Ezra Pound never made it easy. He was a poet who cared little about public success and not at all about money: he dedicated his life to art with the rapturous abandon of a bacchant. Pound saw himself as forging ahead on the path poets had pursued since the preclassical bards, toward deeper wisdom and a more perfect expression, in pursuit of the beautiful. In the years since his death, this perennial vision of an enlightened Republic of Letters, one of humankind’s greatest intellectual accomplishments, has quietly gone the way of falconry and intaglio carving. So impenetrable and taxing do Pound’s poems appear to most modern readers that the soaring ambition of his work has been eclipsed by the neatly plotted narrative of his life.
Everybody knows the story. Pound launched the Imagist movement, epitomized by that hardy perennial of poetry anthologies, “In a Station of the Metro” (in full: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough”), and then played a decisive role in shaping T. S. Eliot’s epochal masterpiece The Waste Land. He devoted the rest of his life to composing The Cantos, a vast, unreadable epic left unfinished at his death in 1972. The story ends badly: he went off the rails during the war years, embracing fascism and anti-Semitism in broadcasts for Mussolini that got him arrested for treason, and was eventually committed to a mental hospital.
As conventional wisdom goes, the standard skinny on Pound is no worse than most. True to the genre it lacks nuance, emphasizing controversy over substance, but it isn’t actually wrong about anything—except the work. Pound’s Imagist poetry was revolutionary but by no means the best even of his early compositions, and The Cantos are called unreadable by the same people who call Tristram Shandy and Ulysses unreadable, those who haven’t read them. Many of the cantos are as deeply felt and exquisitely rendered as any verse in English. No poet has ever been so influential, so controversial, and so little read.
Born in Hailey, Idaho, and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pound arrived in London in 1908 at the age of twenty-two with £3 in his pocket. Ford Madox Ford recorded this impression of the young genius in London: “Ezra would approach with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie handpainted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring.”
Pound worked indefatigably to promote the work of other writers, sometimes to the neglect of his own career. Beside shepherding The Waste Land into print, he played an active role in launching and promoting the careers of nearly all the major modernist writers. He served Yeats, already an established poet, as an unpaid amanuensis and factotum, an intimacy he used to exert as profound an effect on the elder poet’s mature style as he did on young Eliot. Pound arranged for the first publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in The Egoist; as an editor for the Three Mountains Press in Paris, he himself published Hemingway’s second book, in our time; he raised the money for Ford Madox Ford to launch the Transatlantic Review. As the European correspondent for Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe’s landmark magazine published in Chicago, Pound got into print the early work of his college sweetheart Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and many other writers who have since faded from notice.