Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ezra Pound in the Bughouse: New in Chicago Review

Rejoice! The latest issue of Chicago Review has dropped, and in it you'll find new writing about Fernando Pessoa, FLARF, and Basil Bunting, as well as an essay by Peter Middleton, Donna Stonecipher's translations of Friederike Mayröcker, and much more, including a little something I wrote about Daniel Swift's book The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound.

Here's how it starts:

There’s an old black-and-white photo from the 1965 poetry festival in Spoleto, Italy, in which we can see Ezra Pound surrounded by younger poets: Bill Berkson is there, along with John Wieners, Desmond O’Grady, Charles Olson—so large he looks like he’s been sloppily photoshopped into the scene—and a partially obscured John Ashbery. The scene is significant, I think, for how it projects two moments yet to come in Pound’s posterity: the Olson-led renaissance of his reputation in the late 1960s, and his eclipse as a model for younger poets after the rise, a decade later, of Ashbery’s star.  Pound had already been in and out of vogue many times: in the 1910s, he was at the center of a creative vortex, and an influence on the shape of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic.  By the late 1930s, he was largely an outsider, and at the end of the Second World War he hit his nadir, politically disgraced and caged like an animal by the American army occupying Italy. 

Our own moment should be a propitious one for another look at Pound.  He isn’t currently a model for many poets (Nathanial Tarn and John Peck are the most significant talents carrying a torch for Ole Ez), but we do live in times that seem uncannily Poundian: times of public madness, resurgent fascism, and crackpot economic theories.  Perhaps it’s not a great time for a young poet to take her cues from the author of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, but it’s certainly a good moment to examine Pound as a phenomenon, if not a model.  The 1959 anthology A Casebook on Ezra Pound provided excellent fuel for the reevaluation of the poet after his release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, when, as Donald Davie put it, Pound’s politics had “made it impossible for any one any longer to exalt the poet into a seer.”  We would welcome another book capable of opening up a new discussion of the meaning and significance of Pound, and Daniel Swift’s study of Pound’s dozen years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, promises to be just such a book.  The topic—and, especially, the subtitle—lead one to hope for a study packed with insight into the moral and aesthetic conundrum that is Pound.  Is he to be held responsible for his fascism? Does his mental health exculpate him? How do madness and politics bear on the poetry itself? One opens the pages of Swift’s book eager to find out. 
The Bughouse, alas, does not live up to its topic, or its moment, when the issues of Pound’s politics have an alarming currency...
The rest of the piece can be found in the the spring issue.  Ordering info and selected content available here.