Authors: Ezra Pound

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet


Ezra Loomis Pound is a controversial poet, the lasting stature of whose poetry is greatly argued but whose importance as one of the central figures in the shaping of twentieth century literature is not. Pound was born on October 30, 1885, in Hailey, Idaho. His family moved eighteen months later to Pennsylvania, eventually settling in a suburb of Philadelphia. His first taste of Europe, where he would spend the majority of his life, came in 1898, when he traveled there for three months with his great-aunt.{$I[AN]9810000866}{$I[A]Pound, Ezra}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Pound, Ezra}{$I[tim]1885;Pound, Ezra}

Ezra Pound

(Boris De Rachewiltz, courtesy of New Directions)

Early in life, Pound declared his intention to learn all there was to know about the art of poetry. After studying at Hamilton College in upstate New York and at the University of Pennsylvania, Pound resigned a teaching job in 1907 to travel to Italy and seek his literary fortune. While living in Venice, he published at his own expense his first book of poetry, A Lume Spento. Armed with copies of the book for introduction, Pound headed for London, at that time the most vital center of literary activity in the English-speaking world. He especially wanted to meet the Irish poet William Butler Yeats; soon he was meeting regularly not only with Yeats but also with many other leading writers of the time. A brash American given to bohemian dress and loud declarations, Pound became a leading figure in the avant-garde attempt to revolutionize modern art and literature.

In 1912 Pound spearheaded the Imagist movement, the most visible product of a widespread attempt to rid modern poetry in English of embellishment and conventionalism. Although he edited the first anthology of Imagist poetry in 1914, he had already moved on by that time to involvement in vorticism, an art and literary movement in London that constituted England’s most important early contribution to the modern revolution in art. During this period, Pound was helping to change the common perception of literature through dozens of articles, promoting the work of innovators such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, and the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, editing the important papers of Ernest Fenollosa, and all the while writing and translating poetry. In countless ways, Pound worked tirelessly and sacrificially on behalf of what he regarded as genuine art; many of the then-unknown writers whose work he championed were later recognized as having changed the direction of modern literature.

Ironically, Pound’s own poetry lagged behind his critical pronouncements and the work of those he promoted. Largely conventional in form, his best early poetry derived from his work with Chinese poetry. He pioneered controversial but ultimately vindicated methods of translating poetry that were very influential on poet-translators throughout the twentieth century.

Pound announced his full status as a significant modern poet with the publication in 1920 of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a long poem that details in a thoroughly modern style his disillusionment with the British literary establishment in particular and Western culture in general. Moving abruptly from scene to scene, with compressed allusions to art, literature, and politics from ancient Greece to World War I, the poem was the most striking example of modernism in poetry to that date. It paved the way for the archetypal modernist poem, Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), whose final shape was greatly determined by Pound’s editing.

Pound’s disgust with the timidity and conventionalism of British culture led him to move to Paris in 1921. He again became involved with the literary avant-garde; among the young writers whose work he singled out for praise was Ernest Hemingway. By this time, Pound was fully at work on the Cantos, an epic poem that would occupy him for the rest of his life.

In 1924 he moved to Rapallo, Italy, where he became enamored with the Fascism of Benito Mussolini and increasingly obsessed with the role of economics in the making and preserving of the kind of culture under which the arts could flourish. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Pound published further installments of the Cantos, a massive work whose ultimate unity was eventually questioned even by the poet himself. Sections of the Cantos are devoted to exploring various historical periods and personalities, from ancient China to Renaissance Italy to Jeffersonian America, all interwoven with references to Pound’s own life. The style is complex, sometimes maddeningly obscure, but frequently beautiful and moving in individual passages.

Pound stayed in Italy during World War II, making radio broadcasts from time to time in an effort to stop a war that he thought the United States should not be fighting. As a result, he was arrested after the war in 1945 and charged with treason. Instead of going to trial, he was judged insane and sent to Saint Elisabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1948 he won the Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos, poems written during his initial incarceration in Italy, touching off a tremendous controversy. Pound was held in Saint Elisabeths Hospital until 1958. He continued writing and was visited by many writers but generally declined both physically and mentally. On his release, he returned to Italy, where he lived until his death in Venice on November 1, 1972.

Pound’s politics and anti-Semitism, a failure he acknowledged as foolish late in life, continue to color assessments of his place as a poet. Because of these personal blemishes, as well as critical disagreements over the success of the Cantos, his place as a major poet is not assured. Even his detractors, however, admit that Pound was central to the remaking of modern literature in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. He promoted writers such as Eliot and Joyce, influenced many with his literary criticism, and helped show the way with his own poetry. Modern literary history would have been significantly different without him.

BibliographyFroula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983. A competent and useful companion to the poems that serves as an aid to the reader’s understanding of Pound’s experimental style. A good accompaniment to his early work. Includes a select bibliography and an index.Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Offers a detailed look at the case for treason which the United States brought against Pound at the end of World War II. By presenting a careful examination of Pound’s political and economic beliefs, Heymann attempts to reconcile the poet’s life and work. Includes letters, photographs, and an index.Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. This classic examination and exposition of Pound’s poetry addresses and clarifies most of the obvious misunderstandings that have occurred to those not familiar with his work. Includes a new preface by the author and a foreword by James Laughlin, select bibliography, and an index.Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Offers a good, basic introduction to, and an overview of, Pound’s work. Includes a select bibliography and an index.Korg, Jacob. Winter Love: Ezra Pound and H. D. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. An examination of the personal and professional relationship between two of the most significant poets of the twentieth century.Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987. A substantial biographical portrait of Pound, composed of a collection of biographical and critical pieces written by Laughlin, one of Pound’s closest friends and literary associates. Includes a select bibliography and an index.Moody, A. David. Ezra Pound: Poet–A Portrait of the Man and His Work. Oxford: Oxford University, 2008. This volume draws on Pound’s published and unpublished writings in an examination of the author’s life and work. Moody discusses the ways in which Pound veered from traditional poetry writing, and studies the public’s perception of him when he emerged on the literary scene.Pound, Ezra. Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity. Edited and annotated by Omar Pound and Robert Spoo. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A collection of letters that capture the most traumatic experience of Ezra Pound’s life, when he was incarcerated at the end of World War II and indicted for treason. Contains previously unpublished correspondence between the poet and his wife combined with military and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documents and previously unknown photographs.Pratt, William. Ezra Pound and the Making of Modernism. Brooklyn: AMS, 2007. This work contains ten scholarly essays about Pound’s writing and the role he played in the modernist movement. His methods of translation are discussed at length, as well as his influence on T. S. Eliot and Yeats.Qian, Zhaoming, ed. Ezra Pound and China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. A collection of essays that explore such topics as the role of China in Pound’s craft and his connection to Confucianism.Stock, Noel, ed. Ezra Pound Perspectives: Essays in Honor of His Eightieth Birthday. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1965. Contains essays and tributes from a wide range of Pound’s contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, Conrad Aiken, Allen Tate, and Wyndham Lewis. Includes an introduction by Stock. Complemented by illustrations.Stock, Noel, ed. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982. Follows Pound from his birth in Idaho through his years abroad in England and Italy, to his arrest for treason, his return to the United States, his incarceration in Saint Elizabeths Hospital, and finally, to his return to Italy. Includes bibliographical references, photographs, and an index.Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Surette demonstrates that Pound was not a lifelong anti-Semite and consistently ignored or resisted anti-Semitic comments until after 1931. As the world spiraled toward war, Pound gradually succumbed to a paranoid belief in a Jewish conspiracy. Surette shows how this belief fostered the virulent anti-Semitism that pervades Pound’s work from this time forward.Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P. and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. Nearly 100 contributors discuss their experiences with Pound and his literary works.
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