Ezra Pound: Poet and Arch-Modernist

by Alvin Langdon Coburn, collotype, 22 October 1913

Pound c. October 1913

Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was the arch-Modernist of the expatriate literary community of the early twentieth century. If not for his influence, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, and a number of other major writers would not have been published or publicized. Pound’s influence extends far beyond his literary connections; he created Imagist poetry inspired by the Chinese and Japanese and shifted to Vorticism later in his career.

Pound was born in the Idaho, but his family moved to Pennsylvania in the 1890s. Pound’s education was  a classical liberal education; that is, he was taught the Latin and Greek classics. In one of his essays, Pound states he had basic knowledge of Greek by the age of twelve. His university education focused on more classical knowledge. He focused on Romance Languages. He earned an M.A. and PhD, but spent only one year teaching at a small conservative university. Smoking was banned on the campus, but Pound smoked cigarillos in his office and the academic halls anyway. While his politics remained right-wing or traditionalist later in life, the poet was always rebellious and went against bourgeois dogma. When he was released from St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital and returned to Europe after the Second World War, a group of reporters waited for him. He gave them the Roman salute and called America an insane asylum.

Pound’s literary career started when he moved to London in 1908. That year he self-published his first collection, A Lume Spento. No American publisher was willing to risk publishing an unknown poet. Pound found a Venetian printer to publish his poems. He was not confident in his early work, and considered dumping the proofs in a river (Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, 315). These poems are not like his later Imagist work, showing the influence of Victorian and Edwardian-era poetry. A Lume Spento also contains the references to Italy; Pound was deeply interested in the country and its culture.

In Morte De [From A Lume Spento, reprinted in Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound]

Oh wine-sweet ghost how are we born apart

Of winds that restless blow we know not where

As little shadows smoke-wraith-sudden start

If music break the freighted dream of air;

So, fragile curledst thou in my dream-wracked heart,

So sudden summoned dost thou leave it bare.

O wine-sweet ghost how are we born apart!

As little flames amid the dead coal dart

And lost themselves upon some hidden stair,

So futile elfin be we well aware

Old cries I cry to thee as I depart,

“O wine-sweet ghost how are we borne apart.”

In this example we can see the beginnings of the heavy imagery of Pound’s later period, but Pound had not yet adopted the pared-down, precise technique of his later work. A few years later (1913-1918), he wrote a series of essays about literature. “Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something,” he wrote in an article titled “Language” (reprinted in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 3-15)  He based his poetry on three principles which poet Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle and writer Richard Aldington agreed with him:

  1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding: to compose in the sequence of the musical, not in sequence of metronome.

While Pound’s philosophy of poetry emphasized the precision and economy of language, much of his poetry from his early period and then his later Cantos recall the tradition of the Italian troubadours. Many of his poems incorporate stark images as well as narrative poetry techniques; Pound synthesized older forms with his Modernist principles which broke with 19th century Romanticism. Pound was also a prolific prose writer. His literary essays are heavily inter-textual and show his breadth of knowledge. Reading through the collection edited by T.S. Elliott now, many of the essays require extensive background reading of writers ranging from Henry James, Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, to Arnaut Daniel. Pound often leaves poems or quoted prose untranslated, which make his essays on foreign writers difficult lay reading.

Painting of Pound by Wyndham Lewis

Painting of Pound by Wyndham Lewis

During the war years 1920s Pound became the Arch-Modernist. His literary connections assisted a number of writers: Joyce, Hemingway, and Lewis among others benefited from the poet’s numerous friendships. He had Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man published in the magazine The Egoist and later went on to assist Joyce in the publication of Ulysses. Pound also wrote for Wyndham Lewis’ Blast; it was Pound who coined the term Vorticism as the visual art translation of Imagism. He had a hand in the little magazines that were influential in the Modernist movement. Pound wrote for The Egoist, The Little Review, and The New Age. It was during the war years he reacted against the establishment. The effects of the war left a mark on everyone of that generation, but it was the prosecution of Joyce and Lewis for obscenity and the seizure of an issue of the The Little Review by American authorities for the same made Pound loathe the American political and literary establishment. After the First World War Pound blamed financial capitalism and usury for the war; he would rail against the system in Canto XLV. He said of publishing houses: “In another thirty years perhaps the gross idiocy of two decades of publishers will also be more apparent. I mean their short-sightedness…particularly their policy of debasing the literary coin…New York the eternal goat! Year after year, decade after the same sort of obtuseness.” He used the saga of Ulysses‘ publication to make this point. Seeing the state of publishing now, I’m sure Pound and his fellow Modernists encountered the same problems beginning writers face now.

In 1924 Pound moved to Italy. He became enamored with Italian Fascism. Wyndham Lewis would later claim that Pound did not talk much about politics. Lewis stated that Pound only really talked of social credit economics (See The Writer and the Absolute by Wyndham Lewis). Pound’s fascism had more to do with the success of the economy and Mussolini’s leadership capacity in the uncertain interwar period. Even anti-fascist Ernest Hemingway said of the Italian dictator: “Mussolini isn’t a fool and he is a great organizer” (The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway, 200). The First World War had wiped out the old order both physically and in the minds of the Euro-American world. People looked to extreme ideologies both on the Left and Right for answers.

Pound lived in Italy from 1924 to 1945. He remained in the country even during WWII. When the situation in Italy deteriorated after the Allied invasion Pound attempted to flee. Communist partisans found him and knew who he was; they turned him into Allied authorities. American intelligence officers interviewed him and then he was imprisoned for treason. Pound had a long history political advocacy and involvement; he’d recorded anti-American segments for Italian radio. He was charged with treason and thrown into solitary confinement cells reserved for violent criminals. He was allowed no intellectual stimulation and no social interaction save the prison chaplain.

Toilet paper section of The Cantos

His literary friends, including Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Williams campaigned for an insanity plea. Pound spent the next 13 years in an insane asylum. He worked on The Cantos which he started writing during his Italian incarceration. In 1948 he was awarded the first ever Bollingen Prize for collection. The Cantos is an expansive work; Pound uses multiple languages and layers his poetry with numerous allusions, consistent with his classical liberal education. He was finally released from the mental hospital in 1954 and returned to Italy where he lived until his death in 1972. Ezra Pound was one of the 20th century’s greatest poets and was influential in bringing attention to number of great writers.

More Sources:

Paris Review Interview

Lecture on Ezra Pound

Pound reading “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”


8 thoughts on “Ezra Pound: Poet and Arch-Modernist

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