An Israeli friend of mine enjoys telling the story about how he first read Ezra Pound in an undergraduate course in Hebrew poetry. Most of the students apparently had little experience with poetry and were having some difficulty understanding even its most basic concepts. In desperation, the professor asked the students to read Pound's ABC of Reading
. The book was assigned with the utmost reluctance; the professor told his students that Pound was "a bloody vicious anti-Semite... but he was a genius."
This is, of course, always the difficulty with reading Ezra Pound. Like many of his fellow modernists, he had fascist and anti-Semitic leanings. Most of them, however, abandoned fascism after a brief flirtation, and almost no one of note made anti-Semitic propaganda an essential part of their art or polemics.
The most famous consequence of Pound's fascist leanings was his indictment for treason and subsequent imprisonment. He had lived in Rapallo, just north of Pisa on the west coast of Italy since 1923, and had been an active supporter of Italy's fascist government since the early 1930s. From 1941 to 1945, he composed a series of broadcasts to be read over Italian radio to the allied countries. Those written and broadcast between 1941 and 1943 have since been published. There is no evidence that the later scripts, which were written in the Nazi puppet state formed in northern Italy after the fall of Mussolini's first government, were ever broadcast.
The radio scripts are obscure and at times profoundly offensive. Pound always insisted that he never said or wrote anything that was contrary "to his conscience, or anything incompatible with his duties as a citizen of the United States of America." He lauded Confucius as the only tenable basis for a system of government; he discussed the dangers that he thought were threatening the sanctity of the American Constitution; he explained and promoted Social Credit and Gesellite theories of economics; he lectured on the art and writings of friends such as e.e. cummings and Wyndham Lewis; he abused FDR and Churchill; he praised Mussolini, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln; he called for the withdrawal of the U.S. from the war; and-in what, over time, has become the most horrible aspect of the talks-he persistently railed against Jews, the supposed International Jewish Conspiracy, and the like. The anti-Semitic rhetoric is intense and runs along the familiar lines-namely, the Jews were at the root of all usury. There is no need to repeat his arguments here; anyone who is interested can consult the texts of the broadcasts, which were collected and published in 1978. The scripts are, at least, free of notions of racial purity or eugenics: Pound was a fascist but not a Nazi, and he appears to have been genuinely unaware of the Holocaust until after the war.
Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946 documents the period of Pound's imprisonment in Italy, his trial in the United States, and the beginning of his incarceration in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. It covers the entire period of the couple's separation, from Ezra's arrest to Dorothy's eventual arrival in Washington. The editors have included the complete correspondence of Ezra and Dorothy, along with various documents related to the treason proceedings, such as Ezra's sworn deposition, military and FBI memoranda that touch on the case, and the couple's correspondence with their British and American legal representation. Missing, however, are Ezra's correspondences with his daughter, Mary, and Olga Rudge, his mistress, as well as the letters he exchanged with his publisher and friends. The result is a book that, while being an invaluable document of one of the most interesting controversies in twentieth-century poetry, is far from being a definitive record of this period in Pound's career. It deserves to be read alongside a decent biography of Pound (Humphrey Carpenter's A Serious Character, for example) and the transcripts of his radio broadcasts, which provide the only complete picture of the ideas that won the poet lasting notoriety.
The portrait of Ezra Pound that emerges in Letters in Captivity is far gentler from the one usually invoked by his letters. Many volumes of Pound's correspondence already exist, and his letters are usually pedantic, irascible, and frequently written in a wildly spelled and abbreviated comic American dialect ("Now az swell az kicking them goddam punks/ wot about noting the few ideas that Ez has occasionally set down", from a letter to Wyndham Lewis, being a typical example). Pound's letters to his wife are blessedly free of this mask. Although still written in his typically clipped, polyglot voice, they are the letters of a husband who is in a great deal of trouble, and not of a literary provocateur. Dorothy's correspondence becomes prominent in the second half of the book as Ezra falls into a depression after being declared insane and committed to St. Elizabeth's.
There is much in the book that is relevant to Pound's case, but very little about his poetry. Some ideograms are discussed. (Pound routinely utilized Chinese characters in his masterpiece, the Cantos; however, as his understanding of Chinese was different from the way in which the language actually functions, it is necessary to consult his own notes to ascertain how he makes use of the ideograms.) For the most part, however, these are in reference to his generally ignored translations of Confucius and not to the Cantos. The "Pisan Cantos", which are considered to be the finest section of Pound's long poem, were composed during the period documented in this book, but most of the letters deal with their copying and publication, rather than with their content. There is the odd exception, such as Pound's "Note to Base Censor", which briefly explains the method of the Cantos, feared by the staff at the U.S. Army Detentional Training Center (DTC) at Pisa to be a sort of code.
Omar Pound and Robert Spoo have done a fantastic job of editing and annotating the letters. As letters and annotations are printed on facing pages, there is lots of room for including additional material or explaining obscure references. Biographies of all the chief figures are included where necessary, as are brief summaries of Pound's theories. A fine selection of illustrations accompanies the text, with facsimiles of various documents, photographs of the important personalities and the grounds of the DTC, and even reproductions of the newspaper clippings the Pounds exchanged ("Life's Just a Passing Purrade to Terminal Cats", for example). The result is an attractive and readable volume that will be interesting to anyone who is even remotely curious about Ezra Pound.
To seriously read Pound today, one must be prepared to confront the more despicable aspects of his personal history. Letters in Captivity does not force its reader to do this: his anti-Semitism is largely absent from his correspondence of this period, even though it appears to have been rampant in his conversations. The book does, however, provide a rare opportunity to watch Pound being candid, personal, and vulnerable. It is refreshing to see him without one of his usual personae; here, he is simply a man in a very bad situation, depressed, but not insane. If anything, his pre-war correspondence is far more likely to be misconstrued as the ranting of a lunatic.
Letters in Captivity may not appeal to a general audience; nevertheless, it is a well-constructed collection that both contextualizes the "Pisan Cantos" and gives the figure of Ezra Pound something that he so often seems to lack: a humane personality.
Jack Illingworth is a Thunder Bay poet currently studying at Concordia University in Montreal.