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Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads: the Life of Ezra Pound by A. David Moody

David Crook By David Crook Published on April 24, 2017
This article was updated on October 26, 2017

Ezra Pound, whose work desperately needs this fine and detailed re-evaluation by academic A. David Moody, was twentieth century poetry's dirty little secret and at the same time, its greatest practitioner. He edited T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land from a shapeless mess into the great masterpiece it is now known to be. Despite being imprisoned by the American authorities after World War II for his pro-Mussolini radio broadcasts, Pound continued writing his great epic The Cantos.

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Pound was the greatest American poet of the last century. Yet there exists, as yet, no collected works. Moody's life of Pound, from 1885 to 1972, fills three volumes. The first, The Young Genius focuses on childhood and coming to London, the second The Epic Years follows the poet to Italy and his eventual transformation into a fascist propagandist and the third The Tragic Years covers his writing in a mental institution, his release and return to Italy.

Moody proceeds by amassing all the details he can verify—every little pamphlet, letter and record of conversation. It’s almost a day-to-day account of the life of this prolific and erudite writer and scholar. As such, it illuminates and validates the poetry; Moody's main concern, and what should be ours. Pound thought personal emotion an irrelevance and distraction. He was always totally concerned with poetry, his own or that of the numerous writers he encouraged. You might say he had a kind of tunnel vision, certainly in his economic pamphleteering. His concentration was total and intense; in the prison camp and the insane asylum, which he always referred to as “the nuthouse,” he wrote some of his best work.

Pound began composing poetry when he was fifteen. To escape American philistinism he travelled to Europe in 1908. He came to know everybody that was worth knowing in the world of writing and art, and relentlessly championed their cause. Not only did he push Eliot, he kept James Joyce alive and secured publication for Ulysses. He also rescued Yeats from Celtic fog. As the Irish poet’s secretary for two years from 1913 to 1916, Pound introduced Yeats to Noh drama and was influential in getting him to refine his style into a more direct form of writing. Pound’s sins in England were his tactless loud-mouthed American manners, although he was a great poet, of vast erudition and keen intelligence, learned in many languages and cultures.

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25 poems by Pound published in 1912

After WW1, he left London for the continent: sun, cheaper living, and access to the great libraries and art of Italy. In the aftermath of the Wall Street crash and during the Great Depression, he became fixated on economics and the evils of banking, and wrote feverishly on these topics, often for tiny magazines with fascist leanings. During this period, anti-Semitism was casual and endemic until the newsreels of Nazi concentration camps emerged.

In Italy, he became an admirer of Mussolini. This eventually led to 120 broadcasts on Italian radio during World War II, which were judged to be anti-American by his few listeners, mainly the US authorities. His publisher in the states, James Laughlin, wrote to him in 1941, "You are pretty much disliked for your orations. Your name in general might be said to aspire but not attain to the dignity of mud."

In 1945, Pound surrendered to the American forces in Italy, who put him in a cage at a military prison outside Pisa, where he wrote the “Pisan Cantos,” subsequently one of his most admired sequences. At the end of 1945 he was taken to Washington D.C. to stand trial for treason.

The US authorities were aware that hanging their greatest living poet would be bad PR, and besides that, their legal case was shaky. Pound’s wife, Dorothy, his publisher, Laughlin, his attorney, and various psychologists contrived to have him declared insane, and so he was unfit to stand trial. For the next 12 years, Pound was committed to St Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane in Washington D.C, even though there was never any evidence of his supposed insanity.

Over the next decade, nearly the entire establishment of the world of literature, from Dag Hammarskjöld to Earnest Hemingway, campaigned for his release. In 1958, the treason charges against him were dropped, and he was allowed to retire to Italy, in the care of Dorothy.

Moody notes significant personal information almost in passing but never dwells on any of it as more modern, prurient biographers would. By the end of Volume 2, one realizes that the Pounds’ marriage was a loveless one. As long as Pound was considered insane Dorothy controlled the purse strings and wanted to keep his earnings for her illegitimate son to inherit, despite a will that Pound had made which left everything to his daughter he had with another woman. If a movie were to be made of Pound’s life, Dorothy would be played by Joan Crawford or Bette Davis.

Marianne Moore wrote, “result is not poetry / nor till the poets among us can be / ‘literalists of / the imagination’ … / … and can present / for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, / shall we have / it …"

Pound’s poetry comes very close to this ideal of his friend.

Dave Crook, after working for Waterstones for a long time, retired to spend more time with books, and writing poetry.

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