemy, attempting to persuade American citizens to undermine government support of the war, and strengthening morale in Italy against the United States.[110]

He was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital and in June the following year Dorothy was declared his legal guardian. He was held for a time in the hospital's prison ward – Howard's Hall, known as the "hell-hole" – a building without windows in a room with a thick steel door, and nine peepholes to allow the psychiatrists to observe him as they tried to agree on a diagnosis. Visitors were admitted for only 15 minutes at a time, while patients wandered around screaming and frothing at the mouth.[110]

Pound's lawyer, Julien Cornell, whose efforts to have him declared insane are credited with having saved him from life imprisonment, requested his release at a bail hearing in January 1947.[111] The hospital's superintendent, Winfred Overholser, agreed instead to move him to the more pleasant surroundings of Chestnut Ward, close to Overholser's private quarters, which is where he spent the next 12 years.[110] The historian Stanley Kutler was given access in the 1980s to military intelligence and other government documents about Pound, including his hospital records, and wrote that the psychiatrists believed Pound had a narcissistic personality, but they considered him sane. Kutler believes that Overholser protected Pound from the criminal justice system because he was fascinated by him.[112]

Tytell writes that Pound was in his element in Chestnut Ward. He was at last provided for, and was allowed to read, write, and receive visitors, including Dorothy for several hours a day. He took over a small alcove with wicker chairs just outside his room, and turned it into his private living room, where he entertained his friends and important literary figures. He began work on his translation of Sophocles's Women of Trachis and Electra, and continued work on The Cantos. It reached the point where he refused to discuss any attempt to have him released. Olga Rudge visited him twice, once in 1952 and again in 1955, and was unable to convince him to be more assertive about his release. She wrote to a friend: "E.P. has – as he had before – bats in the belfry but it strikes me that he has fewer not more than before his incarceration."[110]

The Pisan Cantos, Bollingen Prize

is it blacker? was it blacker? Nυξ animae? Is there a blacker or was it merely San Juan with a belly ache writing ad posteros in short shall we look for a deeper or is this the bottom?

“ ” The Pisan Cantos, LXXIV/458

James Laughlin had "Cantos LXXIV–LXXXIV" ready for publication in 1946 under the title The Pisan Cantos, and gave Pound an advance copy, but he held back, waiting for an appropriate time to publish. A group of Pound's friends – Eliot, Cummings, W. H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Julien Cornell – met Laughlin to discuss how to get him released. They planned to have Pound awarded the first Bollingen Prize, a new national poetry award by the Library of Congress, with $1,000 prize money donated by the Mellon family.[113]

The awards committee consisted of 15 fellows of the Library of Congress, including several of Pound's supporters, such as Eliot, Tate, Conrad Aiken, Amy Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter and Theodore Spencer. The idea was that the Justice Department would be placed in an untenable position if Pound won a major award and was not released.[113]

Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos on 30 July 1948, and the following year the prize went to Pound. There were two dissenting voices, Francis Biddle's wife, Katherine Garrison Chapin, and Karl Shapiro, who said that he could not vote for an antisemite because he was Jewish himself. Pound responded to the award by saying, "No comment from the bughouse."[113]

There was uproar. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted critics who said "poetry [cannot] convert words into maggots that eat at human dignity and still be good poetry." Robert Hillyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and president of the Poetry Society of America, attacked the committee in The Saturday Review of Literature, telling journalists that he "never saw anything to admire in Pound, not one line".[115] Congressman Jacob K. Javits demanded an investigation into the awards committee. It was the last time the prize was administered by the Library of Congress.[113]


Although Pound repudiated his antisemitism in public, he maintained his views in private. He refused to talk to psychiatrists with Jewish-sounding names, dismissed people he disliked as "Jews", and urged visitors to read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), a forgery claiming to represent a Jewish plan for world domination.[110] He struck up a friendship with the conspiracy theorist and antisemite Eustace Mullins, believed to be associated with the Aryan League of America, and author of the 1961 biography This Difficult Individual, Ezra Pound.[116]

Even more damaging was his friendship with John Kasper, a far-right activist and Ku Klux Klan member. Kasper had come to admire Pound during literature classes at university, and after he wrote to Pound in 1950 the two had become friends. Kasper opened a bookstore in Greenwich Village in 1953 called "Make it New", reflecting his commitment to Pound's ideas; the store specialized in far-right material, including Nazi literature, and Pound's poetry and translations were displayed on the window front.[117] Kasper and another follower of Pound's, David Horton, set up a publishing imprint, Square Dollar Series, which Pound used as a vehicle for his tracts about economic reform.[118]

Wilhelm writes that there were a lot of perfectly respectable people visiting Pound too, such as the classicist J.P. Sullivan and the writer Guy Davenport, but it was the association with Mullins and Kasper that stood out.[116] The relationships delayed his release from St Elizabeths.[118] In an interview for the Paris Review in 1958, when asked by interviewer George Plimpton about Pound's relationship with Kasper, Hemingway replied that Pound should be released and Kasper jailed.[119] Kasper was eventually jailed for the 1957 bombing of the Hattie Cotton School in Nashville, targeted because a black girl had registered as a student.[120]

Pound's friends continued to try to get him out. Shortly after Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, he told Time magazine that "this would be a good year to release poets".[121] The poet Archibald MacLeish asked him in June 1957 to write a letter on Pound's behalf; Hemingway believed Pound was unable to abstain from awkward political statements or from friendships with people like Kasper, but he signed a letter of support anyway, and pledged $1,500 to be given to Pound when he was released.[122] In 1957 several publications began campaigning for his release. Le Figaro published an appeal entitled "The Lunatic at St Elizabeths". The New Republic, Esquire and The Nation followed suit; The Nation argued that Pound was a sick and vicious old man, but that he had rights. In 1958 MacLeish hired Thurman Arnold, a prestigious lawyer who ended up charging no fee, to file a motion to dismiss the 1945 indictment. Overholser, the hospital's superintendent, supported the application with an affidavit saying Pound was permanently and incurably insane, and that confinement served no therapeutic purpose.[123] The motion was heard on 18 April that year by the same judge who had committed Pound to St Elizabeths. The Department of Justice did not oppose the motion, and Pound was free.[124]

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