Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was an American poet, writer, and literary critic. He is as influential for in promoting and disseminating the work of other poets as he is for his own contributions. His political involvement casts a shadow over his poetry, and he remains a controversial figure in the poetic history of America. 

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Table of contents

    Ezra Pound Biography

    Pound was born in Idaho, where his father worked, but at a young age was taken to New York by his mother. The family eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where Pound attended a military academy for the majority of his early education. At 15, he left the academy and attended school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he performed poorly.

    Pound's time at Penn was influential, though, as he met and befriended fellow Modernist poet William Carlos Williams, with whom he would have a lifelong professional and platonic relationship. He transferred to Hamilton College, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Philosophy and subsequently returned to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a Master of Arts in Romance languages.

    During the time Pound was in school, he had the opportunity to travel to Europe multiple times, initially with his mother and aunt, and later by himself with University funding. These initial trips included countries such as Spain, France, and England. His experiences abroad would lead to Pound’s eventual emigration from the United States.

    After having been fired from his first job teaching at a college in Indiana, Pound moved first to Spain. He spent time in various cities in Spain before settling for a time in Venice, Italy. There, he published his first poetry collection A Lume Spento (1908). Pound then moved to England, where he published his second collection A Quinzaine for this Yule (1908). Pound’s Modernist style of poetry was vastly different from the Victorian poets popular at the time.

    In England, Pound began attending literary salons and gatherings of writers and poets. Thanks to an encounter at one such salon, Pound met and eventually married Dorothy Shakespear, a painter. At this time, Pound’s reputation began to grow as he published three more poetry collections and garnered a sponsor in the form of an American heiress, who would send Pound money.

    Ezra Pound, Portrait of Ezra Pound, StudySmarterPortrait of Ezra Pound, wikimedia

    Pound briefly moved back to America in 1910, but eventually returned to England. He worked as an editor and contributor to a number of literary magazines, such as New Age, Poetry, and The Egoist. Pound continued publishing poetry and literary essays; he also was influential in using his poetic clout to introduce upcoming authors such as H.D., T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce to important figures of the literary world, and give them access to professional publications.

    Following his 1914 marriage to Dorothy, Pound published Des Imagistes, a collection and explanation of Imagist poetry. This would prove an influential anthology, as Imagism was a sub-genre of Modernist poetry, with which Pound was heavily involved. Pound began to write in a Modernist style that emphasized individual experience over abstract concepts.

    Imagism was a poetic movement in the 1900s in which poets wrote with clear, concise language to convey precise imagery.

    Modernism was a poetry movement of the late 19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries that emphasized a breaking with tradition. Modernist poets sought to develop new techniques and styles in poetry while eschewing the poetic conventions of the past.

    Pound grew to dislike England and many of his English compatriots grew to dislike him. He was outspoken about his belief that Americans were a better people than the English; he soon moved to Paris where he resided before settling for two decades in Rapallo, Italy. While there, Pound began to publish his Cantos, the first three of which were published in 1917. These would prove to be Pound’s life work, a collection of long poems that were published between 1917 and 1962.

    Ezra Pound Fascism

    In Italy, Pound became interested in economic theory and began writing about monetary reform and the idea of Social Credit. In Italy, he also became an outspoken supporter of Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italy’s Fascist Party and eventual dictator. Pound’s anti-Semitism is clear in much of his earlier work. In Italy, and with the onset of World War II, he became deeply involved in politics and his anti-Semitic views were at the forefront.

    Social Credit is an economic philosophy founded by C.H. Douglas that emphasized a redistribution of wealth via government intervention with debt-free money to consumers and producers.

    During World War II, Pound broadcast radio shows from Italy in which he condemned America’s government, voiced his anti-Semitic views, and criticized the American war effort. He was arrested by American troops for treason and spent time in a prison camp in Italy where he wrote the most famous section of his Cantos, the Pisan Cantos (1948).

    Pound was brought to the United States to go on trial for treason; he was, however, declared mentally unfit to stand trial and spent the next 12 years in a mental hospital in Washington, DC, a time period in which he kept writing the Cantos. While living at the hospital, he won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949, a decision that sparked an outcry from the public due to his support for the fascist leadership in Italy. During this time, Pound formed friendships with members of the Ku Klux Klan and pro-segregationists.

    Ezra Pound, US Passport, StudySmarterPound's canceled U.S. passport following his arrest for treason, wikimedia.

    After 12 years at the hospital, Pound was deemed unfit to stand trial and released. He returned to Italy where he would remain until his death in 1972. He died at 87 years old of an intestinal blockage at a hospital in Venice, Italy.

    Works by Ezra Pound

    Throughout his lifetime, Pound published numerous volumes of poetry, prose, and literary criticisms. His works span 60 years of publication.

    Ezra Pound Books

    Pound published numerous collections of his poetry into books throughout his career. His first was the self-published A Lume Spento (1908) which was inspired by many Victorian poets. Pound’s style underwent a transformation throughout his career as he moved toward Imagism and Modernist poetry. He also published literary criticism, such as The Spirit of Romance (1910). His books included treatises on economic theory and political essays about America, as in ABC of Economics (1933) and Patria Mia (1950), respectively.

    Ezra Pound Poems

    Pound published hundreds of poems throughout his collections but is most famous for his Cantos (1917-1962), poems that together include over 800 pages of text. The Cantos were published throughout his lifetime and are an achievement for Modernist poetry.

    The poems included text from multiple other languages, including European Romance languages as well as Chinese characters. The poems are seemingly chaotic and unconnected, but close analysis shows that Pound likely had a formal plan for the poems’ cohesion. Pound’s 1920 publication of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" was the point at which his poetry had a much clearer Modernist style.

    Ezra Pound Quotes

    One of the clearest examples of Imagist poetry comes from Pound’s 14-word poem "In the Station of the Metro"(1913):

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

    Petals on a wet, black bough.” (1-2)

    It includes typical Imagist aspects such as sparse language, nontraditional form, and the conveyance of a clear image.

    With "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly", Pound began writing in a clearer Modernist style. It also showcases some of Pound’s political writing:

    No, hardly, but seeing he had been born

    In a half-savage country, out of date;” (5-6)

    Here, the "half-savage country" is America. Pound grew up in the United States but spent the majority of his life outside of the country; about 20 years after the publication of this poem, Pound would be arrested for treason against the United States.

    Ezra Pound, Venice, StudySmarterBridge across Venice, where Pound lived at the end of his life, wikimedia.

    Ezra Pound Writing Style

    Pound wrote in a way consistent with Imagist and Modernist poetry. Like the Imagists, Pound utilized concise diction and precise vocabulary to convey clear images. Like the Modernists, he was interested in the experiences of individuals rather than abstract concepts. He made use of extensive allusions and often wrote in other languages. Many of his Cantos included fragments of other languages in addition to English. His poetry sought to reflect the way that people actually spoke rather than adhere to the antiquated styles of speech of the Victorian poets.

    Pound and Imagism

    Pound was interested in the "direct treatment" of the poem’s subject. He rejected the emotionalism of symbolist poetry and believed that economic language and precision were necessary to capture the image of what the poet sought to convey. In addition to Des Imagistes in 1914, Pound published other essays on poetry defining Imagism, including A Retrospect (1918). In A Retrospect, Pound's first essay outlines his three rules for Imagist poetry:

    1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
    2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
    3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome."1

    Pound's writings on Imagism became foundational texts for later Imagist writers. Pound himself was inspired by the works of T.E. Hulme; much of Pound's academic writing on Imagism was done in collaboration with other founding Imagists such as H.D. and Richard Aldington. His influence on his contemporary poets was massive, Pound is known for the refrain "make it new". He rejected the optimism and the traditional style of the Romantics. From this rejection came Pound's focus on Imagism.

    The three points above describe Pound's approach to Imagism. He first emphasized "direct treatment", in which the subject of the poem (and he was adamant that poets should be free to address any subject in poetry) is the absolute main focus, it is Pound's call to stick to the point.

    He emphasizes economy of language, avoiding grandiose or unnecessary language, and making sure every word serves a purpose. And finally, rhythm: Pound wanted poetry to flow naturally like music, not fit into the strictures and confines of traditional meter and rhyme scheme.

    Pound's take on Imagism was revolutionary, and his influence in the Modernist magazines he wrote for (The Egoist and Poetry) meant that he was able to directly influence younger poets and aid in the transformation of their poetic voices. He is credited with pushing W.B. Yeats toward the Modernist poetry that made him a legend in poetic history. Imagism was one of the most coherent, defined movements in poetry. It remains influential for its lasting impact on Modernist poetry.

    Ezra Pound - Key takeaways

    • Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was an American poet, literary critic, and author.
    • Pound was born in Idaho and raised in Pennsylvania, he attended university at both the University of Pennsylvania and Hamilton College.
    • Pound's most influential poem is his Cantos (1917-1962) a collection of poems published across his lifetime that represent his Modernist style.
    • Pound was an important figure who introduced many up-and-coming poets into his literary circles; he was very influential in the careers of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and H.D.
    • Des Imagistes (1914) was the first treatise to outline what exactly Imagist poetry was meant to be.
    • Pound is a controversial figure due to his outspoken anti-Semitic and racist views; he was a supporter of Mussolini during World War II and was arrested for treason against the United States.
    • He spent 12 years in a mental hospital in Washington, DC after being declared mentally unfit for trial.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Ezra Pound

    Who is Ezra Pound?

    Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was an American poet, writer, and literary critic. He was a poet of the Imagist and Modernist movements and also contributed heavily to literary criticism and the promotion of other poets and writers such as H.D., T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce. He is a controversial figure for his antisemitic and racist views as well as his heavy involvement in the fascist regime in Italy during World War II.

    Why is Ezra Pound famous?

    Pound is famous for his poetry as well as his use of his stature in the poetic community. He penned many poetry collections as well as essays and prose throughout his lifetime while also contributing to the rise of other Modernist poets. He is also famous for his involvement in Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, and his subsequent arrest for treason by the United States government. Pound was eventually declared mentally unfit for trial and spent the next 12 years in a mental hospital in Washington, DC.

    Why was Ezra Pound important?

    Pound was important as an early definer of Imagist and Modernist poetry. In addition to writing these kinds of poetry himself, Pound also promoted the work and status of up-and-coming poets who may not have achieved the same levels of fame without his influence. He helped launch the careers of T.S. Eliot, H.D., and James Joyce.

    What is Ezra Pound's poetry mainly about?

    Pound wrote poetry about many different subjects. Much of his Imagist poetry concerned the distilling of visual scenes from Pound’s life into concise, economic poems. His Cantos are, in many ways, autobiographical. He also wrote literary criticism and political essays.

    What is Ezra Pound’s most famous poem?

    Pound is most famous for his Cantos (1917-1962) which were written throughout his lifetime. At over 800-pages, the Cantos are an epic achievement in Modernist poetry. 

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    True or False: Pound was a supporter of Mussolini and the Italian Fascist Party


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