Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s


David Herman

We know a great deal about Ezra Pound’s time at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington DC. He was incarcerated there for twelve and a half years, from December 1945 until May 1958. On the day he arrived at the hospital he weighed 167 pounds. In April 1955 he was given reading glasses. We know his dental records and the dates when his ears were cleaned. We know that he arrived at St. Elizabeth’s with twenty-one stamps, a broken watch, a fifty-dollar cheque from PM magazine, a bone-handled cane, seven books and a hairbrush.

We also know, and this is at the heart of Daniel Swift’s fascinating new book on Pound’s time in “the bughouse,” that he was visited by many of the greatest American poets of the time: T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and many more. They not only visited Pound. They wrote about their visits, and in many cases these encounters with Pound had a significant impact on their poetry.

But Swift is as good on what we don’t know about Pound at St. Elizabeth’s as on what we more or less know. And what we don’t know includes what may be more important than anything else. Was he mad or was he faking it to avoid the death sentence for treason? If he was mad, what exactly was wrong with him? And how was he treated to cure his madness?

Swift has a keen eye for detail, for the telling anecdote and for the crucial absence. He wants to know about Pound’s teeth and how many pairs of underwear he brought with him. But he also wants to know the answers to the big questions, questions about political morality, about the post-war revolution in the treatment of mental illness, about Modernism. When the poets came to visit Pound, what did they find? A madman, a Fascist, one of the great poets of the 20# th century? Or did they find different things? “He was kept in a narrow space,” Swift writes, “but he was various enough to appear different to each who looked upon him.” And this includes poets, psychiatrists and judges.

This matters, of course, because Ezra Pound was in fact a great poet. “All talk on modern poetry,” wrote Carl Sandburg, “by people who know, ends with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere.” Swift does an excellent job of covering the history of psychiatry while also conveying Pound’s biography and the story of a generation of post-war American poets. However, he is, first and foremost, a fine literary critic and offers some illuminating readings of Pound. Take this on the first canto:

Modernist poems often pose an apparently simple question: how, and where, do we begin? The opening [of the first canto] denies us any once-upon-a-time certainties of context or character. Instead, the poem begins mid-sentence, with an ‘And’. This present moment is merely continuous with whatever came before. Something is missing – the pronouns, the people – and as readers we must deduce; try to see the relations between those few things we are given.

In fact Swift writes unfailingly clear, accessible criticism, introducing famously difficult works to that long-forgotten creature, the general reader, or orienting the reader to high modernist aesthetics, as in this passage on Pound’s editing of The Wasteland, which Swift begins with a general assertion: “The history of modernism is a history of cutting up. The modernists made editing into art, raised excision to an aesthetic and philosophical principle” He goes on to Pound’s famous work on The Wasteland:

In 1922, in Paris, Eliot hands Pound the baggy manuscript of his new long poem, and Pound runs through it in pencil, cutting confidently. This is The Wasteland, or at least it will be, once Pound has finished with it, for the version Eliot first showed to Pound is very different from the clipped, shard-like poem that is famous today. In the manuscript, section IV – ‘Death by Water’ – is ninety-two lines of occasionally rhyming blank verse, which describes a fishing expedition: in Pound’s hands, this becomes ten lines about a drowned Phoenician merchant. He is cutting to make it new, and this is a kind of violence. In a self-congratulatory letter to Eliot, while they were going back and forth, Pound described the process as ‘the caesarean Operation’. This is surgery, pulling the new from the body of the old.

Swift does here what so many critics of his generation have lost interest in. He puts drama back into literary criticism.

Of course the story Swift tells goes well beyond Pound’s relations with Eliot. “He told Ernest Hemingway to use fewer adjectives,” Swift writes, and “encouraged E.E. Cummings to experiment with the lower layout of typewritten words on the page, and was responsible for the first publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.” But Swift is also adept at providing colorful anecdotage, including a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, and details of a 1909 meeting between Pound and Ford Madox Ford, whose outfit Ford described as: “a purple hat, a green shirt, a black velvet jacket, in addition to an immense flowing tie that had been hand-painted by a Japanese Futurist poet.” Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” Pound’s outfit, a year earlier, is perhaps part of that same revolution.

And then Swift is fully attentive as well to the political scene, the anti-Semitism and the Fascism. In January 1933 Pound met Mussolini, showed him the first volume of his Cantos and handed over a list of economic proposals. As others have documented before, in January 1941 Pound began a series of radio broadcasts from Rome. “He discussed monetary reform,” says Swift, “his poetry and, most of all, the folly of the fight against the Axis powers; and he broadcast perhaps 200 times - rambling, passionate, in accents and impersonations – before 26 July 1943, when the US Department of Justice indicted him for treason. This charge carries the death penalty. Pound continued to broadcast.” In 1945, he was arrested by American troops and in November he was taken to Washington DC where he was examined by army medical experts and civilian psychiatrists. They reported: “He is now suffering from a paranoid state which renders him mentally unfit to advise properly with counsel or to participate intelligently and reasonably in his own defense. He is, in other words, insane and mentally unfit for trial.”

Mad or bad? All this is complicated, of course. Pound’s anti-Semitism (like Eliot’s) is a minefield and Swift treads carefully. He is aware of Pound’s contradictions. “He loved the American Constitution,” Swift writes, “and spent the Second World War broadcasting anti-American propaganda from Mussolini’s Italy; he was a racist who held that the summit of human truth was to be found in African myth, Chinese philosophy and Japanese plays.”

But it wasn’t just the wartime broadcasts that matter here. In the mid-1950s, Pound “contributed perhaps 200 short opinion pieces to small-press, right-wing journals and newspapers in America and Australia. Pound kept his name off these many scraps of journalism and signed others under a range of pseudonyms.” These make for nasty reading, as in: “Some races are retentive, mainly of the least desirable bits of their barbaric past.” “He compares,” Swift writes, “the ‘Jewish-Communist plot’ to ‘syphilis’ and dismisses what he calls the ‘anti-biological nonsense about equality.’ He mocks "the jew managed sob-stuff in the jew-run agitations against ‘race prejudice’.” On 10 August 1956 a piece begins: “It is perfectly well known that the fuss about ‘desegregation’ in the United States has been started by Jews.” What America needs is “race pride."Jews, blacks, race, syphilis and biology. Barely ten years after the end of the war, he is writing, "There were no gas ovens in Italy” and complaining about the “fuss about Hitler.”

Curiously, Swift downplays the uproar over the Bollingen Prize: One reference in a very useful chronology and just two paragraphs in the main body of the book. In February 1949 a group of judges including Eliot and Lowell awarded the Bollingen Prize for the best book of poetry published in the United States in 1948. It was awarded to Pound for The Pisan Cantos. The judges issued a statement: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would be to destroy the significance of the award and it would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception on which any civilised society must rest.” The language smacks of Eliot. Swift only cites one critic and a headline from The New York Times. He doesn’t mention that the only judge to vote against the award was Karl Shapiro, the only Jew on the panel. Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe and William Barrett, writing in Partisan Review, were among those who passionately denounced the verdict.

Swift also downplays the larger significance of the Pound debate. It provided a rallying-point for Jewish writers and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1953 Denis Goacher, a young British poet, who played a major role in the campaign for Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s, wrote to Isaiah Berlin to enlist his support. Berlin replied, “Whether he was technically a traitor to the United States or not is not I think directly relevant; what is relevant is the fact that he should have chosen openly to defend a totalitarian system against a democracy during a war between them on whatever grounds. He was entitled to do it of course, but one cannot have one’s cake and eat it”

In 1957 Saul Bellow wrote to Faulkner on the question of whether Pound sbould be released, “if sane he [Pound] should be tried again as a traitor; if insane he ought not to be released merely because he is a poet.” Bellow went on,

Do you mean to ask me to join you in honouring a man who called for the destruction of my kinsmen? In France Pound would have been shot. Free him because he is a poet? Why, better poets than he were exterminated perhaps. Shall we say nothing in their behalf?

What staggers me is that you and Mr. Steinbeck who have dealt for so many years in words should fail to understand the import of Ezra Pound’s plain and brutal statements about the ‘kikes’ leading the ‘goy’ to slaughter? Is this – from the Pisan Cantos – the stuff of poetry? It is a call to murder. If it were spoken by a farmer or shoemaker we would call him mad.

Was Pound bad? And might it be that your view depended on whether or not you were Jewish? Swift takes some of the heat out of what was once a passionate argument. But he is extraordinarily assiduous on the question of Pound’s madness, where the issues become, if anything, even more complicated. Swift quotes a number of Pound’s psychiatrists, from the hearings in 1945, to decide whether Pound was fit to be tried for treason. On 10 December 1945, Dr. Marion King, the head of the prison medical service, reported on his examinations of Pound. The man, he said, was not “a psychotic or insane person” and therefore “should not be absolved from the necessity of standing trial.” At the end of December 1945, Dr. Addison Duval also “couldn’t elicit any symptoms of psychosis at all. There were no delusions, no thought disorder and no disturbance or disorientation. He definitely did not seem to be insane.”

Nevertheless, Pound was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C. After one of his first assessments, Dr. Edgar Griffin noted, “Delusions of persecution and grandeur.” Soon after, Pound took a Rorschach test. “A brilliant but pedantic individual,” concluded Dr. Kendig in his report. The report continues, “[the patient’s] withdrawal from reality into a more satisfying world of fantasy is a fundamental personality trait.” In February 1946, there was a sanity hearing at the District Courthouse. Four doctors, writes Swift, “spent the morning and early afternoon laying out a train of terms: remarkable grandiosity, considerable distractibility, paranoid, confabulation, delusional, a mentally sick person, psychotic.” Pound was officially “‘of unsound mind’” and was returned to St. Elizabeth’s.

And so it continued for over a decade. Swift quotes a succession of psychiatrists. He is remarkably patient with “the slipperiness of Pound’s warring diagnoses"and is reluctant to pass judgment on Pound’s doctors. What is remarkable is that over twelve years these psychiatrists were unable to agree whether Pound was mad, what exactly he was suffering from or, indeed, how best to treat him.

At the National Archives in Washington Swift goes through six green boxes, "containing the non-confidential sections for the case file released by St. Elizabeth’s.” This is where he discovers Pound’s weight and dental records. But there is one striking absence from the files: “nowhere is there any mention of psychiatric treatment or therapy of any kind,” in spite of the fact that the 1940s and ‘50s were the golden age of ECT and in the early 1940s over one hundred patients at St. Elizabeth’s received ECT. There is no record of Pound having been treated with ECT. At the highpoint, in America, of Freudian analysis, Swift doesn’t find any accounts of Pound receiving any psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. And, although the pharmacological revolution got under way in the mid-1950s, towards the end of Pound’s time at St. Elizabeth’s, there are no references to Pound receiving pills. By 1957, writes Swift, “more than 2,000 patients – close to half the population of the hospital – were on tranquilizers and anti-psychotic drugs.” Not Pound, it seems.

In one of the best parts of The Bughouse, Swift makes a fascinating comparison with one of Pound’s visitors, Robert Lowell. The contrast is striking. Lowell’s symptoms were clearly defined by successive psychiatrists and he received what was considered appropriate treatment:

In June 1949, at Baldpate hospital in Massachusetts, he [Lowell] was given ECT, and later that year at Payne Whitney in New York he was diagnosed with manic depression and began psychotherapy. Back at Payne Whitney in 1954 the diagnosis was revised: first as hypomania and then acute schizophrenia. He was given Thorazine, which is a derivative of chlorpromazine. In 1967 lithium carbonate arrived on the market and he started taking it.

As the physical era of electro-shock, lobotomies and insulin shock ended, the pharmacological era took over. This is clearly reflected in Lowell’s treatment. Pound’s treatment seems as mysterious as the slippery diagnoses.

There is something else that is very illuminating from the comparison between Lowell and Pound and their experience of mental illness. Lowell wrote not only about his visits to Pound (for example, his poem, “Ezra Pound”) but about his experience of mental illness, perhaps most famously in his poem, “Waking in the Blue.” Pound did not. He wrote about everything else, from Confucius to Jews, but not about his experience of mental illness, if indeed he was mentally ill. Not about spending more than twelve years in a mental hospital. Not about his doctors and nurses, or his treatment (or lack of it). Not even about what it felt like to be mad or to be considered mad.

The people who did write about this were the poets who visited him. And this brings us to the heart of Swift’s fascinating book. “American poetry in the twentieth century,” he writes, “is a cycle of encounters with Ezra Pound.” Encounters with Pound’s own poetry, of course, but also visits to Pound in one of America’s most famous mental hospitals. “The poets come and go,” writes Swift, “and they play their variations upon the game of same or different, nearing or retreating.” Swift describes their visits, what they made of the encounters, in their diaries, letters and poetry, and the impact these encounters made on their writing.

But what is just as interesting is the way Swift slices the cake. He writes in the Prologue on Elizabeth Bishop (“Liz Bish”) and then writes chapters on Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Lowell and Berryman. He goes for the big names, and by and large cuts out less well known figures like “the poet S.W.Merwin”, “the young translator Michael Reck”, “the literature professor Samuel Hynes”, “the pacifist and poet Ronald Duncan” and many more. Is this because their encounters with Pound were less interesting? We are never told. Of course Swift could have written a straightforward chronological account of the years from 1945 to 1958, like Andrzej Franaszek’s excellent new biography of Czeslaw Milosz. He doesn’t. He could have written a thematic account, with a chapter on St. Elizabeth’s and psychiatry, another on Pound’s politics, a third on Pound’s poetry and so on. He doesn’t do this either. He has chosen the poets he wants to write about with great care and chooses a theme for each one. Best of all, through the whole book there is a sense of encounter, how mainly younger poets come to see the great old man, almost as a rite of passage. “At the heart of the story of Pound’s visitors,” Swift writes, “is a knot of reverence and self-invention, of worship met with use, and a whole generation of American poets underwent this ritual.” Eliot and Williams were, of course, Pound’s contemporaries. All three were born in the 1880s. But the others were a generation younger. Bishop, Olson, Berryman and Lowell were all born between 1910 and 1917, 25-30 years younger than Pound. They weren’t even born when he published his first book of poetry. They were visiting the grand old man of Modernism, thirty years after he had started The Cantos.

This then became “the world’s least orthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum.” William Carlos Williams turned his visit into a whole chapter of his autobiography. Some turned their accounts of their visits to Pound into poetry: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s”, Lowell’s “Ezra Pound” and part of Book III of Williams’s Paterson. Swift offers some excellent readings of these. But he’s best at interpreting the visits themselves—what they meant for these young poets, some of them deeply troubled themselves. Berryman and Bishop were heavy drinkers. Lowell and Bishop had their own mental health problems. Though Swift doesn’t explore this, one wonders what Eliot made of visiting an old friend in an asylum, after the terrible fate of his first wife.

What’s most compelling about Swift’s account, though, is that he is more interested in what these encounters say about these visitors as poets. Why did it take Elizabeth Bishop six years to write “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s”? The patient is never named, “nor is the visitor mentioned.” “The poem,” writes Swift, “depends upon a series of unexpected doubles and alternatives, each switching back upon itself, buried in the language of this type of encounter. Buried beneath the poem’s childlike chorus is the doubt: that Pound belongs here for he is mad or does not belong here for he is only faking, and all of us are mad.”

Others were more significantly affected by their visits to Pound. Charles Olson, writes Swift, “drew upon the details of these exchanges for the rest of his writing life.” He started writing the Maximus Poems in 1949, soon after his first visits to Pound. Swift calls them “a record of a specific place and an experiment in how we may capture a place - its limitations and its richness – in poetry.” “The crucial term for Olson is place.” For Swift, Olson learned “a simple lesson” from Pound: “where we are might come to define us.” Often, as soon as Swift seems to be definite, he pulls back. “It is too simple to say that The Maximus Poems are about Pound. But they are marked by his tricky presence The Maximums Poems play with strategies of naming and containing, of a determined space and its slippage, and in all they are the product of Howard Hall [the ward where Pound first stayed at St. Elizabeth’s].”

William Carlos Williams had a more embattled relationship with Pound. This goes back to the early days of their relationship. “When Williams sent Pound his first collection of poems, in 1909, Pound sent back a reading list.” Swift turns this into two competing visions of America. “Williams and Pound shared this dream of a poetic America and an American poetry,” he writes. Williams’s most famous poem is Paterson, an American epic. Which of the two great poets, in their 60s when Pound was incarcerated and Williams wrote Paterson, was the great poet of America? And how were scores settled in Williams’s accounts of Pound’s madness? Swift’s account makes for uneasy reading, nowhere more than in the sentence he quotes from Williams’s Paterson: “a profligate madness, eccentric beyond bounds, a cartoon of laughable raving.” None of Pound’s other visitors wrote of his madness this way.

Certainly not Eliot. Eliot is perhaps the most intriguing of Pound’s visitors in the book. He visited Pound but never wrote an account of his visits to St. Elizabeth’s. Swift circles around this relationship, and includes a memorable passage at the front of the chapter on Eliot, built around the visit in 1952, on a hot, June afternoon. It is based on the account by a Chinese student who visited the same day and saw the two men, sitting together on a tennis court. “There is Pound,” writes Swift, “in loose khaki shorts with frayed edges, like an old soldier in a deckchair, and another man, tall, in a dark suit. He is sitting on a bench, and his feet are perfectly parallel. He does not quite look what he is, which is the most famous poet in the world.” They are reminiscing about the old days, Pound tells her, “'our London days,’” before World War I. When it’s time to leave, “Eliot takes Pound’s hand in his, and bows his head.”

Clearly Swift has found a great subject and a fresh and indispensable way into it. Of course he leaves out certain things that might have been included, and yet he seems to know just about everything one could possibly know on his subject, from which room Pound stayed in on Chestnut Ward to the background of the grand old man of lobotomies, one Walter J. Freeman. Nor is Swift averse to writing in the first person. At times, he writes like the best of the new journalists, putting himself at the centre of the story. He has been to Pisa, to the National Archives trawling for Pound’s files and to the ruins of St. Elizabeth’s, and he tells you what these places are like and who has helped him with his search. The book is never dry, never merely academic. It buzzes with energy and information, often with a collage-like momentum. Each chapter moves between poetry, madness and politics, and much besides, including utterly telling or bizarre particulars. One of Pound’s mistresses said that his long-time wife, Dorothy, liked having Pound kept at St. Elizabeths, “because she could be certain of where he was sleeping every night.” An Italian doctor, Rossi, told an Ezra Pound International Conference in 2005 that he had treated Pound for depression but had not kept a copy of the medical records. Samples of Mussolini’s brain were sent to St. Elizabeth’s and a reporter in 1955 said that it looked like chicken liver. “[T]he superintendent put the sample back into the safe and it was never seen again.”

The joy of Daniel Swift’s new book is that it teems with life. Great poets and poetry, of course. Debates about politics and madness. But among the big questions and telling details, Swift always remembers what gets lost, what has disappeared and what still matters, sixty years on.