Despite a life-long interest in poetry and poetics, I’ve managed to mostly ignore Ezra Pound and his poetry. Oh, I’m certain that I’ve read some that the scholars and editors have insisted on passing by my eyes via anthologies; but, I am also certain that nothing ever really caught my attention in a significant way. That is introductory to suggest that I really had no idea what to expect from The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound by Daniel Swift.
Clearly the title of the book suggests certain probabilities. Questionable politics and questionable sanity among them. Questionable poetry, however seems not to fit with these other themes. And the title alone brings up what is a common question…to what extent should cultural producers (heroes of the creative arts, if you like) be scrutinized on a personal level? If we find a person challenging, difficult, irritating or reprehensible…should this colour our view of the art they produce?
An interesting question to ponder and there are many contemporary artists/performers/poets/politicians to consider alongside Ezra Pound. As a tendancy to quirk, I’ll not name any individuals here. Consider, however, anyone whose art/philosophy/professional efforts you admired and somehow could not after learning a disturbing fact or detail of their life.
If a book of poetry is merely a product to be consumed – then the ethics and behaviours of its producer shouldn’t be considered to be special compared to, say, the designer of an article of clothing, a motorcycle or a toaster. By extension, of course, the writer of poetry is only one step in an overall value (or supply) chain. What about the various editors, paper-makers (in an old-fasioned world of books), printers, ink manufacturers and others involved in the product? Do these others share in ethical responsibility for the product? Sometimes book writers AND their publishers are placed under threat or murdered…so some ethical structures would suggest that they do.
I have the sense that poetry is considered to be something beyond the physical product; the words are themselves considered an ethical, aesthetic and moral presentation. As a reader of poetry, I expect the author to be the living embodiment of the creation in a way that I do not expect of a toaster-designer. Perhaps that is unfair – to either the poet or the toaster-designer. I’m not sure which.
Ezra Pound, apparently, liked fascism and racism but despised banking. He had several really unpleasant ideas and notions. And some unusually competent aesthetic and interpersonal skills. He wrote much, including some 800 pages of Cantos. Truly a life’s work (40 years!) and something that has already inspired some renewed levels of dedication to my own efforts.
It should be possible to comprehend, appreciate and engage the full human scope of Ezra Pound, just as we comprehend, appreciate and engage all people around us – even those we do not agree with. Swift has done a great job of that in his book. Oh, and a note about Swift’s writing…it shows that he appreciates poetry and the value of including memorable images from time to time.
This book contains a couple of hundred pages of information about a poet. It is clearly not comprehensive….I hope my own life could not be cataloged in 200 pages (when it is done). There are interesting peeks into racism, fascism and other awkward subjects…and shouldn’t we all have a few things in our lives which challenge and alienate others!
I will consider reading the Cantos…whether I appreciate the achievement or not – I will, having read The Bughouse, be in a position to approach it with valuable insight, not least being that Pound appeared to be a genuine embodiment of his full ethical, political, aesthetic case. It seems that he lived his poetry and his poetry expresses his life.