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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Bughouse

The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

Daniel Swift

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




On the night before he first sees Pound he takes his words and cuts them up. They fall like ash, a storm.

It is Monday 26 November 1945 and an exceptionally tall and ruffled man somewhere between youth and middle age is at home in his small apartment in the outskirts of Washington, DC. He is so tall that he breaks beds and has to have his shirts made specially; so tall that he was exempt from military service during the war. His name is Charles Olson. Later, he will be celebrated as the father of postmodern American poetry, but this evening he is not quite yet a poet. Before him is the new issue of PM magazine, which includes an outspoken, perhaps foolish, interview with Ezra Pound. ‘If a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his opinion, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good,’ Pound declares in the interview and Olson notes this down. He copies out two phrases from his volume of Pound’s Cantos, too, and he takes lines from the strange and rambling essay called Jefferson and/or Mussolini, which Pound wrote in early 1933 and which now, after the war, looks like his most incendiary book. ‘Stand with the lovers of ORDER,’ Pound instructs, and Olson notes it down, and then: ‘a one-party system is bound to appear’. These are troubling phrases. It is a careful jumble, and at the top of the page, as if this were a legal proceeding, Olson adds a title: ‘Your Witness’. The next day he goes into the centre of the city and in the pillared courthouse just after lunch he hears Pound described as a traitor, then as insane, and last of all as one of the greatest literary geniuses of the time. Olson watches as Pound stands silent, and he catches the look in Pound’s eyes: dark, full of pain and tired. He thinks for a moment about reaching out to touch him.

* * *

At the end of 1945 St Elizabeths Hospital housed 7,031 patients. There were 4,109 men and 2,922 women; 4,835 were white and 2,196 were, in the language of the time, colored. In December 102 arrived, almost all of them servicemen who had come back from the war but stayed touched by it, and these numbers tell us two things. They suggest the overcrowding that had cursed the hospital since its first construction, and they reveal the huge scale of life here, how this is a place where one man might get lost. On 21 December the patients in occupational therapy finished wrapping 1,425 Christmas gifts in bright tissue paper. These were for the women but almost everybody got something for that afternoon the more mobile patients distributed through the wards 3,096 green and red rough muslin bags, each filled with an apple, salted nuts in cellophane and a pack of chewing gum. That evening, as the wards of Center Building were echoing with the laughter of humble gifts being handed out, Ezra Pound arrived at St Elizabeths.

Pound did not receive a gift because he was not on the wards. He was brought direct from the District Courthouse to Howard Hall, a separate and enclosed building to the west of the hospital grounds. This was the maximum security section, for the most dangerous patients, and it was designed to keep the criminally insane and the violent apart from the war-shocked soldiers who filled the rest of the hospital. It was three storeys, square and brick, with a tower at two corners; a low garden around it, and then a high wall. ‘Howard Hall is totally inadequate,’ notes the hospital’s 1945 annual report: ‘it lacks hydrotherapeutic, recreational, occupational and various other facilities.’ Pound stopped his ears with paper and spent the night trying to escape the cries of the other patients.

In the morning he reported to his admission interview. ‘This patient this morning strolled into the examining room, seated himself wearily in the chair offered him, sighed deeply, held his head, and immediately began to complain about his Howard Hall surroundings,’ begins the lightly sardonic account kept by the doctor who conducted the interview. Dr Edgar Griffin was clinical director of Howard Hall and saw many patients in many states of various distress, but this patient insisted he was different. His shirt was untucked and his buttons were undone, and he talked about Confucius and the founding of the Bank of England. At one point he took out a small notebook and from it made a short speech about Italian politics and how he was not a traitor but a saviour. ‘Delusions of persecution and grandeur,’ noted the doctor and wrote it all down.

To the doctor that morning Pound told a colourful story. He recounted how he had moved to Italy because he and his wife Dorothy could afford to live there on their small income, and how when the war began he knew his ideas could help, so he sought out the microphone and started to broadcast. He told the doctor that he had been misunderstood, and how they had held him in a cage at Pisa. He slept on the floor there, he said, and then he suffered from ‘great confusion and loss of memory’. At the start they treated him like a criminal, but later they were kind. When they brought him to America he was first held at the city jail, and then the old symptoms started to return, but he recovered once he was transferred to a public hospital in early December. Now he feared he would fall ill again, because of the noise and bright lights. ‘What is wrong with you?’ the doctor asked, and Pound replied: ‘All of Europe upon my shoulders.’ He was, he repeated, just so tired, and soon he became angry. ‘I want quiet,’ he said, raising his voice, and ‘If this is a hospital, you have got to cure me.’ Cure you of what? asked Dr Griffin, and Pound replied, ‘Whatever the hell is the matter with me – you must decide whether I am to be cured or punished.’

Howard Hall was a place of both punishment and cure. The original plan of St Elizabeths, dating from the 1850s, had no separate, enclosed ward for the criminally insane. Howard Hall was added in 1891: 120 single rooms set in two L-shaped buildings, interlocking to frame a quadrangle. That year, the superintendent described this as ‘a perfectly secure ground where the inmates can be at will in the open air and sunshine. Here they can grow plants, keep their pet birds and animals, and make it their home.’ On the original plans the structure looks fine and elegant. There are walkways marked ‘veranda’, which suggests lemonade and civil afternoons in the Old South. It did not turn out this way. The verandas were iron-barred external walkways, while the courtyard was shadowed by the high buildings ringing it. All was tall and narrow. The doors were seven feet high and two feet ten inches wide, each a single plate of metal with three hinges, two locks and an anchor bolt at the top and bottom. On each window was a diamond-pattern iron lattice, as if the whole building were made from lopsided squares, each one locking into the next.

It was imagined as one thing, but soon became another. Howard Hall was built to house those patients whose insanity had turned to crime, but a second subset of the hospital population were soon moved here too: the violent patients. These required greater restriction. The original building had no perimeter wall but in 1915 one was added: twenty-two feet of reinforced concrete, sitting fifty feet from the building. Paradoxically, this permitted greater freedom to the patients, for now they could go out into what they called ‘the Moat’, the contained area running around the hall. There were cement benches and drinking fountains, concrete walkways and gardens. A photograph taken during the First World War shows the patients surrounded by growing crops, beneath the high wall. Cucumbers, cabbages and corn were grown here, as well as sorghum, whose stems were then turned into brooms in a workshop in the basement. In June 1946 the garden at Howard Hall produced 400 bunches of radishes and 12 bushels of green beans, and these were served to the patients at Thanksgiving in what the annual report called ‘a tasteful and bountiful repast’.

The annual reports from Howard Hall record this curious double history: there are crops and there are spasms of violence; there is cruelty and care. In the first months of 1946 the doctors arrange weekly screenings of movies for the inmates, and in March the building is sprayed with DDT and a patient stabs an attendant between the eyes with a spike of wood torn from the floor. ‘There are a great many patients in Howard Hall with extremely assaultive tendencies,’ notes the annual report, which goes on to recommend replacing the old wooden floors with concrete or tile. In May the floors were tiled, and this was Pound’s time here. He was held at Howard Hall for thirteen months, from the end of 1945 until the start of 1947.

* * *

Ezra Pound arrived at St Elizabeths with the following possessions: twenty-one stamps, a broken watch, a fifty-dollar cheque from PM magazine, a bone-handled cane, seven books and a hairbrush. The hospital inventory is dated 26 December 1945 and also mentions a ‘briefcase with papers of unknown value’, which were his manuscripts of translations from Confucius and new cantos. Inside the briefcase were his sunglasses, chequebook and a comb. $18.70 of his money was taken to the hospital’s finance office, and he was issued with a receipt.

In addition, the following items were carried in an old mailbag:

1 bottle of instant coffee

1 box of cookies

8 pairs of underwear

4 towels

11 undershirts

2 facecloths

2 shirts

1 blue cardigan

2 pairs of slippers

2 pairs of pyjamas, one checked and the other blue

6 pairs of socks

1 pair of shoes

1 canvas knapsack

Unlisted toiletries.

The books – including a poetry anthology, two copies of the New Testament and an army-issue volume of Jewish Holy Scriptures – were locked in the hospital vault for the next eight months.

Although Pound was formally admitted to the hospital on Saturday 22 December, his possessions were not inventoried until the 26th, for he had arrived in the middle of the holiday season and the hospital was running with limited staff on duty. So they waited until the next full working day after Christmas, and this slight delay meant also a curious stutter in his check-in. On the 26th Pound sat for his arrival photograph. He had spent the last four days in the hospital in an untucked loose shirt but now he dressed up in the wide, double-breasted suit he had worn on his journey to America, a blue-checked white shirt with a soft collar and a dark wool tie. He brushed his hair. Four days after his arrival at the hospital, Ezra Pound put on a costume and began again.

There are two halves to his arrival mugshot. When they turned him to take his photograph in profile he closed his eyes and held his head straight, but when the camera was directly before him he opened his eyes and tilted his head, just a fraction to the right. The suit sits a little large on his shoulders. His hair is starting to stand up, again. In the eyes, something is missing. He looks as though he has been left behind.

* * *

Charles Olson is the first to visit Pound at St Elizabeths. He had been waiting for this. During the war he had worked at the Foreign Languages Division of the Office of War Information, and when that got dull he took up a post at the Democratic National Committee, encouraging Spanish-speaking Americans to vote for Roosevelt. His political opinions are pious and all-American. When he speaks, he sometimes uses teenage slang. He is bored by his years of work for the government and now he wants to be a poet, but he does not know, quite yet, what this might mean. He is thirty-five years old and has published two articles and four slight poems. It is Friday 4 January 1946 and on his way in to Howard Hall he notices the door: heavy black iron, with nine peepholes drilled into it, three by three.

In the visiting room on the first floor Pound is kind, uncertain, open. He talks about his children, the war and how he came to be at the hospital. He tells Olson about the day the soldiers came with guns and about the cage at Pisa. He is confused, too; he does not know the name of the current president. ‘Who is this Truman?’ he asks, and when he stumbles over his words Olson does not correct him. Instead, he takes notes: he notes how Pound worries at the frayed cuffs of his shirt, and how his jacket has no buttons. ‘I wish only to offer him some personal comforts, do some chores for him,’ writes Olson in his notebook, and he records how Pound had asked, ‘Is it possible I have seen your name somewhere in print?’ This pleases Olson and as he stands to leave he promises he will come again, and he suggests that next time he might bring his wife. Pound likes the idea and Olson writes it all down.

Modernist poems often pose an apparently simple question: how, and where, do we begin? Pound’s Cantos open in a tangle of origins. Pound published three cantos in Poetry magazine during the summer of 1917, so this might be one starting point, but he soon abandoned the first of these and heavily rewrote the second and third; he published the first volume of cantos in 1927, under the almost apologetic title A Draft of XVI Cantos. Now, this first canto begins:

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on that godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

Heavy with weeping

The opening denies us any once-upon-a-time certainties of context or character. Instead, the poem begins mid-scene, upon a journey already underway, just as it apparently 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.

The scene continues. These are sailors, on a ship, and they sail on to the ‘bounds of deepest water’ and dark cities covered by mist, and beyond these to a place where the seas flow backwards. Here they perform a sacrificial rite and as the blood runs, the dead come to them with curses and pleas. Among the dead is Elpenor – ‘our friend Elpenor’ – and once we hear this name we know a little more of who they are: the crew of Odysseus, on their interrupted journey home from the Trojan War to Ithaca. Behind this new poem is an older one, perhaps the oldest of them all: Homer’s Odyssey.

Now Elpenor recounts how he came to be here. He died a shameful death, drunk on Circe’s island, and the sailors left him there, but he asks them to make a monument for him and to inscribe upon it: ‘A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.’ This is how the Cantos begin: with this doubling, recalled scene, with a journey and an encounter with someone strange yet familiar, a man changed by time and fate, but one whom we once knew. As an opening, it is about the demands of a past which comes to overwhelm our present, which asks almost too much of us now, and which feels like a threat.

Yet it is also – oddly, starkly – about the opposite of this, as the present telling comes to undermine any story of the past. For having conjured this rich scene, thick with poetry, Pound breaks the spell. From nowhere, the poem turns to Latin:

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,

In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

He gives the publisher and translator’s names of a sixteenth-century Latin translation of the original Greek of the Odyssey, and in doing so Pound reminds us that he has only been retelling an old story. It’s just a book, held on pages, shifted through languages, from Greek to Latin and here into English. This is nothing but a bundle of documents, each as frail as paper, and the poem is a magician’s trick, cruelly pulled off: where you thought you were beginning something new, you are only reading a dead language.

On 10 January, the week after Olson’s first visit, Pound sat for a Rorschach test at Howard Hall. The methodology is simple: he was shown ten inkblots and told the doctor what each recalled to him. ‘A brilliant but pedantic individual,’ concluded Dr Kendig in his report, in possession of ‘abstract and theoretical intelligence of a high order and unusual creative gifts’, and so far, this sounds as though he is saying nothing more than that Pound is a poet. He goes on:

His whole responses, however, are cheap and popular and he gives no original interpretations at all, suggesting in part indifference and contempt for the test procedure (very apparent throughout) but probably also certain retrogressive changes accompanying his advancing years.

Perhaps once, when he was a young man, Pound’s responses would have been richer and stranger, but now, the doctor finds, ‘he gives no original interpretations at all’. This is a cruel judgement to pass upon a modernist whose most famous poem offers a ruthless assault upon the idea of originality, but this is the drama of Pound at St Elizabeths. You put the old man in a new context and now he looks different. He is lit up by their systems, and everything he says and does is noted down.

The report continues with its description of the patient’s habits: ‘withdrawal from reality into a more satisfying world of fantasy is a fundamental personality trait’. The opening scene of Canto 1 is a retreat from this daily world into another, as Odysseus and his crew go down into the classical underworld. This moment is drawn from the opening of Book XI of the Odyssey, and scholars refer to this as the nekuia, which means necromancy or the art of summoning ghosts so as to speak with them. At the start, then, the poem invites us down to a place we can never reach, and it gives us a clue as to how we might get there: with a specific translation of the Odyssey, published in 1538. This is rare, but not impossible to find, so one day in the British Library I call this book up from the vault. It is a handsome little volume, bound in soft brown leather, and although it is close to 500 years old it is still good to the touch.

Not knowing what else to do, I turn to the nekuia. Here, the beginning of Book XI is still a descent to the underworld, for this is simply a Latin translation of the original Greek, but in this specific edition a series of additional notes propose that we must understand this equally as a journey to hell. In hell – ‘in inferno’ – the souls meet Ulysses, runs the note at the top of the page, and on the following page, a side note: ‘Inferorum locus.’ Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus. The two landscapes – the pagan, classical world of Homer, and the Christian cosmology of heaven and hell – are not the same; and the Odyssey long pre-dates Christianity. This is why we need this specific volume of 1538, for only this edition lays one place over another. The underworld is hell; one place might be both. At Howard Hall Pound devised a new name for his surroundings. In letters to his lawyer and friends, he began to call it ‘hell-hole’. He is hearing the rhyme between place and place, between sound and sound. The canto leads us down to hell, and on to Howard Hall.

We begin with a journey to hell. In March 1946, while appealing for Pound’s discharge from the hospital, his lawyer Julien Cornell initiated the process of transfer of the power of attorney. It was not granted to Cornell, but to Dorothy in September 1946, and this gave her the authority to make decisions about Pound’s treatment and his movements. She took control of his financial affairs, publishing contracts and income, and in this legal arrangement Pound relinquished his right to personhood. He seems to have interpreted this development in a particular way. Pound’s first letters from St Elizabeths are signed with his name – EP or Ez, the swirl of his signature – but sometime in the middle of 1946 or towards the end of that year he stopped signing his name to his letters. He became anonymous. As Elpenor describes himself in Canto 1: ‘a man of no fortune, and with a name to come’.

This all might be coincidence, this mix of naming and losing names, these fears of hell and flimsy places, each fading into each. Or it might be something closer to literary prophecy. We might see Pound’s early weeks at St Elizabeths as a history oddly fulfilled, one written out in poems long before and waiting for its characters to assemble and perform their scheduled roles.

A man loses his name and another man makes his. The day after his first visit to St Elizabeths, Charles Olson wrote to Dr Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of the hospital, to ask if he might see Pound again. The letter reads as though he were applying for a job. Olson drops a name – ‘at the suggestion of Mr Pound’s publisher, James Laughlin, of NEW DIRECTIONS’ – and states his wish – ‘to visit Ezra Pound occasionally while he is in your care’ – and adds with best humility: ‘My motive is the simplest: I wish to proffer a helping hand to him, and a sympathetic ear.’ But he cannot help himself; perhaps he recalls Pound’s flattery of the previous day, that politeness about having heard his name before. ‘I think that both you and Mr Pound will want assurance,’ he adds, ‘because I am a writer, that there is no hidden motivation of publication.’ There is none, he immediately insists, but the little boast stands: I am a writer.

* * *

On 7 February Olson arrived at the hospital at three, and this time he brought with him his wife Connie and a bottle of wine. This was his fifth visit, for Olson had travelled out to the hospital once or twice each week during January, but today Pound was low: his eyes like mud and full of agitation. The jury hearing to settle the question of Pound’s sanity and future incarceration had been scheduled for 30 January, and on that morning Pound had got back into his suit. He sat and waited, until late in the day an attendant came to tell him that the hearing had been postponed, and then for the following week Pound had waited for any news. By 7 February he was desperate, uncertain. Perhaps to raise his spirits, or as a compliment, Olson this afternoon opened himself up to Pound. He records, in his notes: ‘Mentioned I had stolen a poem from him.’

In Canto 53 Pound includes the Chinese figures for axe and tree, combined to mean something like renovate or, in Pound’s version, ‘make it new’. Between them is the sun: each day make it new, the ideograms command, and this was a phrase much loved by Pound. It came from an anecdote he had found in Confucius, about a Chinese nobleman who had these three figures engraved upon his bathtub, and Pound used it several times: as a title for a collection of essays; as an expression of what he found most attractive in Fascism. It is now famous as the great modernist slogan, but ‘make it new’ was never new. It was always quotation and repetition, and, as if to complete the cycle, Olson took the three characters and from them wrote a version of his own, which he called ‘A Translation’. Olson’s poem simply lifts Pound’s own phrases and – as he had done once before – rearranges them on the page. As Olson was explaining all this, Pound raised his right hand like a salute. This meant, Olson thought, ‘take it away’.

Each previous visit, the two men had spoken – or rather, Olson listened and Pound spoke – about American history and economics, about the questions the doctors put to him each day, about how the diamond market is rigged, and what Pound called the cultural lag in America, but this was their first discussion of poetry. Once they began speaking about the Cantos, Pound mentioned that two he had written could not be published in America, and started to explain. They tell, he said, the story of an Italian girl who has been raped by Allied troops and takes revenge by leading a company of Canadian soldiers on to a minefield. She was, Pound said, ‘one of the resistance’. Olson paused for a moment while he deciphered what Pound meant by this, and in his notebook, later that evening, registered his shock. He moves into capital letters. He writes, ‘we were listening not only to a fascist, but the ENEMY!’ He repeats, ‘Pound was talking like no American but an out and out enemy,’ and notes again in caps, ‘TREASON’. The visit lasted fifteen minutes and Olson and his wife took the bottle of wine home with them, unopened.

Olson drew upon the details of these exchanges for the rest of his writing life. It is tempting to read all this as psychodrama: to see in Olson’s gift and his borrowing, in his confession followed hard upon by condemnation, a cycle of trying to please and then falling to hate. We might think, that is, in Freudian terms about fathers and sons and the violence which can pass between them. Olson’s notebooks certainly invite this reading. His own father had died suddenly in the summer of 1935, not long after the two had quarrelled, and in late 1939 Olson read Freud’s study Moses and Monotheism. In his notebook Olson copied out Freud’s definition of a hero: ‘a man who stands up manfully against his father and in the end victoriously overcomes him’. In early 1945 Olson had been down in Key West, staying with Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife Pauline, and while there he sat at Hemingway’s old desk and read Hemingway’s copy of an early volume of Pound’s poems. ‘Maybe Pound discloses you a method,’ he wrote in his notebook, and then: ‘Let yourself be derivative for a bit. This is a good and natural act. Write as the father to be the father.’ Back in Washington, in the early winter of 1945, Olson heard that Pound was to be tried. To get into the trial he needed a press pass, so he convinced the editor of a local magazine to give him a day’s work as a reporter. On the day he first saw Pound, Olson was playing a role.

This is, again, the modernist point: that our origins trail a little trouble behind them. In each of his encounters with Pound, both before and after he met him in person, Olson is carefully establishing his authority as a poet. His first glimpse of Pound was in court, and his visits in the early weeks of January were in the shadow of the imminent jury hearing, scheduled, then postponed. Although he has no part in the legal process, the language of trial and judgement soon seeps into Olson’s own accounts of his visits. Among his notes is a fragment from the period between Pound’s rendition to the United States and his first hearing. Olson observes that the Department of Justice may try ‘the citizen Ezra Pound’, but neither ‘I nor any other writer can allow Ezra Pound the writer to go untried’. Both parts of Pound must stand judgement: the citizen charged with treason and the poet charged with bad faith. ‘Because he is a writer, this case of Ezra Pound deserves to be examined by the men who share his responsibility,’ Olson explains, and the poets share in Pound’s crime because they have all taken from him. ‘He is as gifted and skilful a poet as any man who has written the English language in these years of our century,’ Olson notes, and asks: ‘Shall we learn from his line and not answer his life?’ To read only his poetry and ignore his crimes would be the grand betrayal, for it would be to admit that poets are fools and bohemians, not men of the world. He adds: ‘a poet must be tried to prove that poets are responsible citizens.’

Olson’s meetings with Pound therefore became a kind of theatre, as Olson dressed as a friend but played the role of prosecuting poet. This is what he is doing with his careful notes: he is a poet trying a poet, fixing him in words. As Pound’s trial was deferred then postponed during January, Olson’s focus sharpened. If the Department of Justice would not try Pound, then Olson would do it himself. On 15 January he compared Pound to the Nazi prisoners tried for war crimes at Nuremberg, and wondered how he might preserve Pound’s poetry from the destruction of the man. Even as he feels himself drawing close, he writes, ‘I must confront him again soon.’

Each time Olson went to visit Pound at Howard Hall he arrived and waited downstairs in the entryway. An attendant then led him upstairs, passing through the black iron door with nine peepholes and into the first-floor waiting room, with its high ceiling and windows barred by a lozenge-shaped iron lattice. Here, in this straitened setting, Pound was brought to him, and here Olson began thinking about the relation between poetry and place. Among his notes on Pound assembled after these meetings there is a mention of something Olson refers to as ‘my SPACE idea’. He had tried to explain this to Pound, he records, but Pound was not interested. With this idea, and its rejection by Pound, Olson is starting to dream up the poems which later made his name: the sprawling Maximus Poems, which he began writing in the summer of 1949, and which he wrote for the rest of his short life. The Maximus Poems are the epic of a fishing town called Gloucester, Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States, written as a series of letters and fragments, and they are crucially a record of a specific place and an experiment in how we may capture a place – its limitations and its richness – in poetry. ‘Limits,’ Olson wrote, ‘are what any of us / are inside of’ and ‘it is elements men stand in the midst of’. In the early weeks of 1946, at Howard Hall, Olson was thinking about place, and how where we put things matters. The Maximus Poems, that is, were begun at Howard Hall in the meetings with Ezra Pound in January and February of 1946.

From Pound at Howard Hall Olson learned a simple lesson: where we are might come to define us. It is one thing for a visitor to acknowledge this, and another for a patient trapped inside. In early January 1946 a young doctor called Jerome Kavka noted that Pound ‘continually makes extraordinary requests, even so far as to roam beyond the “wall” surrounding Howard Hall’. Pound was at this time confined to Howard Hall and to its inner courtyard, but he was dreaming of the world outside. ‘The patient,’ Kavka adds, ‘does not appreciate his status as a patient.’ By February Pound had learned to limit his ambition. He told Olson, ‘I want to get out into the yard,’ meaning the area beneath the wall, known as the Moat. He is not asking to leave Howard Hall, but only to walk in the area inside its high external wall, which was a privilege granted to those patients who worked on the crops growing there. On 4 March Pound was permitted to do so, and this looks like a mercy, but it is only half so. Both confinement and then its slight relaxation are elements of the essential control over his person, and both say: your movements here are not your own.

It is a teaching that must occasionally be rehearsed. Not long before midnight on 22 April 1946 two military prisoners escaped from Howard Hall. One was captured in the Moat, while the other scaled the wall and vanished. Four days later another prisoner, who had escaped months before, was returned to Howard Hall. He had killed a man in Maryland before they brought him back, and these wilder prisoners share with Pound a single dream of elsewhere. ‘I want to get out,’ Pound implored Olson. But Olson wished to keep Pound in place.

A poem can be a space of its own. Six years after that afternoon in early February 1946 Olson wrote a composite scene of visiting Pound. He does not give a date, and the scene is so strange that it cannot describe any single visit, but it was only this day, 7 February, that he took his wife with him and she appears in his retelling. In ‘Letter 6’ of The Maximus Poems Olson is remembering the men of Gloucester he sailed with in his youth, and he opens a parenthesis to describe the day of the visit:

when Con suggested we have fried chicken,

and get him out of S’Liz for the afternoon,

eat alongside the tennis courts

out over the Anacostia.

It is a charming fantasy, to take the patient out on a picnic, but it cannot be. For Pound roars ‘pick-nicks’ in mockery – and ‘pick-nicks’ is the only word he speaks in Olson’s poem – and Olson adds:

I was against it

for another reason, because of the Navy planes

roar in just there, and the chatter of the patients

was more to my liking as background

for the great man, in his black coat and wide hat

On the hill beneath the hospital is the Anacostia River, and next to the river is Bolling airfield, where the Navy planes land, and this was where Pound arrived when he was brought back to America. Olson wished, however, to fix Pound within the rumble and chatter of patients in Howard Hall, inside the hospital sounds. The context is a judgement. There is a little cruelty to the phrase ‘more to my liking’, for it is not to Pound’s own tastes. I want quiet, he pleaded to the doctors, as he was admitted, but they did not grant him this. Pound wished to leave, and was denied, but Olson is the fantasist, for the poem suggests that it is Olson’s wish and not hospital orders which keeps Pound indoors that day. He is dreaming of what it would be to have mastery over Pound.

* * *

In the hospital, context was control, and Pound’s most immediate and literal context was what he wore. Clothes were the signs of his status, clear for all to see. In his notes, Olson returns often to Pound’s attire. He records that at their first meeting Pound worried at his shirt cuff with his fingertips and that his jacket had lost its buttons; Pound told him that his hospital clothes were so distressed because he had been wearing them since he had been captured in Italy. There is some pathos in his outfit and Olson noticed Pound’s discomfort at this. He speculated that ‘his worry springs from his normal fastidiousness about laundry.’

In Maximus, Pound is no longer this anxious scarecrow but now done up in an unlikely, otherworldly costume. Here is ‘the great man, in his black coat and wide hat’, and this is the dress of a figure out of time, a preacher or a romantic. It is what you might expect a poet to wear if you had never met one. In the following letter, the poem returns to the scene, and now Olson’s wife interrupts with a question. ‘Why did you give him a black hat, / and a brim?’ he quotes her as asking:

when he wore tennis shoes,

and held his pants up

with a rope?

Of course a patient in a mental hospital does not wear a black coat and wide hat, and Olson has dressed Pound up only to diminish him. For his wife’s question has the effect of stripping Pound once more, and the quotation returns him to his hospital uniform. Olson has dressed him up and then dressed him down, and each move in this slow game is one more placing of Pound.

Olson was watching Pound’s clothes and making his careful notes, and approaching Pound from this question of dress might give us his whole history: a biography in rags. In the spring of 1895 he leaned for a portrait against the wooden banisters of the porch of Wyncote Public School just outside Philadelphia. His classmates scowl in double-breasted jackets and high-necked gowns and Pound is like them in old-time garb, narrow boots with many lace holes, a black jacket with lots of buttons. He was nine years old and the only one wearing glasses. His hands were delicate. In the fall of 1897 Pound was sent to Cheltenham Military Academy, where he learned to walk in lines and how to drill. The uniform was square and grey with a high collar. He was still wearing glasses. At the start of the academic year 1901 Pound arrived at the University of Pennsylvania. He was fifteen years old, the youngest in his year, and in the freshman class photograph he is the only one wearing a hat – a beret, and a white scarf – but from now on he no longer wears his glasses when he is photographed. Around him are thoroughly modern young men, their faces open with wealth and open to the century, and all except Pound are dressed in dark suits, white shirts and narrow ties.

His clothes – recorded in letters, photographs, memoirs – tell us when he starts to be himself. The poet H.D. met Pound at a Halloween party in 1901 and he was wearing a green Moroccan robe. In April 1905 Pound wrote to his mother from Hamilton College in upstate New York. He told her that he had been eating properly and, in terrible spelling, ‘Ive enough collors here to ware for some time,’ and then, ‘I earnestly desire my diamond tiara gold shoe buckles & my jewelled gallouses.’ It is a joke about the money he is spending and also the wishfulness of one who believes he is destined to be a great poet but was stuck in a small northern college town. He arrived in London in August 1908 and soon equipped himself. He bought a suit, a hat and new socks, and wrote home: ‘I’ve got to get a vest some new neck ties hand kerchiefs etc.’

He was dressing to become the thing he wished to be. In March 1909 he wrote to his father to explain that he now had two suits, ‘which is precisely one suit of clothes more than I have any real need of,’ and added: ‘I shall never allow my self to be so encumbered with excessive possions in the future.’ Here is the pose of an unworldly poet, at odds with all possessions, but immediately he goes on: ‘The only thing I object to is the cut of the english neck tie. but as my waistcoat happens to be cut ungodly high this dont matter.’ In July 1909 the literary magazine Bookman ran a photograph of him: high starched collar, rich soft coat. Ford Madox Ford met Pound that year and described his outfit: ‘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’. In their letters and diaries his contemporaries notice a grey overcoat with lapis lazuli buttons, spats, a large turquoise earring, floppy berets, a sombrero, a cane, a cape, and always deep colours of shirt, dark blue, pink. He is the bohemian poet, dazzling, ready to stand upon a table and recite his verses.

A photograph: Paris, 1923. Nine men are gathered to celebrate the opening of a nightclub in Montparnasse and eight of them wear white shirts, dark ties and suits. Tristan Tzara has a monocle and neatly parted hair, and Man Ray is wearing a trim bow tie. This is how the serious modernists dressed, like businessmen or the bureaucrats of revolution, and this is only one of the ways in which Pound was never a pure modernist. He liked soft collars, things unbuttoned, and all the old garb of a bygone poet, and in the photograph the collar of his dark shirt flows over his lapels and his big tie is loose.

His clothes speak of his dissent. In the spring of 1939 Pound travelled back to the United States. He had hoped to speak with the president about his economic views and the upcoming war, but this was not possible. On this trip, Pound collected an honorary degree from Hamilton College, dressed in a long black academic robe which soon slipped from his shoulders, and was refused entry to the Stork Club in New York, because he was wearing a loud, striped, purple shirt and no tie. In the city, in late April, he met a young poet called Mary Barnard. In her memoirs she mentions his shabby dark-blue pinstripe suit and his shirt with its wide collar, and as if anticipating Olson’s later fantasy she recalls also ‘a large, broad-brimmed hat’.

Pound returned to Italy, where he stayed for the war, and in the New Yorker on 13 April 1940 he is described as strolling across Rapallo in a white suit, ‘tall and broad, with a pointy beard’. In early 1941 he walked through Rome to the Ministry of Popular Culture for his first broadcasts, and he was wearing a huge, double-breasted tweed overcoat with wide lapels, six buttons and deep patch pockets on the front. The pockets are big enough to hold a book and they are often stuffed with papers. In the late summer of 1945, in the military prison at Pisa, he wore a dark shirt with large, pale buttons. It is so soft and loose that it might be the jacket from a pair of old pyjamas.

On his first morning at St Elizabeths the psychiatrist observed ‘a rather dishevelled appearance. His shirt tail protruded from his trousers, shirt was completely open at the front, and also unbuttoned at the sleeves.’ This year an attendant at Howard Hall glimpsed Pound standing in his cell, looking out of the window with his back to the door. He was wearing trousers, a hospital gown and a bathrobe. He was pale, his beard unkempt, his hair uncombed, and at Howard Hall this was how all the patients looked. ‘I saw this everywhere and so it made little impression on me,’ the attendant noted in a later memoir. After the years of dressing up – of turquoise and lapis lazuli, of spats and hats and a cane – now Pound is the same as everybody else.

Look again at the list of possessions he arrived with. It is a record of things held on to through the storm. But it is also the mirror of this: an invisible inventory of all that he has lost, all that he has thrown away or has been stripped from him.

* * *

On 14 February 1946 Olson arrived to find Pound a little lighter. He had typeset page proofs of new cantos in his hand, and he had been proofreading. ‘The whole sense of this meeting was Pound in power, anew,’ Olson wrote: ‘Flushed with his return to work.’ Today, Pound pressed Olson, asking about his own prospects and how his income looked. Olson answered that he was finding it hard to interest publishers in the book he was writing on Melville, and that he had made $60 last year, so little that he had needed to ask his wife to work. On hearing this, Pound laughed. He told Olson that when he was in London there was a year he made only £40, and once a publisher came and offered him £5,000 for his autobiography, but he had turned it down. They were close that day, and perhaps their laughter was a little loud, and at 2.45 the guard came over to stop them. Before Olson left, Pound asked a favour. He handed him an envelope with the corrected page proofs of the new cantos and told Olson to deliver them to James Laughlin at New Directions. These were the cantos he wrote at Pisa, and they were being readied for publication. Olson felt honoured by this, and as he stood to go, Pound said: you are a container for me. He repeated the word: a container. On the envelope he drew a pattern a little like an upside-down staircase, five boxes resting upon one another. My container.

The day before – 13 February – had been the long-postponed sanity hearing. Pound was taken back to the District Courthouse and he listened while the doctors pinned him like a butterfly. A trial is an exercise in applying words to things and this one began with his name. The Clerk of the Court announced ‘The Case of Ezra Pound’ and then four doctors under the direction of Winfred Overholser 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 not invited to testify and through all this he spoke only once when he cried out, ‘I never did believe in Fascism, God damn it!’ He was trying to take back one word. After listening for four hours the jury deliberated for four minutes, and when they returned they had a new name for the man in the dock. He was officially ‘of unsound mind’ and this had the immediate consequence of preserving him from the treason charge and the possibility of the death penalty. He was returned to Howard Hall in the late afternoon.

The jury found him of unsound mind and Olson called him the enemy, and beneath these early weeks at Howard Hall we might see a squabble over ownership: over who has the right to contain Pound and to interpret him. During January 1946, as Olson was weekly visiting Pound, the poet was also the subject of a series of intensive medical interviews: the Rorschach test on 10 January and then regular meetings with Dr Kavka. Pound liked to complain to Olson about the medical men and their questions, how they would come in groups and pester him: they were ‘hammering’ at him, he said, and grumbled, ‘4 medicos at me this morning’. Olson’s attitude towards Pound was contradictory and shifting, but his record of their encounters is marked by constant, anxious identification with the older poet. Often he mimics Pound’s attitudes and adopts Pound’s mannerisms as his own. In passing, Olson refers to Kavka as ‘this Jew’ and speculates that perhaps he changed his name. Pound told Olson that Kavka had laughed at him; ‘I tried to get him to take Kavka less seriously,’ Olson notes, ‘And that he’s no more than a graduate student, trying to act professional.’ But this graduate student controlled access to Pound, and Olson went to speak with him before several of his visits. He lent him a book of poems, and invited him to dinner, but Kavka refused, explaining that he did not wish to breach confidentiality. The two men are playing the game of ownership, and Pound is playing with them too. In March Pound told Olson that he had asked his publishers to send Kavka copies of all his books. ‘God damn Laughlin he’d send them to a doctor but not to me,’ Olson furiously wrote: ‘I’m damn well going to take them away from K.’

At the end of Olson’s first visit, on Friday 4 January 1946, and just as he was leaving the room with high, barred windows, an attendant told him to wait for a moment, down by the entrance to Howard Hall. The doctor wished to speak with him. After so long looking through Olson’s eyes, it is strange to see this moment from the perspective of the doctors, but they were taking notes too, and in the case file kept by the medical staff, Kavka recorded ‘a very tall and burley individual with ingratiating manners who described himself as a writer’. Olson is not a writer, yet, and now, in the hallway of the madhouse, a few feet from the famous poet, the doctor measured up to the tall writer-to-be. Kavka recounted: ‘Throughout the discussion, Mr Olson apparently attempted to gauge the attitude of the writer toward the patient,’ and when he uses the word ‘writer’ he is referring to himself. The doctor is the writer. But Olson pressed on, telling Kavka that ‘the patient has always been a strong and mentally egocentric individual’, and now he is using the language of psychiatry. Now the future poet is speaking as a doctor.

In a scene this fraught with wishfulness nothing is stable. In his notes Kavka records that Olson described Pound as ‘a misunderstanding genius’, and this may have been Olson’s error – perhaps he meant ‘misunderstood’ – or Kavka’s truth. Perhaps Pound’s misunderstandings had led him here to Howard Hall. Perhaps only Olson could understand Pound now, and the doctors with all their questions could only misunderstand. This might be a slip of the doctor’s pen or the poet’s tongue; it might be error or accusation.

The two men shook hands, parted. Kavka kept the patient Pound but Olson took the envelope of new cantos home with him. Before he delivered it to Laughlin, as he promised he would, he opened it and took the pages out. These were the corrected page proofs of Cantos 74 and 75, and, as Olson read, he copied out phrases into his notebook. Here is Pound at his most defiant, mourning the death of Mussolini: ‘The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders.’ Here is Pound at his most lyrical: ‘The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful, / rain also is of the process.’ Here is Pound dreaming: ‘To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars.’ And Olson thought: I should like to keep this for my own.

* * *

The encounters with Olson are one way into the enigma of Pound at St Elizabeths. On his third visit, Olson signed in as usual and, next to his signature – in the space in the entry log in which a visitor declared their relation to the patient – he wrote ‘friend’. The guard could not read his handwriting. ‘Are you his brother?’ he asked. Olson was as yet nobody, but he was planning, and it was by puzzling out his relation to Pound that he became himself.

During the early winter of 1945 Olson was thinking of a long poem. It was to be called West. According to George Butterick – Olson’s friend and editor – Olson planned to ‘cover the history of Western man for the past 2,500 years’, beginning with Odysseus and ending on a mysterious figure, ‘yet unnamed’. This is the first plan for what became The Maximus Poems. They are a remarkable cycle: huge, avid, hungry for change, and most of all marked by vast ambition. They take their title from Maximus of Tyre, a second-century philosopher, but the name suggests their scope. The philosopher with a big name is a stand-in for the tall poet. As he looks upon the American coast Olson declares ‘I compell Gloucester / to yield, to / change,’ and these poems celebrate the wilful imagination, a kind of seeing elsewhere. In them, one world slips to another. ‘The Continental Shelf // was Europe’s / first West,’ he writes, for the east coast of the United States was once the western edge of Europe. Place is upset by the passage of time. In Gloucester, the merchants who built the city ‘hid, or tried to hide, the fact the cargo their ships brought back / was black’, for the money that went into making the town library was money made from the traffic in slaves. ‘One’s forced, / considering America, / to a single truth,’ he writes:

the newness

the first men knew was almost

from the start dirtied

by second comers.

Our origins are never clean and ‘knew’ rhymes troublingly with new. That which we know is always old.

‘It isn’t so decisive,’ Olson writes, ‘how one thing does end / and another begin.’ The price of his rich and generous vision of the world sliding through forms is that he cannot be wholly himself, for his own invention is always indebted to others. Olson’s poetry is distinguished by two typographical eccentricities. First is the virgule, which is the technical name for the slash in the middle of a line: ‘/’. Traditionally, this symbol marks when one is quoting verse and wishes to indicate a line break in the original poem, but Olson includes the virgule within a line of poetry. This gives the illusion that all he writes is a quotation. Second: he opens parentheses which he never closes, which has the effect of up-ending the apparent priorities of a sentence. Both are means to preserve the many-ness of things, and to estrange our relation with the words before us on the page. Both appear in The Pisan Cantos, which Olson carried out of Howard Hall.

The crucial term for Olson is place. The Maximus Poems gather up lists, fragments, inventories, paragraphs from local newspapers, and his own memories, and weave these into a portrait of the fishing port of Gloucester and, by extension, America. But place is not only the subject of these poems; it is also their most abiding metaphor for what a poem is or must be. On one page is a prose account with a note: ‘In this place a poem I have not been able to write,’ and it gestures to a poem, made from these materials, to be assembled or imagined by the later reader. That is: the poem is larger than the page it sits upon. Olson’s most famous contribution to literary criticism is an essay of 1950 called ‘Projective Verse’. This is now a classic anthology piece and has been, writes the literary critic Marjorie Perloff, ‘safely enshrined as a cornerstone of avant-garde poetics, perhaps the key theological statement in defence of the “new poetry”’. At its heart is a claim for the space of a poem. Too much poetry has been closed, Olson argues, and by this he means poetry in which a set pattern of metre determines the length of the line and by extension the shape of the poem. In a Shakespearean sonnet, for example, each line has five regularly repeating metrical feet, and the sonnet is fourteen lines long. Olson, by contrast, proposes open composition. Now the poem can take not formal measure but the human breath as its building block.

He calls this process ‘COMPOSITION BY FIELD’ – we are back with his excitable Poundian capitals – and it has two simple consequences. First, form must now emerge from content (‘FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT’), and second, the poem adopts a new ‘stance towards reality’. In Olson’s new poetics, the shape of the poem is defined by that which is inside it, by that which it contains, not by some outside rule. These ideas have long been celebrated and are at the heart of American poetry written in the second half of the twentieth century; they are also far from new. Perloff traces how each of these claims, as well as the terms in which they are expressed, were drawn by Olson from Pound’s own critical writings, and goes on to describe Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ as ‘essentially a scissors-and-paste job, a clever but confused collage made up of bits and pieces of Pound’ and others. Olson was the father of postmodernism, and his essay its founding document; all are equally second-hand.

This is perhaps as good a definition of postmodernism as any: a confusion of the categories of old and new, of theft and inspiration, and each new work is equally a place of repetition. The poem is not a report upon an external reality but instead an attempt to transfer energy from its subject to its reader. As Olson put it in his essay ‘Human Universe’: ‘Art does not seek to describe but to enact.’ My favourite of the Maximus Poems is six words long. It is a list of categories from ‘The Account Book of B Ellery,’ an eighteenth-century merchant who lived near Gloucester, and it runs:







This is a poem, complete. These are the categories by which one merchant believed he could sort his immediate world, but they are also – almost by accident – the skeleton of a great classical poem. The Odyssey tells of vessels, voyages, persons and goods, and the old poem is glimpsed behind the new. The archive is a poem and an inventory becomes an epic.

It is too simple to say that The Maximus Poems are about Pound. But they are marked by his tricky presence. In one, written in late 1960, Olson lists the characters of his epic, and first on the list is: ‘Pound, a person of the poem.’ The Maximus 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. After his run of visits in January and February 1946, Olson went less often in March. This was not quite his final break with Pound, which happened a couple of years later, but their relations began to sour, and Olson’s notebooks are increasingly bitter about Pound. It was time to move on. In April 1946 he wrote a new poem. ‘We are the new born,’ he announced. The poem is called ‘La Préface’ – promising, again, a start – and when Olson came to assemble his poems into his first collection, called X&Y, he put this one first.

The poem continues with an instruction:

Draw it thus: () 1910 (

This looks like a hieroglyph, some strange equation, but as so often with Olson, it appears far less legible than in fact it is. ‘The closed parenthesis reads: the dead bury the dead, / and it is not very interesting,’ he explains in the following lines, for there are histories which find an end; some stories do simply finish. But this is not one of them. He continues:

Open, the figure stands at the door, horror his

and gone, possessed, o new Osiris, Odysseus ship.

He put the body there as well as they did whom he killed.

The open parenthesis is the unfinished past: the unburied body, the task still left. It is Elpenor, the sailor Odysseus must return to, whose debt begins the Cantos. The open parenthesis says that something remains to be settled. We are all new born, once, but we are also built from the past, and the title of the collection refers to those chromosomes which compose us. Olson was born in 1910 but in 1946 he is beginning, and the only way to do so is to go back to the old men who still make claims upon the living, to Pound and to Elpenor. Once you have gone back to honour them, you may move forwards. Once you have gone down to Howard Hall, you may start to make it new.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Swift