Week 8 The Bughouse by Daniel Swift


How to start talking about this book? Ezra Pound is an American poet included in the ModPo syllabus section regarding Imagism. Pound laid out the principles of Imagism in March 1913. My knowledge of Pound had been limited to this. When I saw a very brief mention of this book and its subject matter I was taken by surprise. Ezra Pound spent time in an insane asylum? I wanted to find out more.

This book is not a biography, but it does cover the period from 1945, when Pound was captured in Italy, his extradition to the U.S. to stand trial for treason, and his stay in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., through 1958. Pound had made many anti-American, anti-British, pro-Mussolini radio broadcasts in Italy, which resulted in the charge of treason. He never stood trial because he was found to be insane. At Age 72, the authorities said that his condition was permanent. Therefore, they said, he would never be able to stand trial and should be discharged from St. Elizabeths. He was then released, and moved back to Italy.

As the subtitle of the book indicates, The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, it was all very complicated and murky. Was he insane, or as some felt, faking it? What can be found in his life’s work, The Cantos, some of which were written before St. Elizabeths and others while he was in residence there? The author says we should not cherry-pick the Cantos to find what we’re looking for (or to find the lyrical or tender lines that appeal to us) and ignore the reprehensible. (Modern day terms such as Alt-Right and White Supremacists come to mind when one reads about Pound’s views.) But the author does quote certain lines. For instance, in a fragment sometimes numbered Canto 119, written near the end of Pound’s life, there is this:

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.

Had he really changed?  The author comes at his subject from many angles, and I cannot possibly cover them all here. I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t consider it a must-read for poetry lovers.

6 comments on “Week 8 The Bughouse by Daniel Swift”

  1. Wow Teri, thank you for this review. I have kept Pound at arm’s length, because I never quite know how to feel about him, or his writing. Because of your research, I now understand why I may have felt hesitant…. I appreciate that the author cautioned about the cherry-picking. I suppose that is the best approach- if we read a controversial writer, we might as well know what there is to know about him/her- and to take the *bad* with the *good* (if I were to over-simplify the whole idea)… Anyway, very enlightening information..!!

    Oh, and here is a very interesting article about Pound and The Bughouse: https://www.thenation.com/article/coming-to-terms-with-ezra-pounds-politics/

    And, an excerpt from the article about some of the company he kept while in St Elizabeth’s (this was probably all in the book, so most likely familiar to you): “At first, access to Pound was sharply restricted. For 13 months, he was held at Howard Hall, the hospital’s maximum-security ward for the violent and criminally insane, an area enclosed by a 22-foot concrete perimeter wall. Over time, however, these restrictions were loosened. In early 1947, Pound was moved to Center Building, a less fortified area, and granted more leeway in receiving visitors. He had been, by this point, a driving force in modernist cultural circles for over three decades, and many American writers he had helped or influenced were eager to visit him.

    “Some of the guests were old friends from the heyday of high modernism, like T.S. Eliot (with whom he played tennis), Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. But he also attracted a legion of younger poets eager to pay their respects, including Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Louis Zukofsky, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin, and Frederick Seidel. Eventually, Pound was granted permission to spend his days out on the lawn, lecturing to a group of eager young disciples who dubbed themselves ‘Ezrologists.’ ‘It was the world’s least orthodox literary salon,’ Daniel Swift writes in his elegant and provocative new book, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, ‘convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum.'”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meredith, I apologize for not having seen your terrific comment before now. A big thank you for the article in The Nation. There are things in it that were not in the book & that are helpful to my attempts to sort this through. Just a couple of other things: 1) I couldn’t help but think about how modern and contemporary poetry might be used in an attempt to prove a poet’s insanity and 2) I was surprised to find out that William Carlos Williams and Pound first met in a college dormitory. WCW wasn’t at all excited about visiting Pound at St. Elizabeths. They had a long, volatile relationship, and when they locked horns each charged the other with being “not sufficiently American,” according to the author. Neither of Williams’ parents were born in the U.S. Pound apparently didn’t like immigrants either. Sigh. This question about knowing a poet’s biographical information is a gnarly one that always comes up in ModPo.

      Thank you again for your reply! (When I was reading my Week 9 book, what did I come across but a reference to St. Elizabeths Hospital during the Civil War era. Small world.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So, I just finished an anthology of women’s sacred poetry (amazing, hoping to get my review up in the next few days).. anyway, did you know (maybe in your book?)…. that Pound was engaged to H.D., ie Hilda Doolittle?!?! There is a wonderful (yet short) bio of H.D. in my book (which by the way was edited by Jane Hirshfield – smaller and smaller world).. here is a passage:

        “H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was raised in the Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr briefly, during which time she met Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Both Williams and Pound became her close friends, and H.D. and Pound were briefly engaged, though it turned out that he had at the same time made a similar promise to another woman, whom he also did not marry. Pound nonetheless remained H.D.’s mentor and supporter; his encouragement that she study the poetry and cultures of the past became a determining factor in the nature of her later writing, which draws heavily upon ancient religions and myths.”

        Oh, and her poems chosen for the book are just stunning…!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Surely I would have remembered that Pound and HD were briefly engaged, if that were in the book. HD was in there. Pound liked the ladies. While his wife supported him completely during his stay at the hospital, he was accepting visits from young aspiring females with her knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know anything about Ezra Pound beyond his famous name. Your review and Meredith’s comments sent me to Wikipedia. There is quite a story behind the name!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Barbara, I have not looked at the Wikipedia entry. We see Pound in ModPo around 1912, in connection with a movement referred to as Imagism. Imagism presses against Romanticism in poetry, favoring the concrete over the abstract to greatly (and probably wrongly) simplify things.

      I appreciate your taking an interest!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s