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New Scholarship: Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's

Ezra Pound was not the first poet to spend years confined to a mental hospital nor will he probably be the last, but he was surely the only one to have turned his legally enforced confinement into a long-running literary soirée, his very own “Ezuversity”. As Daniel Swift puts it in The Bughouse, his lively and searching account of Pound’s years at St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, from 1946 to 1958, it was “the world’s least orthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum”. Though there has been much hand-wringing over the years by Pound’s acolytes about the incarceration, it proved to be in many ways a perfect environment for the garrulous poet. His visitors ranged from illustrious old friends, such as T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, to eager younger poets, such as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, to less savoury members of the real lunatic fringe, among them the violent white sup­rem­acist John Kasper, whose neo-Nazi views “Uncle Ez” warmly supported and encouraged. To the end Pound remained an anti-Semite, but now he added black Americans and civil rights protesters to his roster of well-nurtured hatreds. Best of all for Pound, however, was the opportunity to lecture and harangue his seemingly endless procession of admirers, whether on his crack-brained economic and political theories or on matters literary and aesthetic. Nor did his apparent derangement mitigate his vanity. Elizabeth Bishop noted that when Pound asked her to bring him a journal in Bengali, a language he did not know, it was principally to check as to whether his name was mentioned there (since he couldn’t read Bengali it is not clear how he managed this).

The story of the St Elizabeths years has been often told, most recently in A. David Moody’s three-volume biography (2009–15), but Swift brings a fresh eye to the story. This is not only because he has delved assiduously into the National Archives as well as what records survive from the hospital itself, but because he has also interviewed a number of the sur­viving visitors, from Pound’s daughter Mary de Rachewiltz to the American poet Frederick Seidel. His book is structured loosely around the encounters of six poets, as evinced in their recollections as well as in their own poems: these are Eliot, Williams, Lowell, Seidel, John Berryman and Charles Olson, though others, especially Bishop (“Liz Bish” to Pound), loom largely as well. Swift is an astute reader of the poetic accounts. In his discussion of Bishop’s poem “Visits to St. Elizabeths”, for example, he shows how the nursery rhyme stanzas (“This is the man / that lies in the house of Bedlam”) camouflage her own ambivalent atttitude towards Pound (who is never named in the poem). By extensive citation from the works of the other poets, Swift is able to fashion a composite impression, not so much of Pound himself, as of the effect he produced on his admirers. It is his aim, he writes, to “permit rival tellings to sing their discord”, and this works very well.

Swift is also able to refine and correct a number of misjudgements of other participants in the protracted drama of Pound’s madhouse years. This is especially welcome in the case of Dr Winfred Overholser, his principal therapist at the hospital, who has come in for harsh treatment in previous accounts by Humphrey Carpenter and Moody. By contrast, Swift calls him “a figure of great probity” and goes on to back this up convincingly; in fact, Overholser proved to be Pound’s firmest protector, his “noble guardian against an uncomprehending world”, as Swift puts it.

While The Bughouse offers such welcome corrections throughout, it is far more than a straightforward documentary account. Rather, Daniel Swift has had the happy idea of framing his investigations as a story of personal discovery; he has an engaging authorial presence and his own hesitations and uncertainties about Ezra Pound, both as poet and personality, lend a certain tension and a pleasing piquancy to his narrative. He does not try to resolve the recurrent questions about Pound – was he insane? Was he in fact guilty of treason? – but lets the evidence, however fragmentary or disputed, speak for itself. The portrait that emerges is a splintered one, each shard of which discloses the refracted visage of a man and a poet fiercely loyal to his own irreconcilable contradictions.

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