The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound

By Daniel Swift
302 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27

For Gerrit Lansing (1928-2018)

“American poetry in the twentieth century is a cycle of encounters with Ezra Pound.”—Daniel Swift

“Shall we learn from his line and not answer his life?”—Charles Olson


The turrets of Schloss Brunnenburg rose through a swirl of mist that enveloped the valley lying between the 13th century castle and the Italian Alpine town of Merano.   Standing above the valley, you could make out the vineyards and apple orchards that surrounded the castle.  When we arrived in early October of 1960 to visit Ezra Pound, who had been living in the castle owned by his daughter Mary and her husband Boris de Rachewiltz since his release in 1958 from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., the grape harvest was in progress.   Wagons loaded with clusters of dusky-green grapes that would become the region’s prized Pinot Grigio were drawn by pairs of white oxen.  Slowly they advanced toward us through the mist, as we stood overlooking the valley, marveling at the wonder of the castle, the yellow farm houses that surrounded it, and the oxen as they moved at a stately pace.

Leaving Florence at dawn, my friend Peter Denzer and I had arrived in Merano after a five hour drive through Bologna, Verona, Trento and Bolzano.  It was early fall and the leaves were still on the trees, the grapes and olives ripe for harvest.   The countryside was bathed in golden light.  There was a Roman amphitheater in Verona and the great paintings of Mantegna.  Yet we deferred those visits because our destination was Merano.  We had an appointment with Pound the next day and we did not want to be late for it.

Peter, who was writing a novel based on Pound’s years in Italy and hoped to interview the aging poet, had received a letter of introduction from Pound’s publisher James Laughlin.   Laughlin warned Peter that Pound had not been well, so that any visit might be abbreviated.

Nevertheless, the Pound we met when we presented ourselves the following day at the castle after an arduous decent on foot down into the valley and up to the imposing structure that Pound’s daughter and her husband were still in the process of restoring, seemed alert, if intermittently silent.  We were greeted by Noel Stock, an Australian writer and journalist, who was engaged in cataloging Pound‘s vast store of papers, while also writing a biography of the poet that would be published in 1970 by Pantheon.

Stock, who we later realized was also Pound’s gatekeeper, led us to an unostentatiously furnished room where we awaited the poet’s arrival.  It was not a long wait, enough for us to observe the contents of the bookshelves and the art on the walls, transporting the visitor back to the London and Paris of Pound’s early years of expatriation.

Expatriation was the subject of the novel for which Peter had received an advance from St. Martin’s Press, ample enough to enable him to bring his family to Italy while he researched and wrote the book.   They settled on Florence because I was completing graduate work there at the University and the city’s centrality in Italy seemed a perfect base for any travels Peter might need to embark on for his work.

Peter and I had met in 1957 in Brunswick, Maine, while I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin.  He and his painter wife Anne Sayer Wiseman had moved to Maine with their two sons, Piet and Kiko, to escape the urban chaos of New York, part of a growing migration of artists and writers who sought the relaxed pace of country life.   Meeting in the town’s only bookstore, Peter, Anne and I hit it off immediately.  Consequently, I ended up spending more time in their 18th century farmhouse than in the student dining halls and lounges of the college I was beginning to tire of.  As soon as they arrived in Italy, we found a small villa to rent in the Florentine hill town of Settignano and moved in en famille.

Peter, a former foreign correspondent for UPI and the author of three well-received novels, did not want to write about Pound; rather, he hoped to understand how Pound’s years in Italy, specifically in isolation during the war, might help him to recreate the atmosphere of expatriate life.  Our visit to Pound was not only to see the long-time expatriate face to face, but also hopefully to talk with him about his experiences of exile.

That this might be problematic was apparent as soon as we met the frail poet, who we later learned had spent time in an Italian hospital being treated for depression shortly after his arrival back in Italy, in July of 1958.  Pound moved slowly, walking with a cane.  His hair and grizzled beard were white, his voice low, phrases often difficult to understand.  Stock helped from time to time as Peter, presenting Laughlin’s letter, gently asked Pound how it felt to be back in Italy after his incarceration in the US.  “All America is an insane asylum,” Pound had told the first reporters to interview him after his release from St. Elizabeth’s.

Pound gossiped about his publisher, whom Peter also knew; and he turned to me with a nod.  When Peter explained that I was studying Medieval Literature in Florence, his eyes lit up: “Ah, Philologia  Romanza,” he said, using the Italian terminology for the discipline.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I hadn’t read The Spirit of Romance,” I said.

After that I remained silent because I knew that Peter had much to ask Pound.

Intuiting this, Stock motioned to me to follow him out of the room, which I did, but not before touching the mottled skin of Pound’s trembling hand and telling him how much his poetry had meant to me; in effect, reaching back to that boy of 18, who, reading the Cantos for the first time, did not understand much about the poetry, except that he knew, or had intuited, that what he was reading in his cold Maine dormitory room was magical.  (The experience was not unlike my first reading of a Maximus Poem, in Vincent Ferrini’s Four Winds, in 1952).

After Stock retuned to the room where Peter and Pound sat talking quietly, I stood in a corridor of unadorned walls and small windows feeling the silence of the vast stone edifice around me, not a footfall or human voice, until Peter joined me.  Pound was tired, he said, but he had been granted another visit the following day.

I remained in the comfortable Gasthaus, where we were staying while Peter returned to the castle the next morning.   Dinner the night before had been memorable, with delicately prepared veal cutlets, pasta in a rich cream sauce, a nice change from the tomato sauces of Florence, and Pinot Grigio to accompany our meal, a wine I’d never tasted before.  I also experienced the warmth of an Alpine comforter in bed, especially welcome because we discovered that nights in the mountains were cold.   The natives of the Alto Adige region of Alpine Italy spoke both Italian and German.  Peter, who had spent several years in Germany after the war as editor of an English language newspaper, was happy to be speaking German again.

Peter returned to report that his talk with Pound, though briefer than he had hoped for due to the poet’s lingering fatigue, had been fruitful.  He had also met Pound’s daughter, who had warmly welcomed him to the castle, offering tea.  At first there had been a moment of potential conflict, Peter said.  The poet had asked Peter what kind of name “Denzer” was.  Knowing of Pound’s anti-Semitism, Peter, who was Jewish, said, “It’s German from Tanzer,” avoiding further discussion with a question about Pound’s choice of Italy as a place to live during the 1920s, specifically Rapallo.   It was cheaper than Paris, Pound said, and warmer in the winter.

Pound had worn the same loose clothing we met him in the day before, a pair of soft gray trousers and a wrinkled faded blue shirt that fell below his belt.  On his feet were sandals.  Peter, who had read the transcripts of some of Pound’s controversial wartime broadcasts from Rome, had decided not to discuss politics with the poet, though the protagonist of Peter’s novel, an American poet named Zeno, would have similar conflicts and an idealized sympathy for Fascism, which Peter, who had been one of the first reporters to enter Dachau, would explore in his novel, whose working title was “The Alien.”

“There wasn’t enough time,” Peter reported after he returned to the Gasthaus for a walk through the town’s cobblestone streets.  “I managed to get him talking about how those who stayed on in Italy after the declaration of war managed to survive —‘It was brutal,’ he said, ‘food shortages, but we had friends.’” (We did not know that Pound had been paid by the Ministry of Popular Culture of the Fascist regime for his broadcasts, the money helping to support his family in Rapallo, including his aging parents, who had left America to be near their adored son.)

The discussion I had dreamed of having with Pound about his early work on Dante, about the genesis of the Cantos, which I had started reading in 1955 and which had been the impetus for my continued study of Latin and Greek, followed by Italian; indeed, for my decision to live in Florence in order to read Dante on his home ground, did not occur.   But I did see Pound.  I stepped into the magnificent 13th century castle.  I sat in the same room with the great poet.  I heard his voice, though the Pound I met was not the handsome dark-haired poet whose photograph appeared in dramatic profile in the 1948 edition of the Cantos I bought and read like a Bible when I should have been reading poets like Wordsworth, who were assigned to us in class.  Pound also inscribed my copy of Personae, which Peter had carried with him on his second visit to the castle.

It was not what we imagined, either for me or for Peter, as we discussed the visit on our way from Merano to Venice before returning to Florence.

“I don’t regret it,” Peter mused, stroking his full-faced gray beard.  “It was like visiting a monument.  Jim Laughlin warned me it might be disappointing.  He said that Pound wasn’t talking much, that he seemed often in a state of dissociation after his release from St. Elizabeth’s.  What’s important is that I got to meet him.  I got to see the ravages of St. Elisabeth’s.”

It was those ravages we knew nothing about then, that long ordeal of incarceration in an insane asylum, that British scholar and critic Daniel Swift writes about in his gripping new study of Pound in “the Bughouse.”

Much has been written about the twelve and a half years Pound spent at St. Elizabeth’s, from his admission on December 21, 1945 until his discharge on May 7, 1958, following a Washington District Court hearing on April 18, during which the federal indictment against him for treason was dismissed.  From Charles Norman’s 1960 biography, Ezra Pound, the first to appear after Pound’s release, to the most recent third and final volume of A. David Moody’s definitive Ezra Pound: Poet (2007-2015), Pound’s years in “the bughouse,” as he himself called it, have been documented in increasing detail.  But not until Swift’s study have we had a view that encompasses an analysis of the complexities of the indictment against Pound, an account of his daily life in the asylum, including the numerous visits he received from family and friends, and especially from poets, the work he was able to achieve during his incarceration, and, most crucially, the psychiatric treatment (or non-treatment, as Swift discovers) that the poet, who was judged incompetent to stand trial, received.  In addition—and this may be one of the book’s most important facets—a history of the government asylum, its architecture, including floor plans of the wards, opened in 1855 as the first federally established psychiatric facility and effectively shut down in 2003, with its buildings either demolished or rededicated to other governmental uses.

A good deal of what Swift offers was newly made possible by the release of public records concerning the workings of the hospital, its staff during Pound’s years of incarceration, Patient Case Files obtained under the FOA, and accounts of those still living, who either worked at St. Elizabeth’s, visited patients, or were themselves incarcerated.

For the purposes of this review, I will confine my attention to the poets who visited Pound, most prominently Charles Olson, and to Pound’s diagnosis and treatment, neither of which have been documented as well or as extensively as Swift has been able to do.

Olson, living in 1946 in a small apartment on the outskirts of the city with his first wife Constance, was Pound’s first literary visitor, initiating his visits on January 4th of that year.  Olson knew Pound far better than Pound may have known him, though Pound pleased Olson by asking if he had not previously seen his visitor’s name in print.   It was a transitional time for the tall poet, freed from political employment, first at the Office of War Information and then by the Democratic Party, a year away from the publication of his ground-breaking prose study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and seeking a form for an ambitious long poem he hoped to write about the history of Western man, then America, and finally his adoptive home town of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Swift convincingly contends that it was the visits with Pound and Olson’s opportunity both to discuss Pound’s ongoing work on the Cantos with him and to read the corrected galleys for The Pisan Cantos that formed the basis of Olson’s magnum opus, The Maximus Poems, which Swift characterizes as “a remarkable cycle: huge, avid, hungry for change, and most of all marked by vast ambition.”  Taking the galleys home with him with the promise to forward them to James Laughlin, not before copying out relevant passages, Olson writes, “I should like to keep this for my own.”

Beginning with his first visit, Olson saw Pound regularly for two months, bringing with him an occasional bottle of wine, journals and books Pound had requested, and other items the poet needed for his Spartan life, initially in Howard Hall, where Pound continually heard the screams of the insane, and later to the more peaceful quarters of Cedar and Chestnut wards, where he spent the greater part of his stay and was able to enjoy time outside in the hospital’s well maintained gardens and even to play tennis.

Olson’s visits became less frequent when the poet and former New Dealer felt he could no longer countenance what he considered to be Pound’s unregenerate fascist politics and his anti-Semitism, which Olson thought of as “his sickest and most evil moments.”  And yet, Olson continued to describe Pound as a “man of exquisite sensibility…the ear of an era.  He has such charm!”  Olson equally notes that in his own hearing Pound blurted out in court: “I never did believe in Fascism, God damn it!”

In discussing his own ambivalence, Olson early on put his finger on the “Pound problem,” as described by Katherine Seeley in her essential Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeth’s, published in 1975, three years after Pound’s death and five years after Olson’s:

“Two poems, one sympathetic and the other savage, on the subject of Pound’s post-war troubles…clearly reflect Olson’s ambivalence concerning Pound, which never quite left him: on the one hand, an abhorrence of the ‘fascist and traitor,’ and on the other, an enormous admiration for a great poet…”  This is also the ambivalence that many of us who came to admire Pound the poet before we were aware of the extent of his troubling politics have long felt.

Other significant poets who visited Pound included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Donald Hall and Frederick Seidel.   The chapters on their visits, the poems often reflective of them, and the comments publicly made by the poet-visitors form a multi-faceted view of Pound himself at St. Elizabeth’s and, more importantly, what Swift presciently describes as “a knot of reverence and self-invention, of worship met with use.”

“A whole generation of American poets underwent this ritual,” Swift continues. “They became themselves by visiting Pound and then writing about it.  This was their graduation.”  And yet it was Olson’s visits that were the most crucial for both the older and the younger poet.  “Olson saved my life,” Pound told Hugh Kenner, while Olson came away with the inspiration and the methodology for one of the singular poems of our literature.  Among the several gifts of this capacious book are Swift’s description of the roots of Olson’s epic and his meticulous analysis of the elements that went into the composition of the Cantos, which shared with the The Maximus Poems a drive to document and recover history, an acute sense of place, and a profound understanding of the loss of both that connects the two poems.

As for Pound’s purported “mental illness,” in his painstaking examination of records, Swift appears to have punctured many myths, primary among them that the poet was insane at the time of his indictment and incarceration.

Olson begins the account by stating directly in his notes after an early visit to Pound in the hospital: “You and I know Pound is not crazy… You and I know he is as gifted and trained and skillful a poet as any man who has written the English language in these years of our century.”

The first doctor to have examined Pound was an Army psychiatrist in Pisa, where Pound was placed in detention after his capture—“the gorilla cage,” as Pound called it.  “There is no evidence of psychosis, neurosis, or psychopathy,” the psychiatrist reported on June 15, 1945. “He is of superior intelligence, is friendly, affable and cooperative.”  Yet soon after his imprisonment in an open cage under the broiling sun of summer, Pound suffered a nervous breakdown.

Upon his return to America Pound was examined by a team of army medical experts and civilian psychiatrists, under the direction of Dr. Winfred Overholser, Superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s.

“On 21 December 1945,” Swift writes, their joint report was presented to the court.  “He is now suffering from a paranoid state, which renders him medically unfit to advise properly with counsel or to participate intelligently and reasonably in his own defense,” the examiners concluded. “He is, in other words, insane and mentally unfit for trial.”   Pound was taken directly from the courtroom to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Swift adds.  “He was kept there for the following twelve and a half years.”

Julian Cornell, Pound’s lead attorney, retained by James Laughlin, told the New York Times on November 27, 1945, “Mr. Pound is not sufficiently in possession of judgment and perhaps mentality to plead;” thus the defense that Pound was not competent to stand trial.  Yet Dr. Marion King, director of prison medical services, found that “Pound was not a psychotic or insane person,” and Dr. Addison Duval, an additional consulting psychiatrist, wrote at the end of December 1945 that he “could not 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.”

The insanity plea, with which Pound concurred, saved his life, though sentencing him to incarceration and ultimately depriving him of his bodily freedom and his right to manage his own affairs.

Examining the records of Pound’s stay in the hospital, especially Pound’s Patient Case File, which had previously been sequestered, Swift found no record whatsoever of any treatment that Pound underwent for his presumed mental illness—no electroshock treatments, no drug therapy, not even a tranquillizer; and no psychotherapy during the entire length of Pound’s stay.  Early on, Pound had been administered a Rorschach test, which he failed due to “lack of imagination,” according to the tester.

Earlier biographers, in particular E. Fuller Torrey, a former psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s, contend that while Pound’s insanity plea saved him from potential execution as a traitor, his incarceration allowed him to continue living and writing pretty much as he had while free.  Torrey further argued that it was with the complicity of Dr. Overholser, who greatly admired Pound’s poetry, and Pound’s “literary allies in New York” that Pound was able to “fake the symptoms of madness to escape the treason charge and relished his years” at St. Elizabeth’s.

Swift enters no final judgment as to Pound’s sanity.  What he offers instead is a conclusion that adds to the importance and originality of his study.  “Pound in the insane asylum,” he writes, “is the central question about art, politics and poetry of the twentieth century.  These are questions about what madness is, and what makes genius; about the connection between experimental art and extreme, often illiberal political sentiments; about the consequences of the Second World War, and specifically about America’s post-war ascendance; and about the modern world’s relation with its immediate past. Pound at St. Elizabeth’s is the riddle at the heart of the twentieth century.”

This is a major book about one of our greatest poets.  It is an equally rich and suggestive inquiry into the role of poetry in our personal, social and political lives, more threatened now than possibly ever before in the nation’s history.


Leaving Merano, Peter and I set out on the three hour drive to Venice, stopping in Padova  to see the frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel.  One had a sense from these stunning 1305 depictions of the Creation, the Nativity, the Passion of Christ, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and the Last Judgment of being immersed in the visualization of an epic like Pound’s Cantos, in one of the very regions of Italy that had inspired the great poem.

We parked Peter’s Morris Minor at the railroad station in Venice and took the vaporetto to the Zattere, a water-side promenade near which was a monastery where I had stayed during the previous summer.   The rooms were comfortable and reasonably priced.  For dinner we were given an excellent three-course meal with a half-liter of local red wine each for only 500 lire.

During the night we heard rain on the roof tiles of the monastery.  When we woke up to a breakfast of excellent coffee and freshly baked brioche, one of the monks announced that the canal-side calli, or alleys, were beginning to flood and we ought to catch the boat as soon as we could.  Rolling our pants up and carrying our shoes and backpacks, we waded from the monastery to the Zattere, where the vaporetti were beginning to fill up with passengers headed for the mainland.

It was fitting that we ended our journey to Pound in Venice.  Pound had spent his final years there with the violinist Olga Rudge, his long-time companion and the mother of his daughter Mary, dying in Venice’s Civil Hospital on November 1, 1972.  His body was taken by gondola for burial to the island cemetery of Isola di San Michele, his life ending in the city where he had first found his poetic vocation:


Will I ever see the Giudecca again?

      or the lights against it, Ca Foscari, Ca Giustinian

or the Ca, as they say, of Desdemona

or the two towers where are the cypress no more

            or the boats moored off Le Zattere

or the North quai of the Sensaria. . .

                                                (Canto LXXXIII)