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.
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.