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The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

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A captivating biography of Ezra Pound told via the stories of his visitors at St. Elizabeths Hospital In 1945, the great American poet Ezra Pound was deemed insane. He was due to stand trial for treason for his fascist broadcasts in Italy during the war. Instead, he escaped a possible death sentence and was held at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane for more than a deca A captivating biography of Ezra Pound told via the stories of his visitors at St. Elizabeths Hospital In 1945, the great American poet Ezra Pound was deemed insane. He was due to stand trial for treason for his fascist broadcasts in Italy during the war. Instead, he escaped a possible death sentence and was held at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane for more than a decade. While there, his visitors included the stars of modern poetry: T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and William Carlos Williams, among others. They would sit with Pound on the hospital grounds, bring him news of the outside world, and discuss everything from literary gossip to past escapades. This was perhaps the world's most unorthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist and held in a lunatic asylum. Those who came often recorded what they saw. Pound was at his most infamous, most hated, and most followed. At St. Elizabeths he was a genius and a madman, a contrarian and a poet, and impossible to ignore. In The Bughouse, Daniel Swift traces Pound and his legacy, walking the halls of St. Elizabeths and meeting modern-day neofascists in Rome. Unlike a traditional biography, The Bughouse sees Pound through the eyes of others at a critical moment both in Pound's own life and in twentieth-century art and politics. It portrays a fascinating, multifaceted artist, and illuminates the many great poets who gravitated toward this most difficult of men.


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A captivating biography of Ezra Pound told via the stories of his visitors at St. Elizabeths Hospital In 1945, the great American poet Ezra Pound was deemed insane. He was due to stand trial for treason for his fascist broadcasts in Italy during the war. Instead, he escaped a possible death sentence and was held at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane for more than a deca A captivating biography of Ezra Pound told via the stories of his visitors at St. Elizabeths Hospital In 1945, the great American poet Ezra Pound was deemed insane. He was due to stand trial for treason for his fascist broadcasts in Italy during the war. Instead, he escaped a possible death sentence and was held at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane for more than a decade. While there, his visitors included the stars of modern poetry: T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and William Carlos Williams, among others. They would sit with Pound on the hospital grounds, bring him news of the outside world, and discuss everything from literary gossip to past escapades. This was perhaps the world's most unorthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist and held in a lunatic asylum. Those who came often recorded what they saw. Pound was at his most infamous, most hated, and most followed. At St. Elizabeths he was a genius and a madman, a contrarian and a poet, and impossible to ignore. In The Bughouse, Daniel Swift traces Pound and his legacy, walking the halls of St. Elizabeths and meeting modern-day neofascists in Rome. Unlike a traditional biography, The Bughouse sees Pound through the eyes of others at a critical moment both in Pound's own life and in twentieth-century art and politics. It portrays a fascinating, multifaceted artist, and illuminates the many great poets who gravitated toward this most difficult of men.

30 review for The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

  1. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    Thoughts soon.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David

    There is a certain type of book frequently seen these days, which I believe has yet to acquire a single word or short phrase to describe it like, for example, “chick-lit” or “microhistory”. This book is a member of this as-yet-unnamed genre, individual examples of which often have elements of history, biography, autobiography/memoir, and comedy, to greater or lesser extents. The shortest description I can give is “What-I-Learned-Writing-a-Book-about-X” (or, less specifically, “X and me”) where X There is a certain type of book frequently seen these days, which I believe has yet to acquire a single word or short phrase to describe it like, for example, “chick-lit” or “microhistory”. This book is a member of this as-yet-unnamed genre, individual examples of which often have elements of history, biography, autobiography/memoir, and comedy, to greater or lesser extents. The shortest description I can give is “What-I-Learned-Writing-a-Book-about-X” (or, less specifically, “X and me”) where X here is, obviously, Ezra Pound. I have recently read entries in this genre wherein X equals sommeliers and literature written by tyrants, and I have another one teed up for reading soon where X = time. Although of course my enjoyment of individual entries in this field varies, I generally like them. They frequently provide a way to acquire a little knowledge about one of the many topics of which I am lamentably ignorant. The human factor, the author's personal voice, prevents the subject from becoming too dry and abstract, I believe. But I certain understand those who find this genre irritating, perhaps thinking, in this case, “When I pick up a book that purports to be about Ezra Pound, I want virtually all of it to be about Ezra himself, and the author could, for example, best confine to his personal journal a description of the route he (the author) took in a taxi to get from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to the grounds of St. Elizabeth's Hospital while researching this book”. Generally, I find Pound impenetrable when he is not being reprehensible. However, I try, in this and other matters, to remember that I may be wrong – tens of thousands of people, including many people of proven accomplishment and taste, have said that Pound's writings are beautiful and profound. They cannot all be idiots and dupes, contrary to what the younger me might have told myself. The author convinced me that maybe I could take another run at Pound if I ever find myself with plenty of spare time and unfettered access to a good-quality university library. It is perhaps too granular to be quibbling with individual words in a 300+ page book, but I would like to mention a word that made me get up on my hind legs. The word is “cowardly”. It occurs at Kindle location 1566 and is a characterization of the behavior of the poet and medical doctor William Carlos Williams, with whom Pound had the type of relation which the kids today are called “frenemy”. The circumstances are: Williams, in a letter, related that Mrs. Pound, perhaps grasping at straws once it became apparent her husband might be an insane asylum inmate for a long time, suggested a preposterous plan wherein Pound will “be released from the hospital under my custody as a physician.” Williams fulfilled a promise to mention this plan to the authorities but, when doing so, made clear that he, Williams, understood that it is completely impractical. This, the author notes, is “cowardly”. This characterization is just wrong, and it is the sort of thing perhaps written by a man who feels that he has never said anything for the sole purpose of sparing someone's feelings. So I ask: How was Williams supposed to act? Tell Mrs. Pound that there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of such an action being approved and she is clearly a moron for even suggesting it? Is that more honest and less cowardly? Or perhaps Williams should have bravely and irresponsibly suggested taking on legal responsibility for a man who, while perhaps not certifiably insane, has certainly had prolonged periods of insane behavior. Let him sleep in the spare bedroom? Sure! Probably the suggestion would have been laughed out of the meetings and courtrooms where it was mentioned, at least in part because Williams was a pediatrician, not a psychiatrist. I guess the point that really fries my biscuit is that, while Pound was broadcasting paranoid rants about the world Jewish banking conspiracy in the service of a country with whom the US was at war and living in luxury as a result, Williams was treating the sick children of suburban New Jersey, including (it is reported) many who could not afford to pay him. Who, I ask you, is the coward? New topic: At Kindle location 1673, the author reports that, in June 1947, Pound writes the following “short rhyme” in the back of his notebook: “Nobody think but grandpa/ He sits round all day/ Whistling in the bughouse/ Just to pass the time away.” The author fails to make the connection that Pound's ill-tempered and self-pitying doggerel derives from a charming and cheerful 1905 Tin Pan Alley tune named “Everybody Works But Father”. See and enjoy Groucho Marx singing this song here – off-topic, but worth the click. I received a free egalley of this book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux via Netgalley. Thanks to both.

  3. 4 out of 5

    M. D. Hudson

    If you are lucky to have a substantial used bookstore near by, check out the poetry section under P's. Most of them will have about 3 feet of books by but mostly about Ezra Pound. Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era will be the bedrock of the shelf, with Pound's New Directions issues in black, c. 1961 modern covers along with a host of academic and quasi-academic studies to either side. Like the vacant brick factories and crumbling smokestacks of a rustbelt town, here are the sad remains of what was onc If you are lucky to have a substantial used bookstore near by, check out the poetry section under P's. Most of them will have about 3 feet of books by but mostly about Ezra Pound. Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era will be the bedrock of the shelf, with Pound's New Directions issues in black, c. 1961 modern covers along with a host of academic and quasi-academic studies to either side. Like the vacant brick factories and crumbling smokestacks of a rustbelt town, here are the sad remains of what was once a thriving Academic-Cultural Pound Industry. Entire careers were founded on unpacking Pound's Cantos, and to this day there are no doubt gray, securely tenured professors who never, ever bring up the perhaps now-embarrassing (or pointless or too-politically incorrect) Poundian topics of their dissertations. So Daniel Swift has decided to stroll the ruins and see what he can pull together in The Bughouse, The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound. I found this book to be a real chore to read, so awkward, poorly organized, and sometimes incoherent it was. Swift, who has "spent his life teaching literature" (see below) nevertheless has no feel for actual writing: "We might see in this gesture another striving for position: as (William Carlos) Williams's final triumph over Pound, the moment at which the doctor owns the traitor. We might in it also see the mirror of a familiar poetic strategy: to take Pound in, incorporate him, shape him for oneself. To take possession, to rewrite." (pp. 106-107) "In the narrow terms sometimes set by literary critics to chart influence between poets, Lowell is nothing like Pound. Pound is sprawling, prosy, loud; Lowell is sharp, shiny, raw." (p. 186) "This is how Pound's broadcasts had been heard. They were confusion and broken speech, and if this poem is a Fascist monument it is also like all monuments acutely aware of the ease with which its history may be forgotten." (p. 216) Gusts of such gaseous quasi-academic afflatus afflict the book (Lowell is "sharp, shiny, raw"?). Some of it simply doesn't make sense (when are monuments aware of anything?). Swift also likes to huff and puff and tell us what a Bermuda Triangle-meets-UFO mystery all this Ezra Pound in the bughouse is. This is a History Channel fake-cliff-hanger-before-the-commercial-break move at its worst: "To recover the whole of Pound's years in the bughouse means at time these detours through the Pound underground, We must sift the dust and swirl of fantasies, and trace the shapes of older patterns through the tales spun about him. Those conspiracy theories which flock to Pound suggest the tenacity of secrets, and their persistent pull upon all of our imaginations, but hey equally hint at another sadder truth. The pieces do not fit, however hard we try. This was the problem of the Pound case, and in 1954 and 1955, under the pressure of the new science and taxonomies if mental illness, it suddenly became more visible. He is the skeleton in the closet, the only sane man in the madhouse, a rational lunatic, a victim and a villain, and all these at the same time. Perhaps this is precisely why he keeps the power to make paranoiacs of us all.:" (p. 182) Gadzooks! This is really hard to take, although once you sort through the incontinence and ineptitude, what Swift is saying is not true: Pound's stay in the bughouse is very well documented. True, many of these documents are sealed because of patient privacy laws. But as far as what he did to wind up there in the first place, and his multitude of encounters with visitors over the many years he spent there, we pretty much know all there is to know. There's no news here, really. Just a botched re-telling. Sometimes Swift contradicts his own book: "Some readers are hostile; some documents betray you. One minor irony of the trials of Ezra Pound is that it was precisely his restless self-narration, both in poetry and in the broadcasts, which led him into trouble. His own belief, held as a poetic principle, that the hidden self is shown in speech, was turned by the doctors and lawyers into a political and psychiatric test. He was caught precisely because he was so endlessly willing to reveal his mind in words. This is surely the hard way to catch a poet, but Pound's case is also a parable of the dangers of speech and its contaminations." (p. 73) I cannot recall a single instance where Pound's poems got him into trouble. It was the broadcasts, and the broadcasts only, that "led him into trouble" - the US Government indictment was, I think, pretty clear about this. Yeah, the shrinks took a stab at interpreting the poems, to use them in a Rorschach-y way, but I don't recall Swift reporting anything of substance coming from this. Was Ezra Pound really interested in "hidden self" "shown in speech"? Swift says so, but I am not so sure; Pound was very much into tradition, the legacy of Western Civ - this "hidden self" stuff came later. And what exactly are the "dangers of speech and its contaminations"? Again, the "danger" for Pound, at least as the US Government saw it, was that he was aiding and abetting the enemy during a time of war via radio broadcasts. Swift wastes a lot of energy trying to make it all so much more literary and spooky. Efforts are also made to discredit the St. Elizabeths leadership, particularly Dr. Overholser, who was in charge of things. All that happens is that Overholser was culturally dazzled by Pound and his famous literary friends: "The superintendent, as we know, moved Pound into a room on Chestnut Ward which was next door to his own private quarters; there are friendly letters between the two men, as well as from Overholser to the celebrated literary figures who came to visit. Here is Overholser to T. S. Eliot in July 1946: 'I am looking forward to seeing you myself as well.' A portrait begins to suggest itself: of the superintendent as toad, flattered by grand writers, a snob in a white lab coat..." (pp. 173-174) How does a portrait "suggest itself"? Why "toad"? Does Swift mean "toady"? How in Overholser a "snob"? But, yeah, I'd agree that Pound's privileges at St. Elizabeth's were expanded over time is sickening - by the end, he basically was living at a resort with a staff at his beck and call, with almost limitless visiting hours. Disgusting, yes. But I'm glad we didn't hang him. Alone among the WWII combatants, the USA let this malignant nincompoop off the hook. The Germans, Japanese, Soviets, would've hanged him high. *** Despite the heated-up leftovers nature of this book, there were things that surprised me. Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that Pound apparently continued to publish fascist, racist, anti-Semitic crap while incarcerated. And in addition to hanging out with eager young poets such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, and reliving old times with T. S. Eliot, Pound was also cultivating malignant trolls such as John Kasper, who busied himself with such things as "separation of the races" and "mongrelization" and "The kike behind the [N-word]" (p. 199). Eustace Mullins, less heinous than Kaspar, if only because he was foggier, was another wretched "friend" of Pound's. I did not know this. Pound biographer Donald Gallup tracked down a host of Pound pseudonymous publications in small, lunatic-fringe publications - all while he was a patient under comfy US Government care. I did not know this, and felt historically outraged by the vileness of it as well as Pound's cowardice. But it was Gallup who dug up this stuff, not Swift (let me add that Swift is commendably very careful in citing his sources, and provides not only an index, but an admirable "Essay on Sources" - the foundations of this book are very solid). Another thing I did not know was how Pound carried on with the ladies to a surprising extent, given the bughouse surroundings. Sheri Martinelli ("a character of pure pink melodrama," whatever that means) who would sit on his knee when she visited and sent him a bikini picture (all p. 241). She was dumped for Marcella Spann, though Swift doesn't report any bikini photo incidents. That Pound's wife Dorothy moved into a basement flat to be near him throughout his incarceration didn't seem to impress Swift much, although it is pretty noble of her, Dorothy being perhaps the only noble figure in this whole sordid tale. She accommodated the "girl friends" although Swift doesn't expand on this - my guess is Mrs. Pound was relieved not to have to listen to the old coot blather on, the "pink melodrama" giving her a break from Uncle Ez and his monetary theories. When Pound was released from St. Elizabeths he ditched Mrs. Pound, again, and took up with his long-term pre-war mistress Olga Rudge (another long-suffering woman; when she paid him a visit in the bughouse, he ignored her, since Martinelli was there (p. 243). Pound was not only a fascist, but a cad as well. Swift does a pretty good job demonstrating how Pound's famous literary friends - and eager young poets who would become famous later - were not exactly the bedrock of support that is sometimes suggested. The book starts out with a Prologue, somewhat confusingly and vaporously, with Elizabeth Bishop's visits and her famous poem "Visits to St. Elizabeths." Swift gives the poem extensive undergraduate workshop treatment: "The poem mimics a visit. We start by looking upon the hospital and expect to meet the patient, but the peculiar motion of these crablike stanzas thwarts our approach. Each stanza swells, adding an extra line and changing the adjective qualifying the man...(p. 12). Once you sort through the obvious and the slightly incoherent, I suppose Swift explains the poem about as well as anyone - I admire Bishop greatly, but this one always got by me. What he does a better job doing is describing what transpired between these poets and wannabe poets and culture vultures who visited Pound. For this I gave Swift an extra star, because he does do a pretty fair job. Charles Olson, another big name I've never, ever been able to appreciate, comes across as a vaguely creepy sycophant full of Big Ideas more than much of anything resembling poetry. Robert Lowell, who had been rebuffed by Pound in the late-1930s when Pound was in Italy and he was a nobody, characteristically later sought out Pound during his manic phases, and generously tried to help the old coot. Lowell, a "Caligula" sometimes as he (and others) would tell you, had very generous impulses and didn't ever seem to carry grudges. On the other hand, John Berryman was pretty much seeing what he could get out of Pound, and when he saw not much, he stopped visiting or writing, though Pound seems to have been taken with him. Berryman went on to ungallantly note (in a poem) that he owed Pound three letters - I admire some of Berryman's Dream Songs very much, but as he says somewhere in them, "Rilke was a jerk." Yeah, so was Berryman. *** Another problem is that Swift doesn't seem to grasp the phenomenon of Ezra Pound, he doesn't seem to get it. And yet he must be very young - in one of the many non-essential (and always annoying) bits of autobiography he salts the book with, he describes, after telling us "If you spend your life teaching literature, as I do, you cannot avoid bumping into Ezra Pound" that he had a real dark night of the soul as a student...in 2011! (p. 16). I have a ratty used copy of Guide to Kulchur that I bought circa 1984. Ah, the young shall inherit the earth - and now I am old enough to be dismayed. Yes indeed, I suppose one is bound to "bump into" Ezra Pound if one teaches literature - good to know, actually. I hope T. S. Eliot still gets bumped into these days, although my two recent encounters with current English lit college instruction demonstrates that "modern" literature only goes all the way back to 2004. But I'll spare you my despair over this. Also, I don't want to be a hypocrite - those ratty New Directions books by Pound I was accumulating (and occasionally dipping into) back in the 1980s were already 20 or more years old; it is most certain that like young Professor Swift, I did not "get" Ezra Pound either. But as time goes by, why a particular writer was important often fades. Occasionally literary reputations expand, mostly they collapse. Thirty years closer to events, I "get" the brouhaha over Pound's 1948 Bollingen Prize win - at least to some extent. Reading years ago some of the accounts of the participants, the angry letters and editorials, I have a feel for how important it all was. Swift devotes two sketchy, inadequate paragraphs to it. But this was a big deal - American Literature's Dreyfus Affair - to this day it is almost unimaginable. It would be like Harvey Weinstein being presented with a special Lifetime Achievement Oscar four or five years after the "me too" scandal broke. For Pound did some awful things and harbored some nasty, nasty ideas and yet a large segment of the literary establishment backed him on being awarded the Bollingen. Only squares such as Robert Hillyer complained (Hillyer was a prominent poet of the 1940s, pretty much forgotten now). Even Robert Frost, who harbored some pretty harsh anti-New Deal opinions, supported Uncle Ez in a half-assed way. Most of the establishment poets did. They supported Alger Hiss too, and hated Eisenhower, etc., leftist political lockstep being pretty much a hallmark of American poetry since the 1930s. There are other moments where, despite Swift's pedagogical claims, he seems to have a sketchy idea of 20th century literature: "A little later he (Pound) scrawled in the margin 'georgian,' which was all these young men hated: the patterns and pomp of those decorous, pre-war poets." (p. 129) Actually, the Georgian poets also flourished during the war an on into 1922 (when the last anthology by Harold Monro and Edward Marsh was published - I'm cribbing this off Wikipedia). For that matter I don't think "patterns and pomp" characterizes the Georgians. They were trying to hang on to a 19th century idea of poetry, but bring it into the 20th century. Sometimes dismissed as reactionary and clueless, they were actually attempting something that goes on today - create a poetry that does not jettison the past. I don't care for their poems, but I respect what they were trying to do. I respect them more than Ezra Pound's Cantos. Swift should also keep in mind that Robert Frost (who lived in England just before World War I) was also considered a Georgian; they weren't all third-raters. Sometimes Swift's historical ignorance beyond literature reveals itself in his flights of descriptive blah-blah: "St. Elizabeths has fallen into a doubled neglect. These old formal buildings are used no longer and neither are the methods for which the hospital was designed: what has been abandoned is the idea that a mental hospital needs breezeways for the summer days, a farm and screen porches." (p. 85) Those breezeways and screen porches had nothing to do with psychiatric "methods" and everything to do with the way the world worked before air conditioning (in Washington, DC especially). Virtually all hospitals and sanitariums of that era had porches, screens, breezeways, etc. And while we're at it, what is a "formal building"? Swift's typing often gets ahead of his thinking. *** So what were these horrible things Pound did? You will find out in Swift's book, but it takes some effort, despite chronological section headings, things are scattered all over the place. On page 180-181 (in the "1954-1958" section) we get Pound's 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, ' declared Ezra Pound on air in Rome in April 1943, and his broadcasts often turn upon the condemnation of that 'yaller hound Dawg' and 'chief war pimp' 'Frankie Finkelstein Roosevelt.' Pound's anti-presidential attitude found an oddly fitting home here." So, Pound never took up arms against his countrymen, he just talked and talked and talked and a lot of his talk was clearly treasonable. The mere fact he was broadcasting for a declared enemy of the USA during wartime makes him a traitor by most definitions, even if he was mumbling through some poem about Confucius. This while GI's and Allies were dying at Anzio and elsewhere in Italy. Swift does not sympathize much with Pound - rather the contrary - one of the few coherent ideas that comes out of this book is that Pound was quite sane, at least sane enough to stand trial. Gertrude Stein once famously said about Ezra Pound: "A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Explaining things can create its own momentum, especially if the explainer has an audience (or thinks he has an audience; it is hard to tell what, if anything the Italian people thought about Pound's rambling broadcasts; I doubt very many Americans were able or willing to tune in stateside during the war). Explaining is easier than poetry, much of the time (explaining is also easier than teaching, but that is another subject). Pound's poetic gifts, which were considerable, although often overestimated by his mid-20th century admirers - Pound's ambitions were very 19th century when he was starting out; Yeats' transformations and Ford Maddox Ford rolling around on the floor saying "No! No! No!" showed him another way, which was brilliant for a time (Cathay is a beautiful work, despite what might now be considered "cultural appropriation"). Then came the Cantos, which after a promising start, turned into explanations (the Pisan Cantos being a detour from their general drift). Poets turn into explainers all the time - survey the contemporary American poetry scene, a recent issue of Poetry magazine, and you'll see what I mean. The best poets resist this impulse in their verse - even that old explainer Robert Frost was too shrewd to go that way. *** Swift's book was a slog, but finish it I did, for the book does have some virtues. For one, I found Swift's research to be impressive, even if usually poorly-deployed or even wasted. For instance, he tracked down an elderly lady in Manhattan who used to play tennis with Pound at St. Elizabeth's. He talks to a guy who remembers Pound in his G.I. holding pen in '45. He winkles out the fact that slices of Mussolini's brain had been sent to St. Elizabeths around the same time Pound was sent there - said slices have since disappeared, alas. He did a good job gathering up information, even he doesn't really know what to do with the material and leaves these bits of living history stranded here and there. Swift also seeks out those odd places where Pound's legacy still lives (since it is pretty much dead if not outright forbidden in the official halls of academe). He visits a sort of collective squatters group in Rome who live in a building called CasaPound; they believe that politically Pound had the right idea. This group is surprisingly adroit in a PR sort of way and Swift seems to rather enjoy their company. He also seeks out a group devotees of Pound's actual poetry (as opposed to his fascism) - academics, most of them geriatric, who still ponder their gray heads over the Cantos in little conference rooms and over pizza. Swift does not seem to enjoy this company as much as the Roman Poundians and pokes fun at these folks in a supercilious way - which seems odd given that he is a teacher of literature. Or maybe not odd, perhaps this is just the way the culture - ahem, kulchur - falls away in little dandruffy flakes. Real professors don't bother with pitiful Ezra Pound seminars, apparently.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    http://artsfuse.org/167905/book-revie... Ezra Pound is the Zelig of literary modernism. The American-born European emigre gave his imprimatur to anything and everything that was being created around him. Pound’s massive volumes of poetry, critical essays, and idiosyncratic translations are still vital to understanding what his problematic catchphrase “make it new” meant for an entire generation, many of whom Pound mentored, promoted, and edited. For all his literary fecundity, Ezra Loomis Pound http://artsfuse.org/167905/book-revie... Ezra Pound is the Zelig of literary modernism. The American-born European emigre gave his imprimatur to anything and everything that was being created around him. Pound’s massive volumes of poetry, critical essays, and idiosyncratic translations are still vital to understanding what his problematic catchphrase “make it new” meant for an entire generation, many of whom Pound mentored, promoted, and edited. For all his literary fecundity, Ezra Loomis Pound was also more than a little bonkers. Gertrude Stein called him “a village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, if not, not.” We expect literary folks to be a little nutty; it comes with the territory. But at times Pound’s manias veered beyond literary inspiration and into outright treason. Daniel Swift’s engrossing new study The Bughouse examines Pound’s time as an incarcerated but respected ward of the state. By writing this account, Swift is involved in a delicate narrative balancing act. A professor of literature, he clearly respects Pound’s poetic achievement but doesn’t endorse or excuse his politics. The Bughouse is a narrative history about someone whose chaotic intellectual history had finally caught up with him. While living in Italy during World War II, Pound openly sided with Mussolini’s fascist government and gave a series of crackpot radio broadcasts from Rome that were bitterly Anti-American, racist, obsessed with international monetary conspiracy, and other putrid political theories. After the war ended, Pound was declared insane and put in solitary confinement in an outdoors cell (“a gorilla cage”) at an Italian prison camp and then shipped off to St Elizabeth’s Hospital (Pound himself called it “The Bughouse” or “St. Liz”) near Washington D.C. where he lived under psychiatric supervision for thirteen years. In the postwar era he was a lost old man stretched between two worlds; too potentially dangerous to be let out of captivity and too acclaimed to be left to rot. Was he too crazy to be responsible for what he’d said during the war or he just playing possum to avoid worse punishment? Opinions on the Pound question divided the literary community, with some turning their back and others making a pilgrimage to see the legend in the flesh. Swift tells the stories of the many exceptional writers who came to pay their respects. Many of these happened to be unbalanced geniuses themselves: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Frederick Seidel all sat at Pound’s feet. Their stories are interesting if, like me, you are already a fan of their work but not necessarily useful for a reader who isn’t already well versed. Swift takes great care in explicating the gracefulness of the late Cantos, written while Pound was in lockup, gradually earning permission to sit in the garden for good behavior. They are beautifully written in parts, especially when his extensive cross references to history and poetry aren’t clogging up the language. At St. Elizabeth Pound kept mostly to himself, translating Confucius and singing to himself in an odd, atonal voice that startled the other inmates. It is strange, given his reactionary politics, that Pound could be so erudite in and unexpectedly open to other cultures, believing as he did that “the summit of human truth was to be found in African myth, Chinese philosophy and Japanese plays.” He was the kind of person who always handed people reading lists whether they’d asked for them or not. To his credit, Swift doesn’t shy away from the ramifications of Pound’s conspiracy mongering. We are introduced to the wretched Eustace Mullins, who lived off his brief association with Pound for years. At Pound’s request he went to the Library of Congress to research the founding of the Bank of London only to be told that he should condense everything he learned into a detective novel. Mullins didn’t follow through with that bizarre suggestion, but he did write lots of thankfully little-read pamphlets about global financial cabals. Swift hangs out with a militant Italian political organization operating out of a building named CasaPound who take Pound’s insidious monetary theories a little too disconcertingly to heart. This is where the rhetorical rubber meets the road- as much as Pound’s speechifying was a product of his time, and his madness, the kinds of racial and economic conspiracies he trumpeted are disturbingly very much alive in Europe today. Swift says, a little grandly, that Pound “encapsulates the central questions about art, politics, and poetry, about the connection between experimental art and extreme political statement.” This is somewhat true, but slightly off the mark. It isn’t that Pound is an example of the questions, he’s an example of the starkness of the answers. If you live by the word, you die by it. The same man who wrote something as lyrical as “In A Station at the Met” (“The apparition of these faces in a crowd/ Petals on a wet, black, bough”) could also rant about “the chief war pimp, Frankie Finkelstein Roosevelt.” Upon returning to U.S. soil in federal custody, he said “does anyone have the faintest idea what I said in Rome?” The answer would have to be a definitive yes- it’s what put him in St Liz in the first place. After spending time in the bughouse and being exposed to what his peers called “Ezraology” it becomes clear that literary skill doesn’t always translate into decent politics. Pound famously (and correctly) said that “literature is news that STAYS news” but what he didn’t realize was that the same can be said of fascism. The zeal to recreate the world made Pound far too hubristic to see that his idea of social modernity was the exact opposite of progress. After being released, Pound recanted his fascist affiliations (to none other than Allen Ginsberg, who played him a Beatles record) and puttered around Italy for years, writing little of value. Maybe he gained a level of self-recrimination- as a line in his late Cantos puts it: “Pull down thy vanity, it is not man/ Made courage, or made order, or made grace,/ Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.”

  5. 4 out of 5

    Simon Robs

    "Traitor and patriot, poet and madman, genius and fool, verse and prose, beauty and order: to all who looked upon him, Pound offered such rich contradiction, and never was he more provocative - more troublesome - than in his years at St Elizabeth's." "Bughouse" is fab. lit/non-fict. at its best, a real who-dunnit of detective work to chase down peeps/clues long after da crimes of madness were gone committed and yet recalled to fact. Pound is the enigma that keeps on giving - Cantos as groveled as "Traitor and patriot, poet and madman, genius and fool, verse and prose, beauty and order: to all who looked upon him, Pound offered such rich contradiction, and never was he more provocative - more troublesome - than in his years at St Elizabeth's." "Bughouse" is fab. lit/non-fict. at its best, a real who-dunnit of detective work to chase down peeps/clues long after da crimes of madness were gone committed and yet recalled to fact. Pound is the enigma that keeps on giving - Cantos as groveled as "Wake" nor half-again as misunderstood.

  6. 5 out of 5

    A Ab.

    The Bughouse is the result of Daniel Swift’s research of the St. Elizabeth hospital records and the accounts of the literary figures visiting Ezra pound, the poet, during his stay there. Ezra Pound was accused of treason for his broadcasts in Fascist Italy, during WWII. He was kept ‘in a cage’ which he called it ‘ the gorilla cage’ before his transfer to the United states, to stand trial. But once in US, he was pronounced insane and kept in St. Elizabeth mental hospital, which he called the ”bugho The Bughouse is the result of Daniel Swift’s research of the St. Elizabeth hospital records and the accounts of the literary figures visiting Ezra pound, the poet, during his stay there. Ezra Pound was accused of treason for his broadcasts in Fascist Italy, during WWII. He was kept ‘in a cage’ which he called it ‘ the gorilla cage’ before his transfer to the United states, to stand trial. But once in US, he was pronounced insane and kept in St. Elizabeth mental hospital, which he called the ”bughouse” for 13 years before being released in mid 1958. He was a shrewd and persistent advocate of the modern poetry and poets; a celebrated and ‘controversial’ figure. After arriving in the St. Elizabeth, the hospital soon turned to a pilgrimage! An intellectual salon! There Pound received many poets and intellectuals of his time. He was a host to Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, William Carlos William, Robert Lowell and T. S. Eliot, to name a few. They went to him, thirsty for his thoughts, criticisms and views on literary issues and politics and to learn from him. It is interesting to see how far influential he had been, in the hospital, Swift quotes from hospital records of the time that , for instance “in 1948 as Pound took up residence in Chestnut Ward, there was a surprising uptick in literary activity across Center Building….. This became a regular autumn activity ”…and “in 1954,from the occupational therapy record: …. ‘ patients gave…. a very clever and good-natured satire on the hospital entitled Hotel St Elizabeths’. But this book, was not what I had expected, it presents little fresh information on the artist, and unfortunately the author is not concentrated enough on his subject, turning often from one point to another. Moreover he is often cautious when approaching Pound, and tries to display that he distances himself from the ‘Poundians’. And, only in the last paragraph of the book’s “Essays on Sources”, Swift tells us about a meeting Allen Ginsberg had with Ezra Pound in Venice in October 1967 ; that, the young Jewish poet praised Pound’s technique and tried to explain his debt to Pound’s poetry. In reply, Pound apologized for what he described as ‘that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism’. and ‘You must go on working,’ Ginsberg told Pound, Here Swift discusses “what we all must do: which is to make our peace, as best we can, with this difficult man”. Canto 119 "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.” and “Hast thou 2 loaves of bread Sell one + with the dole Buy straightaway some hyacinths To feed thy soul.”

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris Via

    As with studies of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I am willing to follow any brave soul into the thickets of the famously difficult Cantos or the brackish writer behind them. The compounded (excuse the pun) difficulty with Pound, however, versus the perverted German nationalism posthumously ascribed to Hegel, is twofold: “…Pound’s difficulty lies not only in the challenge of how to read his poetry, but also in how to reconcile it with his life’s contradictions.” And his contradictions are many As with studies of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I am willing to follow any brave soul into the thickets of the famously difficult Cantos or the brackish writer behind them. The compounded (excuse the pun) difficulty with Pound, however, versus the perverted German nationalism posthumously ascribed to Hegel, is twofold: “…Pound’s difficulty lies not only in the challenge of how to read his poetry, but also in how to reconcile it with his life’s contradictions.” And his contradictions are many, as Daniel Swift shows. Like Richard Wagner[1], Joseph Conrad[2], and perhaps more closely Knut Hamsun, one encounters a bifurcation of mind upon contact with a deplorable artist’s great work. Yet, like the troubled Hollywood star, there is something that draws us into their lives, something that fascinates us and invites us to form an opinion however well or ill informed. Read the full review: http://www.chrisviabookreviews.com/20...

  8. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    In Vonnegut's Mother Night and Slaughterhouse Five there's a character, Howard Campbell, who is loosely based on Pound. I've never read his poetry because of his fascist and anti Jewish attitudes. This book conveys his brilliance, without apologizing for the negative elements of his character, and, it also paints a comprehensive picture of neo-fascists that hold him and his belief in reverence. A good book about a brilliant artist, who, was a bad man.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    While the mental institution history was interesting, this book reminded me how little I care about poetry.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alex Meeks

    A lot of fascinating information about a fascinating figure. I wish the writing had been more direct, though.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lukas Evan

    Come for the obtuse modernist poetry, stay for the fascism and anti-Semitism.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mark Feder

    The name Ezra Pound brings to my mind mixed feelings of a character both brilliant and unsavory, but I really knew very little about him. I have vague memories of reading a bit of the Cantos as an undergraduate, but not a great reader of poetry, I haven't attempted it again since. In fact, the only thing by Pound I can recall reading is a slim volume called The ABC of Reading, which I found difficult, tiresome and pedantic. But knowing that he's regarded as one of the great literary figures of t The name Ezra Pound brings to my mind mixed feelings of a character both brilliant and unsavory, but I really knew very little about him. I have vague memories of reading a bit of the Cantos as an undergraduate, but not a great reader of poetry, I haven't attempted it again since. In fact, the only thing by Pound I can recall reading is a slim volume called The ABC of Reading, which I found difficult, tiresome and pedantic. But knowing that he's regarded as one of the great literary figures of the 20th century, hailed by most of the literary world, from Eliot to Hemingway, I felt I should learn more about him and try to appreciate his work. I was drawn to Swift's book because I thought it could provide a key to understanding Pound. I can't say that my feelings about Pound have been disambiguated, but I certainly learned a lot about him from this interesting book focused on the years of Pound's internment. Imprisoned by the US in Italy at the end of WWII for treason and kept in inhumane conditions until he was transferred to an insane asylum in Washington DC, Pound escaped execution only through a defense of insanity. The book is largely based on impressions of Pound's by visitors to the asylum, which Pound called the bughouse, including T S Eliot, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman and Robert Lowell, as well as others who had access to him during that period. The connection between Pound's real or exculpatory madness, his socio-political beliefs and his literary output is the theme of the book and one which is particularly timely in the age of Trump. There is no doubt of Pound's antisemitism, support for Mussolini and Hitler, and loathing of Roosevelt and Churchill. His pro-fascist radio broadcasts during the war were the basis of the charges against him. What I hadn't known earlier is that Pound himself, and his writings, were and are idolized by pro-fascist, white supremacist followers in the US and abroad. Swift finds instances of Pound's jaundiced world view in his writing, but presents information in a neutral, even-handed way that doesn't press the case for or against the poet. Separating artists' works from their beliefs and behavior is a knotty problem. As a Jew, I find it particularly hard to overlook virulent antisemitism because someone is a great artist. After all, what they're advocating my annihilation, saying I don't deserve the right to exist, and promoting genocide as a perfectly acceptable measure. The enigma of Pound (and others such as Celine, another ardent and unapologetic Anti-Semite) is the blending of a fine aesthetic sensibility with sensational moral failure. I might have felt more generous towards Pound in the past, in the spirit of the liberal-intellectual campaign that campaigned for his his release in the late 1950's, and viewed him as a frail and genteel old poet, a little crazy, but grossly mistreated and deserving of a pardon both from the bughouse the charges of treason. But there's another image, of a man, driven by megalomania and egoism, who promotes of fascism and bigotry of the very kind that is on the rise in this country and throughout the world today. I feel less inclined to give a pass to artists, including Pound, Celine and Kanye West, who champion what is unacceptable, just on account of their talent. If an outstanding athlete commits a crime we wouldn't exonerate him because of his skills. We may want to be more lenient with artists because they nourish our souls, but we should be wary when there is poison in that nourishment. This review may seem to have strayed from Swift's book, but I think it's an important book precisely because it brings up issues beyond Pound as an individual, that are immensely relevant today. It is well worth reading and thinking about.

  13. 4 out of 5

    John

    Poet Ezra Pound. Humm. Famous? Controversial? Those were words on my mind as I picked up this book to read. Swift provides details; he walks us through the hallways of the now abandoned asylum where Pound "resided" for 12 years, he visits his Italian digs and interviews people who knew him, he trawls blurry records in the National Archives and at Yale. Indeed, Pound admired Mussolini and Hitler, he broadcast anti-American propaganda from Italy during WW2, he called for FDR to be hanged and "yids Poet Ezra Pound. Humm. Famous? Controversial? Those were words on my mind as I picked up this book to read. Swift provides details; he walks us through the hallways of the now abandoned asylum where Pound "resided" for 12 years, he visits his Italian digs and interviews people who knew him, he trawls blurry records in the National Archives and at Yale. Indeed, Pound admired Mussolini and Hitler, he broadcast anti-American propaganda from Italy during WW2, he called for FDR to be hanged and "yids" to be exterminated. So what to do with him at the end of the war? Traitor? Well, no, perhaps he was just off his rocker; after all, many poets are considered nuts. So into the asylum he goes. Administrators are kindly, permitting him numerous visitors: students, professors, poets, do-gooders. Curious people, mostly. But then there are also neo-Nazis and other weirdoes. Toward the end of his stay he's even permitted to conduct informal classes on the asylum lawn for admirers. I like the way that Swift approaches his research, a sort of a first-person travelogue. This book is a non-academic work; absent is analyses of Pound's pioneering and some say "crabwise" poetic style.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    The Bughouse is equally entertaining and insightful. I liked the way that Swift broke up the chapters thematically instead of chronologically. However, he jumped from topic to topic within the chapters too frequently. He would interrupt one story to present an aside and then jump back into that story. This might have worked in a mystery chock full of cliffhangers, but it came off as a bit of a mess in this book. I supposed he was trying to replicate Pound's approach to the Cantos, but it doesn't The Bughouse is equally entertaining and insightful. I liked the way that Swift broke up the chapters thematically instead of chronologically. However, he jumped from topic to topic within the chapters too frequently. He would interrupt one story to present an aside and then jump back into that story. This might have worked in a mystery chock full of cliffhangers, but it came off as a bit of a mess in this book. I supposed he was trying to replicate Pound's approach to the Cantos, but it doesn't really work (at least not for this reader). Some of Swift's glosses of Pound's poetry contain some flying leaps, but here again, he's offering a personalized view of Pound, which he claims is what Pound would have wanted. Overall, I learned a good deal about Pound and the other poets who visited him in the mental hospital. I think Swift dealt even-handedly with the issue of Pound's mental illness as well as his Antisemitism. He didn't let Pound off the hook, but he presented a compelling argument for his relevance to twentieth century literature and politics.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Carole

    St. Elizabeth's was the destination we always said we were headed for, when experiencing a particularly crazy day. The fact that Ezra Pound, world renowned poet and accused traitor, was imprisoned in our local lunatic asylum sounded like the basis of a fascinating biography. That was not this book, however. Daniel Swift chooses to recount the 12 year incarceration through the eyes of his visitors - would be poets, sycophants, and, in at least one case, fellow lunatic. I didn't find this approach St. Elizabeth's was the destination we always said we were headed for, when experiencing a particularly crazy day. The fact that Ezra Pound, world renowned poet and accused traitor, was imprisoned in our local lunatic asylum sounded like the basis of a fascinating biography. That was not this book, however. Daniel Swift chooses to recount the 12 year incarceration through the eyes of his visitors - would be poets, sycophants, and, in at least one case, fellow lunatic. I didn't find this approach very helpful in explaining the man. Also, Swift spends a good deal of space in examining Pound's poetry, which I find completely and absolutely opaque. This book is better geared for a more literary reader. It is not the biography I was looking for.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alice Phillips

    Long and Very Detailed Pound was mentally unstable. He was narcissistic. He had depression severe enough to warrant ECT. May have had episodes of mania. Who knows how anyone might have behaved gifted so enormously and dropped into that time and place? He was entitled to believe whatever he wanted. He crossed the line when he got on the radio and shot off his mouth about it during a time of war. It was TREASON and God spared him a noose or firing squad. That would have been a terrible loss. Fortun Long and Very Detailed Pound was mentally unstable. He was narcissistic. He had depression severe enough to warrant ECT. May have had episodes of mania. Who knows how anyone might have behaved gifted so enormously and dropped into that time and place? He was entitled to believe whatever he wanted. He crossed the line when he got on the radio and shot off his mouth about it during a time of war. It was TREASON and God spared him a noose or firing squad. That would have been a terrible loss. Fortunately there was an abundance of records and primary sources available to enable the author to create this very realistic portrait of the ARTIST.

  17. 5 out of 5

    David

    This is a meandering account of the poet Ezra Pound’s years in an insane asylum in Washington DC, in lieu of being tried for treason for his odd radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Organized neither entirely chronologically nor thematically, and containing first-person reminiscences by the author, the book has luminous moments and at times descends into bathetic lit-crit. I like Pound. I find his case interesting. The book is frustrating at times but worth a read. And thank God it d This is a meandering account of the poet Ezra Pound’s years in an insane asylum in Washington DC, in lieu of being tried for treason for his odd radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Organized neither entirely chronologically nor thematically, and containing first-person reminiscences by the author, the book has luminous moments and at times descends into bathetic lit-crit. I like Pound. I find his case interesting. The book is frustrating at times but worth a read. And thank God it doesn’t dwell on “anti-Semitism.” Who cares?

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy McNabb

    Well worth reading if you have any interest in writing, whether poetry or prose. Swift describes Pound from various points of view. His impact is clearly described, but not I think, overstated. Though Pound and his followers teetered on or fell completely into racism and fascism, one feels that they can empathize with his frustrations, if not their causes.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chris Timmons

    An incisive study of Ezra Pound's time in an insane asylum. But it is more than that: it is a closely argued take on Pound's poetry and ideas and the field of Pound studies. Pound was a confounding man, his Cantos perplexing, jejune, beautiful dispensations. And Swift puts it all together rather well, even if he is so even-handed his opinion becomes elliptical.

  20. 4 out of 5

    PWQ

    Unlikely to grab you unless you’re a serious Ezra Pound fan, much more about his poems than I anticipated (as opposed to other events in his life).

  21. 5 out of 5

    Counsel182

    A difficult book about an intriguing man. Perhaps Pound was "too large" or complex for anyone to get their arms around. Swift tries but ultimately isn't too successful.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rob Radford

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Conti

  26. 4 out of 5

    Curt

  27. 5 out of 5

    Hunter Tolbert

  28. 4 out of 5

    Pat

  29. 5 out of 5

    Blair Hamelink

  30. 5 out of 5

    Whtvrs

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