The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages

William Gass’s tediously admonishing 1996 essay “Ezra Pound” begins with associative wordplay on the poet’s name. “If used as a verb,” Gass writes, “‘pound’ means to beat. If used as a noun, ‘pound’ signifies a unit of weight, a measure of money, pressure of air, or physical force.” This “free” association of Gass’s mind predictably turns to Shakespeare, Shylock, and the infamous “pound of flesh.” It’s unclear what this associative gambit is meant to definitively prove, other than that the word “pound” has multiple meanings. The intended effect, however, is obvious. It’s meant to suggest that Pound’s notorious anti-semitism is an essential and unavoidable element of both his identity and poetry. Gass means to show that evil is baked into Pound’s namesake as a pastiche of associated synonyms, each symbolically resonating with Pound’s obsessions: force, power, drama, and money. It’s an evocative example of Pound as cipher, of his identity as a man and value as a poet being reduced to a series of negative associations. And, ironically, it mirrors the same banal, paranoid tendencies that Pound himself exhibited. Unfortunately, as Daniel Swift shows us in The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, projecting onto his subject overly simple ideas about politics and art, scapegoating him in the Girardian sense, is de rigueur. And it’s something that was happening long before his death.

Ezra Pound is a litmus test as much as he is a poet. His cartoonish anti-semitism and support of Mussolini during the Second World War, made famous by a series of almost unintelligible radio broadcasts for which he was charged with treason, have come to overshadow Pound’s poetic genius in the popular imagination. He isn’t Pound the poet, he’s Pound the fascist poet. And his reputation forces us to confront the question of whether art can, or should, stand apart from the politics of the artist. Answer “yes” and you open yourself to accusations of fascist, or at least reactionary, sympathies—regardless of what your politics might actually be. Answer “no” and you admit, in some small way, that art itself doesn’t exist except to serve as a kind of elaborate Trojan Horse for political opinions. If there’s any institution less suited to cut this Gordian Knot, it’s the United States government. They didn’t really know what to do with Pound after the war. So after being locked in a cage in Pisa, he was transported to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the insane near Washington, D.C. where he would remain for over a decade.

A former patient’s room, allegedly once occupied by poet Ezra Pound, at the old St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. This photo was taken in 2011. (Credit: Kelley B. Vlahos)

St. Elizabeth’s, in many ways, existed in inverse relationship to Pound’s poetic project. If Pound sifted through the wreckage of history searching for the vital essence of literature, the “ball of light in the hand” as he called it, St. Elizabeth’s stood as a testament to amnesiac caprice, a parade ground for ever-shifting contemporary theories about man’s relationship to himself and his environment. Founder Dorothy Dix was understandably horrified by the nineteenth century practice of placing mentally unwell prisoners in unheated cells, which itself grew from the notion that the insane were insensible, unable to feel their environment. Taking the opposite view, that they were in fact hyper-sensitive to their surroundings, Dix spearheaded the construction of a pastoral hospital with gardens, lily ponds, and a small zoo. The setting itself was to be the cure. This wasn’t to last. Official hospital historian Thomas Otto writes that “Long-held notions that environment was the main cause of mental illness slowly gave way to a greater reliance on neurology, anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry, bacteriology and general medicine.” With this specialization came segregation of patients into wings based on their diagnoses. Walls went up. There was overcrowding. Of course, this too eventually gave way. Swift writes, “Where once the hospital had been a castle, fortified and apart, now in an era of pharmacological cures and community treatment, it’s walls were dissolving.” This disintegration would continue into present day, with the hospital now a shrunken version of its former self, most of the grounds abandoned and slated for redevelopment by the Department of Homeland Security and the city of D.C. It was a strange place to put a treasonous poet, but a particularly odd place for Pound. He’d dedicated his life to resuscitating what deserves to survive from the best of world cultures, and here he found himself locked away in an institution slowly dissolving in the entropic whimsy of an unmoored civilization.

This constant fluctuation was also evident in Pound’s changing diagnosis. Swift tells us that when Pound was first admitted to St. Elizabeth’s in 1945 he had a revealing conversation with clinical director Dr. Edgar Griffin. “‘What’s wrong with you?’ the doctor asked, and Pound replied, ‘All of Europe upon my shoulders’…’If this is a hospital you have to cure me.’ Cure you of what? asked Dr. Griffin, and Pound replied ‘Whatever the hell is the matter with me – you must decide whether I am to be cured or punished.’” But in its essence—locking the poet up in an insane asylum based on his political beliefs and often challengingly esoteric poems—the cure was the punishment. There is no record of any sort of therapy ever being administered. In 1946 when a jury found Pound to be “of unsound mind,” unfit to face trial, that decision was based in large part on a reading of his poetry during the hearing. Swift writes that Pound’s lawyer was “presenting poetry as proof of insanity.” And obviously it worked. “The doctor is working as literary critic…” writes Swift, “So much depends upon the way in which we might be willing to read Pound’s poetry.”

The main building at St. Elizabeth’s, home to most of the patients’ rooms, including Ezra Pound. CreativeCommons)

In 1955, Pound was diagnosed with Psychotic Disorder, undifferentiated. By the time he was released from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958, his diagnosis had changed to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, qualified as “permanent and incurable.” These diagnoses were based almost entirely on interpretations of Pound’s poetry, or things Pound said about politics, literature, and his family history. In searching, elegant prose, Swift shows us how the entire institution of mental health didn’t simply fail to comprehend the vast complications of Pound’s work, but, in a sense, reified Pound himself by construing his mind as a problem to be solved. Probably not coincidentally, the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) was published during Pound’s time in St. Elizabeth’s. The manual is a comprehensive (although constantly changing) list of definitions of mental aberrations. Nowhere in the manual is there a definition of sanity itself. Swift’s book implicitly suggests that perhaps this is because “sanity” is itself a concept that shifts to adhere to the political and social status quo. A sane person is someone who works comfortably within the logic of capitalist, liberal, vulgar materialist culture—the very things that Pound raged against.

Another complication to the narrative that Pound was completely unhinged from shared reality was the number of luminaries and aspiring artists who visited him while he was in St. Elizabeth’s. “It was the world’s least orthodox literary salon,” writes Swift. “…convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum…Among the many who came to visit – tourists, young activists, ambassadors and academics – were foremost the poets. T.S. Eliot…Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, W.S. Merwin, Charles Olson, Kathleen Raine, Allen Tate and William Carlos Williams…John Berryman…Louis Zukofsky…Randall Jarrell, Archibald MacLeish…” The list is a who’s who of mid-century literati. They each came with a different and distinct idea of who Pound (especially a Pound in the context of an insane asylum) was. He writes that “[i]n the eyes of his visitors Pound took on the shine of a symbol. He was a mirror with which to compose themselves; he was raw material and an avenue to elsewhere, and they fixed him in patterns of their own.” To Lowell he was a fellow lunatic. To Olson a disappointing father figure. To Williams an old friend and poetic rival. Many of these visitors, despite the variation in their perspectives, wrote anecdotes of their trips to St. Elizabeth’s. Swift tells us that “Like any set of literary works which tell a common story, these soon fell into a genre of their own. We might call this The Tale of the Bughouse Visit.” And we might call Swift’s own book the culmination of this genre, inhabiting the personas of Pound’s most interesting visitors in order to orbit the man himself in a rich valence of diverse perspectives. It is, in fact, the very method that Pound himself uses in many of his own poems.

It’s worth saying outright that this is a beautifully written book. It isn’t simply rich with penetrating insights and massive amounts of research, but resonant with Swift’s own emotional presence. In the tradition of Geoff Dyer and Janet Malcolm, Swift tells us the story of Swift telling the story. We’re there with him when he walks the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s. We’re gingerly traipsing around precariously stacked boxes of hospital records. We’re in on the phone calls to sources. We follow him to Italy where he interviews members of the neo-fascist organization Casa Pound. Swift himself is a character in this story, another writer drawn to the complexities and contradictions of Ezra Pound, the language of his search brought to life by the Pound’s alluring enigma.

The story that Swift tells is a complicated one, and he’s right to leave it poignantly floating in a sea of Keatsian negative capability. But important questions remain left unanswered: Do we forgive Pound his politics? Was Pound in some way a martyr? Can the strength of, not only his poetry, but his whole talent as an artist and thinker be acknowledged despite his embarrassing and half-repugnant politics? Unfortunately, Swift ends up letting Pound walk free from many of the charges brought against him while also failing to fully condemn the system that incarcerated him in the first place. This is a powerful work, a “ball of light” in the hand, as Pound would have put it. It is surely one of the best books about Pound ever written, something that belongs alongside Kenner’s and Longenbach’s best work. And yet one can’t help feeling there is something unarticulated haunting its pages, a cathartic and bold position from which both Pound’s betrayal of his country and America’s pathetic misapprehension of Pound illuminate one another to their core.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.