Book Review: The Bughouse

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 scholars and editors have insisted on serving up via anthologies and courses; but, I am also certain that nothing ever really caught my attention in a significant way.  These words are introductory to suggest that, apart from the investigation suggested by the title, 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 Image result for the bughousequestionable sanity among them.  Questionable poetry, however seems not to fit with these other themes.  And the title alone brings up 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?

It is an interesting, if not necessarily important, question to ponder and there are many contemporary artists/performers/poets/politicians to consider alongside Ezra Pound.  As a tendency to quirk, I’ll not name any individuals here.  Consider, however, anyone whose art/philosophy/professional efforts you have 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.  Of course, by extension 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-fashioned 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 idea 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!

Reading The Bughouse, inspired me to dig into Ezra Pound’s Cantos.  Based on having read this biography, I felt I might be in a position to approach the Cantos 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 expressed his life.

In addition to reading the Cantos, or at least as much of them as I felt worth the time – I also had opportunity to read thick collections of poetry by Charles Bukowski and Frederick Siedel.  It was interesting to observe a kind of deference to and respect for Pound in those two poets.  Finally, I want to mention Peter Gay’s history of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. Indeed, Gay’s book provides an excellent window to understanding Pound’s synthesis of life and art.

In these late twenty-teens, the notion of “being genuine” retains a certain currency that seems to have seeds in the modernists and with people like Ezra Pound.  Buried in there is a valuation, a respect for those who are genuinely themselves.  Sometimes, even a grudging respect for those who are genuinely, un-apologetically themselves even when they are genuine assholes.

As to the Cantos…I found it to be mostly babbling gibberish and not worth the time.  Bukowski’s poetry is mostly ugly in a non-revelatory kind of way and Seidel proves that it is possible to display skill and stupidity at the same time.   Since I’m in that kind of mood, I may as well admit that I’d rather do just about anything but read TS Eliot.



Photo: Detail from a brick home in St. Thomas, Ontario. Circa 2017, taken with an iPad mini.  The peak in the roof is echoed in the “Christmas Tree” brickwork – that is a poetic kind of detail.

Revision History Notes: All content on and is subject to edit and revision. Whenever possible, dates of revisions will be note.  Original post 29/11/2017. Updated 14/02/2018.


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