Charles Olson & Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths
Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile
“Olson saved my life.” Thus Pound in January 1946, in his first days at St. Elizabeths, appealing in terror at the prospect of losing whatever sanity remained to him. How that life was saved we can now know, thanks to Catherine Seelye, who has put the story together, mostly out of Charles Olson’s papers at the University of Connecticut. Her tact and scrupulousness are beyond praise, and the book she has made cannot be recommended too urgently—even (perhaps especially) to those who have no special interest in, or liking for, either Charles Olson or Ezra Pound. What to do in a democratic society with the errant or aberrant citizen of genius—this question, fumbled at or glossed over by everyone who has written on Pound’s case (jurists and psychiatrists as well as biographers and critics), is here posed more starkly, and explored more searchingly, than ever before. We might have guessed that Olson would do it, if anyone could….
And yet this probably is the first point to make. To take the force of this testimony that none of us deserves to evade, it’s not necessary to like either Olson or Pound, but it is necessary that we respect them. And it’s not always easy to respect the author of The Maximus Poems, disfigured as they are on nearly every page by solecisms and gaucheries, by arbitrary coarsenesses in diction, punctuation, syntax, lineation. This constant failure at the level of execution is counterbalanced, for those who are patient and sympathetic, by the audacity and grandeur of the conception. But for the moment, that’s not the point—which is rather that those who have been, legitimately or at least understandably, affronted by the pretensions of Olson as a poet should not therefore write him off as anything but what he was: an exceptionally earnest and magnanimous man, and a man moreover who knew, as few poets since John Milton have known, what the polity looks like from the point of view of those who administer it day by day. It’s because of this—the magnanimity even more than the political expertise—that Olson’s appalled and self-questioning reflections on Pound’s arraignment and incarceration make all others seem puerile at best.
By “magnanimity” the last thing one means is a willingness to forgive and forget. On the contrary Olson is to be praised in the first place for the relentless hostility with which he presses the charge home:
Pound can talk all he likes about the cultural lag in America…but he’s got a 200 year political lag in himself. It comes down to this: a rejection of the single most important fact of the last 100 years, the most important human fact between Newton and the Atomic Bomb—the sudden multiple increase of the earth’s population, the coming into existence of the MASSES. Pound and his kind want to ignore them. They try to lock them out. But they swarm at …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
For the Record May 13, 1976