Ezra Conquers London

The history of literature is punctuated by differences of opinion sometimes too strong to be regarded as mere literary quarrels. The most important and probably the most painful American example was the row over the award, in February 1949, of the first Bollingen Poetry Prize to Ezra Pound for his book The Pisan Cantos, a work that expressed certain opinions almost universally execrated in the United States and elsewhere. The jury explained that in honoring Pound they had foreseen, but found reasons to discount, objections to their choice, arguing that

to permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which civilized society must rest.

The disputes that followed turned on Pound’s dissent from American politics and culture from his youth to old age.

The story of Pound’s wartime activities, and especially his broadcasts from Italy of anti-American and pro-Fascist propaganda, was already well known to the public. Four years earlier he had been taken from a prison camp near Pisa and sent back to the US, where he was indicted for treason. He was now to be tried on a capital charge, and at virtually the same moment was hailed by a team of eminent writers appointed by the Library of Congress as a major American poet.

When four psychoanalysts, reporting that their patient was “abnormally grandiose, expansive and exuberant in manner,” declared him to be insane and unfit to plead, he was removed from jail and admitted into St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, certified as both mad and great. In 1958 the charges against him were dropped and, released into the custody of his wife, he returned to Italy, where he died in 1972.

The Question of the Pound Award continued to disturb the critics. Some accepted the jurors’ claim that the award represented a just perception of objective value. Others were more troubled, especially by Pound’s obsessive anti-Semitism. Partisan Review ran a piece by one of its editors, William Barrett, who approved of the award, though he did wish the jurors had expressly named their objections to some parts of the winning book. Barrett professed to believe that its poetic merit was such that the reader could be led to overlook the vicious and ugly emotions it expressed. Among the comments his piece evoked, W.H. Auden argued that the book should win the prize but not be published; Robert Gorham Davis could not allow the merit of the verse to be considered as separate from the ideas all objected to; Irving Howe thought Pound the crank was only rarely Pound the poet. George Orwell, who admitted he thought Pound “an entirely spurious writer,” nevertheless said he should have the prize, but complained that the judges should have made it clear they thought Pound’s opinions evil. Allen Tate took the obviously erroneous view that the judges, including himself, were being accused…

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