Politics and Poetry: Ezra Pound

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.

So we’re going to do things a little backwards for this one and look at the poet’s works first before jumping into his biography. This poem penned in 1926 is one Ezra Pound’s most famous poems, in part because of how short it is:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound was an American poet, born in 1885 and lived through both world wars and well into the cold war and the conflicts that prevailed during the time (and subsequently died in 1972). This next poem of his is titled “The Coming of War: Actaeon” written in 1917.

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;

High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
“This is Actæon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!

Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.

Ezra Pound is credited as being one of the creators of the Modernist poetry movement with his focus on imagery. He translated Chinese and Japanese poetry and in both his translated works and original works he pushed for clarity, precision, and economy of language. He founded not only several American literary magazines, but he is credited for discovering and shaping poets such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway.

Image of young Ezra Pound
Via Wikimedia.org
Then came Word War I. Pound lost faith in England and America and fled to Italy in 1924. He blamed capitalism for the world’s problems and the cause of so many deaths and fled the western countries he felt were responsible for the carnage. Italy, at the time, was under Mussolini’s fascist rule and Pound embraced the totalitarian and even expressed support for Adolf Hitler. Further, he started to write for Oswald Mosley, a British fascist.

During WWII, Pound made hundreds of radio broadcasts criticising the United States, FDR, Jews, and was arrested in 1945 by American forces in Italy on charges of treason. He was held for six months in a U.S. detention camp where he had a mental breakdown. After that, he was kept in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C. for twelve years. For years, poets he’d held friendships with petitioned the government for his release and in 1958, Pound was released and went back to Italy and remained there until his death. When asked about his release from the insane asylum, Pound responded “I never was. When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum.”

I can’t say I disagree with that perspective of the fact that capitalism is to blame for a lot of the bad in the world, but embracing Mussolini and Hitler as well as criticizing jews makes the road he took against capitalism one I wouldn’t follow. I think it’s interesting that his work (at least the ones I have here and the ones I’ve read) don’t reflect upon his political alignment. It’s kind of like looking at one of Hitler’s paintings – it’s just flowers, but once you know who painted the flowers, it becomes a fascinating study on the makings of a fascist.

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