Born in America in 1885, Ezra Weston Loomis Pound led an intense and colorful early life, working as a literary editor in London, travelling across Europe and joining Mussolini’s fascist regime in the 30s and 40s. He was an important influence on some of the literary greats of the 20th Century including TS Elliot and Ernest Hemingway, and much loved for the way he promoted the work of others. During the Second World War he worked for the Italian government broadcasting criticism of the United States, President Roosevelt, and the Jews, and when the war ended he was arrested for treason.
His imprisonment led to a nervous breakdown and he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in Washington until 1958 when he was released following a campaign by fellow writers.
He published his first work of poetry in 1908, A Lume Tempo which received rave reviews from the London Evening Standard which called it ‘wild and haunting’. His contemporaries have long hailed him as the father of modern poetry and as a youth Pound professed to want to know more about poetry than any other living man.
He embraced all poetic influences, disregarding the Occidental ethnocentrism of his contemporaries to explore the poetic traditions of Greece, China and other countries. He helped create the Imagism movement in 1912, an attempt to combine the precision of imagery with clear and precise language.
For all his poetic genius and the high respect he was held in by writers and poets throughout the 20th Century, Pound’s work has never been widely appreciated by the general public. As Hugh Kenner wrote in 1950:
While it is easy to see the influence that Ezra Pound had on other writers of his age, it is a little more difficult to pin down the origins of his own inspiration above and beyond his innate desire to push the boundaries and experiment. There’s no doubt that Pound’s desire to travel and to experience influenced his poetry, in particular his time spent in Provence, immersed in its culture, is reflected in his lifelong work Cantos, which was begun during the Second World War but remained unfinished by the time of his death in 1972.
The Cantos is considered one of the more significant works in modernist poetry despite the fact that it was never completed. It is a large work, and often difficult to read. It includes Chinese characters as well as passages in European languages other than English and perhaps reflects Pound’s need to embrace a range of cultures and use them in his poetry.
The Pisan Cantos, a section within the main work, was awarded the first Bollingen Prize in 1948 and has often been seen as a piece that stands on its own. It was written during his imprisonment after the Second World War where he was kept in a steel cage, and some experts say the inferno of his incarceration matches the intensity of the poem’s narrative.
The Cantos has long been thought of as a controversial work, more for its experimental nature combined with Pound’s public opinions on the war in Europe at the time of writing and fascism in particular. In the end, Pound will probably always be more remembered for his support of writers such as Yeats and Joyce rather than his own works.
Perhaps much is shown by Ezra Pound’s choice of funeral when he passed away in 1972 – plain coffin on the church floor, no flowers and a single candle. According to Charles Matz who was one of the last to see Pound before the poet died: